Musician Lou Ragland was born in Cleveland in 1942. His first instrument was saxophone, his choice after rejecting his high school music teacher’s suggestion he play tuba. Inspired by everyone from Brahms to Nat “King” Cole to Ella Fitzgerald, Ragland locked onto soul at 13, when he heard Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers sing “Goody Goody.”
In the early ‘60s, Ragland sang in the storied doo-wop group the Sahibs (along with Hesitations founder Art Blakey and current Hesitation George Hendricks, who taught Ragland rudimentary guitar). He first recorded with the Bandmasters, releasing “Never Let Me Go/Party in Lester’s” on Way Out in 1965. The group waxed that 45 at Cleveland Recording on Euclid Avenue. “The Bandmasters was the music and the Sahibs were the voices, and I sang lead, ” says Ragland, who also recorded for Way Out under the name Volcanic Eruption, with George Hendricks.
“I was the first artist they produced on Way Out, but after they found out that I could engineer and play instruments, they didn’t do anymore on me,” says Ragland. “They didn’t want to lose me to the art world, they wanted me to pump out these songs.” Way Out Studios was located at 1966 East 55th St. in Cleveland and owned by Lester Johnson, a businessman and former singer in the Five Quails, and Cleveland City cop Billy Branch. Pro Football Hall of Fame Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown put money into the operation, affiliating with Way Out under the Big Jim label. Johnson and Branch hired Ragland as their engineer.
In 1968, he finally began making money from the recording business, though with 2005 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees the O’Jays. (pictured, left: Hot Chocolate perform in the early 1970s)
“They hired me as a bass player for three weeks and during that three weeks I had to sleep in my car with a pocketful of money, and I didn’t like that,” he recalls. On a drive back to Cleveland from Boston, “I asked them whose fault was it that we didn’t have a hotel?” They blamed Prime Enterprises, aka Leo Frank and Jules Berger, so Ragland took over as road manager. (Frank and Berger owned Hall of Fame Landmark Leo’s Casino, where the O’Jays were stars.) “I started with them as a seller of their pictures and would give them a cut of the money. I’d give them a bigger cut if they autographed the pictures.” Then, he says, he created a booklet “that generated this income and then David Johnson quit them in the middle of their contractual agreement, which was in 1968, so Bobby Massey knew I played the guitar and knew that I was friends with Russell Evans, and we had about 10 days before they opened up their first gig.” Massey bought him a bass and an amplifier, and Evans taught him the songs. Massey was baritone, second tenor and business manager. Johnson was an early O’Jays bassist. Evans was the guitarist.
In 1970 and 1971, Ragland, Tony Roberson and George Pickett laid down more than 30 tracks as Hot Chocolate, a hard-charging funk combo, on the Co-Co Cleveland label. Ragland played guitar, tambourine and conga drums and sang, Roberson played drums, Pickett bass. Their sole album, Hot Chocolate, was recorded at Cleveland Recording and pressed at Boddie Recording Company on Union Avenue. Dick Dugan, a well-known illustrator for the Cleveland Press and Plain Dealer, created the cover for $100.
While contemporary hits included Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World,” the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” and the Carpenters’ “Superstar," 1971 wasn’t a bad year for soul, either: Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” and the Undisputed Truth’s “Smiling Faces Sometimes” charted high, too.
Shortly after Hot Chocolate made it into local stores, the band released “Good for the Gander/We Had True Love,” also on Co-Co, in 1971. Two years later, Co-Co again was the imprint for “I Can’t Take It/What the Doctor Prescribed.” That Hot Chocolate 45 was recorded at Way Out Studios.
“Hot Chocolate was a live recording, the first record I ever recorded in album form,” says Ragland, who now lives in Las Vegas. “We were doing our show and they recorded it. We had practiced enough… we had about 30 songs and we narrowed them down to those that the people requested, so we just sat down in the studio and created one of our sets over again, and then we found out that ‘Good for the Gander’ was one of the best songs we recorded.” In 2004, Ragland licensed the Hot Chocolate LP to Soul Brother Records, an English operation, to reissue as a CD.
Hot Chocolate performed from Pensacola, Florida, to Montreal and “almost every state in between,” says Ragland. “Everything east of the Mississippi, we probably covered. The 'chitlin’ circuit,' as they called it.”
Since then, Ragland has performed solo, with many of his own groups, with the O’Jays and the Ink Spots, among others; he and his wife, Estella, have trademarked World Famous Ink Spots. In March 2012, the Numero Group imprint in Chicago released I Travel Alone, a three-CD/four-LP collection of Ragland solo tracks and Hot Chocolate cuts, as well as highlights from his Volcanic Eruption days and more.
On February 13, 2013, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum will present "An Evening with Lou Ragland" in the Museum's Foster Theater, where the soul legend will be interviewed by Cleveland Rock & Roll Memories author Carlo Wolff.