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Motor City Harmonies 

The Ultimate Ovation and the secret history of Detroit soul.

In the '70s, the Ultimate Ovation rocked capes and crash  helmets.
  • In the '70s, the Ultimate Ovation rocked capes and crash helmets.
On a recent Sunday evening in Detroit, as the sun bleeds into the twilight, Keith Collins and I stroll onto a playing field where the city's 40th-annual Soul Day is coming to a close. The crowd may be small, but the band onstage, the Detroit Emeralds, are sizzling on a letter-perfect rendition of the Staple Singers' "I Will Take You There."

Soul Day has anchored this neighborhood, the tightly knit Virginia Park community, since the summer of 1967, when a police raid on a nearby after-hours joint exploded into a riot from which the city has yet to fully recover.

"This neighborhood was like a jewel among jewels back then," remembers Collins, whose sweet-soul harmony group, the Ultimate Ovation, also is a neighborhood mainstay. "This area used to just be one of them areas, where everything was everything."

He points to a strip of land next to the playing field that now houses a National Guard Armory. "That used to be Olympia Stadium. That's where everybody used to go. The Jacksons used to come up here and perform. The Temptations -- all of 'em."

Inspired by the sounds of the day, Collins hooked up with brothers Marvin and Damon Gardner. "When we officially formed the Ovation, we were about 14," he recalls. "We met in school, right before the riot. When we found out Damon could sing -- I mean, really sing -- we got together and bumped heads, and we've been together ever since. We've had our ups and downs like any group. We've broken up and come back together. But we haven't given up."

Along the way, the trio has done everything from leaping out of nightclub balconies wearing homemade capes and crash helmets to spearheading a long list of community projects. Marvin even ran for District Council.

The Ultimate Ovation also released a string of what are now highly collectible 45s, including the 1974 soul-stomper "Chameleon Man." The single was recorded for Aquarius, a local label that's legendary among underground DJs for releases by the Soul Impressions and the Domestic Five.

The single's bottom deck, the fuzz-funk classic "Hello Baby," is the latest Aquarius side to be picked up by rabid DJs. "That really freaked me out," Collins says of the single's newfound notoriety. "I'm like, 'This song's been out for years, but a new generation is listening to it?' I'm lovin' that!"

One such DJ is Detroit native Brad Hales, who specializes in lost sounds at his downtown record shop, People's Records. Hales was playing bass in the punk band Easy Action when he came across a copy of the Aquarius single. But it was through a member of yet another local soul group that Hales came into contact with Collins.

"I met Keith through this dude named Walter that they all call 'Wimp,' who was a member of Mad Dog and the Pups," Hales remembers, citing the group behind the local hit "Hep Squeeze." "One day I was playing the 'Chameleon Man' single for some friends of mine, saying, 'Isn't this the craziest thing you've ever heard?' The next morning I walk out of my house to go to work, and Walter is riding by on his bike. He told me he was going to sing with some friends. It turned out those friends were the Ultimate Ovation."

Soon after, Hales joined forces with guitarist Jeff Meier (of Rocket 455) and drummer Mike Audia to back Detroit soul legend Nathaniel Mayer. "Keith and Wimp ended up singing background at some Nathaniel gigs," recalls Meier. "And Brad said, 'You should hear the group that Keith used to have.'"

Of course, that group was still together; they were just performing under a different name. Reverting to its original moniker, the Ultimate Ovation hooked up with Mayer's backing band as well as guitarist Dan Kroha, best known for his work with the Gories and Demolition Doll Rods.

Dubbed the Force of Power Band by Collins, the outfit began resurrecting the Ovation songbook, from the lighthearted "Showdown" and the intimate "Mountain of Love" to the chilling activist anthem "Come to the Front." The aggregation will help launch Meier's Eleganza imprint with a soon-to-be-released 45.

Reflecting the cross-pollination of rock and roll and R&B that has long been the soundtrack of Detroit, the latest addition to the show is Collins' daughter, Ke-Ke-Keisha, a poet and rapper whose segment often brings the house down.

Hales hears a lot of amazing records in his business, but he remains partial to harmony groups such as the Ovation. "It's more impressive to hear a group of people do a really tight recording or performance smoothly, rather than just a singer. It's almost a lost art form. That's why I'm glad to be playing with these guys. They're keeping a valuable tradition alive."

And their sound appeals to a wide audience: "Young people like their tempos, but this music reaches people in their 40s and 50s. They can dance to it," Hales says.

But the dancing isn't limited to the audience. The Ultimate Ovation's synchronized steps are as impressive as its smooth harmonies."It's the tradition of 'stepping,'" says Hales, explaining the relationship between the onstage moves and the music's relaxed tempo. "They have a lot of nice mid-tempo steppers. Combine that with harmony and songs about love -- it's heavy."

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