Elvan Rowe Jr. paced the living room of a houseboat at remote San Pablo Bay Harbor while crooning a ballad titled “Just a Kiss” to an audience of some two dozen guests as four other members the Legendary O’Town Passions harmonized behind him doo-wop style.
Wearing a red jacket and black slacks, as did the other singers, Rowe stopped at a woman in black, extended his right hand and, wailing in emotive low-tenor tones, asked, “Can I be your only man?” The woman, who turned out to be his wife Beatrice, took his hand and nodded in the affirmative.
The group’s bass singer, Clifford McFadden, was missing last Saturday afternoon, yet the Passions’ harmonies were remarkably full, particularly during a rendition of “I’m So Lonely,” a Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes-like number they recorded in 1984.
Donald Raymond, a 10-year member of the Passions who formerly sang with Milton “Mickey” Moore’s Numonics, handled the song’s lead with emotive aplomb. He delivered the line, “Here I am, a shell of a man,” with heart-wrenching urgency, prompting Rowe to quip verbally, “Just look at him.”
Other selections in the eight-song set, rendered alternately to pre-recorded instrumental tracks or entirely a cappella, included “Fed Up,” a blues shuffle the Passions recorded three years ago with John Lee Hooker Jr., and “Not the Father,” their current single on the Fairfield-based Prime USA Records label. “Look at me, I’m on TV,” group leader Jimmy Mack sang on the latter tune, a send-up of paternity-test confrontations that have long kept Maury Povich high in the daytime ratings. A video of “Not the Father” can be found at www.myspace.com/otownpassions.
In the 42 years since West Oakland native Mack joined the Passions, originally a doo-wop group formed in Chicago in 1956, they’ve opened shows for such headliners as the Esther Phillips, the Whispers, Con Funk Shun, Tony Toni Tone and Keyshia Cole, but most of their performances have been for community organizations. They appeared in the late 1960s at benefits for Synanon House and the Black Panther Party’s breakfast program and in more recent times for the Mother Wright Foundation and at such events as the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo and the Black Cowboy Parade.
The San Pablo Bay Harbor gathering was a reception for the group’s former manager, Pat Womack, who is currently battling breast cancer, and was hosted by Vincent Lackey, an author and former Olympic weightlifter who lost his wife Kimberly to breast cancer a year and a half ago.
“We started off doing socially conscious music,” said Mack, 52, who has kept the Passions going for the past four decades, recruiting new members when others dropped out. Rounding out the current lineup are James E. Hill and Darrell Anderson.
“We bring our cultural influence in with our music,” Mack added.