The Highlighters are celebrated in deep funk collectors' circles for their 1969 underground classic "The Funky 16 Corners." Formed at Indianapolis' Crispus Attucks High School in 1963, the original lineup of saxophonist Cliff Palmer, trumpeter Clifford Ratliff, organist Richard "Boola" Ball, bassist Richard Corbin, and drummer James "Porkchop" Edwards drew their initial inspiration from modern jazz, but quickly evolved into an R&B outfit. Managed by Herb Miller, owner of the Indianapolis record store Good Vibrations, the group regularly shared bills with local girl group the Tri-Dells, but just as their career began taking off, military duties forced the Highlighters to go on hiatus in 1966. Upon returning stateside in mid-1968, only Palmer and Ball expressed an interest in reuniting the group, so guitarist James Brantley, bassist James Boone, and drummer Dewayne Garvin (a former military drummer whose uniquely syncopated style proved essential to the band's distinctive approach) were recruited to form a revamped roster. While visiting a local hotel lounge, Brantley chanced upon vocalist James Bell, and with his addition the classic Highlighters lineup was complete.
In the spring of 1969, WTLC DJ Paul Major issued the band's debut single, "Poppin' Popcorn" on his Rojam label -- a progenitor of the so-called "popcorn soul" craze and a rumored influence on James Brown's own massive "Mother Popcorn," "Poppin' Popcorn" became a favorite of another WTLC radio personality, Spider Harrison, and thanks to steady airplay it rocketed to the top of the Indianapolis R&B charts. But questions about Major's accounting practices resulted in a falling-out, and the Highlighters formed their own label, Three Diamonds, to release the follow-up, "The Funky 16 Corners" -- written by Bell while on a break from his day job at the Ford Motor Company and inspired by the Four Corners dance craze, the single was recorded that very same night in just one take, and its spontaneity and frenzy are remarkable. "The Funky 16 Corners" was another local blockbuster, and the Highlighters took up residence as the house band at the popular Indy nightspot Daddy Ray's 20 Grand.
They began making plans to tour the East Coast when erstwhile drummer "Porkchop" Edwards returned from Vietnam, demanding his reinstatement to the group. Votes were cast and Garvin was dismissed -- the chemistry was no longer the same, however, and within two weeks Bell resigned, soon followed by Ball. In the midst of this turmoil Three Diamonds issued one last single, 1970's "Trying to Get Chosen," credited to James Bell & the Highlighters Band and a latter-day favorite on Britain's Northern soul club circuit. The lineup of Palmer, Brantley, Boone, and Edwards next recorded "Having a Little Faith" for the local Lulu label before signing to the famed Chess Records -- the group traveled to Chicago to record six songs for the company, with only one single, itself titled "Lulu," ever earning official release. After finally touring the East Coast, the Highlighters officially dissolved in 1971, with Ball, Brantley, and Boone reuniting in the Rhythm Machine. Bell and Garvin later joined forces in James Bell & the Turner Brothers to record another minor classic, "The Funky Buzzard" -- Garvin also served as the touring drummer behind Marvin Gaye in 1974.
Over two decades later, a Highlighters renaissance began in earnest when their early singles were rediscovered by collectors and DJs -- virtually overnight the records began commanding ridiculous sums of cash in collectors' circles, resulting in the reissue of "The Funky 16 Corners" on the Stones Throw label. The resurgence of interest prompted Bell and Garvin to reconnect and form the New Highlighters with brothers Clint and Dan Jones on guitar and Kenneth Burke on bass -- they even revived Three Diamonds to release planned new material. ~ Jason Ankeny, Rovi
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