*Dick Griffey’s simple, enduring genius was his remarkable ability to become whatever he wanted to be. Griffey, who recently passed away at the age of 71 in Los Angeles due to complications of triple by-pass surgery, had a penchant for bending destiny to comply to his inflexible will.
Take, for example, Griffey’s crowning achievement, SOLAR–acronym for Sound Of Los Angeles Records. When Griffey formed it in 1977, Los Angeles didn’t have a designated black music “sound.” Sure, thanks to a handful of choice Los Angeles-based session musicians–guitarists Ray Parker,Jr., Lee Ritenour, keyboardists Joe Sample and David Foster and arranger Gene Page come to mine–any number of pop and R&B productions out of L.A. during the ’70s had a distinctive, familiar gloss.
However, unlike Detroit’s Motown, production team Gamble and Huff’s “Sound Of Philadelphia,” the soulful Muscle Shoals sound, the gritty Stax Records in Memphis and later, Prince’s heralded “Minneapolis Sound,” there was no “official” sound of Los Angeles. Some of black music’s biggest acts lived and recorded in L.A. Yet musically the town was without its creamy chocolate center.
So Griffey, after amicably taking over Soul Train Records from his partner in the label, TV host Don Cornelius, in 1977 reorganized the company under the Sound Of Los Angeles Records moniker.
Seemed like a corny move at the time. Soul Train Records’ only real hit had been 1975’s “Uptown Festival,” a disco medley of Motown classics typical of the era by an act called Shalamar, which at the time wasn’t even a real group, but studio singers.
Griffey created an actual unit by recruiting two of the “Soul Train” show’s most popular dancers–Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniel–and pairing them, first with singer Gerald Brown, before replacing him with singer Howard Hewett. The trio and vocal group the Whispers quickly became Solar flagship acts on a roster that included Lakeside, Midnight Star, Klymaxx, Dynasty, the Deele and a singer/songwriter from that band, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds.
Solar was only the latest occasion on which the stocky, no-nonsense Griffey did what people around him said he couldn’t. A native of Nashville, when Griffey came to L.A. in the ’60s looking to get involved in the city’s entertainment scene, he was told the best he could do was work for others.
After becoming booking agent for a local club, Griffey decided he could do it on a larger scale. “They told me the concert promotion business was locked up,” he said to me back in the ’80s, reflecting on the closed nature of the industry. “They said it was run by a select few, most of them white.”
But Griffey’s L.A. based concert promotion firm eventually became one of the most successful in the country, handling the concert tours of such acts as Stevie Wonder and the Jacksons. Still, folks conceding his triumph in concert promotion said Griffey would never make it in the record business. Again, he proved them wrong.
And while Griffey probably didn’t have one musical style in mind when he came up with the Solar handle, label staff producer/songwriter Leon Sylvers III, fresh from his tenure as a member of sibling act the Sylvers, and a crack team of in-house writers, musicians and producers that mushroomed to include Dana Meyers, Jr., Vincent Brantley, Marquis Dair, Kevin Spencer, Glen Barbee, Wardell Potts and Joey Gallo did craft what became the signature Solar sound.
Characterized by sparse, progressive keyboard colorings, submarine-deep synth bass lines, the smacking handclap of a snare, shuffling hi-hats and funky, single-picking guitars, the infectious Solar sound is personified by such Shalamar hits as “The Second Time Around” and “A Night To Remember” and the Whispers’ “And The Beat Goes On” and “Keep On Loving Me.”
Despite its growing collection of gold and platinum, in the mid ’80s the Little Record Company That Could was still operating out of cramped West Hollywood offices over a car leasing business on Melrose near Doheny when Griffey, against those who said his business couldn’t support the expansion, commissioned the building of Solar Tower, a $4 million-dollar headquarters on Cahuenga Blvd. in the heart of Hollywood.
Joining Griffey at the afternoon ground-breaking ceremony were Solar acts and employees, local politicians and dignitaries. The six-story office complex would feature a then state-of-the-art recording facility and gym. With the move, Griffey sent a message to L.A. and the entertainment industry at large: I’ve arrived.
An aside: At the ground-breaking, I was standing just outside the rope cordoning off the dirt lot, daydreaming while someone from City Hall gave a speech, when I heard a quick flutter at my right ear, like a moth or a fly Bewildered, I looked around and didn’t see anything but noticed over my shoulder, just a few steps away, several people gaping at me curiously, some smiling. I figured they’d witnessed the pesky insect messing with me. I turned back around but a couple of seconds later, the fluttering happened again, this time at my left ear.
Now I was annoyed. One of God’s insects was begging for a beat down. Again I looked around, at least hoping those watching me make a fool of myself might also be getting harassed by tiny winged creatures. The people were still watching me, all of them now wearing smiles and grins.
And standing with them, deliberately gazing just past me with the purposefully nonchalant expression of an impish child doing a lousy job at feigning innocence was none other than Muhammad Ali. He was still fast enough to come up behind me, rub his fingers together at my ears and get back to where he stood without me detecting a thing.
Mouth agape, I could do nothing but stare and blush like a youngster. When I was able to think, I considered the idea of standing at the self-made Griffey’s multimillion dollar construction site as he was being presented the key to the city–which made it possible for me to have the pants-wetting honor of being randomly joshed with by the Greatest of All Time. Go ‘head on, Mr. Dick Griffey.
And he would. At one point in the ’80s, Solar was one of the most successful black companies in America. Griffey’s empire included subsidiary labels, music publishing concerns and an artist management firm. I’m not sure if they ever made a picture but Solar did have a film division. And thoroughbred horse stables. Visiting Lagos, Nigeria several times a year, Griffey oversaw his interests there in oil and minerals. He was involved in charities, both local and nationally.
Lots of people got their start through Griffey, including music producer turned record executive L.A. Reid and singer, songwriter, producer Babyface. Producers Jam and Lewis, before mining platinum with Janet Jackson, cut their production teeth at Solar. Prior to forming Death Row Records, Suge Knight and Dr. Dre developed under Griffey’s wing: Snoop Doggy Dogg made his national recording debut on Dre’s 1992 “Deep Cover” soundtrack, a Solar release.
Despite the big smile he often wore in photos, to strangers, Griffey wasn’t the guy you slapped on the back after telling him a joke. His warm and thoughtful side was reserved for family, close friends and trusted business associates. And like any other label chief, Griffey and his artists didn’t always see eye to eye about the music or the business.
“That’s true,” said songwriter/producer/musician Bernadette Cooper, whose band, Klymaxx, scored hits for Solar in the mid ’80s. “But it’s also true that no matter our disagreements, Solar artists have careers today because of Dick Griffey. He made things happen. He believed in himself and he believed in the power of the music.”
Indeed. Which is why, nearly twenty years after Solar closed its doors–after its catalogue was sold to EMI in the ’90s; after the fabled Solar Tower was purchased by Babyface, who redecorated its interior and christened it Edmonds Tower–in old school black music circles, Dick Griffey’s passing is sobering news. The Almighty Groove was lost yet another gate keeper.
Steven Ivory is a journalist/author who has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected]