A number of R&B vocal groups and solo artists who were popular in the 1960s onwards in the south eastern states can be held up as examples of appeal to both the beach music and northern soul scenes. The Showmen are surely among the most notable, with a legacy covering their doo-wop origins in the 1950s; beach classics of the early sixties such as “It Will Stand” and “39-21-46”; the northern soul evergreen tracks like “Our Love Will Grow”; a lengthy interlude when their lead vocalist left to front Chairmen of the Board; and a reformed group (albeit with different membership) since the early eighties with the revival of the beach scene.
General Norman Johnson (b. 1941 d. 2010) formed a doo-wop group called The Humdingers in Norfolk, Va at the tender age of twelve. Members were Norman Johnson (lead), Gene “Cheater” Knight (first tenor), Dorsey “Chops” Knight (second tenor), Leslie “Fat Boy” Felton (baritone) and Milton “Smokes” Wells (bass). This particular line up would remain as The Showmen profile for most of their recording career throughout the 1960s. The Humdingers were managed by Noah Biggs, a local kid himself and lover of R&B music (along with his friend Richard Levin, Noah would eventually go on to set up the Shiptown label on Church Street in Norfolk in the later 1960s, featuring acts such as Barbara Stant, Ida Sands and The Soul Duo).
Biggs sent on a demo of The Humdingers to label owner Joe Banashak in New Orleans. Joe, who had been a blues and jazz enthusiast since a teenager, entered record distribution business just after World War II. This career eventually led to a move from Houston to New Orleans where he met local WMRY program director and DJ Larry McKinley. Together Banashak and McKinley formed their label in 1958, initially set up with each partner putting up a $650 stake to cover a single recording session. Working with the A-1 distributing company, a constant turnover of recordings releases, then cheques from the distributing company allowed Banashak and McKinley to slowly build up their empire. The label name, Minit, had been derived from a local restaurant called “Meal a Minit”.
Noah Biggs sent a demo of four tracks on The Humdingers to New Orleans. Joe Banashak was impressed. The boys were invited down to New Orleans so that Banashak’s then fledgling producer, songwriter and musician Allen Toussaint could record them – after a name change to the The Showmen on the advice of Banashak.
”It Will Stand” (Minit 632), a deliberately dated homage to Rock and Roll, was recorded in June 1961. Whilst the song only reached #61 in the Billboard Hot 100 and #40 on the R&B chart, it made enough noise locally to allow them to start touring, and became a very consistent seller over the following decades,. Indeed it sold particularly well in the Carolinas and New Orleans, warranting later reissues in 1964 and 1970. Another three 45s were released the following year, including the northern soul favourite: “Wrong Girl” (Minit 643). However all of these failed to make much impact at the time of issue.
By 1963, Allen Toussaint was called up for military service, but not before he had helped The Showmen put down the beach music classic 39-21-46 (Minit 662). The original title and lyric was intended to be “39-21-40 Shape” but a clerical error was claimed to have cemented the alternative title as the one referred to throughout beach music history. Johnson has previously disputed this, saying he thought it was deliberate to “arouse curiosity”. The origins of this record were reputedly from a song idea penned by Norman Johnson back in the Humdinger days of the late 1950s, although not performed or recorded by them. This one also failed to chart nationally, though retrospectively has became another beach music classic.
Minit by now had switched to Imperial in a national distribution deal. By the time Toussaint had left for the army, Minit recording output was proving less productive financially. Banashak decided to sell the label to Imperial and sister company Liberty Records in 1963, concentrating instead on his own existing local labels, including Instant. A solo effort release by Norman Johnson appeared here: “Valley Of Love” backed with “Let Her Feel It In Your Kiss” (Instant 66033), although this is reputed to be earlier Showmen material, held back in reserve by Banashak from Imperial. Banashak did well with Instant, bringing artists to the fore such as Chris Kenner, Art Neville, and Eskew Reeder. Where Allen Toussaint left off, the reins were taken up by Sax Kari and Eddie Bo. Instant continued with moderate sales success until the end of the decade.
Meanwhile for The Showmen, a couple of other unsuccessful releases on Imperial persuaded the group to move elsewhere. In The Musical Legacy of Richard Barrett by Charlie Horner, Johnson told how, now broke, he had written a handful of songs and made the decision to push songs around the country. Johnson initially took a song “In Paradise” to Cameo-Parkway but was paranoid that they wanted to steal the song without signing, so made a swift exit. Then to the Madera and White partnership in New York; they liked it but they were between projects and couldn’t devote the time required to nurture the song. Eventually Johnson hopped on a bus to Philadelphia, and arrived at Swan Records.
Swan was created in 1957 by Bernie Binnick and Tony Mamerella, initially with the assistance of Dick Clark of the Bandstand show. The label ran for approximately ten years, mainly from their offices on the North West Corner of 8th St. and Fitzwater St. The writing and production skills of the likes of Richard Barrett, Richard Rome and Bob Crewe were utilized for most of their acts. In the early sixties Swan’s only real chart successes had been Freddy Cannon and Danny and the Juniors. However in September 1963 Binnick and Mamerella decided to release The Beatles’ “She Loves You” – at the time a gamble on a relatively unknown group to an unsuspecting US audience. Four months later, everything changed. The Fab Four phenomenon had gripped the nation, and “She Loves You” went straight to #1. Revenue from this ensured the label was comfortable for at least the next few years.
On the back of the hysteria of Beatlemania, the label continued to turn over pop and some R&B acts. Richard Barrett was Swan’s A&R man. His claim to fame prior to this point was as a solo singer, lead singer with The Valentines, and then as producer / manager and promoter of New York groups such as Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, The Chantels and Little Anthony and the Imperials. Impressed with The Showmen’s tight harmonies, passion and emotion, Barrett signed them to Swan immediately in 1965. He took all five of the penniless Showmen under his wing, signed on Johnson as a staff writer and booked them into the Apollo Theatre. They continued to work together for a year or so.
Johnson had at last found a new home for The Showmen after the disappointing run with Imperial. There was reported to have been an initial release by The In-Crowd called “Let’s Shindig” / “You’re Gonna Miss Me” (Swan 4204), featuring female singers who would later become the Three Degrees, and some of The Showmen, but Johnson himself denied that The Showmen had anything to do with it. The group’s first appearance on the label was with “In Paradise” / “Take it Baby” (Swan 4213), then “Our Love Will Grow” / “You're Everything” (Swan 4219); both produced by Richard Barrett, and arranged by Richard Rome. The first 45 made some noise around Philadelphia, but not fully promoted by the company at the time and so sold little outside the city. “Our Love Will Grow”, was also penned by Johnson. For this, he went through a number of potential songs that would interest Barrett on the piano, then Barrett would select which should be recorded. Barrett suggested the catchy latin rhythm and hook for “Our Love Will Grow”, which went on to sell in Philly and the Carolinas, but again not much elsewhere.
Whilst recording with the rest of The Showmen, Johnson continued to work with Barrett as a songwriting and production partnership for Swan. This pairing ultimately lead to the provision of material for the Three Degrees, John Leach’s “Put That Woman Down” on a Swan subsidiary label (Lawn 256), Eddie Carlton’s “Misery” (Swan 4218) and Barrett’s own “I Will Love You” (Swan 4228). Many of these again were not big sellers and pressed in small numbers (as demos only or low issue runs which were to be used as promotional 45s), but are now established dance floor favourites on the rare 1960s soul scene. Johnson himself had one further release, “The Honey House” / “Please Try and Understand” (Swan 4241). Then that was that. Bernie Binnick wanted to emulate the Motown sound for his label through acts like The Three Degrees, but the competition from Detroit was just too great. Swan was left with dire sales by the end of 1966, and closed soon after.
Just prior to the next change in direction with the Showmen’s career, beach music fan Bob McNair recalls how he booked the group at a venue in his then hometown early 1967:
“I booked them to play at a short-lived night club we named The Torch in my hometown of Sanford, NC. At the time, I was a sophomore in college transitioning from the Air Force Academy to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. One of my older first cousins and a business partner financed this venture. The partner owned a vacant office building where we located the club. It was basically a large empty space in which we had a stage constructed and long bench seats running down the sides; no tables, no chairs, just a huge dance floor with a stage. The name “The Torch” was adapted from the old lettering that we salvaged from the building. I booked The Showmen and also Willie T. and the Magnificents. The Magnificents were a fabulous horn band from Burlington, NC and backed The Showmen frequently. Norman Johnson and the rest of The Showmen put on a super professional performance, even to a relatively small audience. Norman was amazingly talented with the ability to lead the band while singing lead at the same time. Unfortunately, we didn’t make any money, and the club closed after a few short weeks. The partners actually lost a little money, but as one of them told me with a grin: “Bob, don’t worry about it... it just means that I don’t have to take my wife on a weekend shopping trip to New York.” This was one of the last gigs that General Norman Johnson played with The Showmen.”
Johnson continued to perform in the south east with the band, then in late 1967 he received a call from Jeffrey Bowen, a talent scout for Invictus Records. When “It Will Stand” was re-released in 1964 it had made the top of the charts in Detroit for around a month. The vocal talents of Johnson came to the attention of Holland-Dozier-Holland team. Looking to build a bank of recording artists for their new label venture, the songwriting team immediately offered Johnson a contract. He then set off for the next installment in his career, and likely his most lucrative.
The label only showed active interest in wanting Johnson from the group. Initially he was reluctant to leave. Even though Swan was ready to close at that stage, The Showmen were making good money on weekend performances. However, Invictus ultimately made an offer he couldn’t refuse to secure his talent there. So, along with Detroiter Danny Woods, Eddie Custis, from Philadelphia (previously been with Huey Piano Smith and the Clowns), and Canadian Harrison Kennedy, Chairman of the Board were born.
The remaining members of The Showmen continued to make a living in the south around the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia, with Leslie Felton taking over lead vocals. The last recording in the sixties by the Showmen was “Action” / “What Would It Take” (Amy 11036), released after Norman Johnson’s departure. Other 45s appeared in the early seventies but only as reissues of their earlier days in New Orleans. Around 1980, “The General” as he was now known (his birth name but never used as such until Chairmen of the Board) joined forces with Mike Branch, formerly of the Tempests to form Surfside Records. Surfside was an outlet for encouraging new recordings and artists on what some perceived had become a primarily ‘retrospective’ beach music scene. Johnson reformed The Showmen. Whilst he didn’t appear in the line-up, Leslie Felton was re-employed, along with some new members. The revised group put out a few records for the label, written and arranged by Johnson, and sales and live appearances have ensured longevity for the group since then with further changes in membership.
Norman Johnson and Gene Knight, and Leslie Felton are now deceased. Leslie Felton was known to continue to perform in religious settings as late as 2013. The whereabouts of Milton Wells and Dorsey Knight are, at present, unknown.
The Showmen is an excerpt from the book "Rhythm Message" by E. Mark Windle. Further information including ordering details are available in the new book section.