Sweet Soul behind bars
A Chicago-based label is reissuing Edge of Daybreak’s ‘Eyes of Love,’ a 1979 album recorded by a band of inmates inside the Powhatan Correctional Center in Virginia
roanoke — Jamal Jahal Nubi and Cornelius Cade are sitting at a dining room table and remembering the old days. The soul music they used to create. The friends they once knew. The album they recorded as inmates in prison.
Some might ignore that history, but Nubi and Cade don’t mind walking back through it. They were in a 10-member group named the Edge of Daybreak, which composed an album while they were convicts at the Powhatan Correctional Center in State Farm, Va. The musicians were all serving sentences of six to 60 years on charges including armed robbery and assault.
Originally released in 1979, “Eyes of Love” achieved moderate success at the time: A few local media outlets covered it, and the now-defunct TV news series “PM Magazine” produced a segment about the band called “Cellblock Rock.” The band was a novelty: Sure, other musicians have recorded live albums from prison, but how many groups had recorded full studio albums from behind bars?
For more than 35 years, “Eyes of Love” toiled in relative obscurity. But now the Chicago-based Numero Group, which specializes in resurfacing notable and overlooked pieces of history, is reissuing “Eyes of Love” to a new generation of listeners, shedding a bright light on a group of guys who wanted to make the best of bad times.
Genesis of the band
Before his time at Powhatan, Nubi was convicted of armed robbery and served 18 months at the Southampton Correctional Center. There, he sang harmonies with a group he knew from Virginia Beach. Upon his release, he was a vocalist with the Love Men, which covered standards by the Manhattans, Temptations and Chi-Lites. Then in 1975, Nubi let a pair of acquaintances borrow his Buick Skylark to pick up some drinks from a nearby store. Hours passed, then days, and his car hadn’t been returned.
Nu bi eventually called the police and reported his car stolen. But the police served him with an arrest warrant for armed robbery, saying that his car was connected to a recent convenience-store holdup.
“I got locked up right then and didn’t hit the street again until 1982,” said Nubi, who is now 64.
The singer entered the Powhatan prison in 1976 and faced a 35-year term. (He served 71/2 years.) One day on the yard, Nubi kept hearing what sounded like live instruments coming from a nearby practice room. There, he bumped into musicians Edward Tucker and William Crawley, who, along with Cade, formed the group Cosmic Conception. They covered the Isley Brothers, Slave and Earth, Wind & Fire.
“Guys used to flock in there to hear us,” recalled Cade, a guitarist and songwriter. “Every time we cranked up, man. We just loved the stuff that we played, and we played it well.”
Cade entered Powhatan in 1976 for his role in a hotel robbery. A friend asked him for a ride north in exchange for gas money. The friend confessed when they got to Virginia that he didn’t have the cash. Instead, he had a bag of guns they could sell. As nighttime fell, the friend robbed a hotel at gunpoint with Cade as his getaway driver.
“Cops were right behind me just like that,” said Cade, now 69. “I had to go to jail because of him.”
Both men received six-year sentences. (Cade served his full term.) In remembering the incident, Cade seems contrite, especially because he ignored the advice of his then-girlfriend: “She said, ‘No, don’t go, ’cause I don’t believe you’re coming back.’ ”
Once inside, Cade bought a guitar from the prison-approved Music Emporium in Bethesda, Md. James Carrington, convicted on assault charges, joined Cade, Nubi and the others, bringing a Fender Rhodes electric piano and a synthesizer to the setup. Carrington had a mail-order connection with Bohannon’s Records in Richmond and established a friendship with shop owner Milton Hogue.
The band, now known as the Edge of Daybreak, with bassist McEvoy Robinson, percussionist Willie Williams and vocalist Harry Coleman in the lineup, began writing original songs. Carrington contacted Hogue about the idea of financing an album. He agreed to do so after seeing the band rehearse.
‘This was their thing’
On a budget of $3,000, the Edge of Daybreak had limited time and resources to get an album recorded. Of course, the inmates couldn’t go to the studio like regular musicians; extra precautions had to be taken to make “Eyes of Love” a reality. Prison personnel inspected Alpha Audio in Richmond and deemed it too risky to secure. Eight prison guards would have had to travel with the band.
On Sept. 14, 1979, Alpha Audio officials brought a mixing console and tape machine to the Powhatan prison. The Edge of Daybreak had five hours to record the album’s eight songs in a vacant recreation room. Without overdub equipment and no time to polish, the band had to get everything right the first time.
“It was a little hectic, but the guys had it together,” said Alpha Audio owner Eric Johnson. “They were highly motivated. They were locked up in prison, and this was their thing.”
Johnson said prison personnel weren’t helpful. The album’s last song, the sensual “Our Love,” was recorded as prison guards hurried the band to finish. The musicians were rushed back to their respective cells as soon as the track concluded.
Sound of an earlier time
“Eyes of Love” was released to a public that had largely moved on from the music that Edge of Daybreak created. The album is full of sweet ballads and sauntering melodies. Two hours up I-95 in the D.C. area, Chocolate City musician Chuck Brown was pushing his own sound, called go-go, a continuous blend of funk and soul designed to keep hips moving long into the night. “Eyes of Love” reached back to an earlier part of the decade, to Isaac Hayes and the like, just as hip-hop and other electronic-based genres were born.
By the fall of 1980, Virginia outlets began to run stories about the Edge of Daybreak and attention quickly turned to a possible sophomore album. But Carrington was transferred to the nearby Deep Meadow Correctional Center, and Cade was moved to the Powhatan center’s North Housing Unit. With band members now in separate facilities, Edge of Daybreak disbanded.
Upon his release, Nubi returned home to Roanoke and formed a new collective — the Business of Sweet Success, or B.O.S.S. for short. Carrington and Cade also formed a group, called Rise, and released a funk single. Yet it wasn’t quite like the Edge of Daybreak, which, for a brief moment in time, rose above those prison walls and transcended its dark circumstances.
“I take it back to like Mama used to say, ‘Everything that’s done in the dark is gonna come to light eventually,’ ” said Nubi, with an original copy of the “Eyes of Love” vinyl in front of him at the table. “It’s shining like the light outside now.”
Jamal Jahal Nubi, bottom left, and Cornelius Cade, center, were members of Edge of Daybreak, a band of inmates that recorded “Eyes of Love,” above, in 1979 inside Powhatan Correctional Center in State Farm, Va. Chicagobased Numero Group, which specializes in resurfacing notable and overlooked pieces of history, is reissuing the album to a new generation of listeners.