(All promotional photos and cover photo by: Shana Mangatal & Ron Barros)
Hi Howard, how did it all start for you? Tell me your music story?
I was born and raised in Akron, Ohio. Because my mom was a major gospel promoter , she would bring in a lot of different gospel acts like, “James Cleveland, Albertina Walker, The Caravans (when Shirley Caesar was still with them), The Pilgrim Jubilees, The Five blind boys of Alabama, and others to Cleveland.
She also had a 1-hour gospel radio broadcast every Sunday morning. Eventually, she was inducted into the , "Radio Hall of Fame" of Ohio. When my mom found out that my sisters and I could sing, (I was 10 years old at this time) she formulated the , "Hewett singers" which consisted of myself, my three sisters, an organ , guitar , bass player, and drummer.
Because nepotism was alive and well in our family. Once we were rehearsed enough to perform live, my mom would bring us in as the opening act for her shows. I like to say, I cut my teeth on opening for acts like, “James Cleveland, The Soul Stirrers, and Pilgrim jubilees. It was an amazing situation! I did that until I was about 14/15. Around that same time, I left gospel and went into the R&B Field.
Howard, do you play any live instruments?
The first instrument I played was the bass guitar. The problem was, I couldn't figure out how to play and sing at the same time. So, I had to decide whether I was going to be a bass player or singer, so I put the bass down.
I'm always in awe of people like, Sting, Larry Graham and people that can play bass and sing at the same time! That always amazed me!
Tell me about the R&B band you put together in?
Around age 14/15, some partners of mine and I put together a seven-piece band called “LYFE”. We performed popular 1970’s funk music until I was about 20. At 20 is when I moved to California and started putting stuff together. I eventually joined up with the group.
Tell me about what happened when you moved to California?
After a few months of living in California, I helped put together a seven-piece show band. The band was called “Beverly Hills.” The group consisted of myself, another male singer, and three female singers.
The band assembly was a collective effort of myself, John Daniels and Alonzo Daniels at “Maverick Flat.". Maverick Flat is located in Los Angeles, California on Crenshaw Boulevard. The club had an upstairs and downstairs area. On Friday through Sunday, the downstairs area was used as a nightclub. On weekdays, upstairs, where the offices were located, there were rehearsal studio rooms. They also put together show groups and were a booking agency called “Maverick International”. All their bookings were overseas.
Did your band have the opportunity to perform overseas?
Yes, we put together a group called, “Beverly Hills”, It took about a year to find the right fit for the group, but eventually we did. When the group was ready to tour, the first place we opened for was in Helsinki, Finland.
We traveled from Helsinki to Geneva and then to Benidorm. We traveled all over the world. At that time, I was making around, $250 to $300 bucks a week , as the hired vocalist. It was amazing!
Still in my early 20's, I traveled all over the world performing top 40 songs. At that time, we performed cover tunes. I got the chance to sing in front of foreign audiences and learn how to entertain people that spoke and understood very little English. But, it was an amazing experience!
Our first tour was about nine months. Usually, we would come home for about a month, then went go back overseas for another four to five months. Unfortunately, before we left the UK, the band broke up. So, I came back and kicked around LA for a while, then I started working with this guy named, “Jeffrey Bowen”. He was a Motown producer who was producing a guy named, “Eddie Hazel.” Eddie was the guitar player for the band, “Parliament Funkadelic”.
So, they were putting a project together and a woman named, “Tammy Gibson” (who oversaw the sessions), asked me to come in, and do a background session. I agreed. After we got done, “Jeffery Baldwin” told me that he liked my vocals and that I would be a big addition to their group. He told me that he could get me in the union by the following day. Literally, the next day, that's exactly what happened! He got me in as a paid union artist. He followed through with his word as promised.
After a couple of months of works, the checks started not reflecting the amount of work I was putting in, so I set up a meeting with Jeffrey Bowen to discuss the matter. We were at the Motown building, on the 15th floor, on the corner of Argyle and Sunset in Hollywood. I was having a meeting with Jeffrey Bowen and his co-producer, " Angelo." So, I'm up there, telling him about how the checks weren't reflecting the amount of work I was putting in, and blah, blah, blah. Suddenly, the phone rang, Angelo answered, looked at me, and said, “It's for you.” “I told him that if it was my lady, tell her that I'll call her back when I'm done with this”. He said, “It’s not a lady, it’s a guy” and he sounds like he’s calling from a long distance”. That was back in the day when you could hear the crackling. We didn't have cell phones back then. So, I get on the phone, and it’s “Jeffrey Daniels” from the band “Shalamar”.
How did you, Jeffrey Daniels, and Jody
I met Jeffrey and Jody at Mavericks flat. All the “Soul Train” people used to come down there and bounce. Mavericks was an interesting place. At any time, you can look out and see people sitting there like, Chaka Khan, Lionel Richie, and Richard Pryor. Richard used to come down there all the time. It was an interesting place to be.
Most of the people who came down there were individuals trying to break into the music business. So, whenever we had shows that we wanted to try out, we would play at Mavericks. This gave us the opportunity to see how people responded to our performance. If they dug it, then we knew we were on a good path. If they didn’t, then we knew we had to go back and do some woodshedding.
So, going back to the phone call with Jeffrey Daniels. Jeffrey tracked me down. See, my lady at that time, worked for, “Don Cornelius” (creator of the nationally syndicated dance and music show Soul Train & Host of Soul Train). Jeffrey knew that she would be able to tell him where I was so, he says, “man, we want to offer you an equal position in the group as lead singer.” He told me that they were in New Jersey and they got into an argument with the guy who sang, “Take That to The Bank”. He basically tells them, “when they see it his way, give him a call.” So he jumps on the plane leaving them in the middle of a promotional tour with no lead singer. Jeffrey then asked me where I was. I told him I was at the Motown building on the 15th floor. He told me that, “Solar”, the record company that they were with, had an office in that same building on the 9th floor. He told me “Dick Griffey” was there along with the owner of the company waiting for me to get in touch with them. They had to make this decision pretty quick.
I got off the phone with Jeffery, and I told the guys what the deal was. Angelo told me that “Shalamar was nothing but a fly-by-night disco group and would never amount to anything. He said, "You don't want to get involved with them, Solar would never be a Motown, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
So, I just listened. When they got done talking, I said, "my car's parked on the street and I need to put some money in the meter." Then I walked out and went straight down to the 9th floor and spoke with Dick Griffey. I told him that I would call him in the morning. I asked him to give me a chance to give the people that I was working with the opportunity to rectify themselves. Even though I hadn't signed a contract with them, it was still about my word. See, your word in this business is more than any piece of paper that you could sign. It's very important that you stay true to your word.
So, I called them (the people at Motown) and said, “look, if you guys want to talk, I'll be home all night. Let's, get this together. Nobody called Friday. So, Saturday morning, I called Dick and went over to his house. While sitting there in this rocking chair, I watched a videotape of a “Shalamar” show. After the video ended, Dick said, “well, sing something for me. Jeffrey and Jodie said that you're a great singer, so sing something for me.” So, I said, “just sing something right here?” He said” yeah.” So, I said to myself, Lord, it’s me and You! So, I broke into a “Peabo Bryson” song called “Fill the Fire”.
After I finished the first verse, Dick told me that he would be right back. He goes upstairs, then comes back down. In one pocket he has some cash. He hands it to me. He says” here's some cash, pay some bills. He reached into his other pocket and there was an airline ticket. He told me that I had to catch a red-eye flight that night. It was a Saturday night.
He wanted me to meet Jeffrey and Jody in New Jersey. I arrived that next day on Sunday morning. All that day I had to learn choreography and how to lip-sync to the song, “Take That to The Bank”. When I arrived at the hotel, we started rehearsing. We rehearsed in either Jeffrey or Jody's hotel room. We had to rehearse right away because they had a TV show scheduled for Monday. So it was pretty crazy but that's how it all went down.
After singing in a band and then going solo? Which out of the two do you prefer?
I always say, the split is a lot better on the solo tip than it is in the group thing. After we take care of all expenses and paid salaries, there's a balance and net left. So, with the solo thing, I don't have to split that with anybody. When I do the group thing, it’s a three-way split.
When I finally went solo, everything went smoothly. From the start, I knew I wanted to be a solo artist. As far as I was concerned, the Shalamar thing was kind of dissipating because, Jeffrey and Jody left around 1983. I wanted to do my solo situation then but Dick Griffey, the owner of Solar Records, had other plans for me. Because I had roughly two more years left on my contract, he told me that I had about three or four options. My options were to either ride my contract out and not do anything, go to court and try to get out of the contract. The last option he gave me was that I could do another Shalamar Album and just ride it out.
I don't like court because going to court is like throwing dice and, I'm definitely not one for sitting around. So I opted to do another Shalamar album. So, I brought “Mickey Free" into the group. Then we did a 20/25 city search for a female singer for Shalamar. That’s when we brought, “Delisa Davis” into the group. The last album I recorded with Shalamar was called, “Heartbreak”.
Once that was done and my contract ended, I left Solar and signed with “Electra Records”. It was a smooth transition because I knew what I wanted to do. I praise the Lord because everything went smoothly!
This is so true because when you're in a band, in that season, your career is thrown into a pot of collective decisions. Whatever choices one makes in that band will affect all. But as a solo artist, you are the sole person who determines when you stop and when you go. Okay, if you decide you’re not going to sing any longer, that's on you! At least nobody's holding you back from living your dreams. Do you think that’s true?
Yeah, exactly! Right! You know your capacity. As far as a lot of different situations are concerned, you're totally correct and that's not a bad thing. It's just life and human nature. Everyone has to grow. When I joined “Shalamar”, I came in as the third lead singer. The first lead male vocalist for Shalamar was, “Gary Mumford”. He sang lead on this tune called, ‘Uptown Festival”. That was the first album Shalamar had out, and that album was released in 1977.
Who were some of the other leading male vocalists for Shalamar?
Well, There was, “Darryl Brown” who sang the lead on, “Take That to The Bank”, from the “ Disco Gardens” album, released in 1978 on Solar (Sounds of Los Angeles Records) . I didn't come into the group until after Darryl split. That was around late 1978.
When I joined the group, we recorded, “Second Time Around, Make That Move, For the Lover in You, A Night to Remember, and all those songs.
When it was time to do the solo situation, “Elektra” put a business situation together. Electra was a distribution company for, “Solar” and they had an agreement with Solar that they would have the Right of first refusal for everything that came from Solar Records. So I had to first go through them before I could go anywhere else. All in all, it was a pretty small transition.
What songs that you’ve performed over the years were either written or co-written by yourself?
For Shalamar, I was nibbling and dabbling. I co-wrote, “For the Lover in You.” I also wrote a couple of other songs for the “The Look” album (released in 1993). This was the last album I recorded with Jeffrey and Jody before they split. As far as the solo thing, I write most of my songs. But I don't only do my own material because you never know where your next song is going to come from. So, to close myself off is something I don’t like to do. But I wrote, “I’m for Real, Once, Twice, Three, Times, Show Me, and Say Amen.
I love, “Say Amen!” I think I played that song so many times it almost fell off the tape. I love that song. It's anointed! That's great. You have so many songs that I love! I mean, I can't even think of a song that you’ve ever released, in my opinion, that was not a hit! So, tell me, personally, what songs do you just love to sing?
I would agree. “Say Amen” is a song that’s so important because it has helped so many and changed people's lives. Another one of my favorite songs is “Show Me.” This is because I love playing with the audience. I also enjoy singing, “I’m For Real”.
Someone once told me that I should be careful what I record because, if it becomes a hit, and you don't like it, then you have to sing that song over and over again. People will be asking for it! So based on that advice, I’ve always been very picky as to what I record or write. Writing is one of those things where you put your thoughts and your opinions out there. You're exposed and vulnerable. You make yourself susceptible to the public’s opinions about your music. You put it out there for people to nitpick at it so you have to be careful with what you put out into the world.
What was the most challenging moment of your career?
I think the most challenging part of my career was keeping everything going after Jeffrey and Jody split. Although I wanted to start my solo career, contractually I couldn't do it. So, I had to make decisions about how to keep the group going. Thanks be to God that an opportunity came up! A door opened for me to do a song in the “Footloose “movie, called, Dancing in the Sheets”. What happened was, a guy named “Dean Pitchford” called me and “ Leon Silver's” and asked me to come to, “Paramount Studios” to watch a rough cut version of the movie, “Footloose”.
In the spot where there was supposed to be music, he placed temporary music in there. He had Gladys Knight and the pips and other songs in some of those slots. This way, we would get an idea of where he was coming from. After we viewed the film, we told him that we would kick it around a little bit. So, on the way back to the parking lot, I asked Leon what did he think? Lee said, “I don't think it's going to be a big movie”. He also said that he had a lot on his plate, so he decided to pass on that opportunity. He then asked me what did I think? I said, “I don't think it's going to be that big of a movie either but, regardless of how I felt about the movie, “Paramount” was investing major high-profile money into that film. Because I was the only one in the group at that time, I thought it would be a good move to keep the name out there. So, decided to do “Dancing in The Sheets”. So, I would say that the most challenging thing was trying to keep the whole entity of, “Shalamar” afloat at that time.
Footloose, turned out to be a pretty big movie during that time am I correct?
Yes, actually, “Dancing in the Sheets” turned out to be the second biggest selling single we had! Our single, “Second Time Around” was, the was the top-selling single that we ever had! It sold around a little over 2 million copies. But the single, “Dancing in the Sheets” sold over a million copies becoming the second biggest selling single in the history of Shalamar. It turned out to be a good thing to get involved with after all.
As a recording artist, I'm sure you have to fly a lot. Do you like to fly? Have you ever had any crazy experiences that make you feel like you never want to fly again?
In 2020, when we had the shut-in, that was the longest time I've ever been off in over 30 years. The first time I got on the airplane was when I flew from Ohio to California. When I boarded my first overseas flight from LAX Airport in Los Angeles, California (with bandmates, “Beverly Hills”) headed to Heathrow Airport in London, UK, I prayed. My prayer was, “Lord, I believe that this is going to be the beginning of a lot of flying “so, I pray that you put an angel on each wing of this airplane, on the front and back of every plane that I board in the future. I asked God to protect me. From that point on, no matter where I flew, thank God, I have never had a flight a bad flight. Now I’ve felt turbulence but nothing crazy.
One time while flying overseas, there was an electrical storm in the middle of the ocean, and the plane was flying right through it. Although it was a late-night flight and everyone was asleep I was awake. As I looked through the window I notice lightning flashing through the cumulus clouds. It was it was so beautiful! There wasn't any strong turbulence , only a tiny bit of shaking, but that’s all. So thanks be to God that I've never had any type of incidents that made me feel apprehensive about traveling. Flying is a necessary thing. I look at it like this; Some people take a bus to work, I take a plane to work.
I believe Aretha Franklin didn't like to fly. Have you ever done a show with her?
One time I was asked to perform at an event where these people were offering stupid money to perform. This was an event set to take place in England. They were offering to pay crazy money for only one concert but they also wanted wanted, “Aretha Franklin” to perform. I think it was for, “The Queens” birthday or the anniversary of The Queen's rulership. Something of that sort. But this event was coming up and they wanted to do a concert where they had the “Queen of Soul” and the “Queen of England”. They were going to arrange it where both of the Queen's would come on stage. So, I knew the people, and they were offering some serious money! I'm trying to tell you!
Aretha was playing somewhere in Los Angeles so I came to her show. After she finished , I was able to go backstage and say, “hi”. While we were talking, I mentioned to her about the event. She said, “you know baby, I can't fly across that water like that.” I was like, Whoa man! Because this was some serious, serious money! So basically, she said "no." She couldn't do it because she was deathly afraid of flying.
How do you preserve your voice to keep it strong for your performances?
I don't really have a regimen. One of my favorite vocalists is, “Jonathan Butler”. I love his vocal ability and musicianship. Throughout the years we've done a bunch of shows together. One day, I remember watching his soundcheck. When he came off stage, I told him that he was one of my favorite vocalists. I then asked him what he did to maintain his voice? He said, “sleep”. This was the same thing that I've been telling people all along! So, I would say that too. Sleep and realize that you are the instrument.”
Just like somebody picks up a guitar, sits behind a set of drums, and plays the trombone, My voice is my instrument. Well, I'm just like that guitar. I'm the instrument so I have to take care of myself. If I don't get enough sleep or I drink, smoke, and party all the time, after a while, it damages your instrument. That instrument is you. So I maintain my voice by getting the proper amount of sleep that my body needs. My son is a great vocalist. He goes out on the road with me some time. Sometimes he’ll say, ok pops, you got to warm up. But my warmup is my first song. I'm strictly old school as far as that's concerned.
What song do you usually open your shows with?
For my solo show, I open with my song called “Stay”. By the time I finish that song, my voice is opened, and everything is cool.
That’s the one song that gives you that good vocal workout.
Yeah, definitely. Now, I do drink a tea called throat coat. It’s good for singers and people who speak for a living. But yeah, that's what I do.
Do you have any embarrassing moments that you would like to share with your fans?
One of the most embarrassing moments on stage happened about two and a half years ago. I always prided myself that I would never fall on stage, but that ended up not being the case. One time I was performing at a festival with Shalamar in the UK and the venue was packed with about, 60/ 70 thousand people. It was a huge event and there was a point in our show where all three of us were to walk to the edge of the stage. So, we all backed up, and I miscalculated where the monitor was and tripped right over it. I said to myself, Oh, no! This is not happening! Then bam! I hit the ground! I wouldn't have felt so embarrassed if I would have stayed down there, did my next verse, and not even attempted to get up. I think the audience would have loved that! They would not have known what to do with that! But I was so embarrassed, that I straightaway got up. Jeffrey and Carolyn (when we go overseas we have me, Jeffrey Daniel, and Carolyn Griffey) they didn't even know anything happened because I was down and up so quick.
I think Beyoncé fell down the stairs too when she was performing, and she got back up like a professional. That's a great story and I would have been embarrassed too. How would you say Covid affected you in a positive way?
I was supposed to get on a plane on March 3rd to fly to England. I was taking my solo show into the UK for the first time. I was supposed to do the first show on March 6th and the 2nd show on March 7th, 2020, and come back home on the 8th. I cleared out all of January 2020 because I had to have a procedure done on my foot that I've been putting off. I wanted to have a full month of recovery after that procedure was done. So, I had the procedure done on the eighth and went back to work on the seventh of February, I was wearing a boot, but I was back to work.
In February, I started hearing this stuff on TV about this virus that they didn't know anything about. So, I told my manager that I wasn’t feeling comfortable with this. So, he said, “What do you mean?” I said the only thing on that I can see in these people's faces is the uncertainty of what's going on.” the only sure thing that they were saying was that the incubation period for this thing is like seven to 10 days. So, I said to him, if I jump on a plane on the 3rd and come back on the 8th, then I could potentially spread it to my family and loved ones without even knowing it for 10 days. So he asked me what would I like to do? I told him that I would like to push the gigs back later into the year until they’re able to give us a little bit more insight into what's happening.