Interview: Henry Stone on James Brown and Disco’s Boom and Bust

The legendary record man and architect of the Miami sound remembers the disco boom (and bust).

Ruling his empire from an 18th floor penthouse in Coral Gables, Miami, Henry Stone, at 93, remains the archetypal Record Man. Stone has been in the music business for almost 70 years and even today he is passionate about his label and artists: a new release by Latimore finds the soul singer covering Ray Charles – who Stone originally recorded and released on his Rockin’ label in 1951.

Stone is not just a survivor but a legend: Working as a distributor, label owner and talent scout, he has been closely involved with major blues, soul and disco artists across the decades. Best known as the founder and owner of TK Records, Stone gave the world “the Miami sound” and launched the likes of Timmy Thomas, Betty Wright, George & Gwen McCrae, Latimore and, of course, KC & The Sunshine Band on the world.

George McCrae - Rock Your Baby

In 1974 TK scored its first mega-smash with George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby.” When KC first played you that recording did you have any idea what a hit you had on your hands?

I was recording Gwen McCrae and George – her husband – drove her down. This was before “Rocking Chair.” She did her thing, cut some sides. George, who had done some background stuff for us, is waiting for her downstairs. Then KC and Rick [Finch] come and play me this track they’ve cut – an instrumental – and I say, “Oh my god! Wow!” But KC says he can’t sing it. Pitch is too high for him.

People came from all around the world to look at that little studio in Hialeah. They wanted that Miami sound!

I say, “George has a high voice. Let’s send him upstairs and see what he can do.” So up they go and two hours later they come down with “Rock Your Baby.” All mixed. Everything. I take that record and put it out on radio down here in Miami, and in a couple of days I think the roof is gonna come down. I call my attorney and it turns out he’s just about to head to Mississippi. I say, “Alan, halt no matter what you’re doing. Get back to New York. I’m going to have the biggest record in the world.”

When you first heard it, did you know what you had?

Yeah, I just knew it. It was so fresh and fun and young sounding. Disco was just beginning to happen and it was the first big disco record. Even today when you go to a Walmart or Walgreens, the first thing you hear is “Rock Your Baby.” Followed by a KC song. Followed by “Ring My Bell.”

Do you subscribe to that concept of “the Miami sound”?

Well, yeah, there was a Miami sound but it was not promoted as the Miami sound in the way that Motown was promoted as the Detroit sound. And that’s what I’m doing now – promoting the Miami sound. The Miami sound is not Gloria Estefan. She had one big hit record. A couple of other good records. But we had 27 gold and platinum hits. 27 of ‘em. That’s the Miami sound. People came from all around the world to look at that little studio in Hialeah. They wanted that Miami sound!

How did you manage to survive the disco madness? A lot of people seemed to go coke crazy, and record labels crashed and burned.

Well, I went down the tubes at the same time as Neil Bogart. He blew his head away with cocaine and I never did drugs. I’d have a drink with James Brown – cognac – he’d come down every six or eight weeks to talk about records and originally I would send KC out to the liquor store to get the cognac when I knew James was coming down.

“Ring My Bell” was one of your last really big disco hits, right?

Three weeks at #1 in 1979.

But it wasn’t recorded in Miami?

Yes, it was. Frederick Knight came down here with Anita and recorded it as a blues song. (I did the same thing I did with Ray Charles when I told him not to sing like Nat “King” Cole.) I sent it up to Ray Caviaro, my promotion guy in New York, and he gave it a guy who gave it a “Midnight Mix.” It was a blues record, and then it became a dance record.

Anita Ward - Ring My Bell

Why do you think that era – which had produced so many great dance records – came crashing down so quickly?

I don’t know. All I know is at that time the shit hit the fan. I had KC #1 around the world with a ballad, “Please Don’t Go,” I had Little Beaver and Latimore with big hits, all my blues artists were hitting with disco. And then my banker is listening to 60 Minutes and he hears this thing about the death of disco.

He calls the guy who handles my accounts, and says, “Don’t we have a record company we handle?” And he says, “Yeah, TK, they’re doing great.” “No, they’re gonna go bankrupt. Disco’s gonna go out of business. They’re going down. I heard it on the news.” Apparently they mentioned my and Neil Bogart’s name and Salsoul. So they pulled my credit line and when that happens they notify all of your creditors. You can’t borrow money, you can’t pay your manufacturers, your distributors... My distributors went nuts! Thought they were never going to get their money. It knocked us down.

But it wasn’t just TK. The Bee Gees, Donna Summer, all these huge artists suddenly stopped selling records.

My 17.5 million dollar deal was one signature away from being done.

Michael Jackson brought it back. A couple years before that I was going to make a deal with Columbia to sell TK for 17.5 million dollars. Walter Yetnikoff flew down here to finalise the deal. My lawyer in New York tells me he has the cheque – 17 million dollars! A huge amount of money! At that time Columbia gets a huge amount of returns. So I say to Walter, “Walter, I’m on the street and they’re all sending their Columbia records back ‘cos you overshipped everybody. You think every record is gonna be another Saturday Night Fever.” He says, “Nah, we just had our biggest quarters. Everything’s great.” It wasn’t. They got the highest number of returns in their history. The guys running Columbia put a freeze on all new deals. My deal was one signature away from being done.

Scarface is a distinctly “Miami” film. What did you make of it? It came out not long after TK came out.

A great movie. The other day I went to the Hialeah racetrack which was once the most glorious racetrack in the world. Brought back memories – when I came out of the army in 1946 I went to work for Ben Pollock, he used to be Paul Whiteman’s drummer, and set up this little label called Jewel. Anyway, I went to work for Ben and one of the first artists he had was Mel Torme, you know, the Velvet Fog. I didn’t do too much in the studio with Mel – he was just a young singer – but we stayed friends over the years. So one day in the ‘70s I’m at Hialeah racetrack waiting for my car to come out and Mel sees me and comes up and goes, “Henry Stone, you motherfuckin’ traitor!” And I say, “Hey man, what’d I do?” Mel says, “All that fuckin’ disco.” I say “Mel, you know me, I’m a record man!” [laughs] He was strictly a jazz man.

Newcleus - Jam On It

What did you do after 1981?

I ended up with Morris Levy. I was one of his first distributors – Roulette Records. He said, “We can reactivate this.” We set up Sunnyview. The first record I came up with was “Jam On It” by Newcleus. It was #1 in the R&B charts for months, and went way up in the Pop charts. Then Morris decided to get out of the business – wanted to go to Australia to raise horses. They’d already busted him by then. He said, “I want out. You can buy me out or I can buy you out.”

How come you didn’t get into rap?

Are you kidding? I put the money up for Sugar Hill. And I pressed the first three Sugar Hill records, as Joe Robinson didn’t have the money to press ‘em and I had my own pressing plant. I was supposed to have a share in Sugar, Hill but about a month or so in I get a call from Morris Levy saying, “Henry, I own this company,” so I left it. Me, the guy who broke their records down here.

But why didn’t you sign Luther Campbell or any of the other Florida rappers?

We showed Luther Campbell how to press a record.

What happened with 2 Live Crew was I had a distribution company and I broke the 2 Live Crew record here in Florida. Luther Campbell came to see me. Wanted to know how to make a record. We were supposed to distribute his record. We showed him how to press a record. How to do everything. And then he says, “I don’t need you guys. I can do this myself.” [laughs]

Do you think TK should get more respect in the way Stax and Motown get it?

The Miami Sound should get more respect. We never got the respect at the time. Back then the city, the local politicians, they had no interest. Now they try and show a bit of respect but it’s too late. They should have recognised what we had back then.

You worked closely with Leonard Chess. What was he like?

Hey, a record man. They’re all record men. If you made a deal you stuck with it. That’s how it was. Getting all these lawyers involved screwed things up.

You were there when the music industry was in its early days. What do you make of it today?

Oh, it’s a sad story. The sick radio play. The lack of structure – there is no one like me or Clive Davis or the old record men to help the young artists through. You have to go on The Voice or X Factor if you are a young artist who wants to get heard. It’s all lawyers and accountants running the two-and-a-half record companies.

By Garth Cartwright on May 15, 2014

On a different note