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Bios with Neal "Soul Dog" Furr

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The following biography was first published in 2002 in The Beach Music Reporter. It was re-published again here at Beachmusic45.com in 2005. It has been revised for re-publication once again as a tribute to the memory of General Norman Johnson.

 

The Chairmen of the Board Biography

 

“Get ‘em up, get ‘em up” – a sure sign that the Chairmen of the Board are in the house and ready to turn out another hypnotizing performance. Close to forty years after the Chairmen hit the national charts with such rhythmic tunes as “Give Me Just a Little More Time” and “Everything’s Tuesday”, they have become the Godfathers of the music we know and love – Beach music. The crowds become larger and the interest grows stronger with each passing year. Dedicated fans young and old turn out in waves to hear the Chairmen and to be captivated by what can only be characterized as pure quality entertainment.

 

The story begins in Norfolk, Virginia where General Johnson’s musical career started at the age of 7 under the watchful eye of his father, who was his first mentor. He joined his dad’s Gospel vocal group, the Israelites, and was referred to as “the Boy Wonder”. At 13, he joined several friends in a group known as the Humdingers, who had the opportunity early on to open a show for Chuck Willis. The R & B group known as the Cookies were on the same bill and their manager was the wife of legendary Atlantic Records producer /  songwriter Jesse Stone. She was impressed with General, arranging for him to go to Long Island and spend time with Jesse, who became another important figure in his life. The Humdingers recorded some cuts for Atlantic that were never released, but General's experiences working with Jesse made a lasting impression on him and inspired his desire to be a songwriter.

The Humdingers traveled to New Orleans in 1961, signed with Minit Records,  changing the name of the group to the Showmen. The members were Norman Johnson, Milton Wells, Leslie Felton and the Wright brothers, Dorsey and Gene. They began working with producer / arranger Allen Toussaint at Minit, where artists such as Ernie K-Doe, Jessie Hill, Benny Spellman and two of Allen’s young proteges, Aaron Neville and Irma Thomas were also recording.

At the age of 18, General wrote “It Will Stand”, which soon reached #1 in several major markets and was proclaimed by Dick Clark as the official Anthem of Rock and Roll. It was actually re-released on the Imperial label in 1964 and became a hit all over again. Lyrics from the song like ‘It swept this whole wide land, sinkin’ deep in the heart of man’ had taken hold as a proclamation of long live Rock and Roll. Another General penned tune “39-21-46” (a labeling error, it was supposed to be “39-21-40 Shape”) achieved regional success and of course, is forever immortalized in Beach music history as one of the all time classics. Their time at Minit established the Showmen as one of the significant R & B groups to bridge the gap between Doo Wop and Soul music in the early to mid-sixties.

 

Swan Records owner Tony Mamarella, former producer of American Bandstand when it was based in Philadelphia, signed the Showmen in 1965. He convinced General to use his full name, General Norman Johnson. One of their tunes during this period “In Paradise” was a hit in the Philly area and later was included on the Forevermore beach music compilation "Fraternity Row – Rhythm ‘n Beach and Soul”. Another of their Swan recordings “Our Love Will Grow” gained quite a following among the European collectors and is currently included on several Northern Soul compilations produced in the UK. In 1966, the Showmen came south to play the Beach music scene, with one of their first performances in the area being in Raleigh, North Carolina. On the same bill with the Tams, the Embers and Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, they received a tremendous response of approval from the audience. The group was immediately recognized and accepted among the beach crowd, and they toured the region for several years.

 

After General Johnson left the Showmen and headed to Detroit, the group kept performing until the early 70’s. They have reformed many times, recorded strong Beach music tunes and have been produced by General over the years. Check out Surfside’s  “Rare and Classic Hits” CD for prime time past and present Showmen. They were much more than one hit wonders, with additional great sounding cuts such as “No Trespassing”, “Honey House” and “Sweet Beach Music”, to name a few.

 

Danny Woods had grown up in Atlanta, learning to sing in church and in various bands. At the tender age of 19, he struck out for Detroit to see what the Motor City could offer in terms of musical success. He found plenty of clubs where you could walk in and jam, one where he got to perform with a few members of the Motown house band, known as the Funk Brothers. Danny had his own group that auditioned for a Motown A&R man, and from this he was able to obtain session work with artists such as Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin and Walter Jackson.

 

In 1968, the famous Motown songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland formed the Invictus label and began to put together a vocal quartet. They assembled four very talented individual performers: General Norman Johnson, Danny Woods, Harrison Kennedy and Eddie Custis. The Chairmen of the Board became a reality and the first order of business was dance school, with famous choreographer Cholly Atkins, who had worked with the Four Tops, the Pips and the Supremes. A string of hits began unfolding in 1970. “Give Me Just a Little More Time” was an instant success, climbing to number three on the Pop charts, and put the Invictus label on the map. “Dangling On a String”, “Everything’s Tuesday” and “Pay to the Piper” soon followed and the group rocketed to the top, booking tour dates in the US and England. Television appearances included Soul Train, the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and American Bandstand, among others.

 

It is interesting that the first General creation for Holland-Dozier-Holland, a song entitled “Patches”, somehow got lost in the shuffle and was not released on the Invictus label. Jerry Wexler from Atlantic Records later picked up the song for Clarence Carter, which sold millions of copies and made it to the Top Ten on the charts. It earned General a Grammy Award for his songwriting talent, which was evident from his production of several other million sellers issued on the Invictus label. Included were the Honeycone’s “Want Ads” and “Stickup”, Freda Payne’s “Bring the Boys Home” and One Hundred Proof Aged in Soul’s “Somebody’s Been Sleeping in My Bed”.

 

Ken Knox joined the group in 1972 as a sax player. His family had moved to Detroit when he was 3 years old and he cut his teeth listening to Motown. He borrowed his brother’s saxophone and taught himself how to play it. After high school, most of his friends went to work in the automobile factories, but he didn’t follow. He began finding jobs touring as a horn player and playing recording sessions on weekends. He was a member of a group called the Impacts, where Danny Woods later had the opportunity to see him play. Danny invited him to join their band preparing to leave for a European tour. He accepted and eventually moved up to the front, helping out on vocals as well. Thirty eight years later, he is still there, one of the fabulous three making up the current Chairmen.

 

With some level of creative frustration, the Chairmen left Invictus in the mid-seventies. They toured Europe for roughly three years and traveled extensively up until 1978, with the road taking its toll. General went solo for a brief period, but soon realized he still had a vision for unleashing his creativity as a songwriter, arranger and producer. He headed south, back close to home, where he knew music lovers had clung to the phenomenon that had been classified as Beach music. He hooked up with Mike Branch, a Charlotte, NC based talent agent and former band member of the Tempests, to form Surfside Records in 1979. As General put it “We never signed a piece of paper – we just shook hands”. The union lasted 18 years, until Mike’s untimely death. The significance of the milestone of the creation of Surfside is that what was to come altered the course of history for Beach music and gave it new meaning along the way.

 

In 1981, Motown CEO Berry Gordy Jr. persuaded General to come to his home in California to discuss the possibility of moving to Los Angeles and joining the company. Although the deal would have been lucrative, General did not want to turn his back on what he and Mike had started at Surfside.

 

Motown’s loss was without a doubt Beach music’s gain. Twenty nine years later, the Chairmen were going stronger than ever. “Carolina Girls”, “On the Beach”, “Summer Love”, “Down at the Beach Club”, “Beach Fever”, “Gone Fishin”, “I’d Rather Be in Carolina”, “Shaggin’ the Night Away”, “Bless Your Heart”  - the list of great tunes goes on and on. They’ve had many successful albums, been featured on several compilations and given us outstanding special projects such as “Better Late Than Never”. Let’s not forget “Rockaway Beach’, a General collaboration with the late Joey Ramone.  One key Chairmen project, the 2 CD box anthology produced in 2000 pretty much says it all. From vintage Showmen, to classic Invictus, to modern day Beach, the charisma present in these guys comes shining through in the music.

 

Coastline’s Jim Quick wrote several years ago in the Beach Music Reporter: “Thanks to General Johnson in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s for giving us a whole new sound that changed Beach music forever. The Chairmen gave us “The Gift of Beach Music”, the greatest Beach music album of all time. This collection of nothing but Beach classics created a sound that started the whole thing over again, with a new style that will last well beyond any of our lives”.  

 

“ Timeless”, the 2002 Chairmen album, was meant to signify the collection of tunes that General wrote embracing the roots of  Beach music – that rhythmic sound of classic Rhythm and Blues with Soul. ‘Timeless’ was also indicative of what the group had become – one for all the ages. An illustration of the Chairmen’s far reaching influence - the  Goldmine/Soul Supply internet site, based in England, primarily promotes and sells re-issue compilations of ‘60’s and ‘70’s Soul music. Right on their main page, when this album was released,  along with the ads for rare vinyl and Northern Soul CDs, was a promotion for ‘Timeless’, with a sales price in pounds.

 

The group’s more recent albums, “All in the Family” (2005) and “Soul Tapestry”(2009), continued to be the embodiment of Beach music while also creating a new diversification – crossing over into what had become an exploding reformed genre called Southern Soul. Three Chairmen songs, “All in the Family”, “Three Woman” and “The Blacker the Berry” have all made it to #1 on the Southern Soul charts in recent years.

 

 

A Chairmen show is truly an ‘event’ – the audience comes earlier, stays longer and includes an ever growing number of college age young folks who don’t mind driving as much as a hundred miles or so to get worked up into a music frenzy.

 

 Thanks General, Danny and Ken: you’ve kept us young at heart and kept the young adopting the sound we know and love, and you will be Beach music icons forever.

 

We lost General Norman Johnson on October 13, 2010. The impact his music made on the world will go on until the end of time.

 

 

Copyright Neal Furr 2002, 2005, 2010.