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Posted: Friday, Oct. 15, 2010

Beach music icon General Johnson dies

By Mark Washburn, Lawrence Toppmann and April Baker
Published in: Entertainment

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He set a million feet shuffling on the dance floor with his "Carolina Girls" and countless others rocking to his R&B breakthrough anthem "Give Me Just a Little More Time."

General Johnson, Grammy-winning songwriter and gravelly tenor who led Chairmen of the Board, died this week after a long musical career that left his indelible footprint on the world of rhythm and blues and on that Carolinas mainstay, beach music.

"He told me at times the difference between beach music and a national hit is that a national hit will be out there five or six weeks and gone," said longtime friend Chris Beachley, who operates the oldies record shop Wax Museum on Monroe Road. "He said you write a 'Carolina Girls,' and it's there forever. He was the king of Carolina beach music."

As a songwriter, Johnson's 1970 top-10 hit "Patches" won a Grammy and launched the career of Clarence Carter. His songs "Want Ads," "Stick Up" and "One Monkey Don't Stop No Show" all put Honey Cone on the charts.

A native of Norfolk, Va., Johnson started singing at 6 with his father in church. By age 12, he was singing with a group called the Humdingers. At 18, he hit the charts with his first hit, "It Will Stand" with the Showmen, a group of his high school pals.

In his autobiography, Neil Sedaka honored that song, saying Johnson's voice haunted him.

"As I traveled from city to city, the record sounded different in each place, almost as if the change of scenery altered the mood. ... I tried to capture the same kind of enthusiasm and mood in a song of my own" - which turned out to be "Breaking Up Is Hard To Do."

His signature 'Brrrrrrrrr'

Johnson moved on to Detroit, where he was recruited to the Invictus label by former Motown hitmakers Holland, Dozier and Holland and launched Chairmen of the Board.

After the million-selling "Give Me Just a Little More Time" in 1970 came top-10 hits "Dangling on a String," "Everything's Tuesday" and "Pay to the Piper," punctuated with Johnson's trademark "Brrrrrrrrr" lip rolls.

Johnson thought he deserved a raise, but the team behind Invictus thought otherwise. There was a split and a lawsuit, and Johnson headed to Europe to perform for a while until the legal dispute was dropped.

He later signed with Arista Records but felt producers were too meddlesome. In 1978, he took the advice he would later give fans in "Gone Fishin:'"

"Everybody wants me to be what they want me to be,

But I can't be nobody else but me.

I'm gonna take me some time, steal away and please myself,

I'm gonna walk away and won't look back."

Johnson and the final lineup of the Chairmen - Danny Woods and Ken Knox - moved their headquarters to Charlotte's East Boulevard to tap into the independent beach music market. Their high-energy act took off like a sea breeze and remained popular for three decades.

Last show in Charlotte

In February, Johnson - who had settled in Atlanta - had knee surgery after complaining of pain during a show at Amos' South End in Charlotte, his last live performance. Waiting for Johnson's return, Chairmen of the Board continued to perform with Knox and Woods.

Johnson had a knee replacement in September and was recovering when he died Wednesday.

"We did everything together," Ken Knox said Thursday. "He was like my big brother."

General was really his first name and he was eternally evasive about his age, said Boomer Von Cannon, who used to do an oldies show on WBT-AM (1110). Johnson liked to say people didn't want to hear music from an old man.

He was wrong on both counts: Johnson died at only 67 and like the women he immortalized in "Carolina Girls," beach music fans considered him "sweeter than candy, hotter than heat."

In June, during one of his last interviews, Johnson said he preferred the career of an independent artist because he valued creative control and savored beach music.

"That's the thing about a good song. Let's say that song was put out 10 years ago, the recording company is done, whoever wrote the song is dead or just ain't writing songs no more," he said.

"But that song is still there." Staff writer Steven Brown and researcher Marion Paynter contributed.

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