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.
Released in June 1970, Edwin Starr's version of "War" was a tremendous success. It reached the #1 spot in both the US and Canada, and hit #3 on the UK singles chart. The stridently anti-war song chimed strongly with the public mood, as opposition to the Vietnam War was growing rapidly on both sides of the Atlantic. The single also benefited from its driving, psychedelic soul soundscape overseen by producer Norman Whitfield, and from the enormously powerful and furious vocal by Starr.
Over 50 years later, Starr's version of "War" is one of the most recognisable and popular recordings from the glory years of soul and funk - thanks in part to frequent airplay and its use in movies like Rush Hour (1998). But Edwin Starr himself is hardly a household name, and while soul fans will readily remember him as the performer of "War", they won't neccesarily know a lot about him or about the rest of his career. The man himself died in 2003, but it's always a good time to delve into the discography of one of soul's more underrated stars.
In 2011, Jookabox announced their fourth album and at the same time announced that the project had been wound up. As the band's PR put it at the time, they had "written their own epitaph", their "last cryptic transmission". To release an album from beyond the grave was a perfect fit, given the group's sense of humour and affinity for all things morbid and supernatural. These same aspects make their music worth returning to in the otherworldly and anxious circumstances of a global pandemic.
Formed in Indianapolis by David "Moose" Adamson, the group was originally known as Grampall Jookabox and released a first album, Scientific Cricket, in 2007. A kind of warped, lo-fi folk record, it bears little resemblance to Adamson's later work but did help secure a signing to Asthmatic Kitty Records, which maintains an office in Indianapolis.
It was on the second album released under the Grampall Jookabox name that a lasting sound would begin to take shape. Ropechain was released by Asthmatic Kitty in 2008, and showcased a more electronic, varied style taking in alt hip-hop, rock, and psychedelia. Adamson's surreal lyrics and extensive use of pitch-shifted vocals combined with a home-made, basement feel creates a distinct personality. Even an amusingly sneering Pitchfork review captured this its description of the album as "the desperate product of being alone for too long"; something easy to understand in an era of lockdown.