Harold Sargent is a veteran musician, songwriter, producer and arranger whose roots go back to the hot and frisky midwestern R&B scene of the early sixties, up through the east coast funk and disco of the seventies and even branch out a bit into the earliest days of recorded rap music. Sargent’s work that might be most familiar to most listeners would likely be “Skull Snaps,” the iconic breakbeat that he says he played and never got credit for, even as it has provided the rhythmic backbone to hundreds of records over the last three decades. Less familiar, though, is one of Sargent’s most accomplished productions: the self-titled album by the female vocal group Sparkle (which is currently being reissued by Cultures of Soul). Uchenna Ikonne talked to Sargent about Sparkle, the Connecticut soul music scene and how he feels about his music getting sampled over and over.
It’s great to be able to talk to you, Harold! What are you up to?
Well, I’ve just been in the studio a lot, so I apologize if it was a bit tough for us to connect for a while!
You still do a lot of studio work?
Oh yes… All the time. I got a session today at three o’clock, right after I’m done talking to you.
So how did you get started in the business?
I was born in 1942, man… so I’m an old guy. I’ve been in the business a long time I started out in Cincinnati, Ohio. My first band was with Bootsy Collins.
What was that band called?
We didn’t really have a name at the time. We were just playing, but the band was later called The Pacemakers.
That was the band that later backed James Brown as The J.B.’s during his funkiest period. So that was with Phelps “Catfish” Collins and all the rest?
It was me on drums, Bootsy on bass, on guitar was Bootsy’s brother Phelps—his real name is Lawrence—and on saxophone was Robert McCullough. Our singer was Philippé Wynne, who was later with The Spinners.
…and later with Parliament-Funkadelic.
Ohio has always been an incredibly funky scene. So many great bands came from there… So how did you end up in Connecticut?
I had gotten married, and I had a… little row with my wife so I left Cincinnati and I came to Connecticut because my father lived in New Haven.
Did Connecticut have a huge scene back then like Ohio did?
Not so much, but some things were happening. So I played with a few guys in New Haven, I was sitting in and all that. Then the band called The Ohio Entertainers came to town. They came to a place called The Soundtrack in New Haven. They were playing a place called The Soundtrack, and I came over to sit in with them and that’s when I realized that one of them was my friend from back in Dayton!
So they wanted to take me on the road but I wasn’t leaving my father at that time since I had just gotten to New Haven. So what happened was, we got together after they came back—they had gone to Canada for a few weeks, working with the Queens Booking Agency. They went to Canada and they came back, and then they stayed a few more weeks at The Soundtrack. And I joined that band.
We played around New York and New Haven for about six months, and then they wanted to go on the road again. But I didn’t have eyes for going on the road so I stayed around and played with another band until they came back. When they came back, all their equipment was stolen, so I negotiated them getting new equipment and when I did that (laughs) they made me leader of the band. So what we did was, we changed the name to The Ohio Hustlers and then we started looking for a recording contract.
So we went to New York and walked around all the different places. I had a friend, Dwayne Johnson, and he had an uncle named George Kerr who helped us get signed. We went to play for them at All Platinum Records, and George liked us… so we got signed.
All Platinum was owned by Sylvia and Joe Robinson, right? Before they started Sugar Hill Records.
Yes. Our first record with All Platinum was “Hey What’s That You Say,” written by my then-fiancée, now my wife Ineffie Woods. We played the session as Ohio Hustlers but they put our name down as Wood, Brass & Steel. I really don’t know why they did that! That was in nineteen and… seventy-three.
George Kerr had a lot of great credits as a really inventive producer and arranger. I believe he’s still working too. You did quite a bit of work with him, didn’t you?
He used a bunch of times to play on his sessions, yes. We played on a lot of records by different groups George produced. So we recorded another album which was the Skull Snaps album, and they changed the name of “Hey What’s That You Say,” though they used the same words. When they did the song, they called it ‘It’s a New Day.” And it would eventually become the hip-hop anthem for them stealing loops. And now, they must have looped that beat over five hundred times.
Wait a minute… you’re saying that you guys were the band on the Skull Snaps album?
Skip McDonald was on the guitar, I played the drums. Herman ‘Tudi’ White was the bass player. Bert Keyes was the arranger and keyboard player, and a fellow named Reggie was the rhythm guitar player. Otha Stokes on saxophone. So we did four or five tunes on the Skull Snaps album… We may have played the whole thing but I can’t quite remember. But I do remember the four or five tunes we did.
There’s been a lot of research around the origins of that famous breakbeat lately and usually the Skull Snaps drummer George Bragg is credited with playing it. You’re saying it was you, though?
Yeah, they had their own drummer but George Kerr brought us in to lay a few tracks for them.
So how did you come up with that distinct pattern?
George had said to me—because I was having problems with one of the songs—George had said to me, ‘Man… I should have hired Bernard Purdie!’ When he said that, something snapped in my head and I just played that beat. And we got the rest of the session.
That’s interesting. It really changes everything that we think we know about that beat. More people have to know about this! Did you do any more work with the Skull Snaps?
After that we left Platinum and we did another session where we must have recorded the same four or five songs we did with Skull Snaps, we recorded them also for a guy named Brother to Brother. The album was called In The Bottle, after Gil Scot-Heron, but the singer’s name was Michael Burton. That’s another one that got looped. Jay Z took our horns, bass and drums that we did on that album, and put it all on his song “Friend or Foe.”
Looks like your records were a huge source for samples. I hope you’ve gotten paid from all this?
I don’t have a dime on any of these samples, man! I’m the process now—just now—I was gonna let it all go, but my wife told me not to let it go. I was gonna let it go because I didn’t know anything about all this… I don’t do hip-hop, you know. I’m old school, so I do old school stuff. You know what I mean? I do it the way they did it in the old days, with four-tracks and eight tracks, everything analog. The digital age, well… It’s not new to me because I kept going and kinda kept my mind in the right place where recording is concerned, but…
You mostly still record everything analog?
Of course! Yeah, that’s what I do, yep.
So what kind of artists are you producing now?
Right now I’m working with a guy named Jon Prent, and I work with a couple of gospel people and they’re my cousins. Doobie Powell who worked with Robert Glasper and different people. I work with TB Israel who is from Ghana, that’s who I’m recording today. And.. just a lot of different people. I used to rent out my studio but I don’t do that anymore. Now I just do projects that are mine.
I spent about six years working with Maurice Starr, who is my cousin. So I was going back and forth between here and Boston for a while. So I’ve kinda been around a little bit. Haven’t gone out the country in a while but, you know… we’ve gone out to do some work in Nova Scotia, Hawaii, Mexico, places like that. I never did no world tour or nothing like that but musically… my music is all around. I never realized it until I was in my seventies.
Do you still play yourself?
No, I don’t… I don’t play, just produce now. But I teach. I teach young kids how to play drums, and how to quiet down because they’re too loud. They play like they’re in a concert when they’re in a church!
So let’s talk about the Sparkle album. What’s the story behind them? Was Sparkle just the title of the album project, or was it actually the name of the group?
Sparkle was a group I put together. It’s something I wanted to do, so I got a few singers. It was a girl named Linda Ransom, a girl named Barbara Fowler, and a girl named Diane Cooke. Those three were lead singers. Barbara is the lead singer of Sinnamon, “Come and Get My Lovin” and she had done some other stuff in New York. A good friend of mine named Charles Perry who owned The Leviticus in New York… I used to take all my groups and showcase them at Leviticus, and one of the groups was Sparkle. And everybody kind of liked them…
So you formed the group? They weren’t already singing together?
No, no, I formed the group. I put them together.
Was it meant to be some kind of tribute to the movie?
You know the movie Sparkle from 1976, about a girl group. It starred Irene Cara, Lonette McKee, Philip Michael Thomas… Music by Curtis Mayfield…
Oh, no no no… I didn’t have that in mind at all. I don’t think I even remember that movie at all!
Okay, so Sparkle was a group of its own…
Yes, and ironically the band that played behind them was Too Much Too Soon. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Too Much Too Soon… Evan Rogers and Carl Sturken…
The team that produced Rihanna’s first couple of albums?
Yes, they were the ones who found Rihanna. I produced them. That’s who’s playing behind Sparkle on the record. Evan Rogers on the conga, Carl Sturken on guitar. The drummer is Kevin Cloud and the keyboard is Keith Cloud. The bass player is John ‘Noodle’ Nevin. That’s the band behind the Sparkle album. They did all the music.
Oh yeah, I remember they also had a couple of hits in the early nineties when they were known as Rythm Syndicate.
Yeah, that’s them, And ironically, one of the guitar players on the record is Xavier. Ernest Xavier, who later made the record “Work That Sucker to Death.”
He was the second guitar.
Okay then! You had some pretty impressive musicians on that record! But you know, one thing that really strikes me about that album is how unique it sounds for a disco record of that period. It’s so funky but it also has this sort of airy, jazzy texture to it.
That’s because Too Much Too Soon were great, great, great players. In fact, they not just were great players but they still are great players. That is, except for the ones that passed away. Great players!
How did you connect with Too Much Too Soon anyway?
They’re from Rockville. So, uh… I produced their album too but I never put it out. I really should…
You still have it? You definitely should put it out! There’s been a lot of renewed interest in that band and I believe Evan Rogers’ album from 1985 was reissued recently. The one where he had a cover of Prince’s “Private Joy.” I think that was reissued.
Oh, they’re gonna reissue it?
I thought it already was, I’m not sure. [Ed.’s note: It wasn’t.] So what was the story with the album you produced for the band?
I produced the album, the executive producers were Charles Perry and Vaughn Harper… of ‘Quiet Storm’ fame? Those were my friends.
What was the response to the Sparkle record? Did it make a big splash, maybe in the New York clubs? It’s the kind of thing I can sort of imagine Larry Levan getting some mileage out of.
You know, we were in Connecticut! We didn’t know too much of nothing that was happening, except that we occasionally got the chance to go down to Jersey and New York to perform and record. We just got paid for those jobs and… that was it.
So you didn’t really follow the club scene to know how these records were being received?
I didn’t know until later when I looked at the computer and I saw how many hits it was getting. I was like, Wow… I guess something was happening over here! Because I didn’t know anything about it. At the time I was doing child care work. I was working in human services, working with special needs kids, playing on the weekends and that was it. Trynna raise my kids.
I guess Connecticut was a bit like its own world away from New York and New Jersey. Funny enough though, a lot of people seem to think Wood Brass & Steel was a New Jersey band, mainly because of the work that your guys did for the Robinsons on the All Platinum labels and Sugar Hill.
Wood Brass & Steel a New Jersey band? No, no, no, no, no! We were up here in Connecticut the whole time. I was from Cincinnati, the guitar player, Skip, was from Dayton, Ohio. Doug [Wimbish] is from Bloomfield or the Hartford area. The trumpet player was from New Haven but he grew up in DC. His name is Randy Bost. Our second guitar player is Barton Campbell, who is from Hartford. But no, we were from around this area.
Skip McDonald and Doug Wimbish later went on to do more work with at Sugar Hill in New Jersey, right? They were in the house band that played on early rap records like “The Message” and “White Lines” by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five and “Apache” by The Sugarhill Gang.
Yeah, those guys were a bit younger than me. I knew Skip in Ohio… His real name is Bernard Alexander. I was actually going to go over to their band but I was coming to see my father so I ended up coming to New Haven.
Wood Brass & Steel was also the band on The Escorts’ first album, right?
Oh yeah, I did the Escorts album too! The same guys who did the Skull Snaps album did the Escorts album. Doug was not with us then, we had another bass player named Tudi White. So me, Skip, Herman White, Bert Keyes, and Reggie. We recorded the music at Somerville, New Jersey and George [Kerr] took the tracks up to Rahway State Prison where they did the vocals.
That record has been sampled a few times too.
Well, considering that so much of the music you made back then has been echoing through the years, how do you feel about the Sparkle album now being made available to a new audience?
I feel really blessed that it’s being picked up because I looked and seen all those hits it was getting and I said: Somebody out there really liked what we were doing. And if they like it, I love it! Because there was no way I would have ever found out that anything was going on with it. We didn’t think too much about it when we first put the album out but then a few years ago a lot of people started calling me about it. Some guy called me from Japan, another guy called me from England, someone from the Netherlands… I think it’s just great.
And who knows, maybe this one will end up getting sampled too…
If they sample it, that’s okay. Just as long as they give me my money this time! (laughs)