Things were not looking positive for the Masqueraders a year ago. A vocal trio in the vein of the Impressions, who had put out records through most of the 1960s and '70s, their last hurrah had been on Isaac Hayes' Hot Buttered Soul label. When that business went under, so did their career. After a final album on Bang Records in 1980 failed to chart, the Masqueraders went back to their day jobs, and though they did the occasional session in the 1990s and began to sing on Beale Street by the early 2000s, they had not performed together for some time when 2016 rolled around.
Then a friend heard one member of the group, Harold Thomas, singing at a Christmas party. That led to a gospel producer inquiring about back-up harmonies for an artist he worked with, so Harold called fellow band mates Robert "Tex" Wrightsil and Sam Hutchins, and soon they were back in the studio — as a favor. The producer offered them their own deal, but the group was not satisfied with the recordings. Nonetheless, they were up and running again. Tex heard that America's Got Talent (AGT) was holding auditions at the Cook Convention Center, and, as they were well-rehearsed anyway, they thought they'd give it a shot.
On audition day, the wait was so long they almost went home, but Thomas rallied his comrades. Finally, their name was called. They had chosen Sam Cooke's classic "A Change Is Gonna Come," a song deep in their musical DNA, to which they applied their trademark sheen of fluid harmonies. The producers were floored. By the time the group taped their performance, AGT had added strings to their minimal backing track, making for a swelling, emotional performance. Singing for the audition audience reminded Thomas of playing a massive soul revue in Philadelphia during their late '60s heyday, but that was nothing compared to the audience they reached when their moment was broadcast and posted to YouTube. To date, the clip has been viewed over a million times. As Thomas recalls, "My daughter said, 'Dad, I think y'all have gone viral!'"
Even more important, the judges — clearly gobsmacked — loved them. As we go to press, the Masqueraders' second performance for AGT, "Bring It on Home to Me," will be airing on Tuesday's "Judge Cut" episode, and the judges' verdicts will then determine if they go on to perform live in the competition rounds. That will be when fans around the world can vote for them in real time and propel them into the finals.
It's been a long, meandering road to this point. The group left Dallas, their hometown, for Detroit in the mid-1960s and auditioned for Motown. When Hitsville passed, the Masqueraders headed over to La Beat records, which released several sides of theirs. But Detroit winters were too much for them, and soon they showed up in Memphis with two-dozen songs they had written for themselves. Stopping first at American Sound Studio on a whim, they ended up working there for years. Not only did they release their own material, including their biggest hit, "I Ain't Got to Love Nobody Else," in 1968, they added their harmonious blend to other artists' records. That's the Masqueraders you hear on Arthur Conley's "Sweet Soul Music," on Wilson Pickett's "I'm in Love," and on several tracks from the Box Tops' album, Cry Like a Baby.
Many years later, when the group was playing Blues City Cafe regularly, singing the usual batch of tourist-friendly covers, they were surprised to meet British fans who said their early work, and the '70s material they cut for Willie Mitchell and Isaac Hayes, was popular in the "Northern Soul" scene. This ultimately led to three trips to Europe in recent years, for which they had to scramble to re-learn all their own songs. But such appreciation in the U.K. was too sporadic to support them, leading to the long spell of inactivity that preceded their AGT audition.
Thomas is convinced that this most recent success grew from their initial generosity in helping that gospel producer for free: God has seen fit to reward them. Even if they go no further, the notoriety thus far could lead to a lot more work. "We got calls from Canada, New Jersey — even my man over in Spain," says Thomas, "but we can't do nothing right now while we're still involved in AGT."
That's fine with Thomas. He's looking to heaven when he says, "Lord, it's up to you. Whoever you want to win gonna win. I won't be mad. I'll just be happy that we got as far as we got."
NOTE: After we went to press, the Masqueraders aired their second performance on AGT. As the show's wiki site notes, "Howie Mandel, Mel B, guest judge Chris Hardwick, Heidi Klum, and Simon Cowell all gave the trio standing ovations. The Masqueraders' performance was strong enough for the judges to send them to the Quarterfinals instead of Carlos De Antonis and Darcy Callus."
They're moving on up! Keep tabs on their progress in upcoming episodes of America's Got Talent, when you can call in and register your vote for our hometown favorites.