General Johnson died last week. He wrote the first great rock’n’roll song not about rock’n’roll itself exactly but about why the music would prevail. And he wrote a ton of other stuff, though that one and “Patches,” his deeply affectionate reminiscence of hard times in the rural south, got the attention.
“It Will Stand” was a prophetic voice in its way, as much as James Baldwin’s was. “It swept this whole wide land / Sinkin’ deep in the hearts of man.” Grown-ups must have thought he was nuts. It was 1961. Rock’n’roll was out of fashion since…oh maybe the plane crash. Two years, might as well have been forever. Who else believed that music would have a comeback?
Every kid who heard it. I was ten, it never left my mind all through the crap about the Beatles, long hair, too simplistic….ten years of blah blah blah.
And that whole period at Invictus Records….man! At that point, he was the most powerful ally Holland Dozier Holland (who owned the joint) possessed.
In that time, the early ’70s, General Johnson wrote some of the greatest anti-war songs: “Men are Getting Scarce,” “Bring the Boys Home.” He wrote the greatest anthem of the down-low, “Band of Gold.” He wrote Laura Lee’s “Wedlock is a Padlock,” which Loretta Lynn ought to have covered. Not forget Honey Cone’s rendition of his version of “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show,” which I actually like better than Joe Tex OR Oscar Brown Jr and I don’t hardly ever like anything better than Joe Tex. Beyond that, “Westbound #9” was just classic, like an updated “Expressway to Your Heart” from the Motor City.
For his Invictus group, Chairmen of the Board, Johnson wrote about fifteen great songs including “Patches” (I think that they did it before Clarence Carter defined it.) The Chairmen also had a stage act that is totally under-rated, with wild ass Harrison Kennedy adding a P-Funk thing. I remember him racing through the streets of some theater, in NY or Detroit I can’t remember, a la Shider, only wearing lime green jockey shorts instead of the diaper.
I interviewed them for Creem but can’t remember what I wrote. Maybe nothing. I was taking it in, but maybe not ready to spit it back out. It was one thing to see Funkadelic, a black rock band, but it was another thing for that kind of outrageousness to pop up with vocal groups. It made me ready for Labelle and Sylvester, probably.
Then all those beach music records, a steady stream of them it seemed like, as they worked the Carolina beaches. Just dance grooves—I never found a great song in any of those various albums they did for little labels down there. Never found any bad songs, either. Which is tougher than it might seem.
To me, General Johnson was a giant. A ton more interesting than a sometimes-inspired hustler like Solomon Burke. Probably that’s just my problem but…what if it isn’t?