You can't call beach music very deep, can you? But as I've
stated earlier, and let it be repeated again, one purpose of this column is to
check out what some of our veterans are doing nowadays, and General has been
around for a real long time.
Through the eighties The Chairmen Of The Board have
been involved in the beach music scene, and they have released albums on
General's Surfside label (Success, A Gift Of Beach Music, The Music) with sunny
sounds and hooky, poppy melodies. The main trademark is General's strongly
vibrant voice - one of the most easily recognizable in our music - but his
long-time partner, Danny Woods, also gets his solo spots. For their newie, What
Goes Around Comes Around (SUR 4168-2), General made a distribution deal
with Ichiban to tempt a wider audience for his music.
Everything is produced, arranged and written by General
and, as before, the music is jolly, carefree and utterly melodic, very
danceable and ”shaggable”. The first single, Shero (Female Hero), is a
mid-to-uptempo shuffle, but for me the most intriguing ones are Better Late
Than Never, Winner Take All and a dramatic ballad - the only one, by the
way - I Wanna Be Your Baby. Danny Woods shines on a funky and
hard-hitting final track, Only Love Can Mend A Broken Heart. To my
knowledge some of these tracks have been released earlier.
”Right. Better Late Than Never was one of the tunes
that we took (from the compilation album of the same name) and put on this
album, and the other one is I Wanna Be Your Baby.
You know, we are like a regional label. We work on the
South-East market that's not known that well outside of, maybe about six
states. 'Beach music' - that's the market that all of my music was aimed for
the last ten years.
When we did the deal with Ichiban, I was in the middle of
doing a beach music album. The deal I did with Ichiban was to make contemporary
urban music to make some money out of it, but the market that I had been
working for these last ten years supported me so strongly that I could just not
turn my back on them. So I did a lot of expressions of rhythm & blues
music, and I think that the only song that came close to being contemporary but
at the same time was not a slap in the face of my audience was the tune called Shero.
Shero is my favourite tune on the album. How would
you call a female in 1994 a hero? I've had some smarties who'd say 'well,
what's wrong with the word 'heroine', and I say 'nothing, if you want to be
identified with the drug that keeps you down'.”
The album is just starting to take off.
”We're doing quite well on the beach music market. We are
supposed to release it on urban at the end of January along with Ichiban.
Surfside is supposed to start doing a serious promotion on the record.”
On the Success album ('80) General still had nine
strings, five horns and a delightfully rich and full sound. Lately everything
has been mostly programmed.
”I'm bringing this professional atmosphere to the
Carolinas, the thing I learned in Detroit. But my biggest problem was the
musicians. I'm trying to build something right there in the Carolinas, but in
order to get the sound really professional, it was like costing a fortune to do
To me there are some rather familiar melodies on the set. Summertime
Groove reminds me of The Young Rascals' '67 hit Groovin', and
The Light At The End Of The Tunnel could almost be The Isleys' This
Old Heart Of Mine ('66), but they are just a couple of slips within a
”Basically what I'm trying to do is the total recall. I'm
reaching back into the past and trying to recall the 70's and 60's music.”
And according to our established pattern we'll go down the
history. General Norman Johnson was born in 23.5.43 in Norfolk, Virginia. Now he is living in Atlanta, is married and has three grown-up children, a
daughter and two sons.
”I stayed in Norfolk for a long time, into my twenties,
although I was in and out, going different places, but Norfolk was my home for
twenty some odd years.
I only have one brother and one sister, who's a principal
in school. My father was my influence. He got me started and learned the
basics, the roots. He was in a group and I started singing with that group when
I was about six or seven years old as a Boy Wonder. They were all black guys,
but the name of the group was The Israelites.”
It was a gospel group consisting of five grown-ups and a
juvenile General, but besides him no big names came out of it. After about six
years with The Israelites, worldly harmonies were calling. The next group was
named The Humdingers.
”They were the guys you hung out in the neighbourhood
with, and we were together for a long time. It's the same group that later was
The Showmen. Minit changed it, they didn't like our name.”
This Norfolk group consisted of General, Milton Wells,
Gene and Dorsey Knight and Leslie Felton.
”Gene is deceased, but Dorsey is still around. The Showmen
still work in the beach music circuit - I still own that name - and Leslie
Felton is the only original member who's in that group now. There are a couple
of cuts from the group on that Better Late Than Never compilation album.
˙Milton had an accident a long time ago, and he was not
supposed to walk again. A specialist from out of the country flew in and they
used Milton as an example, to work on him, and today Milton walks as well as
anybody else. He's not in show business any more. I think he's in church now.”
General came close to having his voice out on a record
already in the late 50's.
”We had a contract with Atlantic as The Humdingers. We did
some demos, but they were never released, because the management was a husband
and wife thing. Jesse Stone and his wife separated and our careers went down
the tube. The music we did was kinda doowoppish, but Jesse Stone never did
So that brings us to Joe Banashak's Minit Records and to
It Will Stand in '61, originally a b-side to Country Fool. That single as well
as the other Minit and Instant releases were produced by Allen Toussaint, and
they are available on the Charly collection, Some Folks Don't Understand It
(CRB 1165). Is this the actual starting point record-wise?
”Oh yeah, it was the very first record, or the very first
session that was released.”
The other singles - The Wrong Girl, I Love You Can't
You See, True Fine Mama, 39-21-46 - failed commercially.
”Minit was on its way out. In fact, we didn't even get the
serious promotion that we should have got with It Will Stand the first
time out. It Will Stand was a big record, but it was on the chart for
eon and never got serious promotion.”
But that record was released on Imperial in'64 and became
a hit all over again.
”I don't know why they re-released it, but I'm glad,
because if it hadn't been re-released, I never would have been with Holland-Dozier-Holland.
When it was re-released, it was number one in Detroit for about four or five
weeks, and that's how they became familiar with my work and my voice. When they
decided to leave Motown, I was one of the first artists they got in touch
Next there was a Philadelphia period with Swan Records in
'65 - You're Everything, In Paradise, The Honey House - also hitless.
”I just went up there with a song, In Paradise, and they
liked the song. Again we recorded for a label that was ready to go out of
business. The story of my life.
I was staying in Norfolk but I was commuting back and
forth. I was living also in Philadelphia, because I was working for the label
at the time. I was writing and producing things for The Three Degrees and other
acts they had there. We did a couple of things with Leon Huff, while we
were there. They were never big records.”
After a couple of years in the college circuit a call came
in '67, which led to the birth of The Chairmen Of The Board - General
Johnson, Danny Woods, Harrison Kennedy and Eddie Custis.
”That was a guy by the name of Jeffrey Bowen. He
recruited talent for Invictus Records.
The Chairmen Of The Board, at the time it was four
artists, four lead voices, who could handle all types of music. That was the
concept of The Chairmen Of The Board.”
The group had a great start. Invictus' fourth single
release in the late '69, Give Me Just A Little More Time, went gold and
was followed by a very popular album by the same name. General also wrote for
other Invictus / Hot Wax artists, but was deprived of a sure hit, when Clarence
Carter covered his Patches tune and went gold with it in '70.
”In one way I was, of course, very happy, because I got
the Grammy and a lot of recognition as a songwriter. After Give... all
the disc jockeys were begging them to release Patches, but they decided to release
Dangling On A String. They made more money, when they released the song
they had written and produced, but they made a serious mistake by not releasing
Patches. That left Patches open for Atlantic to do business with.
But I have no bad feelings about it, not at this point.”
After Everything's Tuesday, Pay To The Piper,
Chairman Of The Board and the In Session and Bittersweet albums the hit stream
began to die down in '72-'73. There was a disappointing Skin I'm In album in
'74, some solo singles by the members of the group and even a solo album from
General himself, Generally Speaking, in '75 (`rejected material'). In
'71 the third album was supposed to be Men Are Getting Scarce, but it
was never released.
”At that time Invictus had their problems. They were
leaving Capitol and going to Columbia, so therefore there was no promotion.
Therefore Men... was left out.”
The group practically didn't record any new decent
material since '71 and finally disbanded at the end of '75. Eddie Custis had
left already in '71.
”I haven't heard from Eddie Custis for a long time, since
I was at Arista. Harrison Kennedy, I think, is working with a rock band.”
And Danny Woods, of course, is still working with General
as a member of the present Chairmen Of The Board. By the way, the third member
today is Ken Knox.
”I met him, in fact, in '73. We had just released a record
called Finders Keepers. He has been with me ever since.”
General decided to leave Detroit and head for New York.
”I was having problems. I had been in a law-suit with
Holland-Dozier-Holland for maybe three years, and nobody could straighten out
the thing. At the time Clive Davis (the president of Arista) was having
the same problem, because he had just straightened this thing with Columbia and getting ready to go over to Bell. I sat down and talked with him, he
understood my problem and got me a lawyer to straighten my business up with Holland and Dozier, and I recorded with Arista. I stayed there two, three years. He paid me
well, but I only did one album.”
Besides that eponymous '76 album and some singles (All
In The Family, We The People, Don't Walk Away, Can't Nobody Love Me Like You Do)
General also produced Martha Reeves. Anybody else?
”That's the only one. I tried to do the Martha Reeves
thing, but everybody tried to put their hands in there, even though it was my
album. That's the reason I was out of there, because everybody wanted to be
productive when it came to my music.
It was quite different when I was with Invictus. We did a
record and everybody just jumped in and worked to promote that record to be a
big success. When I went to Arista, it was quite different, because r&b
staff didn't get it but to a certain point and pop staff never had anything to
do with it. So my job was not done that well, and the music was for me very
sterile. But I learned a great lesson from that.
After leaving Arista, at that point there was to make up
my mind as to what I should do. In that time Berry Gordy had me to come out to California and I was out at his place for a week. He was trying to get me to come to
Motown. But at that time I had already made up my mind that whatever I did I
was going to do it for myself. Regretfully, because I had heard a whole lot of
bad things about Berry Gordy, but when I met him I found a completely different
person. I would have loved to work with him, but my ma was sick and I wanted to
do something of my own, a business of my own.”
That led to the birth of Surfside Records in '79. The
label is owned by General and Michael Branch, who also owns a booking
”This is quite a different market than most places,
because the bands down here work for four or five nights a week. A lot of the
bands down here are making more money than the bands who record. They work
In the beach scene the most popular ones are, of course,
The Chairmen Of The Board, The Showmen are doing quite well, The Tams,
Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose, a local band called The
Emperors. Of course, there's The Drifters and with The Tymes
we recently did a concert for about 20 000 people.”
With such a loyal public the records must be selling quite
”It Will Stand, which was released on Minit many
many many years ago, is still selling in the beach music circuit. There's the difference.
If we make a record that people down here like, that record lives on forever
and ever. The things like On The Beach, Carolina Girls, Going Fishing, Down
At The Beach Club are like classics. These records sell every summer.”
The Ichiban connection?
”I just called them. I wanted this music to go a little
further than these areas here, within these five or six states. I've known John
Abbey for a long long time, in fact John and I were living out in the same area
here in Atlanta.
I wanted to do this with an independent, where I would
have the control. If I'd gone to the major, they would be telling me and I know
that then I'd be doing rap music. So I went to John and the same day we decided
that Ichiban is going to distribute my music.”
The distribution of other Surfside acts is still open and
depends on how What Goes Around Comes Around takes off.
So, what is the opinion of the artist, who wants to make a
recall and who lists as his favourites of THE moment Luther Vandross and
Whitney Houston (`they don't sing like they used to'), of the black
music scene today?
”I don't think it's dramatic enough. It's not the music
where the artist is in control. Today it's more or less a producer control.
Basically I'm trying to catch the old appeal, even though
all the stuff is new. In the United States the most popular music is the 70's
music. They even have special shows for the 70's music, but they don't have any
new music that sounds like that.”