General Johnson: Lead singer with Chairmen of the Board

Spencer Leigh
Saturday 16 October 2010 00:00 BST

With such good-natured and infectious songs as "Give Me Just A Little More Time" and "You've Got Me Dangling On A String", the Chairmen of the Board became disco favourites in the early 1970s.

Their lead singer, General Johnson, was a fine songwriter, describing his early life, with a few changes, in "Patches", a Grammy award winning record for Clarence Carter in 1973.

General Norman Johnson was born in Norfolk, Virginia in May 1943, General being a family name. The young boy preferred Norman but when he started making records, he was told that General was more distinctive.

His father was a shipyard worker who sang gospel music. He encouraged his son to sing, giving him playful slaps whenever he hit wrong notes. From the age of 12, Johnson was part of a neighbourhood group, the Humdingers, and they performed locally, once supporting the rhythm and blues star, Ruth Brown.

The Humdingers were spotted by Allen Toussaint, who wrote theirfirst record, "It Will Stand", changing their name to the Showmen. LikeDanny and the Juniors' "Rock And Roll Is Here To Stay", "It Will Stand" was a cheerful testimony to the enduring power of the new music, an unusual thought for 1961. The Showmen recorded "39-21-40" (wrongly printed on the label as "39-21-46"), whichJohnson had written when 14. He wrote several songs for the group and Toussaint gave him the sound advice that it was quality and not quantity that mattered.

The Showmen continued until 1967. Johnson planned a solo career, but was invited to join a new label, Invictus, whose proprietors were the former Motown songwriting and production team of Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland. They formed the Chairmen Of The Board with Johnson, Eddie Curtis, Harrison Kennedy and Danny Woods. The label's first hits, both in 1970, were "Band Of Gold" for Freda Payne and "Give Me Just A Little More Time" on which the Chairmen Of The Board sounded like the Isley Brothers. They had two more UK Top 20 hits with "You've Got Me Dangling On A String" and "Everything's Tuesday" and Johnson co-wrote their chart entries, "Pay To The Piper" (1970), "Elmo James" (1972) and "Finders Keepers" (1973).

Johnson was a strong lyricist and he rewrote the Honey Cones' "Want Ads" (1971) so that it no longer sounded like a prostitute looking for work. He wrote the anti-Vietnam song, "Bring The Boys Home" for Freda Payne and "Somebody's Been Sleeping (In My Bed)" for 100 Proof Aged In Soul, both 1970. His best composition was his coming-of age song, "Patches", originally recorded by the Chairmen Of The Board.

When the Chairmen of the Board toured the UK in 1975, only Johnson and Woods remained from the original line-up, and Johnson described the litigation that was destroying Invictus. Lamont Dozier, Freda Payne and several artists had left. Johnson was unhappy that unfinished tracks had been released on the album, The Skin I'm In, and he was not allowed to record as Chairmen Of The Board as Invictus owned the name.

Johnson recorded a solo album, General Johnson, for Arista in 1979 and worked and recorded as Chairmen Of The Board around Carolina. He turned down a national deal from Berry Gordy, the head of Motown, because he had had enough of company politics. His beach party song, "Carolina Girls" (1980), became a local anthem. The Chairman Of The Board continued working to the present, with a new album, Treasure Chest, about to be released.

General Norman Johnson, singer and songwriter: born Norfolk, Virginia, 23 May 1943; married (two sons, one daughter); died Atlanta 13 October 2010.

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