Side Effect has musical soul

COSTA MESA — With only five days left till the end of the 2010 Orange County Fair, you might take time out to get to know that wandering four-man a cappella group that's been singing some of the classics like "The Way You Make Me Feel," "Stand By Me" and "Over the Rainbow."

Dressed in fedoras and old-school black outfits, the group, Augie's Side Effect, has been performing at the county fair for the past five years. They've been somewhat of a musical anchor, even if they themselves aren't exactly anchored down. Their tunes often fill the air in different parts of the fairgrounds.

But what's particularly special about the group is that when they're not singing, they're among the best conversationalists you'll ever find — if you take the time out to talk to them and learn a bit about their lives, which vary as much as their songs and the high and low notes that accompany them.

It's only when you sit down and talk to them that you get to hear the banter and wisecracks that can only come from a close-knit group of guys, ones who feel lucky to be making a buck doing what they do best: Opening up the vocal chords and performing a little doo-wop.

"But technically speaking, we're not just 'doo-wop,'" said Augie Johnson, 62, a New Orleans native who grew up in Los Angeles and who founded the group nearly four decades ago. "We're an a cappella group with a little 'bop' to it. It's doo-wop, mixed with bebop; we're 'aca-bop.'"

An a cappella group is band of singers who use no instruments. Their voices are their instruments, and with every song they sing, there's, without question, a harmony to be found.

Take Simon & Garfunkel, add two more guys, mix in blues, jazz, gospel and just about everything else under the sun, and what you get is Augie's Side Effect.

As Dave Santana, a longtime fan of the group, pointed out in the blazing sun late Sunday afternoon: "If you say two words to them, they'll finish the rest for you by singing something."

And so it is that a normal conversation becomes a silly song, like when a couple passing by asks if they can take a picture of their daughter standing next to the group.

"Say cheese," the group sings in unison before launching into Sam Cooke's 1964 Civil Rights Movement-era song, "A Change Is Gonna Come."

"It's been too hard living but I'm afraid to die / 'Cause I don't know what's up there beyond the sky / It's been a long, a long time coming / But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will."

A change actually came for Johnson, the leader of the band, when he was 9 years old in the early 1960s. That's when he was chosen as the "token black child," as he describes it, to sing for the Robert Mitchell Boys Choir, an eight-member group in which Johnson was the only black child.

Since the 1930s, the choir was famous in Los Angeles and was often picked to perform in multiple movies in Hollywood, something Johnson soon found himself becoming a part of. He sang in several movies, including one with Judy Garland ("A Child is Waiting").

"I was the only black kid," said Johnson, "and being the only black kid, people would give me standing ovations when I sang. Some would even rub my hair because they never felt a black kid's hair before. You have to understand something: Times were different back in the early '60s."

Johnson said he was plucked out of a group of boys playing pickup football in the streets of southeast Los Angeles. Producers from the choir just came along one day and, by word of mouth in the neighborhood, asked Johnson and a few of his friends to audition. Johnson made the cut. The rest is history.

Since that moment, he's toured Europe and managed to found his own band in the early 1970s. He decided to call it Augie's Side Effect, because of all the different effects he's managed to incorporate into his music.

Although his band has seen dozens of members come and go over the years, this group in particular at the fair has been together for the last five years, and they hold little of their opinions back in their view of contemporary music.

They hate rap. They hate hip hop. They criticize it as too repetitive, a musical genre they condemn as "selfish" because it generally takes just one person on a computer to create it.

"Our music isn't computerized; it's emotional. There's life in it. There's an actual pulse," said Reagae Clark, 52, a Sweetwater, Texas, native who now resides in Los Angeles.

He's the philosopher of the group, but also the butt of jokes. Sort of the odd man out, but the group loves him all the same.

Then there's Milton "Silky" Ellis, 59, of Detroit, and Barry "B.J." Jackson, 53, of Jefferson Park in Los Angeles. Both are the calmer entities in the group. If calmer heads prevail during troubling times, these two guys are it.

As for the best singer of the band, they all concurred that it's nobody in particular.

"It's whoever's out front, just like it should be," they say in unison, almost singing their response.




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