The Mike Hanks Story
The Fabulous Peps

The dynamic trio tearing it up at the 20 Grand: Ronnie Abner, Tommy "Storm" Hester and Joe Harris.

  Although they were inevitably mistaken for Gladys Knight's Pips, The Peps were vocally more akin to The Impressions. But pigeonholing them as another opportunistic copycat group would be a mistake; their high-energy live performances define the 60's all-singing-all-dancing groups that relentlessly toured the USA during that go-go decade.

  The trio turned professional at Thelma Records around 1962, cutting a few 45s and doing background on various sessions. Before that they were all involved in singing around Detroit: Ronnie Abner used to be in The Vibratones, "Little Joe" Harris sang lead on one of Robert West's Bumble Bee label records - "Trouble In A Candy Store" - and Tommy Hester had won talent show contests during the late 50s and sang with The Turnpikes. Initially he was the group's lead singer and  Ronnie acknowledged: "Tommy was a singer's singer. he'd bring tears to your eyes."

  They joined Mike's D-Town setup around 1965 with a hard-earned reputation as one of the Motor City's liveliest acts and weren't labelled Fabulous for nothing. Back-flips, jumps, spins and splits peppered their live shows and Ronnie explained how they inadvertently got likened to Curtis Mayfield's seminal group:

  "Tommy had the soft, high tenor, I had the soft high tenor and Joe had the Jerry-Butler, Fred-Cash sound, so we sounded like The Impressions. in fact our range was higher than theirs. We do one Impressions' song a show, and the rest is us. But record-wise. everybody wanted us to sound like The Impressions!

  During their spell at Thelma they travelled down to Dayton, Ohio where they took root for about a year and started to develop an identity. They fine tuned their slick moves and learned the ropes of performing while singing with Robert Ward's accomplished group, The Ohio Untouchables. Once they were back in Detroit they continued to add finishing touches to their routine:

 "Ziggy Johnson was a choreographer and a mentor of ours. He taught us how to put a good show together and how to be a good nightclub-act. There was a teenage nightclub on Woodward called The Village, and we worked there. We did everything. we MC-ed, we worked the lights and we background all the single artists. We basically managed ourselves. We all had our functions; Tommy was the stabilizer, Joe was about the money, which was cool, 'cause we needed someone to be that way. My thing was always the show; I never did care about the money. It's always been the show with me. If we got paid: good. If we didn't paid.(shrugs). At first we started out getting what we could, y'know - a hundred bucks a piece a week - working six nights a week - three shows a night. We were gypsies with records. And a lot of stuff I learned from the 50's groups, in terms of visual performance, I wouldn't throw 'em away. Like the approach to comedy. y'know, improv's. Bang! In the middle of a song. if you feel like telling a joke: Who cares? Do it! It got us in to the best clubs in the city. We had the kind of show that it was hard to come on behind us. When we would do the Apollo - with the battle of the groups - I can only think of one other group that didn't get tired by the end of the week, and that was The O'Jays. Everybody else, you could see the wear and tear on them. We would get stronger. because we worked that way, constantly." 

  Their first D-Town 45 was a very un-Impressions-sounding cover of "Detroit Michigan." But the next release had a definite Curtis Mayfield ring to it, a wonderful ballad called "This I Pray" which Ronnie wrote. According to the label his co-writer was C. Bell and so I asked him about the ubiquitous name:

  "That's Mike Hanks - trust me!" adding, "I wrote that in the studio and we brought the Ohio Untouchables to do that session."

   The group cut a wall-to-wall drum and bass Wheelsville 45, "Love Of My Life," that was also released in '65. Ronnie penned and sang lead on "My Love Looks Good On You" - their up-tempo, 1966, D-Town disc - and by then guitarist "Little Charlie" Herndon had become an integral part of the group's act and they were sometimes billed as The Four Peps. They gradually drifted away from Mike and started to revolve around Pete Hall, whom Ronnie remembered sent them down to Memphis to add some southern-soul flavor to their recordings:

  "Gypsy Woman, Why Are You Blowing My Mind - that was with Booker T and the Stax guys. That was the last session we did."

  Their version of "Gypsy Woman" was released on Premium Stuff and another admiral cover of an Impressions' classic, "I've Been Trying," was probably cut at the same time. This latter song was released on the Wee 3 label in 1967 and that May they paraded it at Detroit's famed Chit Chat Lounge where the resident Funk Brothers backed them.

  But the strain of continually being on the road was inevitably taking its toll and the group's fraternity was paying the price. They split up and reformed a few times in the late 60s as the waning popularity of sharp-suited, back-flipping performers was compounded by personnel problems. It wasn't easy to adjust to the cosmic-funk era:

 "We started taking ourselves for granted. We hurt ourselves; we didn't grow," Ronnie readily admitted. "Plus the fact that we weren't getting along. Not Tommy and myself, me and Joe. serious clashes! I'm hot-tempered and he's hot tempered."

  They tried to reinvent themselves by changing their name to Smoke Heat And Fire - perhaps a subconscious reflection of Ronnie and Joe's heated arguments - and continued gigging around Detroit. And although Motown had periodically invited them to join Hitsville's stack of talent, they'd steadfastly refused to sign to simply end up on the proverbial shelf. But after almost a decade of singing together Joe eventually left in 1971 to front The Undisputed Truth, hitting the big-time with Norman Whitfield's sublime "Smiling Faces Sometimes."

Notes thanks to Graham Finch

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photograph credits at end of webisode




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