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Remembering Major Lance

When I met Major Lance he was living near Southend, of all places. This was January 1973 and it was not quite a decade since he had raced into the US Top 10 with his first hit, “The Monkey Time”. Now he had just signed with an English company, Contempo Records, run by John Abbey, the proprietor and editor of Blues & Soul magazine. The idea was to capitalise on his hero status with Northern Soul fans by issuing his new cover version of an established dancefloor favourite, Billy Butler’s “The Right Track”, as the label’s first release.

His biggest hits had been cut in Chicago and issued on the OKeh label. Subsequently he had recorded for Dakar, Curtom and Stax, with mixed results. And now he had found his way to Contempo, which was also providing a home for Otis Leavill, his fellow Chicagoan, whom he planned to produce. “I don’t sign long contracts now,” Lance said. “I go for a year, with an option, and if nothing happens, I move on somewhere else.”

He told me how he had found his way into show business as a dancer on the Bandstand Matinee TV show in Chicago. “The dances changed so fast,” he said. “Every month we’d invent something new, and they came and went so quickly that we didn’t even have time to give names to most of them.”

“The Monkey Time” was one that got a name. It was also one of those records that came out of the radio in the autumn of 1963 and changed everything. Others were Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave”, Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness” and the Impressions’ “It’s All Right”. This was before the term “soul music” had come into widespread use; for a while these records and others like them were referred to by UK fans as “new wave r&b”.

The three men who created “The Monkey Time” were Curtis Mayfield, the leader of the Impressions and Lance’s friend from their teenage years in the Cabrini-Green housing project on Chicago’s Near North Side, who wrote the song; Johnny Pate, the jazz bassist turned arranger, whose chart made such powerfully rhythmic use of brass; and the shrewd producer Carl Davis, whose first hit had come a year earlier with Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl”. But it was Major’s modest, almost homespun tone that made it so distinctive; he sounded like an ordinary kid having a good time with a new dance craze.

That team was behind a string of hits, all of which are included among the 53 tracks on Ain’t No Soul (In These Old Shoes), a new 2-CD set released by RPM and subtitled “The Complete OKeh Recordings 1963-1967”. They include “Hey Little Girl”, “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um”, “The Matador”, “Rhythm” and “Come See”, as well as great non-hits and B-sides like “Sometimes I Wonder”, “Mama Didn’t Know”, “Gonna Get Married” and “You Don’t Want Me No More”, and a handful of covers of current hits such as “Pride and Joy” and “Land of a Thousand Dances”.

He told me that the good times at OKeh ended when Columbia, the parent label, wanted Carl Davis and his artists to move their operation to New York. Davis refused, stayed put, and started his own label, Dakar (which would do well with Tyrone Davis and Hamilton Bohannon). “It had a lot to do with jealousy inside the company,” Lance said, “and problems that could have been solved but weren’t.”

My favourite of all Major’s OKeh tracks, however, is one I didn’t discover until the early ’70s, when I bought a US promo copy at the original Selectadisc shop on the now-demolished Arkwright Street in Nottingham. It was the singer’s first release on OKeh, and it made so little impact on its home market in the spring of 1963 that it wasn’t even released in Britain. But “Delilah” is one of Curtis Mayfield’s sweetest little story-songs, a typical tale of a country boy trying to charm a city girl with humility and sincerity, perfectly suited to Major’s characteristic tone: “I ain’t got much money / Just a farm on the the outskirts of town / Please don’t think that this is funny / But with you I’d like to settle down…”

Later in his life, Major hit hard times. He stayed with Contempo for a couple of years, touring the Northern Soul clubs, and then went home, where he recorded for Playboy, his own Osiris imprint and Soul, the Motown subsidiary. He served a jail term for cocaine possession, lost most of his sight, and died in 1994.

The new compilation is a good way to remember him. “Delilah” leads it off, and what has always drawn me back to it is the combination of Major’s voice, Curtis’s song, and an irresistible rhythm track, with Al Duncan’s lovely tom-tom figures and Floyd Morris’s jaunty Latin-accented piano fills, hammered in octaves in the upper register and particularly prominent on the fade. It’s just a scrap of a thing, really, but I’d hate to be without it.

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21 Comments Post a comment
  1. delilah is indeed a pretty song – and this came up in the you tube sidebar illustrating ML’s silky dance skills,,,

    July 5, 2017
  2. Adam Glasser #

    Another great fascinating piece thank you Richard. A treat also learn the origins of Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders ‘Um Um Um Um Um Um’ – a favourite of my boyhood!

    July 5, 2017
  3. Could not read this without thinking of the kiddie dances I went to in western North Carolina in ’67-’68-’69 and how Major Lance was always played at those dances. You could smell the pine trees outside and the college kids teaching us small fry to dance, to socialise, to be civilised, and so on, were having the best time of all.

    The Monkey Time was, of course, always played but my fave from back then was The Matador. I am now checking out some of the tunes mentioned in RW’s fine piece and enjoying them immensely, not getting a stitch of work done but so what. It is hot outside and if I close my eyes I can almost be back at some dance outside Asheville slowly stepping to one of these tunes, my eyes glancing at my dance partner.

    July 5, 2017
  4. peter flanagan #

    Thanks, Richard, took me out of the day, as pretty much always! Listening to Um x6 and Delilah again, I can’t believe I’d never spotted the Curtis collection. Certainly him if not all the Impressions, on b vox. And pure Impressions arrangements. You always remind me how much more there is out there to learn!

    July 5, 2017
  5. peter flanagan #

    … that was “Curtis connection”!

    July 5, 2017
  6. I arrived in Nottingham just too late to visit the original Selectadisc, coming from Lancashire where Northern Soul was as big as prog rock and ‘Um Um Um Um Um’ (with Monkey Time on the B side) was a favourite. Not heard ‘Delilah’ before. Nice.

    July 5, 2017
  7. Patrick #

    Always good to see a mention of the Arkwright Street Selectadisc!

    http://www.picturethepast.org.uk/frontend.php?action=printdetails&keywords=Ref_No_increment;EQUALS;NTGM007294&prevUrl=

    July 5, 2017
    • Oh, nice pic – hadn’t realised there were two branches of Selecta(-)disc there – as there were on Market St (or three, if you count the secondhand basement) in its heyday.

      July 5, 2017
      • Arkwright Street was the original Selectadisc. I loved that street. It started just past the Midland Station (as was) with the Chequered Flag, selling Lotus Elites and other nice cars, and the Hong Kong, Nottingham’s first Chinese restaurant, then became a street of interesting things like junk shops. All gone, along with the rest of the Meadows. Good riddance to a slum, many would say. I’m not so sure. But of course I didn’t live there.

        July 6, 2017
      • Patrick #

        In my memory Selectadisc was next to Andy Bones cycle shop on Arkwright Street … but the photo doesn’t seem to support that!

        July 6, 2017
  8. Christopher Wilson #

    Dear Richard, 

     

    I'm new to the Blue Moment but lapping it up.  Always a huge, huge fan of yours and this is just such a delight, every dispatch a peach.  Don't stop!

     

    Greatest respects,

     

    Christopher W

     

    (briefly The Times during those agonising days of the Wapping riots)

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Sent: Wednesday, July 05, 2017 at 10:01 AM

    July 5, 2017
    • Dear Chris — Good to hear from you. Glad you’re enjoying the blog. Best, Richard

      July 5, 2017
  9. martin Newman #

    Very nice ,Richard….By the way did Bobby Parker get a mention in your book ?

    July 6, 2017
  10. Google says that the CD is from Cherry Red. This takes me back full-circle to Arkwright Street, because I have a cassette of Forest related songs issued by them; and, of course, Arkwright street was the main pedestrian route from the centre to the City Ground.

    July 6, 2017
  11. Pete Wingfield #

    Yes, “Delilah” was issued in the UK, Richard! I bought it at the time as a callow soul-mad 15-year-old, and have it in my hands – a six-track EP from 1963 on Columbia (SEG 8318, since you ask), snappily titled “Um Um Um Um Um – Hitch Hike, The Monkey Time and Three Other R&B Favourites”, “Delilah” being one of the latter. Would scan over the evocative cover if I could. I still think of it and its ilk as New Wave R&B, though of course both terms mean something quite different now.

    Sorry to arrive so late to the party, by the way – I only recently discovered your esteemed blog, and have clearly been missing out. I’ll be throwing in the occasional tuppence (two cents?) from now on. Fabulous stuff, needless to say – particularly the bits I agree with…

    July 7, 2017
    • Please do, Pete. As often as you like. And I have that EP. What I meant was that Delilah wasn’t issued as a single, in its proper sequence before Monkey Time…

      July 7, 2017
      • Pete Wingfield #

        Touché! Of course, I should have realised that was what you meant.

        July 7, 2017
  12. Corinne Drewery #

    Thank you for this informative piece on the ever changing career of Major Lance, who to me was one of the legendary northern soul artists you only ever heard on scratchy vinyl at an all-nighter at 3am, imagining they were in faraway USA. Strange to discover that he lived near Southend. Other northern soul singers who moved to the UK were Edwin Starr, who lived in Bramcote, Notts. and Tommy Hunt, formerly of The Flamingos, who lives in Yorkshire.
    Courtesy of Wigan Casino…. x

    July 10, 2017

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