There’s something about soul that can’t be quantified — it can travel great distances in an instant, create a bond among total strangers across the vastness of time and space and retroactively heal wounded hearts and the sorrow of decades lost. And just when it seems all is forgotten, soul has an uncanny way of resurrecting devotion.
At least that seems to be the case for The Legendary Escorts, a soul singing group that rose to prominence in inner-city New Jersey as The Escorts in the 1970s. The same goes for Christopher Black, a Pasadena music video producer who, along with a team of filmmaking friends, has embarked on a journey to tell the group’s story.
Part of what makes the singers special is that all seven members of the group recorded two full-length albums while inmates at New Jersey’s Rahway State Prison.
“‘All We Need is Another Chance’ had a picture of them all behind bars,” he says. “At the bottom it said it was recorded live from Rahway State Prison. I did more research and actually read the story and I was like, ‘Oh, wow, they recorded this while they were in jail — this is crazy.’”
Today, Black is working with Hollywood commercial producers Corbett Jones and Anna Rau as well as area documentarian Josiah Bultema to create a feature-length film “All We Need is Another Chance,” named after the group’s first album. The documentary is about The Escorts and its founder, Reginald “Prophet” Haynes, who began singing in the yard at Trenton State Prison in 1968 at the tender age of 18 and whose life took a bizarre series of twists and turns in the years that followed.
The foursome is interviewing Haynes and other group members, along with prison guards who worked Rahway at the time. They are trying to raise $30,000 to cover the basic expenses of traveling and filming through kickstarter.com, a Web platform that unites would-be donors and creative projects looking for backers. Their campaign, called “All we need is another chance,” officially ends Oct. 3, and so far they’ve raised a little more than $4,300.
This is no ordinary project — separated by thousands of miles and decades of life experience, the singers and the twentysomething filmmakers have formed an incredible bond in the span of a few face-to-face meetings and phone calls. Both sides agree they are on a journey together, united by a mutual desire to tell a story of redemption, love and the enduring human spirit.
“You just never know what’s going to pop up next when you talk to them, but they’re the most normal, unassuming basic gentlemen,” Rau says. “They have this warmth that’s from a past generation. They take their time, they really listen.”
‘I’m so glad I found you’
Black first came across the story of The Escorts two years ago, when he learned they’d been sampled by Detroit-born hip-hop artist J Dilla in a song called “Don’t Cry.” He did some light research and eventually bought The Escorts’ albums, including their 1973 debut, “All We Need is Another Chance.”
In doing a little background research on the group, he learned The Escorts had not merely recorded a performance while visiting prison — like Johnny Cash, who sang at San Quentin and Folsom prisons but never spent more than a single night in jail himself on misdemeanor charges — they’d recorded “All We Need is Another Chance” and “3 Down, 4 To Go” while all serving felony sentences in a maximum security facility.
Black was convinced theirs was a story that needed to be told. He told Jones about his idea. Immediately, Jones was onboard.
“What’s interesting about this story is it has the initial hook of these guys recording behind bars, but once we started digging into these guys’ personal stories, there was so much there,” says Jones, who is directing the documentary. “They were just looking to stay out of trouble and pass time, and it ended up being a way to turn their lives around and be positive.”
Rau and Bultema quickly joined the team and within a short period of time, the group had agreed to pursue the band about the project. It had been nearly four decades since the group first formed in 1972, but while The Legendary Escorts has accumulated a popular following among generations of fans, hip hop and rap moguls and their attendant listeners, never before has its full story been portrayed in film.
Oddly enough, when the documentarians got in touch with Haynes, he told them two other production teams had recently reached out to the group with similar plans to make a film about their lives. So Haynes asked them to submit a proposal.
“We were very honest with them,” says Jones of the group’s proposal. “Our packet was very straightforward, very personal. It was like a letter to them.”
‘There is a love for everyone’
To Haynes, what the young filmmakers submitted immediately set them apart from the others.
“I just felt good about them,” he recalls. “Although they had limited experience, they had what I felt to be good energy. I must admit, thus far, that I’ve absolutely picked the winner. They’ve continuously proven to me, since the beginning of our sojourn together, they want to make this happen on a quality basis.”
Given the at-times harrowing details of Haynes’ personal history, it was crucial to find storytellers who could see the broader spectrum of his life and of The Escorts’ long history.
Haynes himself was sent to prison at 18 to serve a seven-year sentence for armed robbery. At that time, thought to be the youngest inmate in America’s prison system, he sang in the yard of Trenton State Prison to keep his spirits up and because he had no interest in the things in which other inmates partook.
“I was in the belly of the beast, and I wasn’t wanting to be involved in the things that were going on around me,” Haynes recalls. “None of that was part of my character. I needed to find something else to do and, praise God, I’d always loved singing.”
Haynes soon attracted the attention of three other inmates interested in song, and the group was soon singing harmonies together. It wasn’t until one year later, when all four had been transferred to Rahway, that The Escorts was officially born during an audition for a prison talent show.
“The emcee looked at us and said, ‘OK, young bucks, what’s your name?’ We all kind of looked at each other. I’m staring at the floor, and they’re all looking at me,” Haynes remembers. “Out of nowhere, I just raised my head up from the floor, looked at him and said ‘The Escorts,’ and it just stuck.”
That talent show performance got the attention of record producer George Kerr, who would eventually be convinced a few years later to let the group cut its first album.
‘We’ve come too far to end it now’
Since that fateful performance, members have come and gone, but today Haynes still sings with Billy Martin and La’Grant Harris, appearing in gigs across the country as The Legendary Escorts. The trio will make a West Coast appearance this February at a soul music concert at Gibson Amphitheatre in Universal City.
Haynes maintains that the group was not specifically about releasing albums or going on tour. Rather it was about finding a way to stay sane amid a lot of turmoil.
“You either do the time, or you let the time do you. We didn’t want the time to do us, because then we’d end up crazy. So our doing the time was singing,” he says. “We were lower than the lowest rung of the ladder. We were as low as you could possibly be, and we focused, focused, focused and we survived.”
“All We Need is Another Chance” will continue filming, even if the filmmakers fall short of their $30,000 goal, Rau says, because they’ve vowed to see it through — for themselves, and for “Reggie.”
As for Haynes, his hope for the film, whenever its release date, is this:
“Hopefully, I’m going to say something to someone living on the dark side, who’s not on their good foot,” he says. “I’m going to say something to get them on their good foot, to get them to come out of the darkness and turn their life around.
“If that happens to one person, I’m happy.”
For more information on the documentary project, visit anotherchancedoc.com. To make a donation through Kickstarter.com, visit the Web site and enter “All We Need is Another Chance” in the search bar at the top.