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A NEW LEAD FOR THE SPINNERS – CJ JEFFERSON

  Henry Fambrough: “Charlton Washington resigned and I don’t know why. That’s a one hundred thousand dollar question. Charlton didn’t inform us he was leaving. He just left. He sent a letter after he left.”

  Charlton Washington: “I didn’t want to leave, but it was some internal strife that caused me to leave the group. I had some differences with the original member and we couldn’t iron it out. My last day with the group was March the 9th and the last show we did was on February the 29th.”

  Being the professional Charlton is, he puts his words as diplomatically as he can: “If the new lead was getting prepared – which I believe he was – I wasn’t informed of it. I became informed and I knew at that point it was time for me to go my own separate way. I didn’t see I was a part of the Spinners future. It was for personal reasons. It had none to do with the music, and I was actually never informed as to what these reasons were.”

  “It wasn’t something that I wanted to do. I gave 100 % of my talent and focus, and all my musical aspiration was tied into what I was doing with the Spinners, so therefore my future plans have not been clarified. Music is my love, so I intend to further my music career.”

  Perhaps one day we’ll get more information about the actual reasons for this incident, but now the fact remains that Charlton Washington, who in 2007 replaced another Washington, Frank, as the lead singer of the Spinners, is now replaced by a gentleman named “CJ” Jefferson.


INTRODUCING... CJ JEFFERSON

  CJ: “I was approached by a friend of mine, Theo Peoples, former lead singer of the Four Tops and the Temptations. He was reached out, and he reached out to me about auditioning for the position once he heard about it, and I sent them my renditions of Sadie and Mighty Love. They wanted me to come over. I went and met Henry and I’ve been at it since then.”

  “It’s been a slow process, because Henry was in and out. It has lasted maybe five-six months, but I’ve pretty much absorbed the whole program. I originally came from the Temptations Review with Dennis Edwards, and this was a transition from one style to another, but it’s something that I’m used to doing. I’ve heard and listened to the Spinners all my life, so I’m pretty familiar with most of the program, so it wasn’t that hard. But the guys can move, I can say that! They’ve got some pretty fancy footwork.”

  “This feels fresh and new to me. It’s exciting to me, and there’s a lot to learn. I love exploring new things and new styles. I love the history of old R&B, classic pop style. The Spinners have always been a very commercial R&B group and it’s the style a lot of the groups never really had. It’s soulful pop-R&B music.”

  You can read more about the rest of the current members of the group, starting with Ronnie Moss, at https://www.soulexpress.net/deep7_2013.htm#spinners. At the end of that Ronnie Moss feature you’ll find introductions also to Jessie Peck and Marvin Taylor, as well as the ex-member Charlton Washington. The only original member of the group, Henry Fambrough, is thoroughly featured in our 5-part Spinners story in our printed papers (altogether 50 densely printed pages).

THREE STINTS with DENNIS EDWARDS

  Curtis D. Jefferson was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on June 11 in 1971, so he’s the youngest in the group at the moment. “My father Thomas was a truck driver, and my mother Bernice was a preacher. She was a travelling missionary pastor, and she was a gospel artist, too. I’m the youngest of nine, and everybody in our family was into gospel music.”

  “I started in church at a very early age. I started out playing drums, and I went from a drummer to a singer to a singing bass player. I play guitar and piano, too. In school I played football a lot, and it was a major choice between music and football. I chose music.” There are a lot of famous CJ’s in the US, and coincidently one of them is a football player in Michigan’s Ferris State Bulldogs named JC Jefferson.

  Our “CJ” lists Charlie Wilson, the Gap Band, Dennis Edwards, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Prince and the Chi-Lites as some of his early musical favourites and “I was also introduced to Pink Floyd and a lot of the rock bands in the 1980s, because I wanted to learn to play rock guitar, too.” In the late 80s CJ studied music engineering at Parkway Central High in Chesterfield, Missouri. “In high school on some weekends I also played gospel music and shared the stage with some of the biggest gospel artists.”

  CJ took his first more serious professional steps in music in 1992, when he started working with his godfather, Dennis Edwards, in the Temptations Review, which those days included Michael Pattillo, Chris Arnold, Bernard Gibson and David Sea on and off, but the line-up was fluctuating a lot. In the 1990s there was even a female member, and in 2006 Ali-Ollie Woodson joined, but he was replaced by Paul Williams, Jr. two years later. CJ: “I was just coming in and out. When David was out, I was in, when Chris was out, I was in. I would learn all those different parts. I was more like a swing man.”

  With his mesmerizing high tenor, CJ did Eddie Kendricks’ part. “That was in the very beginning, in the early 90s. I came back in 2004 and was with them here and there, but again I was like a swing man. I returned to the group in 2016, and after Dennis passed (in February 2018) I took basically all his bigger higher leads – voice, tone and style – because coming from the same gospel background I was able to jump in and do it. Also in-between I did a lot of Dennis Edwards’ material, when I worked in a production called Soul of Motown (see below). I’m an extended tenor that can sing baritone, too. I have a pretty big range, I guess.” Unfortunately CJ never got round to recording with the group.


KEITH SWEAT and OL’ SKOOL

  A vocal group called Ol’ Skool is described as “new jack swing and urban R&B”, although their recorded output consists almost entirely of sentimental down-tempo material. The group was formed in Saint Louis, Missouri. “I put the group together. I came up with the name, because we were doing a lot of old school music at the time. If it wasn’t the Temptations, it was the O’Jays or the Spinners or anything. At that time the term ‘old school’ was pretty hip. We actually started the group, when I worked with Dennis in 1994. When he had the Dennis Edwards Show, he would use Ol’ Skool as his background. Instead of the Review it would be Dennis Edwards and the Young Tempts. It was fun, and I learned a lot.”

  “In the beginning there were my godbrother, Jerome “Pookie” Lane, Bobby Crawford and Anthony Herron. Jason Little came at the end of our second CD project (in 1999). He was kind of after Pookie Lane.” Jerome Edward Lane released a solo CD titled Southern Woman in 2008, and he passed in September 2015 at the age of 42. “He had problems with his heart, and he was really sick. Nobody really knew how sick he was. I was there in St. Louis at that particular time, and it was pretty sad.” 

  “I know that these days Bobby does a lot of production for different people and Tony does productions, too. We still keep in touch. We never actually broke up. We did a couple of shows last year.” In November 2017, Ol Skool released a single, a tender downtempo floater called Try Love, and in 2015 they visited on a Str8 Gutta CD on a track named Gunz Up.

  Keith Sweat (b. in 1961) is one of the trailblazers for the new jack swing phenomenon and his peak period fell on the late 1980s and early ‘90s with such hits as I want her and Make You Sweat.

“Keith was looking for another group, because he didn’t have Silk at the time. We drove in a little car from St. Louis to Atlanta, and the day we met Keith, he gave us the deal. We first went to Krasnow Entertainment in New York. We met Bob Krasnow, but you never know what goes on behind the scene, and - before we knew it - we were signed with Universal. We signed with Keith, and Keith signed us with Universal.” Keith Sweat recorded for Elektra Records in the 1990s, and Bob Krasnow (1934-2016) was chairman and CEO of Elektra up to 1994.


AM I DREAMING

  An urban ballad called Set You Free was Ol’ Skool’s first single in 1997. It scraped the bottom of Billboard’s R&B charts at # 94. “We cut it in St. Louis. I still had a regular job at the time and I had to go on my lunch break to the studio to sing this particular song. I sing lead and I co-wrote the song. This was the first lead I was on. Before that I was on a lot of Keith Sweat records, and I’ve written and produced many tracks for him – I think from eight to ten.”

  The group is best known for its next single, the soothing and haunting Am I Dreaming, which peaked at # 5 in February 1998 on Billboard’s Hot 100 charts. The song featured Keith Sweat and Xscape, and this Sam Dees ballad originally appeared on Atlantic Starr’s Radiant album in 1981. “Keith Sweat was thinking of putting it on his project, but somebody suggested him to do it on us with Xscape. First we were supposed to do the background only.”

  This hit generated numerous TV appearances for the group on BET, MTV, Soul Train etc., and the debut album, the eponymous Ol’ Skool (on Uptown/Universal in 1998), became quite successful, too (# 10-r&b / 49-pop). “Our first album was pretty much cut in St.Louis, at Paradise Studios.” On this CD all ten songs – except one, Won’t Let Go – are romantic, downtempo, even after-hours numbers. “At that time we were fresh to the whole R&B scene. Ballads were our thing. We didn’t really understand the whole uptempo vibe. At that time we were self-contained, and we did almost the whole album by ourselves. I love it. It’s a great album.”

  Produced for the most part by Keith Sweat and Kurtis (sic) Jefferson, also the follow-up album, R.S.V.P. (on Keia/Wildcat/Universal in 1999), is practically a cavalcade of ten slow songs, of which the soft I Never and the urban Only One were tested as singles. “I think that’s a pretty good album. Keith co-wrote I Never. We thought it would be a big single, but I don’t know what happened with it. For the group it was just all downhill from there. We kept on doing shows. We were so caught up with making it work that we didn’t understand why it wasn’t happening or how to get it happen. We kinda fell off. I started doing more other things and went back on the road.” In some sources on this album one Bobby Prescott is credited as a member of the group, instead of Bobby Crawford. “I don’t know how that happened, but that’s the same Bobby” (laughing).

  Since 2003 also Jason Little went on his own. He first worked with Carl Thomas and Trey Songz and has in the 2010s released such delightful solo singles as Let Me Know, Heartbreak, What Love Should Be, Two Loves and Tonite.

STAGE PLAYS

  “I did a lot of different plays. I was just trying to feel my way into the play scene. I wanted to see, if I can do it, but I never really liked it (laughing). I worked with the Black Rep in St. Louis, and I travelled. I did Paint the White House Black, Only the Strong and others, but it was not really what I was into.” The Saint Louis Black Repertory Company is – in their own words - the country’s premier African-American theatre.

  “After 2002 I’ve done southern soul type of projects. I would still play in musicals, too. I did gospel music for awhile, when I was working with my family – contemporary gospel stuff – and more plays and musicals.” In 2010 CJ got a call from Tennessee, which led him to sing, dance and act in Pigeon Forge, TN, theatres mostly in the production of Soul of Motown, a highly popular musical and a tribute to Motown legends... as well as some other classic soul music acts.  “I’ve been in Tennessee on and off – phew! – for a long time. I lived in Tennessee from 2010 till 2015. Then I moved to New York, left that show and started my own show in 2016 called In the Groove in Tennessee. I’ve lived now in New York since 2016.”

  CJ is also a prolific songwriter. For Ol’ Skool’s debut album he co-wrote five songs as well as for R.S.V.P., and – besides Keith Sweat – he has written for Dru Hill, Ke-Ke Wyatt, Toni Braxton and the Isley Brothers, too. “They ended up being album cuts.” So far he has received three Platinum Awards. “One was for the Dru Hill album project, then a Keith Sweat project and, of course, our project with Xscape, Am I Dreaming.”

  In 2015 he formed a company called CDJ Productions. “That’s my production company. I do shows, book shows, promote tours and I also have a list of musicians that I and others can use. People call me and I get musicians for them.”



WHO IS CJ

  In 2012 CJ released a solo CD titled Who Is CJ, which is available only in a digital form. “I had a few hard copies, but when that hard-copy thing went away, I stopped carrying them.” On this 12-track and 10-song set (two mixes) there are as many as seven downtempo songs and in terms of soulfulness two stand out: I Will Never Leave My Wife and It’s Hard to Say. Among the three dancers, Now & Later Lovin’ has real hit potential. “It’s funny, because it really started getting a lot of airplay last year.” 

  So far, Who Is CJ is Curtis’ only solo project. “The crazy thing was that I wasn’t doing a project on me. I ran into the southern soul market and got involved with Wendell B (https://www.soulexpress.net/deep3_2011.htm#wendellb). I was a background singer with him. He introduced me to that scene, and I wanted to write for all those guys. I was writing songs for them, but nobody was buying the music. They wanted it but they didn’t want to pay for it, so I just decided to do it myself” (laughing). 

  In November last year they released a soulful and beautiful ballad titled Still Learning Bout Love, which features Wendell B, Magic One, Jason Little and C.J. “A new album project we did with Wendell is coming out, and I’ll be dropping something sooner or later.”

  CJ’s debut as a Spinner was supposed to take place the 24th of March, but due to the current Corona situation, the next scheduled show will probably be on April the 30th in San Juan. “Recently I’ve done Las Vegas three days a week and the rest of the days I’m working on my solo project. But right now I’m concentrating on the Spinners, and rock that thing till I can’t rock it anymore.”

www.cjjefferson.com

(Interviews conducted on March 12 and 17, 2020; acknowledgement to CJ, Henry Fambrough, Ronnie Moss and Charlton Washington).

© Heikki Suosalo




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