PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
April 17, 2007

Beach Music's Five-Star General

by Jim Newsom

“You could make a blind man see,
You could make a cripple man walk
You could make the quietest man in the world talk.”
--General Norman Johnson
“39-21-40 Shape”

Was there an actual girl with such measurements who inspired that 1960s Beach Music classic?

“I was only about fourteen years old when I wrote that song,” General Norman Johnson laughed when he called me last weekend from Myrtle Beach. “I don’t know—maybe it rhymed with ‘ape-itty ape.’ That came from a young teenager’s brain!”

Johnson, who comes back to his hometown this week to be inducted into the Legends of Music Walk of Fame, has been singing since he was a youngster living at 852 Washington Avenue in the Huntersville section of Norfolk.

“I started when I was about six years old,” he said, “singing in churches and stuff. We formed our first little neighborhood group called The Humdingers. Our first professional job where we got paid a little bit of money was with Ruth Brown in a place called Chowan Beach.

“Noah Biggs from Norfolk put some money behind The Humdingers. He was our manager, and he took us down to New Orleans to record our first records—which had ‘It Will Stand’ and ’39-21-40 Shape.’ The people at Minit Records said ‘no’ to the name Humdingers, so we had to come up with a name right on the spot. We came up with The Showmen there in New Orleans.”

“It Will Stand” was a national hit for The Showmen, but around here it was “39-21-40 Shape,” mislabeled “39-21-46” on the 45-rpm record, that really took off.

“Most people say they printed the label wrong,” he explained, “but I think they did it as a ploy because it was more commercial, it aroused curiosity. Actually, when I wrote the song it was called ‘You.’ And ‘It Will Stand’ was ‘Rock and Roll Will Stand.’ So they just changed the names of the songs.”

Johnson has one of the great voices of rock and soul, an instantly recognizable sound that wraps itself around a lyric and pulls every ounce of emotion out.

“You know what’s so funny?” he asked. “Up until the age of about fourteen, I sung the range of female alto. I went out at lunch one day at school, and I started coughing. I thought I had laryngitis. My voice changed and this is what I ended up with. And I thought, what am I gonna do?”

He is also a successful songwriter. When The Showmen split in 1968, he moved to Detroit where he formed The Chairmen of the Board. It was there that he hit his songwriting stride, writing lyrics that were simple yet poetic.

“I’ve always aimed for simplicity,” he said. “I’ve always aimed for things that people could understand. A title that awakened the imagination like one I did for the Honey Cone, ‘Want Ads:’ ‘Wanted, young man single and free/Experience in love preferred but we’ll accept a young trainee.’ I mean everybody can understand what you’re saying.

“In Detroit they better be great lines! My bosses were Holland-Dozier-Holland, and you can’t even begin to count their successes. But I learned from them real good. They had just left Motown and were in a lawsuit, and I was stuck up there in the middle of that. But I was learning from them the art of how you write a song. It paid off, because in a year and a half I had amassed six million-selling songs that I had written. I got the Grammy for ‘Patches,’ I was the BMI Songwriter of the Year. That’s pretty heavy stuff.”

The Chairmen of the Board had several huge hits with Johnson’s compositions in the early ‘70s, most notably “Give Me Just a Little More Time” and “(You’ve Got Me) Dangling on a String.” Hit versions of his songs like Freda Payne’s “Bring the Boys Home,” “Somebody’s Been Sleeping” by 100 Proof (Aged in Soul), and the string of hits for labelmates Honey Cone proved his mettle as a songwriter. But it is “Patches,” a #2 smash for Clarence Carter in 1970, that remains his most recorded song.

“That came from imagination,” he replied when I asked about the genesis of the song. “You put yourself in another person’s shoes, but at the same time I wanted to put it in a setting that everybody could understand. It’s a little bit about me, but I try my best not to write a song exclusively about me. I try to write a song that touches the emotions of everyone. And ‘Patches’ was that kind of song. I’m not born and raised in Alabama, but that made for a better song than being born and raised in Huntersville!”

He credits his father, whose name was General Johnson, for his career in music.

“I owe it all to my father,” he said, then laughed, “Every slap beside the head for hitting a flat note! My father is the one who taught me how to sing, and I was singing on the radio and singing in churches from Norfolk to New York City.

“He was working over at the Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth. He wanted to be a singer, he was singing with a spiritual group. But that could not be a career because he had a family. So I think he lived through me.”

Though he was born General Norman Johnson, he was called Norman when he was growing up. A record company executive changed that.

“I was working at a record company called Swan Records in Philadelphia,” he remembered. “The owner of the company, a big Italian guy, said, ‘General is your name and furthermore, General is more marketable.

“It was the kind of name that you don’t want to use in school. I absolutely hated that name. That just goes to show you—I hated my name, and my name turns out to be marketable. I hated the way my voice had changed, and my voice has been said to be one of the most distinctive. You never know when you’re being given a blessing.”

For the last thirty years, General Norman Johnson has been one of the biggest names in Beach Music. But when he first moved down to his current home base, Charlotte, he didn’t know what “Beach Music” was.

“Later on,” he said, “I found out that way back when, black music was known as ‘blue music,’ and it was forbidden fruit for the Caucasian race. It was no different from when they couldn’t listen to Little Richard sing ‘Tutti Frutti’ but Pat Boone could sing it. Those people that wanted to hear the authentic sound could go down to Myrtle Beach to those jukeboxes and they could listen to rhythm & blues music. So that’s how it got the name as being ‘Beach Music.’

“It’s been a blessing for me because during the time of disco and all the different changes in music, I didn’t have to worry because I had a vast audience that loved the music that I loved to do. If you’re looking for melody and a strong song structure, where the singer is still the main focal point, then you’re talking about the music that I love to do.”

copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.