Little Willie Gatewood and The Toronados

Thank God I’m old enough to remember Little Willie Gatewood and The Toronados. That was one of the baddest (and I mean that in a good way) bands that ever played in the Syracuse area.

Gatewood’s band (we call him “Gate”) was comprised of Chuck Phillips on the electric guitar, A. C. Goldston on the electric bass, Willie Simms on drums, Joe Cutchen on trumpet and vocals, L. C. Glover and John Tolbert on tenor sax and Little Willie Gatewood himself on the alto saxophone.

Later came Mozelle Williams on tenor sax and keyboards.

When Mozelle came to the group, he was playing baritone horn, which he had learned to play in high school.  The band talked him into learning tenor sax, and he also picked up keyboards. Actually, The Toronados was the very first live band I heard after coming to Syracuse in the late 1960s. I think it was the early ’70s when I first heard them

Gate’s group played Rhythm and Blues (R&B). Not the stuff the young folks are calling R&B today, I mean the real, original, unchanged R&B. And I know R&B; I’ve been listening to it ever since I was a kid growing up in Florida.

I first heard The Toronado in the mid-1960s. They were playing at the then popular Club 800, better known  then as The 800 Club. Gate’s group was considered the “house band” there because he was there almost every week.  Most clubs tried to keep a house band in those days if they could find a really good group that their customers really liked, and people really liked The Toronados. They were so versatile and played all of the popular music of the time. They specialized in playing the music of Junior Walker and The All Stars, especially their really big hit, “Shotgun”.

Whenever Gate’s band wasn’t at the 800 Club, always because he was playing somewhere else, Rachael and her daughter Sarah, the two ladies that owned and operated the 800 Club, would hire one of the other bands in the area for that weekend, and there were lots of bands for them to choose from. All of them wanted to work The 800 Club, every band in town, but that was one of the hardest gigs to get. No matter which band Rachael and Sarah put in the club in absence of The Toronados, Gate and his group always had their house band job waiting for them when they were ready to come back.

The Toronados also played many other clubs in Syracuse, especially one that became very popular and famous in its own right – The Little Brown Jug, also known as The L.B.J.

The L.B.J. was located on South Salina Street near Syracuse’s downtown area. The way I remember it, you would hear the band wailing as soon as you came through the door, but you didn’t see them until you went around the bar, which faced the door as you walked in. The bandstand was on the back side of the bar, back-to-back with it.

They also played other clubs now long gone: The English Inn on Hawley Avenue; The Satellite Club on Oswego Street; The Dew Drop Inn; Debs, which was located on Erie Boulevard, and they played every year at The New York State Fair, did weddings and were featured on radio shows.

Gate’s a die-hard musician. He started playing music in Syracuse in 1966 and continued with his band until 1972.  His first venue was at Frazier Park in 1966. He didn’t seem to want to give up his music even after his health started to fail. He took his horn to church and just kept on playing. He has played with several other musicians here in Syracuse whose names I know, like his good friend blues guitarists and singer Roosevelt Dean and tenor saxophonist Billy Smith.

When Gatewood’s band stopped playing music, his members seemed to scatter back to the south to their home states. Lead guitarist Chuck Phillips moved back to Opalaka, Ala. and built a home there where he now lives. Joe Cutchens moved to Franklinton, N.C. Little Willie Gatewood, originally from Auburn, Ala., now lives in Nedrow, just outside of Syracuse, and Mozelle Williams, also originally from Gatewood’s hometown, Auburn, Ala., is still living here in Syracuse.

The other members of Gate’s band are no longer with us: A.C. Goldston of Auburn, Ala.; Willie Simms of Opalaka, Ala.; John Tolbert of Auburn, Ala., and L.C. Glover, the only member who was originally from Syracuse.

– By Herbert Williams, a local musician and singer