The sound and story of ‘Salt and Pepper’
In concert Friday night at Society Hall
ALAMOSA — The music of Salt and Pepper — known, literally, around the world — is described as a blend of Motown, Jazz, and Rhythm and Blues. But what audiences hear when the artists belt out their music from the stage is in a class by itself. In the words of Tony Nardi, who, along with Eddie Mobley, is the heart of the band, they play “soulfulness with a certain swing to it.”
But behind their sound and extraordinary blend of music is a story with a soul all its own.
It’s a story of two young American soldiers from distinctly different backgrounds, thousands of miles from home in the middle of a bloody war, who form a deep bond over music. It’s a story of two young men, one white and one black, who defied racial segregation and formed a band that would literally make history. It’s a story of divergent paths — one that led to playing in smokey bars and high-class supper clubs while the other led back home to the swamps of Georgia, a job on an assembly line, and raising a family. It’s also a story of reunion and, in some ways, rebirth as Nardi (Salt) and Mobley (Pepper) return to how they started off.
The story begins in 1969. Nardi, a young musician from Chicago, had enlisted in the Air Force and was stationed at U-Tapao Air Force Base, about 90 miles from Bangkok, Thailand. Nardi had joined the military to avoid the draft, but his focus was where it had always been — on music — and he brought “a lot of equipment” overseas, including a box organ.
“I was determined to start a band,” he says.
Once on base, Nardi ran an ad in the base newspaper looking for musicians to audition. As he recalls, six or seven men signed up to audition for vocals but, once he heard Eddie Mobley sing, he knew the search was over.
Nardi was already a master on the Hammond B-3 organ, popular among musicians who played jazz and Rhythm and Blues. He describes Mobley’s voice as full of “richness, smoothness and soul. Eddie’s vocals were made for a Hammond.”
At that time, bands were “all white or all black”, Nardi says, but that was irrelevant, even though Mobley already knew that white audiences may appreciate music by black musicians, but those musicians needed to “stay to themselves” on break.
In recognition of the obvious, they named their band “Salt and Pepper” and, before long, the band, comprised of rhythm, guitar, bass, drums, saxophone and organ was playing Motown and soul with gigs at the non-commissioned officers (NCO) clubs on the Air Force and Army bases. On the weekends, they played bars, including the nearby Jack’s American Star Bar (made famous in the movie American Gangster) and a club on Pattaya Beach.
After about six months, band members started being transferred. In April of 1970, Nardi, wanting to record their music, booked a recording session at a studio in Bangkok where Salt and Pepper recorded two songs for a 45 RPM. “Linda”, written by Mobley, was on the A Side. “Man of My Word”, music by Nardi and lyrics by Mobley, was on the B side.
They had about 500 records pressed, selling some for $1 each at bars and giving others to family and friends. At the time, neither Nardi nor Mobley had any idea they were the first Americans — let alone American GIs — to record a record in Southeast Asia.
Nardi and Mobley were each discharged in 1972 and went their separate ways. Mobley returned to southern Georgia where he took a job at a factory and sang with church choirs on occasion, eventually marrying and having two children. Nardi continued on with his music, marrying Karla and performing a lot in Chicago and New Orleans, “both great music towns.”
Nardi spent most of the 80s on the road but was always in touch with Mobley, sometimes flying him in for special performances. Tragedy struck Mobley’s life when, in 1992, his wife died from an aggressive cancer, leaving him with two young, teenage daughters to raise.
“That was a very sad time,” Karla says.
In 2009, Nardi got a call from a DJ in Germany, asking if he had a copy of “Man of My Word” he would be willing to sell. Nardi learned that the song was ranked No. 64 on the charts and was extremely popular with a Motown movement in northern England called Northern Soul.
“I immediately went to E-bay and saw that a single copy was being sold for $3,300,” Karla says. “We couldn’t believe it.”
As it turns out, that wasn’t the only continent where Salt and Pepper was famous. On a trip to Australia, Tony and Karla Nardi and Mobley went to a Northern Soul Dance Club in Melbourne where “Man of My Word” was played.
“People couldn’t believe they were in the club,” Karla said. “Nobody would let them buy a drink all night.”
But then, “Stick It In Your Earhole”, a record Mobley had recorded as part of a studio band in the 70s, was played. Mobley was floored. He had no idea it was famous and learned that the song was also played as an introduction to a program on one of the most popular radio stations in the country.
“I don’t even have a copy,” Mobley told Nardi, laughing.
And the recognition kept on coming. In January of 2013, Nardi and Mobley were finalists in the International Blues Challenge in Memphis after defeating rivals from around the globe in quarter and semi-finals competitions. That led to a performance at the infamous Orpheum Theater. And, in 2020, the duo recorded “No Visible Stars” at Don Richmond’s Howlin’ Dog Records.
Since 2009, the Nardis and Mobley have lived on property the Nardis bought in San Acacio while Salt and Pepper have continued to perform in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico and Colorado.
When asked what he thinks has most shaped their music over the years, Tony Nardi says, “Rejection, failure, acceptance, success.” Nardi pauses. “And friendship. Yeah, friendship.”
Salt and Pepper will be in concert at Society Hall in Alamosa on Friday night. For ticket information, go to www.societyhall.org.