Chairmen of the Board
With one of Soul Music's all-time great group names and one of its most distinctive lead vocalists, the Chairmen of the Board have been pleasing "beach music" lovers for over 30 years.
Formed in Detroit , the Chairmen were one of the first acts signed by songwriting legends Holland/Dozier/Holland for their Invictus label following H/D/H's messy divorce from Motown. The group came out of the box strong in 1970 with the wonderful "Give Me Just A Little More Time," a classic early 70s radio smash highlighted by lead singer General Johnson's emotive, plaintive vocals. "Give Me" was the foundation of the group's excellent debut album, which also featured the infectious "(You've Got Me) Dangling on a String," and Johnson's own composition, "Patches" (later a #1 smash for Clarence Carter).
Over the next four years, the Chairmen of the Board were among Soul Music's most consistent hitmakers, scoring big with "Pay to the Piper," "Finders Keepers," "Chairman of the Board," and the blissful "Everything's Tuesday." Johnson was also scoring as one of Invictus's hottest writers, penning such hits as Freda Payne's anti-war anthem "Bring the Boy's Home" and the Honey Cone's chart topper "Want Ads." However, contractual issues with Invictus (a common problem at that label) paralyzed the group, ultimately causing its break-up in 1975.
With pending lawsuits against Invictus, General Johnson was wooed to Arista Records as a solo artist by Clive Davis. But the pairing didn't work, as Johnson's vision and Davis's were significantly different. Disappointed, Johnson retreated to the Carolinas, where he had had success earlier with his first group, the Showmen. Johnson re-formed the Chairmen with two other former members, enthusiastic showman Danny Woods and singer/saxman Ken Knox, and, still smarting from major label-itis, formed his own North Carolina-based Surfside label, focusing the group's efforts on the audiences of that southern region. The Chairmen became an early model for the independent music acts of today, writing, recording and self-releasing their albums while also successfully acting as their own managers and booking agents.
For decades, segregation and racism had largely kept R&B an underground music in the Carolinas, but thousands of suppressed white R&B fans found their solace in the musical freedom that existed at the beach. The Chairmen became the right group at the right time in the 80s to capitalize on this and create a very different type of "beach music" than the Beach Boys/Jan and Dean version that was known around the US. It was instead a rollicking brand of R&B -- derived from 60s and early 70s Soul Music -- that was perfect for the regional crowd and took on the "Carolina Beach" moniker. With songs like "Carolina Girls" and "Gone Fishin" and their good-time concert routines, the group built up a new following and have ridden that wave ever since, playing eleven months a year to enthusiastic beach and club crowds of virtually every age. The group's incredible story was captured in the 2008 documentary, Under the Radar.
The Chairmen have continued to record with moderate success, scoring a surprise hit in Europe in the early 2000s with the joyous "Bless Your Heart," a great tune and performance that sounds like it was plucked from their early 70s catalog. They followed its release with the album All In The Family, a solid disc of both new material and newly recorded versions of older General Johnson compositions. In 2007, the Chairmen issued their first holiday album and in 2009 released the very enjoyable Soul Tapestry album.
Group leader General Johnson died on October 14, 2010 at age 67. It was a sad day for soul music lovers as well as the large beach music community of the Carolinas. Remaining members Ken Knox and Danny Woods retired the group not long after. Woods began a solo career and Woods formed the act KCO with Thomas Hunter.
In the end, while most of the world knew the Chairmen of the Board for their early 1970s successes, it was their pioneering work as both DIY artists and the leading purveyors of the Carolina Beach Music scene that arguably had the biggest impact on music. They created a template of success for a new generation of independent artists and carved a legacy as performers who have not only survived, but thrived, in the brave new musical world.
By Chris Rizik