Remembering The Everything Man: A Jimmy Castor Interview
, January 20th, 2012 11:26
Angus Batey pays tribute to the late Jimmy Castor, and we publish an extract from an extensive interview the journalist conducted with Castor over a decade ago
I once interviewed Jimmy Castor, the doo-wop, pop, soul, funk and R&B pioneer who died yesterday. As with two other recent losses - Melvin Bliss and Eugene McDaniels - the interview was done on the phone, and I never got to meet him or even see him perform. But all three made music that has had a big impact on my life, and they all were particularly generous and engaged interviewees, whose work has only meant more to me after having the chance to talk to them. All three seem to have been denied what I would consider their rightful place in history, too, so their deaths seem all the more unjust: in Castor's case, heartbreakingly so, given the efforts he'd been making in recent years to re-establish himself in an entertainment business he enriched and enlivened with the range, breadth, ambition and quality of the records he made.
By way of a memorial, then, here's Castor in full flow, largely unedited, down a crackly transatlantic phone line 12 years ago. I didn't transcribe any of my questions, but in truth, I may not even have asked any: he had a lot to get off his chest. At one point, he said: "I'm telling you this because I believe in you. I don't talk to everybody this long. I know that you are taking it in. Because this time around I have to be successful again to teach these people what's happening." And that just makes his passing seem all the more unbearably sad. Rest in peace, E-Man. [Editor's note: the full transcript of the interview below can be seen at Angus Batey's website.
I get emails constantly, Angus, from everywhere. I had to at this point because I'm in business again, I've started my own record company. I had an excavation company emailing me from Spain, they said 'We can't believe that we have your email address! Anyway, we've found a new body, and the bones are female, so we're gonna call her Bertha'. And the guy said, 'It's because of you we're doing this'. So I mailed him back and told him to call the next one Luther!
But I get emails all the time - not phone calls, 'cos I don't give out my number. But the reason why it's available is that I had to start my own record company. People were starting to really bug me. But what I did is, you know, you're only as good as your last record, especially if you're a person of colour. And in the 70s I raised a lot o' hell, and it was great. It was a great ride. It got almost out of hand. In the 70s the ride was huge. I found myself in Saudi Arabia, I found myself everywhere. Because I had been in this business since I was nine years old.
I was smitten with the business. I went to great schools, I had to take tests to get in, because I was studying music and I was talented. And eventually at the demise I was able to fall back on my saxophone, my clarinet, my writing, keyboards, timbales, percussion and everything I did. And since I did everything, they started calling me 'The Everything Man'. It started catching on in the 70s really. When I was with RCA, the last album I did for them was Dimension III - my partner at the time, John Pruitt, said, 'You know, you are really The Everything Man. You produce, you write, you perform, you act, you publish music.' And that's when it caught on. So the first album for Atlantic was called The Everything Man, and the cover shows that I'm doing everything.
So I wanted to tell you that, because I started at age nine, and I've been in the business so long. I had a fairly nice career. It wasn't great, but it was fairly nice, because I wasn't promoted well. Not like George Clinton, Cameo, groups like that who were really being promoted. I was promoted mediocre... I dunno the word... halfway. In other words, when you saw me, you wanted to buy the record, so I had to get out there and sell the record myself. Sometimes I didn't have product in the stores, and I was pissed, because I knew it had to be done. I packed places. I'd be playing Madison Square Gardens, Constitution Hall - I mean, I played RFK Stadium with ‘It's Just Begun’ and ‘Troglodyte’. Washington DC - Capital Center: a big Jimmy Castor town. When we played Washington we had to stay in Virginia because we couldn't walk the streets - it was like that. And sometimes you'd have to do record store appearances and you'd need security, which was a great feeling to be that popular, but I'm from the people so I never ran from people. I only ran once. I saw 2000 people running at me, at RFK Stadium as a matter of fact. I was doing an interview and I turned around and I heard, like, elephants, feet stomping, and I saw all these people, and I jumped the fence. They ran all over the interviewer! They just want to touch you I guess. But that was the only time I was afraid, because they could pull your limbs out of joint, you know?
What they're trying to do with me is do what every record company tried to do - put me into a little box. All the time, every time. And it kills me, because I do more than that. At RCA, they were like 'What is he? Laurence Welk?' when I started blowing ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ and ‘Bridge over Troubled Waters’ on my last album with them. That's why I left. When I got to Atlantic, Butt of Course, a great album; E-Man Groovin', a great album; Space Age, I Don't Wanna Lose You, and then , which they didn't promote at all, because they wanted Chic to produce me.
I helped get Chic on that label. That's a long story. When I saw Bernard and Nile in the street one day, and I was getting ready to park my quote-unquote Mercedes - because at that time that's who I was, I was Jimmy Castor, and I always had a great car because I never starved, I was always smart. And they were on the subway, they came up to me and gave me a copy of a record on their own label and they said, 'We know who you are, we're not getting any promotion, blah blah blah'. And I looked at it and it said, ‘Dance Dance Dance’, ‘Yowsah Yowsah Yowsah’. And I said, 'I don't like Yowsah Yowsah', because I thought it was a racial epithet. But it wasn't, it was 'Yow-Sah! Yow-Sah!', Al Joleson, that type o' thing. But I took it to my business manager, he took it to the guy in the next office, and before you knew it I had introduced my business manager and attorney to Jerry Greenberg, who was the president of Atlantic, Jerry loved it and bought the master, and Helicopter Records, and the rest is history. I never even got a bottle of wine for that and everybody made 40 million.
So when I put out a record I believe in it. Record companies never believed. Even when I did ‘Hey Leroy’, they chased me out of town! And if it wasn't for Sammy Davis Jr taking me to Mercury it never would have come out. They didn't want to put it out, but he did. Let's take ‘Troglodyte’: Clive Davis turned down ‘Troglodyte’, he called it "tripe"! I went from office to office to office and finally someone at RCA heard the album. And we were gigging in Canada out of a van, and they loved this album. Even the R&B department didn't like the album. Because I'm a pop crossover act, you know what I mean? I want to reach the masses Angus, that's why I do what I do.
So I mean, when ‘Troglodyte’ came out, they said it was garbage but that record blew Washington DC right open - Boom! - and the rest is history. I got telegrams saying 'Not since Isaac Hayes' Shaft album has a record sold that quickly!' That was Jim Schwarz, and that was a big distributor at the time. OK, so this is what I'm trying to let you know: nobody wanted to hear ‘Leroy’ at the time, nobody wanted to hear ‘Troglodyte’. ‘It's Just Begun’ - 'what is that?' [Hums the intro to ‘It's Just Begun’] you know what that is? That's 21st Century! Practically. That's why it's been sampled over 3000 times.
I moved to Las Vegas to live in the desert and the mountains. I didn't want anything to do with it. I left New Jersey, I was very depressed there. I couldn't earn like I wanted to because you're only as good as your last record. Every now and again someone would want to see the Jimmy Castor Bunch and it wasn't worth it for me. To bring the Bunch out I would end up paying - the overhead ate me up. And I had to bring out enough people to make the sound proper. I love the Bunch, they're like family. So you had to have the basics, and that's six musicians. So I came out here, and then my son would email me and say, 'Dad, two million people want to know what you're doing'. And I'd be like, 'Get outta here!' But I just said, 'OK'.
So I decided, since all these people wanted to know what I was doing, to put it out. But I'm disappointed it's not being played as much. Because everyone... You're of the hip hop community, you know you need a beat. But what the hell is it?! It's a beat! They say, 'You need Jay-Z' or someone: no I don't! I love those guys but I don't need them. I'm Jimmy Castor - they learned from me. If this record was to catch on everybody would be sampling it. And when you hear it, I really believe in it. And I'm preparing another record right now, another single to put out. 'Cos I'm gonna do it 'til it catches on! I'm never gonna surrender now, because of record companies or of people not wanting to play the product, program directors or music directors saying, 'Oh, Jimmy Castor, he's old school...' Isn't that awful? What is old school? Sting isn't old school, he's still happening, but I'm the same age as him. Mick Jagger? It's a racist thing.
I didn't go away because I wanted to, I went away because Atlantic wouldn't press up enough records. When you put out a Jimmy Castor album you should press up at least five hundred thousand. They were pressing up fifty thousand, and that would sell immediately. People would go into the shops and say, 'Do you have the new Jimmy Castor? OK, can you order it?' Then after a couple of weeks and it hadn't come in they'd be like, 'OK, gimme the new Stevie Wonder instead then'. That's what was killing me. I played the Superdome in New Orleans - well, half of it, they cut it in half - to 45,000 people. Next day there was no product in the store. I said, 'Wasn't the Atlantic man here?' They said, 'Yeah, he was here for the Spinners, he was here for Phil Collins, Genesis, Mick Jagger...' It's a race thing, Angus, and it's very bad. Ben E King once told me - 'Do you ever go up to the sixth floor of the Time Warner building?' I said, 'No'. Man, I got off at the sixth floor by mistake once. You see streamers, posters, sweaters, everything, for the Rolling Stones or Tom. It's a marketing machine. And you don't see that for Ben E King or the Jimmy Castor Bunch. And they killed me.
You need a groove. Listen to Madonna's new record, it's just a groove. That's the secret of a hit record - you've gotta have a groove. That's why they only wanna hear the 70s music, why it's being sampled so much, because there was a groove. All the grooves were in the 70s and the 60s. In the 60s the Temptations had a groove; in the 70s Al Green had a groove, Earth Wind & Fire had a tremendous groove, Kool & The Gang had an unbelievable groove. The Jimmy Castor Bunch grooved. George Clinton had a groove. But there's no grooves today. That's why Puffy and everybody is trying to make a groove. If my record catches on, I will be the groove again. But I got to get it to catch on. And they're not knocking the doors down. But I'm making myself more available and becoming more visible because I want to do it. I've found out that this is what I do, period. I can ride motorcycles all day and ignore it, but I come home and the inbox is full, 'Where are you, what are you doing?' People in places like Malaysia writing to me to say, 'Jimmy, I got married, and me and my wife loved this song you did called ‘You Make Me Feel Brand New’. Where can I buy it?' 'It's no longer in print but I can send it to you'. They don't believe that I would do that, but I do because I'm from them, and they made me.