Dick Griffey: Record producer and executive who spoke out against the exploitation of black musicians

Thursday 16 December 2010 01:00

With infectious, irresistible invitations to the dance-floor such as "And The Beat Goes On" by the Whispers, "A Night To Remember" by Shalamar and "Midas Touch" by Midnight Star, Sound of Los Angeles Records – commonly abbreviated to Solar – the West Coast label founded by Dick Griffey, provided the sunny, soulful soundtrack for much of the Eighties on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the US, Solar artists became mainstays of the R&B charts, but in the UK Shalamar in particular were a bona fide crossover act, becoming regulars on Top of the Pops, on which one of their number, Jeffrey Daniel, first demonstrated the backslide or moonwalk moves he later taught Michael Jackson, and influenced Paul Weller in his Style Council soul-boy days. Griffey could be ruthless with his roster, but he also had a great eye and ear for talent, and an uncanny ability to pick singles for his groups.

Griffey was the first to hire the writing-production team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and nurtured the career of several other talented songwriters/producers including Leon Sylvers III and Reggie and Vincent Calloway, as well as the partnership of Antonio "LA" Reid and Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, two of the architects of the New Jack Swing genre. Indeed, Solar's classy, sophisticated sound bridged the gap between disco and New Jack Swing, while Griffey was a more militant figure than his African-American antecedents, the Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr, and Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff of Philadelphia International Records.

Born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1938, Griffey played drums in a local band as a teenager. In the mid-1950s he enlisted in the Navy and became a medical corpsman. In the early 1960s he relocated to Los Angeles and began showing his business acumen while running Guys and Dolls, a nightclub he co-owned with an old schoolfriend, the former New York Knicks basketball player Dick Barnett. There, Griffey booked the likes of Ike and Tina Turner and Isaac Hayes, but soon started looking for new challenges and became a fully fledged concert promoter for big names such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, The Jacksons and Stevie Wonder. In parallel, he managed the quintet the Whispers, and acted as talent coordinator on the US TV show Soul Train, devised and presented by Don Cornelius.

In 1975 Cornelius and Griffey started Soul Train Records and in 1977 they scored a Transatlantic Top 30 hit with "Uptown festival", a disco medley of Motown classics by a session group billed as Shalamar. But Cornelius had little faith in the venture and sold his share to Griffey, who renamed the label Solar. He set about creating a performing line-up of Shalamar around Jeffrey Daniel and Jody Watley, two of Soul Train's most popular dancers. Following other short-lived tenures, the lead vocalist Howard Hewett completed the classic Shalamar line-up. Between 1980 and 1983, the trio had an impressive run of nine singles in the UK Top 30, including "I Owe You One", "I Can Make You Feel Good", "There It Is", "Friends", "Dead Giveaway" and "Over And Over".

Yet, for all the support he gave the ANC and the tough talking he did about the exploitation of African-Americans by the "white" music industry, the stocky, gruff-voiced Griffey seemed keener to reinvest Shalamar's considerable overseas royalties into building his empire and a $4m headquarters in the heart of Hollywood rather than pay Daniel and Watley – whom he considered "replaceable dancers" – their due, and used the divide-and-conquer routine to keep Hewett on side for one more album after the departure of the other two principals in 1984.

The Shalamar brand actually survived Hewett's subsequent exit and lasted until 1990, though the solo successes of Hewett, and especially Watley, proved that Griffey occasionally made the wrong call. Hewett and Daniel reunited as Shalamar in 1999 and toured Britain earlier this year, with Carolyn – one of Griffey's two daughters by his second wife, the vocalist Carrie Lucas – taking Watley's place.

However, Griffey did stick withmost of his artists. His long-standing belief in The Whispers was rewarded when "And The Beat Goes On", a track he co-produced, topped the US R&B charts in 1980. Griffey also signed the group Lakeside – whose "Fantastic Voyage" was a US R&B No 1 in 1981 – the all-girl funk band Klymaxx and the electro-funk outfit Midnight Star, Solar's third most successful act in Britain with tracks like "Operator" and "Headlines".

The label closed down in 1995after releasing another notable first, the soundtrack to the 1992 thriller Deep Cover, whose theme song featured Snoop Dogg's debut recording with Dr Dre. Griffey spent the last 15 years trading in commodities and funding various charities in the US and West Africa. He died of complications arising from quadruple-bypass surgery.

Edmonds, whose early solo successes – "It's No Crime" and "Tender Lover" – appeared on Solar, said: "Griffey was a complicated man. He was a black man to the depths, he was a black activist. He believed in black businesses and black people standing on their own two feet, to the point where he could scare you sometimes. Some people thought he was harsh, and he could be. There were those that liked him and those that didn't want to deal with him.

"Ultimately, I think that overrode the things he accomplished. His legacy isn't as well known. But I, for one, wouldn't feel right if I didn't sing the praises for the talent he was."

Pierre Perrone

Richard Gilbert Griffey, music executive and producer: born Nashville, Tennessee 16 November 1938; twice married (two daughters, two sons, one adopted son); died Los Angeles 24 September 2010.

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