The Legend of Henry Stone

So much has been written and said about Henry Stone.   He’s been interviewed by the BBC, NPR, national publications, local newspapers, etc. Stone is one of the most important figures from Miami’s thriving soul & R&B scene of the 60s and early 70s. Today, at 91, he enjoys his legacy and his place in Miami’s music history.

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…’

During a phone interview last week, he tells me all about it, the history. And without question, his legend began with an event that occurred more than 60 years ago in Overtown.

Stone had moved to Miami from Los Angeles where he was selling records to jukebox operators.  Miami seemed like a good place to do it his own way, be independent. He started a record distribution company out of a warehouse on West Flagler Street not far from Overtown. He also kept a recording machine there which came in handy.

In 1950, he encountered a young, Ray Charles performing at a nearby club. After the show, the two got to talking.

He 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.

Stone recorded Charles’ bluesy, soulful sound on four songs: Walkin’ and Talkin’, Why Did You Go, I’m Wondering and Wondering, and St. Pete Florida Blues. It’s Ray Charles’ only Miami-based recording session.  Stone released them on his Rockin’ label. Years later, Ray Charles would go on to bigger things with NY-based Atlantic Records. But it was Stone’s recordings that paved the way.

That alone is a story that would be the highlight of any person’s past. For Stone, it was just the beginning. Legends aren’t usually built on a single event.  Making history time and again takes, well.. time.  People living that history, at that moment, don’t always see it that way. Maybe Steve Jobs or Bill Gates did. Not Henry Stone.

Stone’s Tone Distributors would become one of the most successful independent record distribution companies over the last half century when 45s and LPs were the music industry’s primary output to the world.  Stone had connections with all the major labels and all the independent labels. One of his assets was getting records played, he says. He did this by building rapport with all the disc jockeys. It was easy really. The DJs came to him.

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 for years, making history, amassing a record distribution empire. Then he tells me of his “real love” – producing and making records. He jokes that while others played golf, he preferred to play record maker.

His first big record came in 1959 when he recorded James Brown’s back up 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, just around the corner, Miami homegrown soul cuts were taking off in the mid 1960s with labels like Deep City.  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.

Willie Clarke, Betty Wright, Clarence Reid, and the session musicians and artists from Deep City joined Stone in 1968 and immediately began putting out local hits, and soon after, national hits. 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 all the music and business talent under one commercial roof, TK Productions. He started labels such as TK Records and others that from 1971 – 1979 produced R&B and Pop Chart hits the world over.

The Miami soul sound had its first 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 all the Miami soul music of that time was the horn section.  And Stone wasn’t a 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.

We had our own Miami Sound. Motown had their their sound, Stax had their sound, Philly had their 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 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 from 1950 to the 1990s. Those Ray Charles recordings? Yes. Do The Mashed Potatoes? Yes, even the original track featuring James Brown on back up vocals. The Miami soul music he recorded at TK? Yes. Even disco hits he put out in the mid 70s by KC & The Sunshine Band, Foxy, and Anita Ward. All there.

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..

I mean wow, it was one thing after another.

Those were good times, I say to him. But Stone has a different take.

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

Henry Stone acknowledges his legacy today. Back then, when he was making it happen, living it, he wasn’t exactly aware of it.

Again this is what I did. 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.

One of those things that came about was this soulful diddy.

[TK photos courtesy of Jeff Lemlich.. thanks!]

Copyright © 2012 Long Play Miami

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