St Clair Lee: Baritone singer with The Hues Corporation, of 'Rock The Boat' fame

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The Independent Online

With its bouncy, skipping beat, catchy chorus and corny maritime metaphors – "Our love is like a ship on the ocean / We've been sailing with a cargo full of love and devotion" – the disco hit "Rock The Boat" soundtracked the summer of 1974 on both sides of the Atlantic.

Written by the producer Wally Holmes, it was sung by The Hues Corporation, an engaging trio from Santa Monica, California led by the baritone vocalist St Clair Lee, the only constant through all their incarnations. At the time of the recording, the group also comprised the female soprano Hubert Ann Kelly, who was earmarked to do the lead on "Rock The Boat" but was relegated to backing vocals – "girl singers weren't happening" Holmes decreed – while the male tenor Fleming Williams stepped up to the microphone.

Despite the trio's superlative performance, the participation of Motown session man James Jamerson on bass, and the inspired drum part suggested by Tom Sellers to producer John Florez, "Rock The Boat" might have remained an album track if David Kershenbaum, then a young A&R man at RCA Records, later a successful producer with Joe Jackson and Tracy Chapman, hadn't witnessed the reaction the infectious track received at a Los Angeles concert and argued for its release as a single in February 1974.

Even then, "Rock The Boat" failed to catch on with radio programmers but slowly became a club hit, selling 50.000 copies in New York without any airplay. Repromoted on radio, it eventually topped the US charts in July and peaked at No 6 in the UK two months later. Alongside George McRae's "Rock Your Baby" and the lush, sophisticated records made by Barry White and his Love Unlimited Orchestra, it ushered in the disco era. "Rock The Boat" remains a recurrent oldie on radio stations around the world and returned to the hit parade when covered by Forrest in 1983.

Born Bernard St Clair Lee in San Francisco, California, in 1944, he met Holmes, a schoolteacher and aspiring musician, while bodysurfing. Holmes had the bizarre idea to form a group named the Children Of Howard Hughes after the elusive millionaire. Lawyers immediately saw the flaws in that plan and suggested a few tweaks until The Hues Corporation assuaged their worries. Lee liked it, too. "It was a play on words. We were three different shades of black, and we always wanted to dress differently," said the singer, who was part Native American. "The 'Indian' side of my family were Blackfoot. That's how I picked up wearing the headband."

The Hues Corporation started out in 1969 as a sextet, with three musicians backing Lee, Kelly and Karl Russell, who was replaced by Williams two years later. Drilled and mentored by Holmes, they worked as a lounge act in Palm Strings and Las Vegas, opening for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Milton Berle and Glen Campbell. "We were the kind of group that could do anything: soul, jazz, R&B. Wally always worked on that. We put on a show," Lee said.

This stage experience proved invaluable when the B-movie producer Samuel Z Arkoff hired them to be the house band in the nightclub scenes central to the plot of Blacula, the 1972 Blaxploitation horror film directed by William Crain and starring William Marshall in the title role. While the three Holmes songs they performed didn't prove as memorable as the rest of the soundtrack composed by Gene Page, Barry White's right-hand man, they paved the way for a deal with RCA the following year, and their eventual breakthrough.

The group first charted in September 1973 with the title track from their debut album Freedom For The Stallion, a wonderful showcase for the beautiful interplay of the three vocalists. However, Williams soon made way for Tommy Brown, though he subsequently returned for another stint. After "Rock The Boat" they scored another Transatlantic smash in 1974 with "Rockin' Soul", a virtual rewrite, again by Holmes, and also had minor US hits with the title tracks of their Love Corporation and I Caught Your Act albums in 1975 and 1977 respectively. They broke up after issuing the Your Place Or Mine album in 1978. Kelly became a minister and Williams died in 1998, so when Lee reactivated the group to appear on the nostalgia circuit and on television, he recruited new members Elaine Woodard and Bruce Glover.

Lee attributed the worldwide success of "Rock The Boat" to its simplicity. "It was a song that you could do anything on," he said. "You could cuddle or you could get crazy if you wanted to. It was a love song without being a love song."

Bernard St Clair Lee, singer: born San Francisco, California 24 April 1944; married (one son, two stepsons); died Lake Elsinore, California 8 March 2011.

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