By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
In those days, before disco and Watergate and AIDS, record companies didn't distribute their own albums to record stores, but went through middlemen like Henry Stone, who built Tone into the biggest such operation in the Southeast. "We had 'em all - Warners, MGM, Motown, Stax," recalls Stone, who now runs a local label called Hot Productions. "For years I had been involved in [producing] records. You know how some people play golf? I played at making records - I made James Brown's first, and Sam and Dave. But I had a problem as a big distributor. I couldn't start my own label because it would be a conflict of interest. So I had Atlantic distribute most of the records I made. `Funky Nassau,' `Clean Up Woman,' songs like that I gave to the major companies [for release on their labels] because distribution was how I made my living."
In the early Seventies, an industrywide revolution changed all that. The big record companies took over their own distribution duties, forming powerful alliances such as WEA (the Warner Bros., Elektra, Atlantic conglomerate). "They eliminated the third party," Stone says. "Which was me. Which was Tone." A savvy and hardened pro, Stone turned the disaster into something amazing. "I had a record called `Why Can't We Live Together' by Timmy Thomas," he says. "I was going to put it [out through] Atlantic. But I decided to start my own thing instead. About that time, a young man who worked at a local record store started to come around. He was kinda young, but very aggressive."
With a recording studio and the other resources necessary to "make" records, Stone's new enterprise provided an excellent training ground for young KC. Its stable of talent included Timmy Thomas, Betty Wright ("Clean Up Woman"), Clarence Reid, Willie "Little Beaver" Hale, and the McCraes, George and Gwen (who, separately and together, cut eight albums). "It was like a workshop," Steve Alamo recalls. "Everybody helped each other, played on each other's records, sang background, and worked promotion for each other. It was like a family, a big group of people who decided they'd get into the music business. It's funny, I look at some of these compilations coming out, and I didn't realize we made that many records - Peter Brown, Anita Ward...." In fact, in the mid-Seventies T.K. made hits, succeeding in a market that ranged from the new reggae sounds of Bob Marley to the histrionics of Alice Cooper and KISS to the pop-piano poundings of Elton John to the lazy ramblings of America, the Eagles, and Fleetwood Mac. Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger were servicing the white-rocker crowd, Abba was Sweden's biggest export, Aerosmith was getting its wings, the Average White Band provided irony, Boz Scaggs offered the lowdown, Barry White steamed unclean, Steely Dan and Led Zeppelin and Heart and Jethro Tull delivered variety, if not compelling music. Donna Summer had her famous orgasm.
A young engineer and bass player named Richard Finch also decided to get into the record business by hanging out at T.K. Productions. "KC was working on the switchboard and he wanted to work in the studio," Alamo remembers. "Rick Finch was a car mechanic who also played bass. He wanted to work in the studio." The young upstarts were given access to the studio after hours - KC even had his own set of office keys, and was always the last one to leave at night. "Rick was about sixteen at the time," Henry Stone recalls. "He wanted to be an engineer. I thought it was a good idea to put these young guys together, let them use the studio, let them work with Clarence, Betty, Little Beaver. When the others were done, they'd go in and goof around, come up with ideas."
Although "Why Can't We Live Together" was a hit for T.K., it wasn't enough to launch the label. Then one night at about 2:00 a.m., the T.K. front line was in the upstairs, eight-track recording studio, when Rick Finch and Harry Casey walked in and presented Henry Stone and Steve Alamo with an instrumental track they had created while goofing around, using members of the T.K. stable as musicians. In the youngsters' demonstration tape, Stone and Alamo heard something special, including the potential for ringing cash registers. The right singer was needed, George McCrae wasn't busy, and his high-pitched and unhitched vocals fit the tune perfectly. The result - fairly crude by today's standards of studio technology - was pressed onto vinyl and T.K. released it in 1974 as "Rock Your Baby." It shot to number one, sold more than ten million copies, and ushered in the disco era.
Before that song changed the complexion of music, KC had latched onto an idea while attending a party at Betty Wright's house in El Portal. The entertainment at the event was provided by a Junkanoo band, Junkanoo being the spirited Bahamian music that combines drums, chants, horns, whistles, and hip-shaking rhythm. Soon after, when the young studio rat traveled to Landover, Maryland, for a Rare Earth concert, he noticed that many of the people in the audience had whistles, something that would become a short-lived fad at football games and other large public gatherings of the early Seventies. KC and Finch took the idea and ran to the studio with it. T.K. released "Blow Your Whistle," and it made some noise on the R&B charts, so T.K. allowed their sunshine boys to follow it up with another single, "Blow Your Funky Horn," which enjoyed only slightly better results. Nonetheless, an album called Do It Good, with a third single, "Queen of Clubs," was issued, but it went nowhere in the States. However, by then T.K.'s distribution was international, and the third effort walloped the British charts, scoring Top 10 in 1974.