When Don Cornelius and Dick Griffey set up Soul Train Records in 1975, they signed a distribution agreement with one of the major record companies, RCA Records, as was usual for small independent labels looking to break into global markets. When Soul Train Records morphed into SOLAR Records in 1977, a similar deal was struck with RCA. This ran for four years. In 1981, Griffey decided not to extend the arrangement with RCA, because he wanted to increase the range of SOLAR Records’ activities and thus raise his company’s income. He had already set up a distribution deal with Elektra Records (part of the Warner Bros group) for the second Griffey label, Constellation Records, that he had founded earlier in the year.
As one of the leading labels in the dance music market, with a special appeal to black fans, SOLAR was attractive to several of the majors, but it made sense to switch the main label to Elektra too. In addition to that, Griffey was able, as part of the five-year deal, to secure an advance from Elektra of $4.5 million to set up his company headquarters at 1635 N. Cahuenga in Hollywood, in a building that had once belonged to the Fire Department.
Elektra seemed delighted to be part of the SOLAR project. Nelson George, a well-known music writer for Billboard Magazine, was in no doubt about the reason: “Black music accounts for a fourth to a third of pop sales. If you don’t have black music, you’re not in the pop music business.” (Los Angeles Times, July 18th 1988, article by Linda Williams). Griffey was pleased too, because he could see the advantages of consolidating all his business ventures in one place. The new headquarters had six storeys, with plenty of office space and room too for a new recording studio.
Over the next five years, Elektra distributed twenty SOLAR albums with net retail sales of more than $35.3 million. When Berry Gordy Jr. sold Motown Records to MCA Inc. and an investment banking firm for $61 million in 1988, SOLAR was probably the largest black-owned record label in the USA. According to Black Enterprise magazine’s annual survey, Dick Griffey Productions (his private holding company) had revenues of $43.9 million in 1987, ranking the company eleventh among the top one hundred black-owned industrial and service companies.
By the end of the five-year deal, however, Griffey had some major concerns about how fairly Elektra had dealt with his company. He terminated the contract with Elektra (still owing a considerable part of the initial loan, according to Warner Bros) and sued Warner Bros for $386 million in 1986!
Griffey then signed a deal with Capitol-EMI Records, according to which Capitol handled only distribution and SOLAR had responsibility for everything else, thus giving Griffey more control and income. Capitol also loaned Griffey’s company two million dollars, which they would recoup by taking payments out of future royalties due to SOLAR Records. That deal was terminated in 1989, when distribution of SOLAR Records passed to CBS Records and later to Epic Records.
A similar pattern emerged at Constellation Records, the second label. The original distribution deal with Elektra was terminated in 1984 and switched to MCA Records. Three years later, Griffey decided to concentrate all his energies on SOLAR, so sold Constellation to MCA, with the former SOLAR artists (notably Klymaxx and Carrie Lucas) moving to MCA too.
Griffey was determined to make SOLAR a success, for him and his family and for all the artists, musicians and engineers that worked with him. The collaborative working method that he adopted is an interesting one.
SOLAR had a roster of fourteen acts, mainly groups. Many of these groups were made up of singers who also played one or more instruments. Everyone one was encouraged to support everyone else, so SOLAR didn’t have a resident studio band like the Funk Brothers at Motown or Booker T & the MGs at Stax. The nearest they came to that set-up was using the members of Lakeside as backing musicians on many of the tracks recorded at SOLAR, but they used regular session musicians too. As for backing vocals, almost everyone on the SOLAR roster made a contribution somewhere.
The company’s production team featured Dick Griffey himself, plus key members of several of the bands. From 1978 to 1983 Leon Sylvers 111 was the lead in-house producer, followed by Reggie Calloway from 1983 to 1986 and then L.A. Reid and Babyface from 1986 to 1989. All of these were singers and musicians from the SOLAR stable, creating a sense of “family”.
Leon Sylvers 111 was a member of The Sylvers, a family group made up of Leon and his siblings. Between 1958 and 1985, at various times, nine of the ten Sylvers siblings performed with the band, which was known as The Little Angels up to 1972. Griffey signed Leon to SOLAR in 1978 as his in-house producer, in the expectation that Leon would help Griffey develop the SOLAR Sound and write songs for the SOLAR artists.
Reggie Calloway was a member of the SOLAR band Midnight Star, signed by Griffey in 1981. He was, like Leon Sylvers, a performer, a song-writer and a producer. He took over the lead role from Sylvers around 1983 and began working with all the SOLAR artists, supported by his brother Vincent. The brothers left Midnight Star in 1987 and formed their own band as a duo. They also began working as song-writers for a wider group of performers , including Gladys Knight & the Pips, Natalie Cole and Teddy Prendergrass.
In 1986, two members of The Deele took over as lead in-house producers. Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds was a multi-instrumentalist and singer, whilst L.A. Reid was a drummer. Both wanted to develop their song-writing and production skills at SOLAR Records and beyond. Encouraged by Griffey, they both achieved striking success, after leaving The Deele.
The extent of the collaboration between the various acts is apparent on many of the albums released by SOLAR. Here is one example:
Shalamar’s 1981 album “Go For It” features eight tracks, seven of which were written or co-written by the three members of the band, Jeffrey Daniel, Jody Watley and Howard Hewett. Co-writers included William Shelby of Lakeside and two session musicians, Ricky Smith (keyboards) and Wardell Potts (drums), who played on this album, plus many others on the SOLAR label.
On bass, the album credits Marvin Craig (Lakeside), Foster and Leon Sylvers (The Sylvers) and Jeffrey Daniel (Shalimar). On guitar, Ricky Sylvers (The Sylvers), Steve Shockley (Lakeside) and Larry White (Whispers) made contributions along with regular SOLAR session musicians Earnest Reed and Richard Randolph. On drums, Wardell Potts played on every track, joined by Jeffrey Daniel and Leon Sylvers on percussion. On keyboards, Shalimar’s Jeffrey Daniel was joined by Kevin Spencer (Dynasty), William Shelby (Lakeside), and Patricia Sylvers (The Sylvers), alongside regular session men Grady Wilkins, Ricky Smith and James Ingram.
On the technical side, the team that produced the album included two outstanding engineers, whose expertise guaranteed that the sound quality of the recording was faithfully captured on the album. Steve Hodge was the genius at the mixing desk and Wally Traugott produced the master recording. Griffey knew that their work was world-class.
Finally special mention must be made of Benjamin Wright Jr, Kossi Gardner and Gene Dozier, three SOLAR stalwarts who between them contributed to over forty releases on the Griffey-owned labels. Benjamin arranged strings on the album for a group of backing musicians, four cellists and ten violinists. His overall contribution to SOLAR is described in an article on this site. Kossi played the organ on this album, but also played on Whispers and Carrie Lewis albums. Gene Dozier was involved in song-writing, arranging, conducting and of course performing (keyboards) on many SOLAR singles and albums, including this one. All three were essential parts of the team that Dick Griffey assembled, particularly from 1979.
For around ten years, SOLAR achieved outstanding results, but from 1987 its fortunes began to decline. Hewett and Watley left the label, musical tastes began to change and sales dropped. In the early 1990s, the label released its last recordings, “Now” by Richie Havens and the soundtrack to the 1992 film “Deep Cover”. SOLAR finally closed in the late 1990s. The label’s back catalogue was eventually purchased by EMI, with many of its releases and compilations being re-issued through EMI’s The Right Stuff imprint. Now the Canadian company Unidisc Music owns most of SOLAR’s and Constellation’s back catalogue. The rights to SOLAR Records as a trade mark belong to the family of the late Dick Griffey, who have set up a new company in the UK to promote the SOLAR brand.
Dick Griffey died at the age of seventy-one on September 24th 2010, in Canoga Park, Los Angeles, where he had been recuperating after surgery. His legacy recordings, the SOLAR and Constellation catalogues, are still available and are still impressive. The other legacy that Griffey left to the world of music was the group of artists, musicians and technicians that he brought to SOLAR. Many of them went on to make an important contribution to the music industry, thanks to his perceptive encouragement.
Photo: L A Reid
Photo: Kenneth Edmonds
Angela George (Wikimedia Commons)