Ace Records released “The J&S Years” by Baby Washington & the Hearts (CDCHD 1089), and “The Clickettes Meet The Fashions” (CDCHD 1095), a set containing that dual-monikered group’s complete recordings for Dice Records, earlier this year. Johnnie & Joe’s I’LL BE SPINNING marks our third venture into the catalogue of the late Zelma “Zell” Sanders, the fabled Harlem-based proprietor of the J&S, Dice, Scatt, Zell’s and other logos: the duo comprised Mrs Sanders’ daughter Johnnie Louise Richardson and Joe Rivers.
For the Hearts, the first act she managed, Zell Sanders secured a deal with Baton Records, the fortunate recipients of the gals’ debut, Lonely Nights, a Top 10 R&B smash late in 1954. (This and three more of the group’s recordings can be found on “The Baton Label: Sol’s Story”, CDCHD 505.) After a few more releases by the Hearts, Zell was ready to form her own record company, J&S, which launched in June 1956 with releases by the Pilgrim Harmoneers and the Pre-Teens.
Johnnie & Joe debuted for the label that October with Feel Alright, but it was the B-side of that platter, I’ll Be Spinning, that clicked with radio listeners. Sensing a new indie hit ripe for covering, Modern Records of Los Angeles rushed out a version of the song by the Cadets, while Leonard Chess came a’knocking at Mrs Sanders’ front door (literally) with an offer to distribute the record nationally. Deal done, I’ll Be Spinning was released by Chess Records, reaching the R&B Top 10 in January 1957. The duo’s next disc, Over The Mountain, Across The Sea, was shipped by J&S the following month and immediately attracted the attention of DJs such as Hal Jackson, who played it to death, prompting another distribution deal with Chess. Then Dick Clark got behind the record and aired it on his nationally syndicated TV show, American Bandstand. By April it was #1 in Detroit and by May it had entered Billboard’s national charts, where it peaked at #3 R&B a few weeks later, also reaching #8 during a lengthy six-month run on their Hot 100 Pop list. In July My Baby’s Gone, On, On joined its A-side in the R&B chart at #15.
Rather than enter into a permanent deal with Chess, Mrs Sanders brazened it out as an independent. Over the next 13 years Johnnie & Joe released great singles not just on J&S and Chess, but also Gone, ABC Paramount, Lana and Tuff, yet the duo were never able to live down Over The Mountain, Across The Sea. By 1960 the era of “Those Oldies But Goodies” had begun, and Johnnie & Joe were early beneficiaries. That September, over three years after its initial release, continued airplay resulted in their classic re-entering the Hot 100 for a couple of weeks. The event prompted something the record never had first time around, a soundalike sequel, Across The Sea . In 1962, J&S re-released Over The Mountain, Across The Sea and issued (somewhat belatedly) Over The Mountain, Part 2. Circa 1965 Johnnie & Joe cut a new version of Over The Mountain, Across The Sea for the Lana label and in 1970 Johnnie released a solo update of the song on Zell’s.
Zell Sanders died in 1976, aged just 54, while Johnnie Louise was only 40-something when she was felled by a stroke in 1988. Today one can expect to pay £350 for a mint condition copy of the original British 45 of Over The Mountain, Across The Sea, but fans blessed with smaller budgets now have this bumper collection to savour. It contains the cream of Johnnie & Joe’s recordings, including some later soul-style sides and solo offerings from Johnnie, the majority of which are making their legit CD debut – I Pray To Keep Our Love Strong and Be Sure are previously unissued in any format. The CD is a long overdue tribute to one of the classic duos of 1950s R&B, all wrapped up in a lavish booklet comprising 20 pages, four of which are devoted to a Johnnie & Joe discography brainstormed by co-compiler Peter Gibbon.
BY MICK PATRICK