Howard Johnson reminisces on his silky-smooth chart-topper “So Fine”

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Howard Johnson

In 1982, Howard Johnson’s silky-smooth hit “So Fine,” from his Keepin’ Love New album, peaked at number one on the U.S. Billboard Dance charts. Later that year, Howard performed the tune in front of a live audience on Soul Train. He fondly reminisces, “It was somewhat surreal, because I grew up watching Soul Train on Saturdays. I begged Don Cornelius to sing it live, but he told me they only allowed people like Al Green and Aretha Franklin to sing live. But I still got the chance to show the world my moonwalk. MJ moonwalked for the Motown 25 special in ’83, and I moonwalked to So Fine in ’82 on Soul Train.” Check out Howard’s sophisticated footwork at the 3:55 mark.

“When I first heard ‘So Fine,’ Kashif played it for me in the studio. It was originally intended to be part of a Drake’s snack cake commercial. The verse was supposed to be ‘Drake’s cakes, Drake’s cakes taste great.’ I said to Kashif, ‘I really hate that. I don’t want to sing about some stupid cake.’ The next day, I came into the studio and heard ‘Ooooooo, so fine, so fine, blow my mind.’”

“So Fine” is a timeless boogie bomb that showcases both Kashif’s production acuity and Howard’s seriously soulful pipes.

 

In conversation, Howard applauds Kashif’s musical brilliance. “He was definitely at the forefront of the whole dance music movement that led directly into hip-hop. “So Fine” was a precursor to New Jack Swing. It was Kashif who linked Teddy Riley with Jonny Kemp for ‘Just Got Paid.’” In ’82, Howard moved from Miami to New York City to work with Kashif and his close-knit musical family comprised of Morrie Brown, Paul Lawrence Jones, Fonzi Thornton, and Freddie Jackson. Kashif produced four tracks on Johnson’s Keepin’ Love New album; one year later, he released his  masterpiece, the self-titled Kashif on Arista.

In the early ’80s, Howard toured with the A&M label. He explains, “Back in ’82, the A&M record company scheduled a tour that was sponsored by Olde English 800. We’d play at mom-and-pop, one-stop shops all across the country. Back then, we called it doing ‘street work.’ I was constantly on the road. I toured with Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King, the Whispers, Ashford & Simpson, Roger Troutman & Zapp, the Gap Band, and many others.”

Later in the ’90s, Howard crooned vocals on tracks with superstars like Madonna, Barry White, Boyz II Men, and Tupac Shakur. In 2014, Howard linked up with San Francisco’s Sweater Funk crew at the fabled Elbo Room in the Mission. “I heard K-Maxx for the first time and was totally blown away. I had no idea that funk still has a major following. I was surprised that there is a younger generation locked into this sound.”

Thirty-three years have passed since “So Fine” debuted, and the former chart topper still sounds as fresh ever. Howard’s run with A&M was short but potent, with three successful studio albums. “At one point,” Howard playfully reflects, “Kashif told me, ‘You don’t know how close I was to giving that track to Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King.’ Thank God he didn’t!”

 

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