SoulMusic.com’s Michael Lewis shares a conversation with Al Johnson, who sheds some light on his musical history, working with Tata Vega, Norman Connors and Jean Carne, and the reissue of his Columbia album BACK FOR MORE on SoulMusic.com Records…
Michael Lewis: Good day, SoulMusic community, this is Michael Lewis. Today I have a very special interview in store for you. My partner David Nathan and I have created a saying that encapsulates our intention: “We are dedicated to bringing you the music you love.” Since last October, through the association between SoulMusic.com Records and Cherry Red UK, we have reissued thirty-two albums on twenty-three CDs, including great recordings by The Dynamic Superiors, Esther Phillips, Nancy Wilson, Dionne Warwick, The Stylistics, The Chi-Lites, Peabo Bryson, Natalie Cole, Mtume, Harvey Mason, Freda Payne, Billy Preston, Marlena Shaw, Bobbi Humphrey and most recently, Tavares. Our guest today was instrumentally involved in three of our releases: the first two Motown albums from the incredible Tata Vega, FULL SPEED AHEAD and TOTALLY TATA, where he served as arranger and songwriter, and also for his own 1980 Columbia Records album, BACK FOR MORE. Please welcome the phenomenal, multi-talented Al Johnson. How are you today, Al?
Al Johnson: Quite fine, Mike. Quite fine.
ML: Thanks for spending some time with us today. I’m so excited to speak to you, because those three records really represent a pivotal period in my own musical education in the mid-Seventies and moving into the Eighties, which to me is a high watermark for R&B music overall in terms of production, songwriting, performing, profitability—all of that. What did you think when you found out that BACK FOR MORE was being reissued by SoulMusic.com Records?
AJ: I was totally flattered. I was delighted, to say the least, especially when I heard that Tata’s albums were being reissued as well. That was a real pleasant trip down memory lane as far as I was concerned.
ML: I know there was a limited Japanese reissue of BACK FOR MORE in 1993, but it was quite hard to find and pretty expensive too, so I was really glad because that was one of my main little pieces of vinyl that stuck with me. On a major move, when I moved from Los Angeles to New York for the first time, that was my soundtrack right there, BACK FOR MORE.
AJ: That’s great.
ML: I know there’s quite a bit of historical information in the liner notes from your interview with David that you did prior to the release, but can you give us a brief history of how you started in the business and what led you to Motown and Tata Vega, for those of you who haven’t picked up BACK FOR MORE yet?
AJ: Right. Well, my start in the business came when I arrived in Washington, and I arrived in Washington in September of 1965 from Newport News, Virginia, and I attended Howard University for about a year. And I wasn’t even there for music, but while I was there I had some jam sessions with some of the guys in the dormitory and I got hooked. So when I came back the following year I formed a group—the name of the group at that time was Al and the Vikings, and we did a lot of talent shows and stuff on campus.
While I was doing that I met Guy Draper, who was also attending Howard and was a member of a vocal group called The Cavaliers, and they signed with Curtis Mayfield and became the Mayfield singers. When that group broke up Guy decided to go into management and production on his own, and he approached us about signing with him, which we eventually did. He got us the deal with Kapp Records, and by that time we were The Unifics. We started out as The Unique Five and then we became a quartet and we were The Uniques, and one of the guys in the group came up with the name The Unifics and it stuck.
Well, the result of that hookup was two hit singles, “Court of Love” and “The Beginning Of My End”. We toured the country extensively—at least the eastern half of the country—right up until 1972 when we broke up. By that time I was just getting started as a songwriter and arranger and session musician, and I pretty much did that for the next six years. Then I did a set of arrangements for a guy named Mike Gonzales—and he wasn’t even in the business, but he was trying to get in there—and I did some sessions for him. And somebody took one of those tapes out on the coast, out to Los Angeles, and a fellow named Winston Monseque heard it and really liked my arrangements. And that’s how I ended up with doing Tata Vega’s work, because he was her manager and her producer at the time.
So they brought me out to Los Angeles to do those arrangements for FULL SPEED AHEAD and TOTALLY TATA, and of course I let them hear some of my songs, and three of them ended up on those two projects.
ML: What was that experience like, working with Tata?
AJ: Incredible—incredible. First of all, we had top-of-the-line session musicians, so cutting the tracks was no problem at all. But then watching her work and the energy she brought to the sessions and that great spirit of hers… it was great. That’s my baby sister to this day.
ML: It all comes through, man. The opening strains of “Full Speed Ahead”—it just comes right at you, man, and it doesn’t stop. Yeah, she’s great. And that was one of my very first album purchases, so that really brought back a lot of memories to me, bringing that music out. Could you tell us what exactly the arranger does?
AJ: Well, basically he just determines what the musicians play. In other words, everything is written on paper for them to read, and the best musicians of course are the ones who can read it and put feel to it at the same time.
For example, in that situation I started out with a real strong rhythm section, and I wrote parts for all of them—bass parts, guitar and keyboard parts—and once that was established then I went back to the drawing board and wrote parts for the string players and horn players.
ML: Now the song you wrote on FULL SPEED AHEAD, the song was “Just When Things Are Getting Good”.
AJ: “Just When Things Are Getting Good”, yeah. And on TOTALLY TATA, “Ever So Lovingly”.
ML: TOTALLY TATA, “Ever So Lovingly”.
AJ: “Ever So Lovingly”, and I co-wrote the song called “It’s Too Late”.
ML: Those are great songs—great songs, and they definitely stand the test of time. I’ve been having that “Ever So Lovingly” just on repeat for the last few days.
AJ: Oh, my goodness.
ML: Yeah, it’s gorgeous. And her performance on that song is just incredible.
AJ: Yes, indeed; yeah. I wasn’t there when she sang it and when I finally did hear it, it just knocked me out.
ML: And then I’m listening to also “Come In Heaven”, which is just a classic song.
AJ: Very interesting, because it was Winston’s idea for me to do those Marvin Gaye-sounding things in the background, and a lot of DJs got fooled. They thought it was Marvin.
ML: Okay [laughs]. So then after that, somewhere along the way you came in contact with Norman Connors?
AJ: Yes, and that was an indirect thing, so to speak. I had done one solo album in ’78 called PEACEFUL, and at that time one of my high-school classmates was out on the coast then and he had gotten into the business—he was working with Clarence Avant at Sussex Records for a long time—and he met Norman out there. Norman was going into the studio in 1979 to do his INVITATION album and he suggested that I do a vocal on it, so I ended up doing the song “Your Love” on that particular album. And at the same time, Norman was negotiating a production deal with CBS and they were going to give him five albums to do. So he decided that the first project would be me, and that’s how I got on to that one.
ML: Now you also worked on the TAKE IT TO THE LIMIT album, which... what was your song? [hums] “I Don’t Need Nobody Else”, right.
AJ: and I did full arrangements on that.
ML: You did the Adaritha songs on that one, right?
AJ: Two of them: “Justify” and I think “You Bring Me Joy”.
ML: “You Bring Me Joy”?
ML: I’m looking at the liner notes, which says, “You’ve Been On My Mind”, “I Don’t Need Nobody Else” , “Justify” and “You Bring Me Joy”.
AJ: Right, right, right.
ML: That’s the original version of “You Bring Me Joy”.
AJ: Yes, they recorded that before Anita did.
ML: It predated Anita Baker’s by about six years, I think?
ML: Wow, those are great albums too. And I’ve always been, from that INVITATION recording… that was kind of my introduction to Norman Connors. Of course I backed up and found everything that he did before that, but that was my opening with him and it’s been a love affair with his music ever since then.
And that’s why I really latched onto your record at first, because it was a Norman Connors production, and that’s when I ran across it for the first time and I said, “Well, I have to buy this”. It’s been a love affair there ever since. So on BACK FOR MORE, what did you guys do, putting that together?
AJ: Well, it wasn’t that difficult since I wrote most of the tunes.
ML: And some of those songs were from your PEACEFUL album also, right?
AJ: Yes. The title cut itself was a different thing. When we were in the studio recording the different cuts, Kenny Stover, who wrote “I’m Back For More”, came in with a demo tape and left it with us. Everybody was impressed with the song, but we were focused on what we were doing at the time. In the meantime, we were sitting around on a break one time and we were discussing the possibility of a duet. And I had met Jean Carne through Norman when we were working on the INVITATION album, because she was sort of supervising Adaritha’s vocals as well as the background vocals.
ML: The Jones Girls, right.
AJ: And Jean and I, we kind of developed a good chemistry from the beginning, even though we hadn’t sang anything together prior to that time or anything. I think somewhere down the line Norman told her about the project and she said, “Well, if you want to do a duet I’m available.” So when we got to talking about the duet I remembered the demo tape that Kenny had sent us on “I’m Back For More”, and I said, “I think that’s the song to go with.” So then we started talking about who would do it and I said, “Wait a minute. Jean has already volunteered—we don’t need to look for nobody else.” And the rest was history. It worked like it was supposed to.
ML: And my other all-time favourite is “I’ve Got My Second Wind”. A few years back David and I proposed a compilation, and that was one of the songs that I selected to go on there. For a myriad of reasons it never actually came to fruition, but I selected “I’ve Got My Second Wind” as a song to go on that compilation. It’s perfection to me: lyrically, the arrangements, the brass all throughout the song… it’s just a great song, man.
AJ: That’s a great story for me too, because one of my other high-school classmates for a while, one of my best buddies—we’ve been best buddies for forty-plus years… or more like fifty-plus years. In fact, he sang in The Unifics with me for quite some time, and he started dabbling with song lyrics. I was doing what I could with them for a while, and then he sent me those words—“I’ve Got My Second Wind”. And I said, “We got something here.” I don’t think I looked at it a good ten minutes before I was sitting down at the piano putting music to it. It was just instantly I felt it, right there.
ML: Like magical.
AJ: Yeah. And the recording you refer to, when we recorded it I did the rhythm arrangements and then Norman got Paul Riser to come in and do the strings and horns, and of course Paul is a monster. He’s one of the great orchestrators of all time.
ML: There’s something that happens on that last verse when that brass comes in. Man, it gives me chills every time. It’s thirty years later and I still get chills when I hear that music; it’s amazing. Now the song “Peaceful”—when did the PEACEFUL album actually come out?
AJ: It actually came out two years before the BACK FOR MORE album; it came out in ’78. And as a matter of fact, both “Peaceful” and “I’ve Got My Second Wind” were on that first album. The reason Norman decided to do them again, and I have to agree with him in hindsight, is that not enough people heard the first versions. So he felt with Columbia supporting this that we’d have a much broader audience and everybody would get to hear those tunes.
ML: Looking at the liner notes, some of those people at Columbia—George Butler, LeBaron Taylor, Paris Eley Vernon Slaughter, Sandra DaCosta … I actually started working at CBS Records in the mid-eighties—like ’86, ’87—and so I had the pleasure of working with all those people, who are really, really great. I had great conversations with LeBaron Taylor and I really cherish those moments. They were great people in the business. But it should have been even huger than it was, looking back, but thank God we have the opportunity to give it a second chance out here.
AJ: Well, I’m certainly appreciative of that. No question.
ML: So now you’re here living in D.C.?
ML: And what’s going on with you these days?
AJ: Well, a new single for one thing, called “It’s Real”. Everybody’s sort of excited about it, and I’ll hopefully follow it up with a complete CD. Right now I’m just doing some individual sessions and a few individual performances here and there.
ML: Are you still doing any work arranging and producing any artists?
AJ: Yes, and producing as well. Matter of fact, that takes up the majority of my time right now.
ML: Okay, great; great. Well you know, we here at SoulMusic we’re available for exposure for whatever you’re working on. Just let us know—whatever we need to do to help you get it out there to the world, to the masses, we’re ready to help you out.
AJ: Absolutely, we’ll be getting in touch. But hopefully you should be hearing the single shortly, and I’ll see to it that you and David get one anyway.
ML: Most definitely. Okay, Al, thank you so much for spending a little time with us this morning and I look forward to talking to you again soon.
AJ: It was a pleasure, Mike.
ML: All right, enjoy yourself.
AJ: Take it easy.
ML: All right, bye-bye.
About the Writer
Michael Lewis is a long-time associate at SoulMusic.com. His industry experience includes Sony Music, Motown and La Face Records, and a tenure at HEAR Music. He is grateful to contribute to sustaining the legacy of R&B and soul music.