*In the Soul Music annals of Southern California, one would be hard pressed to find a man with a more diversified resume than J.D. Hall.
The Venice, California native has entertained at an astounding variable of tempos and Beats per Minute from beach boardwalk doo wop to Disco to the throes of Barry White. J.D. is currently starring in the revival concert “Barry White: The Ultimate Tribute” coming to the Saban Theater in Beverly Hills, 8440 Wilshire Blvd. Beverly Hills, CA 91364 on Saturday August 30th. But he hasn’t always been that kind of performer. In fact, while many clubbers may not remember his name, they remember the infectious grooves of his local early 80s 12’ hits “Wonder Woman” and “#1 Lover.” He’s come a long way, baby.
“I grew up watching and listening to everybody from Elvis Presley to Big Joe Turner, James Brown and the Beatles,’ says Hall. “I remember watching ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ in the theater back in the day. It was my mother’s record collection and the music on the radio that would excite me and make me dream about singing on stages.”
J.D. initially started out trying to be a musician.
“I tried to play the drums and took piano lessons. But in my heart, I wanted to move and you can’t do that behind the piano. I needed to do something up front withal the notes I heard in my head so that had to be singing. I always considered myself an entertainer. My wife Michelle- who I’ve been friends with since we were kids and has stuck with me to this day through thick and thin- says even then I wanted to be a singer. I would sing to her sisters and brothers when they baby sat – do little shows and contests. Then my voice started getting deeper. I realized Elvis wasn’t gonna work for me then!”
J.D. wanted to be a solo star from the gate but was pulled into his first group in a magical moment under the sun.
“There were three little kids that sang on the Venice Beach Boardwalk. One played guitar, one played bongos and the other one played maracas. Everyone would crowd around and watch them perform while the mother put a pot out there collectin’ money! They even got into a few movies doing this. They were called the Bantams because they were very small in size like the little bantam roosters. I heard them one day, jumped off the trolley to watch them and thought they were fantastic but they really weren’t singers. I started stopping by to check them out every day until one day I asked if they would mind if I sang with them. They said, “Sure,” and together we got an even bigger response. I was singing and dancing like James Brown and Elvis.”
The group went their separate ways for a few years then got back together as teenagers as King James & The Bantams and actually cut a side for Atlantic Records.
“The guy took us into the studio to make a record. We did a medley of James Brown’s ‘Cold Sweat’ and ‘Mother Popcorn’ on the A-side then sang The Whispers’ ‘Seems Like I Gotta Do Wrong’ on the flip. The Bantams were now playing drums, guitar and bass. Two guys from Atlantic came to see us perform. We got down knowing this was our big chance. But we had a problem. Their mother and my adopted father were there and started celebrating, talking money and acting up. The two guys from Atlantic stood up and walked out the door. It was crushing but nice enough to make me say to myself, ‘One day I’m really gonna do something.’”
As a youngster, J.D. developed swiftly and soon found himself performing at schools, colleges and prison shows opening for the great Jackie Wilson and working with another up and comer named Little Dion.
“Dion would go on first and we turned it out. Matter of fact, at one prison, the girls almost started a riot. They had to take us out of there. Mannnn, you talkin’ about some stuff! They were throwin’ panties on stage and everything! The authorities made us leave – said, ‘You cannot come back to this prison no more!’ We were just performing – dancing hard and falling to our knees. Jackie really did all that, but one time I went by myself. They don’t allow you to touch the girls. We’d be leaving in the limos and the girls would be beatin’ on the car door as we pulled off. I said, ‘This is the life! I wanna be doing this all the time!’ But we were kids. That’s the kind of stuff that messes you up, gets you hooked and then you don’t know when to stop.”
“That’s why I don’t consider myself just a singer. I have a decent voice and can write a nice lil’ song. But when I hit that stage, I’m gonna give you a show you will never forget.”
J.D. got his greatest taste of success as a solo artist releasing 12-inch dance singles in the late `70s and early `80s. “I met a gentleman and came out with a song called ‘I Want To Get Into You’ with ‘Freak On Down’ on the b-side. It was a 12-inch pressed up on the Sheik label by the distributor S&R. That was my second record. It didn’t do well in California, but it went over like crazy in Europe because it had a Barry White feel. Today, I’ve seen that record selling on eBay for $600.”
Other singles on the Sunfire and JDC labels would follow. But two in particular made him a local sensation.
“‘Wonder Woman’ actually hit the chart because it got on the radio. I was working at a massage parlor in Santa Monica back then…but I wasn’t doing the massages. I was the bodyguard of the ladies there. I’m 6’5”, 265 pounds and pump iron to keep in shape. I’d sit in the hallway and keep an eye on the front gate and door. David Mays and I would go to the studio after hours and work all night on a song called “Wonder Woman.” We didn’t have enough money to put out a 10-song album so we made that one song real long. When we finished, we took it around to all the clubs trying to get it played. The DJs supported me that time because they all knew how hard we worked on it. Then DJ Lucky Pierre of KUTE-102 FM called me on the phone and said, ‘We really like this record ‘Wonder Woman’ you’ve got here. We’re gonna give it a spin on the radio.’ I was ecstatic!
“At the massage parlor, I had a radio sitting right at my station. The girls would walk by in lingerie to do their massages. All 30 girls got to know me and like me. The first time Lucky Pierre played my song on KUTE, I yelled out, ‘That’s it!’The girls ran out and started dancing. When I went off, they were so excited and wanted to hear it again. I said, ‘Well, call the radio station on the request line!’ Well, there were 4 or5 phones right there and the girls would put a dime in the machine, call up and make the request: ‘I wanna hear ‘Wonder Woman’ by J.D. Hall,’ then five more girls would do the same thing – in between each of their massages. I guess they were bored. But they would all do it for me –all day long – at least all 8 hours I worked there. Those girls really helped me get that song off the ground. I have to say that was a mighty fine job!”
J.D. became a local celebrity behind this first radio hit. “Everybody was partyin’ of my song, I was doing all the shows around town and they were sending limousines to pick me up to go here and there. I thought I had made it!” However, follow-up songs like “Call Me Up,” “Moanin’,” “Shake Your Body” and “It’s Your Love” failed to hit the same way and J.D. fell into a slump.
J.D. recalls, “The Latinos were the most loyal, though, because they really dug the grooves. One guy said, ‘J.D., I love your records.’ I was getting tired but he wanted to give a new song a go. This guy had a keyboard on his bed so we got a record finished and called it ‘#1 Lover.’ I wrote the lyrics and he did the music. It was a smokin’ dance record. I thought it was gonna be a monster but when we took it around nobody would pick it up. They were all looking for dance records with girl singers. We took it straight to the club DJs in L.A. and they went crazy for it but we still couldn’t get it on the radio. But the street DJs put it in a mix show on Power 106 FM alongside songs by artists like Stacey Q and Atlantic Starr. They would play my record in these drive time mix shows 10-11 times a night! Every other record was ‘#1 Lover.’ One cat had ‘#1 Lover’ tattooed with a heart around it on his arm. That freaked me out a little. I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness!’ The problem was they couldn’t program my song in regular rotation because then they’d have to pay but they didn’t have to pay if it was in a mix. The DJs made it an underground monster. And from that I was able to get record sales. I had to make a quick deal with JVC to get I pressed and distributed…and they saw me coming. It was selling and playing everywhere but they were steady telling me there wasn’t any money. Thank goodness people started asking me to do appearances and performances at private parties and clubs. If it wasn’t for them, I would have starved to death. “
Rollin’ J.D. was managing to stay fairly busy until a family matter put his gigging on hold.
“I had to stop music for a while to take care of my kids,” he shares. “My lady at the time and I had a son and a daughter. We separated when they were infants. She took off with another guy. That guy wound up shooting her in the head and I had to take my kids in. She did not die but though I did not get back with her, I helped take care of her and brought the kids to see her while she was in the hospital. Today, I have three daughters and one son, and I also consider my wife’s daughter like mine. So actually I have 4 daughters, 1 son…and 15 grandbabies!”
Recently, J.D. swung back into performing playing parks and festivals with his group J.D. Hall and the J.D. Hall Band. But a couple of years ago, he decided to diversify his show one day by doing a tribute to a world renowned entertainer who made his name in Los Angeles, too, named Barry White.
“My voice is kind of close to Barry’s,” J.D. confesses, “and when I did my song ‘I Want To Get Into You’ earlier in my career, I actually sounded like him. I even talked (love rapped) on the record but I recorded my singing voice in a higher key because I didn’t want to sound like I was completely copying him. Somebody actually asked if I wanted to give that song to Barry so he could do it but I said no. Maybe I should have said yes. I don’t have Barry’s total persona but I love the way he expressed his music. In his realm, he was the very best.”
J.D. did his debut Barry White tribute show about a year and a half ago at an outdoor civic amphitheatre in East L.A. The park was filled to overflowing – 12,000 people. “There were other acts during the day but I was the night time closing show and it went off like a bomb. They brought me back again this year.”
J.D. has been honing and refining the show by doing lots of research and constantly changing the order and look of the show. “I looked on Facebook and saw that there are a lot of people doing Barry White shows so I figured I have to really put some smoke in mine and be the very best. I went and got me an orchestra just like Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra with horns, violins and cellos. BW had 40 players but I condensed that down to14-15 players that could really give me a good sound. Then I looked at the Barry White songs that everyone knows and enjoys. Now I’m going through some of his other songs that have that good feeling but are not as well known just to get 4 or 5 new ones into the show. The show is about an hour and a half long now. I have someone who makes the charts for me – my trumpet player George Pandas. I tell him what I want and he’s real good at mapping it all for me like the Maestro. (Note: Barry White’s primary orchestrator/arranger was Gene Page in the `70s.)
J.D. Hall’s “Barry White: The Ultimate Tribute’ show is doing so well on the west coast that he has people building another “Ultimate Barry White Orchestra” around him in New York where he already has a couple of shows lined up. “Hopefully, we are developing this into a major ongoing situation,” Hall states. And at his L.A. shows, Hall cannot leave the stage just doing Barry White music. His insider fans demand that he change clothes, come back and give them an encore of “#1 Lover” and “Wonder Woman.”
Summing up his career and current great fortune, J.D. Hall concludes, “I’m all about loving what I do. I want people to know that I give it all. Ain’t no more when I come off the stage. I leave it all right there for the people, knowing I have really touched someone with all I have in me.”
JD Hall and the Ultimate Barry White Tribute Orchestra will be performing Saturday, August 30 at the Saban Theater, (formerly The Wilshire Theater), 8440 Wilshire Blvd. Beverly Hills, CA 90211 at 9:00PM. Tickets $20 and $28. Visit Ticketmaster or visit www.sabantheatre.org to purchase seats.