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  1. #1

    Masked Man & The Agents

    By Terence McArdle
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, January 10, 2010

    While holding down a day job as an Army Department mail clerk, Harmon Bethea struggled for decades to achieve a breakthrough singing group. He went at it so long, and through so many changes in pop vocal trends, that he tried to become famous in jive, doo-wop, rhythm-and-blues and Motown-tinged soul. At one time, he led a gospel group.

    "If patience is a virtue, Harmon Bethea would be a saint," music historian Jay Warner once wrote. Warner wrote that Mr. Bethea was in 10 vocal groups over 22 years before finding his elusive hit.

    The turning point was a timely gimmick. In the 1960s, Mr. Bethea found his niche when he put on a mask and became the Mask Man. In honor of James Bond and the spy craze, his three backup singers, formerly known as the Cap-Tans, became the Agents.

    Mr. Bethea, 86, who died of a heart ailment Dec. 18 in Washington, first donned his mask in 1964 and started focusing on humorous material. He was in his early 40s, old by the standards of the music industry. With the British Invasion dominating the airwaves, Mr. Bethea needed something to make him stand out.

    "I remember him as a friendly but low-key guy," said Dick Lillard, a music director at WOL in the 1960s. "I think that Mask Man persona was a way of taking a guy who was not that wild and making him look wild."

    "He had color streaks in his process [hairdo] that matched his suit," said Robert Fry, a disc jockey who goes by the on-air name Captain Fly. "Today we would say fuchsia, but it was almost pink."

    Through his Mask Man persona, Mr. Bethea found an avenue for down-home, streetwise humor. His shows revolved around the Agents' choreography and Mr. Bethea's comedy. In the song "Roaches," Mr. Bethea delivered pointed, but humorous commentary on the gap between the goals of the civil rights movement and the reality of inner-city life. When they performed the song on local television shows, the Agents worked themselves into a frenzy, pretending to fumigate bugs with hand-pumped sprayers.

    On one song Mr. Bethea wrote, "Talkin' 'Bout the Boss Man and I," he ripped into the boss for calling him a boy, telling him, "If you ever slip up and call me a boy again, I'll hang a sign up on your eye that says, 'Closed for the weekend.' "

    "He was taking the day-to-day circumstances that everybody could relate to, almost like a musical Richard Pryor," Fry said.

    Mask Man and the Agents were rewarded with two national hits in the late 1960s, "One Eye Open" and "My Woman, My Dog and My Cat."

    While the records sold well, Mr. Bethea never left his day job for an extended tour, which limited his national exposure. The Mask Man played his last show in 1992.

    Mr. Bethea, the son of a sawmill worker, came to Washington from his native Dillon, S.C., after serving in the Army in Europe during World War II. He attended a local conservatory before launching a singing career in 1948 with the Progressive Four, a group in the jazzy, scat-inflected style of the Mills Brothers. His talents impressed Lillian Claiborne, who co-owned a District record label.

    She introduced Mr. Bethea to the Cap-Tans, a group she managed that sang in the newer doo-wop style. The Cap-Tans never found a hit, although they came close. A ballad, "I'm So Crazy for Love," appeared in 1950, but it lost sales to more-successful cover versions by Billy Eckstine, the Ravens and Lonnie Johnson. A humorous jump number Mr. Bethea wrote, "Chief Turn the Hose on Me" (1950), was covered as "Call the Doctor" in 1953 by a Harlem doo-wop group called the Crows.

    Even without a hit, the Cap-Tans appeared on local television variety shows. They performed at the Howard Theater and cabarets and headlined shows at Chesapeake Bay resorts that catered to black Washingtonians.

    Mr. Bethea often changed his groups' members and names, even rechristening the Cap-Tans as the more exotic-sounding L'Captans.

    "Our key phrase back then was, 'I don't turn down nothin' but my collar,' " recalled Steve Charles, a singer with the Clovers, who sometimes appeared on show bills with Mask Man and the Agents. "There was a constant exchange of phone numbers in the groups."

    Mr. Bethea's wife of 50 years, Ruth Ann Dixon, died in 1997. His only child, Harmon M. Bethea Jr., was shot to death in 1979 in what his family called an unsolved homicide. Survivors include three brothers, Cleo Bethea of Camp Springs, Thomas Bethea of Dillon and Ralph Bethea of Woodbridge; and a sister, Queen Ester Bethea of Dillon.

    If Harmon Bethea never reached the pinnacle of national success, it might have been some consolation that his records are today much prized by collectors of doo-wop and Northern Soul music and live on through music blogs and YouTube playlists.

    Mask Man & The Agents - In A Crowded Station

  2. #2
    I have several of his Cap-Tans records (one of them was even on Gwen Gordy's Anna Records), plus three Maskman and The Agents (the first and most common ones). The Cap-Tans sang a lot of good R&B during the 50s and beginning of the '60s.

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  3. #3
    .... Harman can't have been too pleased with this ad for a DC show ....
    Attachment 68
    Note that he & the Cap-tans were appearing with Eddie Daye & the 4 Bars
    (as support for Bobby Felder & the Blue Notes).

  4. #4
    Only 50 to get in. I'll bet the drinks were expensive!

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  5. #5
    Mind you with a name like Harmon Bethea & the Cap-Tans,
    lots of people were bound to get it wrong ..........

    Attachment 71

  6. #6
    Harmon recorded several gospel 45s for the DC label circa 1949 /50 as part of the Progressive Four / Corinthian Singers. Some of these also gained a release on Savoy. His final gospel session appears to have been around 1955, by which time the group had become the improbably named The Progressiveaires.

  7. #7
    Hi this is Kev-Lo

    Nice profile of them! Thanks for posting this solemannking

  8. #8
    "One Eye Open" ,is a great track from this group. It kind of borders on a "novelty" track ,but it is just too Funky to just be considered as such. That's my favorite by the group and I still have the 45 as well as have it on a CD comp. Nice profile of them! Thanks solemannking .

  9. #9
    You're very welcome Kev-Lo and daddyacey

  10. #10
    Jsmith I think you just solved my mystery.... I bought this pic off Ebay and it said The Blue Notes. I knew it wasn't the Harold Melvin group & I really had no idea of any other groups called The Blues Notes. Is this Bobby Felder & His Blue Notes?

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    thanks, Colton

  11. #11
    ... as far as I know, Bobby Felton (born in Tampa, Florida around 1930) was more of a 'band' director for his outfit, the Blue Notes.
    Bobby Felder and the Blue Notes played at the Presidential Inaugural Ball each time it was held from the appointment of President John F. Kennedy through to Bill Clinton. They also toured some (up & down the east coast) but mainly concentrated on playing local (DC) private dances and functions.
    The outfit pictured above certainly seem to be more of a 'dance band' than a R&B group, so I guess it will be Bobby Felder's lot.
    Bobby still performs today; both with his Blue Notes plus his other group Bobby Felder & Friends. This 2nd outfit has a CD out (‘House Party’)
    ………. http://www.cduniverse.com/productinfo.asp?pid=7571523
    As his band seem to have been ever present on the DC music scene since the 60’s, I guess locals should know a bit about them.
    ..... JOHN

  12. #12
    Another great track by them is "I Wouldn't Come Back". RIP, Mr. Bethea, and thank you...



  13. #13
    It seems that Bobby Felder had only just named his band the Blue Notes in 1963.
    Here's a piece about their appearance at the same Washington show in 1962 .....
    Attachment 189

  14. #14
    Hi Kev-lo!

    I like your logo with a flag of Finland in it. Whose telephone number is that? Our president?
    Best regards

    Quote Originally Posted by 7273747576 View Post
    Hi this is Kev-Lo

    Nice profile of them! Thanks for posting this solemannking

  15. #15
    Attachment 215
    ....... a November 1968 show ....

  16. #16
    thanks Jsmith! seems like that is Bobbys group of Blue Notes.. did they record anything back then? or just a R&B Party band?

  17. #17
    ..... here's a picture (& band line-up listing) for Bobby Felder & the Blue Notes back in 1961 -- when they were once again playing the same Washington (Home Service) show ....
    Attachment 326
    It certainly seems to be the same outfit as featured in your picture.

  18. #18
    wow Jsmith you are the man!!! that's exactly who it is... now I know

    thanks, Colton

    Quote Originally Posted by jsmith View Post
    ..... here's a picture (& band line-up listing) for Bobby Felder & the Blue Notes back in 1961 -- when they were once again playing the same Washington (Home Service) show ....
    Attachment 326
    It certainly seems to be the same outfit as featured in your picture.

  19. #19
    What a cool group,i remember seeing the maskman at the howard back in the day and those guys could sing,but they always brought down the house with thier comic classic...roaches!


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