Phone interview recorded October 20, 2011
The ‘70s & ‘80s group SHALAMAR has reunited with lead singer Howard Hewett, group co-founder Jeffrey Daniel & vocalist Carolyn Griffey, daughter of singer Carrie Lucas & Solar Records founder, the late Dick Griffey (Carolyn also did a brief stint with the ‘90s duo Absolute). The trio will be performing in the UK on October 29th. Due to scheduling issues, the Shalamar reunion interviews with Howard & Carolyn were done separately. We’ll start the interview with Howard Hewett...
Kevin Goins: This is Kevin Goins with SoulMusic.com, and this week we have a legend in our midst here: a gentleman who I remember seeing on television and music… actually, his group, I should say. The group was Shalamar and the members I remember very well: there was a dancer named Jeffrey Daniel, a fine-looking thing named Jody Watley and a man who could sing paint off the walls—his name is Howard Hewett.
Howard Hewett: How you doing, man?
KG: Good, Howard. How are you, sir?
HH: Good, good. Very well.
KG: And you just got through telling me before we started this interview that you just came back from Belgium, and my colleague and a gentleman you probably remember named Lillo Thomas told me he was in Belgium late last year and he said the folks in Belgium, they love soul music, rhythm and blues… they embrace it.
HH: And it was a great thing to see because here in the States it can be about “What have you done lately?”, you know what I’m saying? Whereas over there it’s more about just “What have you done?” What you’ve done, your history. I see that with a lot of artists over here. I can’t complain too much because, thank God, I work all the time here at home on Howard Hewett stuff, so people have embraced and kept that whole situation going. But overseas it’s such a joy to see such passion for R&B/black music.
KG: I want to touch base on another thing, Howard. The movie “Footloose” was recently remade and released, and I know the original “Footloose” had the classic Shalamar hit “Dancing In The Sheets”. What is your take on these films from the Eighties being updated and retooled and redone and seeing a song that was a big hit for Shalamar in 1984 get the big hip-hop/rap treatment? What is your take on that?
HH: I really can’t comment on that. The “Footloose” situation I heard about and saw, actually, trailers. When I’m home I like to go to movies and stuff, and I saw the trailer for the movie. I don’t know whether they’ve done… as far as taking all the music from the old thing out—Kenny Loggins and Deniece Williams and Shalamar and that whole thing—I don’t know if they took that music and tried to redo it in the movie or if they just redid the whole thing, made it 2011. But hey, man. This is a capitalistic society, so if they think they can make money on their remakes or whatever, they’re going to go for it. They’re going to do it. and if they did use… like, “Dancing In The Sheets” wasn’t a song that I wrote, so as far as royalties, as far as being paid in any kind of way… if they did redo it I wouldn’t participate in anything like that because of the fact I didn’t write it and I didn’t produce it. But if they used the original version then I would participate in a performance role, stuff like that. But as far as what my take is on them doing stuff like that… hey, like I said earlier, this is a capitalistic society. If they think they’re going to make some money, they’re going to do it. They’re going to put it out there.
KG: You came from Ohio. What part of Ohio were you from?
HH: I was born and raised in Akron, Ohio. Akron was a great place to grow up, it was a great place for music. And at the time when I was in junior high, middle school and high school, the middle class was thriving because of all the rubber factories there. All the rubber factories were there: Goodrich, Goodyear, Mohawk, Seiberling… everybody. Akron was the rubber capital of the world, so the middle class, like I said earlier, was thriving. So when I was coming up there were groups that would pop up all over the city and the terrible thing was that there was no kind of outlet—no kind of situation put in place like, say, Detroit had Motown. There was no type of outlet like that to take those groups and nurture them, so the groups used to pop up and then go away. They didn’t stay together. Six, seven, eight months down the road they’d get into an argument and they’d break up. But for the most part, man, it was a great foundation. I started out in a gospel situation—my mom was a professional major gospel promoter between the Akron-Cleveland area, and she brought everybody in from James Cleveland to Albertina Walker, Pilgrim Jubilees (Travelers), Soul Stirrers … everybody she would bring in. And our gospel group was called The Hewett Singers, and my sisters would sing background, I was the lead singer. We had a bass player, guitar player, drummer, B3 organ player. And once we put the group together, of course nepotism was alive and well in our family, so whenever my mom would bring us a program we would always open up the show. Then we’d start going out on the road in the summertime when we’d get out of school. And it was a great thing—a great, great foundation. Man, I’m a firm believer in strong foundations. I don’t believe anything can stand without a strong foundation. So that was like putting in work and creating a strong foundation as far as my whole thing was concerned.
KG: Right, absolutely. So I just want to fast-forward from The Hewett Singers. As a side question, because I’m a musicologist, did The Hewett Singers cut any records?
HH: No, we didn’t cut any records. We never recorded or anything like that. And I started with The Hewett Singers from the time I was like ten years old ‘til I was about fourteen, and then went into the R&B situation. We had this band back in Akron called Lyfe—we spelled it L-y-f-e—and we did everything from Top 40 pop to all the George Clinton, Parliament-Funkadelic stuff; we were on top of all that. And there was another group called Revelation Funk that was in Akron and we were Revelation Funk protégés because they were about four, five years older than us. And Revelation Funk had a keyboard player that played keyboards and sang a little bit of background, but he didn’t consider himself a lead singer so he just stayed in the background singing background. His name was James Ingram. So I met James when I was fifteen years old.
HH: We’ve been friends ever since then. I just saw him… they threw a big surprise birthday party for me, my birthday was October 1st and they threw this party October 2nd the next day. And James was there and James’ wife Debbie, and James sang “Happy Birthday” to me and the whole thing in his James Ingram-way-fashion, you know what I mean?
KG: How did you come to the attention of Dick Griffey and Solar Records, which at the time had “Take That To The Bank” out on Shalamar. How did you come into the group?
HH: Gary Mumford was the lead singer at that time, and Jeffrey and Jody…. Shalamar was one of those products of the whole disco situation whereas people would put a single together, put it out there and see if it made some noise, and if it made some noise then they would go and put a group together. So that’s how they did it with Shalamar. Gary actually sang on UPTOWN FESTIVAL, but then once it started making some noise… Dick Griffey and Don Cornelius were in partnership with each other, they had this record company called Soul Train Records. That’s when they pulled Jeffrey and Jody off of the “Soul Train” TV show and put Shalamar together. And it was funny, man, because even before I left Akron, “Soul Train” was like a ritual: at twelve noon every Saturday, everybody was watching “Soul Train”. I used to see Jeffrey and Jody dancing on “Soul Train”.
KG: So did I, so did I.
HH: Yeah; you’d see them. And it was so ironic when I got to L.A. and met them, and it even got more ironic when we ended up in the same group together. But I came back from overseas with the show group, and we broke up before we even left Europe, and that was (towards the) end of that whole year and a half run. And when I came back I started kicking around L.A. and I hooked up with this guy Jeffrey Bowen, he was a producer for Motown, he produced a lot of stuff for The Commodores. He was doing an album at that time with this guitar player named Eddie Hazel. Eddie Hazel was with Parliament-Funkadelic. You remember “Maggot Brain”?
KG: Of course. Eddie was the man.
HH: Jeffrey Bowen was doing an album on him and a friend of mine, this girl named Tammy Gibson, got in touch with me because she was doing backgrounds for that project. She wanted me to come in so it was me and her, so we went in to do this background session. And after we finished the background session Jeffrey Bowen comes up and he says, “I love your vocals. This is going to be a self-contained situation; I’d love for you to be a part of it.” He said, “I can get you into AFTRA [into the union] right now and then we’ll deal with contracts later on.” So I said, “Cool, man,” and we started writing, doing the vocals and stuff on the album and I was in the union making union scale. And after working about three months with Jeffrey Bowen the cheques started getting a little shaky, right? Maybe they weren’t reflecting the hours that we spent in the studio, you know what I mean? So I called a meeting to talk to Jeffrey Bowen and his right-hand man, this guy named Angelo Bond—I think it was his co-producer. So I called a meeting at the Motown building; I said, “I want to meet and get some things off my chest.”
My girlfriend at the time worked for Don Cornelius at the Soul Train dance studio, so I dropped her off at work and I went to the Motown building to have this meeting. And at the time Motown was on Sunset and Argyle and they had the top three floors: seventeen, sixteen and fifteen. So I went to this meeting at Jeffrey Bowen’s office; he was on the fifteenth floor, and I’m sitting there in the meeting getting all this stuff off my chest, and then the phone rings. And I remember Angelo Bond answered the phone and he looked at me and said, “It’s for you.” And I said, “If it’s my lady, tell her I’ll call her back,” because she was the only one who knew where I was. So he says, “No, it’s not a lady, it’s a guy. And it sounds like it’s long distance.” So I get on the phone and it’s Jeffrey Daniel calling from New York. They had a tune out at that time called “Take That To The Bank”, and this guy Gerald Brown sang lead on “Take That To The Bank”. (Kevin’s note – Gerald Brown took the place of Gary Mumford in 1977).
HH: So evidently they’re in the middle of a promotional tour and something happens, so Jeffrey and Jody and Gerald get into a big argument about something and Gerald says, “Well, hey. When you guys and Dick Griffey can see it my way, give me a call.” And he jumps on a plane and leaves them out on the road with no lead singer in the middle of a promotional tour. So Jeffrey tracks me down. He knew that my girlfriend worked for Don; he calls her, she tells him that I dropped her off and was at the Motown building having a meeting. Now how he pinpointed right into that office, I still don’t know. He just says that he called. And maybe it was because at that time you had to sign in or something downstairs at the front, I don’t know, but he found me. I get on the phone and he says, “Man, we’re in the middle of a promotional tour and we want to offer you an equal position in the group as lead singer of the group,” and blah-blah-blah. And he says, “You’re at the Motown building, right?” I said yeah. He says, “Where are you?” I said, “I’m up on the fifteenth floor.” He says, “Well, Solar’s office is in the same building down on the ninth floor. Dick’s waiting for you to get in contact and stuff, and you can get in there and he’ll reiterate what I just said,” and blah-blah-blah. So I get off the phone, man, and I tell Angelo and Jeffrey Bowen what the phone call was about, and I remember Angelo saying, “Man, Shalamar is nothing but a fly-by-night disco group that’ll never amount to anything, and Solar will never be a Motown.” I kid him about that now. He moved back to Detroit; sometimes when I play Detroit he’ll come to the show and I’ll kid him about that even now.
But I told him, “Well, okay. But listen, my car is parked on the street. I’m-a go put some money in the meter.” So I left and I went down to the ninth floor, went in there, talked to Dick; Dick reiterated what Jeffrey Daniel said on the phone… and this was on a Friday. So I told Dick, “Let me give these people at Motown a chance to rectify this whole thing that we’re into, because even though I don’t have any contract signed, my word is worth more than any piece of paper I could sign.” So I said, “Let me give them a chance to see if they’re going to rectify this. I’ll call you back in the morning.” This was on a Friday, right? So I called Jeffrey Bowen and I said, “Hey, if you guys want to make this right, I’ll be home all night. Call me at home.” Nobody called, so Saturday morning I went over to Dick Griffey’s house and watched a videotape of a Shalamar show. And I remember I was sitting in this rocking chair, and I was watching videotape of the show, and Dick Griffey says, “Well, sing something. Jeffrey and Jody say you’re a great singer—sing something.” I said, “Just sing something right here, a cappella?” He says yeah. So to myself I said, “Well, Lord, me and you,” and I started into “Feel The Fire” by Peabo Bryson. I got through the first verse, half the hook and Dick says, “Okay, okay, okay, I’ll be right back.” He goes upstairs, comes back down, he goes in one pocket and says, “Here’s five hundred dollars cash”—it was a lot of money to me then because I wasn’t making no money—he says, “Here’s five hundred dollars cash.” He went into another pocket and said, “here’s an airline ticket.” That was back in the day where I could ride on your ticket as far as an airline ticket—anybody could ride on anybody’s ticket.
He said, “Here’s an airline ticket. You have to be on the redeye tonight to meet the group, meet Jeffrey and Jody; they’ve moved from New York to New Jersey. Meet Jeffrey and Jody in New Jersey tomorrow morning, Sunday morning. All day Sunday you have to rehearse the lip-sync and choreography to ‘Take That To The Bank’ because Monday you have a TV show.”
KG: I wanted just to jump to working with Leon Sylvers III and the great music that you all created together. “Second Time Around”: first Top Ten record on the pop charts as well as I believe the R&B charts for you guys. What was it like working with Leon? He just seemed to be such a genius.
HH: Oh man, that’s putting it lightly. Lightly, because I had never been in the whole recording situation before I got with the group, so for the first couple years it was really sitting back and observing and taking everything in: the process, his process, the way he’d process grooves and tracks and vocals and background vocals. And a lot of that stuff that seemed like it was, as far as lead adlibs and stuff like that, that seemed like they were leads but they were adlibs, were really things that Leon and I really picked certain spaces, places and phrasings and everything to really shape and form a song; shape and form a vocal. Thank God I had the natural ability, but Leon helped shape the quote-unquote “Howard Hewett sound.” So working with him was always like a classroom situation. Later on I started working with a lot of different producers and everything, and I think that the only one that really stood out to me, even along the lines of a Leon Sylvers, was Quincy… Quincy Jones. Although it was two completely different ways of working as far as production was concerned.
Quincy was more like he’d come to the studio, he’d have his charts; he and Bruce Swedien would sit there and go through all his stuff and he’d go, “This is what we’re doing—boom boom-boom-boom-boom,” whereas Leon was a little bit more random and a little bit more on the spontaneous, creative side as far as certain things were concerned, but controlled as far as vocals and background vocals and all that kind of stuff.
KG: When the whole disco backlash kicked in around 1979, 1980, it seemed as though rhythm and blues, soul and funk were caught in the crosshairs as well. So having said that, the one thing that I notice is was when you folks did “This Is For The Lover In You”, “A Night To Remember” and then “Dead Giveaway”, it was almost as though you folks were making this transition away from what would be considered disco and dance music into doing some really good solid ballads, as well as good uptempo, into “Dead Giveaway”, which was practically a New Wave record. Having said that, was this a deliberate transition that Shalamar and Leon Sylvers decided to make?
HH: Well, I hated disco. I hated disco. People get mad at me sometimes for saying that, but it was such a synthetic type of music to me. Even the way that Shalamar first formed. When you put a tune together with studio musicians, studio vocalists, and then you go and put together somebody to do that song… and there were a lot of songs that nine times out of ten, the people who you saw doing it weren’t the people who actually did it.
HH: So I was not really a big fan of disco itself, and that’s why when we did “For The Lover In You” it was a definite, conscientious effort to take Shalamar out of that whole “Shalamar the disco group”, “Shalamar the dance group”—all that kind of stuff—into more of an R&B/pop type of feel. And then we went on to do “A Night To Remember” and stuff like that, and more R&B-ish stuff. And I think “Dead Giveaway” was basically the result from the amount of time that we, as a group, were spending in England. We were spending a lot of time in England, so that whole New Wave movement was coming out of there, so we were totally influenced by that whole thing. Leon understood it—Leon capitalized on it, and with writers like “Dead Giveaway” —I forget his real name but we used to call him Hammy, he’s the one who wrote the lyrics to “Dead Giveaway”. So it took that whole thing to a whole other thing. That was one of the few black videos that was being played on MTV.
KG: Interesting point you made, Howard, because Shalamar, Prince, Michael Jackson: the only three African-American acts that got on MTV at that time.
HH: Hey, I’m honoured. I’m totally honoured every time somebody mentions it. It’s like, hey, that’s great company.
KG: One of the things I admired about Shalamar was… well, I admired a lot of things about the group. Number one, you and Jody Watley were just two great singers.
HH: Thank you.
KG: Number one. Number two, Jeffrey Daniel: probably, to me, one of the most underrated men of movement. I watch him and I see the Eighties version of Fred Astaire when it comes to his moves. I remember when he invented the backslide which was later called… well, we know what it was later called.
HH: The moonwalk, right.
KG: But I remember seeing him doing it with Shalamar long before Michael Jackson said, “Hmm…” Go ahead, please.
HH: Jeffrey literally taught Michael how to do the backslide. Michael used to come to our shows, because we played Disneyland a lot back in the day; we did prom nights and all that kind of stuff and we did regular shows and stuff at Disneyland. And whenever we would play Disneyland on regular shows, Michael would always come to the show. He’d stand backstage with his surgical mask on and everything and he’d watch the show. The first song that we would do in our show was called “Right In The Socket”, and in the middle of the song the band would break down into this real funky groove, and Jody and I would stand on one side of the stage and Jeffrey would stand on the other, and Jody and I would pull this imaginary rope and Jeffrey would backslide all the way across the stage… so smooth that people thought he was on a conveyor belt or something. And from that point on we could do anything because the crowd went crazy.
And Michael wanted to learn how to do the backslide. At the time we were getting ready to go overseas—England or Italy or somewhere over in Europe—for a six-week promotional tour, so Jeffrey had this dance group called Electric Boogaloos or something… I forget what the name of it was, but there were two guys in there, Casper and Cooley, who did the backslide also. So he sent Casper and Cooley over to the house on Hayvenhurst to teach Michael how to do the backslide. We got back from the promotional tour and found out that Michael really couldn’t grasp the concept of it from Casper and Cooley, so he hired Jeffrey to come over to the house and teach him how to do the backslide, which of course later on at the Motown 25th Anniversary he named it the moonwalk. So Jeffrey literally taught Mike how to do the moonwalk.
KG: Right. Was Micki Free and Delisa Davis on “Dancing In The Sheets” with you on that record?
HH: Well, they weren’t on the record but they did the video. The way “Dancing In The Sheets” came about, at the time Jeffrey and Jody split, I wanted to do my solo situation at that time because I was like, “Hey man, this is wack” It was like my brother and sister, so I couldn’t even imagine going on without them. So at the time Dick Griffey says, “Well, you still got two years left on your contract. Unless you want to spend those two years not doing nothin’, or in court or whatever, then I need to get another album from you.” So I was like, “Okay, okay, cool… I don’t want to spend time in court.” So we made a little deal so I would stay. Then we got a call from this guy, Dean… I forget his last name. He did all the music for…
KG: Dean Pitchford.
HH: Pitchford, exactly—Dean Pitchford. So he called and he said that he had this movie that he was doing the music for and he would like for me and Leon to come and check out the rough cut of it, where they had demo music and where the music was going to go—they had other music in there. So we went up to the Paramount lot and we got in there and it was just me, Leon, Dean Pitchford and somebody else from the studio, and we watched “Footloose”—a rough version of “Footloose” with temporary music in it. And we watched it, and right when it came to the part that they wanted the groove to be in Dean told me he had this tune called “Dancing In The Sheets” and he wanted Leon to produce it and Shalamar to do it.
So long story short, we didn’t commit to anything right then, but we left and I remember Leon and I were walking back to our cars and I said to Leon, “Well, what do you think?” He said, “Man, I don’t think this movie’s gonna do anything.” And he said, “I got a lot of stuff on my plate. I don’t think I’ll be able to really clear anything out to do it. What do you think?” I said, “Well, I don’t think the movie’s going to be that great, either, but it looks like they’re gonna put a big push behind it, and this would be a great time—especially with Jeffrey and Jody having split and left and people are wondering what Shalamar is about—this would be a great thing to do and to say, ‘Hey, Shalamar’s alive and well.’ So I think it would be a good thing to do; I think I’m gonna do it.” So Leon didn’t do it but Bill Wolfer produced it; Bill and I went in and we cut the whole thing. But Micki hadn’t gotten into the group yet; Delisa hadn’t gotten into the group yet, so it was after the fact. But once the movie came out and they put the soundtrack out, I had to go up to Solar Records to Virgil Roberts and tell him, “Virgil, you should start looking at what’s happening.” “Oh, man, there’s nothing happening with that soundtrack.” That was before soundtracks were even big… that was one of the first soundtracks. So Virgil was like, “That’s not happening,” and I said, “I think you should check it out.” By the time he’d checked it out the soundtrack was already almost double-platinum.
KG: You’re heading to Great Britain…
HH: This is Shalamar: me, Carolyn and Jeffrey. Like I said, we get over there, rehearse the band and then we do the gigs and I’m right back home. But yeah, we’ve done the O2 before. We did it, I think, about a year and a half ago. Jeffrey and I started doing Shalamar shows… it has to be about ten years ago, and we first got an offer from some people over in Japan to come over there. When we first got the offer we called Jody and said, “Hey Jody, we got this offer to go over to Japan and do the show. You wanna come hang, have some fun, make some money?” blah-blah-blah. And Jody was like, “I don’t think I really want to revisit that part of my life,” And I said to myself, “You mean the part of your life that has enabled you to be Jody Watley?” And I said it in a way where… because I would say the same thing to me, myself. Shalamar, thank God, was the vehicle that enabled me to get my foot in the door as far as recording and everything else was concerned; for me to do everything that I’ve done as far as Howard Hewett is concerned. So there would be no time that I would ever deny that whole situation, there would be no time that I would ever badmouth that situation—for lack of a better phrase or whatever—because it’s something to me that has to be and should be respected.
And even like I told her at the time when we talked, I said, “Shalamar should be like a bank. We made serious, serious deposits into that bank back in the day.” We were on the road eight to ten months out of the year. My first marriage fell all apart because I spent more time with Jeffrey and Jody than I did with my wife. We were married for about three-and-a-half, four years, and if I was home nine months out of that whole time I’d probably be stressing it. We made serious deposits into that bank, so it’s time we have the opportunity to make some serious withdrawals. And it’s something that can be great for the fans; it can be a great situation. And I told her then, I said, “You know, if you and I have a problem, I don’t even have to see you until it’s time to go onstage. It’s about, really, just work… going in there and work.” I asked her, “You remember that time when The Eagles broke up back in the day, the press said, ‘Ask Don Henley will The Eagles ever get back together?’ Don Henley says, ‘Yeah, when hell freezes over.’ ”
KG: And what happened?
HH: What was the name of the first reunion tour?
KG: “When Hell Freezes Over”.
HH: The “When Hell Freezes Over” tour. They made millions of dollars. You can never say what one person’s experience was, as opposed to what your experience was or whatever; but to me business is business and emotions have no place in business. So I think that on the creative side it would have been a great thing for the three of us to get together and do some stuff, and on the business side it would have been a great thing for us to get together and do stuff. And I never say never - because you never know. But if we ever do get back together I would hope that we do it before all of us are on walkers, you know what I’m saying?
KG: Right, and poor Jeffrey will be doing his moonwalk in a wheelchair. That just wouldn’t work.
HH: Exactly, exactly.
KG: So you and Carolyn will be going there and Jeffrey will be joining you. I guess he is in Japan; he lives in Japan now.
HH: Actually he’s in Nigeria. They have this “Nigerian Idol”. Like “American Idol”. And he’s one of the judges on there. Yeah, so he’s in Nigeria right now.
KG: Please when you see him give him my regards and tell him that we need him as a judge for “Dancing With The Stars”. Come back here, man. Cut a deal with one of these “Dancing With The Stars” or “So You Think You Can Dance” type of shows, or start your own, man. Howard, I’m going to just—
HH: No, I know, and I’ve talked to Jeffrey about that but Jeffrey just doesn’t… he really hasn’t lived in the States since we started going over there back in ’83, ’84; stuff like that. He just doesn’t like it here, I guess.
KG: Well hey, he’s an international man. Well, Howard, thank you! There you go. Howard, thank you so much for joining me and joining us on SoulMusic.com. I wish you and Carolyn and Jeffrey a very safe travel to the United Kingdom where I know they’ll roll out the red carpet… it’ll be like Wembley all over again for you folks, I hope.
HH: We always have fun when we go over there, and the unit that we have is pretty drama-free.
KG: There you go.
HH: That’s what I mainly strive for. I told my lady the other day, I said, “On my tombstone I just want it to say, ‘I just wanted to live a peaceful life’.”
KG: There you go. Well, you have that peaceful life right here, right now. Howard, thank you so very much for joining us and SoulMusic.com, and like I said, safe travels to you and to Carolyn and to Jeffrey when you go overseas. Like I said, I know they’ll be there waiting for you, okay?
HH: All right, thanks a lot, Kevin. Appreciate everything, man.
KG: Thank you, sir. You take care.
HH: All right, God bless.
KG: God bless you. Bye-bye.
About the Writer
Kevin Goins aka “The Soul Ninja” is a veteran of the radio and recording industries, has authored liner notes for CD collections by Earth Wind & Fire, Melba Moore and Stacy Lattisaw. He's also the producer/host of the Internet radio interview series "Soulful Conversations" as well as a classic R&B show "The Kevin Goins Soul Experience".