The Chitlin' Circuit
I know you were in the Ikettes with Robbie Montgomery and Jessie Smith, but who was in the initial lineup with you?
When I got with the group, it was Eloise Hester and Delores Johnson. It’s Delores doing the lead on “I’m Blue (The Gong Gong Song)” (1961). Eloise, Tina, and myself are singing background. “I’m Blue” was written from one gig to the other, somewhere down South. The three of us, along with Tina, were riding with Ike in his Cadillac. I think it might have been Ike who started it. That’s how we came up with the song. The lines “I dropped a penny in the well hoping you would come back soon” and “The fortune teller told me my love with you was through” are part of the lyrics that I contributed. It was recorded in New Orleans.
Then it was released on Atco Records and it became a huge hit, reaching number three on Billboard‘s R&B chart and the Top 20 on the Hot 100, not to mention its subsequent use in John Waters’ film Hairspray (1988) and Salt-N-Pepa’s “Shoop” (1993). Did you have any financial stake in the record?
No. Ike owned everything, which explains my obsession with ownership today. He leased it, I imagine, because that’s what they would usually do. The record company assumed he had us under contract, which he didn’t. I never signed anything with Ike.
Your time in the Ikettes spanned two years and yet you forged a lifelong bond with Tina, Robbie, and Jessie. Why has that bond endured?
There was not the celebrity frenzy thing that goes on today and the competitiveness that happens. We were bouncing around in a little raggedy bus on the Chitlin’ Circuit. Ike had the big Cadillac and Tina always had luxuries, but I think she would have rather been with us. We just made the best of what we had. It’s like your childhood friends. There are only a few that stand out, that you remember, that you bond with, that last a lifetime.
Working with Tina taught me that every moment is an opportunity to create, imagine, just be, and go with the flow. Before you know it, you’re in it, having fun with it, then something magical happens.
Why did you leave the Ikettes?
I left because I knew that there was no room for growth. I guess I could spot that from my experience in Mississippi, where you realize that circumstances will not allow you to do what you want to do. The fact that I didn’t get credit or royalties for “I’m Blue” … Well, Ike gave me a little money, but it was just a small pittance. One night I realized that. We were in San Francisco. I did a lot of drinking that night and the next morning I was not on the bus. I just decided I wasn’t going, so I didn’t. Ike always traveled separately. When the bus got to where it was going, Ike found out I wasn’t on it! [laughs]
How did you decide what do to do next?
From San Francisco, I went to Los Angeles, even though I had family in Oakland. I knew I wanted to continue to sing. Now I was on my own. I didn’t panic. I contacted the few music people in LA that I had met when I was with Ike. Charles Wright was one of them. I went into the studio with Charles and he produced a couple of things on me. “Never Try to Love No More” (1962) was one of them.
That first note on “Never Try to Love No More” is so powerful. You were only 20 years-old when you recorded that. What did you draw from to belt that out?
I don’t know. I guess I’d seen a lot. Growing up in Mississippi was no joke. You internalized that stuff. Thank goodness I had a way to express it. I think when most singers sing, there’s something that they’re letting out, some unconscious feelings and thoughts that you bring. You process it and you let it out. I just pray that I can get out of my own way and allow those thoughts and feelings to come through me.
This happened a couple of years later, but why did you release singles with the name “Deena Johnson”?
I always say that’s because of Ike. I don’t know. Maybe if I were “Deena Johnson” I could work here and if I was “Joshie Armstead”, I could work there.
When “Sitting Here Thinking” (1963) was released on Infinity, you were credited as “Joshie Armstead, formerly of the Ikettes”, so maybe Ike tried to file an injunction …
… which he did with the Ikettes: Jessie, Robbie, and Venetta Fields, who had replaced me. They had to change their name to the Mirettes. Ike stopped them cold on the road. The promoter canceled their gigs. Oh, Ike could be soooo mean! He had a set of Ikettes on the road and a set of Ikettes backing him and Tina. If he could have had a third set somewhere in Europe, he would have!
At what point did you meet Luther Dixon and (Scepter Records founder) Florence Greenberg?
I was working at the 54 Ballroom in LA. Luther came into the club and remembered me from Ike & Tina. He had just made a deal with Capitol Records for his own label, Ludix. He was looking for artists, so he asked me if I would like to come to New York. Florence was with him on that trip, so the three of us came back east. I jumped at the chance because I had family in Brooklyn, but only a few acquaintances in LA. Plus, I didn’t like LA. It was so spread out. It took forever to get anything done.
A whole new chapter unfolded for you in New York when you met Valerie Simpson in 1964. What brought the two of you together?
Well, Ludix didn’t happen for me. Luther’s label had dissolved so I never became an artist on Ludix. In the mean time, I tapped into the Brill Building, the writers hustling and bustling, taking songs up to publishers. There was so much going on. It was very exciting. I remember working with Carole King and Toni Wine, but that came later.
I met this guy Robert Moseley. He was an excellent pianist. Together, we would sit at the bar at the C&D near the Brill Building and get a glass of beer for 15 cents. They also had cheese and little bologna things on a tray. That was great because most of the time we were hungry. We’d get a booth in the back, sit there, and write. I’d sing the melody and he’d come up with the chord changes and the beat. Then we’d take them to different publishers and get a $50 advance. Hopefully, we’d get credit, too! Everything we wrote for Roulette, the owner Morris Levy’s name also ended up as a writer!
Once we made money, I wouldn’t see Robert again until he was broke, but I was ready to hustle! I met another guy, Gregory Carroll. He was a songwriter and producer. He and Doris Troy wrote “Just One Look”. Gregory invited me up to this publisher’s office, Pinkus Music, where he was working. That’s where I met Valerie.
I walked in one day and she was perched on the window sill, swinging her legs, sipping on a malted milk. We were all laughing and talking and she was by herself with her malted. Finally, Gregory said something and she joined us. She sat at the piano, and I was blown away. That was the connection. We exchanged phone numbers that day.
I have a limited ability in terms of executing, musically, what I hear. Valerie could pick up whatever it was that I was trying to express. At that time, Nick (Ashford) was not around in that particular writing pool. Valerie was working with Gregory and myself. We did a few things together, Armstead-Simpson songs. I remember one that was so cute. The lyrics went: “I don’t listen to gossip because it just might be true / All this you-say, I-say, they-say that they’re saying about you.” I wonder where that song is today …
(Photo by Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo. Artwork: Kara Walker, Event Horizon, 2005, The New School Art Collection.)
How did you, Valerie, and Nick become staff writers for Scepter Records?
When Nick came back, the three of us started writing together. Ahmet Ertegun had given us the use of the conference room at Atlantic Records, which had a piano in it. Every day we would go to Atlantic, like we were going to the office, sit down and write. We compiled maybe six or seven songs, including “Let’s Go Get Stoned”. We played them for Ahmet. He brought in Nesuhi Ertegun and Jerry Wexler to listen. They were not impressed. That is when I said, “I know where we can take them.” We took the songs over to Scepter because I knew Florence Greenberg. The cards would have it that she had just partnered with Ed Silvers to run the publishing for Scepter. We played the same songs for Ed and he signed us to Flomarlu.
As a staff writer for Scepter, you wrote songs for some of the label’s marquee acts, including the Shirelles, Chuck Jackson, Maxine Brown, and Ronnie Milsap. Describe a typical day’s work.
Florence owned the building across the street from Scepter. We had access to that building. We had keys. There was a piano set up for us so we would meet every day around noon and write, which was wonderful. It was beautiful. I loved singing with them, as well as writing. I think half the songs that we sold were because we sounded so good.
One of the first songs you wrote with Nick and Valerie was “The Real Thing”. Now, here’s some interesting history about that song. On 8 May 1965, Billboard selected Betty Everett’s version of “The Real Thing” as a “Four Star” single pick of the week. Less than a month later, Tina Britt’s version was a breakout hit in Billboard (5 June 1965). That same week, Billboard also deemed the Chiffons’ “Nobody Knows What’s Goin’ On” a “breakout” hit. Originally, the Chiffons recorded “The Real Thing” as the B-side to “Nobody Knows What’s Goin’ On” but that version appears to have been withdrawn. I mention all of this because I think it’s remarkable that three acts recorded “The Real Thing” seemingly within weeks of each other.
That was because of Ed Silvers. He hustled very hard with the songs we gave him. I really liked “The Real Thing”, but I have no recollection of all of those versions happening at the same time, maybe because we were buckled down writing.
Manfred Mann, the Guess Who, Bettye LaVette, and a bunch of other artists also began recording the songs you wrote with Ashford & Simpson around this time. At what point did you enter the world of session singing?
I think it happened because of the demos Nick and Valerie and I were doing and the songs that we were writing. Other producers heard about us and would call us to sing on their songs. There was a big jingle market that was bubbling up, too. We were getting called for that as well. Having been a backup singer in a group with Ike & Tina, it was natural for me. You never knew what was coming next or what kind of call you were going to get, or who you’d be working with. I loved it.
Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny” (1966) was me, Valerie, and Nick. We were in the studio working on it when the first blackout in New York City happened in November 1965. I remember the tape started slowing down and the lights started dimming. We were wondering what was going on. I had a cute little apartment on 66th Street. I had to walk up 16 stories. I’ll never forget that.
You, Nick and Valerie scored a major hit when Ray Charles recorded “Let’s Go Get Stoned” in 1966, not too long after the Coasters and Ronnie Milsap recorded it. What was the inception for writing that particular song?
[laughs] That song was written when we were at Atlantic. We’d been fooling around all day and hadn’t come up with anything. Nick said, ‘Let’s go get stoned’ and I said, ‘Yeah, come on!’ [laughs] I was ready to go for the three-for-one uptown, but Nick was talking about a song!
Ray Charles’ version of “Let’s Go Get Stoned” topped the R&B chart in July 1966, then he recorded another song that you wrote with Nick and Valerie, “I Don’t Need No Doctor”. In the years since he recorded it, a lot of hard rock and heavy metal bands have also done that song, including Humble Pie, W.A.S.P., and Great White.
Oh, thank goodness!
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