“I did a track with Kim Wilde followed by a tour with Michael Jackson at Wembley stadium… Michael turned around and says, “I want to meet with you!”…So we get together and talk and he said to me, “Janet (Jackson) turned me onto you and I saw your video ‘Mama Used To Say’ and the moves you do at the very beginning; I really liked them.” So I laughed and I said, “You liked them so much that you used them in your videos and everybody thinks it’s me copying you!” And he cracked up laughing.” – Junior Giscombe
Photo: Courtesy of David S. James
With The British Collective riding high in the various UK music charts with their latest hit single, ‘Love Me Tonight’ only serves to heighten the fact that Junior Giscombe has been one of UK Soul and Pop music’s enduring pioneers and troubadours.
For over thirty years Junior has been a torch-bearer for aspiring young singers/artists on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, Europe and around the globe. Michael Jackson, Teddy Riley, Tupac Shakur, Heavy D, Chantel Moore, The Lighthouse Family and many more owe some of their biggest successes to his Midas touch, writing credits and/or musical influence. Michael J Edwards sat down for an in-depth talk with a very engaging, effervescent, youthful, intelligent and humorous Mr Giscombe to find out more as well as some of his vocal influences and an insight into his musical longevity.
Michael J Edwards: Greetings, Junior Giscombe. It’s a pleasure to link at last. First off, let me say on behalf of all UK music fans that grew up with your sound – thank you for the music.
Junior Giscombe: Respect. Thank you.
Michael J Edwards: Along with your good friends, Noel McKoy and Keni Stevens to name but two, you have been around this ‘music thang’ for Nye on thirty years. And to paraphrase Keith Sweat the American R&B singer who once said, “For fifteen years I’ve been bangin’ and I’m still bangin’!” You’ve been banging for thirty years plus and you’re still banging! What do you put your longevity down to?
Junior Giscombe: I don’t know. I started out I suppose as most people do; when you’re a kid it’s all about trying to attract the girls. The music in a sense is kind of secondary; you want to be a star, you want to be on TV. I feel the longevity has come from the fact that I always wanted to make music that stayed around. I didn’t want to be the artist who made popular songs that year and then that was it; I just didn’t want to be that kind of artist. So over the years, I stayed more in the background to people; I would do things, but I wouldn’t push myself upfront. I want the music to stand up for itself. I think a lot of the time you can overhype your music. At the time I did ‘Mama Used To Say’, there was a whole machine behind it.
And also being a part of Linx who were like the first Soul group who really cut through; being a part of that band gave me a chance to actually see how people gravitated to you just based on your music. It was not based on your personality or anything, and that’s what I really want to try to do. So when we did the first batch of demo’s for London Records, which was a track called, ‘In Words’ and ‘Mama Used To Say’, I wanted ‘In Words’ out because I felt that ‘In Words’ had a nice start to it.
Michael J Edwards: What year was this?
Junior Giscombe: This was around 1980, but I actually recorded ‘In Words’ and ‘Mama…’ in 1981. When it was finished I wanted ‘In Words’ out, but the A&R man convinced me by saying, “Believe me Junior, this is the one! We’re gonna make sure it is!” and blah, blah, blah! So they put out ‘Mama Used To Say’ on 27th July 1981 – I know it because it’s my sister’s birthday! (Laughs) So they put it out and it did nothing! I joined Linx and we went on tour that winter. At the time Linx had done tracks like, ‘Throw Away the Key’, ‘So This Is Romance’, ‘You’re Lying’ etc. They were really on point. We went out on tour, and it was during that winter tour that they (The Record Company) had put it into America. And we started selling like 25,000 a day in Chicago, 100,000 in New York, 150,000 in Miami – It was mind-blowing!
Michael J Edwards: That was proper units back in those days.
Junior Giscombe: Yes, it was. It wasn’t like you sell two thousand records and you’re at number one. We were doing like six or seven hundred thousand twelve inches in America at the time. It’s a bit daunting and hard to kind of fully grasp what’s happening; because we were living in England. I’m with band and out on the road; my record hasn’t sold, the press has completely slagged it – as if I was doing some kind of Rock ‘n’ Roll. It was like,” You’re born in England so you shouldn’t be doing that, you should be doing Reggae music, that way we can make sure that we kick you to the curb.” He wanted to marginalise you and put you in your own little bracket. I didn’t start out to make music for brackets; I made music, wanting to touch people in a positive way.
So in terms of longevity, to answer your earlier question, I think what it is it’s because my mindset has always been not to just make records, it made no sense to me just to make a record. I wanted to make records that 1) touched people and 2) stayed around, but said something that wasn’t pertaining to just Monday; it would pertain to Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. So that to me is what did it. To be honest I can’t sit down here and say to you that I knew I’d be around in thirty years’ time and still making records that were relevant. That was just a wish from a young man who wanted to come into the industry. As things progressed and the successes started to happen, that’s where the longevity came in. I worked with Stevie wonder, I worked with Arif Mardin, I worked with Stuart Levine. I’ve met Quincy Jones and most of the top R&B artists. So I put it down to that; I put it down to the mere fact that what I was trying to do was just start out saying, “Right, I wanna make some records that work.” I wanted to make hit records; I didn’t want to make records that were here today gone tomorrow.
Photo: Courtesy of David S. James
Michael J Edwards: How did you deal with your new found adulation and keep a level head as a young man in the industry?
Junior Giscombe: Parents, family and discipline. I’m the youngest of seven of us; so being the baby my success didn’t mean anything. It’s nice to have a hit record, yeah, but it’s still going down the road and getting the groceries…But it’s such good a thing because it’s easy to get lost; it’s easy to believe the hype that you’re creating and not understand that it’s something that you’re created by. My family brought me up to be very respectful of my elders. So being the youngest and seeing everybody getting licks, you knew whatever you were saying out on the street you better keep that out on the street… So there was a lot of discipline and that made me pretty much the way that I was and am. My brothers and sisters knew it was something I was always doing; I was always sitting in my room, I was always writing. So for me going into music, doing the deal, putting out the record and everything else to a large marketplace, to them, it was just a joy that their little brother was doing what he wanted to do.
Michael J Edwards: What was the name of the first band you formed at the age of fourteen?
Junior Giscombe: The first band I formed was The Idyllic’s; I was 14/15 when I formed that band around 1971/72. Then two years later I formed Atlantis.
Michael J Edwards: ‘Atlantis’ was the band influenced by Soul, Funk, Reggae, Doo-Wop, Motown and Jesse Green; especially the track ‘Nice And Slow’.
Junior Giscombe: I recorded that track when I was still at school, so I must have been about fifteen. I got asked to come into the studio and cut this song; I didn’t know who Jesse Green had cut the song. We did the song which came out in Australia and went to number one. I didn’t know that until twenty years after!
Michael J Edwards: Did you receive any royalties during that time?
Junior Giscombe: I never got a penny for the recording and I never got a penny for the record! That’s how it goes, that’s how this business is. Back then I was happy, I just wanted to sing. Then after that, I did a track called, ‘Get Up And Dance’/ ‘Hot Up And Heated’. That would have been around 1978/79. I had no idea how big that 12 inch was in Europe. When I went to France to do a show in front of about four thousand people in Paris, and I went on stage to do ‘Mama Used To Say’. When they started the track everybody started booing! (Laughs) I thought, “Hold on a minute, you guys called me over here!”
Michael J Edwards: What year was this?
Junior Giscombe: This was around the fall of 1982. So as I said, I went on stage to sing ‘Mama Used To Say’ and everybody started booing. So I told the DJ to take the track off and I didn’t know what to say. And the audience started shouting for ‘Get Up and Dance’/Hot Up and Heated! I thought, “I cannot believe this!” In my head, I was thinking, “Where do you know this tune from?” I remember saying, “DJ if you’ve got the tune, drop the tune!” And then but the tune and four thousand kids went absolutely mad. I had no idea it was so popular. So I never did ‘Mama…’ that night, I just did, ‘Get up And Dance’ and ‘Hot Up And Heated’
Years later, while recording my first album for my own label at the time, “StepOFF Records”. The engineer I was working with came from France. And for the first couple of days, I couldn’t take him as he was so clingy and always at my beck and call. I had to tell him to relax and let’s just record the track. It wasn’t until the second day when he came in with a copy of the record and asked me to sign it, explaining that he had had it since he was a kid in France. It went to number one in France which I didn’t know either. I suppose ever since I started I’ve been fortunate enough to be hitting it from the get-go… Out of the Jesse Green recording came ‘Get Up And Dance’.
I believe it was Greg Edwards who played it on his Capital Radio show and got record companies interested because it was on an independent label. He had clout, and once he played it we thought “Great! Now we’ll make some inroads into the British market!” But it never really happened. What did happen was that people in the record companies began to hear the track and got in contact with the independent record company. At that time we had been asked by a record label in America called ‘Firesign Records’ out of New York, who had picked up the record “Get Up And Dance” and put it out in America. As a result, the record started blowing up. This was around 1980/81.
Michael J Edwards: A year later in 1982, you were now signed to Phonogram records who released ‘Mama Used To Say’, which was a massive hit on both sides of the Atlantic, leading to the first appearance by a Black British artist on the legendary ‘Soul Train’. You even received the ‘Best Newcomer Award’ from the Godfather of Soul. Would you say that was the highlight of your career up to that point?
Photo: Courtesy of David S. James
Junior Giscombe: I’d say one of them; I think at that time it was just incredible! You have to understand that all these people I was meeting I had been buying their music. So to meet James knowing that I probably owned every record James Brown had ever done was mind-blowing. And then to be named as Best Newcomer that year fills me with pride. The two main charts at that time were Cash Box and Billboard. I was number one in the Cash Box Chart and number two on the Billboard Chart. I spent a lot of time in America during the first five years. In fact, I was spending over nine months a year in the States.
Michael J Edwards: Staying with the timeless ‘Mama Used To Say’, how long did it take to write and where did you get your inspiration from?
Junior Giscombe: The song came to me in around ten to fifteen minutes. I wrote it when I was twenty-two. I actually started out making handmade shoes. I did a three-year apprenticeship on how to make shoes – I love shoes… Back then I was getting about £15 a week – which was rubbish money. A friend of mine told me I could make more money working at a heel bar. So I went from making shoes to repairing the soles and heels. I used to work in a place called Morden in South London. And it was while I was working that this girl came in; she must have been about eighteen. Now I was twenty-two going on twenty-three and she asked me my age. So I thought if I told her I’m twenty-three, she might think I’m too old. So I cut my age down and said I was twenty. And when I told her it made me laugh, because it was something that my mum had always said to me. My mum had always said to me, “You keep rushing to get to this age, and you keep rushing to get to that age.” And it was true when I was sixteen I wanted to be eighteen when I was eighteen I wanted to be twenty-one when I was twenty-one I wanted to be twenty-five.
And I wrote the song that day while I was at the heel bar… I wrote it then and I used to sing it at the heel bar. The girls used to come in and ask me, “What’s that you’re singing?” And I told them, “It’s just something I wrote.” And they were like, “Oh, you wrote that!” So as I said the inspiration came from that particular situation and in terms of writing it I just took on everything that my mum used to say to me. There and then I just listed them, all the things my mother used to say and how she would react to the things I did. When I was younger around fifteen or sixteen I’d be going to gigs to see groups like Earth, Wind and Fire when they opened for Santana at the Hammersmith Odeon. And Carlos Santana who I have the utmost respect for came on TV and said, “The band that is opening for us, we couldn’t even get on the same stage as them if we were playing in America! And I thought that was so magnanimous of him because everybody had come to see Santana, they didn’t know Earth, Wind and Fire were. This was about 1973/74; the whole UK thing was brand-new in terms of listening to that kind of music. When I went to see Santana, it was college and university kids; there weren’t any kids there from the street … So it was really interesting looking at these kids sitting on the floor like at university watching Earth, Wind and Fire. They did the forty-five-minute set, they came out and they were flying in the air wearing those outlandish outfits… It was a spectacular show.
Michael J Edwards: Where did the idea for the video for ‘Mama Used To’ Say’ come from?
Junior Giscombe: The idea for the ‘Mama Used To Say’ video came from a guy called Keith McMillan. Keith McMillan at the time was really a very left of centre guy who wanted to produce TV shows; he wanted to produce music on TV. But he had this idea and developed an idea called Chroma Key. Chroma Key was the beginning of what we all take for granted when we watch the news when we watch the weather. It’s a blue screen and basically, you perform in front of it… He actually developed that technology; so when we did ‘Mama Used To Say’, it was the very first video to use that technology. Nowadays people use it all the time, but ‘Mama Used To Say’ was the very first video to ever use Chroma Key – It’s a very innovative video. He then went on to do a Saturday morning TV at BBC1 where they showed the Top Ten national videos. He got the job as a direct result of working on my video. He had developed something that the rest of the world took on board.
Regarding all that stuff with me being in the bath etc that all came about as we went along. It was an interesting time because you could have a storyboard for a video, but if you’re working with the producer, who had a certain kind of mindset, it was loose. So you could throw in your own ideas and improvise. Don’t forget the blue screen, so you’re using your judgement. You could be looking at a projection of a road and you can walk down this road and open a virtual gate because there is no actual gate there.
Michael J Edwards: ‘Mama Used To Say’ was a classic song with a classic video. I believe Michael Jackson got the inspiration for his Billie Jean video from watching it?
Junior Giscombe: When I received my Billboard Music Award for Best Newcomer, which I received from James Brown, there was a big award ceremony and Janet Jackson was on the bill. There were artists like ‘Two Tonnes of Fun’, Rick James, Michael Wycoff, Grover Washington and Diana Ross. Also, Luther (Vandross) was there, Stevie (Wonder) was there; you name it. So I’m backstage and Janet comes up and says that her brother is a huge fan, he loves your video and your dance moves at the beginning. At times I go onto YouTube and read the comments under my video, and people are saying, “He’s trying to do a Michael Jackson!” It just makes me laugh because twenty years down the road I did a track with Kim Wilde followed by a tour with Michael Jackson at Wembley stadium. Michael turned around and says, “I want to meet with you!” So we get together and talk and he said to me, “Janet turned me onto you and I saw your video ‘Mama Used To Say’ and the moves you do at the very beginning; I really liked them.” So I laughed and I said, “You liked them so much that you used them in your videos and everybody thinks it’s me copying you!” And he cracked up laughing!
Photo: Courtesy of David S. James
You’re talking about a time in England where we all knew who Michael Jackson was and what Michael Jackson did. At the time I recorded ‘Mama Used To Say’ Michael Jackson was a seasoned pro, so he’s watching to see what’s different about various artists. He was a very diligent individual, a real professional in the true sense of the word. So for him to see what you’re doing and take hold of it in some ways is a compliment. He took hold of it to such an extent that people thought I was copying him. If you look at the bigger picture it was really the first time that black people had been seen in such high-profile on mainstream TV outside of stereotypical roles. Many people within the industry had these preconceptions of you.
Now these are people who went to University; these are people who I was being told as a kid that I should look up to because they’d been to Uni and got Diplomas etc… I realised these supposedly clever people didn’t have common sense. They had no true understanding of people, they had been told about people and they were very narrow-minded. So it was very difficult to try to get people to come with me down to a Blues night, come with me down to Coxsone. And they’d be like, “Where’s this Junior?” And I’ll be like, “It’s in Brixton.” So I would say, “Come and hear Neville The Enchanter up in the West End so you can hear the sound, you can hear what I hear – what I want; so that you can see reactions from who the core audience of junior would be.
No record company wanted to hear that; the record company would turn around and ask you to come to the Rock and Pop Awards where you’re the only black person there; so that any comments that were made from the stage the camera could pan to you and you’re clapping. However, I wasn’t clapping. I walked out on the Rock and Pop Awards when they told me the guy who was going to speak was the guy who turned the world on to what was going on in Ethiopia at the time, which is how ‘Feed The World’ came about. But what pissed me off and it still does to this day – Thank you very much for letting the world know, but you were in sunny South Africa at the time in Sun City and they had gone down there to film you telling us what a wonderful thing you did by telling people what was going on in Ethiopia. South Africa at that time was still an apartheid state so to go to Sun City and broadcast from there to me was disrespectful. So I walked out.
Michael J Edwards: The word hypocrite comes to mind.
Junior Giscombe: Very much so. So I walked out and people were trying to hold me down saying, “You shouldn’t walk out!” You shouldn’t this, you shouldn’t that! I was the only black man in the place and you’ve got this guy standing up there talking about how great the thing he did was. I couldn’t handle it so I left at that point.
Michael J Edwards: Tell us about ‘Too Late’, another hit you had that was especially big in the States?
Junior Giscombe: ‘Too Late’ was also a song I wrote very quickly. How that worked was I was at home and I was supposed to work with Bob, who was my writing partner and I was late. I was listening to the radio and Rick James came on. And Rick had a tune called ‘Give It To Me Baby’. In the tune he uses the word intoxicated; I liked the word intoxicated. I’d been out on tour and I was up in Scotland where I met this young girl and she was Punk – Punk was in at the time. She took me all around the Edinburgh Festival, and she and I sat down and we were chatting. She started telling me about her Dad who was an alcoholic… When I got back after the tour and heard the word intoxicated in this Rick James song, all I remember is sitting next to the radio and writing the song. I then went straight to Bob’s and said, ‘This is how it goes, this is the core structure.” I hadn’t written the core structure, I just knew what it was. I played it to Bob and Bob then put the various in place that you now recognise as ‘Too late’. In total ‘Too Late’ took me about five to ten minutes to write. All I know is that the lyric came from meeting that girl in Scotland and that word ‘ intoxicated’ from a Rick James and song… The two meshed together and I wrote whatever I wrote.
Michael J Edwards: Are you aware that to this day some folks still think that you’re American?
Junior Giscombe: Yes I do. I think the music that I was making at that time seemed to gain more traction in America than it did at home. Basically, I built my reputation over there subsequently got more recognition back in the UK. A lot of us had to have success in America first before we had the success here; a prime example being Ruby Turner.
Michael J Edwards: You revamped ‘Too Late’ in 2007 utilising the late Tupac’s Shakur’s vocal. I appreciate that Tupac has a lot of unreleased material in the can, but how did that recording come about?
Junior Giscombe: He did a version of ‘Too Late’ with MC Hammer, Big Danny Kane, and Danny Boy and Nutt-So did a Rap version of ‘Too Late’. I first heard it in 2006.
Michael J Edwards: The version I’ve seen is you singing it live in front of a very lacklustre audience. You put on a top-notch performance of ‘Too Late’ and ‘Mama Used To Say’ and they were impassive.
Junior Giscombe: Thank you! The audience were made up of agents and Theatre promoters and their guests, so it was very challenging but the public who have seen the clip on youtube like it and that’s all that matters. Anyway, Tupac did a version of it and at the time I had been asked to DJ on Solar Radio. I was doing Mondays to Thursdays – 4pm to 6pm. I did that for about two years, which was fun. The DJ who followed me, a guy called Dave Brown played it and he said, “Junior, I’ve got a tune for you!” He played it, and I got him to send me an MP3. I then got in contact with various people who told me I could use it as it was still my song. What I wanted to do was take Tupac’s rap and use that to create a new track and re-vocal it and everything. So I took it and we put Tupac in the middle and I thought, “You know what, let me put it out there and see if the kids will like it!” They seemed to jump on it, so that was good too. It just goes to show you the power of the song. Everybody said you should have given it a major release in the marketplace and put it out with Tupac. Using his name to ride off, but why would I do that when I know who I am.
Michael J Edwards: Who influenced you vocally?
Junior Giscombe: That goes right across the board. It starts from what my mum and dad used to listen to, which was primarily Jazz and Gospel. Artists like Mahalia Jackson, Lady Day, Billy Eckstein. My brothers, because there were older than me were really into Doo-Wop – you had people like the Moonglows, The Manhattans and The Dells.
My older sisters listened to a lot of different styles of music. Early James Brown, Sam Cook, Gil Scott-Heron. They were also listening to a lot of music which came from our parent’s homeland Jamaica. Artists like The Abyssinians, Burning Spear, to Bob Marley, John Holt to good old fashioned English folk music. My sisters were eclectic. I had all these influences and then you have your own, you have your Stevie Wonders and your Marvin Gayes, your Chaka Khans, your Aretha Franklins. Then years later you get into people like Luther (Vandross) and you find out the reason why you’re buying David Bowie’s records is that you like the background vocals and then discovering it’s Luther. All these people were beginning to change how I heard music and viewed the artistry.
Photo: Courtesy of David S. James
So there are all these different things, then add to that being born in England. In those days there weren’t any black radio stations, so all you’re hearing was pure Pop i.e The Beatles, The Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones and Manfred Mann. As a kid what I didn’t realise at the time was that all of these bands were playing the Blues. Don’t let that fool you; this was the case from the late fifties through to the early sixties, up until when they started to make their own music, which was still a derivative of black music. But what I got from that was songwriting in terms of being able to understand how everything came together. The formula – verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, verse, chorus, four bars, eight bars, musical break, then maybe go back to another verse. You might come out of that verse and go into a middle eight, then come out of that middle eight and go to the verse and then back to the chorus. So I had the chance to learn different structures and how different voices worked within it. So when I did ‘Mama Used To Say’ the growl was because it was an easier note for me to hit. If I had sung it flat it would have sounded normal; I wanted something that didn’t sound normal. I listened to records and I noticed that various artists would change their voice or do something that makes that them.
Michael J Edwards: As with Don-E, Omar, Leee John and many others you have a very unique vocal; if you release a new single or album, everybody recognises it as you.
Junior Giscombe: It’s because it’s my style; it’s my signature. And that I wanted, I wanted a signature. I wanted something that everybody recognised as me, which was distinctive. There was a piece in The Times by Andy Warhol and he said, “The most expressive part of us is our voice and we don’t fully grasp how individualistic the voice is.” All of the singers that I like are singers were singers who I didn’t have to see in order to like them. When The Moonglows were up-and-coming Marvin Gaye was their drummer, Teddy Pendergrass was a drummer and the lead singer from Mint Condition was a drummer. All these people who were supposedly in the background were really the pioneers; they were really the ones who had the gift. They had the gift of voice, the gift of taking something and transforming it into something. And the other thing I loved about all the artists I mentioned is that the common denominator is that they were all individualistic. None of them sounded the same, none of them tried to sound like anybody else other than who they were….Then I got a chance to work with some of them.
Michael J Edwards
* In Part 2 Junior talks about Stevie Wonder; his influence on Teddy Riley and New Jack Swing as well as his work with Heavy D & The Boyz; his timeless ‘Morning Will Come’ track and his various albums, his views on the UK music scene; his newly released material as part of UK Super Group The British Collective and more.