52nd Street (band)
|Labels||Factory Records (UK)
Profile Records (US)
MCA Records (US)
|Associated acts||New Order
Cool Down Zone
|Past members||Rose Williams
52nd Street were a British jazz-funk and R&B band formed in Manchester in late 1980, around the period in which both punk/new wave and jazz-funk rocked the club scene. Throughout the 1980s the group enjoyed success not only in the UK but also on the Billboard chart in the United States. Their biggest and best-known hit single was "Tell Me (How It Feels)", released in 1985 by the 10 Records subsidiary of Virgin Records in the UK and then months later on in 1986 on MCA Records in the US.
The original line-up consisted of Tony Henry (guitar), Derrick Johnson (bass), Desmond Isaacs (keyboards), Tony Thompson (drums) and Jennifer McCloud (vocals). Within six months vocalist Rose Williams and saxophonist Eric Godden both came and departed before the line-up settled with John Dennison (keyboards) replacing Desmond Isaacs and Beverley McDonald (lead vocals) replacing Jennifer McCloud.
The band played gigs around the Manchester scene in many dingy and trendy venues, whilst at the same time recording demo tapes in local studios. Local funk DJ Mike Shaft became their mentor and would play 52nd Street demos on his Piccadilly Radio shows. In mid-1981 soul DJ Richard Searling and ex-Sad Café manager Derek Brandwood (both of RCA Records) put the band in Revolution Studios Manchester to record what was supposed to be their debut single. The irony of this liaison was that Searling and Brandwood were also responsible for early pre-Factory Joy Division recordings.
Whilst recording demos for RCA, the band was also put into Strawberry Studios to record tracks for Warner Bros. Records A&R scout and club promotions manager Erskine Thompson. With both major labels increasing the pressure to talk to the manager-less 52nd Street, bass player Derick Johnson instead contacted ex-DJ Rob Gretton, co-owner of Factory Records, and Joy Division’s manager. (The connection was through Johnson's brother Donald, the drummer for Factory act A Certain Ratio.) Gretton went to see the band play at jazz venue The Band on the Wall in Manchester. Soon after, Gretton and his reluctant partner Tony Wilson agreed to take a chance and add the band to their roster. Funk/soul was not what Factory Records was about and that initially frightened Wilson, although he had previously released a single from Manchester reggae act X-o-dus.
The Factory years
52nd Street’s first release on Factory Records in 1982 was "Look into My Eyes," backed with "Express," produced by Donald Johnson. Journalist Paul Morley, then reviewing singles for the NME, made it his single of the week, but his approval did little to get daytime radio play or enhance sales.
Toward the end of 1982, 52nd Street started experimenting with electronic sounds and drum machines, after being influenced by productions from New York City’s hip hop community and Bill Laswell’s work with jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock. In the early weeks of 1983 a rough cassette demo was played to Rob Gretton in his Chorlton home by both Tony Henry and Derrick Johnson after Gretton requested the band forward material for a new single. That track was "Cool as Ice."
Around that same period, the band New Order—formed in 1980 from the remaining members of Joy Division after its lead singer's suicide—was also experimenting with electronic sounds. New Order's Bernard Sumner was at the forefront of 52nd Street's culture change. The group was due to fly to New York to start work with producer Arthur Baker. Gretton, always quick with ideas, arranged for Donald Johnson, Sumner and 52nd Street to experiment with the latest technology synths and sequencers and complete "Cool as Ice," insisting though that the tune retain the 52nd Street vibe.
This studio session helped create foundations that were to become the New Order techno sound. Sumner was credited under the pseudonym Bemusic and Johnson under DoJo.
With Gretton absent in New York with New Order, "Cool as Ice" (backed with "Twice as Nice") never officially received a release in the UK, although BBC Radio 1 DJs John Peel and Janice Long were playing the track on evening and late night shows from white label pressings that Factory Records had made available.
A few bootlegs started to appear in the United States. Michael Shamberg, who headed Factory’s United States office in New York City stepped in. Within the space of six weeks he had secured 52nd Street a major US deal with A&M Records and helped the song gain a top 20 Billboard Dance Chart position and rising. A&M flew the band to the US to promote the release, playing live club dates mainly on the east side of the country, including two nights at the famous Danceteria in New York City.
Meanwhile in the UK, Wilson, not one to shy away from publicity began to include the band on Factory’s more extravagant publicity materials and talk the group up in interviews. They also appeared twice on his Granada Reports news programme.
More success, more problems
The success of "Cool as Ice" in 1983 led A&M (US) to demand an immediate follow up single to maintain momentum. Meanwhile in Manchester, Factory’s premier gold machine New Order were scoring worldwide breaking all kind of records with monster hits; "Blue Monday" and the Arthur Baker produced "Confusion". Many acts in this period at Factory suffered in the shadow of the New Order revolution, due to lack of label manpower. Creative decisions could not be made at short notice within the company as both principal executives Wilson and Gretton were constantly away from the office with the band.
52nd Street became restless and started to implode. Major labels including A&M (UK) were starting to show interest, but certain band members felt loyal to the Factory organisation. On Rob's return from the New Order tour, where 52nd Street supported on some dates, a heated debate about commitment between band members and Gretton resulted in the suggestion that Wilson’s ex-wife Lindsay Reade become their full-time manager. This plan was supposed to speed things up; she could make decisions on behalf of Factory Communications once this was clarified by either Rob Gretton or Tony Wilson.
The Lindsay Reade years
Reade had returned to Factory Records in 1984, after her divorce from Tony Wilson, to run the Overseas Licensing Department. Gretton suggested that Reade needed something more challenging to do and that people tended to underestimate her abilities. He also overheard Reade tell another staff member that the only other band on the label worth spending money on was 52nd Street. "At least they made music that ordinary people would buy." Reade had not at that time met the band.
Once manager, she put together a strategy to hasten productivity. After a short non-productive period, the band regrouped and reorganised. Vocalist Beverley McDonald departed and promptly began contributing to Quando Quango's LP Pigs and Battleships. Although not the strongest of singers, she had the Factory look and ethos which Tony Wilson loved. She was "rugged cool" (not unlike Macy Gray) and had an image that wouldn’t have looked out of place had she been lead vocalist with Joy Division. Wilson wasn’t happy with the change and stated that this decision would lead to the quick demise of 52nd Street.
McDonald was replaced by Diane Charlemagne (later lead vocalist with Moby and would go on to bigger UK success with the Urban Cookie Collective). Charlemagne, even in 1984, was one of the strongest female soul voices in the UK.
New Order’s Stephen Morris was called in by Rob to help out on production for 52nd Street’s 3rd single "Can’t Afford". Morris also completed production on two other tracks that were supposed to appear on a later EP. Like Sumner, Morris was now a deep philosopher in electronic funk and his ideas, intercut with Tony Henry’s sequenced bass lines and Charlemagne’s potent vocal delivery, excited everyone at Factory except for Wilson, who was still grieving the loss of McDonald. Both those additional tracks "Look I’ve Heard it all Before" and "Available" were re-recorded and released on the band’s 1986 Virgin debut album titled Children of the Night.
Eleven months had passed since A&M US requested a follow up single. They finally lost patience with the unprofessionalism of Factory Records. Reade, implementing what she thought was agreed company policies and procedures, mailed copies of the new single to A&M US. They rejected the track, more on a business footing than artistic, thus leaving the band free to negotiate with other interested parties. Profile Records (home to Run DMC among others), heard "Can’t Afford" on constant rotation in New York night clubs on import and were amazed that A&M had declined to exercise the option. Reade, as Overseas Licensing Manager, negotiated with Profile Records who wanted to move fast and put the record out on the streets as bootleg recordings were already beginning to surface.
Reade’s business dealings caused eruptions not just with Wilson and Gretton, but Michael Shamberg who ran Factory US. 52nd Street was caught in the middle and the band members' allegiance to Reade were beginning to fragment. They knew her aims and objectives were sincere and her method was for their artistic benefit. In December 1984, a crucial Factory Records Management meeting was hastily arranged with all directors in which Reade was subsequently sacked and told to leave the offices immediately without the band. http://www.partypeoplemovie.com/legend_sub.php?section=2&subsection=4
"Can't Afford" was an even a bigger US success than "Cool as Ice," entering the Top 15 on the Billboard Dance Chart in early 1985.
Another Factory divorce
Loyalties within the band were being truly tested. Derrick Johnson was a die hard Factory Records man. He not only played bass for 52nd Street, but was also session guitarist alongside his brother Barry Johnson (former bass player with Sweet Sensation) in Mike Pickering’s upcoming band Quando Quango. Also, Derrick’s other brother Donald was also starting to take on a more leading role in the band A Certain Ratio since the departure of both Simon Topping and Peter Terrell. After deliberation and much soul searching, against the wishes of both Gretton and Wilson, 52nd Street followed Lindsay Reade and left Factory Records in January 1985. Derrick Johnson refused to follow and stayed with the organisation.
Children of the Night
The band went on to have success in the UK Singles chart and U.S. Billboard R&B charts with several songs from their 1985 album "Children of the Night". The album reached #23 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and #71 in the UK Albums Chart. It was produced by Philadelphia based Nick Martinelli who was producing two other successful UK based acts Loose Ends and Five Star at the time. The biggest hit from the album was "Tell Me (How it Feels)" which, in the winter of 1985, reached #8 on the U.S. Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, known as the Black Singles chart at that time. It also reached #14 on the U.S. Hot Dance Club Songs chart and #54 on the UK Singles chart. The album spawned two other modest hits in the UK Singles chart in early 1986 with "You're My Last Chance" (#49 UK) and "I Can't Let You Go (#57 UK).
Their final album "Something's Going On" was released in 1987. It was not a commercial success, with one chart hit "I'll Return" which reached #79 on the U.S. Black Singles chart. The album and single failed to chart in the UK.