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