Lou Ragland was among those hundreds. In 1970, the Cleveland native founded Hot Chocolate as a vehicle for his compositions. Drummer Tony Roberson was plucked from an after-school job at a 55th Street print shop; bassist George Pickett had been working on his senior year at an undetermined school in Cleveland Heights. The trio would have to be both tight and compact, as everything including players and instruments had to squeeze into Lou’s 1965 Mustang. With his trio, Lou Ragland began committing to tape a host of recordings that would make up Hot Chocolate’s eponymous debut. The seven-song affair is a team of vocal numbers and instrumentals in search of a leader. Dick Dugan, the Cleveland Plain Dealer sports illustrator who’d later conceive iconic mascots for the pro baseball Indians and pro football Browns during his career, was commissioned to sketch out the Hot Chocolate cover for a paltry $100. Working from a photograph, Dugan penned an imaginative rendering of the group, performing in a mug full of their namesake dessert drink.
Over the next 18 months, Hot Chocolate swelled from trio to quintet, shedding Dewitt McQueen in favor of Herbert Pruitt, and adding R. C. Johnson on flute and Pam Hamilton on viola. The bolstered line-up took on an ambitious first project: an hour-long live album cut on the stage of the Agora Ballroom, conveniently located downstairs from Agency Recording. Cathy Grant—daughter of Francis Grant, a decorated member of the Cleveland Orchestra—was enlisted for first chair viola, while Joseph “Rocky” Marszal stepped in to provide the sole violin. Among the highlights is the set’s destructive closer, “Good For The Gander,” terrorized past the ten-minute mark by Hamilton, a self-described square, who took instruction for her solo from Ragland—his advice was for Pam to play everything she ever wanted to play. Equal parts Jean Luc Ponty, Jimi Hendrix, and jet engine, Hamilton’s string statement transforms the song into an epic battle between good and evil, some distant ancestor to Charlie Daniels’ fiddling tussle with the Devil down in Georgia. Upon hearing the recording again after some 30 years, Pam Hamilton, now a teacher at the renowned Harlem Kids Zone, quipped: “And you know what? I still play like that.”
When a British group by the same name invaded US soil in the mid ’70s, Ragland’s cup cooled considerably. Within a year, “You Sexy Thing” would crash the Billboard Top 10 and Lou Ragland’s Hot Chocolate would go down as a discographical hanging chad. Now seven members strong, the group began flying the Seven Miles High banner for the final, and perhaps most monumental period in Ragland’s Cleveland career.
By its completion, Understand Each Other featured generations of Cleveland luminaries, and representation from most scenes, both sexes, and several ethnicities. The album’s credits read like the guest list for a Lou Ragland episode of This Is Your Life. The cover drawing, from the pen of Remus Peterson, depicts Lou Ragland as peacemaker, standing between a sabre-toothed tiger and a dove, asking them literally to “Understand Each Other.” Liner notes by Lou Ragland’s spiritual advisor of the moment, Lateef Mahmud, portray music as a cosmic language, with his pupil’s LP itself compiled as a tribute to the “ghetto masters—those who master the ghetto and have become among those who help shape the destiny of this land.” Lou Ragland is deemed The Conveyor: “...the conveyor of harmony thru the ethers manifested in words, songs, and deeds to bring into focus the universal, educational, and inspirational plane of consciousness.” While it could be argued that Mahmud wasn’t far off, his text read like gibberish to Ragland’s loyal cadre of players, with whom Lou was about to part ways.
With a guitar, a tuxedo, and a $300 paycheck, Lou embarked on his brightly lit Vegas chapter. By 1986, Lou had taken up guitar and baritone duties for the Ink Spots, a watershed doo-wop group—then in its umpteenth incarnation—that had risen to prominence in the late 1930s. When the Ink Spots appeared on Nevada Public Radio in February 2011, host Dave Becker asked Lou Ragland what songs he liked to sing. Though his repertoire spanned dozens of albums and work by a host of decorated songwriters, Ragland confessed that he still preferred singing his own material. “I mean, I like the Wright Brothers ‘cause they invented the airplane,” he explained to listeners, “but I don’t want to fly no place in it right now.”
I Travel Alone gathers together the work of a pre-flight Lou Ragland, laid down during those fertile Cleveland years when he did most of his traveling between Hough and Garfield Heights, up and down Kinsman Road, out to Lakewood or Euclid...maybe Parma if the situation called for it. Stuffed into a ’65 Mustang, guitar case angled between the seats, his LPs stashed in the trunk, Lou Ragland never was quite alone, though he followed a road all his own.