Obituary: Major Lance

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The Independent Online
Major Lance, singer: born Chicago 4 April 1941; married (nine children); died Decatur, Georgia 29 August 1994.

TO ALL intents and purposes, soul music was born in the autumn of 1963 with a particular group of records in which the idiom found its form and voice - or rather voices, not least among them the high, plaintive tenor of Major Lance.

It seems astonishing now that the records which appeared during those few months - among them Martha and the Vandellas' 'Heatwave', Barbara Lewis's 'Hello Stranger', Marvin Gaye's 'Can I Get a Witness', Mary Wells's 'You Lost the Sweetest Boy', the Miracles' 'Mickey's Monkey', the Impressions' 'It's All Right' and Major Lance's 'The Monkey Time' - should have found themselves in the American hit parade more or less simultaneously. But music was moving fast then, each week bringing not just a new treat but a revelation of what pop music might be, and what it might become.

In the Beatlemaniac Britain of 1963 these records were practically samizdat items, selling a few hundred copies - mostly to young musicians who wore their copies white, learning to adapt the sounds of Detroit and Chicago to the requirements of Liverpool and Manchester. Lance was not the only American to find his biggest hit receiving the double-edged compliment of a British cover version, when Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders established their reputation with a pallid 1964 copy of his 'Um Um Um Um Um Um'.

Like all Lance's early hits, this was written by Curtis Mayfield, whom he met while they were growing up in the Cabrini Green housing projects in Chicago. 'He was such a sparkly fellow,' Mayfield said yesterday, 'and a great basketball player, which is probably how we met. His hero was Jackie Wilson, and he was always coming round and looking through my bag for songs that I'd written but didn't want to do with the Impressions. He was pretty good at picking them, too.'

'Delilah', 'Hey Little Girl', 'Rhythm' and 'The Matador' were among Lance's other hits from this period, all written by Mayfield, produced by Carl Davis, arranged by Johnny Pate and propelled by the immaculate drumming of Al Duncan. A handful of later records in a more up-tempo style brought him a new audience in the Seventies, and there was a hero's welcome whenever he visited Wigan Casino or the Torch at Stoke-on-Trent, the twin temples of the Northern Soul movement.

(Photograph omitted)