Rex Garvin was the leader of the Mighty Cravers. He was born in Harlem in 1940 and raised by foster parents in a religious family. When he was just 8 years old, his mother, Magareth Garvin, arranged for him to take piano lessons. He began writing music when he was 15 and got involved with Zelma Sanders, her myriad of labels as well as her group The Hearts. An experience on the night of December 28th 1985 made him stop craving music and he hasn’t played since.
How was it to grow up in Harlem in the 40’s-50’s?
It was a nice place to grow up in. Harlem had a bad name for some odd reason. I didn’t see anything unusual. It was a place where everybody came to the Apollo. White people came to the Apollo to see their favourite stars and everything. We had crime but not the kind of crime we have now. We had a few stabbings and shootings but not every weekend. Maybe every now and then.
You took piano lessons from when you were around 8 and up. Your Mother wanted you to become a classical pianist. Was it also classical lessons?
At that time most music teachers taught you somewhat of a classical thing. I found that quite boring because my neighbours and my friends mother used to play that ”gutbucket music” as my Mother used to call it. I loved it. I found an identification with it and it didn’t help because I was raised three blocks from the Apollo Theater. The Apollo Theater was on 125th (Street) between 7th and 8th (Avenue). I was raised on 122nd (Street) between 7th and 8th. It was more or less the black Mecca for entertainment because you know they were no television. I was brought up in the radio days. We didn’t have television until the middle of the 50s.
You did quite a lot of work for Zelma Sanders. She is an interesting character and quite an impressive entrepreneur for a Black female during those times. How did you meet her?
I met her in 1953, 1954. Mrs. Sanders (had) asked my Mom if she could borrow my talent for a group of girls that she was performing. My Mother said, ”Okay, but I don’t want no stuff from you”. That group of girls became known as The Hearts. She (Zelma) was a policewoman. Well, actually she was a store detective and she used to carry this gun around. She was a big woman and very threatening. She kind of reminded you of Pearl Bailey. Everybody was scared of her. I wasn’t. A lot of people didn’t stick with her because she was real strict. We got along fine because she used to mess with the singers. She wanted the singers to sing in key. She would shout at them. ”You’re not singing this right, you’re not singing this right! What’s wrong with you?”
When did you decide that you wanted to play music for a living?
It was decided for me because I was playing music all of my life. I didn’t get a chance to play sports because I loved music so much. My best friend was named Joe Rivers. Mrs. Sanders lived in 222, I lived in 224 and Joe Rivers of Johnnie and Joe lived in 230. Johnnie was Zelma’s daughter. Mrs. Sanders asked Joe if he could come to her apartment to rehearse with her daughter. I wrote a song for Joe called ”over the mountain, across the sea”. Joe sang the lead and Johnnie sang the background. They were a duo. It became a hit. I didn’t know what I wanted to be at that particular time. I was just enjoying playing. Then faith stepped in and a couple of guys said, ”hey, we want to start a band. Would you be interested?” Nothing I planned on. It just happened.
What band was that?
The Mighty Cravers.
You guys recorded for a great variety of labels. Why?
I moved around but you see… My name might have been on a lot of records because I was at the right place at the right or wrong time. I signed very little contracts. I just wanted to record records and maybe sing a little bit. I used to do a lot of sessions. I recorded a lot of sessions for Bell Tone, Bell Sound… Down in the heart of New York City. 31st, 47th and 57th Street that was my hang-out because there was a bar down there called Beefsteak Charlies. You could get a mug of beer for a quarter, a glass of beer for 15 cents and a big ol’ fat pastrami sandwich for 1 Dollar 79. That was my thing right there.
Did you tour a lot in those days?
Oh yeah, we toured what’s called the Chitlin Curcuit. We did the Howard in Washington DC, the Regal in Chicago, the Uptown in Philadelphia, the Royal Theater in Baltimore and the Apollo (Theater in Harlem). I did a lot of touring when I was 15 and 16. There were no dipping and dapping. Mrs. Sanders made sure nobody went too far from her side anyway. I was kid back then. Of course, I was under management so you couldn’t go far from the room. You sure couldnt go to no bars or nothing I just went out for a hotdog or a hamburger. We were on shows with other groups. What is so fascinating about that is when you’re on tour like that you get to stay in the same hotel or the same dwellings with these people I admired when I was a kid. To be on a show with them was just amazing but I found out that they’re just like regular people. A lot of them drank a lot, smoked weed but as far as dope I didnt see any of that.
What about your song ”LSD –believe it or not” from 1967. Was LSD as a drug popular in the Black community?
No, LSD was popular in the white community. I dont know anybody but a couple of gay guys that used to do that shit. That was just the craze in the early 60s so I just wrote a song about that. I never tried it. I never wanted to try it. You see, a lot of people when you’re on tour want you to try things. I was scared to try it. I remember a guy who told me he tried that shit and woke up in a gigantic vagina. I didnt want to feel that shit. I was scared of drugs. I wanted to be in control of my senses. It took me a while to start smoking a little bit of weed. I didn’t start drinking until I was 17 or 18. I was too scared (of LSD). I’m more of a drinker.
I would like to ask you about a song you did called ”sock it to ’em, JB”. People who haven’t heard it usually think the JB is for James Brown but it’s James Bond, right?
It was supposed to be a comic record as a salute to James Bond because at that time Sean Connery was James Bond. He made love to all the girls and fought all the men. I made a record of it just to do it. Everybody was hoping for a hit back then but me and the guys just wrote it in reference to James Bond (because he) was so popular.
What happened in the early 70’s? Did you leave the music business in the early 70s?
Yeah, I did. I think I grew up a little bit. I was in my ‘30’s then so music was getting ready to change. I wasn’t as popular as I was then. I probably started professionally around 1955. Very few people needed my help in the studio and so I just kind of drifted out of it. I’m not mad at music. That was a long ride and it was pleasurable. George Benson has a song called ”everything must change” and it did. I accepted it gratefully. I regret that I probably signed the wrong contracts that I got screwed over (but) I look back and say I have had a wonderful life. It was good playing for the audiences. It was good travelling from town to town and dating some of the most beautiful women I have ever seen.
When would you this say change started happening?
All the black bars had changed format. The gigs were getting far and between because DJ’s had more or less taken over. The Dj was the thing then because of economic reasons. It started happening in ‘75 or ‘76. I left the Mighty Cravers 74 or 75. Thats when James, my ex-wifes boyfriend (called me) and said ”why dont you come to Florida?” I had nothing to lose. I wasn’t working. As a matter of fact it got so bad I had to move in with my mother in early ‘75. As I was going down there on the Greyhound bus they were in the process of loosing the(ir) club. I didnt know ’til I got there in Florida. So they decided to move to Atlanta and I moved right along with them. Atlanta was opening up a lot of things so I found music here to be okay. December 28th 1985, the band I had got to the gig and when we plugged in we didn’t get no power. We (eventually) played for about 8 minutes and (then) the power went off (again). You have to understand that when the DJ played it continued. So we were sabotaged. In December 28th 1985 I decided to say fuck it! I’m not going to play music no more. And I haven’t played since.
So you dont play music at all anymore?
No, uh-huh. I don’t want to.
Sadly Rex Garvin passed away December 2, 2013. The Mighty Cravers consisted of Pete Holmann on drums, Rex Garvin on organ and the late Clayton Dunn sax. You can read more about Rex Garvin here:
And see Rex Garvins discography here: