Chairmen of the Board may just be one of the most underrated soul vocal groups of the 1970s, little-known outside their enduring pop hit “Give Me Just a Little More Time”. The Chairmen had a brief but richly productive heyday, their original lineup putting out four patchy but deeply interesting albums between 1970 and 1974. Like many soul performers, they can be thought of as a singles act first and foremost, but their albums contain a number of hidden gems which should rank alongside some of the best pop-soul and funk of the era - which is saying something.
Formed in 1969, the Chairmen initially consisted of singers General Johnson, Danny Woods, Harrison Kennedy, and Eddie Custis. Their existence was the product of an event that at one time would have seemed unthinkable - the departure of master songwriters and hitmakers Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland from Motown. “HDH”, as they are known, had been one of the foundations of the iconic soul label’s success in the 1960s. Their hits for The Supremes, The Four Tops, and The Elgins helped make Motown into a record industry powerhouse, but they gradually became unhappy with Berry Gordy’s management of the label.
Ultimately, HDH broke away and quickly formed their own outfit, Invictus Records. Chairmen of the Board were created as one of their flagship acts, and got the chance to record new songs written by the successful partnership. The output of Invictus was distributed initially by Capitol Records, and then by Columbia Records after 1973. Despite early success, Invictus and its sister label Hot Wax proved to be only short-lived enterprises, and both had folded by 1977.
The albums and singles made by Chairmen of the Board remain the overlooked jewels in the Invictus Records crown. Choosing just ten songs to sum up the act is a challenge, but any one of these songs is a must-listen for fans of ‘70s soul.
1) "Give Me Just a Little More Time" (1970)
Chairmen of the Board made an immediate impact, musically and commercially, with this enduring classic of pop-soul. The shadow of Motown looms large over the song - it was written by Ron Dunbar together with Holland, Dozier and Holland but the trio of songwriters were unable to use their real names at the time due to their ongoing legal dispute with Berry Gordy’s label, and are credited under the pseudonym “Edyth Wayne”. Additionally, members of Motown’s in-house band the Funk Brothers played on the recording. HDH and the Brothers had collaborated on many previous hits, and “Give Me Just a Little More Time” became yet another success for them. It hit #3 on both the US R&B chart, and on the UK singles chart. Better yet for Invictus, they had a UK #1 single at the same time with Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold”.
The unusual, staccato lead vocal is by General Johnson - supposedly his actual birth name - the first singer to be recruited into the Chairmen. His infectious performance lifts the fairly mundane lyrics, and gives the song much of its power, allied to a bouncing piano in the verses and a combination of sweet strings and horns in the chorus. Quite logically, the song was included as the first track of the group’s first LP on its release in 1970.
2) "Since the Days of Pigtails and Fairytales" (1970)
The B-side to the Chairmen’s first single is much less well-known, but perhaps an even better song. “Since the Days of Pigtails” was the first chance record buyers had to hear vocalist Danny Woods, who was the second singer to join the group. A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Woods had moved to Detroit to try to make his name but his records never gained attention outside the local scene there. General Johnson saw him in concert and believed him to be a perfect fit for the group, which proved to be a very canny decision, as this classic proves.
Woods has a very different vocal style to Johnson, more conventional but no less powerful. The verses are entertaining enough, but the terrific chorus is what really makes the song, heralded by booming horns. “I may not be the one you want”, Woods cries, “but don’t you know I’m the one you need?” The song completes a brilliantly confident pair on the group’s first single, and sounds just as good in context on their first LP
3) "Patches" (1970)
Chairmen of the Board were, in true Motown style, something of what would be called a “manufactured band” today. This meant that the group had a strategy associated with them, one part of which was matching the four singers to particular kinds of material. One of General Johnson’s modes was a kind of folksy storytelling style, with lyrics focusing on backwoods tales of rural poverty. A number of these songs would emerge over the years, but this style began with “Patches”. The instrumentation is appropriately a bit ramshackle, but Johnson is convincing in a role of a young man compelled to provide for his family after his father’s death.
The song, which was written by General Johnson and Ron Dunbar, ultimately became far more successful for another artist. The blind blues singer Clarence Carter put out a slightly faster version on Atlantic in July 1970 which was a major US and UK hit. While Johnson and Dunbar would no doubt have liked to have had the commercial success, Carter’s version did help them net a Grammy Award for Best Rhythm & Blues Song in 1971. Carter’s version could be called more authentic in one sense - the lyrics mention Alabama, and his recording was actually made there at the famous FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals.
4) "Pay to the Piper" (1970)
Invictus Records wasted little time in having Chairmen of the Board release a second album - In Session was released only six months later, meaning that they had put out two LPs within the span of 1970. The release of “Pay to the Piper” as a single was one of the promotional moves for the second album, and a successful one at that - it reached #4 on the US R&B chart. The song has another memorable vocal by Danny Woods, who was compelled to sing in a higher register than usual - according to Dean Rudland, this “added an urgency to his voice that translated well to the listening public”. This technique had of course been used to great effect before, notably on the 1967 Four Tops record “Reach Out I’ll Be There”, which had Levi Stubbs operating at the very top of his vocal range.
The sexual politics of classic soul records often leave something to be desired, at least from a more modern standpoint. “Pay to the Piper” seems to imply that if a man has “wined and dined” a woman, then he ought to be able to expect something in return - and it’s not hard to imagine what that something is. In any case, this is a fantastic record which has Woods accompanied by keys, strings, and horns
5) "Hanging on to a Memory" (1970)
The relatively subdued intro to “Hanging on to a Memory” gives little hint as to the emotional intensity that the song is later to acquire. While the lyrics about being unable to let go of an old love seem more suited to either General Johnson or Danny Woods, the track was actually given to Harrison Kennedy and is matched with a surprisingly ominous undercurrent of distorted guitar, harmonica, and keyboards. The whole arrangement reflects the unsettled, almost tortured nature of Kennedy’s vocal. From an album sequencing point of view, it made sense to follow this track with the similarly good Johnson-fronted “I Can’t Find Myself”, which while similar in theme is much more bright and breezy in arrangement.
Together, these two tracks went towards a fine run on the second half of the In Session LP, which in retrospect may be the most accomplished album the Chairmen recorded. That impressive run continued with…
6) "When Will She Tell Me She Needs Me" (1970)
General Johnson handles the lead vocal on this track, which has similarly dubious sexual politics to “Pay to the Piper” but which has more than enough musical qualities to redeem it. The lyrics concern a man who yearns to help a woman seemingly trapped in an abusive relationship. “With flowers in my hand, I stand at her front door”, Johnson sings, “she looks as if to say ‘what are you out there for?’” A logical response, honestly.
The actual soundscape of the track is excellent, however - built from guitars in the psychedelic soul style, great drumming, and horns. Johnson’s vocal is agonised and desperate, reflecting his doubtful white knight crusade. His strain on the title line is palpable, and the performance is shot through with real emotion. Like the best Chairmen songs, this one is superbly constructed and forms part of an excellent run of recordings on the In Session LP.
7) "Children of Today" (1970)
The In Session album closes with a vocal spot for Harrison Kennedy, and is a good example of one of the Canadian singer’s trademark modes - songs about counter-culture issues and other contemporary concerns. In this particular case, the lyrics are about conflict between generations. Kennedy addresses young people who strike out against their overbearing parents, warning them that “there’ll come a day / when you’ll have your own children and they’ll act the same way”. In common with other songs fronted by Kennedy, the song makes notable use of harmonica, which had become something of a motif for him and which he presumably played himself.
Later, on the Bittersweet album, Kennedy would record another song with a related theme, “I’m a Sign of Changing Times”. For its part, “Children of Today” would be released again on Kennedy’s solo album Hypnotic Music in 1972, where it was again used as the closing track.
8) "Men Are Getting Scarce" (1972)
It wasn’t just Edwin Starr making soul records expressing fierce opposition to the Vietnam War. His huge #1 hit with “War” in 1970 helped inspire other acts to follow his lead, including Chairmen of the Board. The group’s third album Bittersweet is as patchy as its title inadvertently suggests, but it starts strongly with “Men Are Getting Scarce”. This infectiously funky track is not quite as strident as Starr’s effort, but takes an interestingly different take on opposition to the conflict in Vietnam. In the song, sung by General Johnson, the lyrics speculate about a future in which the casualty rate becomes so high that men literally become scarce.
While the song makes no mention of race, it is tempting to make a link with the disproportionate application of the draft, which contributed to the high number of black Americans serving in Vietnam. By 1972, public opinion - particularly among African Americans - had turned decisively against the war, which helps explain the proliferation of anti-war soul and funk records. The changing times are also reflected musically, such as in the fact that this song is by far the longest had recorded up to this point, at over five minutes. In all, four songs on the LP exceeded five minutes. The spoken word opening is also a very contemporary touch. “As long as man can remember”, General Johnson begins, “he has been forced to engage in senseless wars of hate, greed, and prejudice.
9) "Finders Keepers" (1973)
By 1973, the Invictus label was already beginning to struggle and it was becoming increasingly clear that it was not long for this world. However, the company did go the effort of releasing a single ahead of time to promote the upcoming fourth Chairmen of the Board album. Happily, the single was a success and hit #7 on the US R&B chart. “Finders Keepers” is an excellent and engaging vocal spot for Danny Woods, themed around him snatching a lover from under the nose of another inattentive suitor. Gloating may not be the most obvious attractive emotional hook for a song, but the Chairmen definitely make it work. The song seems to carry some influence from Stevie Wonder, primarily in its notable use of what sounds like a clavinet but also in Woods’ deployment of a low, growling vocal tone. Wonder also sang like this on occasion, on contemporary tracks like “Living for the City” (1973) and later on the epic “As” (1976).
Significantly, that keyboard part was apparently the work of none other than Bernie Worrell, the extraordinary keyboard player for the inimitable Parliament-Funkadelic dynasty. It has been speculated that his P-Funk colleague, electric guitar god Eddie Hazel also played on the Skin I’m In album.
10) "Everybody Party All Night" (1974)
Prior to the release of the Bittersweet album, Chairmen of the Board had parted ways with Eddie Custis, whose middle-of-the-road balladeering and frankly unbearable covers of old warhorses like “My Way” was clearly a poor fit for the group. With the Skin I’m In LP coming up, the group shrank once again with the departure of Harrison Kennedy who decided to remain in Canada.
More changes were afoot for what would prove to be the last Chairmen album to be released by Invictus. The opener “Everybody Party All Night” proved definitively that Johnson, Woods, their new producer Jeffrey Bowen and their assembled musicians were fully on board the funk train. The song has a lot in common with Edwin Starr’s earlier cut “Funky Music Sho Nuff Turns Me On”, and has the same hedonistic theme. The furious guitar work laden with wah pedal reflects an influence from the likes of Parliament-Funkadelic, and may even have been performed by Eddie Hazel. The spacey synth solo also reminds of the P-Funk empire, which was an absolute juggernaut in 1974. Unfortunately, the Skin I’m In album was anything but a juggernaut, and crashed and burned to become a genuine funk-soul obscurity which the group effectively disowned.
Chairmen of the Board continued, in a number of different forms, following the dissolution of Invictus. For some time, a lineup including Johnson and Woods recorded beach music and were a fixture on the live scene in North and South Carolina. John passed away in 2010, and Woods died in 2018. However, with new members a version of Chairmen of the Board continues to record and perform today.
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I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.