Burt Bacharach and Northern Soul
You sang for some amazing producers, including Burt Bacharach. I’d love to know how you became a featured vocalist on one of his solo albums, Futures (1977).
Burt heard a commercial that I had done for CARE, [sings] “Send your dollars now to CARE and there’ll be one less hungry child in the world. Tomorrow …” He called. He told me that he’d heard that commercial and that my voice would be suitable for his next project. I said okay, but I didn’t really want to do it. I just had a feeling. I thought he had found the right muse with Dionne Warwick and he could not recreate what he had with her, but I agreed to do it.
In the end, the law firm I hired to negotiate my contract with Burt billed me for more money than I was going to make with him. Although they negotiated an advance for me, they billed me for more than what I was going to receive. They told me it was a speculative business and they expected I would make much more money … I never did. That’s not the first or the last time that would happen.
What was the dynamic like working with Burt in the studio?
Burt was brilliant but very controlling. I learned from working with Quincy and with Bob Dylan that you hire the best. In Dylan’s case, the best will rise to the top. In Quincy’s case, his stuff is written but he allows room for improvisation. They are both interested in what you can bring to the table, as opposed to Burt.
For instance, I did the MGM Grand with Burt and Anthony Newley. Burt needed an ending for “I Took My Strength From You”. I sang it to him at rehearsal and he dismissed my idea for the ending … but the next morning, he came back and told me that my instinct was right, and we ended the song my way!
I don’t know how long we’d been doing the gig, but there was a keyboardist that had a couple of little notes at the end of a song. He fluffed it so bad. Here’s a 27-piece orchestra and everybody is silent except him. He had this little part all to himself and he played the wrong notes. His fingers must have slipped off the keys. It was just terrible, but after that happened, we had a great time. I think he internalized the tension and in that moment he gave us what we needed to just relax. After that, the whole gig with Burt was enjoyable.
Red Hot includes some songs that you demoed in 1980 at Quad City in New York. “Magic Motion” sounds like it had some great potential. Were you seeking a record deal at the time?
I thought maybe I could get a deal, but actually, I was just wanting to go into the studio and hear something that I had written. I didn’t have any specific idea in mind of where it was going to go. I did, at one point, send something to Atlantic. I heard it was well-accepted. At that time, Noreen Woods was Ahmet Ertegun’s secretary. She let me know that they had liked it and I got a positive letter back from the label, but I didn’t follow through. I had no management to push for me. I’ve never had a manager.
What prompted you to move back to Chicago in the ‘80s?
That’s when the background work started to get competitive and a little cutthroat. Maybe it was me. When you’re young, you don’t pick up on a lot of that stuff. Because I’d grown a little more experienced, I could see a lot of the dynamics that didn’t register before. I wasn’t getting called. I even heard the term, “Can you give me the ‘Joshie Armstead’ sound?” That kind of stuff was going on.
Chicago was an easier city, at that time, to live in. I kept my apartment here, though. Once you get an apartment in New York, never let it go. I started doing some commercials in Chicago. I did a Coca-Cola ad for the Super Bowl. I did some good jingles for McDonald’s, Tropicana, the NCAA. I also sang on the soundtrack for a documentary about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called His Light Still Shines, produced by Burrell Advertising. The residuals during that time were absolutely fantastic. Pretty soon, that kind of petered out too and that’s when I made that deal with Collectibles.
At the same time, you were becoming a huge figure in the UK’s Northern Soul scene. What is your understanding of that whole community?
Here’s my take on Northern Soul. It’s a group of people that love R&B music. They are buying and selling and trading for lots of money some of the most obscure records that most people have never heard of. They love it and I appreciate them for that. They latched onto my work. “I Got the Vibes” (1973) was one of my songs they played all the time. It helped establish what they call “Weekenders”. I went over and performed at one of them. Northern Soul has slowly evolved into festivals and much bigger venues.
A few years ago, you recorded new tracks with Fred Wesley of the J.B.‘s. “No Hope” and “Don’t Bring Your Girlfriend” are just sizzling! How did you team up with him?
Fred used to call me for James Brown sessions back in the ‘70s. When I read Fred’s book, I realized that he had worked with Ike & Tina, but I’d left by then. We could have exchanged some hell of a stories, had I known that.
A friend of mine, drummer Mike Clark, who was with Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters, and I had a mutual friend who loved to entertain. We’d always be at her apartment. The food would be good. The drinks would be flowing. We would tell stories. One night, Mike brought Fred’s name up and I mentioned that Fred had worked with Ike & Tina. Mike said, “Let’s call him”, and that’s how I hooked up with Fred again.
The first time I ever played the Apollo was because of Fred. I performed with Fred, David Krakauer, and a Canadian rapper Socalled. By this time I was thinking, Let me take the funk man into the studio. When I found out Fred was coming to New York again, I asked, “You want to go in the studio?” He said, “Yeah, send me the tunes.” I’m a firm believer in doing things to the best of one’s ability, so we went into Avatar (formerly the Power Station) and did the rhythm section. After that, I put horns on it at Andre Betts’ studio, UPMC in New Jersey. Then I overdubbed vocals and mixed it in Brooklyn.
In 2014, The New York Daily News ran a story that said “Joshie Armstead Returns After 33 Years” on the occasion of your New Year’s Eve show at Littlefield in Brooklyn. How did that show come together?
Michael Robinson and his partner Richard Lewis had been asking me to do a show for about five years. Michael is from the UK and his partner is from Texas. They’re part of the Northern Soul community. They were producing shows called “Dig Deeper” that featured Barbara Lynn, Syl Johnson, Garland Green, and lots of other R&B and soul acts, but I kept refusing. Finally, after I did the sessions with Fred, I agreed to appear at Littlefield. It was to test myself, really.
It was horrible because I developed a condition in November and all through December with phlegm in my throat. I became so alarmed as the date drew closer, and it didn’t get better, that on Christmas Eve, my doctor got me an appointment with a specialist to see if there was anything that could be done to clear it up. When I did the gig, I didn’t have control of my instrument at all … but luckily it was New Year’s Eve. Everybody was sauced up. I didn’t go on until midnight. The band was hot and I knew how to give them a show. They thought it was wonderful, but my voice failed me! It was not there. To this day, I don’t know if I have it anymore to project on stage. In the studio, yes, but the stage is a bitch.
I just don’t think you can take a layoff like I took. I don’t know if other artists think of it like that, but in a way, to me, it diminishes your talent, when you’re not at your best. You got to know when to hold them, and when to fold them.
These days, what inspires you to put pen to paper?
Anything and everything. Something somebody says, or maybe it’s something I’ve read. I like to think I’m alert. My favorite words to my daughter Chandra are “Stay focused, stay in the moment, be aware”. Just people-watching brings me a lot of inspiration. Come to think of it, I’ve never really written a real love song. I think about Nick (Ashford) when I think about that because he wrote about love. I don’t write those kinds of songs. Sorry to say I guess it’s because I’ve never felt any strong feelings of romantic love that have inspired me.
Going back to young Josephine, we talked about how she would feel looking at the artwork in the Orozco Room at the New School. How do you think she would feel sitting across from you, listening to the way her life panned out?
[pauses] I was a bright-eyed inquisitive child. The bullies had a nickname for me in Yazoo City. They called me Marble Eye … I think young Josephine would be absolutely astounded. Her eyes would probably get bigger than marbles [laughs]. Wow, she’d think. “Me? No way! Me?” Today, I feel so blessed. It’s wonderful. Marble Eye can say that she has seen what she has seen.
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