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    By Sarah Kelley
    Photo by Mickie Winters

    The members of the R&B group WOKE have been on the brink of commercial success time and again over the past two decades, only to see it slip through their fingers. “We’ve been at the door of some major-label situations, but for some reason or another it just didn’t happen,” group member Lamont Connor says. Sitting on the edge of a weathered red leather couch inside Guitar Emporium, his buddy’s Highlands guitar shop, Connor relays anecdotes about the quartet’s journey: shady managers, bad business decisions, marriage, kids, divorce, solo careers, addiction, prison.

    For the better part of 20 years, the foursome — Connor, James Crawford, Dejuan Rainey and Darius Towns — wrote songs and performed under the name Uncut. Last fall, they agreed to change their name at the urging of Gill Holland, the Louisville entrepreneur and founder of sonaBLAST! Records. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

    Leaning forward on the couch, wearing a crisp paisley shirt and navy dress pants, Connor recounts a string of instances when the group was on the verge of making it big. There was the time Warner Bros. Records offered them a contract, only to renege after learning they previously had signed with a small independent label. An exec from Sean “Diddy” Combs’ Bad Boy Records also showed interest, as did 50 Cent’s manager, but nothing came to fruition.

    “There’s a season for everybody, and it just wasn’t our season,” says Connor, his voice quiet yet resolute. “Now it’s our season.”

     

    On a recent cold and snowy Thursday evening, the guys, ranging in age from late 30s to mid-40s, forgo their usual rehearsal to be interviewed. Scattered in a pew within the cavernous sanctuary of Canaan Christian Church in Hikes Point, where Connor works as director of security, they shed light on how they got to this point: signing with sonaBLAST!; releasing two new songs, with more in the works; performing live on WAVE-3 and WHAS-11; filming a movie scene alongside John Cusack, Taye Diggs and George Lopez. “We did not expect to be where we are today. And things are happening so quickly,” Connor says, prompting nods of agreement. “God’s got his hand on us.”

    Faith is a recurring theme as Connor discusses past troubles and future hopes. It’s not surprising given his upbringing.

    Gospel music filled Connor’s childhood home, and he recalls his dad belting out hymns while washing dishes. His father was a pastor at Greater Bethel Temple, a historic African-American church on South Third Street that served as a musical training ground for Connor, who sang in the choir and played saxophone during worship. It’s where he developed the soulful, gospel style that’s central to WOKE’s sound. Though he first lived in Shawnee, Connor’s family moved to Shively as violence began escalating in his old neighborhood in the 1980s. “Once the West End kind of started shifting, my parents were like, ‘Look, we’re getting out of here,’” he says.

    Darius Towns “came up in the church,” too, albeit across the river in Jeffersonville. His mother was a talented pianist who taught him to play on the family’s upright. His uncle was in a blues band that toured with Ike and Tina Turner. “I saw him on TV in 1978,” he says, “and from that point on, I knew that was what I wanted to do.” As a child, Towns spent weekends playing the organ at his grandma’s church and fishing. The group jokes he’s the country boy of the bunch, although today his image is far more polished than Podunk: button-down shirt and tie, trendy zip-up sweater and blazer, khaki pants and pageboy cap. They also joke that Towns is the only one who can’t sing — his role in the group is piano and production. “If Darius began to sing, everybody in the room would run out,” Connor says.

    WOKE’s other two members were born and raised in west Louisville: James Crawford lived in a barracks-style public-housing unit at the Cotter and Lang Homes, which have since been razed, and Dejuan Rainey grew up at 28th and Dumesnil. Rainey’s mother was a gospel singer, and although his father was not a musician, he imparted a love of music. “He had a great collection: Pink Floyd, Rod Stewart, Earth Wind and Fire, Temptations. It was endless,” Rainey says. “When we were kids, there was no limitation on things we listened to. We’d listen to Tears for Fears one hour, then turn around and listen to Public Enemy.” Though gangs and drugs were prominent in his neighborhood, Rainey says, he managed to stay out of trouble and focus on music while a student at Manual’s Youth Performing Arts School. “I never was a Blood or a Crip. I never really was juiced into the things those folks did,” he says in his deep, raspy voice. “I was a trendsetter. I was an artist. I loved music.”

    Family influenced Crawford, too, particularly his father, a member of the popular 1950s R&B group the Moonglows (“Sincerely”), which was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “You look at your father, and he’s like your hero. I wanted to be like pops,” Crawford says in a tone several octaves lower than the smooth falsetto he unleashes in songs. During elementary school in the 1980s, Crawford and his older brother tuned in every Saturday evening to watch the music variety show Puttin’ on the Hits, which inspired them to produce their own talent shows for family and friends. “We thought we were the Jackson 5 or something,” Crawford says. Crawford was still in high school when he first met Towns through mutual friends Shon Lacy and Montre Davis of the now-famous Linkin’ Bridge. That foursome made up the first Uncut lineup, with Connor and Rainey contributing in the early days before eventually becoming permanent members.

    Uncut started out rehearsing after-hours at Green Tree Mall in Clarksville, Indiana, inside an instrument store where Towns worked. “We used to set the alarm off in Mr. Zimmerman’s jewelry store all the time because we’d cut the music up too loud,” Towns says. He then rattles off a series of anecdotes from back in the day.

    Like the time they tracked down Boyz II Men following a show in town during the peak of that group’s popularity in the ’90s. “I was carrying my big, heavy keyboard. We walked into the hotel and stopped them as they were getting on the elevator. We said, ‘Can you hear us? Just give us five minutes,’” Towns says. One of the guys appeased them, and, according to Towns, “We was on.”

    So what happened?

    In unison, they laugh at that question.

    “It fell through,” Crawford says.

     

    Lamont Connor was a Ballard High School student when fame first came within reach. He was a member of the R&B group Touch of Class, and he says a prominent West Coast manager flew the young Louisville singers out to California in 1992.

    Connor spent several years touring with national acts like Tony! Toni! Toné!, but the ride came to a halt for Connor when Touch of Class met DeVante Swing of the group Jodeci. Swing was interested in bringing the group on tour, but he wanted a particular look, and Connor — whose style skewed more R&B than hip-hop — did not fit the bill. “They decided to go without me,” Connor says. “But you can’t blame them. It was an opportunity.” Touch of Class changed its name to Playa and produced a hit album on Def Jam Records, with Connor’s longtime friend and collaborator Stephen Garrett, aka Static Major, going on to achieve solo success on the hip-hop scene before his death in 2008.

    Upon returning to Louisville, Connor was deeply depressed. Not only was his old group succeeding, but his cousin Tionne Watkins — a third cousin on his mom’s side, he says — was achieving fame as T-Boz in the group TLC. Connor gave up on music, took a job in ground security at the airport and didn’t sing again for three years. That hiatus ended when Uncut, with whom he’d collaborated as a teenager, asked him to be a permanent member in the late 1990s.

    In the ensuing two decades, the group’s lineup ebbed and flowed as members individually pursued various careers and solo projects. And, as Connor likes to say, “life happened.”

    In addition to singing with Uncut, Connor was lead vocalist in the Big Diggity, a well-known local soul and funk band that played frequent live gigs in the early 2000s. During that time, Connor became addicted to cocaine and his lifestyle landed him in prison in 2009. “I would finish playing, start partying, and it really got ahold of me by the neck. It took me for a ride,” he says, then adds without hesitation: “But I wouldn’t trade nothing for my journey because it allowed me to become the man I am today.”

    While answering questions, the only time Connor’s positivity falters is when he recounts his then four-year-old daughter — one of three children — visiting during his incarceration. “I’ll never forget it: My daughter, she came…” he says, his voice cracking and his bright brown eyes watering. He’s quiet for a moment. “She came to see me, and it was time for her to go. And she cried and screamed, ‘I want my daddy.’” He vowed to change. “I was released, I came home to my family, and I haven’t looked back.”

    For Towns, his “low point” hit last year. Despite succeeding as a music producer in Nashville, working with artists like Eric Clapton, Garth Brooks and Toni Braxton, Towns says he “lost everything” after paying back taxes and was temporarily homeless.

    But the group has found creative inspiration in life’s struggles. “Our best writing speaks to real-life issues,” Connor says, “whether it’s dealing with drug addiction, violence, a broken heart or whatever the storms may be.”

    Case in point is “Gone Away,” one of the earliest songs co-written by members of the group. It’s also the song that recently grabbed the attention of Gill Holland.

     

    On Aug. 21, 1995, Crawford’s older brother, Dion, was shot and killed in Jeffersontown at the age of 24. Crawford and Connor co-wrote “Gone Away” in his memory just weeks after the murder, and over the years they’ve sung it at countless funerals.

    In late 2017, Towns was staying with Crawford, and the two were watching a local news story about yet another rash of deadly shootings. Though Uncut hadn’t played a show in years, the group decided to make a music video.

    The video opens with Towns playing an upright piano on a path in the picturesque Green Meadows Memorial Cemetery, which Connor’s family owns. The video alternates between WOKE singing at the southwest Louisville cemetery and inside St. John’s United Church of Christ in NuLu, where a casket rests on an altar encircled by stained glass, marble and mahogany. Relatives of homicide victims show photographs of their lost loved ones, an emotional visual element that was arranged with the help of west Louisville community leader Christopher 2X. The video’s director, Roman Lane, suggested Holland might be interested in seeing it.

    “I was sitting there at my computer, and I said, ‘God, if it’s meant for this guy to respond and be a part of this process, it’ll happen,’” Connor says. He emailed the video — rubbing a little holy oil on the mouse before clicking send.

    “Five minutes later, there’s the response to my email. It’s Gill. I was afraid to open it because he might be saying, ‘I’m not interested,’ or, ‘The label’s not taking on any new artists.’ But when I opened up the email it said, ‘I love it. Let’s meet.’ I lost it.”

    Aspiring musicians inundate Holland’s label with queries; it’s impossible to respond to them all. “I almost hit delete (on Connor’s message), except it was an amazingly personal email that read like a sermon,” Holland says. He clicked play. First he heard the tinkling piano, then Connor’s smooth voice accompanied by soulful harmonies. “I pretty much knew right away I needed to meet with them,” Holland says.

    That was in October. Since then, sonaBLAST! has propelled the group toward a host of new opportunities. The first order of business, however, was deciding on a new name — one that would allow the guys to easily be found online. They settled on WOKE, which stands for Working On Keeping Equality.

    The group recently wrapped a performance for River Runs Red, a locally shot movie about an African-American judge, played by Taye Diggs, whose son is wrongfully killed by police. After the funeral scene, WOKE sings “Gone Away” at the family’s home. The group also recently wrote and recorded “Take a Knee,” which was inspired by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial inequality. Another recent song, “Shots Fired,” talks of gun violence that leaves streets “bloodstained”: So many murders in my city. Y’all need to stop this killing… Another father cries today, from a son that was taken away. Lord, why did he have to die?

    WOKE is in the process of putting together a larger backing band that includes drums, guitars and horns, and they plan to begin touring locally and regionally soon. They also plan to put out a full-length record, which would be their first. But the primary goal, Connor says, is to continue making music that inspires. “We want to be remembered as a group that speaks to the hurts and pains of the people,” he says. “We want to be remembered as a group that changed the community.”

    This originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine. Every story in our March issue is about west Louisville, and we’ve barely scratched the surface. Click here to read more from part four of our series on the West End.

    To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

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