Josephine Armstead, who goes by Jo or Joshie, was born in Yazoo City in Mississippi. She grew up singing in church and in school. Her first performance was with Bobby “Blue” Bland. Later, she would regularly get on stage in local nightclubs with Little Melvin & the Downbeats. Through her sister’s marriage with Ike Turner, Joshie became an Ikette.
After a few years, when Ike & Tina Turner were at the top of the charts, Joshie made the tough choice of leaving the Ikettes. A decision she never regretted. Joshie made it to New York where she worked for a couple of years before moving to Chicago. During her time in the Windy City, Joshie ran three records labels with her then husband Melvin Collins and recorded some of her best-known solo work including her charting song “Stone Good Lover”. After she got divorced, Joshie moved back to the New York, which she has called home ever since.
For a person who showed a lack of ambition from an early age, as she puts it, Joshie has an impressive resume including writing hit songs with Valerie Simpson and Nick Ashford, singing back-up for Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, James Brown and performing in a Broadway musical named “Don’t Play Us Cheap” by Melvin van Peebles.
This interview with the multi-talented and very charming Joshie Armstead conducted in December 2011:
You grew up in Yazoo City in Mississippi. What can you tell me about your background?
My great grandfather had four sons and seven daughters. My grandfather was one of his sons. My grandfather was a bootlegger and a gambler. They called him Shine. There was a dichotomy between my mother who became a minister and my grandfather who had taught her how to roll men, sell pints of whiskey and do all kinds of illegal activities when she was a young woman. Later on she was converted.
My mother was the kind of minister that did not preach hell fire and brimstone, you’re gonna die and go to hell. Her message was to love everybody and love the Lord. It was one of forgiveness. The majority of the family partied hard. My mother would be right there, not nagging, just there. This was her family drinking together, eating together and having fun.
Your mother was a reverend. Wasn’t that quite unusual for a female during those times?
It really was quite unusual. My Mama was ordained by the African Methodist Episcopal Church. That was the only church that would ordain women at that time in the 1940’s. She grew up a Baptist and eventually she went back to the Baptist church. She really was a pioneer especially in Mississippi.
My Mom had two sets of kids. Dorah Lee, Leola, and Velma. Dora was the oldest, Leola and Velma next. They were the first set. After Velma I came along. Velma happens to be 13 years older than I am. Two years after me my baby sister Odell that lives in LA was born. We were the second set. Odell hates the name Odell. Then she married a guy named Bell and became Odell Bell. We started calling her Ding Dong… (Laughs) Dell Bell. Ding Dong! (Laughs)… She’s gonna kill me for telling you that.
How did your sister Velma and Ike Turner meet because they were married at one point, right?
She told me that Ike was playing piano in a place called the Beer Garden. Velma was a pretty girl and I think early on Ike had an attraction to eye candy. Velma’s father was an Italian. So Ike saw this very pretty, fair skinned, close to being white girl with long hair. You know, that desirable trait I guess that black men really wanted back then.
At what point did you realize that you loved to sing?
It really came naturally and it was early on. My mother used to take me as a little girl to church. Mississippi has dynamics between church, juke joints, and academics. Those three activities really shaped me. I was a member of the glee club in school, I went to church and sang and then there were the nightclubs that had all of the hot black bands coming in. I just became very intrigued. And I was good at it (singing).
But I never had that narcissistic thing though where I’ve just got to sing for you. I don’t know what it is but I lacked ambition that started early. Thank God I was pushed by others who always pointed out that I could sing. I guess that’s what encouraged me.
Is that lack of personal ambition also why you have written and produced a lot of people?
I guess so, certainly that element was there as I didn’t really feel comfortable being out front (on stage). My first job was in support of somebody else as a back-up singer. For Ike Turner. After working with a unit, three girls and you’re getting real close in your harmonies, and then all of sudden you’re standing out there alone, it was a little disconcerting. I didn’t like that feeling. I didn’t find that appealing. I have learned now that those are natural stage fright feelings that you have to get over.
Did the Ikettes exist before you joined?
Oh, sure. I say that I’m one of the original because when I joined the Ikettes it solidified that Ike had three backup singers in his revue. I was still in my teens when I got involved. When I got with them “A Fool In Love” (1960) was a hit. There had been three singers that had worked with Ike during the club days but now he’s on the road with a hit record. When he came through Mississippi, he called my sister Velma, his ex-wife and told her to come his show in Jackson Mississippi. We lived in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Velma found out that Ike needed one more Ikette. She told him about the fact that I was singing with a little band around town and that’s how it happened. That sealed the three Ikettes on the road from that time on until Ike & Tina dissolved. That’s why I’m called one of the original ones. Or as Ike would say about me (in deep voice) “She’s a real one” (Laughs).
What was it like being a teenager on tour with Ike & Tina? It must have been quite an experience.
It was the greatest but you had to be young to travel the Chitlin’ Circuit as they called it. We weren’t flying and we didn’t stay in 5-star hotels. It was really rough. You really had to be young but it was fun and we joked and laughed a lot. My grandfather and a couple of other people in Mississippi had taught me how to party and drink whiskey. Oh, please! I had a great time.
What can you tell me about Ike Turner as an artist?
I have the utmost respect for Ike Turner as an artist and what he created. His phenomenon is still living on. He told me that he wanted the Ikettes because Ray Charles had the (female group) Raelettes. Ike took note of what was happening but he created his own show. It was totally unique and it was totally original.
Can you add anything about Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship?
Ike was very careful. Only a few people saw him abuse Tina. I never saw him hit her but I saw the results of it. As far as I was concerned he was very likable. As a boss, I don’t know… I had mixed feelings. I respected him a lot. I knew he was my boss but I didn’t fear him. To anybody from the outside Ike was cool. He just had his bouts of rage that sometimes would come up in a conversation and he would curse like he was cursing the devil out. It never happened to me back then.
Before you joined Ike & Tina you played with Little Melvin & the Downbeats in Yazoo City back home in Mississippi.
Oh, yeah. I don’t have much of a memory about that. (Laughs). The band wasn’t good and I wasn’t good. Little Melvin & the Downbeats were pitiful. Melvin played guitar. I think we had a three-piece band; guitar, bass and drums. Little Melvin was the male vocalist and I was the female vocalist. I can’t even remember the songs that we were singing but I think it was mostly blues.
To be honest, I don’t even know how our manager got us those little gigs in the backwoods. They didn’t have a stage or anything. You would just be standing there and singing and folks would be juking. A.J. Payton who was our manager eventually became Judge Payton. He’s now deceased and I’m so sorry. He told me that I owe my whole career to him. He was very proud of me.
What happened when you left the Ikettes in San Francisco around 1963?
I just realized that it wasn’t any place I could grow. There was no room for growth. Actually, as I have grown older I realize that I don’t like to be boxed in. It was restrictive in every sense and I was uncomfortable so I left. It took a lot of courage to do what I did but it was absolutely the right thing to do. I had many more experiences that were rewarding and quite a few accomplishments of my own that I would never have had with Ike Turner.
You recorded some stuff in LA but you met some industry people there that told you to move to New York City, right?
Yes, I went to LA after leaving Ike & Tina in San Francisco. I had a little collaboration with Charles Wright and a hustling friend of his, who’s now deceased, Bobby Lexington. Bobby came up with the money and we went into the studio to record it. It’s on some little label, somewhere.
Then I met Luther Dixon and Florence Greenberg (of Scepter Records) in LA. I had first met Luther while I was still with Ike. Luther had just started a record label called Ludix, distributed by Capitol Records. He asked if I wanted to come back to New York. That was a good opportunity because I had family there. And New York was a lot different compared to LA where I didn’t know anybody and L.A. is so spread out plus the circle I had landed in seemed somehow limited. New York was a whole different ballgame so I jumped at the opportunity.
Can you talk about how you got your break in New York?
I don’t remember ever getting a break (Laughs). I did a lot of music but I have never ever had what I consider a break. That’s a word that signifies that something big has happened. It was always tiny little steps for me. What happened in New York was I met Valerie (Simpson of Ashford & Simpson) at a publisher’s office and heard her play the piano. Then I started stalking her (Laughs). Eventually, I met her partner Nick (Ashford). They were not yet together then as a couple. Valerie and I began to do some things together. Maybe a couple of months later Nick was back on the scene and I welcomed him with open arms. They had already been writing partners. That was how the Ashford, Simpson & Armstead writing trio came about but before then it was Valerie and Nick.
Ahmed Ertegun wanted to sign us to Atlantic Records but Jerry Wexler didn’t like us that much. So we went over to Scepter Records where I knew Florence Greenburg and we got signed immediately.
Was it problematic to work as a trio of songwriters?
Oh, no. I loved it but after a while I could feel that Nick really didn’t feel the need for me to be there. That got stressful. Especially, since it had been my connections with Florence at Scepter that started us getting our work out there.
After the split with Ashford & Simpson you moved to Chicago and eventually married Melvin Collins. Together you owned three labels, Gamma, Giant and Globe. During those years you also worked with several great artists from the Detroit and Chicago area. Can you talk about how you met Mel Collins?
I remember receiving a royalty check for “Let’s Go Get Stoned” (by Ray Charles) that Valerie (Simpson) had sent to me in Chicago. I didn’t have a bank account so I went over to this man’s very popular steak house and bar in Chicago. He was also from Yazoo City, Mississippi. His name was Cubie Coleman and he was also known as, I think the newspaper said, a racketeer. He had a big policy wheel, a numbers runner organization in Chicago.
As always, I introduced myself and we started talking. Cubie Coleman knew my family and I knew his. I told him that I was a songwriter and singer and towards the end of the evening after a lot of food and drinks I told him that I had this check that I wanted him to cash. He told me he was very busy at the time but if I wanted to wait on him I could go downstairs and wait in his office. I was really feeling a little out of it. He welcomed me to lie down in his office if I wanted. Of course, I had a few choice words for him concerning his offer and I stormed out. I woke up regretting it the next day.
I ended up sending the check back to Valerie in New York. She cashed it and wired me the money through Western Union. About a week or two later Cubie called and said he had somebody he wanted me to meet. He had an interest in a record label with a guy named Melvin. So Melvin already had some labels going when we first met. I think it was Gamma and Globe. Giant came later. That’s how I was introduced to Melvin and how I began to work with him.
While you still lived in Chicago with Melvin Collins you also worked with several Detroit artists. What can you tell me about that?
I went to Detroit against Melvin’s wishes to work with the arranger for Ruby Andrews session “Casanova – Your Playing Days Are Over”. The arranger’s name was Mike Terry. Mike and I did some great music together. Three songs I could mention would be “Casanova” for Ruby Andrews, Garland Green’s “Jealous Kind Of Fella” and my own “Stone Good Lover”. That same man, Cubie Coleman, would give us a batch of money in a paper sack to go and record our sessions. A brown paper bag (Laughs). All Cash!
How did you meet the Chicago musician Syl Johnson with whom you wrote “Come On Sock It To Me”?
Syl was driving a truck when I met him. We still talk to this day by the way. Syl was persistent that I come over to his house. I remember going up in his attic to write. At the time I was really getting known as a songwriter and producer in the Chicago area who was outside of the status quo but was kicking butt. I’d always felt alienated from Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom Records, Brunswick Records and Chess and all the other stuff that was happening in Chicago. I also felt that if I would try to get into those companies I could not be as effective as I would like and, I would not get paid. If that’s the case I’ll do it by myself. I was very happy to see that Melvin was an entrepreneur and a single guy who was trying to get things moving on his own.
How was it to run a company as a married couple? Was it difficult at times?
Yes, because Melvin I found out wasn’t really a businessman. He did everything out of his back pocket. All he wanted to do was to promote the stuff, go hang out with the jocks, run the bar and get the records played but you have to watch your bottom line! Where’s the money going? All of that stuff he kept a secret from me and that wasn’t cool. But I’m glad that he never interfered with the creative side of the business.
Were you using payola where you pay DJ’s to have your songs played on the radio?
Yeah, he was doing all of that. All the good ole boys, the disc jockeys in town, the promotion guys, the records folks, everybody. They would hang out together. Melvin would pass them some of Cubie’s money and the next day our record was on the playlist. That’s how it worked. I did not of course participate in those kinds of activities (Laughs).
It seems to me that yourself and Melvin had a pretty solid company with several successful songs. What was the reason for the labels folding?
Melvin was a macho guy, which seems to have been the norm in the record business back in the day. He worked from the premise that he had to have everything under his control. He didn’t want anything in my name and he didn’t want my opinion especially about the business. I felt if that’s the case then you don’t have my best interest at heart. That’s like killing the goose that laying the golden eggs when you suppress good ideas from somebody just because you want to keep them under control. He didn’t listen to me and sure enough things started getting messy and I am the kind of person that doesn’t like a lot of drama.
What happened to the labels? Did they fold when you got divorced?
They were pretty near bankrupt when I left. By then Cubie Coleman, our benefactor, was very ill and he soon died. It was hard to come back from that because Melvin didn’t have any money and I didn’t have any either. What happened to the money we made, I don’t know. None of it ever came to me and Melvin never gave me an explanation of what happened. Maybe the records didn’t sell as much as people thought they did. Maybe he didn’t get paid from the distributors. I don’t know. He never shared that information with me.
Looking back through your career do you have a favorite song that you have written?
I think my favorite might be “Jealous Kind Of Fella”. I re-wrote that song completely. Garland brought me a mess. I didn’t want to touch it but he kept insisting so I began to listen to it and like the chord changes. I don’t know where he got the music from. But there’s at least 4 or 5 people credited on it. When those people heard the song, I am pretty sure they didn’t recognize it. “Jealous Kind Of Fella” is one of my favorites.
Who were the musicians that inspired you during your lengthy career?
A singer named Marian Anderson but nobody knows that name today. She’s a Classical singer. I was taught to sing classical as a soprano in high school. It’s always good to have that foundation. The rhythm and blues stuff was the hip stuff so I never pursued a career in classical music.
You can read more about Andrew “Mike” Terry, one of Joshie’s partners in music here: