Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Singer and The Song

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

It's pretty common to find a good story behind the making of a pop song. But for Bob Kuban & the In-Men's hit song, "The Cheater," the real story begins after the fact. And the ironies that came forth from this song, which Kevin Courrier details below, would likely make a pretty good movie, if not a terrific crime novel.

Imitation of Life: Bob Kuban & the In-Men's The Cheater

Most pop songs are inspired by personal stories and contain observations about a variety of subjects (although love is generally the prominent one). There are a few tunes, though, that seem to foretell future events - for instance, Jan & Dean's prescient "Dead Man's Curve," where Jan Berry almost fatally encountered it. But then you have the downright eerie - as in Bob Kuban & the In-Men's 1966 hit, "The Cheater." Maybe you have to be of a certain vintage to remember this white soul track, but it still occasionally pops up on Oldies radio programs. While many of us can think of many pop performers whose lives would make great material for movies (let's say, Queen Latifah playing Aretha Franklin, or Andre Braugher as Louis Armstrong), the story of "The Cheater" would make a great procedural drama.

According to critic Dave Marsh, in his highly readable The Heart of Rock & Soul, Bob Kuban was a high school teacher in St. Louis who happened to be in a popular local brass band. While searching for a vocalist to front the group, he discovered a lounge act called The Pacemakers who had a soulful singer named Walter Scott. Instantly impressed, Kuban offered Scott a shot and, within a year, they recorded their first song, the playful “Jerkin’Time.” While it was no smash, it did get the band gigs playing during halftime at the St. Louis Hawks’ basketball games. In 1965, their bass player, John Michael Krenski, wrote a soul song called “The Cheater” that would have some appealing and catchy charts for their horn section. As a follow-up song to “Jerkin’ Time,” “The Cheater” was an appealing and tight little pop number. “[T]he strength of the record is a really good brass arrangement, some nice drumming and guitar work,” wrote Marsh. “[I]t’s cautionary lyric, a warning against a love ‘em and leave ‘em philanderer: ‘Look out for the Cheater/Make way for the fool hearted clown,’ [was] coupled with a concluding promise that someday someone would do to the Cheater what he’d done to the singer.” Sometimes you need to heed your warnings.

When “The Cheater” became a national hit in January 1966, Bob Kuban had changed the name of the group to Bob Kuban and the In-Men and hoped to tour the country. But the In-Men were still college students and afraid of losing their draft exemptions if they dropped out to become pop stars. So they stayed local and were toast by the summer. Kuban tried to form some other groups, but nothing worked. Walter Scott decided to continue touring and Bob Kuban formed another brass band and was back doing intermission for St. Louis sports teams. But in the early ‘80s, Walter Scott and Kuban reunited socially and decided that now was the time to resurrect the pop dream they never got to fulfill. They arranged a gig at the local Fox Theatre to kick things off. After one rehearsal in the fall of 1983, Walter Scott suddenly disappeared. Just after Christmas, his wife, Jo Ann, reported Scott missing. According to her, he went out to buy a part for his car and never came home. On December 28th, the St. Louis police found the car abandoned at the airport.

For a year, they searched for Scott but came up without a trace of his whereabouts. His widow, now claiming that she had been abandoned, filed for divorce and in 1986 remarried. Her new husband, Jim Williams, curiously had also lost his partner, Sharon, in a car crash back in October 1983. Meanwhile, Scott’s parents never bought the official story and pressed the authorities to continue searching for their son. In 1987, the police uncovered a new lead. They found Walter Scott floating in a cistern which just happened to be ten feet from Jim Williams’ house. He’d been there for about three years. Williams’ dead wife was then exhumed for a new autopsy; they found that she had died from a “blunt force trauma,” not injuries suffered in the car crash. Jim Williams was arrested and charged with killing both Scott and his former spouse. It took about two days for the police to catch up with Jo Ann to charge her with the same two counts.

So how did this arrest come to be? Jim Williams’ son had stepped forward to tell the cops that Sharon had been having an affair with Walter Scott and his dad found out. With Scott’s wife and Jim Williams dully pissed off at all this cheating from their spouses, knocked them both off.

Tough luck, indeed, for The Cheater.

Give a listen to the song here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fBPfj0GMvYo

Dave Marsh's The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989) is published by Da Capo Press. 

- originally published on March 28, 2010 in Critics at Large.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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