The Legend of Henry Stone

So much has been published about Henry Stone that by now, at the age of 92, you’d think he’d be tired of talking about it. And you’d be wrong. Last week, during a delightful and energetic phone interview that lasted about an hour, he waxed poetic on his iconic past and his undeniable influence on the music industry.

I’m getting people from over the world calling me saying, ‘Henry Stone, you’re still alive? My God, what you did for me and my music…’

What he did for music, in general, is remarkable. And Miami should be forever grateful for that whole putting-this-city-on-the-map thing.

I like to think that the long and storied legend of Henry Stone started with what he described as a chance meeting that occurred here around 1950. Stone had just recently relocated his small record distribution business to Miami from Los Angeles. He moved the business into a warehouse on West Flagler Street. He also purchased a recording machine.

I always had a studio in my back pocket.

Stone quickly found a niche selling to local jukebox operators the controversial “race” records that wouldn’t (couldn’t) be played at mainstream venues. He sold to nightclubs, lounges, brothels and other underground venues. One night he was at a club in Overtown when he witnessed a young and up & coming Ray Charles perform. After the show, the two got to talking.

[Ray] said, ‘I heard you make records, man. I need some bread. Could you cut some sides with me?’

I said, sure. So I made a deal to cut 4 sides, which we did.

Back at Stone’s warehouse, Ray Charles recorded four original tracks: Walkin’ and Talkin’, Why Did You Go, I’m Wondering and Wondering, and St. Pete Florida Blues. It was one of Ray Charles’ first recording sessions and arguably paved the way for him to get noticed by national labels such as Atlantic Records.

Stone would continue to grow his record distribution company [Tone Distributors], eventually moving to Hialeah, FL, and becoming the most successful independent distribution company over the last half century.  Stone had connections with all the major labels and independent labels so they’d go to him to get their records out to the DJs. Getting records played was one of his biggest assets, he said. He built rapport with all the DJs.

It was easy really. The DJs came to me.

We had all the hits. The majors [labels] had maybe 3 or 4 hits. Elvis Presley, maybe Tony Bennett or something. That was it.  The other 90 percent of the charts were all independents.  When the DJs needed a record, especially R&B records, they had to come to me.

Like this, he went on for years, amassing a record distribution empire.

But his “real love” was making records. The Ray Charles tracks are treasured gems today but they didn’t exactly burn up the charts back then. 

His first big record came in 1959 when he recorded James Brown’s band, Nat Kendrick & the Swans with “(Do the) Mashed Potatoes”. James Brown sang back-up on the original track but it wasn’t supposed to go down like that.

I had to take him off [the track] because he was under contract to King Records.

I said, James, I can’t use your voice, we’ll end up in a lawsuit.

Stone removed Brown’s vocal track from the original recording and replaced it with King Coleman, an R&B singer from Tampa. The final record – sans James Brown –  was released on Stone’s “Dade” label and went very big on the R&B charts.

Meanwhile, literally on the other side of the train tracks, Miami homegrown soul cuts were taking off in the mid 1960s under labels like Deep City Records and Lloyd Records out of Overtown.  Stone saw an opportunity.

I used to distribute [Deep City] records. I saw when I put their records on the radio I’d get a terrific reaction. So I said why don’t you guys come and record for me.

Those “guys” he’s referring to included Willie Clarke, Betty Wright, and Clarence Reid. They, along with the session musicians, ultimately joined Stone in 1968 and immediately began putting out hit songs. Betty Wright’s “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do” was #1 on the local R&B station in July 1968, and reached #33 on Billboard’s National Top 40.

In 1969, Stone combined his music production business under one entity, TK Productions, and started creating record labels such as TK Records and others that from 1971 – 1979 produced R&B and Pop Chart hits the world over. They had a major breakout hit in 1971 with Clean Up Woman by Betty Wright. Written by locals Clarence Reid and Willie Clarke, with guitar licks provided by bluesman Willie “Little Beaver” Hale, Stone knew he had something special.

I saw that record was going to be a big record. I wanted to get national distribution so I made a deal with Atlantic.

The song reached #1 on the national R&B charts and peaked at #6 on the Top 40.

The predominant, distinguishable element in Miami soul music of that time was the horn section.  And Stone was no stranger to brass.

I used to be a horn player [trumpet].  I loved the horn licks. Mike Lewis (who arranged his horn sections at TK) had some great horn licks. I used a lot of them [in the records]. It was all planned out.

Motown had their their sound, Stax had their sound, Philly had their sound.

We had our own Miami Sound.

He says the “Miami Sound” really took off in the 1970s when local R&B, soul, and Latin beats converged and crossed over to influence the burgeoning disco craze.

This was the Miami Sound. Not Gloria and Emilio [Estefan], that’s not the Miami Sound. That’s a Latin sound, a good Cuban sound, …

The Miami Sound was in the 70s when we had almost 30 platinum and gold records…

which I’m looking at my wall right now.

Today, if one goes to his website, you can find his entire catalog of music. Ray Charles, Nat Kendrick, KC & The Sunshine Band, Foxy, Anita Ward, all the hits, all the B-sides.

I wanted a lot of different sounds. I always kept my original sound but I had to progress, which I did. Our sound was heard all over the world at that time. TK was so hot. I didn’t realize how big we were. Every country… our records were #1. Hit after hit.

And, the 1970s were king.

I had the 70s. The 70s was me…

I remember Berry Gordy [of Motown] calling me and saying ‘Henry, what the fuck are you doing, man?’

I said, ‘I’m doing what I’m doing, man….you had yours, now this is mine.’

Those were good times, right? But Stone has a different take.

They were just normal times to me. This is what I did. I didn’t know anything else.

When I got up in the morning after breakfast I went to work. I worked 24/7 if I had to to keep the studio going.

And out of a good ole’ fashion thing called hard work, this is what came about through all the years.

Here is Henry Stone’s first hit song from 1959.

 

 

 

[TK photos courtesy of Jeff Lemlich]

Copyright © 2012 Long Play Miami

 

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Update: Henry Stone passed away on August 7, 2014. Rest in Peace, Henry.

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