Chairmen of the Board continue tradition

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 21, 2011

By Katie Scarvey
When General Johnson died in October of lung cancer, his many fans were stunned and saddened.
Johnson, a Grammy-winning songwriter, was the charismatic lead singer of the Chairmen of the Board and held beach music lovers in his thrall for more than 30 years.
The music lives on with the re-formed Chairmen of the Board, led by long-time band member Ken Knox. After Johnson died, the band’s fan base begged Knox to keep the group going, so he recruited Darryl Johnson and Thomas Hunter.
“I felt like General passed the baton to me,” Knox says. “Him and I were joined at the hip from the stage to the recording studio. I was fortunate to take the baton and run with it.”
Knox is a saxophonist and vocalist who has been with the band since the early days.
The group has been performing two or three dates a week, Knox says, and he’s happy they’ve been able to sustain the group’s momentum.
“The first performance we did was at the House of Blues as a tribute to General,” Knox says. “We sold it out. It was just like nothing had changed. It was the same reaction we always got. It was mind-boggling to me. I wasn’t expecting this, but (the fans) showed us love and continue to show us love.”
Of course Johnson was the one who wrote the music, Knox says, noting that Johnson’s songs brought pride to the Carolinas.
In particular,“Carolina Girls” has taken on a life of its own, with the phrase appearing on bumper stickers, license plates and T-shirts.
People might be surprised that a group so identified with the Carolinas actually had its beginnings in Detroit, Mich., where Knox grew up.
When Knox was in high school there, he went to see one of his favorite bands one night with a friend and found himself unable to see the stage. Fortunately, the friend was a 6 foot 8-inch-tall basketball player, who hoisted Knox on his shoulders.
Who would have predicted that a few years later, in 1972, Knox would join that band?
The Chairmen of the Board toured nationally and internationally in the 1970s with their infectious brand of soul.
After they were left without a recording company, Johnson decided they should set up shop in the Carolinas. Johnson was savvy about the potential for beach music because of his experience with his first group, The Showmen.
In 1979, Johnson started Surfside Records in Charlotte. The group didn’t waste any time tapping into their new region; the next year, they released “Carolina Girls.”
Like a lot of folks, Knox says he initially thought beach music was the stuff played by the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean.
“But come to find out it was nothing but R&B,” he says.
The group has many loyal fans in the region, like Brenda and Jerry Holder of Salisbury.
Brenda says they’d always liked beach music but hadn’t seen the Chairmen perform until a year or so ago when the group, including Johnson, played at Wingate College.
They saw them again on New Year’s Eve in Statesville, where they met Knox after the show. They struck up a friendship with Knox, who invited them to come to some of the group’s rehearsals in Charlotte. They’ve visited with Knox numerous times since then.
The band doesn’t typically open its rehearsals but invited Brenda and Jerry because they were such loyal fans.
“I just thought it was something nice for me to do for the love they showed me,” Knox says.
Brenda loved the old Chairmen of the Board and likes the new version as well — and has particularly enjoyed getting to know Knox. “We just think he’s a super nice guy, “Brenda says. “We’re so fortunate to have gotten to know him.”
Knox believes the band will continue to thrive.
“Chairmen of the Board is a brand,” he explains. “It’s like having Coca-Cola in your home. Kids grew up on us. Beach music is household music throughout the Carolinas.”
Knox loves performing the crowd favorites like “Give Me Just a Little More Time” and “Carolina Girls.”
Audiences will also hear “I’d Rather Be in Carolina” — and to go along with “Carolina Girls,” there’s now a song called “Carolina Man.”
The group has been inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. “It’s like we’re adopted sons of North Carolina,” Knox says.
Beach music has a kind of staying power that other popular music doesn’t have, Knox explains.
“When you’re in the mainstream, you have to have a record out every 30-60 days,” he says. Beach music, however, never goes out of style.
“Carolina Girls,” he points out, is still popular 30 years after it first came out.
Knox praises new members Darryl Johnson and Thomas Hunter, as well as The Executives, the group’s backing band for the last eight years.
“They have given me 110 percent,” he says. “They’ve done everything I’ve asked them to and more.”
Knox notes that during their upcoming Salisbury performance, Edna Wright from The Honey Cone will be a special guest; she’ll perform the group’s hit single, “Want Ads,” written by General Johnson.
Want to hear them?
Chairmen of the Board will perform Thursday, April 28, on Fisher Street, part of the Brick Street Live concert series.
Gates open at 6 p.m. with the concert starting at 7:30 p.m. Tickets may be purchased by calling 704-637-5363 or online at General admission is $5.