Interview recorded in person, London, March 10, 2012
In Part Two, we continue the story of London-born John Abbey's lifelong journey into the world of soul music. Having established Blues & Soul as the premier British magazine for the genre, John branched out into other areas with his company, Contempo - including artist tours of the UK, a thriving label and an in-office record store that was renowned as the 'go to' shop for US imports in the '70s...
In the late '70s, John moved to Atlanta and began the next fascinating chapter of his journey with the creation of Ichiban Records and more and his ongoing management of the Three Degrees...
David: And so, really, at that point, we’ve got Contempo as the umbrella company, we’ve got Blues and Soul thriving, we’ve got the part of the office is now a record shop, we’ve got Contempo Records as a label, with not only licensing, but also with producing records in England as you said with the Armada Orchestra, Ultra Funk, and some of the artists here in the UK, Freddie Mack…
John: Then we took it a little further with the Doris Dukes, we actually did four sides on Sam and Dave, which was fast, but we did it. We ‘survived’ it, shall we say. There were three or four acts that came [including] J.J. Barnes. That took us to the next level because we were lucky enough to be a little bit successful then, and at the same time, I’d worked out this deal. I’d gone back and forth with Atlantic and I’d gotten to know [Atlantic executive] Jerry Wexler very well. And if there was anybody, he was the first person that I came up against that - and this will sound competitive and I don’t mean it that way - but the first person that I actually looked up to and realized that ‘no, this guy’s higher up the chain than me.’ I guess I was getting a little bit of education at this point. I was not as young and naive and Jerry, bless his heart, took me under his wing - he was very sophisticated, very successful obviously [as a] producerand many other things - and it was almost like I was his child in the record industry. He’s got family and children and everything like that but I don’t mean in that score. That is, he opened the doors to things like contracts, studios - my idea of a studio is almost like Toys R Us - but he took me to the next level. This was the first time that I hadn’t had to learn it for myself. That I actually had somebody who knew what they were doing, who could help me get to that next level. Well, thanks to Jerry, then he introduced me to the Erteguns who were his partners, we were given the freedom of the Atlantic catalogue, plus if you recall we were promoting their records, a two-year contract, it was hugely successful. We started the Mojo label with Polydor, which gave us the Tammy Lynn’s, Willie Tee, a bunch of records, and again, full circle. How did we know about them? From the record shops. And you went to Polydor, you said ‘you should release this Willie Tee,’ [and they were] ‘oh no no,’ [and we said], ‘well, you should release this old Drifters song,’ and the Drifters had meant nothing at that point. We [had] back to back some of the old hits…and it wasn’t just the oldies, because it was when Roberta Flack emerged, Donny Hathaway, again timing, timing, timing.
David: Is there a record associated with that period?
John: There is, but it doesn’t fit that period. The reason I say that was that for whatever reason, I always loved The Temptations, specifically one of them for whatever reason…t Eddie Kendricks had gone solo and I remember, I was in Atlanta which is another city I call home, and I was so honored, he played me the album that had –
David: “Keep on Truckin’” [on it]?
John: No, it was the first one that, no, it did have “Keep on Truckin’” and there were songs on there that nobody liked except for him and me. And there was a song called “Each Day I Cry a Little”. It’s a classic. Eddie Kendricks to the day he died, always said it was the best recording he’d ever made. Best performance and it’s a funny story because the album hadn’t come out and he had this one version where he did the talking at the beginning and little bits inside and the other one where he just sang it plain. He said, ‘I’m going to ask you, what do you like?’ I’m a country fan, so I love talking. So, he said ‘look, here it is, let me do the talking on it.’ And I remember literally, it brought goose bumps.
David: It’s interesting you picked that because that’s actually my favorite Eddie Kendricks track. I had no idea of that story. I mean as an album I like PEOPLE HOLD ON, but as a song, that particular recording is absolutely my favorite.
John: Not that you’re going to play it, but the two classics of Eddie, that’s my favorite, but the second one was a song called “Honey Brown” which was on the BOOGIE DOWN album, and he was going to put that on the first album and Motown wouldn’t let him because it was too hokey, they called it. And he said, ‘well you listen to it, is that hokey?’ I said ‘no, it’s just that it may not necessarily appeal, to be political, to the audience they’re aiming you at.’ He said, ‘well if you like it, I’m going to insist they put it on that one.’ They wouldn’t, but when the KEEP ON TRUCKIN album was so successful…they couldn’t argue with him because he said, ‘no. Like the WHAT’S GOING ON story, nobody wanted those songs, but Marvin was so successful he said, ‘this is what you’re going to put out.’ Well, every now and then the artist is proven right and “Honey Brown” was that, but “Each Day I Cry A Little”, I’ve got that on my iPod today, I still, every time I hear that song, if I’m doing something, I still stop and listen to it.
David: Well, would you mind if we play it?
John: I’ll maybe cry!
David: That’s alright. Here’s Eddie Kendricks with my personal favorite track of Eddie Kendricks’ and with a great story from John, here it is….
[EACH DAY I CRY A LITTLE]
Alright, that was Eddie Kendricks with “Each Day I Cry a Little”. Amazing, amazing performance, incredible soulful ballad, absolutely great.
John: Soul perfection.
David: Soul perfection. There you go. So, now we’re continuing on our story. So, Blues and Soul is thriving, Contempo is thriving, and then you moved to the United States.
John: Well, you were in New York already at that time.
David: I was.
John: And the theory behind it was… by that time, the gentleman that was printing the magazine for us…a gentleman called Roy Daniell, said ‘well, why does this not sell in America.’ I said, ‘well, it’s funny you should ask that because I’d love to get the chance to do so.’ Well, there were different versions of this story that many people have been told. Most people that are listening to this don’t know what I’m talking about, but the truth of the thing is, we released it in America, we probably did six or seven printings of it and the distributer simply didn’t pay. The sad thing for me personally, because Blues and Soul was still my baby and I truly looked at it as a child and I saw the magazine suddenly being, in my terminology, prostituted. It was like seeing your child put on the streets. It made me very angry. Actually, for a while, quite bitter. I was accused of stealing money and I don’t mind talking about it. Basically, the distributor had paid - how I could have gotten that money, it’s not impossible, but at that point - I wasn’t getting paid, it was just a very ugly period in my life, but …at that point I could’ve come back to England, could have even fought for the ownership of the magazine. I thought, ‘you know what? There’s no future living in the past,’ to coin a country song. So, I said ‘no, I’m going to try to go on and do other things that I want to do.’ I’d become a little bit wiser. I understood the way the industry worked in America and I loved Atlanta. Still do. And there were several artists living in the Atlanta area that I befriended. Some from earlier days like Eddie Floyd who lived nearby.
David: And Millie Jackson of course.
John: Millie wasn’t there at that point, she was still up in Brooklyn. William Bell [and others]….I was…suddenly a ‘nobody’ if you will, and it was my turn to sort of go cap in hand and go look, ‘I’d like to try and do this and do that.’ Well, to cut a long story short, one of the people that I was fortunate enough to run into was Curtis Mayfield, who lived ten minutes away from me. I did an interview [since] I was still doing journalist work.… for Blues for Soul but not on a daily basis or weekly basis, it was just things that I did. Well, I did an interview for Curtis and at that point, Curtis was going through some issues with his management and he wanted to manage himself. He didn’t want to record for major labels anymore. So Curtis said, ‘well look, come on and help me.’ So I said ‘well, I’ve got nothing better to do.’ It coincided with a reawaking of Curtis in Europe and Japan. Again, timing. So, suddenly I’d gone from no paycheck, wondering…in fact I was living in this little apartment, I learned Spanish - there were so many Spanish people around that speaking English didn’t do me any good - …[and] I would babysit. There were three hundred kids living in each house, and I made money babysitting while these women went off to work. It was fun. It was stupid, but it was fun.
Well, Curtis saved me from that so I started booking Curtis first and…we would do a six or seven-week tour of Europe. Curtis loved to do things downscale, so…the agent would rent a bus and we would just go off into Europe driving. Curtis never minded playing the biggest arena in the world or the smallest club. He got a kick out of it all. He was an absolute joy to be with, a true, I mean, just an amazing man, amazing because he didn’t realize that he was as talented as he obviously was, but yet there was an aura about him that you couldn’t ignore. He had a Geiger counter for a nose; he could smell a McDonalds from ten miles away! Every McDonalds on the road, we had to stop at, he was a joy! Some of the people that I met through Curtis are still some of my best friends and work mates to this day. People like Buzz Amato who ran our studio for us, which is later in the story. He still, he’s the Three Degrees’ keyboard player.…great people… Curtis opened those doors for me.
Well, at this point - this was like the early ‘80s, ’83, ’84 - and there was some kind of a dinner in Atlanta that I had to go with Curtis to and there were other artists from the area. It was…like the first Georgia Music Hall of Fame…in Macon; they had a gala dinner. Well everybody who was anybody in Georgia came to it. I’d done a lot of work with Zelma Redding, Otis’ wife and the kids, the Reddings as they were [known]. A lot of tours with them. I started using my international knowledge for Americans. So, I’d actually completely turned it upside down. That’s how I got where I was. Anyway, at this dinner, I saw William Bell and Clarence Carter and the three - Curtis, Clarence, and William - were off talking about something [and] little did I know, they were talking about me. They came back and all three of them said ‘look, we’ve been the big label route, none of us are big enough to do this on our own, but if we put this together, would you sort of (in American terms) quarterback it?’ I don’t know what the English term would be, but you know it was, ‘would you kind of guide it because obviously we have careers. We can’t do that stuff.’ I remember going home that night and I said to my wife, who I met on the Reddings [tour], Nina. I said, ‘you know, these people must be crazy. How are we going to do this?’ She said, ‘well, what else are you doing?’ So I said, ‘well, yeah I guess….’
So, anyway, again, as luck would have it, Stan Lewis who had Jewel Records [had] got into some money problems, business money obviously, nothing personal with a bank and the bank in Shreveport Louisiana had taken the company. Louisiana law was such that by them taking over the company, they could write it all off. So, there was a reason for it. So, [as] part of it was they said ‘well, look, you start a label, [which was Ichiban] and…distribute it, but we’ll give you some money.’ …I’d gone down there to give them a check for the Conway Brothers (the story there I won’t go into that has to do with Mr. [Richard] Branson here [in the UK], which is not very complimentary) anyway, and I’d gone home. Poor old Stan had been short changed and [it] broke his heart. It wasn’t his fault but anyway…I said, ‘well look, strangely enough, ten days ago, I kind of got this opportunity here’ and I said, ‘Stan it would give you like Curtis Mayfield, Clarence Carter, William Bell’ so they all jumped at it, so that was a formation of Ichiban and the next weekend I had to go to Japan with James Brown [and] didn’t have a name for the label.
So, we’re sitting there with Mr. Brown…and all we hear is ‘Ichiban Soul Brother, Ichiban Soul Brother’ and I knew what ichiban meant from the old Charlie Chan movies, so I thought, ‘you know what, that’s a good name for a label, people know the word, by putting Japanese hieroglyphics on there, symbols, people in the industry are going to think it’s Japanese’ because everything [was] at that point, Sony was getting into it. I thought, ‘well this is clever stuff here. ‘ I had a friend of mine… who’s a big radio personality in Japan today, he drew the Ichiban logo. He spoke Japanese obviously, he’d lived there for several years, and I met him through Swamp Dogg. The first time I went to Japan was with Swamp Dogg - which is another story - but anyway, so we came back with this logo, the color, the whole design and everything…
….Curtis and William, they were happy having their own label, Clarence didn’t want it, Clarence said, ‘no, I’ll just be on your label.’ I said, ‘well we’re still going to put your logo on there,’ so we put the first Ichiban album out, which was [by] Clarence, it was a compilation of two albums he had on his own label. We did quite well with it. Not great, but quite well. We put the Curtis [album] WE COME IN PEACE and then shortly afterwards we did the HEADLINE NEWS album with William Bell. And they all did quite well [and then] thanks to Atlantic I ended up having [the group] Slave. The Slave album was the first one that charted. To see the Ichiban name riding up the American charts, I can’t even begin to tell you how wonderful that felt… I was working out of my garage and, well suddenly we’d gone from just being Nina and I, we had six or eight people.
David: For those people who may not know, because there may be some people who don’t, what does ichiban mean?
John: It means number one or the best and that was again why, like in the Charlie Chan movies, it was an ‘Ichiban son. Number one son’ - and then you often hear talk about this - it means ‘the best’ … basically. ...We’d converted the garage into an office, that was all we could do at the time. So we soon realized that that wasn’t going to work and it was like, ‘how the heck are we going to do this?’ Well, at the same time, Clarence came in with his next album. This was the studio album….He came in and he played it and I thought ;this is good, this is good,’ but [I said] ‘Clarence, it’s too short, it’s like twenty-eight minutes or thirty minutes.’ Clarence - being Clarence - [said], ‘ well, it doesn’t matter. Just put it out.’ I said, ‘Clarence look, you want to compete, we need to do one more song’ and he said, ‘well, how am I going to do it, what do you want me to do?’ And I said, ‘well, don’t you have something in the can, and we’ll throw something on the end. We won’t master anything.’ Just the next day he came back with this stupid song called “Strokin’”, right? And I said to Clarence, ‘that’s a bit risqué,’ he said, ‘just put it out!’ and Clarence is one of these people, you don’t fight and argue with him. He’s a very nice man….but if he’s got his mind made up… and by this time I already aggravated him by telling him he needed another song. I said, ‘Alright, Clarence, we’ll do it!’
The same day, we went to shoot the album cover and if you remember the ‘Dr. C thing,’ well, Clarence is blind and he was always playing tricks on me. Well, we took him down to… doctor friend [of ours], and he took this picture with a white coat on, and this skeleton! The funniest thing about that day was, he needed to go to the toilet, and so I always had to go with him, or somebody had to go with him so that he knew where he was. So, I said, ‘alright Clarence’ - I did that and then after he was finished, [he] came outside and I was laughing. He said, ‘What are you laughing at?’ I said, ‘Clarence, I finally got my own back on you, that wasn’t a toilet, where I took you! Let this be a lesson to you’ . That was the laughing on “Strokin’”, remember? I said, ‘Clarence, you’ve got to go back and put that on that song.’ He said, ‘ I thought you wanted it now.’ I said, ‘I do, but I’ll wait a day,’ and “Strokin’” was the song that made Ichiban. It was just a phenomenon.
No radio station would play it and we were just sitting there, one minute we were sitting in this flooded office and the guys down in Louisiana were calling and saying ‘What’s this “Strokin’” record you’ve got?’ I said, ‘well it’s on Clarence’s album.’ They said, ‘we’ve got to release this. ‘ Well, we rushed it out. The initial jukebox order was like 20,000, which in those days was quite a lot. Two days later, it was 40,000… but it never charted because of the lyric content in those days, it couldn’t chart…but because of that record, and obviously Clarence benefitted, we all did, but we were able to get the first Ichiban building, so again, timing.
David: Now, should we play it?
John: Absolutely. Without that song we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.
David: Well here’s Clarence Carter, I don’t have any problem playing it, “Strokin’”.
And that was John Abbey, just so you guys know, not me.
[CLARENCE CARTER: “STROKIN’”]
That was Clarence Carter with “Strokin’”, and so now…we’ve done three songs so far, believe it or not, and we’re continuing on with the Ichiban story, so where do we go from here?
John: Well, at that point, Ichiban became my nine to five and my focal point. The bank in Louisiana did their two year-stint and that was it, so we were given Ichiban because up until that point obviously they technically owned it, but they got what they wanted, so they gave it to us, so at that point, thanks to Curtis - we were lucky with Curtis - William Bell, we had a big hit with HEADLINE NEWS. Ichiban was becoming quite well established as maybe the successor - oh no, that’s not fair, sort of partner label to Malaco [Records]. I don’t want to say successor because they were still tremendously successful at the time and they were doing great records … but so we were the new upcoming kid on the block… We were still in Atlanta and that grew and was doing okay and then rap suddenly sprung up.
Rap had already been there since I guess the early ‘80s. That period… It suddenly became fashionable for even white kids…. Also the era of artistry was vanishing rapidly. Everybody could record something in their own basement, everybody -including the majors - were being inundated with these plastic records, artists who’d… never honed their craft, but the records were good. So, we sort of veered over into rap, and again we didn’t click straight away, but we were very fortunate to acquire a man called MC Breed, who unfortunately died a couple of years ago, and he catapulted us into another world.
So, suddenly we had a label called Wrap, which was a sister label to Ichiban, and Ichiban in itself had reached a kind of a plateau. Clarence was back and kicking without a shadow of a doubt, we had Tyrone Davis at the time, my memory goes back, we had several blues artists who actually didn’t really make much money for us, but a guy called BB Coleman [and]Trudy Lynn who became one of certainly [not] our big ‘money’ artists but one of our big artists that, when you go back on Ichiban, a lot of people that look at the artistic integrity of the label, will always point to Trudy, and Buzz Amato who I spoke to you about earlier (who was Curtis’ music director) produced her.
The next kind of highlight, I guess you’d say, was the 95 South phenomenon. By this time we had a studio called Kala….and this is where the name came from, her name is Kirsten Amy Layla Abbey, K-A-L-A. So we were looking for a name for the studio, so we said Kala, there you have it, Kala. And that’s when [my wife at the time, Nina who was from Finland] she told me it meant fish [in Finnish] so we came up with a fish logo. Anyway, we actually, in the studio, we had cut the Tag Team version [of] “Whoomp! There It Is.” And they offered that to us, but by that time we’d committed to [the group] 95 South (they were friends with one of the gentlemen that worked [with us]) By this time at Ichiban we had 15, 16 people working for us… and that was obviously when you and I started working again together on the Soul Classics project, which is still something that I’m real proud of. I’ve still got all those CDs, every now and then [I] play them… even though it wasn’t financially beneficial probably to anybody that much, I’m so proud [of] the work that you put in - the fact that we were able to make that music available in CD format…
But anyway, the 95 South thing, I was getting ready to go on a tour with Curtis probably, but I’m not sure, and I took the album with me as it was getting ready to be released and listened to it and I was listening to it on the plane going over to Europe, and I kept [hearing] this, ‘Whoot, there it is, whoot there it is’ and I remember getting to the airport in London and calling Nina and saying, ‘stop everything, whatever you’re doing single wise, stop it. Now.’ She said, ‘well, what’s your problem?’ I said, ‘just stop it, don’t do anything’… I went into a panic. I said, ‘no, release “Whoot There It Is.” At that point, I didn’t even know about the Tag Team record. It must have been Curtis, because Buzz was with me, and Buzz said, but we just did this thing called “Whoomp! There It Is.” What do you want me to do with that?’ I said, ‘Forget it. Not interested in that,’ which was a mistake obviously. But having said that, 95 South survived longer…the way that the Tag Team record was successful, it cost millions of dollars to make hundreds of thousands. We spent a few dollars to make hundreds of thousands, so we probably benefited more from it.
David: Should we play it?
David: That’s not part of the story?
John: No, because I’m going to really mess with you in a minute. That led to a friend of mine, who’s a Chinese-American gentleman, who brought me this white rapper.
David: Oh yes, I know where we’re going now.
John: And I think that’s more applicable simply because it’s so different. And he’d been to every record company on the planet, and nobody was interested. It was like, ‘white people can’t rap, even if they could, nobody’s going to buy it. ‘ And I just thought, ‘this is good’ and…they had two or three cover versions of songs on the album and they wanted to release these because it seemed logical that the best way to get a white rapper into the black world was to do something black. And I said, ‘no no, you’ve got a track on here that you played [on] this album to me last night and I went home and I couldn’t stop kind of whistling it and humming it all through the evening.’ I said, ‘it’s probably going to go nowhere anyway - I’m just doing this for him - but if it’s going, let’s just go with that’ and that was a thing called “Ice Ice Baby”, and “Ice Ice Baby” went on, needless to say, it was a mega mega mega hit.
David: Yes, so I guess we should play that.
John: I don’t know if it’s appropriate for your show, but since you’re talking about me, I guess it is appropriate!
David: Yeah, I mean you know, it’s whatever is appropriate to your career path, your journey.
John: It’s appropriate to my career.
David: Then we’ll play it.
John: That took me to another level.
David: Okay, I think probably some of our Soul music people have heard this song before. So, I don’t think they’ll be offended.
John: No, I think everybody knows it anyway.
David: Okay, well, here’s Vanilla Ice, probably the only time we will play a Vanilla Ice record at SoulMusic.com, but that’s okay. It’s appropriate, as we’ve said for the story, so here is Vanilla Ice with “Ice Ice Baby”.
[VANILLA ICE: “Ice Ice Baby”]
That was Vanilla Ice with “Ice Ice Baby”. And, we’re probably winding down because we’ve got one more record to play, so where do we go from “Ice Ice Baby”?
John: I’m going to give you one little thing, before we go on from Vanilla Ice. We took him to Japan and jokingly changed his name to Vanilla Rice.
David: [laughing] I didn’t know that!
John: Nobody does.
David: I love that. I love it.
John: After that, I think Ichiban got too big. …It’s kind of like you suddenly find you’ve got ten children, you can’t drive around in a little sports car. So, we needed machinery and I probably made the biggest mistake - second biggest mistake, because of the Blues and Soul thing - I think I’ve made two huge mistakes in my life from a career point of view. The second one was about to hit me. We, at this point we had every major wanting to buy the company. Well, I didn’t want to sell the company, but I did know that we needed to move forward. Well, Nina, my wife at the time, her love wasn’t R&B music, but she did a great job doing what she was doing. She always wanted one day to see us be able to cross over, so based on “Ice Ice Baby”, which we developed a relationship with EMI. EMI invested a fairly substantial amount of money and we started a label called, what did we call it? Ichiban International…
And, the theory was that we were supposed to give them three or four pop records which Nina worked on, and then gradually move some of the R&B acts over. The ones that they felt that they wanted. Well, the worst thing in the world was that we got lucky straight away - and again, I’m not a pop music lover - but I heard a song by a group called New Age Gun - I’m not going to bore you with it but …we were lucky, it was featured in a movie called “Dumb and Dumber.” And, it was a hit and then it became a gigantic hit because of the movie. The worst thing in the world happened. Suddenly, everybody was taking notice of these little guys down in Georgia and so everybody wanted a piece of what we were doing. It’s a story that’s been told many times before.
David: Classic story.
John: I didn’t really want to entertain it. Nina did and we really got sucked into something that my heart was not in. …What I should have done, was I should have separated the two divisions, same building, same owners, but I should have said, ‘okay, look Nina, you go and do this, I’m going to stay here and do this. You may end up being a multi-millionaire, good luck to you, but I’m happy doing this.’ I didn’t. But for the wrong reasons. I didn’t really want to be part of it anyhow. It was a catastrophe. We found that we were competing with the majors, we were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on albums that sold fifty [copies] and you can’t do that for very long. Got into financial strife, at that point I backed off - and I’ll try and rush this a little bit more - but backed off to try and go back to doing what I wanted to do.
I brought all of the R&B things away from EMI which didn’t please them and we did a deal with a company called Platinum. They were back to being an independent. I literally backed off big time, back in the world that I understood, and we did things like the Ashford and Simpson album [with Maya Angelou, BEEN FOUND] which was a pity because …it was a great album because of the concept [but] it didn’t get the sort of interest that I thought it should have gotten. And, for probably a year or so, I went back to doing my tours. By this time, I had always managed the Three Degrees through most of this.
David: Wow, when did you first meet them? I know you first met them as a journalist.
John: Way back in the Blues and Soul days, but I first started working with them in the Ichiban days. They had gotten free from the manager they had that all their contracts were down and out. They needed a new direction, not musically, they needed a fresh start. A friend of mine, Chuck Smiley, was actually managing them but by trade he was an accountant, a money man, so we did a couple of albums with Ichiban with them, and I found that I was gradually - with Chuck’s blessing - taking over the management. To this day, I don’t have any paper that says I’m their manager. But, that’s twenty some years ago, twenty-three, twenty-four years, and when the Ichiban thing went down the way that it did, it was like, okay, I needed some form of an income because obviously Ichiban had left me in bad shape but more than anything else, I needed something to do, somewhere to go where I knew I was welcome. Bless their hearts, they made me welcome.
The timing was good then as well, there was a resurgence of the Philly thing. Suddenly, instead of doing like two or three tours a year, suddenly they were doing six or seven, and I was getting back into that. By this time I’ve got children and stuff like that. So, I was ‘almost’ an adult at that point and I had responsibilities, so I could no longer sort of fool around doing things just for the hell of it. So, I needed to get that, I was doing that.
Unfortunately soon after, there was the accident [with Curtis Mayfield] in New York. The sad thing - no, it’s not sad, the tragic thing - that was the only show Curtis did in eleven years I was working with him that I wasn’t there. And I remember Frank calling me from New York, he said, crying, that there’s been this terrible accident, and that was truly one of the really worst days of my life. I went up to New York the next day to see him just laying there with all these machines and wires. It was awful, awful, awful, awful. Because this was a man who meant so much to me. He was, it’s cliché. I don’t mean that - that sounds so corny - but he really was. We spent so much time with each other, and I genuinely genuinely cared, loved him, liked him… his family, his wife, his children…and it was the one day that I wasn’t there. Not a day goes by that I think, ‘well if I had been there, maybe we would have gone to McDonalds and he would have been ten minutes late going on stage. Or maybe ten minutes early, but something, it would have been different. It would have been different.’ Not a day goes by. There was a time for months - it was not a question of forgiving because it wasn’t my fault - but just thinking ‘oh God, if I was there…’
David: So, now, we’re back with the Three Degrees.
John: We’re back with The Three Degrees. Really the last eight years of my life is almost like a semi-retirement. I still do other projects for people as and when it comes up, but [they’re] the loves of my life on a business level, but also same thing … they’re really like sisters, they’re such nice people to work with, I don’t feel like I’m going to work.
David: That’s great. That’s good.
John: And staying here in the hotel, near Oxford Street as you said, knowing that one of the girls is in the room next to me, two doors down is another one, and three doors down is a third ‘Degree.’ We just spent the day at sound check laughing, joking, but taking care of business. So, in some ways, I think I’m happier today because there’s not the pressure. I’m old as well, much wiser.
David: Well, that’s usually what happens.
John: So, it’s almost like a full circle. I’m back to doing what I love, really where it started. No pressure on me. I don’t have to worry about selling records or selling magazines or being out in the snow interviewing anybody.
David: Right. [Like] Tyrone Davis.
John: And Tyrone became an Ichiban artist.
David: Oh right. That’s true.
John: Again, there are many full circles in this, but with the Three Degrees, probably it will be - I hope it’s the last job - but I hope it’s one that lasts thirty forty years. I’m never tired of working with them. And we’ve built up a network of people that we work with… I know they wouldn’t be mad at me for saying this, they aren’t top of the poll anymore, Prince Charles loving them doesn’t mean shit anymore! So, we’ve all found our place in life, and we’re comfortable with where we are.
David: Now, are we going to end with a Three Degrees record?
John: Well, you’ve got two choices here. I will say yes, but I’m also hoping you’ll ask me, what is my very favorite soul song of all time.
David: Well, why don’t we do that?
John: So, in that case. If so, my very favorite song of all [time]….
David: I have no idea what this is going to be.
John: Drum roll…
David: No idea.
John: … Most people wouldn’t. It’s a song by Bobby Womack called “I’m Through Trying to Prove My Love to You”.
David: Yeah, absolutely.
John: Yeah, you know it, but most people would never know that but I still play that song two three times a week just because I like it. I love it. There are things in it and it’s funny, I had a conversation with him about this back in the Blues and Soul days. There are things on that track, if you listen to it, there are two big mistakes on there that in those days, they didn’t bother about. There’s a part of a vocal that there’s an echo that shouldn’t have been on there and there is a guitar note that Bobby played that is so wrong, it didn’t matter.
David: Well…. I’m wondering …how many people with really good ears are going to spot those things, but let’s play it now. This is John Abbey’s favorite soul recording, which is pretty amazing actually. Wow. Think about all the thousands of records you’ve heard, and I’ve heard, so this is it. Here is Bobby Womack, also known as ‘The Soul Survivor’ with “I’m Through Trying to Prove My Love To You”. Here it is.
[BOBBY WOMACK: “I’M THROUGH TRYING TO PROVE MY LOVE TO YOU”]
That was Bobby Womack with “I’m Through Trying to Prove My Love To You” and that brings us to the end John, but - let me ask you because, it’s appropriate to complete this really great conversation with you - when you reflect back, obviously we’ve listened to you telling us your story, sharing your story with us and using music as kind of a way to keep that flow going in the story, but when you look back at all of that your life’s been and it’s really been a lot about soul music, a lot about R&B, a lot about obviously the passion, is there anything that you can say at this point, as you look back that you feel…. well, let me just ask it really simple, how do you feel about your life in regards to soul music?
John: I’m very proud because I feel like, I feel like somebody who has driven a Mercedes, in other words, I don’t take the credit for the Mercedes, but I was able to be part of it. I’ve been blessed in timing to be part of so many things. I don’t claim the credit for being the creator of them, but I was able to either report on them, and bring them to people’s notice or be the record company to make it available for people. I feel like I’ve made a contribution in a small way but an important way.… I’m not going to say that R&B music would have been different without me but I think I can honestly say that there are some people who have gone on to be successful that maybe wouldn’t have done if our lives hadn’t touched. I think I can say - I don’t want to claim the credit - I’m just glad that I was able to help them find a way through.
The sad thing is that there are also many people that I worked with that deserved that that for whatever reason we were never able to do it. But… I’m very proud that I can honestly say that I’ve made some great friends just in the same way that you have. People that, I mean like Curtis, Ben E. King, the Three Degrees, there’s a half-a- dozen people that I am so happy that…our lives crossed and paths crossed and that we were able to share time with them. People that are just absolute gems as people. It’s not to do with the music but the music brought us together. And, I’m proud of what I’ve achieved. I’m disappointed the way that some of the things ended but I kind of realized that, for example if Blues and Soul hadn’t ended, none of this other story would have come about. Ultimately, I think that they were things that happened that I didn’t have a great deal of control on them… I think I give this credit to my mother. My mother always said, ‘Have the strength to accept the things that you cannot change.’ And I’ve lived with those words…I guess to put it in a nutshell, I think I’ve been truly blessed and I’m very thankful for that and hope I can give something back still.
David: Well, that’s great, and that’s really… the perfect way to end this great conversation.
John: But I’m not finished.
David: But you’re not finished. But he’s not finished folks!
John: There will be a part two.
David: And let me say, because in the same spirit of what you just said, and really in keeping with what you said, it is true to say that I owe you, in the same way that you said that there are people whose lives you’ve intersected with that you like to feel that you made a difference and I can say absolutely unquestionably say that had I not written - there’s a lot of ‘had I not’s’ - but had I not written the first Aretha story 1970 as my cover story for Blues and Soul, as I said at the very beginning of this, had I not worked at Contempo, had you not said, ‘ okay, alright, I know you’re going to move to New York’… many things would not have happened and my own life would not have been the same. So, I personally thank you and I’m glad I had the opportunity to say this publicly. Thank you for giving me those opportunities that have given me the life I have. So, it would have for sure probably been no SoulMusic.com. So, it all starts somewhere.
John: What I can say is that that street was a two-way street. I think you gave as much as you took and continue to do so. But that’s kind of strokin’, I don’t want to make it that cliché but I think it’s that’s also valid.
David: Thank you, John. Thank you, it’s funny because as I’m about to say this, I realize I’m about to say the name of a Willie Tee record, and Willie Tee for whatever reason… has some connection with my own life, from Soul City when we used to have people coming in and asking for “Walking Up A One Way Street,” which at some point was reissued through [your] Mojo label… Absolutely, so I can end this great conversation with you by saying, ‘Thank you, John.’
John: My pleasure.
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.