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Tavares brothers are still in harmony

From left: Chubby, Tiny, Butch, and Ralph Tavares.
From left: Chubby, Tiny, Butch, and Ralph Tavares. (Wolf Mathewson)

DARTMOUTH — Growing up in Providence in the 1950s, the Tavares boys sang Cape Verdean music. Their father, known as “Flash,” was a well-known Creole crooner. His father, too, was a musician.

The boys often performed the folk music of their grandfather’s homeland between sets of their dad’s shows around Rhode Island and the South Shore — until the night that another boy got up and sang a few songs by one of the stars of early rock ’n’ roll, Frankie Lymon.

“The girls went crazy,” as Ralph Tavares, now a youthful 77, recalls. “So we went home and started rehearsing.”

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The switch certainly paid off. As Tavares, the five brothers — Ralph, Pooch, Chubby, Butch, and Tiny — would enjoy a solid decade at or near the top of the R&B singles chart, with enduring pop hits including “It Only Takes a Minute,” “Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel,” and a cover of Hall & Oates’s “She’s Gone.” Still singing “Don’t Take Away the Music” with feeling after all these years, the group plays a free show on Boston’s City Hall Plaza on Wednesday.

Despite their schoolboy start, it took more than a decade for the Tavares brothers to establish themselves as a top-flight recording act. Calling themselves the Turnpikes, they paid their dues in the nightclubs around Boston — Paul’s Mall and the Sugar Shack and Mattapan’s Ye Olde Brown Jug. Before their commercial breakthrough, they also developed a strong following in Puerto Rico and the Bahamas.

Taking turns on lead vocals, hitting acrobatic high notes and spicing their songs with spoken interludes, they sang with the close harmonies that come most naturally to family bands. (In fact, at one point they toured with the Jackson 5, whose mother, Katherine, was a fan.)

Invited to open for Lola Falana in Italy, the brothers were told by a local promoter there that the word “turnpike” had no natural translation in Italian.

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“Why don’t you call yourselves Tavares?” he suggested.

“The first time he said it, it just rang,” says Ralph.

The group signed to Capitol Records and earned a gold record for their 1973 debut, “Check It Out.” The album cover and gold record hang in a frame along the staircase to the second floor of Ralph’s longtime suburban home here with his wife, Karen. On a recent weekday, he stops on the stairs to point out the stylish, wide-collared matching suede outfits the group wore for the album cover.

“Still got my suit,” he says with a laugh, “but it doesn’t fit.”

Working with some of the biggest names in the business at the time — from choreographer Cholly Atkins, who created dance steps for the Temptations, the Four Tops, and many others, to producer Freddie Perren, who co-wrote most of the songs on the group’s big 1977 album “Sky High!” — Tavares made a smooth transition from the Philly-style soul of the early 1970s into the disco era. They recorded their version of the Bee Gees’ “More Than a Woman,” for the blockbuster “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack, at the request of the brothers Gibb themselves.

But the 1980s brought diminishing fortunes. Both Ralph and Tiny, the youngest of the family’s 10 siblings, agree that leaving their home at Capitol for RCA Records was a mistake.

The new label had “delusions of grandeur,” says Tiny, who splits his time between Providence and the Florida coast. Staffers declared their intention to restore Tavares to the glories of the group’s heyday.

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“But they were pushing Dolly Parton and Diana Ross instead,” says Tiny.

By the mid-’80s, Ralph decided to forego the stage for more stable employment. Working as a court officer, he served in several courtrooms around the South Shore for three decades. When he retired, he rejoined the group.

“I never thought that I’d be singing again,” he says. But he felt a duty to step in for Pooch, who suffered a stroke in 2014.

“He’s doing pretty good,” Ralph reports. “I played golf with him the other day.”

Relaxing in shorts, an Aloha shirt, and sandals in his carpeted living room, a fan whirring on high speed, Ralph greets his grandsons as they rush through on their way to meet friends. Asked whether they’ll be at the City Hall show, 15-year-old Cason notes that it falls on his birthday. He likes his granddad’s group, and he’s not just saying so because Ralph has him in a bear hug.

“They’re fun!” he says.

In a separate conversation, on the phone from Providence, Tiny, 68, says his own kids and grandchildren feel the same.

“I think they’re kind of proud of us, to see the old folks get up and move,” he says.

Tiny was just 15 when he joined the group. Too young for the clubs, he’d hide out in the dressing room until his cue.

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“I’d do my little shtick, a couple of notes, a couple of splits, then jump back in the dressing room,” he says. He’s not doing splits anymore, he says, laughing: “It didn’t feel good then, and I’m sure it wouldn’t feel good now.”

In the 1990s, he tried stepping out as a solo act. Eventually, however, he came back into the family fold. Tavares still draws steady work. On the first weekend of August, the brothers flew to Chile, where they played an arena show with Al McKay’s Earth, Wind & Fire Experience.

“In retrospect, was the ride maybe not as smooth as it could have been?” asks Tiny. “Yeah, but it was still a good ride. Compared to some of the other lifestyles we grew up around.”

Like Ralph, Tiny has been golfing for years. The game frustrates him, he says, but he keeps at it. Not unlike the music business.

“You take one good shot and one bad shot,” he says.

Tavares
At Boston City Hall Plaza, Wednesday, 7-9 p.m. Free.


James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.