RIP: Henry Stone

Posted August 10, 2014 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

The Berry Gordy of the Miami Sound dies at the age of 93

Henry Stone, the record executive behind one of the greatest indie empires of the late ’60’s and ’70’s and responsible for creating the big disco boom, died of natural causes on August 7 at the age of 93.

Behind the industry giant is a storied history that stacks well when compared with the key players behind larger soul record companies like Motown, Stax and Philadelphia International. In his early beginnings, Stone worked on some of the first-ever recordings for soul music icons. In 1951, an undiscovered Ray Charles recorded “St. Pete Florida Blues,” years before eventually signing with Ahmet Ertegün’s Atlantic in New York. James Brown’s signing with Cincinnati King Records was all Stone’s idea, leading to the historic “Please Please Please.” In 1960, Brown and his fierce band returned the favor for Stone by recording “(Do the) Mashed Potatoes” using a different stage handle (Nat Kendrick and the Swans) due to restrictive contracts with King. But Stone would be most remembered for being responsible in building up a disco empire carrying some of the smartest product to hit the pop charts, including music from George McCrae, K.C. & the Sunshine Band, Foxy, T-Connection and Peter Brown.

Born in the Bronx, Stone made his pilgrimage to Florida and immediately jumped into the record biz. In 1964, he worked up a distribution deal with Atlantic’s Atco and started up the Alston label, a label which bears the first letters of the last names of Stone along with label partner and hunky teen idol singer Steve Alaimo. Releasing soul records for young Floridian singer Betty Wright paid off for the small indie label when they hit big with 1971’s gold-certified “Clean Up Woman.” Wright, only seventeen at the time, had scored her first Top Ten hit and remained in the Hot 100 for an astounding 14 weeks. By 1972, Stone’s recording output was building up and making major noise regionally: The Beginning of the End’s “Funky Nassau” – a combination of sounds from the islands and the burgeoning immigrant communities of Miami – became a Top 20 hit; Timmy Thomas’s organ-powered ballad “Why Can’t We Live Together” reached number three pop and number one R&B, right when Stone cut his ties with Atlantic to distribute his own product.

Whiile speaking with Thomas last year, he told me how his cheaply-recorded demo of “Why Can’t We Live Together” made its way to Stone’s hands. “I was very close to the disc jockeys here in Miami, especially WEDR,” remembers Thomas. “And some of the guys used to be my friends. So I took this cassette, went upstairs to the station and I told them I just got through doing this song on yesterday. That was during the time when they were playing local artists; I wasn’t big and nobody knew about me in reference to the music business, but Sweetback and Cleo Sears – two guys who had two different shows – would put it on to see what it sounds like. Phones lit up all across the thing. And Cleo said, ‘You’re getting some calls with this thing.’ They had a thing back then where they had to play certain other records, but he just had to play this record every four or five records because he liked the groove. Then Henry Stone heard it and he said ‘What in the world is that?’ And some of the disc jockeys said you need to meet this guy. WEDR was the only station that played it because I didn’t know anybody else. That was one of Henry’s soul stations where he would put most of his stuff on to break the record. Henry came by and they said, ‘Man you gotta listen to this.’ And it was history from there.”

Then the following year came George McCrae’s landmark smash hit “Rock Your Baby,” a song that catapulted the disco sound to the mainstream way before disco was a household world.

Learning from the model of Motown and Atlantic, Stone cranked up a number of record labels under his watchful eye. With a distribution deal with Atlantic, Stone whipped up a number of small labels including more-prominent Dade, which was named after the Miami-Dade County. Many of these labels did pretty well. T.K. Records was probably the finest of them all. The label was named after Terry Kane, the engineer behind Stone’s small 8-track recording studio based in Hialeah, Florida. “Blow Your Whistle,” the first single from K.C. & the Sunshine Band,” was the first to bear the T.K. imprint. Very little came from the band’s debut LP Do It Good, but the gate flew open with the release of their 1975 self-titled LP. KC & the Sunshine Band contained two number one hits (“Get Down Tonight,” “That’s the Way I Like It”). Their follow-up LP proved to be even bigger: “Shake, Shake, Shake (Shake Your Booty” and “I’m Your Boogie Man” were both No. 1 hits; “Keep It Comin’ Love” soared to number two. The talented, interracial nine-member R&B band – fronted by Harry Wayne Casey and Rick Finch – became the first band to score four No. 1 pop hit singles in a single 12-month period since the Beatles. They ended up being T.K.’s star, but the label also housed hit pop and R&B records for George McCrae (“Rock Your Baby,” “I Get Lifted,” “I Can’t Leave You Alone”).

Stone’s other labels also managed to make noise, although with lesser volume. The Cat label gave George McCrae’s former wife Gwen her career highlight with 1975’s Top Ten pop hit “Rockin’ Chair.” The Dash label showcased the sounds of Cuban funk band Foxy, responsible for the crossover hit “Get Off.” In 1974, bluesman Benny Latimore kicked out the enduring staple “Let’s Straighten It Out” (No. 1 R&B) on the short-lived Glades imprint at a time when smoky blues-drenched slow cookers were quickly disappearing from black charts. Another Nassau band T-Connection made airwaves with the deliciously funky Top 20 R&B hit “Do What You Wanna Do” on the Dash label. Peter Brown, a pop singer with a heart for synth-based uptempo workouts, scored two hit records for the Drive imprint: 1977’s gold-certified “Do Ya Wanna Get Funky With Me” and the Betty Wright-supported “Dance With Me.” In 1978, Bobby Caldwell hit it big with a relaxed contemporary jazz favorite and highly-sampled “What You Won’t Do for Love,” which rocketed to number nine pop. The single, released on a heart-shaped vinyl, was also a major hit on the black charts as the label tried its best to shield black audiences from Caldwell’s Caucasian identity.

Some of Stone’s finest highlights during the disco era hardly featured the endorsement of his label fingerprints, but were instrumentally linked to his organizational skills. With team players like former A&R titan Ray Caviano by his side, disco product soared into different regions like New York and in international markets. Gregg Diamond and Voyage (on the Marlin imprint) trumped up the beastly Eurodisco vibes. Even with disco nearing a fatal collision with rock revelers in 1979, distribution deals with struggling smaller label Malaco proved to be a worthy investment as one-hit wonder Anita Ward soared to the top with “Ring My Bell” and Fern Kinney kicked off a stateside hit with her cover of King Floyd’s “Groove Me” and the UK No. 1 winner “Together We Are Beautiful.”

At the end of the Seventies, T.K. and many of Stone’s labels were finding it hard to compete with an ever frustrated industry. The walls inside disco were quickly collapsing, pushing Stone into survival mode. Even the label’s biggest act, KC & the Sunshine Band, wanted out, signing with Epic in 1981.

The Godfather of Soul, struggling to gain a hit record on Polydor after “Too Funky in Here,” even scrambled to Stone’s aid searching for a big break. “Rapp Payback (Where Iz Moses),” released on T.K., only managed to creep to number 46 R&B.

At the very tail end of T.K.’s lifespan before filing bankruptcy due to the disco bust of 1980, the label kicked out one last salvo. Before his Michael Jackson parodies turned him into a global superstar, “Weird Al” Yankovich earned his stripes on the T.K. label with his take on Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” His 1981 take was called “Another One Rides the Bus.” That song only managed to show up on Billboard’s Bubbling Under 100 chart (#104 pop), but gave the musical comedian his license to invade pop culture.

In 1990, Stone eventually sold T.K. and most of its masters to Rhino, pushing him deeper into retirement. But he continued to wag his finger on newer product through hiss Henry Stone Presents… series issued on his Hot Productions label. In 2004, he was the recipient of the first Pioneer Award from the Dance Music Hall of Fame and even wrote his memoirs in the book The Stone Cold Truth on Payola! Cash, Cocaine, Cars and the Music Biz.

Towards the end of his life, the Grammy-nominated Mark Moormann and Beacon Films were archiving his life for a documentary detailing his history. In February 2013, many of the songwriters, musicians and recording artists – George McCrae, Latimore, Clarence Reid, Willie Clark, Willie Hale, Timmy Thomas, Little Beaver and others – reunited with Stone for the forthcoming doc. There’s no definite date when the film will be ready for release.

Today, the music world mourns a legend, one of the last great giants in the world of living music executives.

“The biggest hit record that came out of Miami – to this day – was ‘Rock Your Baby,'” says former Foxy frontman Ish Ledesma.

“Being dubbed the ‘teen prodigy’ at TK, Henry Stone gave me the opportunity, the environment and the encouragement to learn and become all that I could be as a producer and recording studio engineer,” says Rick Finch, Grammy-award winning songwriter and co-founder of K.C. & the Sunshine Band. “I had engineered 127 45 rpm singles including several albums before any KC and the Sunshine Band music – or even the band – had been conceived.  Many songs I did were without any recognition at all, but being young and doing all of this, I enjoyed being the guy behind the curtain and never took this learning opportunity for granted. I learned more that way versus being ego driven and worrying about where my name was going to appear.”

When I spoke with Betty Wright back in 2013 regarding a liner note essay I had been assigned involving her work with T.K., she didn’t want to participate because she felt she was robbed of royalties.

“I have never been paid from T.K. and I am currently trying to get paid from my teen years to now,” she said.

Today, she tweeted her sorrow over Stone’s passing:

“One of the biggest lessons he taught me was how to listen better and how to live in this moment,” Joseph Stone, his son told The Miami Herald. “He had an incredible sense of principle and kindness and understanding.”

Stone is survived by his wife, Inez, seven children and fourteen grandchildren.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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