When Darrell Banks was fatally shot by an off duty cop in the spring of 1970, the soul singing powerhouse left behind just twenty-seven songs- two albums and a smidgen of singles. Each of them is worth a listen. They buried him in a grave marked by a numbered plaque in the ground. No headstone, no mention of his career, no nod to his gift of voice, nor any placement of his name. Just a number planted in the earth, only to be overgrown a few short years later, leaving his final resting place an afterthought, hidden from view.
Banks was much more than just a number, or a lost gem, or an afterthought. Born Darrell Eubanks, he grew up, like so many of his soul singing brothers and sisters, singing in church, devouring songs in the gospel canon. When he made the leap to secular jams, Banks dropped the E and the U from his last name, and readied himself for a ride on Motown’s comet.
Lee Friedlander took the cover shot for his first record. Stax promoted the hell out of his second hoping to replace the success of the late Otis Redding. But the only thing that followed Banks’s second record were a couple of unpopular singles later, and the bizarre shooting that left the brilliantly energized performer dead up in Michigan, having never recorded for Motown, but already a million selling singer.
Banks grew up in Buffalo. He practiced controlling his powerful voice with gospel workouts. Banks wanted more. He wanted it all- money, women, and fame. So, he crafted himself in the image of the most successful soul label of the time, Detroit’s masterful factory of hits, Motown Records.
Growing up in Buffalo left Banks with a wealth of understanding for the machine like style Berry Gordy used to drive his record label. But Banks wasn’t going to be pigeonholed. He listened to southern soul almost as much, keeping his ears open to all opportunity while honing his songs in roadhouses and barrooms, absolutely confident that, with a voice like his, he’d be a label mate with the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, and Marvin Gaye. Life had different plans.
It wasn’t only his voice that sent volts of electricity out into the world. Banks could be wickedly volatile, at times, even morally corrupt. Quickly realizing the musical process of the day, Banks got a hold of Donnie Elbert’s masterful song, Baby Walk Right In, from Elbert himself. Banks messed with the tempo, and renamed the song Open the Door to Your Heart. When the single appeared, the song was solely attributed to Banks. While the single shot up the charts, and established the sometimes soul shouter as a bonafide top-40 hit maker, Elbert took Banks to court. The court proceedings lasted a couple of years. Once resolved, Banks retained half of the writing credit, and, more crushingly to Elbert, half of the royalties.
Banks didn’t care, and honestly, he didn’t have time to regret it. The single was a million seller. Banks was making real cash money. He was suddenly a proven entity with a reputation that grew each new day. Detroit loomed in his future. Banks was determined to be a star, whatever the cost. After the first single, his reputation spread throughout the country, like a Wall Streeter soused by his first taste of real money, Banks methodically kept on recording song after song after song. Common at the time, the soulster went from label to label; whoever had the best promotion this time, whoever could get his sound onto the airwaves fastest the next. Seven singles, and two albums. Twenty-seven tunes. That’s it.
Had his career not been cut short, the skies might well have opened up for Banks. He had a mercurial angry and defiant voice one moment, calm and collected the next. From 0 to 60 in six seconds flat and back again. While all twenty seven songs aren’t pure gold, each one contains an inkling of what might have been. His phrasing is immaculate, his ability to shed decorum and shout all out is equally faultless. When the background singers reach heavenly eruptions behind him, Banks never tries to establish an otherworldliness with his own voice, instead, his lingers with such a pronounced familiarity, it graces his songs with a hallowed humanity that’s as haunting today as it was when he recorded each of those twenty-seven songs he left behind.
Soul didn’t know it, but the genre was winding down- disco was hunting it down. Peg legged pants, and conk hair-dos followed the slender neckties and form fitting suits that so define the era’s golden age right out the door.Funk was closing in, and along for the ride came, Disco, frocked with its bell-bottomed pant suits, imitation gold chest pendants, and free flowing afro permanent hair. Afro Picks, open chested rayon shirts, and over produced seven minute coke fueled Donna Summer radio odes lay on the horizon. Disco could not occupy the same sonic temporal field soul owned, a field that literally forces your body to sway to and fro, while Disco always surrendered its dance moves to legal and illegal sway ‘aids.’
Soul music was that magic spot where musical dynamics, lyrical excellence, and a killer voice added up to a sum greater than its parts- a holy trinity of jam. From those factory made gems of Motown and Atlantic, to the smaller, lesser known soul providers like Stax, and Hi, came an unbeatable list of pop music dynamite. Aretha Franklin, the Meters, Marvin Gaye, Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes, and the list goes on.
Banks fit the bill, too. A star reaching for his next stage, ready to go supernova. So what if his off stage demeanor included a quick fuse temper and a penchant for drink? So what if he sometimes claimed the work of others as his own, the man could sing. The man could command a stage.
Whatever his personality, Banks’s voice rumbles and shifts and breaks up the notes he’s singing with spellbinding command. When Banks sings about heartache, or loving you, it’s with such forceful simplicity you just believe him. There’s no other choice.
No other song highlights the Banks vision of sound better than, Here Comes the Tears, the opener for his debut album.At the time, he’d had a few hits already, and was looking to compound them. Soul radio was dominated by Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye, for the most part. Banks was looking to dethrone them both. He had a real shot. Amongst his deep love for the Motown style was an almost infallible ability to finesse that regiment into something else entirely. The gospel background so many of soul’s prime numbers certainly filtered into Banks’s own style, but something else got into Here Comes the Tears, something rollicking, wistful and singular. It was his attitude. As the song builds up into the final chorus, the indefinable quotient reverberates in his voice. This song stutters, bubbles up from the offbeat, and drops a doleful bass line that doesn’t drive the song as much as encourage it to melt into itself. With less than fifty seconds left, Banks runs through a breakdown, pauses and then delicately lays out the melody one last time, as his background singers collide with him until the fade starts, and your ears strain to make up that last bit of soulful goo. While utilizing some of the best known Motown techniques, the fluttering guitar lick that itches just underneath the march like drumming, and rhythm guitars elaborates on something indefinable but definitely southern, connecting directly to the sounds of Teenie Hodges and Johnny Jenkins and Leo Nocentelli, guitarists for, respectively, Al Green, Otis Redding, and the Meters, all based in in the south.
While rhythmically punctuated, the song oozes along with Banks as he bristles with actual heartache. Banks rides down to the very depths of pain, totally devoted to the concept. You feel his spasmodic fever in every note, and lyric, beginning to end. After the fourth listen, you’re imagining the last painful fight you had with your own sweetheart, by the sixth listen your eyes water uncontrollably, by the tenth you’ve contacted all the people you’ve ever cared about and made amends for anything and everything you might have done to them. Ears strain at the fade out on the hundredth listen much as at the first. This is pure dynamic soul majesty.
Banks had a knack for switching speeds. He ably shifted from fast paced soul stirrer to slow soul jam,even trying it out mid song a couple of times. His voice could climb into a honey drip seconds after shouting out his pain. Not even Stax’s king of sweet soul music, Otis Redding handled this same kind of harmonic convergence with the same nonchalance as Banks.
Maybe that’s because Banks was a northerner, and bounced along to the sounds of Motown early on, hoping to sign on with Hitsville. And Detroit long played a role in his story. He recorded a United Sound Recording, and the B-side to the stolen Elbert song was co-written by future Funkadelic kingpin himself, George Clinton.
That was the plan when Stax signed the singer to their stable. Banks was paired with Don Davis. They were gonna hit Hitsville deep in the heart of, well, hitsville.
That Banks deeply understood the Motown sound is vividly apparent on the song Our Love is in the Pocket, from his first record. His early singles personify that rust belt jump to it-ness of the mid sixties Hitsville hive.
Banks continued to rely on a variety of Motown like sounds throughout his too short career. Most his songs are dominated by a strict adherence to Motown’s pop ethos- tight 4 on the floor backbeat, forceful call and response between lead and back ground singers. But Banks made sure not to get lost in formalities either, or overburdened by allegiance and the more organic style of soul combustion that percolated down south in Muscle Shoals and Memphis surfaces in his work, too. Stax style horns meld with deep fried organs on Banks’s I Wanna Go Home. In the same vein, if his No One Blinder isn’t an acknowledgement of both Detroit and southern knob twisting, nothing is.
That’s what made Banks so irrefutably worth any of the accolades he received before his murder. Once it became apparent that Motown wasn’t shopping for him, Banks headed south, convinced Stax to take him on. And, wisely, he didn’t get lost in competitiveness, seeing in the future a distillation of styles. When he mixed them up together, Banks created a unique hybrid of sound that is his legacy today.
Darrell Banks records were selling better with each new one issued. He already had a million selling single. Music industry types were courting him. Maybe his head swelled. Maybe it had always been bigger than average. With a voice like his, who could blame him. In Detroit he walked with the kings. Or so he thought.
A girlfriend was seeing also seeing a Detroit Police Officer, and readying to break it off with Banks. The day he was shot to death there was an altercation. The police report paints Banks out to be an irate ex-boy friend grabbing the girl in question at midday. It portrays Banks as a man, who, when challenged by the cop, produced a pistol and pointed it at the off duty officer. What choice did the officer have but to shoot Banks?The cop fired first and Banks went down for good. Banks was dead, at the age of 32.The woman in question confirmed the off duty cop’s story in the police report, and no inquest was made into the story. It all reads a little too perfect, a little too easy. But even an inquest wasn’t going to bring Darrel Banks back to life. His death certificate listed cause of death as homicide, but nothing more came of it. An off duty cop’s word has a lot more weight than a sometimes irate soul singer, no matter how brilliant a voice he’s got.
Then, thirty three years after his burial, a group of five soul fans from England raised funds for a proper headstone for the singer. They flew to Detroit, and with the help of a gravedigger, located marker number 539. Long a stalwart among British Northern Soul fans, his music had touched enough people deep enough that a certain few decided to give something back to Banks, posthumously.
In place of marker 539 at Detroit Memorial Park,now sits a beautiful bench inscribed with singer’s name, and his first big hit, Open the Door to Your Heart, musical notes dancing on the edges.