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The Essence of the Essex

Women’s History Month 2024 is dedicated to celebrating women “who advocated for equity, diversity, and inclusion.” I doubt Anita Humes is on anybody’s list, but she should be. That’s because 60 years ago she did something that very few many women have. In May of 1963, Anita Humes was serving her country as member of the U.S. Marine Corps AND was the female lead singer of The Essex, whose five members were active-duty Marines at the time of their rock and roll ascent. Their chart-topping song, “Easier Said Than Done,” topped the charts that summer and remains the first and only #1 hit to be recorded by active-duty military personnel!

Not bad for four African American guys—Billy Hill, Rudolph Johnson, guitarist Walter Vickers, and drummer Rodney Taylor—and the lone woman, lead singer Anita Humes, all of whom were stationed at Camp LeJeune in North Carolina at the time. Another active-duty Marine, William Linton, co-wrote the song with Larry Huff, adding to the unique status of “Easier Said Than Done.” Eventually, the record was awarded a Gold Disc for selling more than one million copies.

But it wasn’t easy being an active-duty Marine with a hit song. The Essex belonged to Uncle Sam, not Dick Clark or Ed Sullivan. There would be no multi-city tours, no caravan of stars, no sold-out concerts. In fact, faster than you could say “A Walkin’ Miracle” (their only other hit), the male members of the Essex were stationed around the world and Anita Humes had left the Corps.

By early 1964, the Essex had completely broken up, and Anita decided to enlist in the U.S. Army. She was assigned to Fort Gordon, Georgia, where she met and married Gene Chappelle. In her own words, Anita spent the next 24 years “as a military wife” until she and Gene divorced. During much of that time, the former lead singer of the Essex was a regular at Service Club Three at Fort Gordon, as well as an occasional guest at Augusta Hot spots like the Capri Lounge and College Gate.

Like me, Anita was born and raised in Pennsylvania and attended Catholic schools. And, apart from her singing obligations, Anita and I shared similar soldierly duties, working in military communications offices, albeit mine was overseas at U.S. Army headquarters in South Vietnam. But we both became accustomed to the ubiquitous sound of the Teletype machines–UPI, AP, and Reuters–that adorned our respective offices. In fact, Anita and the other members of the Essex claim that the rhythm of “Easier Said Than Done” was inspired by the sound of those damn Teletype machines!

Now, as I think back on the sound of the several large ones we had in our Information Office at Long Binh, I believe they’re right. Apart from the noise, there was something cadenced about the keys moving back and forth across the reams of paper, letters being pounded onto paper. Yes, that rhythmic pulse to the news of the world, and the war, much of it bad, was brought to us by those teletype machines in a language and rhythm all their own.

All good things come to an end, and for the Essex, the end was anything but upbeat. The group scattered to the winds. Rodney Taylor was killed in a mugging in New York City in 1966. And the divorced Ms. Humes returned to her home in Harrisburg, PA. where she passed away in 2010. The lively young Marine, who caroled the lines “My buddies tell me/fly to him, sigh to him/tell him I would die for him…” died in her car.

Two days passed before someone discovered her dead body.

Somewhere in the world, a teletype machine clanged out the news of her demise. And an oldies station no doubt played “Easier Said Than Done.”

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Vietnam veteran Doug Bradley is the author of Who’ll Stop the Rain: Respect, Remembrance, and Reconciliation in Post-Vietnam America, co-author with Craig Werner of We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War, which was named best music book of 2015 by Rolling Stone magazine, and DEROS Vietnam: Dispatches from the Air-Conditioned Jungle now available as an audiobook. His music-based memoir, The Tracks of My Years, will be released by Legacy Book Press in 2025.

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