When Odell Mickens calls me, he’s on the turnpike returning from Philadelphia, where he’s just played organ at the funeral of his friend’s sister. His friend is Earl Young, legendary drummer and owner of the Trammps, known around the world for their 80s hit “Disco Inferno.”
Mickens has played bass guitar for the renowned disco and soul group for the past 23 years. Once working 300 nights out of the year, the Trammps now play – by choice – fewer than 40 gigs per year, mostly benefit concerts and disco events like the Disco Explosion Tour featuring the likes of KC & the Sunshine Band, the Village People, Gloria Gaynor, Evelyn Champagne King and Sister Sledge. They pack the house wherever they go.
Mickens wants to work more often, however, so five years ago he formed R&B group Wallstreet. The five-man band plays the New York City area, New Jersey, Delaware and the Carolinas whenever the Trammps aren’t on tour. Derrick Dupree (“Body Work” from the dance flick, Breakin’) handles lead vocals; Rich Nichols is on guitar; Pat Smith is the drummer; Rob McCoy plays bass; and Mickens is the group’s keyboard player.
“I’ve made my living playing bass,” says Odell, “But the organ is my first love. Put a Hammond B Three in front of me and I’m happy.”
Mickens first became interested in music as a teenager, “When I was about 15, I had a buddy whose dad was a jazz bass player. I learned how to play Wilson Pickett and I got into some James Brown grooves.
Still in high school, Odell and his buddy formed a band that played school events. “We didn’t go to any of our proms,” says Mickens, “because we were playing at them.
“I came up through the sixties during Motown and soul, but I gravitated toward the Beatles, Cream and the Stones because they were playing instruments. I remember seeing George Clinton & the Parliament Funkadelic. They had crazy outfits and guitars. They weren’t just standing there!
“I thought, “I want to do that! That was a big moment for me. That’s when I started taking it seriously.”
Odell’s high school band evolved into Exit Nine, an eight-piece horn band with a substantial following in Jersey.
“This was the eighties. We were the regular house band at this club in New Brunswick called The Cave. We’d pack about 2,000 people in there. The band would travel upstate New York or Scranton, Pa. for three weeks and then we’d play The Cave for the fourth week.
Performing at The Cave, Exit Nine opened for many big name bands including Cool & the Gang, Patti Labelle, the Commodores, BP Express and the Trammps.
“When we opened for the Trammps in the very early eighties, I became friendly with Earl Young, the band’s drummer and owner. He invited me to play bass with his band. In 1983, I went to Boston and I’ve been with the Trammps ever since. We’ve toured Europe, Canada, the Caribbean. Through the Trammps I also got to know Bunny Sigler, who wrote many of the big soul songs, some of them back as a staff writer at Gamble & Huff [which became Philadelphia International Records ca. 1970].He went on to say, “Working with Earl Young and Bunny Sigler has been invaluable.”
Young, considered by many to have invented disco drumming (using the Hi-Hat cymbal throughout the recording, which deejays liked because it helped them cue up the music), got into music publishing early in his career. Both Young and Grammy-nominated Walter “Bunny” Sigler are savvy musicians, writing and producing for themselves and other artists. Bunny Sigler was a co-writer for “Somebody Loves You Baby,” Patti Labelle’s million seller and he also wrote Instant Funk’s “I Got My Mind Made Up.”A true R&B pioneer, Sigler’s work has been sampled by Mary Kay Blige and other pop and R&B stars of today.
As Odell talks about playing with the Trammps, he laughs, “It’s funny to me that the Trammps recorded tunes like ‘Zing Went the Strings’ and ‘Sixty Minute Man,’ both big R&B hits, but it’s ‘Hold Back the Night’ that’s had the biggest impact in the Carolina beach music market.”
Mickens first played Myrtle Beach during the Trammps 2002 tour at nightclub 2001. He had already cut his single, “Finally Friday,” so he gave a copy to the deejay, who played it, liked it and sent it over to 94.9 The Surf in North Myrtle Beach.The song was then included on 120inc’s Soul Street compilation CD (2002). This was the beginning of a whole new fan base for Wallstreet.
Subsequent Wallstreet singles, all written by Odell Mickens, have also made it on various beach compilations. “The Little Things” was released on More Soul 4 (2004); “Closing Time”is on KHP’s Locals Too (2005).
Performing for the first time at the Charleston Beach Music & Shag Festival in 2007, the group was a runaway hit with beach music fans who loved the band’s “classic” beach sound and old R&B stylings.
Wallstreet’s next singles, “I’ve Got a Feeling and “Such a Beautiful Girl” were both included on KHP label’s Thinking About You (2008).
What’s next for Odell Mickens?
“Wallstreet is really looking forward to this year’s Festival in Charleston,” says Odell, “Harriett [Grady-Thomas] has been a blessing . . . a real treasure to us.” The band takes the stage in Charleston at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 29 right after New York soul singer Angel Rissoff.
Mickens is also talking to Rissoff about working together in the New York-New Jersey area. “I hope we can make that happen,” Odell says, “We’re going to see what we can work out. There may be another Trammp tour coming up, too.
Wallstreet is currently in the studio working on their upcoming singles, “He and She” and “Something You Got,” with some production help from Bunny Sigler. Wallstreet Live In Concert is also in the works. Recordings for it will include some from the Myrtle Beach area.
If you’re into sizzling soul, order up some Odell Mickens and Wallstreet. They deliver.
This piece is also being published in the Beach Newz music column of Coast Magazine and Alternatives NewsMagazine, issue June 18 – July 2, 2009, p. 24.