SOLAR Records was founded by Dick Griffey in Los Angeles in 1977. He had moved to California from Nashville, his home town, in the 1960s, with a view to entering the entertainment business, and became co-owner of Guys and Dolls, a nightclub which featured performances by such rising stars as Isaac Hayes and Ike & Tina Turner. He developed into a concert promoter, arranging bookings for headline acts such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and the Jacksons. He then joined Don Cornelius’ team as a talent co-ordinator for Soul Train, the hugely successful TV show. In 1975 Griffey and Cornelius went into business together, when they set up Soul Train Records, but the partnership only lasted two years. In 1977 Soul Train Records was folded, as Cornelius wanted to devote all his energies to the TV show, which had grown extremely popular. Griffey, however, wanted to continue to develop the idea of a record label that would be centred on dance music and would give opportunities to young up-and-coming black artists. He bought Cornelius’ share of Soul Train Records and renamed the company Solar Records. The name of the company was actually “Sound of Los Angeles Records”; Griffey wanted to create a distinctive sound, just like Berry Gordy Jr. had done at Motown.
Several of the artists that had been signed to Soul Train Records switched to SOLAR, notably Shalamar, Carrie Lucas and the Whispers. Although Griffey and Cornelius had ended their partnership, they remained friends and many of the SOLAR acts continued to feature on the Soul Train TV show.
Given the increasing popularity of disco music in the late seventies, it’s no surprise that SOLAR quickly established itself as an important dance music label.
Shalamar’s first album “Uptown Festival” was a collection of Motown songs, recorded at Ike & Tina Turner’s studio Bolic Sound in 1976, and released on Soul Train Records the following year. Ian Dewhirst, the Northern Soul DJ, describes in an interview with Jeff Mao at the Red Bull Music Academy how he came up with idea during a trip to the USA. The singers and musicians on that first Shalamar album were all session musicians.
The success of the album persuaded Cornelius and Griffey to form a permanent band, featuring two well-known dancers from the Soul Train show, Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniel, who joined original Shalamar lead singer Gary Mumford. The new group signed to SOLAR Records and Gerald Brown took over Mumford’s place for the group’s second album, “Disco Gardens” (1978). Howard Hewett then replaced Brown in 1979. Eight further albums were issued: “Big Fun“ (1979), “Three for Love” (1980), “Go for It” (1981), “Friends” (1982), “The Look” (1983), “Heartbreak” (1984), “Circumstantial Evidence” (1987) and “Wake Up” (1990).
Five of the albums in this list were gold-certified by the RIAA (“Go For It” was the odd one out), with “Three For Love” and Friends” going on to achieve platinum status. All six featured the “classic” line-up of Hewett, Watley, and Daniel.
SOLAR also release around twenty Shalamar singles, most of which achieved chart success, including classics such as “Right in the Socket”, “The Second Time Around”, “Make That Move”, “A Night to Remember (Get Ready Tonight)” and “This Is for the Lover in You”. They were extremely popular in the UK too, with a string of singles high in the charts in the early eighties. Shalamar represent the dance aspect of the SOLAR Records Sound, which has brought them enduring success.
The Whispers released two albums on Soul Train Records before moving to SOLAR, where they made another thirteen albums between 1978 and 1987. Most of these entered the Pop and R&B charts, with two R&B number one albums, “The Whispers” (1979) and “Love Is Where You Find It” (1982). They achieved gold certification from the RIAA for “Imagination” (1980) and “Love Is Where You Find It”, and platinum for “The Whispers” and their final SOLAR release “Just Gets Better with Time” (1987).
SOLAR released around forty Whispers singles, most of which entered the charts, including two number one R&B hits, “And the Beat Goes On” and “Rock Steady”.
SOLAR Records in-house producer Leon Sylvers 111 brought the group Dynasty together in 1979, following Dick Griffey’s intention to give new young performers the opportunity to shine. The group consisted of vocalists Nidra Beard and Linda Carriere and vocalist-keyboardist Kevin Spencer. They released six albums and fifteen singles on SOLAR Records between 1979 and 1988, most of which entered the R&B or Dance charts. The best of their songs is “I’ve Just Begun to Love You” (1980), which reached number six on the R&B chart and number five on the Dance chart. The Whispers represent another key aspect of the SOLAR Sound, with their beautiful close harmonies and tight arrangements. They never quite hit the heights but their songs have real quality.
Midnight Star was formed in 1976 at Kentucky State University by trumpeter Reggie Calloway, vocalist Belinda Lipscomb, guitarist/drummer/vocalist Melvin Gentry, bassist Kenneth Gant, multi-instrumentalist Bill Simmons, keyboard player/vocalist Bo Watson and guitarist/keyboardist Jeff Cooper, with trombonist Vincent Calloway, Reginald’s younger brother, joining later. Dick Griffey signed the group to SOLAR Records around 1978.
Midnight Star released eight albums on SOLAR Records between 1980 and 1990. Their debut album “The Beginning” (1980), the second album “Standing Together” and album number three “Victory” all sold reasonably well, but then came a major breakthrough. Their fourth album, “No Parking on the Dance Floor”, released in 1983, reached number two on Billboard’s Top Black Albums chart and went double platinum in the U.S.A. Their next album, “Planetary Invasion”, followed the same template and also went platinum. In 1986 the band released their sixth album, “Headlines”, which achieved gold certification. Then, unfortunately, the Calloway Brothers left the group and their last two albums did much less well. Their music added a techno-pop dimension to the SOLAR Sound, with a mix of R&B and Funk, augmented by the use of Vocoder on the vocals.
Klymaxx was created and formed in 1979 by Bernadette Cooper (producer/drummer/vocals), with Lorena Porter Shelby (lead vocals), Cheryl Cooley (guitar), Robbin Grider (keyboards) and Lynn Malsby (keyboards). A sixth member, Joyce “Fenderella” Irby (bass/vocals/producer), joined later, before the recording of their debut album “Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman“, which was released in 1981, followed in 1982 by their second album “Girls Will Be Girls”. A third album was recorded in 1983 called “Girls In The Band”, but it was never released.
At this point, Dick Griffey set up a second label, which he named Constellation Records, to which Klymaxx were assigned. The change of label brought about a change in the group’s fortunes. Their chart breakthrough came in 1984, with the release of their fourth album “Meeting in the Ladies Room”, which reached number eighteen on the Pop chart and number nine on the R&B chart, achieving gold status in the process. One more album was released on Constellation in 1986, before the group finally disbanded in 1989.
The Deele was formed in 1981 by a group of musicians from Cincinnati: drummer Antonio “L.A.” Reid, bassist Kevin “Kayo” Roberson, vocalist/percussionist Darnell “Dee” Bristol, lead vocalist Carlos “Satin” Greene, guitarist/keyboardist Stanley “Stick” Burke and guitarist Steve “Tuck” Walters. Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds from Indianapolis was added to the band later that year, and Waters left before they recorded their first album for SOLAR Records in 1983. Two further albums were released in 1985 and 1987, but didn’t enter the charts. The band had greater success with singles, with several chart hits. “Body Talk”, “Two Occasions” and “Shoot ‘Em Up Movies” all made the top ten of the R&B Singles chart.
Carrie Lucas was born in Carmel, California, in 1945. She is the elder sister of keyboardist Greg Phillinganes, but her move into a career in the music industry was quite tentative. In an interview in 1979 (“Blues & Soul” Magazine) , she admitted: “I never thought of singing as a serious career. The truth was that I’d dreamed of being a singer from when I was a little girl but I’d always been too shy to tell anyone about it…”. Nevertheless, Carrie began writing songs for The Whispers and South Shore Commission among others. She also started to sing backing vocals for local LA acts. Carrie sang on The Whispers’ “One For The Money” album in 1976. She had married Dick Griffey in 1974, so it was natural that she should join Soul Train Records in 1976, as she set out to be a solo singer. When that label folded, she joined her husband at SOLAR Records, releasing four albums on SOLAR, before switching to the second label Constellation Records and releasing one last album.
Her first SOLAR album, “Street Corner Symphony”, with the Whispers on backing vocals, was issued in 1978 but failed to reach the charts. In 1979 Lucas released her second SOLAR album, “Carrie Lucas in Danceland”, with Jody Watley (from Shalamar) providing backing vocals. Lakeside, another SOLAR act, co-produced and sang backing vocals, along with Walter and Wallace Scott from The Whispers. The album reached number thirty-seven on the R&B chart. Organist Kossi Gardner wrote and played on the hit single from the album “Dance With You”, which peaked at number forty on the UK Singles chart. “Portrait of Carrie“, the next album (1980), was less commercially successful, despite producing three modest hit singles. The first was a reworking of her first hit, re-titled as “Keep Smilin'”. This was followed by “It’s Not What You Got (It’s How You Use It)” and “Career Girl”. The album itself reached number fifty-seven on the R&B Album chart. Dick Griffey shared production duties with Leon Sylvers 111 and Kossi Gardner.
Carrie’s final SOLAR release was in 1982, entitled “Still In Love”. It was her most successful yet, reaching number thirteen on the R&B Album chart and number eighty on the Pop chart. The album produced two 12″ singles, “Men” and the more successful “Show Me Where You’re Coming From”.
Carrie moved to Constellation Records at this point and later released her final album in 1985, entitled “Horsin’ Around”, which charted at number forty on the R&B Album chart. Constellation released four singles from the album, one of which, a cover version of Barbara Lewis’ “Hello Stranger”, reached number twenty on the US Billboard R&B chart.
In 1999 Unidisc Records in Canada released a Carrie Lucas “Greatest Hits” set that gives a good overview of her best 12″ mixes. Given SOLAR’s eminence in the field of dance music, it features many dance-oriented tracks. However there is also the feeling that, beneath the disco beat, there is a subtler, more Soul-inflected artist at work.
Carrie Lucas released her latest single on May 15th 2018 on Solar Records UK. The song, “Some Things Never Change”, was written by Carrie Lucas and Nigel Lowis.
Lakeside is the final group that played a distinctive part in creating the SOLAR Sound. The name is derived from a group from Ohio that was formed in 1971 and called themselves Ohio Lakeside Express. Confusingly, they were signed to Lakeside Records, which had just been set up by Eddie Thomas, after he left Curtom Records, but nothing came of this venture. Ohio Lakeside Express then met Frank Wilson in 1974, who attracted the group to Motown and then signed them to his own production company “Spec-O-Lite Productions”, when he left Motown in 1976. He persuaded them to simplify the name!
Meanwhile Dick Griffey had heard the band around the time they signed to Motown and began offering them help and advice, which led to him working with them as a kind of unofficial manager from 1975.
In 1977 Lakeside finally released their debut album, “Lakeside”, which featured the single “If I Didn’t Have You”. The group also made their first appearance on the Soul Train TV show, which attracted the attention of Norman Whitfield, who tried to sign them for his new label. Whitfield was a big name to turn down, but Lakeside decided to stay with Dick Griffey, signing for SOLAR Records in 1978. Griffey promised them an opportunity to write and produce their own songs, which obviously was not on offer elsewhere.
The members of the band were Marvin Craig (bass), Fred Alexander (drums), Fred Lewis (percussion), Steve Shockley (guitar), Norman Beavers (keyboards), Otis Stokes (guitarist/multi-instrumentalist and lead vocalist) , Mark Wood (lead vocalist/keyboards) and backing vocalists Tiemeyer McCain and Thomas Shelby. Their first release on SOLAR in 1978 showed that Griffey had indeed given them the chance to develop their own music. Alexander, Lewis, Wood, McCain and Shelby were all involved in writing the songs for the album, which they called “Shot of Love”. The album entered the Billboard 200, reaching number seventy-four, and also made it to number ten on the R&B chart. The funky single released from the album “It’s All the Way Live” (number four on the R&B Singles chart) and the soul ballads “Given in to Love” and “Visions of My Mind” attracted a lot of attention.
Over the next six years SOLAR Records released six Lakeside albums, all of which entered the Pop and R&B charts. The band members continued to be heavily involved in song-writing and production. The most successful of the albums was 1980’s “Fantastic Voyage”, which reached number sixteen on the Billboard 200 and number two on the R&B Album chart, earning the group a platinum disc for sales of over one million copies. Three more of the albums achieved gold certification: “Your Wish Is My Command”, “Untouchables” and “Outrageous”. They released two further albums on the SOLAR label, “Power” in 1987 and “Party Patrol” in 1990, but these were less successful.
The title song of the “Fantastic Voyage” album was also released as a single and topped the R&B Singles chart in early 1981. Over the next three years the group released nine more singles, three of which entered the top ten on the R&B Singles chart: “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (an usual cover of the Beatles song), “Raid” and “Outrageous”.
The band achieved an excellent level of consistency, while exploring a variety of styles. Most of their albums contain funky dance tracks, but they also included slow Soul ballads, Quiet Storm and pure disco.
One other aspect of their work makes them stand out. Each of their album covers presents them in a different guise. On “Shot of Love” they seem to be members of Robin Hood’s band of archers. On “Your Wish Is My Command” they are are genies emerging from Aladdin’s magic lamp. “Fantastic Voyage” sees them dressed as pirates on a ship. Other albums feature the group as 1920s police officers and cowboys. The message is clear: this band wants you to enjoy yourself and to lose yourself in the music.
That is actually true of most of the bands that contributed to the SOLAR Sound. They were encouraged to work together, appearing on each other’s albums in supporting roles, and they were encouraged by Dick Griffey to express themselves and to have fun. That’s why the music from SOLAR is important in the story of American R&B. For ten years SOLAR put a smile on people’s faces.
In addition to the acts described above, SOLAR also released work by Babyface, Calloway, Collage, Richie Havens, the Sylvers and Bobby Womack.
The best introduction to SOLAR’s music is the two cd set issued in 2008:
For those who want more, a 6 cd box set was released in 1988: