Interviews

The Brill Building, Broadway, and Beyond: R&B and Soul Singer-songwriter Joshie Armstead

(Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo)

Original Ikette and Northern Soul legend Joshie Armstead retraces her journey from Mississippi juke joints to revered music royalty.

"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.

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