Still Making You Feel Good – Shalamar’s Howard Hewett Talks To SJF Mid-Tour
No group epitomised the warm, sunshine soul sound of Los Angeles’ Solar Records more than the Grammy-winning vocal trio Shalamar, who occupy a special place in the hearts of British music fans. They racked up eighteen hit singles in the UK charts between 1977 and 1986, including the Top 10 songs ‘I Can Make You Feel Good,’‘A Night To Remember,’ and ‘There It Is.’ All three tunes were taken from the group’s iconic 1982 album ‘Friends,’ which spent an astonishing 72 weeks in the UK albums chart and earned a gold record.
Still alive and well, the long-running group – now consisting of Howard Hewett, Jeffrey Daniel and relative newcomer Carolyn Griffey – have been in the UK since August and remain on British soil this month to complete their Shalamar Songbook Tour that will take them all over the country.
The group’s lead singer, Howard Hewett, is also doing a rare solo date at London’s Jazz Cafe, which were rescheduled from last year after the pandemic put paid to an earlier tour. Howard, who’s about to release a new single and video, ‘To Thee I Pray,’ recently caught up with SJF’s Charles Waring to talk about both his solo career and time in Shalamar, one of disco’s legendary groups.
What’s it like being back in London, a city that Shalamar got to know really well back in the early 1980s?
It’s good to be back here doing shows and being in front of the people of the UK – and we’re not just here in London, we’ll be doing about nine or ten different cities throughout the UK. They’re a whole lot of memories for me here. I’ve been coming here even before Shalamar. I was with another group called Beverly Hills that performed here in the 70s. It was myself, another male singer, three female singers and a band. We did all Top 40 stuff.
Before we talk about Shalamar, can we talk about your new solo single, ‘For Thee I Pray.’ You first recorded it on your 1992 album, ‘Allegiance,’ produced by Tommy LiPuma. What made you revisit that tune?
It’s always been a song I loved so I decided to put a different twist on it with two young producers out of Houston. The lyrics are still very pertinent to what’s happening and going on today. It’s unfortunate that’s the case but that’s the world that we live in. It takes a while for us as humans to really get a message of unity, fairness, equality and non-racism.
The song’s message is relevant to the times we are living in. It’s a period of upheaval and change and, of course, on top of that, we’ve got Covid, haven’t we? How have you managed to cope with that?
I’ve had to be very careful. Usually, we’ll come over here and hang out but we haven’t been able to do that this time. For example, I saw a good friend of mine who came over yesterday that I hadn’t seen since we were last here 20 months ago. We’ve been friends for the last eight or nine years and he came for us to hang out and go grab something to eat, but I told him, dude, I have to be careful and can’t afford to get sick as far as this tour is concerned and plus, I can’t afford to be sick and not be able to go home and quarantine once I get there. So we had to sit downstairs and he had to do a rapid Covid test for me until I was comfortable about the whole thing. But he understood what the deal was because this isn’t a usual tour; it’s partly about fulfilling our responsibilities to Peterborough and the Jazz Cafe, two dates we cancelled at the beginning of the pandemic. This tour is about us coming over here and showing our appreciation and that we are with you guys. You guys are more than just a paycheque. It’s about getting over here and really standing in front of you guys and showing unity.
Why do you think you and Shalamar enjoy such a warm relationship with the people of the UK?
For one thing, I think our music is feel-good music. I think it represents a time of creativity, warmth, having fun and a good time.
Many of the group’s songs – like ‘A Night To Remember’ and ‘There It Is’ – have enjoyed amazing longevity and still sound fresh today. Why is that?
I think it’s because of the universal message on everything. Our producer, Leon Sylvers, was really adamant back in the day about us writing songs that would stand the test of time. So, it was a conscientious effort to do that. I remember watching an episode of the TV show Kitchen Nightmares and Chef Ramsey was talking to one of the restaurant owners and he said ‘let’s make sure we make this a night to remember.’ So it’s a universal situation that lasts through time and puts a person completely in a feel-good state of mind.
You were Shalamar’s third singer – after Gary Mumford and Gerald Brown – but you made the role your own and have lasted the course. How did you get into the band in the first place?
Jeffrey (Daniel), Jody (Watley) and I met in a club called Maverick’s Flat down in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles. There was also a booking agency called Maverick International. I was in the group Beverly Hills that the people in Maverick’s Flat – John and Alonzo Daniels – put together. All the dancers from the TV show Soul Train used to come to the club all the time and as Beverly Hills was developing and rehearsing, whenever we had a show we wanted to try out on a live audience, we would play Maverick’s on Friday and Saturday. That’s when Jeffrey first heard me sing.
Did you join Shalamar at that point?
No, because I went out on the road with Beverly Hills for about nine months; we went to the UK and toured throughout Europe, Scandinavia, and some places in Asia. Then we went back home for a month and it was during that time when Jeffrey first approached me about joining Shalamar. That was before they had ‘Take It To The Bank’ out. He approached me about joining them but I was obligated to come back over on this side of the world with Beverly Hills. I think that I toured for about three months and then went back home. Not long after, Beverly Hills broke up.
So that’s when you took up Jeffrey’s offer?
No. During the time I was home, I started working with this producer Jeffrey Bowen at Motown and we were working on a project with Eddie Hazel, the guitar player for Parliament-Funkadelic. Jeffrey was producing a solo album on him, so I was working with them but we never signed contracts or anything like that, and it started getting a little shaky on the agreement that we made. I was in a meeting in the Motown building in Los Angeles on a Friday with Jeffrey Bowen and we were going over things and I was airing my complaints. During that meeting, the phone rang, and his co-producer, Angelo Bond, answered the phone, and he looked at me and said, “It’s for you.” I said it must be my lady because as far as I knew, she was the only one who knew where I was. So I said to Angelo, if it’s my lady, tell her I’ll call her back when we’re done, and he said “no, it’s not a lady, it’s a guy.” It sounds like it’s long-distance. So I got on the phone, and it was Jeffrey Daniel. That was the time Shalamar had ‘Take That To The Bank’ out.
That would have been the fall of 1978 then?
Yeah. They were on the East Coast in the middle of a promotional tour when Gerald Brown left the group and they were without a lead singer. I don’t know exactly what went down and never got into what the deal was with him, but he left suddenly, jumping on a plane in the middle of that promotional tour.
So how did Jeffrey Daniel, who was in the middle of a tour, know you were at the Motown building in LA?
My lady, who I dropped off at work, worked for Don Cornelius at the Soul Train dance studio in LA. Jeffrey knew that and so he called her to find out where I was. She told him and he called me. At that time, Solar Records’ offices were in that same building on the ninth floor. Motown had the upper floors, 15, 16, and 17. So after Jeffrey called me, I left that meeting and went downstairs to talk to Dick (Griffey) at Solar. Jeff had said we want to offer you an equal position in the group as a lead singer, and Dick reiterated the offer. I told them to let me see if I could rectify whatever the deal was with the people upstairs at Motown but nobody from there called me that night, so on Saturday morning I called Dick Griffey. I went over to his house and watched a videotape of Shalamar’s show and then did a little lightweight audition where I had to sing a piece of ‘Feel The Fire’ by Peabo Bryson. Dick said okay, fine and went upstairs. He then comes back down and goes into one pocket and produces a wad of cash, and goes in the other pocket and gives me an airline ticket, and says “you’ve got to catch the redeye out tonight and then meet the group in New Jersey tomorrow morning. Then you’ve got to rehearse the lip sync and the choreography to ‘Take It To The Bank’ on Sunday because on Monday you have a TV show to do.” And that’s exactly how it went down, and as they say, the rest is history (laughs).
What a great story.
It gets a little more in-depth than that but I tried to give you the condensed version. (Laughs)
What was it like being on the Solar label with other groups like Dynasty, Lakeside, The Whispers and Midnight Star?
We did three Solar/Galaxy tours together, which were majorly successful in the states. Everybody got along really well. The Whispers were like the patriarchs of the tour because they were older than everybody else. We had a great time.
Was there any rivalry between the groups?
Back then, if you got into a dispute with anyone, it wasn’t about pulling out guns or anything like that. If you got into disputes, the worst thing that happened was that maybe somebody accidentally took a plug out of the bass amplifier. Those were the retaliations (laughs).
Carolyn Griffey came aboard Shalamar in Jody Watley’s place. What does she bring to the group?
Jeffrey and I first got an offer to put the band back together over 20 years ago when we were asked to go over to Asia to do about five or six shows over there. Jeff contacted me and I said ‘Cool, it’ll be a lot of fun.’ Then we contacted Jody and she said ‘I don’t think I really want to revisit that part of my life at this time.’ You can’t really determine somebody else’s experience because you can have two people experience the same thing and they come away with two different ideas of what they experienced. That was Jody’s take on it, so Jeffrey and I went to Asia as a duo and then eventually to Africa and a couple of other places and we did those shows. But at that point, it was just me and Jeff and the band and then we decided after a couple of years that we wanted to bring the female entity back into the group.
So why did you choose Carolyn, who happens to be Dick Griffey’s daughter?
Carolyn had been singing backgrounds for me in my solo shows in the US so when Jeffrey and I decided that we wanted to bring a female back into Shalamar, we didn’t even think about auditioning anybody because I’ve always loved Carolyn’s instrument – her voice is amazing to me and she looks amazing on the stage. Plus, and which was most valuable, was that she had an in-depth sense of the history of the group.
And she’s considerably younger than you and Jeff…
Yeah (Laughs), I first met Carolyn when she was like 11 or 12 years old when I first joined the group. Out of all the groups on Solar, Shalamar was her favourite, so she has a deep appreciation for the history of the group as well her amazing talent. So when we decided we were going to add a female voice, there was no question of who it was going to be. We approached Carolyn about joining the group and that was about 17, 18, 19 years ago. She’s been in the group longer than Jody, actually.
How did it feel going on your own in 1986 when you started your solo career with your first album, ‘I Commit To Love?’
I always make a little joke about it. People say what do you like most about being solo as opposed to being with the group and I always tell them, I say, I like the split. The split’s a lot better being solo. (Laughs). After you pay all the expenses, the only split is me. Do you know what I’m saying? There’s no three-way split going on but, outside of that, going solo was always like a natural progression. And I believe it could have been done even earlier along with the Shalamar situation. If you really look at it back in the day, back when everything was really hot as far as Shalamar’s music was concerned, I always totally believed that if the record company would have really been creative, then all of us could have done solo projects and still done Shalamar. But I don’t think people at the record company had the foresight to see it that way.
Jody and Jeffrey left in 1983.
Yeah, and then I left about ‘85. My first solo thing came out in ‘86.
What’s been the highlight of your solo career?
There are so many things that took place but I believe the real highlight was the success and acceptance of a song that I did on ‘I Commit To Love,’ my first solo album. It was called ‘Say Amen’ and is considered a standard back home. It’s such a pertinent song and is really personal.
It has a deep gospel vibe and is unlike anything you recorded with Shalamar, isn’t it?
The reason why I never did any of those inspirational type songs with Shalamar was because ‘Say Amen,’ which thanked God, was such a personal statement as far as I was concerned. That song changed people’s lives and to me, that’s one of the most important reasons why I do this. I am in the business of creating music that will comfort and help somebody through a situation, whether it’s through a relationship with your woman or a woman with her man or a relationship with God. That’s what the whole thing is about for me.
And what’s been the most memorable moment of your time with Shalamar?
I think winning the Grammy for the song ‘Don’t Get Stopped In Beverly Hills’ on the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack, was one of the highlights of my career. As an artist, you always want to be acknowledged by your peers.
You’ve got a solo show coming up soon at the Jazz Cafe on September 7th, rescheduled from last year. Do you include Shalamar songs in your set or do you keep them separate for your Shalamar gigs?
I do a Shalamar medley of ‘The Second Time Around,’ ‘Make That Move,’ ‘Somewhere There’s A Love,’ and then ‘A Night To Remember.’ Shalamar is a part of my legacy and I’m proud of that. I never would want to separate myself from that because Shalamar is Howard Hewitt and Howard Hewitt is Shalamar.
Is the new single, ‘To Thee I Pray,’ a taster for a forthcoming album?
I have a full album pretty much completed. There’s maybe just one more song I’m looking for if anything. But right now, it’s a different kind of thing in the music business. We just put singles out. I’ll just put this single out and then another single out before I actually put a whole project out there. Whether it be a full album or an EP – a lot of things are EPs now – I don’t know yet but I’ll figure out when I’m going to do that. But right now, I’m having a good time as far as putting out singles goes. There’s one single that I’m going to do that my son produced actually. It’s one where he and I do a duet. He has a pretty good voice, even if I say so myself (laughs).
He’s a chip off the old block then?
Yeah, man, I’m so proud. I remember I did a show a long time ago and he and my daughter were singing backgrounds for me when I was on stage. I just happened to look back and it was so surreal, to look back there and see them singing backgrounds. I’m looking forward to helping them with all that stuff.
Catch Howard Hewett on tour with Shalamar in September and also doing a solo show in London’s Jazz Cafe.
Sep 7- Howard Hewett- Jazz Cafe London (solo show)