This General doesn't wear a uniform, and has no stars on his shoulders, but he commands respect with the force of his personality and his voice. For 40 years, as the head of a volunteer army of thousands, General Norman Johnson has been leading his troops through the sand, marching relentlessly to the rhythm of his own music. As the Chairman of the Chairmen of the Board band, General Johnson presides over a beach music battalion of all ages who still pack venues across the South to hear him do his million selling hits including "Give Me Just a Little More Time," "Carolina Girls" and "It Will Stand."
In this case, General is neither an earned title nor an honorary one. It's his given name, handed down from his father, a gospel singer who had the younger General working in his band, The Israelites, at the age of 7. The 66-year-old Norfolk, Va., native crossed over to r&b in his teens with a band called the Humdingers, which later became the Showmen. In 1961, a local promoter bankrolled a session for the band at Minit Records in New Orleans with arranger/composer Allen Toussaint (Lee Dorsey's "Ya Ya," "Workin' in A Coal Mine," "Holy Cow;" Pointer Sisters' "Yes We Can, Can"; and his own "Southern Nights"). The session produced "It Will Stand, " which became a rock 'n' roll anthem and the signature tune for the style of r&b that would become known as beach music in this part of the country.
Johnson admits the first time he came to Raleigh to do a show after "It Will Stand" hit, he didn't know what beach music was. "The first night we didn't have a clue," Johnson says, laughing at the memory of that early '60s gig. "People talking all around about beach music, and all of a sudden we were panicking, like 'Damn! We don't do no beach music!' I didn't know what the hell it was. The Beach Boys? But once we did '39-21-40 Shape' and 'It Will Stand' and all the other stuff we were doing, that was beach music, too? So what the hell. 'Hey, damn, we doing beach music!'"
In its infancy in the '50s, beach music was stuff that white teens couldn't hear in public anywhere else but the beach, black music played on late-night radio that your parents didn't want you to listen to. Teenagers would sneak down to the beach and hear something they thought was kind of racy, and forbidden, rebellious music that made them feel good and flew in the face of authority. By the early '60s, teens wanted to hear that music at home as well, and local bands quickly discovered there was a living to be made covering vintage r&b under the guise of the newly-coined term beach music in their hometowns. Original tunes written in that style would soon make stars of second-wave beach music bands like The Embers.
But Johnson drifted away from the scene for more than a decade, moving to Detroit to work for legendary Motown songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland (Four Tops, Supremes). "In 1970, I got r&b songwriter of the year plus a Grammy for a song called 'Patches'" (covered by Clarence Carter), Johnson says. Other million selling hits included "Give Me Just A Little More Time" and "Dangling On a String" for his new band, The Chairmen of the Board. For the girl group Honey Cone, there was "Want Ads" and "Stickup"; for Freda Payne, "Bring The Boys Home;" and for 100 Proof Aged In Soul he composed the Grammy-nominated "Somebody's Been Sleepin' In My Bed."
With all that success, Johnson felt he needed a raise, but his bosses disagreed. "The problem is, when you first start, you sign contracts, they lowball you," Johnson recalls. "I said, 'I think we need to renegotiate.' They chose not to. I left the company."
Johnson toured Europe for several years with Showmen Ken Knox and Danny Woods before coming back to Carolina in 1979, teaming up with Charlotte-based talent agent Mike Branch to form Surfside Records. "We came back down here and made it our home," he says. He has a booking agency, General Entertainment, as well. "We book other beach music acts, we book anything."
Although his latest album, Soul Tapestry, is a mix of old-school r&b, soul and country, Johnson still calls it the same thing he has for the last four decades. "Carolina Beach Music, man. That's what our audience comes to see us do. We don't stray away from it."
He picks "Chances Are" as his favorite cut. It's not a cover of the classic Johnny Mathis tune. "Heck no, get out of here," he says disdainfully. "We haven't gone that far off the board." It's a heartfelt love ballad sung with the same teary-voiced delivery Johnson used in "Patches," sounding so choked up he can barely gasp out the words. "Shattered dreams, scattered schemes, the check was always in the mail/If success is material things I guess I failed/ But if I could live my life all over again/ I wouldn't change a thing /Chances are ... I wouldn't have you."
For General Johnson, failure is just something to write about. In real life, he's got a successful career and a permanent home in Carolina. "I'm doing the music that I like to do and I've got an audience that likes the music that I do," he says.
For Johnson, it's all about the song. "Record companies disappear, artists disappear, but the song is always there. My mentors, Holland-Dozier-Holland, prepared me in such a way that I've been blessed. I can write a good song. I can't do nothing else," he says, laughing. "I can't even change a car tire, but I can write a song."
Chairmen of the Board will play Amos' SouthEnd on Saturday, Feb. 6 at 10 p.m. Tickets are $12.