In the 1960’s, when the world’s ear was tuned to the Motown sound, Tuskegee launched an all-girls singing group called the Joyettes. They were equal in talent and style to the divas in Detroit and were often compared to the hit-makers of that era.
“The Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, Aretha Franklin. They were all older but that’s who we emulated. We admired them truly.” They did something that punctuated their closeness during the interview. They each chimed in, often finishing each other’s thoughts.
The Joyettes consisted of 16-year old Joyce Carter (German), 17-year old Vera Williams (Smith), 18-year old Delois Williams (Harris) and 18-year old Sylvia Thornton. Their parents were friends who sang in a group called the Tuskegee Sextet. The girls got their start as grade schoolers, singing at church events.
Vera, the historian says, “We knew as little kids that we could sing. ‘Lois and I and my baby brother who was about five at the time did three-part harmony at the church…five, six and seven years old…We would have been a youtube phenomenon but of course there wasn’t any youtube back then.”
They formalized into a singing group after blowing the roof off the Tuskegee Institute during a talent show. Delois vividly recalls what happened next. “I was summoned from one of my classes. My instructor said ‘Dean Phillips needs to see you in his office.’ I thought I had done something horrible. I didn’t know what was going on. And when I got in there…Michael Gilbert was in there with us and I said well I guess we’re both in trouble…and he [Dean Phillips] asked me about our group. I felt so relieved because I knew then that I was not in trouble.”
They were partnered with a group of young Tuskegee musicians who were named The Jays, a band that evolved into The Commodores.
The 1960’s were a magical time for musicians in Tuskegee. In addition to the Joyettes and The Jays, there was Janis and Bill, Seven Wonders and the Duponts. Vera chuckled at the memory of the now famous syndicated radio deejay, Tom Joyner and his clowning around back then. “Tom Joyner was the bass singer for the Duponts. They used to do shows with us too. Can you believe that Tom Joyner used to open up a show for us? Yes he did. And he’d jump out there in his little yellow pants with the polka dot drawers showing through.”
At that time, The Joyettes were rising fast with bookings in big cities including New York and Atlanta. Yet Tuskegee’s Dream Girls walked away from the music business and Delois says, with no regrets. “Music was our passion but we all felt like we had other things to do in our lives and our parents definitely had those thoughts. Even though we were invited by Capitol Records to come, we did not accept because we would have had to drop out of school and we chose to finish college.”
In 1967, they recorded an album at the Waluhaje Hotel in Atlanta. It has been re-mastered on CD and gives today’s audiences a delightful blast from the past.
Songs include instrumentals recorded by The Jays titled MISS VEE, FUNKY WALTZ, SHOWTIME, BOSSA NOVA and THE BREEZE AND I. It also features the following duets sung by Janis Carter and Bill Patterson; THIS IS GOODBYE, OL’ MAN RIVER and LET IT BE ME. The Joyettes’ selections are OVER YONDER, a song written specifically for them and a re-make of the Dionne Warwick hit, YOU’LL NEVER GET TO HEAVEN IF YOU BREAK MY HEART.
During the interview, we were treated to an acapella performance and saw firsthand that the ladies still have the vocal range and tight harmony that took them to the brink of stardom.
It took more than talent to go from tiny Tuskegee to the grand stages where they performed. They credit their manager, the brilliant strategist, Dr. P. Bertrand Phillips, former Tuskegee University Dean of Students. Delois says, “That Dean Phillips was just something else. He believed in us and he tried everything he could to make people aware of who we were. We even went to Nassau and we sang down there…and then to go to New York…He presented us as ambassadors from Tuskegee University.”
Relocations, age and illnesses have made it impossible for The Joyettes and The Jays to reunite. Bill Winston, the bandleader for The Jays is now a minister living in Chicago. Another member of The Jays, Michael Gilbert is deceased and so is Sylvia Thornton, one of The Joyettes.
But they have great memories and memorabilia from the 1960’s and they still have that tight harmony, blending their voices in song and sustaining a sisterly bond in life.