Henry Stone, the founder of the hit-machine that was T.K. Records (and its associated labels and sub-labels), died last week at the impressively ripe old age of 93. It was T.K. that issued dancefloor gold like T-Connection’s At Midnight; Jimmy ‘Bo’ Horne’s Spank; Peter Brown’s Do You Wanna Get Funky With Me? and the ultimate money-makers, Anita Ward’s Ring My Bell and George McCrae’s Rock Your Baby (which happened to be the first soul single I ever bought, in its injection-mould labelled UK 45 incarnation).
Music legend has it that McCrae pulled a knife on Stone in an argument about unpaid royalties after the record became an international hit and Stone is supposed to have settled the debt with a roll of bills and the keys to his Cadillac (depending on whom you believe, McCrae left the studio either knowing or not knowing that his new car was in fact a rental). However, the whole story may well be invention, since Stone was no Morris Levy, the crooked music supremo who built an empire out of swindling black artists and is often credited as the inspiration for Hesh Rabkin in The Sopranos. As Jacob Katel wrote in the Miami New Times last week, Stone “made many artists very rich, always paid what he owed, and is held in high esteem by 90 per cent of everybody who ever worked with him.”
Stone was no Henry-come-lately to black music when TK rode the disco wave so successfully throughout the 1970s. As a young man, he had played trumpet in the US Army’s first racially-integrated band while stationed in New Jersey towards the end of the Second World War. After a post-demob stint on the West Coast, he moved to Miami in 1947, where he built a record distribution empire (and a smaller recording operation) parlaying his intimate knowledge of what were then called ‘race records’ into a very successful business. There is no doubt he had an excellent ear for talent: it was Stone who first recorded the then unknown Ray Charles back in 1951, and he went on to record James Brown’s first hit, Please, Please, Please in 1956, and, much later Funky Nassau by The Beginning of the End and Clean Up Woman by Betty Wright, both big crossover r’n’b hits in 1971.
But it was Why Can’t We Live Together by session musician (and Miami lounge club owner) Timmy Thomas in 1972 that Stone himself credited as the first TK record. It’s probably the ultimate exhibit in the argument for less-is-more: Thomas’s passionate plea for racial harmony is wailed over his minimally bluesy sustained organ chords and stabs and a primitive drum machine. After that came a string of much bigger, busier and grander productions, not least from TK’s house group, KC & The Sunshine Band (whose co-founders wrote Rock Your Baby before giving it to McCrae), with their big-hitting singles including That’s The Way (I Like It) and (Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty (one day, there’s a disco mixtape to be made using nothing but songs with partially-bracketed titles).
I came across King Tutt’s Comin’ Out, a relatively obscure T.K. Disco 12”, in a massive stash my friend Liz found abandoned by the previous owner when she moved into her old Brixton flat. Such a title in the iconic TK record sleeve made it irresistible, even though at that time I don’t think I knew the bigger underground hit by the band, You’ve Got Me Hung Up (it’s on the first volume of Joey Negro’s The Soul Of Disco series). I haven’t been able to find out how this long-established Southern-based touring r’n’b band found their way into Henry Stone’s orbit, but it was his labels that issued their only three singles. Comin’ Out was the last of them, appearing shortly before TK itself went bankrupt during the early ’80s US recession (the anti-disco backlash probably didn’t help either).
Typical of the post-disco moment, the track channels the kind of bass-heavy laidback funk that was slinking across clubland at the time. (If you want more, try Mahogany’s Ride On The Rhythm or Logg’s You’ve Got That Something or Barbara Mason’s Another Man.) There is no sign of the soaring strings of the ’70s: now it’s the horns that are providing the crucial musical texture, and after that two-bar breakdown just a little over halfway through, they kick off the party-in-a-record-studio sequence: “If you wanna come out tonight, it’s all right/If you wanna come out today, it’s okay.” It’s lines like that that meant I used to think Comin’ Out was a funky anthem of self-actualisation. But the more I listen to the rest of the words, the less I’m sure these days. “Fellas! When you see something outta sight and she asks you to spend the night, what you do? Knock it out!” On closer examination, that doesn’t really feel like the gayest lyric ever. Oh well. Who cares, ultimately? In the end, Comin’ Out is all about that low-slung dirty popping 116bpm bassline. Knock it out, knock it out, knock it out!
Henry Stone himself remained a musical player almost to the end, and when TK went bankrupt in 1981 he cannily retained control over his back catalogue in a way that Mel Cheren over at West End failed to do when the New York label stumbled into deep financial problems a couple of years later. For sure, in the later years, Stone’s ear for a hit might not have been as fine as it once was, and when he decided to bankroll the hip-hop novelty act 2 Live Jews (featuring his stone Joe as Easy Irving and comedian Eric Lambert as Moisha MC), he may have been acting as a father first and music exec second. (Still, can the world honestly be said to be a worse place for containing, thanks to Henry, 2 Live Jews’ 1990 debut, As Kosher As They Wanna Be? Look at that back cover note: “The rhythms and rhymes by Moisha and Irving are their own. The Jewish people and Kosher Records take no responsibility for their lack of rhythm on this album.”)
When the Dance Music Hall of Fame was launched in New York ten years ago to celebrate the achievements of the artists, producers and DJs in an often-overlooked musical genre, Henry Stone was the first to win the Board of Directors’ Lifetime Achievement Award for Non-Performers (Mel Cheren was similarly honoured a year later). It was richly deserved recognition. For more pointers about the TK records you don’t yet know you love, head over to Joey Negro’s Facebook page, where the disco don has been posting links to some great stuff, all of which was new to me. Henry Stone, you will always ring my bell.