General Johnson (Chairmen Of The Board): Blues & Soul classic interview - August 1987
Following the recent sad death of General Norman Johnson, Pete Lewis recalls a rare interview back in August 1987 with the legendary Chairmen Of The Board frontman, Grammy-winning R&B songwriter, and Beach Music icon
… Each generation of black music stars produces its share of legends. Some earn their place in the Hall Of Fame through record-breaking sales; others through pure artistry, influencing successive generations of music stars ahead with their original style and technique.
As a vocalist in the Sixites, Otis Redding headed the latter category. Meanwhile, as far as British musicians are concerned (the likes of Boy George and Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Kevin Rowland included), the premier figure in terms of vocal artistry from the early-Seventies has, in hindsight, arguably turned out to be Chairmen Of The Board lead singer, General Johnson.
Born in May 1941 in Norfolk, Virginia, General Norman Johnson was, at the age of six, already performing on the Southern gospel circuit, and formed his first group (The Humdingers) at 12. However, it was the next group he formed - The Showmen - that earned sufficient local reputation to result in a contract with Minit Records and a prestigious recording session in New Orleans with producer - which in turn produced five singles, including the R&B classic ‘It Will Stand’.
Meanwhile, in 1968, having left The Showmen, General Johnson began negotiations with the new, Detroit-based Invictus Records - the label founded by super-producers Holland-Dozier-Holland immediately following their departure from Motown. All of which, in 1969, led to the birth of said label’s first act - the male R&B vocal quartet Chairmen Of The Board. Whose line-up comprised General alongside fellow singers Danny Woods, Eddie Curtis and Harrison Kennedy, and whose first release - the enduring pop-soul classic ‘Give Me Just A Little More Time’ - impressively peaked at Number Three on the Pop charts on both sides of the Atlantic in 1970.
A series of gradually-less successful follow-up hit singles ensued (‘Dangling On A String’; ‘Everything’s Tuesday’; ‘Pay To The Piper’ etc), with the group interestingly maintaining their status as pop favourites for a longer time in the UK than in their US homeland. Nevertheless, after a short-lived four years of success, by the mid-Seventies the quartet had disintegrated amidst personal disputes and closure of their record company.
Meanwhile, during the Invictus period, Johnson also made his mark as a prominent R&B songwriter; prestigiously receiving a Grammy Award for his composition ‘Patches’ - an international smash for blind Southern soul legend Clarence Carter in 1970 - while also writing big US crossover hits for female trio The Honey Cone plus Detroit songstress (and fellow Invictus artist) Freda Payne.
Recording-wise, meanwhile, following the group’s break-up General briefly reactivated his career by signing as a solo artist to industry legend Clive Davis’ then-new Arista Records in 1976 - though disappointingly his critically-acclaimed solo album ‘General Johnson’ made little impact sales-wise.
Nevertheless, during his years with both Invictus and Arista, General’s old recordings had grown bigger than ever on the unique Beach Music scene in The Carolinas - a nostalgic scene based in clubs and lounges along the coastline. Which in turn prompted Johnson to return to America’s South East to reform Chairmen Of The Board and rapidly establish himself there as the ‘King Of Carolina Beach Music’ - a position he retains to this day.
Speaking last week on a particularly-unclear transatlantic phone-line from a Richmond, Virginia hotel room (the Chairmen tour America’s South-East constantly), it’s nevertheless obvious that ‘The General’ still has a bitter taste in his mouth from his aforementioned solo experiences at Arista: “Maybe I’m exaggerating, but it was a brand-new company, I was one of their first black acts, and I tasted my first bitter defeat in the music business.”
“The production destroyed that album”, he continues: “There were too many fingers in the pie! You know, I was used to doing things one way at Invictus, while at Arista other people wanted to be involved who were not QUALIFIED to be involved! And from that I learned a lesson - you SAY no, and you MEAN no! Because if it’s successful, everyone wants a huge chunk of the pie! But when it fails, it’s all YOURS!”
“I mean, when nothing happened with my Arista album it was demoralising - it nearly killed me!”, he continues: “I was like an ostrich looking for some sand. So I took some refuge where I knew I could be happy - I came back to Carolina to recuperate. You know, with Beach Music having been a big thing for many years in the South East - Virginia, The Carolinas, and parts of Georgia and Tennessee - I was already part of that scene before I WENT to Invictus. They’d taken a liking to ‘It Will Stand’, plus another song I’d recorded in the Sixties with The Showmen that no-one has heard outside the Beach Music scene, ’39-21-46’. And so, because I was already popular here, a lot of the tunes I’d recorded at Invictus as part of Chairmen Of The Board ALSO became accepted as Beach Music, like ‘You’ve Got Me Dangling On A String’… So because this was the music I loved, I became satisfied staying down here and doing just that.”
“But then it became a bore just doing those old songs”, he adds honestly: “So my business partner Michael Branch and I decided to form our own label - Surfside Records - and start recording NEW Beach Music! Because - as opposed to working nationally - in writing and producing a record down here FOR down here, I knew exactly what the people here WANTED!.. But then, though I’d spent years writing specifically for the people in this area (America’s aforementioned South-East), a year or so back I decided to start writing more contemporary music to reach a larger audience again. And the new UK single - ‘Lover Boy’ - is the song that actually signalled that turning point of my mind telling me to reach a vast audience.”
The current line-up of Chairmen Of The Board - along with General Johnson - comprises fellow original member Danny Woods plus saxophonist Ken Knox. Released on EMI’s Syncopate label in September 1987, ‘Lover Boy’ - complete with an Ian Levine remix - marks the group’s first new British release in a decade…
One of the most distinctive and soulful vocalists of all time, General Norman Johnson sadly died on October 13, 2010 in suburban Atlanta, Georgia due to complications from lung cancer.
He retained his iconic status on the Beach Music scene until his passing; having performed his last live show as part of Chairmen Of The Board (alongside fellow members Danny Woods and Ken Knox) at Charlotte, North Carolina in February 2010
‘Blues & Soul’ sends its sincerest condolences to his family and close friends
Words PETE LEWIS