Chicago’s Major Lance was never a premier league soul player in the US. In the UK, however, it’s a different story. In the mid sixties he became a mod cultural icon (and not just in London, as the sleeve notes would suggest) while a little later he became a revered legend on the Northern soul scene. Given that almost saintly status, it’s odd that there aren’t that many Lance quality compilations and reissues out there. Thankfully, Cherry Red imprint, RPM Retro is set to rectify that with a wonderful two CD, 53 track collection that pulls together (for the first time, I believe) all the recordings Major made for the fabled Okeh label… the high watermark of his career.
Born in either 1939, 1940 or 1941 (depending on what sources you use) Major Lance came to Okeh with the help of his long time pal, Curtis Mayfield. The pair had grown up together in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green projects and indeed it was the “Gentle Genius” who helped kick start his friend’s success at Okeh. Curtis supplied many of Lance’s songs; he played guitar on the recordings; the Impressions sang BVs ( sometimes they were replaced by the Artistics); and he encouraged producer Carl Davis and arranger Johnny Pate to bring out the best in Major’s quirky voice and to replicate the sonic template that the Impressions were enjoying success with. In essence Major Lance’s early period Okeh recordings were Impressions records with a different lead voice; though, none the worse for that. Lance’s big hits … ‘The Monkey Time’. ‘Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um’, ‘The Matador’ and ‘Rhythm’ all featured sophisticated shuffle beats, sweet harmonies and insidious brass riffs but it was Major’s unusual voice that proved the ultimate attraction.
By 1966, things started to change for Major and indeed Okeh. Curtis Mayfield was too busy with the Impressions and other projects to work with his old friend and master producer, Carl Davis left the company. Now teamed with New York’s Ted Cooper, the Major Lance sound changed. It became more up-tempo and aped the Motown template. And why not? Through 1966 and ’67 Motown were massive… why even Curtis had a go at the “sound” (grab a listen to the Impressions’ ‘You’ve Been Cheating’). So it was that Lance’s recordings from this period (‘It’s The Beat’, ‘Investigate’, ‘Ain’t No Soul (In These Old Shoes)’, ‘Too Hot To Hold’ etc) became the stuff of Northern soul mythology.
All those fabulous tunes are here, naturally, but you get an awful lot more…. B sides, album tracks (many covers of Impressions songs) and hard to find collectables. The set’s a must for anyone who really cares about proper soul music and though Major Lance went on to record for labels like Dakar, Curtom and Stax/Volt he never again created anything as magical and intoxicating as he did at Okeh. That was his time and place!
Major Lance died in 1994. He’d been in ill health for some time and after a ten year jail sentence for narcotics offences, he was relegated to the second division oldies circuit…. a sad end for a major soul talent!