You hear it every Friday at pep rallies and football games. Some schools, such as Stanhope Elmore, use it as their fight song.It was the theme for “What’s Going On” with Dirty Digs columnist Harold “Pete” Cottle and Fred Randall Hughey on WACQ. George the DJ Howell used to close out “Hubcap Classics” with it on various radio stations across the South. What in the world is the origin of “The Horse?”
The marching band arrangement is credited to Jesse James. I always wondered how the gunslinger made it into the world of musical arranging, but I do know the original record was credited to Cliff Nobles & Co. (Jesse James was actually Nobles’ manager.)
Cliff Nobles was born in Grove Hill, Alabama in 1941. While in high school, he was in a group called The Delroys. He later moved to Philadelphia and cut some unsuccessful sides for Atlantic Records with a local rhythm section.
The “Philly Sound” was in transition; the doo-wop groups popularized on American Bandstand who hailed from the City of Brotherly Love had given way to a soul-influenced sound best exemplified by the studio artistry of producers Gamble and Huff.
The truly fascinating part of the story is Nobles doesn’t appear on the song that bears his name.
He sang on the A-side of the single, “Love Is All Right,” which is basically “The Horse” with vocals.
Somehow, radio stations — especially across the South — picked up on the B side and began playing it. Within three months of its release, the B side had sold over a million copies.
“The Horse” made it to No. 2 on the pop Top 40 in the summer of 1968, held out of the No. 1 spot by “This Guy’s In Love with You” by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass and later “Grazin’ in the Grass” by Hugh Masekela (an oddity in music history, where the top two records were both instrumentals for several weeks).
Interestingly, the group Company, whose horn section backed the missing-in-action Nobles, eventually changed their name to MFSB — Mother, Father, Sister, Brother. They later hit No. 1 with “TSOP,” the theme for the television show Soul Train from 1971 until 2006. Later on, they recorded “K-Jee,” which was used locally as the theme for the WKAB-TV 32 News during the years that Don Darby (owner of Signs to Go) served as anchor. It also appeared during a key scene in the film Saturday Night Fever.
Nobles became a construction worker and later worked in the electricity generation industry. He died at age 67 in 2008, perhaps lost to music history. But even though he didn’t even sing a note on it, his name will always live on with “The Horse.”
Michael Bird is a music teacher at Tallassee High School and weekly columnist for The Tribune.