Maze still gives us 'happy feelin's'

The Baltimore Sun

The song could be the unofficial anthem of modern black America. If there's a house party, barbeque, family reunion or nightclub packed mostly with African-Americans age 30 and older, the joint really jumps when somebody throws on "Before I Let Go" by Maze featuring Frankie Beverly.

Usually at any of these events, the DJ will play the flashy synth-and-guitar intro to the 1981 classic, then he'll pause the track as the house stops and sings the first verse in unison: "You made me happy/This you can bet/You stood right beside me/And I won't forget."

With its laidback groove accented with chunky, funky guitar fills, the song is the quintessential summer jam. At black family gatherings especially, "Before I Let Go" gets everybody - little cousins, sassy aunts, inebriated uncles, even Grandma (nevermind her bad hip) - up and dancing. But beyond its infectious melody and rhythm (sampled several times over the years in hip-hop), the song emanates a honeyed glow that just feels good. It's a quality found in all of Maze's music. Anchored by Beverly's warm, earnest vocals and transcendent lyrics of spiritual and romantic love, the music expands the heart.

The Saturday headliner at the African American Heritage Festival in Camden Yards, Maze featuring Frankie Beverly has been one of black music's best-kept treasures for more than 30 years. Without a significant pop hit, a Grammy nod or any real recognition from mainstream music press, Maze amassed 11 gold and platinum albums between 1977 and 1993.

And although the group hasn't released a new studio effort in 15 years, the band tours regularly, selling out arenas. Three years ago, Maze headlined the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, perhaps the most important summer festival for urban music in the United States. There was Beverly - 58 at the time - wearing his signature baseball cap as he commanded the Louisiana Superdome with such sing-along evergreens as "Joy & Pain," "Back in Stride" and "Golden Time of Day."

I've seen Maze in concert about five or six times in the past decade, and the band never strays from the original arrangements. But there's no need to revamp the timeless tunes. As "black music" becomes more of a gutless marketing tool than a movement, as the sounds of the "genre" become more vapid each year, those of us nurtured on Real Soul Music need something familiar to hold on to. We still want to go to an old-fashioned soul concert (sans the pyrotechnics, elaborate costumes and busy choreography) and feel transported by the music. Maze always delivers - even if Beverly sounds a bit hoarse at times.

The band is one of few R&B; acts to emerge in the '70s whose music defies the time from which it sprang.

The group went through several incarnations before it became Maze. It all started with Beverly, who was born Howard Beverly in Philadelphia in 1946 but, as a doo wop-loving teen, adopted the name "Frankie" after his idol Frankie Lymon. At 17, he founded the Butlers, a vocal group that recorded for Gamble Records, a label owned by the great Kenny Gamble. By the early '70s, the unit morphed into Raw Soul. Beverly and the group relocated to San Francisco and played in and around the Bay Area for several years. Eventually, the band, which had changed its name to Maze in the middle of the decade, caught the attention of none other than Marvin Gaye.

The Motown legend helped Maze and Beverly secure a longtime deal with Capitol Records, whose black music roster at the time included Tavares and Natalie Cole. The band released its self-titled debut in 1977, the year of disco. But the album, now regarded as a soul classic, featured no concessions to the trend. The ingratiating music was simple yet accomplished, and it was all bolstered with Beverly's staggering vocals. Black radio, especially stations in the South, fell in love with such cuts as "While I'm Alone" and "Happy Feelin's." The LP sold gold, largely by word of mouth on the strength of Maze's vibrant club dates at the time.

Subsequent albums repeated the sales of the debut; some did even better. The band racked up more than 20 R&B; hits in 16 years, including two No. 1s: "Back in Stride" (1984) and "Can't Get Over You" (1989).

Still, the group remains unknown to most mainstream audiences. Maybe the music of Maze is "too black." Over the years, and through numerous style trends, the band has not altered its approach one note - no rock-pop concessions or hip-hop remixes. The music of Maze is seared by gospel fire and soothed by jazz-kissed harmonies. It's urbane and down-home. It's exhilarating and mellow. It's music that will be around, nudging "happy feelin's," for a long, long time.


Listen to music from Maze featuring Frankie Beverly at listeningpost

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