Detroit Groups 08/06/2006(updated)
Information on these pages is provided for the purpose of promoting greater understanding and appreciation for vocal group harmony. Copyright 1998-2006. All Rights Reserved. Property of Nikki Gustafson & Jim Dunn. Not to be duplicated, reproduced or otherwise used without permission.
How did the Velvet Angels get started ? Well as indicated in the previous article, the story of the Velvet Angels begins with the breakup of the Diablos. Dissatisfied with how things were progressing with the Diablos, Willie Hunter and Jay Johnson decided to form their own group. They recruited baritone Bobby Calhoun, who had sung with Jay as part of Andre Williams "New" group. And to round out the group, they brought in Cy Iverson who went to high school with Jay. Iverson was known to Jay through many shared "street corner" sessions. We asked Jay how the Velvet Angels got their name. Jay replied " Diablos means devils - we wanted glory, and we were tired of being called devils. So we thought of angels. We were devils before, now we are angels! And Velvet comes from harmony being so smooth - & velvety....... somewhat like the Mills Brothers & Ink spots." Thus the name Velvet Angels came to be.
The Velvet Angels traveled around, mostly to Canada, doing local clubs, and perfecting their material. They then traveled to New Jersey, did some clubs there, and found an ad for an audition for a talent show in the local paper; As luck would have it, they did the show and won! Frank Sheldon , the owner of the Tender Trap club in Fairview, NJ, was looking for this type of group. The Velvet Angels were talented and versatile doing a mix of R&B, Pop, Gospel and Soul music, and doing them all acapella ( without instruments). Things were almost starting to really happen for the Velvet Angels ; they were hired to do commercials for Lionel Trains, but their manager became ill and that deal fell apart. And right about here is where the story gets very interesting and also very confusing.
There seems to be some mystery as to whether Nolan Strong was in the Velvet Angels or not, and the answer is a most emphatic . "Well, yes and no". According to Jay, Nolan was never officially a member of the Velvet Angels , although he was certainly on good terms with them and had talked about re-uniting with Jay & Willie. In 1963, Nolan came to NJ and spent some time with the group, which involved rehearsing and also appearances with them at the Tender Trap. Some of these rehearsal sessions at their hotel (the Madison Hotel in Jersey City, NJ) were recorded on a basic home tape recorder. A young man named Angelo Pompeo made the acquaintance of some of the group members and asked about purchasing the rehearsal tapes. Jay was not there at the time of the "deal", nor aware of it until after the fact. Bobby Calhoun, who represented himself as having authority to sell the tapes and the rights to the songs, did just that. ( Jay also believes Nolan was involved in that transaction.)
And yes, Nolan Strong is heard on these tapes but mostly as a background singer, although he (Nolan) did do lead on "Fools Rush In".
And so in 1964, "Im In Love" b/w "Let Me Come Back" was issued as Medieval 201. Both sides highlighted Jay Johnson. On "Let Me Come Back", he does the bass lead and on "Im In Love", he drives the song with an incredible pumping bass. "Im In Love" was also released as Co-Op 201. Interestingly, the Medieval record shows "Strong" for writers credits while the Co-Op version along with the lead sheet shows "Calhoun-Hunter-Johnson-Iverson".
And while were exploring confusing avenues, theres the picture of the Velvet Angels that appears on the Relic Velvet Angels album/CD ( see below). It's a nice picture, but on the album , Jay Johnson (3rd from left) is incorrectly identified as Nolan Strong.
The Velvet Angels circa 1964 *
(L-R Cy Iverson, Bobby Calhoun, Jay Johnson, Willie Hunter)
* Photo above appears on Relic Album/CD courtesy of Angelo Pompeo.
Meanwhile, back at the Tender Trap , something discordant happened between the group and club owner. As a result, the Velvet Angels were no longer performing there and in fact disbanded. Jay recollects that Bobby Calhoun wound up at Stax Records. Cy, Willie and Jay all found their way back to Detroit.
Jay recalls really getting into his favorite, "Take A Tip, La La La", which he did the bass lead on, and also wrote. (shown on CD as "Lola" ??) Nolan was also in the background on this one. Jay also enjoyed doing lead on "Let Me Come Back", which was originally recorded by the Checkers in 1952.
Bobby Calhoun did a solid lead on "Old McDonald". Iverson lead on "Sentimental Reasons". Willie Hunter was the main lead with the group, and fronted "Baby I Wanna Know" and "Its Too Soon To Know. "Johnny Johnny" is an acappella jumper with the group singing in full harmony throughout. "It's Too Soon To Know" and "Johnny Johnny" were issued as a single on Robin Hood in the late 1970s.
In trying to piece all of this information together, we learn from Jay that "Take A Tip, La La La" (a.k.a. "Lola") was cut in the Fortune studios for the Browns, but she (Devora Brown) would not let it be released.
As to Velvet Angels releases which included Nolan, Jay recalls "Baby I Wanna Know", "Old McDonald", "Blue Moon", "Fools Rush In", "Its Too Soon To Know", "Im In Love" , "Take A Tip/La La La ", and "Let Me Come Back".
All Velvet Angels Releases are available on Relic CD 7067 "The Velvet Angels"
Apparently Jay was not aware of the Velvet Angels' records being released until many years later. He recalls going in to a local record shop in Detroit and "having to buy my own record for $7.50". The Velvet Angels story ends, but yet another begins for Jay Johnson. As we bid fond farewells to the Velvet Angels , we now introduce you to the Four Sonics.
The Four Sonics
After his return to the Motor City Jay spent some time singing with a group called the Five Monarchs but never recorded with them. However, once again Jay decided to form his own group. And so the Four Sonics were born.
At its inception the Four Sonics were made up of:
Bill Frazier -tenor lead
Eddie Daniels -baritone
Jay Johnson - bass
Four Sonics - 1968
(L-R Bill Frazier, Eddie Daniels, Jay Johnson, Steve Gaston)
This ensemble recorded for Andrew Harris under his "Super Sonic Sound" Productions banner, from which the group derived their name, the Four Sonics. They had two releases in 1968 on Harris Sport label.
"You Dont Have To Say You Love Me" (same song as by Dusty Springfield)
"It Takes Two" - featuring some nice bass work by Jay
"The Greatest Love" (written by Jay along with Anita Watson), lead by Bill Frazier
"Easier Said Than Done" - lead by Eddie Daniels.
AD for a Four Sonics performance- courtesy of Graham Finch
The Four Sonics grew by adding another "Sonic", Johnny Dixon. But rather than re-naming the group the Five Sonics, they chose the more creative name .. Four Sonics + 1. According to Jay, Johnny Dixon had an extremely wide singing range, extending from baritone to soprano. In 1968, as the Four Sonics + 1 , they recorded one single on the Sepia label :
"Tell Me Youre Mine"
"Lost Without You"
There was also another release by the Four Sonics on Triple "B" at a time when Jay was not singing with the group.
"Where Are You" (with Dixon on lead)
Four Sonics - 1970's -from the personal collection of Jay Johnson- used by permission
(L-R Jay Johnson, Bill Frazier, Vernon Williams, Sylvester Potts)
Going into the 70s there were more changes for the group. Dixon, Daniels and Gaston departed, to be replaced by Vernon Williams (of Satintones, Royal Holidays & Pyramids- see our article) and Sylvester Potts ( of the Contours). Later, Bill Frazier left the group and was replaced by a lady, Gloria Sykes. This Four Sonics group issued one record on the JMC label.
"There's No Love"
"If It Wasnt For My Baby"
At the time of our initial interviews, Jay Johnson & Vern Williams were still working together - writing, arranging & performing as a duo.
Among their works in production are "To Be Alone" and "Youre My Child". Jay & Vern still sounded great, as they entered the new millenium. And as weve come to know them over the last few years, we consider them to be two fine, talented and quality individuals. Sadly, we report that Vern Williams passed away on March 11, 2004, after a lengthy illness. Bill Frazier passed away November 29,2005 following a series of strokes. We look forward to Jay's future contributions to the field of R&B music.
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