Larry “L.J.” Reynolds is always ready to tell people how the Dramatics is one of greatest, R&B singing acts of all time. After all, it’s his job to keep the Dramatics relevant in the minds of people, since he’s both the lead singer and manager for the group.
Then again, if you’re a Dramatics fan, you don’t have to hear his spiel about how remarkable and influential this quintet is. Hailing from the Motown territory of Detroit, the Dramatics recorded for the legendary label’s Southern counterpart, Stax, home to Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Booker T. and the M.G.’s and Black Moses himself, Isaac Hayes.
They had a powerful streak in the ’70s, something that Reynolds will gladly recall for you, noting that the group had 38 top-ten R&B hits. Once again, if you grew up listening and savoring such classic Dramatics tunes as “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get,” “In the Rain” and their version of Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones,” you already know how awesome the Dramatics were – and still are. (Hey, Snoop Dogg didn’t have them perform background on his hit single “Doggy Dogg World” for nothing!)
However, the Dramatics went through some actual drama last year that made people question whether the group was still going to be around performing. “That was about greed and about just downright fraud,” says Reynolds, 61, on the phone from Detroit.
The story goes like this: Reynolds previously shared management responsibilities alongside fellow Dramatic Ronald Banks, who died of a heart attack in 2010. “Ron and myself managed this group for at least 25-30 years. We’ve always taken care of the business. We’ve always shared the name, the Dramatics.”
After Banks’ passing, his widow, Sandra, filed a false-claim trademark and said online that Reynolds was out as both lead singer and manager of the Dramatics, passing his lead-singing duties to longtime member Willie Ford. Reynolds eventually filed a lawsuit against her. “I went to court and the judge told her she don’t have a claim,” he says. “I had to sue her, and I hated that because that’s Ron Banks’ wife and I’ve been knowing Ron Banks for 40-something years. I love him. But when people die, people go crazy. They gonna take over the business. Don’t nobody want to talk to them – and didn’t nobody talk to ’em!”
For Reynolds, the bottom line is he’s not going anywhere. “Here’s the clear-up of it: I am not kicked out,” he says. “You cannot kick me out of something that I own. I own that name just as Willie Ford do… You can’t put this man out the group. This man is the group.”
Even though Ford owns the Dramatics name, siding with Banks (and taking part in something that Reynolds refers to as “a coup”) prompted him to leave the group. “He made a bad decision to go join a group of people that was committing fraud, and it didn’t work,” he says.
Over the past 20 years or so, Reynolds has seen many of his fellow Dramatics come and go, with some going up to the big R&B revue in the sky. Along with Banks, other deceased members include Elbert Wilkins (heart attack, 1992) William “Wee Gee” Howard (heart attack, 2000) and Leonard “Lenny” Mayes (lung cancer, 2004). “You know, one thing about it – ain’t none of us getting out of this alive,” he says.
Nevertheless, the Dramatics are still up and running, touring and doing shows as if that nasty bit of business last year didn’t happen. Reynolds is joined onstage by longtime members Larry Demps and Winzell Kelly, along with Leon Franklin, who Reynolds brought in a year ago to replace Banks, and Donald Albert, a fill-in member who is also Reynolds’ first cousin.
One thing they’re doing a lot of onstage is pairing with other seasoned R&B groups and staging a “battle” concert. Reynolds says this was inspired by a 1974 album they did with The Dells called “The Dells vs. The Dramatics.” (“We won that contest,” he says with a laugh.) For their upcoming show in Durham on Saturday, the Dramatics will be going toe-to-toe with California soul quartet The Whispers. Reynolds has nothing but love for his “opponents.”
“The Whispers got a great show,” he says. “We even got a contest with ‘The Dramatics versus The Temptations’ coming up, but that’s in another city. I think that’s Detroit, but we’re talking about North Carolina. But what it does is it makes artists like me and artists like The Whispers – or artists like me and The Temptations – it makes us say, ‘Unh-unh! I can’t slack on this. I gotta go out here and make sure this other artist don’t outdo me. So, you know what happens? It gives the audience the best stuff that they can do. That’s what people want, and that’s what they deserve.”
So, just as The Dramatics were great all those years ago, The Dramatics are still great now – and as he’s running the shots, L.J. Reynolds will continue to remind everyone of that fact.