Maybe middle-aged hip-shakers remember the Chairmen from the first release of "Give Me Just a Little More Time" and "Pay to the Piper", back when Richard Nixon was president and Americans congratulated each other over man's first steps on the moon. Maybe some go farther back, to General's roots with The Showmen and the anthems "It Will Stand" and"39-21-46". But to understand how the Chairmen of the Board hypnotise fans 30 years after their hits cracked the top 40, you have to go all the way back - back before The Beatles and Elvis Presley, back to a time when 'General' Norman Johnson was born in Norfolk, Virginia on 23.5.43. Later as a 7-year-old boy he sang in churches... "Myfather and mentor - his name was General Johnson too - taught me how to sing, later, he let me sing with the Israelites, his gospel singing group" General recalls.
"It was acappella singing, and you had to hit right in the middle of the note every time. There was nothing to cover you, nothing to support you. "Theycalled me 'The Boy Wonder'". "In church they passed separate baskets around after we performed, one for me and one for the group, my basket would bring in twice as much as the groups. When I turned 12, they said, "Shorty, you're a mannow. It's time for you to put your money in the basket with the rest of us". I must have had a touch of the businessman even then, because I quit"!
He joined school friends in The Humdingers, a band that once opened for R&B standout Chuck Willis. The Cookies were backing Willis, and their manager told young General that her husband might be interested in hearing him. She sent the 13-year-old to Long Island to spend half a summer with her spouse, Atlantic Records legendary arranger, producer and composer Jesse Stone. "He lived in a great big house with a Cadillac, a cook and a maid," says General. "We went to a recording studio in New York City, and everyone said 'Hi, Jesse!' very respectfully. Remember the time, now: It's 1954,and here's a black musician telling all these white professionals what he wants done. At the end of the session, everyone was so excited about the music that was recorded. I was so proud of the man who composed the music and conducted the session. On the ride home from the recording studio, Mr.Stone asked, 'Did you like that?' In time you could do it."
The experience of that day inspired me to be a songwriter. The four sides we recorded for Atlantic Records was never released. But Norfolk entrepreneur Noah Biggs sank some money into the Humdingers and hooked them up with a legendary New Orleans arranger, Minit Records' Allen Toussaint.
They cut 8 songs for Minit under the name The Showmen, including a single called "Country Fool" - whose B-side was an upbeat celebration of Rock and Roll titled "It Will Stand". "'It Will Stand' is the most important song I've written because it opened the door", says General. "It went around the country and hit number one in a lot of major cities. Dick Clark, host of American Bandstand, even proclaimed, "'It Will Stand' was the Anthem of Rock And Roll". "But Minit went into a financial depression and couldn't seriously promote us. The next thing I know, nothing's happening. I'm in Norfolk, becoming a very good pool player and crapshooter. I was in the life - nothing crazy, no drugs - but trying to figure out what I should do with my music".
About that same time, Danny Woods was making the exact same decision. Danny had grown up in Atlanta, singing everywhere he could: in church, with a band, even at his day job, where a boss asked, "What is that noise? Either the singing goes,or you go"! Danny went, all the way to Michigan at age 19. He'd known Gladys Knight and the Pips in Atlanta, and he wanted to emulate their Motor City success. "Detroit was a winter wonderland", Danny says. "There was a club on every corner, and you could walk in off the street and join the band. I got to sing with James Jamerson, Benny Benjamin, that whole Motown rhythm section. I got a chance to hear what real music sounded like; I had a friend who was an engineer, and I'd go down and listen to the tracks Motown cut". "I had a group called The Tears, and we sang for an A&R man. They started singing out of tune, and the A&R guy said, 'We can use you, but we can't use the rest'. I worked with a lot of folks: Joey Dee and theStarlighters, Walter Jackson, Eddie Kendricks. I roomed with David Ruffin, who later became leadsinger of The Temptations, in Detroit and New York for a while; we had kind of a friendly competition going".
Danny also met the man who managed his idol, Jackie Wilson. (Danny sings "Higher and Higher" in the Chairmen's shows as a tribute to the late R&B belter.) The manager gave him some pragmatic advice: "Make sure you always carry around soda crackers and water. That way, you'll always have something to fill you up in hard times". Times weren't hard in 1968, but they were slow. Danny was working steadily, yet his career had reached a plateau.
The Showmen had circulated just one more widely known hit, "39-21-46." (It was supposed to be called "39-21-40 Shape", a title that would have been more anatomically believable, but a label error immortalised it the other way.)
They recorded some songs for Swan Records, notably"In Paradise". That title didn't prove prophetic: Sales were slow, and when General tried to sing it at Harlem's Apollo Theatre, he lost his voice. (The notoriously tough Apollo audience took pity and didn't boo him off the stage). After that, The Showmen settled for a comfortable living on the beach music circuit around the Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia and Tennessee. But Holland-Dozier-Holland, the Detroit-based writers who'd fuelled The Supremes and Four Tops' success at Motown, had other plans for the two singers. They were assembling a vocal quartet for their new Invictus label, one where each man could perform leads that suited him best. They wanted to match General and Danny with Eddie Custis, a Philadelphia native who'd sung with Huey 'Piano' Smith and the Clowns, and Harrison Kennedy, a Canadian who'd toured in "Hair". But they didn't want anyone else from The Showmen. "At first, I told them, 'No, I'm not leaving my group'," says General, laughing. "Is that the stupidest thing you ever heard? I'm making a big sacrifice for the band! We were earning maybe $4,000 a weekend, and Bill Kennedy - he promoted us said, 'We'll have to give General more of this money to keep him'. The guy in the band with the least talent said, 'Hell, no'! That made my mind up".
Before moving to Detroit permanently, General stayed with Lamont Dozier for a while, trying to pick up songwriting tips. (Dozier didn't help much overtly, but General kept his ears open). Danny recalls the four Chairmen-to-be training at dance school, where a choreographer who had worked with The Pips taught them routines. By 1970, the band was ready to release a string of R&B flavoured singles, and many went top-40 over the next two years: "Give Me Just a Little More Time", "(You've Got Me) Dangling on a String", "Pay To the Piper", "Everything's Tuesday". The Chairmen of the Board were cruising in high gear: They played The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson "SoulTrain", "American Bandstand" and British talk-show host David Frost had them on his show. They appeared in halls as far ranging as The Apollo Theatre and Avery Fisher in New York to Hammersmith Odeon in London, England.
Yet there were worms in the golden apple of success. Like the Supremes, another group where each member was hired as a potential lead singer, the Chairmen became identified mostly with one recognisable voice: General Johnson's. Danny got some time as a front man; his performance made "Pay to thePiper" a national hit, and he still shares lead vocals with General three decades later. But the others were lost in the shuffle. "Harrison was singing hard rock and blues" says General, "and Eddie wasdoing songs like 'My Way' and 'Didn't We.' He sung them well, but they were the wrong type of songs for an R&B audience. I remember being on stage in England while Eddie was singing, and we heard this slow, rhythmic clapping. I thought, 'Well, I guess that's what they do over here to applaud'. It turned out to be their way of saying, 'we cameto hear R&B music'".
Morec rucially, General never got over the bad experience with Patches, the first song he had written for Holland, Dozier, Holland. I worked on the melody and chord progression of that song for weeks. It was featured in our first album "Give Me Just A Little More Time". Everyone begged us to release Patches as our follow-up single but instead Holland, Dozier, Holland released "Dangling On A String, a song that was written after Patches was completed. The hook chorus had the same melody as my song and the composers were Ronald Dunbar and Edith Wayne (Holland, Dozier, Holland used the pseudonym Edith Wayne because of legal battles with their former Motown Boss, Berry Gordy Jr.) Finally, Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records picked up Patches for Clarence Carter. It sold millions, went into the top ten and General won a Grammy for writing it.
As the Chairmen of the Boards' popularity soared, so did Generals songwriting success. Along with his composing and producing partner, Greg Perry, he supplied million selling hits for the Honeycone (Want Ads and Stickup); Freda Payne (Bring The Boys Home); One Hundred Proof Aged In Soul (TheGrammy nominated "Somebody's Been Sleepin' InMy Bed") and a smash hit for the Chairmen ofthe Board (Pay To The Piper). For these songs, General was nominated and won BMI's "R&B Songwriter of the Year Award".
However General is quick to add "Holland, Dozier, Holland accepted the "R&B Producer of theYear Award" for the songs that Greg and I had produced". He asked his Invictus bosses to renegotiate his contract to reflect his accomplishment, and they refused.
After Eddie and Harrison left the group, General and Danny pulled together a back-up band themselves and toured Europe as the Chairmen of the Board. Says General, "But we couldn't legally work in the states under that name at the time". The last permanent addition to the modern-day group came on board in 1972: Ken Knox,a saxophone player whose influences range from King Curtis to Junior Walker. (He blows a mean "What Does It Take To Win Your Love For Me" in concerts as a tribute to Walker). His family had moved from Charleston, W.Va., to Detroit when Ken was 3. "You saw those Motown records spinning at every house," he recalls. "During the day, you played baseball. At night, you sang. If you had four or five guys, you were The Temptations." At first, he borrowed his brother Leonard's sax and taught himself to play by mimicking records, slowing the 45s down to 33 rpm to find the notes. Then he got his own instrument in a unique fashion: "My first horn came out of the Detroit riots," he says with a laugh. "Everyone was running down the street with TVs and couches, and here comes a guy with a saxophone! My brother bought it for me right there in the street for $50."
Ken had seen his friends go straight out of high school into jobs at auto plants, and he didn't want to follow them. He made music his life,touring as a horn player with recording acts on weekends. Eventually, he played full-time in a band called The Impacts, which had one top-10 song regionally. He got his first unobstructed view of the Chairmen when a 6-foot-10 buddy hoisted Kenonto his shoulders at an Afro-American festival in downtown Detroit. They got a look at him when Danny dropped in to hear The Impacts. "We invited him onstage," says Ken, "and he worked the crowd into a frenzy. Three of us ended up dancing on top of the bar." Danny asked Ken to join the brass section of the Chairmen's band for a European tour, and Ken agreed. The band ended up spending six to eight months a year in Europe from 1973 through 1975. Ken eventually moved into the front line, helping with vocals.
By 1975, the extensive European tours took its toll on the Chairmen. General then pursued a solo career with newly formed Arista Records, which needed black artists for its small R&B division. This attachment had one beneficial side effect: Highly placed executives convinced Holland-Dozier-Holland to call off a lawsuit against him. But those executives also wanted to tell him how to write and produce. "I fell on my face," he says frankly. "My records were sterile, and I was crushed: This was the first thing I'd done that wasn't good. Other people kept putting in their ideas about how the music should sound. They meant well, but I thought, 'From now on, I'll do it my own way'.
General knew south-eastern audiences, especially Carolinians, had remained rabidly loyal to beach music over the years. He also knew Mike Branch, a Charlotte-based talent agent and former member of a band called The Tempests. They united to start Surfside Records in 1979. "We worked together for 18 years, until Mike died," says General."Never signed a piece of paper - we just shook hands. I'm loyal. If I'm with you, I'm with you". "It could have been that way with Holland-Dozier-Holland. Being around those guys was like going to college for me. If they'd treated me right, I'd have been with them for years." Had that happened, fans might never have heard "Down at the Beach Club", "Loverboy", "Carolina Girls", "Gone Fishin' " and a dozen other hitson this retrospective. The Chairmen, who re-united as Surfside's most promotable band, might not be playing some 200 dates a year on a circuit that all but worships them. (Rolling Stone recognised their status in a flattering 1982 article, and Billboard magazine's Ed Christman ranked their show in the town of Dunn, N.C., among the top musical events of 1991, behind albums by Nirvana and The Cult.) "That's why kids like us today," says General. "To them, we're an alternative band. We're the alternative to the alternative bands they hear all the time."
Ask the trio today if they miss performing nationally and alleged glamour of the road, and all of them say no. Ken Knox wouldn't want to leave the intensely faithful fans of the Carolinas, "the joy I see on people's faces here. I remember one pregnant woman telling me, 'You know, I even play beach music to this baby inside me'! Or you get people who say, 'I was really sad until I came in here tonight, really down, and I needed a shot from you guys to pick me up'. We hear that a lot. "Danny Woods doesn't miss the heat of the biggest spotlights. Though he got revved up for big crowds in Europe and the States, he doesn't miss the stardust: "You get in your limousine, you go to your hotel, you do your engagement, you get back in your limo, you go to your plane. You never really meet anybody or get to know a city. We're more in touch with our public now. "And General Johnson? "I definitely don't miss the national scene. I have all it has to offer in a regional market that's free of politics and categorization. We are supported by the most loyal fans on the planet. And I am in complete control of every aspect of my career". "All I really wanted to do was get my music heard the way I wanted it to be heard", he says. "Now I do." The crowd has started to relax completely, rolling up sleeves and tugging down the neckties that were put on hours ago to impress a boss or a date. Ken, normally sober-eyed while steering the band with his sax solos, crinkles his face in a smile. Danny exhorts the fans relentlessly, as if somebody had shoved a fresh bank of double-D batteries between his shoulder blades. The General bobs and weaveslike a prize-fighter getting ready for an uppercut and breaks into "Give Me Just a Little MoreTime", punctuating the song with his patented "Brrrrrrrr" lip roll. The audience ratchets up its appreciation one notch higher, and you can read its collective mind: Sure, guys. Not just a little more time, but all the time in the world. "When the last sunset goes down for us over the last lonely stretch of beach, the sound of the Chairmen of the Board will echo above the wind and the waves."
(Writtenby Lawrence Toppman)