The Brill Building, Broadway, and Beyond

R&B and Soul Singer-songwriter Joshie Armstead

by Christian John Wikane

11 September 2017

(Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo) 

Let's Get Stoned

What do you attribute to the fact that it’s been adopted by all of those bands?

I think it’s the structure. What Valerie was doing has a lot to do with that, in terms of musicians liking that song. There’s a lot there. It’s a funky song. I hear it a little bit slower. I hear it more like John Mayer’s version, which is different.

Not too long after Ray Charles had those hits, Nick and Valerie signed with Motown. What do you recall about that transition?

I’d found the Scepter deal. After our contract was up at Scepter, we weren’t seeing each other every day. When I look back on it, they were partners before I came along. The very first time I saw them, even before I met Valerie at Pinkus, they were performing together at a theater in Brooklyn near my aunt’s house billed as “Valerie and Nick”, so in a sense, I was the third wheel.

I think it was Nick who found the Motown deal. There’s nobody better to collaborate with musically, in my opinion, than Valerie Simpson. That’s why the split was heartbreaking to me. I went on to Chicago. Once again, I was on my own. I felt just like I did when I left the Ike & Tina Turner Revue.

Shortly after I arrived in Chicago, I received a royalty check for “Let’s Go Get Stoned”. It wasn’t much, maybe $500. I didn’t have a bank account in Chicago. The owner of the Silver Slipper Club in Yazoo City, where I auditioned for Ike Turner, had a brother in Chicago, Cubie Coleman. Cubie owned the Tiger Lounge, which was the hot spot, a very popular supper club on the South Side. He was also involved in the music business. At that time, Chicago was a very vibrant city for music, so I took my check, dressed to impress, went over to the Tiger Lounge, and asked Cubie to cash it for me.

I sat at the Tiger Lounge, talking with him about my family, whom he knew, my life in Yazoo City, and the music business, until closing. They’d pulled the drapes and we were still sitting there. They were still pouring drinks. In the meantime, he told me about the guy who was running the record company that he was backing, but all I was interested in was getting my check cashed! I told him that I was tired, sleepy, and it was time for me to go home. I asked him again if he would cash my check. He said, “Listen, just go downstairs to my office and you can lay down there.” I went off. I told him, “I am not sleeping in any strange place that I do not know for you to cash a check for me!” So I stormed out. I sent the check to Valerie in New York and asked her to cash it and wire me the money, which she did.

How did you start working with producer Mel Collins?

Mel Collins was the guy that Cubie was talking about. Cubie was backing Melvin’s company and he introduced me to him. Melvin—I never called him “Mel”—had managed Betty Everett. When we met, he realized that I had written songs for Betty with Valerie and Nick. He told Cubie, “We have got to get her!” He thought he had hit the jackpot! For about a year, I had it real good. [laughs] They paid me every week, as a songwriter for their record company. Cubie found me an apartment, furnished the apartment, the whole nine yards.

One of the first hits you wrote during your Chicago years was “Casanova (Your Playing Days Are Over)” for Ruby Andrews, which was a Top Ten R&B hit in 1967. Was “Casanova” written for her, specifically?

Kinda sorta. Ric Williams was working with Ruby. Melvin and Ric were buddies. Ric was Ruby’s guy, and Melvin and I had become a couple. One day, we were at Melvin’s mother’s house. She had a piano. I sat down at the piano and started tinkering while they were talking. I’d been carrying around the idea in my head and came up with the first verse in ten or 15 minutes.

When “Casanova” came out, to my surprise, Melvin had taken 50 percent of the writers’ credit by adding his pen name—a pseudonym—as a writer. I put my foot down. That was a deal breaker. And I found out that he’d been adding his name to the copyrights of all of the songs that I had written … so I had to marry him.

You had to marry him?

Yes. I had to protect myself. It’s tough. The music business is really rough. I had to think, How can I reclaim ownership of my work from this man who was underhandedly taking credit for it? So marriage was a business deal for me. I pushed for co-ownership of the label, Giant. Melvin agreed to that, in order for me not to leave him, but divorce was inevitable. When I divorced him, my settlement in the divorce decree was that the copyright and the masters to every song with my name on it reverted back to me as sole owner.

Wow, Joshie! Well, the bright spot in all of this was that you scored your first solo hit with “A Stone Good Lover”. It went to #28 (R&B) in June 1968. At this point, you’d written scores of singles. How did it feel to have your own hit on your own label?

“A Stone Good Lover” launched Giant Records, but I didn’t enjoy any of it. Cubie financed everything, but by this time, he was ill, so there was not enough money to run the label. His thousands of dollars that he would give us in a paper bag prior to a session was now gone. There was the pressure to deliver a hit. There was a lot of bickering. And Cubie died. It was not fun.

Garland Green scored a Top Five R&B and Top 20 pop hit with a song you wrote and produced, “Jealous Kind of Fella” (1969). What was it about his talent that appealed to you?

I saw Garland one night at the High Chaparral. I said to Melvin, “I think I can get a hit on him.” Garland has a pleading quality to his voice. It will crack on you at strange times. He came over to the apartment one day. He had some chords and he had these words: “What a day, I think I’ll call my baby today.” I listened to that and worked with it, came up with the storyline and the melody for “Jealous Kind of Fella”. It’s background vocal heavy. It’s Shirley Wahls who says “hello”.

That same year, you produced an album for Rhetta Hughes, Re-Light My Fire (1969). Mike Terry arranged it. The album made the national R&B chart in March 1969 and “Light My Fire” made the Top 10 of JET‘s Top 20. What was the genesis for that project?

Rhetta was working around Chicago. She met Bill Cosby and went on the college circuit with him. Bill was forming Tetragrammaton Records with business partners. He signed her. She convinced them that she wanted me to produce her album. Knowing I had to rely a lot on someone musically capable of helping me execute everything, I proposed the project to Mike Terry and split production with him. Tetragrammaton picked up the bills but we didn’t get an advance. On second thought, maybe Melvin got it … I don’t know! [laughs]

I enjoyed working on Rhetta’s album. She’s like a chameleon. There’s a song on there “Giving Up My Heartaches” that has lots of different colors. We were very hopeful that we would come up with a hit from this album.

The next year, your voice was immortalized when you sang in the choir on Ashford & Simpson’s production of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (1970) for Diana Ross, her first number one solo record after leaving the Supremes. Were you still in Chicago at that time?

Yes. While I was in Chicago, Valerie and Nick were at Motown doing their thing. You can’t touch that work! It was inspired. I was so proud of them. Valerie would come and visit me in Chicago. When they would call, I’d go to Detroit and sing background with them on what they were working on.

The vocal parts that they worked out for “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” were fantastic. When I heard it, the combination was explosive. It’s the placement of the voices. There’s something about the sound of those voices, the harmony. It soars. The soprano part (which I’m singing) is so dynamic, that it keeps lifting you higher and higher. I knew it was a going to be huge.

When you’re a part of a major work like that and you hear it everywhere and nobody knows, except insiders, that you made a major contribution to it, you just want to scream “Do you hear that? That part is me. I’m singing on that.”

Why did you move back to New York?

I just had to get out of Chicago because it was so chaotic and tragic. Everybody was stealing from everybody, the artists and record companies, managers and publishers, booking agents … everybody! I can’t survive under those conditions. My marriage was breaking down, though it wasn’t a real marriage in the first place. The company we had founded was falling apart. There was no money. I think I was even evicted in Chicago. My husband wasn’t paying the rent and the landlord would call and ask me about it. I’d say a few heated words to him, so it just got messy. I don’t like messy messes. [laughs] I left my daughter with my girlfriend to put on a later flight.

Shortly thereafter, you sang background on Bob Dylan’s “George Jackson” (1971). To have that be one of the first sessions you did after returning to New York is pretty amazing. How were you contracted for that particular session?

A man from Columbia Records called me for that session and I got the chance to see Bob Dylan in action. It was astonishing. He had a studio full of musicians and I saw him whittle them down, one by one. I noticed one thing, the ones that were showing off and playing all over everything? They were gone. He simplified it. I think it was about five or six pieces. Leon Russell was there. It doesn’t get much better than that. I think I must have walked on air for a year or two. [laughs]

From what I understand, Dylan wrote “George Jackson” in tribute to one of the co-founders of the Black Guerrilla Family who was shot dead by prison guards. Tragically, the spirit of that song still rings true today, especially as we see so many men and women of color accosted and killed by law enforcement. What was your perception of that song at the time?

Bob, as a writer, is tapped into a pure source with all of his work. There’s that famous line in the song, “This whole world is one big prison yard. Some of us are prisoners, the rest of us are guards.” The whole concept was very touching to me because I’m part of the Civil Rights Movement. It revealed to me that Bob, like a lot of white people—especially artists—was very compassionate. That let me know what he really felt as a man. He was sensitive.

Not too long after your return to New York, you met Melvin Van Peebles. Where did you first meet him?

I had a real connection there in a lot of different ways. One afternoon, I saw Hank Talbert and Melvin on the corner of 53rd St. and Broadway. Hank worked at the distributor in Detroit that handled my ex-husband’s and my label. Hank knew me from owning a record label, and here’s Mr. Van Peebles! I knew most of Melvin’s music too, “Brer Soul” and all of that stuff.

Also, I had just come back from Detroit with Nick and Valerie. The three of us had gone to see Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971). Detroit was the only place that would screen the movie in the country at that time. One of his leading ladies was Rhetta Hughes, and I had produced her first album, so there’s another tie-in. I felt really relevant and current, on top of it, so I was ready to discuss anything!

Hank introduced him to me. After that meeting on the street corner, Melvin had to be at a place in the Bronx, the Boston Road Ballroom. The Bronx is like a foreign country to me but, believe it or not, I knew how to get there! I think it was because of Valerie. She had lived on Jackson Avenue and we’d gone up there once or twice to some kind of dance or something. I knew how to get to that place in the Bronx. I showed him how to get there.

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