Howard Hewett had only been in the UK a couple of days when I called, and was alternating between press calls and rehearsals with fellow stalwart Jeffrey Daniel and more recent Shalamar addition Carolyn Griffey. But if my interviewee had something better to do than start the day conversing with me, he hid it well.
“No man, I’ve started my whole day anticipating talking to you!”
Ah, top man. So how were those rehearsals going? Was it a case of just stepping right back into the flow of it all?
“Oh yeah, the three of us get together for tours two or three times a year, and it’s just about getting into a whole ’nother kind of routine than when I’m home in the States.”
Cast your mind back to the early ’80s, with Shalamar well on their way to becoming somewhat synonymous with catchy feelgood dance music at that point, despite their roots as a manufactured group put together by Dick Griffey, ‘talent co-ordinator’ for US hit show Soul Train.
Griffey set up his own label, SOLAR (Sound of Los Angeles Records), and using session musicians, he created Uptown Festival, credited to Shalamar in 1977. And when that was a hit he realised a real demand for a proper group, with Soul Train dancers Daniel and Jody Watley soon recruited. The band’s original lead vocalist Gary Mumford departed fairly swiftly, while his replacement, Gerald Brown, followed suit in 1979 – despite the success of second single Take That to the Bank. But Jeffrey Daniel already had another singer in mind to take his place.
Howard Hewett moved to Los Angeles in 1976, Daniel in time getting to know him at hip Crenshaw district club Maverick’s Flat, and soon asking him to join Shalamar. He was committed to tour Asia and Europe – including Scandinavian and UK visits – with his covers band Beverly Hills at the time though, and turned him down. However, a later offer succeeded, Hewett – who on his return to the US was working with Motown producer Jeffrey Bowen – joining Daniel and Watley, the trio going on to become what was considered Shalamar’s classic line-up, the Big Fun LP quickly following, produced by Leon Sylvers.
From that album, The Second Time Around became the new band’s first million-selling single, not only a No.1 on the US R’n’B chart but a top-10 US Billboard pop chart success, their funk/disco/r’n’b and pop soul crossover potential already tapped into. And while that and their next offering didn’t quite manage the UK-top 40, the next two hits did, and by April 1982 they had the first of what turned out to be three straight top-10 hits here, with I Can Make You Feel Good. What’s more, by the beginning of the following year – nine months after its UK release – the Friends LP had also spawned top-fives A Night to Remember and There It Is and another hit with the title track, the album itself reaching No. 6. And it just so happens that they’re now reliving that golden period, celebrating Friends‘ 35th anniversary. So where’s all that time gone, H?
“I remember everything about recording the album, and all the years performing that material, but yes, time kind of flies when you’re having fun.”
As I chatted to this amiable Akron, Ohio-born and bred vocalist, pianist and guitarist, who was just about to turn 62, I was looking across at my vinyl gatefold sleeve copy of Friends, telling him that while its white backdrop had turned a little creamy with age, I felt the songs themselves remained as fresh as ever.
And I had to ask, has he still got the lilac boots he’s resting his bass guitar on for the LP cover shot?
“I got rid of those a long time ago, not long after that photo. Ha! I’m not a big hoarder. There are some things I get rid of through the years.”
Did he instinctively feel you had ‘something special’ (to quote the latest Shalamar single, The Real Thing) with this album back in 1982?
“Well, every time you go into the studio, the attitude you go in there with is to do your best, the best work that you can. How the public is going to perceive it and media and radio and everybody, that comes afterwards. There’s been projects we’ve had where we’d had a single that we felt was cool but they gravitated towards something else, especially back in the day when DJ’s had the autonomy to play whatever they wanted to play. You just never know. That’s why you always go in there with each track on the project, just putting your best forward.”
Well, everything certainly seemed to come together for you that time around.
“Yep – it was all very cool!”
Confession time. I tend to lean towards Motown, Stax, then Curtis Mayfield, Al Green and Philly material, and can take or leave a lot of early ‘80s soul. And so much of it quickly dated. But I did like that album. And those singles certainly don’t sound dated today.
“Yeah, when you look at There It Is, I Can Make You Feel Good, A Night to Remember, you know, thank God – those are classics!”
And they’ve stood the test of time as far as I’m concerned.
“Exactly! That’s one thing you do go in the studio conscientiously trying to put together – music that’s not going to be dated – or you hope, anyway – and will stand the test of time as far as that genre of music, and kind of transcends what’s being played at that particular time.”
“Ah, thank you! That was a pleasure. We reunited with our producer Leon Sylvers, which was a really great thing, and piecemealed the vocals, because these days Jeffrey lives in Nigeria, Carolyn lives in Memphis, and I’m in LA.
“The Real Thing was one of the tracks Leon presented to me on a solo project. I felt it was a perfect Shalamar song … Shalamar 2017. So I went in and I did my vocal and was pretty proud of it, but then Carolyn came into town, put her vocal down, and I said, ‘Whoah – wait a minute, I’ve got to go back to re-do mine!’
“She bought a seriousness to that whole track, man! Then Jeff came in, did his parts, and it came together real well.”
That seems to be the way of things with several name acts these days – living far apart yet somehow still pulling it together when it matters. The world seems to be getting a smaller place. Yet at the same time I feel the need to go over old ground and say you have someone in the White House who seems determined to put a far more narrow-minded slant on world affairs, talking of building walls and so on. Your way of working seems to suggest a far more progressive and positive ‘hands across the water’ approach.
“Well, we hope so, because there are so many things going on, all around the world, like here with Brexit and there with Trump. It’s kind of crazy, but the world does get smaller every day. The only thing that gets bigger are the air-fares!”
‘Baby, I can make you feel good …’
So how about that ‘feelgood dance music’ label that comes up quite a lot when Shalamar are mentioned – is that about right? You certainly put on a mighty show for your audience.
“Thank you! And that’s what the whole thing is about. The majority of people get up every day, go to a job they hate. Our job’s to kind of make that a little easier. We get an opportunity to lighten up a person’s day, making our job a little more worthwhile.”
Until mid-1983 the classic trio racked up more than a dozen hits worldwide, with Shalamar also becoming well known on this side of the Atlantic for Daniel’s energetic and somewhat intricate dance routines, embracing then-underground body-popping routines and the moonwalk, as it became known (then more likely described as the ‘backslide’).
Born just over five weeks before Hewett, Daniel is widely recognised as an award-winning choreographer, not least having taught Michael Jackson to moonwalk and co-choreographing his 1987 Bad and Smooth Criminal videos. And like Jackson, it was through watching Soul Train on American TV that Hewett got to first experience Daniel’s dance potential.
“Ah man, when Soul Train first came on, I was about 14, and had done music since I was around 10. By then I had a little r’n’b group in Akron, and on Saturdays at noon, like the rest of the country, we’d be in front of the TV watching it. It’s crazy – I used to watch Jeffrey and Jody, not knowing who they were nor that we were going to hook up years later, be in a group together.”
And I understand you got to know Jeffrey through the LA club scene.
“That’s where we first met, a club where all the Soul Train people used to come down there on a weekend. Looking out at the audience, you’d see Lionel Ritchie, Richard Pryor, Chaka Khan – everyone used to hang at Maverick’s. It never had a liquor license, either because the area was so crazy or John Daniels was a little too cheap to get one! They used to make fruit smoothie drinks in the back. That didn’t deter people from coming to the club though. It was good times!
“A couple months after I first got down there, I met John Daniels (who ran the club). I helped him put together this group called Beverly Hills. Every time we had a show we wanted to try out, we’d play at Maverick’s Flat. That’s when I met Jeff. I was a fan of his and he says he was a fan of mine. It still took a couple of years, as I went overseas with the group first. I was over here for a little less than a year and a half. It was cool, but it was definitely meant to be.”
At the height of their fame in 1983, Daniel and Whatley left Shalamar, Hewett carrying on for two years with new members, further hits resulting in a Grammy for the front-man.
“When they split at that time I talked to the record company and said, ‘Why don’t I just do my solo project now?’ But they said I had two and a half years left on the contract and gave me some options as to how I could spend that time, and the best one was to do another Shalamar album. That’s when I bought Micki Free into the group and we did this national tour to find a female replacement, and that’s when we found Delisa Davis.”
It wasn’t long before he set out on a solo career though, and while a few personal problems followed – he was embroiled in a high-profile drugs case in Florida at one stage, although finally acquitted of all charges – he went on to make 10 albums of his own between 1986 and 2008. Meanwhile, Shalamar’s classic line-up briefly reformed as guests of Babyface on a hit cover of This is the Lover in You in 1996, although it would be another three years before Hewett and Daniel properly reunited. What had changed by then to get the band together again?
“Well, it really wasn’t a whole conscientious thing. I do my solo stuff as well at home, throughout the States, but Jeffrey called and we talked about doing a show in Asia, and at that time we called Jody and asked if she wanted to come and hang with us, but she was doing other stuff and declined, so Jeffrey and I did it for about a couple of years, in Japan, Africa and a couple of other places, but we still wanted to bring a female entity back in the group. And the first person we thought about was Carolyn, because of her history with the whole thing. There was just a natural fit.”
Hewett and Daniel’s initial dates in Japan were followed by UK tours in 2000, 2001, and 2003, the latter two with their new member. As the daughter of Dick Griffey and accomplished r’n’b artist Carrie Lucas, she was already moving in the right circles, and at the age of 18 had a record deal, her first band Absolute’s claims to fame including contributions to the Lambada film soundtrack. Was she a regular fixture around SOLAR’s offices and the studio in the early days of Shalamar?
“Oh yeah! We’d known her since she was a young girl, 13 or 14. Jeffrey knew her even before I did. She’d be hanging around the studio, getting on everybody’s nerves! She says Shalamar was her favourite group, and that says a lot, because at the time there was Whispers, Lakeside, Midnight Star … so many more.”
When you’re not doing this, you’ve got your four children and two grandchildren back home. I’m guessing the little ones miss you when you’re on tour.
“You know what, they’re so used to it, and that’s how it’s been through the years. You always miss them but always stay in contact, and now – with the way communication is – it’s a lot easier.”
Seeing as when we spoke, he was just about to mark his latest big birthday, I asked if he’d stopped counting them yet.
“Well, no, but with this birthday I’ll be flying all day. That’s when I go back home. I get on a plane at four in the afternoon and don’t touch down at home until about 7.30. So my birthday this year is going to be spent 35,000 or so feet up in the air!”
And when you touch down and you’re on the road or in the studio together, does Ms Griffey keep yourself and your old pal both young? Or is it the other way around?
“Oh, I think we keep each other that way!”
Shalamar visit Preston’s Charter Theatre on a Friends 35th anniversary tour this Saturday, November 18th. For tickets call the box office on 01772 804 444 or try this link. And for details of other dates on the tour – leading to visits to London’s Clapham Grand on Friday December 1st and Brighton’s Concorde 2 on Saturday, December 2nd – check out Shalamar’s official website or keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.
I’d like to pretend it was planned, but the day of publication of this feature/ interview just happened to mark what would have been the 79th birthday of Carolyn’s father, Richard Gilbert Griffey, better known as Dick Griffey, of SOLAR Records and Soul Train fame, who sadly died in 2010, aged 71. This feature is dedicated to his memory. R.I.P. Dick.