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From funk to the choir
News Staff

Frank Brunson walked into St. John the Baptist Church on a Saturday 10 years ago to ask about joining the choir at the Michigan Street church.

"Can you sing?" Music Director Gregory Treadwell asked him.

"A little," said the short, then 59-year-old man with graying hair. Before Brunson left that day Treadwell had asked him to sing on the next day - without even practicing with the choir. He hadn't known Brunson came with a history.

Brunson may have started his career in the early days of rock 'n' roll as Little Frankie because of his stature, but he also picked up the nickname "Big Daddy" thanks to a voice more powerful than a locomotive, one that's still able to piledrive the congregation on Michigan Street.

The son of a local preacher, Brunson graduated from Hutchinson High School before scoring a minor hit in the mid-'50s with a song called "Charmaine." He then signed with Jackie Wilson's manager and cut an album of classic R&B called "Big Daddy's Blues."

One of his songs, "I Believe in You," was recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis in 1965 and became a standard part of the "Killer's" live show.

But his biggest commercial success came in the 1970s with his group, People's Choice, which put 10 funk and disco songs onto Billboard's R&B singles charts, the industry standard.

The group's success came about after producer Bill Perry heard Brunson scatting over a funk groove with the touring lounge act. He dropped the singers and took the band into the studio in Philadelphia. They recooked it live on tape and . . . overnight a song called "I Likes to Do It" was rolling over the nation's R&B airwaves.

The band took the name People's Choice and put out three more singles on Phil-LA of Soul Records before joining producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff at Philadelphia International, where they scored a No. 1 soul hit with the disco-funk song "Do It Any Way You Wanna."

The times were wilder then, but Brunson says he wasn't. After all, he was already 40 years old when his career finally took off with "I Likes to Do It." And he may have performed on the same stage as crazy men like George Clinton and the members of the P-Funk mob, but he says he never strayed too far from his daddy's preachings.

"It was like (People's Choice bandmate) Punchy Andrews liked to drink, but he would never come drink around me," Brunson said. "He'd say, "Big Daddy don't like this stuff.'

"I could say, "No, I don't need that,' I don't need a crutch because if I give out on the stage that love, if I send out it out sincerely, the crowd is going to give it back to me."

That sense of humility and self-effacement may be one of the things that has helped him reach 69 years old. In his early years in the business, he was swimming with sharks like Nat Tarnapol, an associate of Morris Levy. Both were mentioned prominently including their criminal convictions - in "Hit Men," the book detailing the marriage of music, the Mob and payola in pop music. But Brunson avoided the bitterness that swallowed up Jackie Wilson and so many other performers of his generation, instead concentrating on the reactions of the audiences.

Brunson left the craziness in People's Choice to younger members like David Thompson, who added a lighter vocal texture and up-to-date fashion sensibilities to the group. In fact, Brunson gives Thompson the credit - or blame for the wilder outfits the group wore. They had tuxedos covered with letters and numbers, and some world-class bell bottoms.

"Oh, yeah, we had green and yellow bell bottoms," Brunson said. "I couldn't get into any headbands. They thought that was hip. I couldn't do that."

The band broke up in 1984, when Brunson had a minor heart blockage. He returned to Buffalo a few years later to make up for some lost time.

"You go out three, four weeks, come back two or three days, then go out again, that makes it hard to maintain a relationship," he said.

"I had lost track of my children for a long time," he said. "They were here, but they had thought that I wasn't ready to be with them, which was wrong because I used to come back to try to find them. And I did find them."

And he's found a home at St. John the Baptist, where Treadwell still calls him "uncanny and unsurpassable!"

"From the very first time he sang here, he has changed the structure of the music here," Treadwell says. "His talent supersedes his height."

Brunson recently needed to have a pacemaker implanted and had to sit out from singing at St. John the Baptist. "When it was all right for me to get back in the choir, they called me to come down and sing," he said. "Before they could get me to the mike, (the congregation) was already applauding. That was spontaneous, one of my proud moments that I can think of."

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