Bohannon set the stage for house and modern dance music by keeping four on the floor
by Ronnie Reese
“As some folks say, I helped create the disco music, the house music, and a lot of other different things.” –Bohannon
Bohannon is an artist who has left many people over the years wondering what he’s up to. Prior to the release of his 2009 audio book, Bohannon Speaks from the Beginning, the industry at large hadn’t heard much from the drummer, producer, arranger, and bandleader in recent years. Few knew that he was a dance-music pioneer who released music well into the 1980s before deciding to settle down with his family and enjoy a comfortable living off income from licensing and royalties. Some thought he might have been living in Chicago at one time, or doing some behind-the-scenes work, or possibly using an alias to record and release music under a different name. No one really knew the truth.
“Bohannon does sell very well here,” says Kevin Starke, owner of K-Starke Records on Chicago’s Northwest Side. “I can’t tell you how many times I have to stock these albums.” Starke, a longtime house-music aficionado, has always known. And the people he reveres have known too.
“All the DJs knew Bohannon,” says legendary house DJ and producer, Farley Keith, also known as Farley Jackmaster Funk. A native Chicagoan who spent his formative years with one foot in the funk and the other in the stepper’s camp, Keith remembers hearing “Thoughts and Wishes” from Bohannon’s 1975 Insides Out album played at home by his older brothers. For him, the Bohannon appeal is one born out of tradition. “We wanted people who sounded like they were from the church,” Keith explains. “This is what we grew up on. That’s why we call it soul.”
The bond is even stronger for DJ and producer Ron Trent, also a native of Chicago. “This is going to sound funny,” Trent says, “but Bohannon has been a household figure for a long time. He actually went to school with my grandmother” at Atlanta’s Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University). Trent spent much of his adolescence looking at album covers and thinking, “Who is this slick-haired brother here?” Shortly after starting his career as a DJ in 1982, Trent discovered an old BASF cassette his grandfather had found while driving a city bus. In listening to the tape, he deduced that it was most likely a mix by one of the godfathers of house music, Frankie Knuckles, from his club the Power Plant. Trent, who was honing his craft at the time, felt an immediate connection. He and the music were cut from the same cloth.
“One of the tunes on there was a Bohannon joint, [‘Let’s Start the Dance’],” he says. “That was a major, major piece for the dance-music community in Chicago.”
In addition to a budding house-music scene in the Windy City, Bohannon’s reach also extended to some notable peers.
“Bohannon is a very big influence in my life,” says late Parliament-Funkadelic singer and guitarist Garry Shider in the acknowledgements portion of Bohannon Speaks from the Beginning. “Parliament-Funkadelic, P-Funk All-Stars, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Roger, Zapp Band, Otis Day and the Knights—Bo influenced all these kind of people.”
In the book, Shider joins Stevie Wonder, Dennis Coffey, attorney Joel Katz, and a host of friends and collaborators in providing recollections of Bohannon’s impact on their lives. For all the love he’s received, it’s curious why Bohannon isn’t more of a household name, and why he hadn’t spoken up before his audio book was released in 2009.
But Bohannon has always done things his own way. It’s why he doesn’t speak until he’s ready to speak, and why his sound is one hundred percent original. It’s also the reason he’s the foundation of a number of music genres, and why—in his own words—“I be getting my checks.”
“I listen and listen and hear a lot of things,” he explains, “and some things were true, while a lot of things weren’t even true about me that people were saying. They don’t even know what they’re talking about. So I’ll do my own thing and let folks know the real Bohannon.”
The real Bohannon was born Hamilton Frederick Bohannon in 1942, in Newnan, Georgia, a small city about a half hour’s drive southwest of Atlanta. “Call me Bohannon, please,” he says, and not “Hamilton Bohannon,” which was primarily how Chicago radio jocks and programmers would say his name when he would conduct interviews in the city during the 1970s.
There are two reasons why his name has been so pronounced—literally—over the course of Bohannon’s career. First, he is extremely reverential toward his familial lineage and the spiritual link to his father, Willie. “That’s a powerful name, because he was a powerful man,” he explains. “And I wanted everybody to know the name ‘Bohannon.’ ”
According to Bohannon, Kenny Gamble of Philadelphia International Records told him that the Bohannon name is worth big dollars, so it’s been treated as such. But at one time, radio DJs weren’t as attentive. They had a tendency not to mention names of the artists whose records they were playing, which irked a very proud Bohannon. As a result, he began repeating his name throughout songs and using an audio effect called the slapback, which created an echoing delay and the “Bohannonononon…” sound.
“They wouldn’t let you know who the artist was!” he says. “So I fixed them. I put my name in my records. I said, ‘They’re gonna know who I am. Even if they don’t like the song, they’re gonna know my name!’ ”
Bohannon began drumming as a preschooler watching television commercials that aired during his mother’s soap operas. He excelled at baseball as a youngster, but early musical favorites like Dixieland bandleader Bob Crosby and his band, the Bob Cats, eventually led to the career choice of music over sports. In high school, Bohannon was a drummer in the marching band and recruited pal James Reese—later of James Reese and the Progressions—in forming his own groups, the Bop Dads and the Royal Dukes.
Moving on to Clark College in Atlanta, Bohannon majored in music education while continuing to perform with a number of groups, including one led by Hank Moore, the former bandleader for Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. He also began a residency at the famed Royal Peacock nightclub, where the “Iceman” Jerry Butler would seek out the young drummer to sit in with his band—paying him three times his normal rate—and where he occasionally shared the stage with Jimi Hendrix, then a fledgling chitlin-circuit guitarist living in Atlanta.
After graduating, Bohannon was offered a scholarship from Indiana University to further his education, and he moved up to the Midwest from Atlanta but never enrolled in school. “I missed home,” he says, “so I came back home.” Back in Georgia, he began teaching until an injury to his right foot suffered in a car accident left him on medical leave from the classroom. Shortly thereafter, he was invited on tour by singer and MC Theodopholos Odell George, better known as Gorgeous George.
Bohannon was unwilling to let an injury keep him from joining such heavy hitters as Jackie Wilson, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Drifters, Solomon Burke, and Joe Tex on the road, so he switched his bass-drum foot from right to left and took it easy on the sock-cymbal side until he healed. On the tour’s first stop in Louisville, Kentucky, he met a thirteen-year-old Stevie Wonder. “We became instant friends,” Bohannon recalls. “Stevie put our friendship before our musicianship.”
When the two-week tour ended, Bohannon briefly returned to Atlanta and resumed teaching and playing at the Royal Peacock before accepting an offer to gig with Wonder full time. He signed a contract with Motown Records and for two and a half years joined producer Clarence Paul and Wonder’s tutor, Ted Hall, in the young star’s inner circle.
The underage Wonder was unable to perform in certain venues, so Bohannon stayed busy backing other Motown acts like Knight, Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and Jr. Walker and the All-Stars, but always returned to Wonder when needed. After in-house bandleader Choker Campbell’s departure from the label, Bohannon assembled a band of Atlanta locals and traveled to Detroit to audition. Winning the job, he made a few personnel changes before solidifying the sixteen-piece Bohannon and the Motown Sound in 1967.
For the next five years, Bohannon toured behind some of the most renowned artists for the most storied record label in the history of R&B and, with the help of Smokey Robinson, also signed a short-term artist contract. A few tracks were written and produced by Terry Johnson of the Flamingos, but the project was shelved.
“After I got into it, I didn’t really want to be a recording artist,” Bohannon recalls. “I asked for my contract, and they gave it back to me. I couldn’t see it going anywhere as a recording artist, as they had all the heavyweights there.”
Choosing to stay in Detroit after Motown moved to Los Angeles in 1972, Bohannon began teaching music and assembling bands to play in local nightclubs like the legendary Twenty Grand, where he was house drummer. Horn player Jerry Hey and young guitarists Ray Parker Jr., Melvin Ragin, and Dennis Coffey all came under Bohannon’s wing during his time in the Motor City and would all go on to great individual achievements. But “when I needed them,” he says, “we’d come back together.”
Bohannon’s core post-Motown collaborators were guitarist Leroy Emanuel and organist Mose Davis of the Fabulous Counts; guitarist Ricardo Rouse; pianist Rod Lumpkin; bassists Eddie Watkins, Fernando Saunders, and Ted Waterhouse; and percussionist Lorenzo Brown. He fielded a number of different lineups and toured often as a bandleader, also handling drumming, vocal, and percussion duties. While shopping demo tracks around the Midwest, Bohannon landed a deal in 1973 with Carl Davis and Dakar Records, a Chicago-based subsidiary of Nat Tarnopol’s Brunswick imprint in New York.
It was at Dakar where the Bohannon legend began to form, starting with “Happiness,” one of his first recorded arrangements for vibist Lionel Hampton, and the Emanuel-penned “Stop and Go”—once under consideration for use as theme music for the hit television dance party Soul Train—to the melancholy “Thoughts and Wishes,” played during the funeral of comedian Bernie Mac at the Salem Baptist Church of Chicago in 2008. “Chicago is the only city that recognized ‘Thoughts and Wishes,’ ” Bohannon says. “And that’s my favorite song.”
Bohannon released six albums on Dakar—Stop & Go, South African Man (reissued as Keep On Dancin’ ), Insides Out, Bohannon, Dance Your Ass Off, and Gittin’ Off—steadily evolving from frenetic ensemble rhythms into his own brand of repetitive, bass drum–driven dance funk. “He was like an up-tempo James Brown,” says Ron Trent. “It was funky…straight funky, straight soulful, straight Black music for real.”
Bohannon claims to have “broke all the rules in music” in making his own. “Eight bars? I might do ten bars,” he says. If you can feel the groove, that’s all that matters. He wanted you to dance—or at the very least, pat your foot. Some songs sound like three songs in one, and if you were deaf, Bohannon says, “I’m going to make you feel the vibration of my beat.” He favored a minimal use of horns, and breakdowns over bridges, believing that “it goes from one thing to the other, but it don’t lose a thing.” His music was the epitome of raw, with propulsive drum, bass, and guitar intensity, yet there was a method to the manic. Remember, Bohannon’s roots are in the big bands he drummed to as a child, his high school marching bands, and the regimented Motown camp with a precision template laid down by the Funk Brothers. So while his style may seem primitive, it is still one of discipline. Bohannon knew exactly what he was doing. He just did it in a way that no one else did.
An accomplished drummer, he let his guitars drive the beat. “Rather than me playing the rhythms on the drums, I would write those for the instruments—for the guitars,” he explains. “If you listen to the guitars, you hear all kinds of rhythms going on. Those are rhythms I would normally play for myself, but what I would do, I would keep an in-the-pocket beat… If I played rhythmical on the drums, and have my guitars playing rhythm patterns, it would sound like what? A bunch of mess. So what I did, I would hold it in the road and let them do all the traffic.”
“He always had a sound,” says remixer and engineer Leonard Part Sixx, producer of the popular disco “Underdog Edits” series who has worked with such house-music luminaries as Trent, Terry “the Legendary” Hunter, and Ron Carroll. “When you heard a Bohannon record, you knew it was him, and that’s kind of strange, especially during the time he was making music, because you had so many different groups coming out, and with all distinctive sounds. But with some variation, they tried to sound like one other [group] or whatever. With Bohannon, you knew it was him.”
In 2005, Leonard did a re-edit of Caroline Crawford’s “Coming On Strong,” which was written, arranged, and produced by Bohannon for her 1978 album, My Name Is Caroline. “That was like one of those foundation Music Box house staples,” Leonard explains, “and as I was restructuring the song for the edit, I began to really appreciate what Bohannon did as far as his approach to the song…just really driving. And then he does the variation with the guitars and bass, but then he goes back to that basic, raw drum and bass and synth.
“And you had Caroline just on top of it, just doing her riffs and everything, so it’s hard to reproduce something like that. That was a feeling. That’s like with James Brown, some of his greatest records were nothing more than jam sessions, so I could appreciate the musicianship, because you could basically hear and visualize those musicians in that studio jamming to each other. Basically, that’s all it was. They were just jamming to each other.”
Brown, according to Bohannon, was always appreciative of his approach to rhythm. “James Brown told me that he and I were the two guys with the most different rhythms than anybody,” Bohannon states. “James Brown complimented me on my rhythms, and I complimented him on his rhythms. We got two different rhythms going, but he said that we are the rhythm people.” JB passed an unofficial torch as he left PolyGram and Bohannon moved to its subsidiary Mercury Records in 1977 with Phase II. 1978’s Summertime Groove would become his most popular and best-selling album to date on the strength of the monster “Let’s Start the Dance” and the eternal house break “Me and the Gang.”
“I was using rhythms that nobody had ever heard before,” Bohannon says. “James Brown said, ‘Bohannon, I been all overseas, and they’re playing [‘Let’s Start the Dance’] all over the world. [PolyGram] needs a rhythm guy over there, because I’m gone. They needed somebody like you over there, because when I left, the rhythm left, but you brought it back to them.’ ”
“Let’s Start the Dance” was a worldwide smash and a track that Bohannon proudly says remains in heavy rotation to this day. “If you put it on right now, it will bring the house down,” he says. “And they’re still playing it all over the world: on the radio, all the DJs are playing it; they’re still playing it in the clubs, still playing it at home.”
Farley Keith was among the seminal house-music DJs giving “Let’s Start the Dance” a run in the underground dance clubs like the Playground. “The percussion in there still rivals anything to this day that’s ever been released,” says Keith, who also notes Bohannon’s penchant for overproduction. “Too much for one record,” he explains. “Like George Clinton. ‘Hey, George, you know this record is long enough! We’re going on sixteen minutes…how much longer you want the record to be?’ And ‘Let’s Start the Dance,’ what was that, like, nine or ten minutes long? Like, ‘Okay, we got to get this part in…that sounds too good.’ ‘Use it for another song, man!’ But he’s like, ‘Nope, we got to use it on this one… We’re grooving, we’re grooving…’ ”
“Me and the Gang” would spawn an even bigger hit than “Let’s Start the Dance,” although much to Bohannon’s chagrin. Chicago house DJ and producer Paul Johnson sampled the track for his song “Get Get Down,” and released it on Bad Boy Bill’s Moody Recordings in 1999, where it would achieve international acclaim. Johnson, however, is somewhat reluctant to give credit where credit is due.
“Fuck Hamilton,” he says when reached via Facebook. “That motherfucker sued me!”
Johnson tends to say “fuck” a lot of things, so his bark may be a bit worse than his bite in this instance. But even his peers, who have tremendous respect for both Johnson and Bohannon, know who’s in the clear. And it wasn’t the “Me and the Gang” sample. “Paul’s my man,” Terry Hunter says, “but he can’t really say, ‘Fuck Bohannon.’ ” Chicago DJ and promoter Jesse De La Peña concurs, stating that Johnson “did jack his song and make a number one hit out of it.”
For Leonard Part Sixx, “All due respect to Paul Johnson—I think he’s an incredible producer—but let’s face it, if it wasn’t for Bohannon’s backing sample, which was kind of like the embodiment of that track, it wouldn’t have been a hit.”
Kevin Starke of K-Starke pleads shortsightedness on behalf of Johnson and Bad Boy Bill. “Those guys didn’t think that ‘Get Get Down’ was going to become that big,” he explains. “And when they sold over a million copies, Bohannon was, like, ‘Hey, wait a minute, that’s my tune!’ ”
Bohannon has no qualms with sampling as long as credit and compensation is provided. And in this case, both parties benefited in the end. He eventually received mechanical royalties for the use of “Me and the Gang” and had his music introduced to a third decade of underground dance heads. Johnson boosted his own stature on the success of “Get Get Down” in becoming an in-demand global star—and a wealthy one at that.
“He should be happy, because he made a lot of money because of me,” Bohannon says. “I know he made a lot of money, because I know how much money I made.”
The incident on a whole is evidence of the staying power of Bohannon’s music. Johnson’s “Get Get Down” is about ninety percent “Me and the Gang,” and reached the top spot on the charts a full twenty years after “Me and the Gang” was first released. As Bohannon progressed throughout the six albums he recorded for Mercury—Phase II, Summertime Groove, On My Way, Cut Loose, Too Hot to Hold, Music in the Air—he did it with a sound that would still be in vogue decades down the line, and continued to do so while recording for his own Phase II imprint and a handful of other labels during the ’80s. He was ahead of his time, but not intentionally so. His music was heavy, but it wasn’t gaudy and heavily adorned. In short, it wasn’t commercial disco.
“One thing they didn’t have that we had,” Bohannon says of the popular sound of the day, “we stayed raw. They didn’t stay raw.” Disco music could be anything from Salsoul to Philly soul to Saturday Night Fever, but none of it was as brutish as, say, the first side of Too Hot to Hold. It’s almost as if Bohannon became even more relentlessly funky in reaction to disco; so when it comes to similarities between the “in” sound of the time and his thing, “I didn’t really see any,” he says, despite being anointed king of the disco movement. To him, disco had an air of sweetness and thinness with all its horns and strings. “It all sounded similar to me… It just had a sophisticated sound to it, and I came out hitting hard.”
Ron Trent refers to Bohannon’s music as up-tempo R&B—soulful music with an up-tempo beat and a driving dance force. “When you look at the whole music game and how they do things,” Trent explains, “they like to package it up a certain way, and it has to have a certain name. It became disco when people like Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra and all these people started doing disco records. For us, it was just Black music—aggressive Black music.”
Bohannon’s form of aggressive Black music—with its repetition, open grooves, sample-ready pockets, and big kick drum and raw bass—was the foundation of house music. And it is house-music nation that seems to have the best understanding of the Bohannon aesthetic, even though the drum-machine era that accompanied its rise led to his recording with less frequency.
But Bohannon was only mechanical in the manifestation of his music on record. While early house producers were trying to recreate his drive, they were forgetting that what they sought to do digitally, he was doing organically with instruments.
“I wish producers were more into their crafts like Bohannon,” says Leonard Part Sixx, who, along with Terry Hunter, links Bohannon to the work Randy Muller did with Skyy, B.T. Express, and Brass Construction. “These were bands, and they were the leaders of bands. And you really don’t see that today, as everything is so producer-driven.” As music shifted toward electronics and the demand for bands decreased, Bohannon—never a mainstream artist—became even more of an underground presence. In doing so, he found himself right at home, which is something that the dance-music community has always known.
“When the music changed like that,” Bohannon explains, “I didn’t have to try to record something to keep up with it. Because when I knew anything, my music was already doing it.”
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