A couple of years ago, Jonathan Sklute, owner of Good Records in Manhattan, posted some audio from a rare Soul album on his blog. The song was by a group called Spice. One of the people, who saw the post was a internet savvy woman in her 80’s. Nobody really seemed to know who was behind Spice but she just so happened to recognize her sons voice singing.
Her son, Richard Brown Jr (f. 1954) was born and raised in the Bronx. His father was an artist and his mother sang in a Presbytarian church choir. Richard would go to church with her every Sunday, and eventually picked up singing and the piano. Growing up, strict parents kept Richard’s interest focused on music and discouraged his connection with street life. Along with two friends he started the vocal group Spice of Life. After adding a rhythm section, they shortened their name to Spice. Putting in hard work on the club circuit, Spice eventually got signed to Lloyd Price’s LPG label.
Spice recorded a whole album worth of material but only a 45 was ever released. At least that’s what the band thought. Around the time the original recordings were done, a label named TSG put out the full album without the band knowing about it. Interestingly the two labels, LPG and TSG, shared the same Manhattan office address, however, it is uncertain what their connection actually was.
Can you talk about the musical side of your family?
I guess the music side of me comes from my mom. She sang in a church choir. I used to sing a choir too because I had to go to church on Sundays. I grew up in the Presbytarian Church. That’s when I really started singing. I used to take piano lessons when I was younger too. My great uncle is J.C. Higgenbotham who was a wellknown jazz trombonist. He has played with all the big bands, Duke Ellington and Count Basie. My great aunt Irene Higgenbotham wrote the song ”Good Morning Heart Ache”. It was a big hit for a number of people.
How was it to grow up in the Bronx back then? You mentioned prior to this interview that you grew up in the James Monroe Houses.
The Bronx got a bad rep and so does Harlem. The areas I lived in were very diverse and actually they were predominitelaly white with a heavy Jewish population. When I was growing up most of my friends were white. The school I went to was mixed. I was known as a guy who was into music. I dressed differently than my friends. My friends were more hardcore. I wore bell bottoms. They used to tease me about that. We did a lot of hanging out like most young people do. We weren’t in gangs but we would go in groups to different projects. I think what saved me from the streets was music. A lot of people from that time were killed or died from drug abuse but while my friends were partying I was out performing or rehearsing. I think music really kept me going. That and my parents. My parents had standards that we had to follow.
Were there any other groups originating from that part of Soundview in the Bronx?
Actually, the group GQ also came out of that same area. They had a couple of big hit records like ”Disco Nights” and some other ones.
What made you want to become a professional musician?
I started playing electric guitar in junior high school. I thought I was going to be one of the first black Beatles at the time (Laughs). From junior high school I went to the High School of Art & Design. While I was in high school, I met some musicians and played in a couple of bands. Shortly after, I started my own vocal group. There were three of us. Our group was inspired by the Main Ingredient. We used to sing all the Main Ingredient songs. The original lead singer Donald McPherson of Main Ingredient was a personal friend of mine. He actually gave us the name Spice of Life. Donald was really like my mentor. Unfortunately, he died at a really young age of leukemia. He wrote ”Spinning Around (I Must Be Falling In Love),” ”You’ve Been My Inspiration” and some other big hits for Main Ingredient. Donald was really the one that geared me to become involved in the music industry on a professional level.
How did you meet Donald McPherson?
I used to date his niece (Laughs). Her name is Pam Cornelius. I think she’s still doing a lot of live shows. She lived up in Esplanade Gardens in Harlem. I had met her when we rehearsed at this center in Harlem. We were both very young then. She actually lived in the same apartment as Donald. I used to hang out with him. I was actually there when he wrote ”Spinning Around”. I was just mesmerized by him. Donald used to let me come down to the studio. They were with RCA Records. That’s how I learned a lot from him about arranging. He really inspired me.
What can you tell me about your group Spice of Life?
The three original members of Spice of Life were Cedric Clemens, Michael Sapp and myself. They both died too young and too early. I don’t think Michael made it to 25. He had an illness. Cedric stayed on with the group when we went pro but by that time Michael had split. We changed the name to Spice. Charles Dunn, who I also grew up with in the projects, came back from the Vietnam War. He was a Vietnam veteran. He had his own group at one point. He started singing with us. The three of us used to practice at the community center. We used to practice in the hall ways in the projects. That’s the best reverb in the world. Some of the neighbours would actually come out and listen to us.
How did you go from practising in hall ways to actually perform for a paying audience?
The big turning point for us was when we had the opportunity to audition for Amateur Night at the Apollo. At that time, the Main Ingredient was grooming us. My mother made the outfits for us. It was some very colourful jumpsuits that people used to wear back in the day. The first week we performed we won. We were shocked! We did ”Spinning Around” – one of the Main Ingredient hits. At that time, if you won Amateur Night three weeks in a row you were allowed to open up for the main act for the week after that.
We came back for the second week. There was this girl performing and I had never heard of her before. Her name was Stephanie Mills. Our group and Stephanie Mills tied so we both had to come back for the third week. The third Amateur Night had another girl performing. Her name was Bobbi Humphrey. She played the flute. Stephanie Mills and Bobbi Humphrey went on to become super stars. The show ended as a three-way tie so what the Apollo did was let us all come back and work with the Isley Brothers for a week. It was Isley Brothers, Maceo Parker and a couple of other acts I can’t remember. It was an experience, I will never forget.
The week that we were at the Apollo performing with the Isley Brothers was also the week that Donald passed away. It was really rough going to a funeral and all the other stuff between shows. Cuba Gooding replaced Donald after he passed as the lead singer in Main Ingredient.
Up until appearing at the Apollo you were a vocal group with no backing band. How did the transformation from vocal group to a selfcontained band take place?
I had kept in touch with the musicians I met when I was in high school. They all rehearsed up in the Bronx. I had a suitcase Fender Rhodes that I brought up there. They didn’t know I could play keyboard. They just knew me as a singer. That’s when I met the drummer Leroy Clouden, Darryll Myrick was the bass player and I had a Spanish friend named David Laracuente and I brought him in as a guitar player. At one point our band was so big that we had myself on keyboard, a bass player, Dave on guitar, a percussionist and a somebody playing vibes plus the other two singers. We kind of scaled it down to just the rhythm section. That was when we changed the name to Spice. We were playing everywhere as a band at that point. It continued for years until we got the record deal.
The way you described your relationship with Donald McPherson it sounds like he acted as a manager and tutor of sorts for Spice. What happened when he passed away?
We were three guys singing at the Apollo on the Isley Brothers show without a manager. Stephanie Mills’ manager, Wiley Hicks took us on. He was wellknown on the disco scene. He used to manage Tina Fabrique. Wiley Hicks took us under his wing and helped us a lot. Wiley was actually the one who introduced us to Don King and Lloyd Price. We stayed with Wiley for a number of years. After the group broke up, I did some independent artist development and stuff with him.
Did you actually sign a contract for the record deal?
We were signed to the management company. I think it was called Moon Shadow. That was Wileys company. I do remember (Lloyd Price’s publishing company) Lori-Joy and, not knowing the business, we probably signed over the publishing and everything else. At the time, I didn’t have my own publishing company. We were young and didn’t know anything about that side of the music business. We were just hoping to hear our song on the radio. That’s what we were looking forward to.
Did you ever meet Don King in person? What did you know about him prior to meeting him?
I knew he was a very charismatic and very wealthy fight promoter. As a band we were really excited to meet him. He had an office in Midtown (Manhattan) somewhere. A really plush place. He told us he was starting a new label which was LPG, Lloyd Price Group. We also met Lloyd Price. I was really impressed to be working with him. I think Don King was the money man. He was the boss. It was probably his checks that paid for everything.
Leon Pendarvis, who is a phenomonal arranger, was brought in to help with arrangements. He used to be the musical director for Saturday Night Live. He has worked with a lot of artists. Anyhow, they brought in Pen, as we used to call Pendarvis. We worked on the album together. The band played on probably four or five tunes and then we had some studio guys do the rest. We worked in Hit Factory and some other studios around the city. We went to Virginia Church Falls, VA, to record the strings.
We spent maybe 7 or 8 months working on the album. The people at the label were really good to us. Lloyd had two assistants and they were very very supportive. They were in the studio with us like co-producers. Meanwhile we did shows opening up for Lloyd Price. Our band actually backed him up. We would open up and then he would come out and do a few tunes. I think the furthest away we performed was Washington DC. We played an afterparty for Muhammed Ali after his fight with Jimmy Young. We also did a benefit for Ruben ”Hurricane” Carter when he was coming out of jail. All of them were tied in with Don King.
You did release a 45 but the album never came out or that’s at least what you guys thought. What happened after the 45 was released?
Even though I was involved in music I was working full time at a post office. When we were doing gigs we would maybe make $500 a night. If you divide that between 7 guys and put money aside for transportation and new equipment there wasn’t a lot left for each of us.
I think what happened was that there was a disagreement between our management company and Don King. It’s a little foggy to me. There was a lot of money invested in our record. I don’t really know what happened behind the scenes but things kind of fizzled out. I do remember the night the band broke up though. It was one night after a gig packing up the equipment and everybody was just fed up from not moving forward.
Did you ever think that there was something shady going on with your label?
Sometimes you end up being blinded by all the other glamorous things going on around you. You know, meeting celebrities. If you’re going to Washington to perform and you’re from the South Bronx it’s a pretty big deal. I had a sense that… We couldn’t get copies of the album. The cover art had been done but it was definitely not the one that they (TSG) ended up using.
Can you tell me about the story about how you actually found out that the album had come out?
My mother who is 80 years old recently became interested in the internet and one day she called me and told me to go this website. There was this thing about a group called Spice. I was just overwhelmed. I thought it was a joke. I called my brother who is also a producer and a musician. He said he was listening to the Spice songs, ”You’re listening to the music?” I went back to the site and listened to the whole album. It was the original songs. I think that some of those songs were way ahead of their time and I was just amazed with all the comments on the Good Records website. There I was introduced to this label called TSG who put out the Spice album. I knew nothing about that label. I remember LPG but not TSG. I am still not clear about what the whole process is.
You can see more on Richard Brown and his music here:
You can visit Good Records here: goodrecordsnyc.com