“I’m moving on.” Joshie Armstead first emblazoned those words in Melvin Van Peebles’ film Don’t Play Us Cheap! (1972). The scene depicted her performance of a song called “You Cut Up the Clothes in the Closet of My Dreams”. When Van Peebles re-tailored his film for the Broadway stage, a New York Times review praised Armstead’s solo as one of the show’s “knockout” star turns. Perhaps the key to the singer’s riveting performance was the resonance of “moving on” in her own life. “That was one of the things that you could always count on me doing,” she says. “Moving on.”
It’s that spirit that fueled young Josephine Armstead’s resolve to leave Yazoo City, Mississippi, and join the original Ikettes in the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. She co-wrote the Ikettes’ Top Five R&B hit “I’m Blue (The Gong Gong Song)” (1961) before departing the group and emerging as a solo artist. Upon settling in New York during the early-’60s, Armstead joined forces with Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, securing a songwriting deal with Scepter Records. Ray Charles recorded “Let’s Go Get Stoned” (1966) and gave the songwriting trio their very first number one hit, followed by his indelible rendition of another Ashford-Simpson-Armstead gem, “I Don’t Need No Doctor”.
In 1967, Armstead relocated to Chicago after Ashford & Simpson signed with Motown. She wrote and produced several hits, including “Casanova (Your Playing Days Are Over)” (Ruby Andrews), “Come On Sock It to Me” (Syl Johnson), “Jealous Kind of Fellow” (Garland Green), and a cover of the Doors’ “Light My Fire” (Rhetta Hughes), and put Giant Records on the map with her first solo hit, “A Stone Good Lover” (1968). Armstead not only recorded and produced for Giant, she co-owned the label. Like Scepter Records founder Florence Greenberg, she made history as one of the few women in pop music to head a record company.
Though Giant Records shuttered after only a few years in operation, Armstead found refuge at Stax Records where label owner Al Bell signed her as an artist, writer, and producer. However, in a familiar turn of events, Stax went bankrupt in 1975. Prior to bankruptcy, the label issued Armstead’s showstopper from the Broadway musical See Saw (1973) — “Ride Out the Storm” — and her autobiographical “Stumblin’ Blocks, Steppin’ Stones” (1974). With string arrangements by Paul Riser, the latter tune spotlighted Armstead’s extraordinary performance and featured former Ikette partners Robbie Montgomery and Jessie Smith on background vocals. If ever a song captured the power and vitality of Joshie Armstead’s voice, “Stumblin’ Blocks, Steppin’ Stones” was it.
In between her solo recordings, Armstead continued working with Ashford & Simpson, from singing soprano in the choir on the duo’s Grammy-nominated production of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (1970) for Diana Ross to co-writing Simpson’s solo single “Silly Wasn’t I” (1972), later sampled by 50 Cent on “Best Friend” (2005). She returned to New York and became one of the industry’s most sought-after studio vocalists, recording jingles alongside Luther Vandross and singing on sessions for Burt Bacharach, Bob Dylan, Roberta Flack, Esther Phillips, Schoolhouse Rock, and Quincy Jones’ soundtrack for The Wiz (1978).
While the New York and Chicago jingle scenes kept Armstead busy throughout the ’80s, she ultimately took a respite from the industry and pursued her education, earning a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts at the New School of Social Research. Some lessons transcended the classroom, including the value of owning her masters. During her hiatus from recording, Armstead licensed her Giant and Stax recordings to Collectibles, who released A Stone Good Lover (1996), a collection of her singles from 1967-1974. Years later, she released her own compilation, Red Hot (2005), which featured previously unreleased recordings, including her original demo of “Stumblin’ Blocks, Steppin’ Stones” arranged by Bill Eaton.
Parallel to her studies, Armstead’s music garnered renewed interest from the Northern Soul community of DJ’s, record collectors, and soul music aficionados. The producers of Brooklyn-based soul party “Dig Deeper” helmed her comeback show at Littlefield on New Year’s Eve, 2014. Soul Discovery called it “an exceptional performance”, applauding the way Armstead put her stamp on tunes she wrote for other artists as well as solo cuts like “I Feel An Urge Coming On”, “I Got the Vibes”, and “I’m Gonna Show You”.
Three years later, Joshie Armstead’s musical story is still unfolding. Fred Wesley, renowned leader of the J.B.’s, recently joined her in the studio for a pair of new recordings, while critically acclaimed rapper Russ sampled a tune she penned and produced for Rhetta Hughes (“His Happiness”) on “MVP”, the closing track off his Top Ten album There’s Really a Wolf (2017). In this exclusive interview with PopMatters, Armstead retraces a trail of stepping stones that led her from singing in Mississippi juke joints to recording with — and becoming — music royalty.
When we discussed possible venues to conduct this interview, you suggested the Orozco Room at the New School of Social Research. Each wall features a fresco by José Clemente Orozco from the New School Art Collection. What is the significance of this room to you?
The murals make such a poignant social statement. The colors and the artwork and the history of them are very important to me. They were painted in 1931 under a lot of pressure from the artist and his subject matter was met with a lot of opposition. For instance, there’s the Table of Universal Brotherhood (1930-1931) and at the head of that table is an African American. That was a big deal during the ’30s, to see an African American man depicted in such an honorable way. It attracted crowds of people.
I spoke in this room for a fundraiser. It was my story of how I came to the New School. When my career was waning and it was time to do something different, I went back to school. Growing up in Yazoo City, Mississippi, we basically had three things that really drew our attention: church; school, and then juke joints. I loved school. I was in my 60s when I returned. I made the Dean’s List, consistently, and I ended up with a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts. In 2002, I graduated. I was shocked at graduation — they read part of my entrance essay!
If young Josephine Armstead from Yazoo City were sitting beside you right now, how do you think she would feel, being in this room?
Oh, she’d be amazed and soak it all in. Her imagination could just take flight here with the aesthetics, the colors, and the beauty, even though it’s heavy in terms of the content. She might be a little too young to understand everything, but she wouldn’t want to leave this room. She’d remember the beautiful paintings and the murals for the rest of her life.
When did Josephine become Joshie?
Well, Mr. Henry Allen, who lived around the corner from us, had a mule named Josephine. He and that mule were inseparable. He would drive that mule — “Hee-haw, Josephine!” I was so embarrassed, even though at the time, I knew about great Josephine’s of history — Napoleon’s Empress Josephine, Josephine Baker, who I wanted to be just like, and Josephine Premice. But I still could not get past Mr. Henry Allen’s mule named Josephine.
I had an outgoing personality in school, playing basketball and participating in the glee club. I was very popular. The kids at Yazoo High School started calling me “Josie”. Then somehow it changed into “Joshie”. I kind of liked that because I thought it was different and had a little spin on it. They also called me “Jo”, which I didn’t like because I thought it was too masculine.
What kind of aspirations did you have growing up in Yazoo City?
Music was my main focus — singing in church, being a soloist in the choir at school. I was on track to do something musically. I really wanted to be Marian Anderson. We studied her music in school. My training was classical training, basically, but the juke joints got a hold of me! My grandfather was a bootlegger and a gambler. My family owned cafés, and juke joints were a part of our social life. I was exposed to Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Little Junior Parker, and all of those artists.
During the ’60s, you broke ground as one of only a few women to own a record company. Decades earlier, your mother also blazed a trail as an ordained minister. What aspects of her live within you?
My faith, which has brought me from Mississippi to where I am today. Or, as one writer put it, from the cotton fields of Mississippi to the Cotton Club in Harlem. I look around all the time in amazement because it wasn’t a journey that was easy. It was not planned with setting goals. It just happened. Whatever came my way, I did the best with it, always trying to see how I could do better.
Yazoo City had an undertone that’s not conducive to bringing out the best in you, except I had a few (good) teachers. From a child, I couldn’t see myself having a life there. There was no opportunity. We had great times. We partied hard. We had sports. Half of my family that had left Yazoo City ended up in Brooklyn, so I would come to New York during the summer as a little girl.
You mentioned Bobby “Blue” Bland, who was the first major artist you performed with on stage. Where did you sing with him?
The Silver Slipper in Yazoo City. All of the big blues acts would play the Slipper. One particular night, Bobby “Blue” Bland was there. Somebody egged me on, or maybe I asked them if I could sing. Anyway, I ended up on stage! It was just unbelievable — the sound, the band, the beat, the groove. I think I sang Mary Wells’ “Bye Bye Baby”. It was mesmerizing, hypnotizing, all that stuff. Wow, I’m glad I didn’t freeze!
What kind of stage experience did you have prior to that night? What songs would have been in your repertoire?
I had been singing with a band around town, Little Melvin and the Downbeats. Come to think of it, in those days, everybody was Little — Little Milton, Little Junior Parker, Little Willie John. I might be getting ahead of myself here, but there is a placard with Ike & Tina Turner and the Ikettes where I’m “Little Josie”.
In terms of songs, I used to love Jimmy Reed, so I’m sure I did some Jimmy Reed stuff. I think what I sang, mostly, were the guys’ songs.
How did you find your way out of Yazoo City?
That was through Ike Turner. My sister Velma had been married to Ike. Ike & Tina were playing Jackson, Mississippi, which is only about 42 miles away from Yazoo City. We were planning on going to the show that night in Jackson, but it rained. It poured. Most country people don’t like to go anywhere when the weather’s bad, so we didn’t go. I went to bed. The next morning, my mother was shaking me, saying, “Get up baby, somebody’s here to see you.” It was Ike Turner. He and my sister had talked on the phone. During the conversation, she told him that I was singing in a little band around town.
Ike needed one more girl to complete the Ikettes, so he drove from Jackson to Yazoo City. The owner of the Silver Slipper was gracious and nice enough to open the club … maybe because he wanted Ike & Tina to eventually play the Slipper, but they were too big of an act for the Slipper. I sang “Bye Bye Baby”. That was my go-to song. [laughs] I don’t know what sort of voice I had at six o’clock in the morning!
When we drove back to my mama’s house, I think I was numb. It was like I wanted to pinch myself. Did Ike Turner just come here to hear me? Did he bring his band leader down here to meet me? When we got back home, he said to mama that he wanted to take me on the road with him. That was it. I packed a few things and my mother gave me two dollars. I didn’t care if she didn’t give me nothing. I’m outta here! I’m out of Yazoo City.
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At that time in 1961, Ike & Tina were coming off a string of hits with “A Fool In Love”, “I Idolize You”, and “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine”. What did you enjoy most about being onstage with the Ikettes?
At first, I hated it because I had never experienced the dynamics of three-part harmony. The girls weren’t that nice to me. I was the new one. The country bumpkin. Everything that went wrong, the other two put it on me! One incident happened when we were doing the Ray Charles song “The Night Time Is the Right Time”. At the end, there’s silence, the band is out, and the girls have to do this big “yeah!” in harmony. That night, Ike heard who was wrong and it wasn’t me! It was Eloise. After that, it gave me the confidence of “Girl, you got this”.
It wasn’t a polished show at that time. These were the formative years. We used to just sit on the side of the stage, smoke cigarettes, and talk when we weren’t singing. Eventually, Ike cut that out. He started fining us money if we were smoking and talking, or even if we had a run in our stockings. Ike was a very talented, insightful man, and a good business man too. It’s a shame that all of that was overshadowed by his abusive behavior.
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!
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.
What led to your role in Melvin’s Don’t Play Us Cheap! (1972)?
I think we exchanged numbers. He asked me to come in for the audition and I got the role. Melvin shot the film of Don’t Play Us Cheap! first. That was his way of rehearsing for the play … and his way of making a dollar work! He had found an abandoned convent in Santa Fe that was like a dormitory. He rented it. The concept was to rehearse the play and film it as rehearsals were going. When we got to Broadway, except for a few previews, it was opening night.
The New York Times praised your solo, “You Cut Up the Clothes in the Closet of My Dreams”. They called it a knockout. What was the premise of that song?
I think that was tailor made for me. I offered to make dinner for Melvin one night and he came by. I always had, and still do, a creative way of dressing. I love fashion, so I think there was something about my closet and clothes hanging everywhere that might have inspired him to write the song. I’m willing to bet you that’s where the idea came from.
My dear dear friend, Bernard Johnson, was the costume designer. He had brought a trunk of clothes that was down in the basement of this convent. He called each actor downstairs and fitted them for their character. When it came to me, he didn’t have anything. After a few heated words, I pulled out this hat and I found the wig, and my character was born. He made that dress and the shoes. Oh, I hated that dress! [laughs] We were caricatures, really. I came up with the little fur piece that you see in the film credits and the character’s mannerisms are based on my sister Leola. I thought my sister could do everything.
What did you learn about acting from co-stars like Esther Rolle and Mabel King?
I remember Esther telling me to hold it back a little in rehearsals and save it for the actual stage performance. That was good advice, but I still didn’t take it! I don’t know how to hold back. I went out full blast. I would push myself to the limit to test myself and see what I had.
Hal Wheeler was the musical director of Don’t Play Us Cheap!. I worked with Hal and basically did most of the vocal background arrangements for those songs. I didn’t get credit for it, but I don’t think it was maliciously done. I didn’t stay with the production that long. I had to move on.
Don’t Play Us Cheap! later received a Tony Award nomination for “Best Book of a Musical”. Even though you left the musical, did your work with Melvin lead to other theater opportunities?
Yes. After that, Cy Coleman came along with Seesaw (1973). I was called to do a demo, specifically for Seesaw. A friend of mine, June, who was an early member of the Karamu House in Cleveland and in the cast of Don’t Play Us Cheap!, advised me not to do the demo and audition for a part instead. I got the role and guess who did the demo? Nell Carter.
The first director was Ed Sherin. I loved Ed Sherin. Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, of course, did the music. The book was by Michael Stewart. They fired Ed Sherin during previews in Detroit. I was heartbroken. At the time, I was killing them with “Ride Out the Storm”. That was one of the highlights of the show. When we came back to New York, Michael Bennett was hired as the director. They got rid of Lainie Kazan, who was the star of the show, and brought in Michelle Lee.
It was very intense, more intense than anything I’ve ever done. I felt I didn’t have an ally. I’d go home, get in a fetal position and cry, but get up the next day and carry on. My role began to change, so much so that one evening I told my understudy to prepare to go on the next night because I wasn’t going to be there. I did not like the way my character’s direction was going, so I left and didn’t go back. That’s when Tommy Tune came in. My role was rewritten for him.
I wish I had known how to survive in the Broadway community. You really have to be dedicated. It has to be your focus, and it wasn’t mine. Back in those days, work was work. Nobody turned down a job and here I was walking away from one … moving on.
And yet those Broadway experiences didn’t define you because you were doing so many other things. You produced your own version of “Ride Out the Storm”, which became your first single for Stax on the Gospel Truth subsidiary in March 1973. How did you get signed to Stax?
I met (Stax owner) Al Bell when I was in Chicago. I was at his associate’s office. I sat down at the piano and stomped out a groove, singing a song I’d just written called “I’ve Been Turned On”. Al was floored. I was married to Mel Collins at the time. We had the record company and he did not want me signed to Stax. That would have been perfect for me. They were hot. Stax music was pumpin’! I regret that I didn’t sign with Stax and go with Al Bell at that time.
The next time I met Al Bell was in New Mexico on the film set of Don’t Play Us Cheap! Al came for a meeting with Melvin because Stax was going to release the cast album. He was there the night that Melvin filmed my solo “You Cut Up the Clothes”. It had to be fate.
Soon after I left Don’t Play Us Cheap! I began working on material to send to Al Bell. The first four songs on Red Hot (2005) were the demos that I sent him. I did the demos with arranger Bill Eaton (Aretha’s former musical director), Valerie Simpson on piano, Bill Salter (co-writer of Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack’s “Where is the Love”) on guitar and bass, Artie Jenkins on keyboards, and Herbie Lovelle on drums. I had New York’s finest badass musicians. Al gave me a wonderful deal as artist, producer, and writer-publisher — three different contracts, three different ways of making money. It was a five-year guaranteed deal. I would produce my own work, hire and fire whoever I wanted to. I recorded in Memphis, Detroit, and New York working on that album. Stax paid all expenses, hotel, airfare, musicians, and studios.
“Stumblin’ Blocks, Steppin’ Stones”(1974) is an immaculate production and truly one of your finest hours as a solo artist. What inspired you to write it?
It’s autobiographical. It’s kind of a reflective thing, of taking a negative and turning it into a positive, which is basically my philosophy about life. There are two versions. I think Al Bell fell in love with the Bill Eaton demo version, which I included on Red Hot. Paul Riser had slowed it down on the version you’re talking about. Stax released that. The horns and strings are just absolutely exquisite. The backup vocals were the former Ikettes, Robbie Montgomery, and Jessie Smith. They were in town working with Dr. John. Singing together again was like old times.
You retained ownership of your Stax masters, which was huge during that particular era of music. It was also rather significant that, continuing from the records you recorded in Chicago, you were producing your own records. Like Valerie, you were also one of the few female record producers in the industry. Did you encounter much resistance from your male peers?
I didn’t have too much of a problem. I only felt a little pressure that I was a female. I just did it, but sometimes I did have a hard time with a few of the guys who didn’t want to listen to what I had to say: “You’re going to tell me what to do?” “Well, who’s signing your check?” To a certain extent, the basics of producing is knowing who to hire. You try and find people with creativity, energy, and a willingness to work. Some of the great producers do more than that.
Stax issued a few of your singles but never an entire album. What happened?
It took me a year to complete the album. By the time I finished it, they were unable to honor my contract. Al’s attorney called me and said, “Joshie, we’re so sorry but we cannot pick up your option.” Stax had been forced into bankruptcy and if they couldn’t pay me, my contract was null and void. So they released me. In doing so, everything I recorded just reverted back to me. I sat on those masters until I made that awful deal with Collectibles (in the ’90s) when I needed the money. That deal tied my masters up for ten years. I finally got them back.
Throughout the ’70s you sang backgrounds for Roberta Flack, Nina Simone, Quincy Jones, B.B. King, and Esther Phillips, among many others. One of my favorite moments from that time is when you and Cissy Houston sang background on Kiki Dee’s “I’ve Got the Music In Me” (1974).
Oh, I loved chirping with Ms. Cissy! I had adored her for many years. She’s got that last little flick of a note that’s almost undetectable! That is just so fantastic. She was contracting gigs and she called me for “I’ve Got the Music In Me”. We had a great time doing that. It was done at Electric Lady. Elton John came by the studio that day. It was just jubilant!
Maeretha Stewart also sang on that as well.
Maeretha was from an earlier generation of singers. She told me that when they went to audition for The Nat “King” Cole Show (1956), there was a sign on the door that said “Whites Only”. No black voices. Maeretha and that class of singers were sight readers also. Regrettably, I didn’t take the time to take sight singing lessons. Although Maeretha was a very good singer, technically, it was me and Ms. Cissy who had that umph that makes you feel it all in your bones.
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.