Jimmy Castor's career is almost a summation New York's Soulful music history in the second half of the 20th Century. From his doo-wop days in the fifties to his pioneering Latin-soul experiments in the 1960s ("Hey Leroy, Your Mama's Calling You," a massive hit on the pop and soul charts in 1966) to his seventies Funk work which played a colossal role in the early Hip Hop movement of the eighties, he always found a way to stay in the mix. Equally proficient as a singer, sax player, and percussionist, he was always one step ahead of the record companies that tried to stereotype him. Punk rock is probably the only New York music he hasn't crossed paths with, and he came close via a instrumental version of Lou Reed's "Walk On The Wild Side" on a 1974 album.
Jimmy Castor has accomplished a lot on his own---read the interview for proof. But the history books usually remember him for (1) one or two novelty hits, (2) his association with Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, seminal New York doo-woppers (he wrote, and recorded the original version of, "I Promise To Remember"), and (3) that his 1970s work with the Jimmy Castor Bunch laid the groundwork for Hip Hop. His song, "It's Just Begun," became a staple of the rap and Hip Hop scene almost a decade after he recorded it. Early deejays on the scene like Kool Herc would throw this forgotten jam on the turntables as MC's rapped over it and breakdancers moved to it. It was even used in the movie Flashdance, but for some arcane reason RCA refused to license it for the soundtrack LP on Casablanca. "Troglodyte," his 1972 hit, had a spoken intro that was endlessly sampled for years ("What we're gonna do right here is GO BACK...WAAAY BACK...BACK INTO TIME...").
In the last decade he's finally being recognized as something of a hard-rock pioneer. In 1972 he released two albums on RCA, It's Just Begun and Phase Two, both of which mined the same territory that Funkadelic was exploring around that same time: hard Funk mixed with what we'd later call Heavy Metal. What Castor brought to the table was a relentless Latin influence and his own twisted sense of humor. Going back further in time, the best place to pick up on Castor's vocal-group days in the fifties is an unfortunately out-of-print 1981 album called I Promise To Remember Yesterday, on the Crystal Ball label. You can hear his unique high tenor voice on the original version of "I Promise...," edging away from the playfulness of Frankie and moving closer to the melancholy of a Little Jimmy Scott. You also get tracks by Jimmy's friend Sherman Garnes (bass man for the Teenagers), including a sloppy live version (from 1972) of "Why Do Fools Fall In Love" and an exquisite ballad from 1977 celebrating those "Oldie Goldies." The latter was written by Castor, but unreleased until this album.
Chuck Eddy realized Castor's greatness in his book Stairway To Hell, which was a listing of Eddy's choices of the 500 best Heavy Metal of all time. Phase Two was #10. Eddy, like the rest of us, was blown away by the fact that the same man was capable of lounge ballads ("The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face"), goofy novelties ("Say Leroy, The Creature From The Black Lagoon Is Your Father"), and Metallic rock jams that split the difference between Grand Funk and Santana. And he wasn't making a big deal out of being, as they say, "eclectic."
New York City really is a melting pot---you eventually get used to hearing James Brown coming out of one window, Tito Puente coming from another, doo-woppers on one corner, rappers on another. You either get tired of music altogether or absorb it all like a sponge. From the looks of things, Jimmy Castor hasn't gotten tired of music yet.
James Porter: First, I wanna start out by saying that everybody focuses on your association with Frankie Lymon, and the fact that "It's Just Begun" was like a seminal beakdance song, but nobody ever mentions the fact that you were one of the few Black musicians I know, apart from Joe Bataan, who is openly influenced by Latin music. There was a lot of salsa-soul in the sixties, but it was usually Latins crossing over to the Black sound, seldom the other way around. How did you get into that?
Jimmy Castor: I was raised uptown in Washington Heights, and that was mainly Puerto Rican-Dominican. I was around it all the time, and I learned the authenticity of the music. I heard it a lot, and then I really started listening to Cal Tjader and younger players like Ricardo Ray, Joe Cuba, and Tito Puente, ultimately, because he was the King. Basically, my roots are from the islands as well...Bermuda, things like that, so I caught on quickly. Before you know it, I was playing bongos and then I went to timbales.
So how did you get into music?
I got into music because of Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers. I was musically inclined, but when they came out with their music, everybody wanted to be Frankie & the Teenagers. They made it look so easy. They were the first supergroup. I always sang in my house, and my mother always sang to me and she loved music, she would play Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, and I knew standards and everything. But then, when Frankie came out, with the Teenagers, they made it look so easy, everybody wanted to be Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers. They were the first teen idols of color. So I just started singing. Everybody uptown started singing, quote-unquote, "doo-wop." I don't know where they got that name from, because I heard Alan Freed himself, he'd say "this is Rock & Roll," you know, because I was there. When I wrote "I Promise To Remember," and recorded it myself, Frankie's management thought I'd be a threat and wanted to cover it. And I knew them very well. I mean, I was close with them. Sherman Garnes was one of my best friends, and when that happened, they scooped me up right away as Frankie's understudy. Because Frankie, being very precocious, at 13-14 he was basically 25-29 in his head because he was with women, he was like a midget, almost, he was a man. Sometimes, he wouldn't show up and I had to be there. So that's how I got into it.
Now, you said that you're musically inclined. You said that Frankie made it look so easy. Did you feel you had a leg up on everybody else as far as getting a group going?
Yeah, because I saw them and was right there with them. Even before I was in the group, I was there backstage with Sherman at the Brooklyn Paramount, all the big shows, at the beginning...the Brooklyn Fox, I was there. It was easy for me then. I guess I did have the talent---the underlying talent. In elementary school, we would have plays and Frankie would be extraordinary. Leslie Uggams, also, went to our school, so she would be extraordinary I would be just...regular. They were extraordinary. I guess it had to come out of me. I had the underlying talent all the while.
You were ahead of everybody else in that you actually wrote the song you recorded. A couple of guys from the Teenagers wrote, "Why Do Fools Fall In Love," but they didn't have their business together. I hope this isn't a personal question, but did you get your monies due?
Yeah, I'm still getting paid for that record. What happened was, we were living in the lowest of the ghetto at the time---$40/mo. rent---and when I wrote "I Promise To Remember," and (the Teenagers) covered it, my first check was $2500, and back then, 1956, '57, that was a lot of money. We moved, finally, into a place where there was a doorman and a terrace---we moved into a place called Lenox Terrace in Harlem, which was just fascinating. I couldn't believe it when I went to visit it that there was a terrace there because all we had was a fire escape.
Now, I'm looking at this picture...it's like a composite of acts at the Apollo? I see here that the marquee advertises Larry Williams, Ed Townsend, John Bubbles...
The Teen Chords,
Yeah, the Teen Chords! Were you a member of that group? I see a picture in the center where you're jiving around with Lewis (a/k/a Lewis Lymon, Frankie's brother, who sang lead).
I was in the group later on, singing first tenor.
Were you on any of the records?
Yeah, I did (sings) "dance girrrl," we did that and we did (sings) "I fell in love with you the first time I looked at you---BOOM! Them there eyes." Yeah (laughs), we did "Them There Eyes" and "Dance Girl."
Now, after high school, did you keep playing music? Did you go to college or did you start working the bars then?
I went to college, I went to City College. I wanted to get into the Manhattan School of Music but it was so tough...you know, Music and Art had trained me so well, it was such as special school, so many great people came from the High School of Music & Art. When you graduate from there, they teach you classical...there's a music survey test that you have to take. If you don't pass that test, you have to leave the school. That's after four years, even. You have to go to another high school and just become a regular person for a year. I learned clarinet there, all the classics---Mozart; Bach, which I'm still listening to; Beethoven; my favorite is Rimsky-Korsakoff. I learned to solfeggio---(sings) "do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do"---and sing that to songs. I didn't know that. I was from Harlem, I didn't know these things. When I got there, they were singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" like: (sings) "So-mi-do-mi-so-do! Re-do-ti-mi-fa-so!" I didn't know what they was doin', but I had to learn that. They were very strict. So when you leave that school, you can be professional immediately. But I went on and minored in music and majored in accounting. I went two years. On one of my finals, I was asked to leave the room and never come back. I told my mother and grandmother at home that I wanted to play. They were devastated. But I wasn't---you know, the saxophone became my love and I started playing. I got a band together, joined other bands, and found that I couldn't fit, that I was a leader. I joined other bands and I started playing every place in Harlem. Dances, bar mitzvahs, downtown in Brooklyn Elks' Clubs for $7---"Tequila" (starts singing sax riff). When it was time for me to make a record, which was "Hey Leroy," everybody knew me because I played the whole area. I was selling 250,000 a week in Harlem.
So how did "Hey Leroy" come about?
Playing in Small's Paradise and Club Baron, all the big dances and everything, I would do calypso. I would play with Fats Green and Lord Melody. When I saw the people moving with that---C, Em, F, G---that's all it is, you know, and a great sax solo. Coming from the quote-unquote "ghet-to," there was always a Leroy. To make it happen, just like I did in "King Kong" and "Bertha," I try to make my records happen immediately because I don't have time to get into the middle of the record. The company that you're with, if you're in the quote-unquote "Black" department, where they always put you, if your record doesn't happen in two weeks they go to the next record---somebody else. So I have to catch you---"HEY LEROY!," or "BOM" (from "The Bertha Butt Boogie") or "BA-DA-DAT-DAT-DA!" (horn riff from "It's Just Begun")---I gotta get you right away. All my records are that way.
Interesting you mention the Calypso influence in "Hey Leroy", because everybody considers it more of a Latin thing.
Latin Calypso. The cowbell made it more Latin.
You weren't jumping on a trend, you were just doing what you felt. But at the same time, there were a bunch of Latin records coming out with Black appeal, like Joe Cuba's "Bang Bang" and Hector Rivera's "At The Party." "Hey Leroy" was right in there.
I felt it. And it was a groove. It was a groove. I always search for the groove. I'm not a rapper, I'm a storyteller.
The Smash label must have had some kind of handle on what you were doing. When they released your first album (Hey Leroy, Your Mama's Calling You), the liner notes were bilingual. Was this your decision?
I think it was the record company's choice. I was moving too fast at the time to know. Dick Clark had called me (to appear on American Bandstand and Where The Action Is), I couldn't believe it was happening. Then the New York Times said I had brought the Latin and people of color together with my music. And I was glad! Glad somebody tried to! (laughs)
And a few white people, too---that song crossed over to the pop Top 40.
When my music does that, it does it on its' own---believe me, its' never promoted. Luther (Vandross) has been fighting that all his career, to get to the masses. They (the labels) always put you in the Black department, urban department, special market, that's the reason I'm not with a record company now. I've been with all the majors, but when they do that to me...you see, Boyz II Men are no longer happening today because they allowed that to happen to them. They always say "the R&B group Boyz II Men." They never say that about N'Sync. They never say that about Backstreet Boys. They say "Backstreet Boys." They say "N'Sync." They should just say "Boyz II Men." But when they say "R&B group," they weren't just an R&B group. They had #1 records! They had records that sounded like baroque! They were just great! And to allow that to happen...you can't have a career for ten years in this business when you're a person of color. It's just awful.
You made your network TV debut on American Bandstand. How'd that go?
Dick Clark called me. I was living in the Bronx, I couldn't believe it. He said, "would you like to do the show?" I didn't even know the record was really that happening because someone had just called me the day before and said, "hey Jimmy, did you record a record?" I said "yeah!" "It's on WOR," and that was a big (pop) station. The record just phenomenally took off because of the groundwork I laid in New York and the boroughs of New York City: Bronx, Brooklyn, I mean I was the king there when it came to dances, quote-unquote, and clubs. And they bought it! It happened to have a good beat, we went in early one morning, 11:00, and recorded it. We had to fight to get this record done! I took this record everywhere! No company would take this record. Its just that Sammy Davis, Jr.'s road manager, Finis Henderson, Sr.---on the cover of Hey Leroy, there I am in the barrio and that's Finis wearing the hat in the background---I knew him and he took it to Sammy and Sammy loved it and took it to Luchi DeJesus at Mercury, who was the vice president of Latin music at the time. Luchi loved it! He passed away also (later). Finis is gone, Luchi's gone, I'm the only one around...he loved it and said, "let's do an album!" I was grateful to do that. I was really hustling, hustling, hustling and with a record, you don't have to do that. A record changes everything! Limos, everything!
And I've noticed you do a lot of standards, like on that first LP---you did "Winchester Cathedral."
Well, those are things I hear. I like great music. If I hear something, I do it my way. I'm basically weaning myself with a Vegas-type thing. Like on that first album, we did "Winchester Cathedral" and "Our Day Will Come."
On the same album as "Southern Fried Frijoles!"
Yeah, John (Pruitt, longtime collaborator) & I wrote that..."Southern Fried Frijoles!" (laughs) We saw then that they were coming together---the people of color and the Latin people. And they loved it! That was a clever piece of work by John Pruitt because John, who was my writing partner at the time, was an English major, and we grew up together. We were the only guys who didn't do drugs, we were called every name in the book. Most of the people that we did grow up with are either dead or in jail, or might as well be dead because they look dead.
Did you play for Blacks and Latins equally when you started out?
Yes. In Harlem. Then I spread out to Long Island, like the El Patio beach club. Then it was Jewish, real heavily Jewish, with cabanas and things like that, which I didn't even know. I knew when you went to the beach, you get an umbrella and get a spot. They had cabanas and things! (laughs) I'd play the lounge, and I was basically weaning myself of Vegas again. In the main room would be Don Rickles, Jack Carter, Sammy, you know. I just realized that I had been weaning myself all these years for Vegas, that's why I wanna play Vegas now and be a staple here. (AUTHOR'S NOTE: Castor lives in Vegas now)
Did you ever meet Sammy, since he liked your record so much?
Yes. He made a fool of himself on some things, but he was so talented. When Sammy walked in the room, it was a different air. Elvis walked into the room, it's the same type of thing. It was a different ballgame. This was the BIG TIME. Sammy was BIG TIME. It was BIG TIME. Movies. Vegas. The Rat Pack...you couldn't get any bigger.
You didn't follow up that Smash LP right away...
I've always had trouble with record companies but I knew what I wanted then. I try not to fight with them but I can't allow them to hurt my career. If you notice, in that album there's a thing called "Hey Willie." "Get outta bed, man, it's time to go to school, you know you stupid." The cowbell again. So I'm trying to get an identity there. This'll be my second one. But Charlie Fach, who was the president (of Smash/Mercury) at the time, he said, "no, you should be blowing your saxophone, because Jr. Walker's hot." I said, "But I'm not Jr. Walker, I'm Jimmy Castor." "Hey Willie," that was a REAL groove! I liked that better than "Leroy!" And man, they just stopped promoting! (As a recording artist) You gotta be on every DAY! I see acts of different persuasions on The Tonight Show and everything saying, "I'm gonna take a couple of years off and not record"...I see Bon Jovi doing that, Bruce Springsteen...but the record companies keep promoting them, marketing, merchandising, putting on these shows...man, if we (Black artists) did that for one SECOND! We're as good as our last RECORD! And that's what happened when they didn't go with "Willie." I can't allow that to happen, so I appeased them and put out a record called "Magic Saxophone" that John & I wrote right quick...which I liked, but it wasn't time for that. It just didn't happen. So, I just left, and went back to playing clubs.
So how did you get the Bunch together?
We got to Canada, we played Young St. in Toronto. We played there for a couple of years and got pretty popular. Of course, we built our following there in Montreal and every one started naming their groups; Earth, Wind & Fire, Sly & the Family Stone, and I was, at the time, Jimmy Castor with a band, you know, "the Jimmy Castor Band," or "Jimmy Castor & Band." We had to name our group because we had to stay in it in '69, '70. I loved Sly, and things like that, so Jimmy & the So-and-Sos---I said "NO, MAN!"
It seems like we're moving into the black psychedelic era, where bands like Funkadelic and Sly & the Family Stone were adapting Rock techniques to what they were doing---Funk, basically. The first two Jimmy Castor Bunch LP's on RCA seem like a reaction to that.
Yes. We were big Sly fans. It was unbelievable. He was bringing the races together also, and he was just amazing! For a time, we would just do Sly material! Once, I said we were just a bunch of hardworking musicians. John said, "what did you say?" I said we were a bunch of hard-working musicians. He said Jimmy Castor's Bunch. I said, no man---the Jimmy Castor Bunch. And that's how it became.
So when you signed to RCA in 1972, which came first, the "Troglodyte" single, or the album (It's Just Begun)?
It seems like a unified concept, from the cover on down.
It was a filler, because we had done the album. And so we needed a filler so I said, "let's do that prehistoric music that we do, and I'll just tell a story." And I had studied anthropology in high school, so I knew about troglodytes and anthropoids and things. That's why I gave the whole Bunch credit---I just wrote the lyric but they wrote the music. That just came to me! It was never written down! When I recorded it, I just faded the band up slowly, which made it different. When I said "What we're gonna do right here is go back"---which the WORLD says now, you know? Nobody knows I said that...anyway, "what we're gonna do right here is go back"---it just came to me! It was basically a lesson. Even "Potential" (which came a few years later)---we said, what is it, possibilities? There's always a lesson, because the children are always listening.
Now, on the Phase Two album, you had a Jimi Hendrix medley...
I knew Jimi. He said everything he had to say with his clothes and his music. When he took the stage, he commanded it, so it was hard for him to be a sideman. Jimi loved Bob Dylan, 'cause you can tell by the way he sings. He would bring Bob Dylan's picture in the dressing room and just look at it. I knew Jimi well---he just had one bad habit. Two weeks before he passed away, I went down to his house and Buddy Miles was in there with him and they were really wasted. I said, "Jimi, come on, let's go." I tried to get 'em both out, Buddy couldn't go. So, I had my girlfriend with me and he wanted me to ride with him. I had a Cadillac. He had this Stingray with all sorts of speckles on it. He lived on 10th St. down in the Village. We were gonna eat at the Flash Inn uptown at 155th St. by Yankee Stadium. Man, he didn't stop for ONE light, from 10th St. to 155th St.! We had to go through Central Park and everything! He STILL didn't stop, he almost KILLED me! I said, "what are you DOING!" He said, I just don't believe in society!" He gave me this bridge of his, that night. He had a bridge from a guitar---"Just keep this." He was just strange that way, but he was nice, he couldn't say no, just a nice person but he just got wasted. He wouldn't eat that night---he said, "They don't love me here anymore and I'm leaving." I said, "That's not true, everyone loves you, you just have to get your act together." The manager, the money he's making...he said "I make $100,000 a night and I come home with $20,000. What is that?" I said, "Jimi, that's your business. I don't know what you signed, whatever you did..." He says, "I wanna cut 'Hey Leroy.'" I said "Okay." He went away to England and passed away two weeks later.
I liked the way you switched the tunes around in the medley---"Purple Haze" to the tune of "Foxey Lady" and vice versa!
That's how I heard it, though, James! You know what I mean? I heard it THAT way!
I kinda like your NERVE, because Hendrix is a sacred cow with a lot of people and here you are totally playing with these songs!
He was my man! I could do that and they'd respect me! They know I'm doing it as a tribute!
You were respectful, but you were playful at the same time.
Because that's how we were, he and I, you know what I mean? I just didn't do the drugs, and he'd always laugh at me, but that's how we were! I felt that I could do that and still do, because that was my man!
I liked "When" a lot---that song is really bitter. You were going OFF! That scream is scary!
People were talking about "we're gonna do this, that"---WHEN?
You had sequels to "Leroy" and "Troglodyte"...
"Say Leroy, The Creature From The Black Lagoon Is Your Father!" And "Luther The Anthropoid."
Was Luther more evolved than the Troglodyte?
Yes, he was stronger because he was almost an ape!
There was one song, "Party Life," which reminded me of (salsa-soul pioneer) Joe Bataan---had that same ballady sound.
I knew (Latin soul balladeer) Jimmy Sabater and those guys and I wanted to sound like Jimmy Sabater. Of course, you heard Frankie and Jimmy in my voice. That's a real Latin jam!
Although it's a sweet-sounding song, the backup is really furious, with the timbales and everything.
I do that today, and it's just incredible, that song, for Ricky Martin to do today!
I can hear it! Not as good as you, but I can hear it...
Oh, thank you, James, thank you! Well, it's about time somebody gives me some kind of credit, boy! All they do is reject you and step on you!
By the time you released Dimension III, you were easing away from the rock and getting more into ballads.
We were evolving into that. We had done the groove thing. We were (now) doing a class album, and RCA didn't appreciate it. They said, "what is he, Lawrence Welk?" I overheard that, and left the label, because they didn't want me to do serious music.
You were still in the ballad phase when you went over to Atlantic in 1974.
The Everything Man? Yeah, I tried to get out of the chitlin circuit. I wanted to play upperscale things but they keep their thumb on you. They wouldn't accept it---the company wouldn't promote it. The company, if they don't like what you do, they won't press up records. When people ask for your product in the stores, it's not there. Then you're dead. Unless they say, "could you order it?" When they come back and it's not ordered, and they don't have it, they can move on to the next person. And that's what happened with my career. They wouldn't press up my product. They'd press up 50,000 when they should press up 500,000.
I like the fact that you did a Lou Reed song ("Walk On The Wild Side").
I felt that, too. I felt the groove. And I'm not a fan of Lou Reed, I just like that groove. Lou could never sing, he just doesn't sing, but he's big, he's huge! I mean, he just can't sing at all. Some people can't sing but he can't sing at all. But I like that (sings riff from song) "doot do-doot, do-doot, doot, do-doot, doot..." You know what I mean?
Just about all of your albums had at least one standard.
My audience demanded it.
But you moved on to "The Bertha Butt Boogie" right after The Everything Man.
I sorta just wasn't happening. A lot of people would say, "where's Bertha?" So I gave her her own song. When you're with record companies, and you're a person of color, you have to do records that sell themselves, 'cause they won't sell 'em for you. "BOM BOM"---right away! And they went out and asked for it and demanded it! And it STILL didn't sell like it should have! It only went to #16 (on Billboard's pop charts in 1975). "Bertha" should have been a Top 5 record!
I think "King Kong" came right behind that.
I was walking down Fifth Avenue one day with my attorney and the president of Atlantic Records at the time, Jerry Greenberg. We're going to a bookstore and I look up and see the Empire State Building. And I said (starts making gorilla noises). They didn't know what I was doing, I said, "Man, that's it!" And I always loved the movie---"KOOMA KABBA SABBE---KONG! KOOMA KABBA SABBA MAMMA---KONG!" So I said "KAMASABE"---'cause you don't want to say the same thing and be sued---"KONG!" When I bring Kong out on the stage, he breaks chains and everything. He comes out, I control him, and we start getting down, 'cause I'm on timbales on that number. I've seen gigs pull out weapons and say "oh shit" because this gorilla really looks real. And it's a big guy in it. When we did Disneyland, I beat Kong out...the Donald Ducks and the Goofys and all those guys tried to get on the stage and this guy (in the gorilla suit) didn't like that. He took those chains and started whipping them off the stage, man! It was unbelievable.
You went to Europe around that time and that's how you met Elton John. What was he like?
Well, we had done "Daniel." He loved it and he just wanted to compliment me. He was short & sweet. He said he was very wealthy, I asked him. He had just bought his entire crew a Mercedes Benz. I was playing at the Hammersmith Odeon, and he heard it and saw it. It was quick.
Didn't he join you on stage?
Well, he tried to, because Elton was kinda high then, at the time. I spoke to him backstage after that. He just wanted to hug me for doing the song because he never heard it that way. I did it with a Calypso kind of thing. It's a great melody.
With Smash and RCA, you had a hit and then left. With Atlantic, you had some longevity.
For a minute. King Curtis had just died (in 1971---Castor signed with Atlantic in 1974) & they wanted that saxophone.
Do you still have that customized motorcycle on the cover of that E-Man Groovin' elpee?
No, I got rid of that when I moved to Vegas. I don't know why, everybody said "Are you crazy?" I just gave it to a guy...that was a 750 V-Max! I ride and I've ridden for a long time. I LOVE motorcycles. I always customize my bikes. I want another bike, but I gotta start working! (laughs)
You made a brief detour from Atlantic with an album for Henry Stone's TK label in Miami.
Well, (Atlantic) hated Maximum Stimulation, that album. At that time, they wanted me to sound like Chic. I said, "I'm not Chic, I'm Jimmy Castor." But they didn't want to hear it...I exposed Chic to them, because I saw Nile (Rodgers) and Bernard (Edwards) one day in the street. They were house musicians for the Apollo. See, nobody knows this, so I'm gonna tell you, and I know I'm being taped, so you know I'm not lying! (laughs) I had a silver Mercedes at the time. They said, "Are you Jimmy Castor?" They knew who I was, I didn't know who they were. They said, "Listen, we have a record" and they handed it to me---on another label, it was one of Morris Levy's labels---and they said, "Man, we think it's a great record, but nobody's playing it, we can't get played," so I said, "Yeah, okay, I'll go over." So I went over to my office---I had an office, the Jimmy Castor Organization at 110 E. 59th St. I played it for the business people up there, and they flipped! They loved it. "Yowsah, yowsah, yowsah! Dance, dance, dance." That's Luther doing that! He called Jerry Greenberg, played it for him over the phone, he flipped. Bought the master, helicoptered records in, and the rest is history. When I got to Maximum Stimulation, they had done "Freak Out" (a/k/a "Le Freak"), some great music, they wanted me to sound that way and I said, "I don't sound that way." That's called I'm being difficult now. So I went to Nile & Bernard, I said, "Listen, they want you to produce me." I don't want anybody producing me! How you gonna produce me! It's hard! I would try (to let others produce me), but I would find fault. They can't hear what I hear, and I know what people want from me. I went to Nile & Bernard and just asked them, they just ignored me. And I helped them get to that LABEL! They made millions!
Do you still talk to Nile?
No I would never talk to anybody that did that to me. I saw them, I went to an Ashford & Simpson thing & I saw Nile, I wouldn't speak to him. When you see Nile on that show on VH1 where they have four entertainers sitting around and they say who's the greatest of this & that...?
The question was "what groups are really underrated?" I just knew Nile was gonna say Kool & the Gang; Earth, Wind & Fire; Jimmy Castor Bunch; Ohio Players--you know what he said? Duran Duran.
He was a member of Duran Duran at one point.
...I don't care, though...Iggy Pop, you don't say that! And that's when I really forgot about him. He's done some great stuff, very talented, in fact I just bought The Best Of Chic, I love it! But I won't talk to him. And Bernard passed away, so I don't have to worry about that.
There was a book by Marc Taylor that came out some time ago called A Touch Of Classic Soul, where the author interviewed all these Soul acts from the seventies. It seemed like everybody in the book who recorded for RCA---the Main Ingredient, the New Birth, the Friends of Distinction---said that that label had no idea how to promote Black artists.
It was a lily-white label. They put Buzzy Willis there in the Black department but my music is pop-R&B! You see, it's just not R&B. So that's where they had a problem. So I had to sell it. That's right, I agree.
Now, that album with Henry Stone's TK label, called Let It Out, where you're standing over a trunk with a...
...rifle. I had a white suit on, it was a black trunk, and I'm shooting the lock off and letting the music out of it. That was a horrible experience because nothing happened. He didn't press up any records, it just didn't happen. We did Dinah Shore. Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis, Jr. got us on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, but the album bombed. He didn't give us any support. At all. He was floundering then (1978). It was over for KC (the biggest selling act at the company). When I saw he wouldn't take KC's calls, I knew something was wrong!
And KC helped build TK too!
Now you were supposed to be on Saturday Night Live, right (during the Atlantic days)?
That's when we were running into the conflict of having Chic produce me. They said, what's your next single? "Everything Is Beautiful To Me" and "Space Age." And they didn't want it! I thought those were two great records! I said, "Well...that's what its gotta be..." The shows I had lined up were cancelled. They knew those people! They're (part of) Warner Bros., Atlantic, they all stick together. That was major exposure gone right there. They brought in Hilary Johnson, who hated my album, Maximum Stimulation. "Why you puttin' another 'Leroy' on here?" "Because its been ten years! And I had people bug me about it!" This French interviewer today asked me, "did Leroy ever approach you?" I said, "Yeah! THANKING ME for making his name popular!" They didn't know what I wanted so then I asked to be released. Which was a no-no with (Atlantic mainman) Ahmet Ertegun. That's why I'll never be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame or anything, as long as those people are around. You know, you shouldn't do that! But believe me, I do it! When I don't see people believe in me, I'm OUT.
Back to "Hey Leroy"---I think Joe Tex picked up on that and used it on several of his songs. Did he get it directly from you?
Yeah. I used to work with Joe and he just came up with it on a record. I didn't like it because he didn't ask me, but that's alright. It helped his record; when I look back, I didn't like it at all because it was theft. (laughs) You don't say "say Leroy" on your record, that's my thing! But he did it, it helped his record, and Joe passed away too. When he passed, we were friends.
After Let It Out, you came back to Atlantic (on their Cotillion subsidiary).
Yeah, Henry Allen...they booted him upstairs because he was on his way out (laughs)...we had cut an album, he heard it, and he loved it. "It's the eighties! It's the eighties!" They gave me an offer I couldn't refuse, so I went back there for that one album. No promotion.
Next came the album you pressed yourself, called C, with your instrumental remake of "Stairway To Heaven."
That had "Godzilla." "He stood as big as a pillow/His name was Godzilla/He was bigger than Kong, the giant gorilla." Yeah, that was a good one. I liked "Stay With Me (Spend The Night)," "Don't Cry Out Loud," "Con Man,"---that's an album that's...boy, that's a rare classic. "Can't Help Falling In Love,"...I felt Elvis at that time, put the lights out in the studio...I just felt him. (AUTHOR'S NOTE: it sounds it---that is one badass Elvis impersonation)
So why did you print the title of "Godzilla" in Japanese?
You know you gotta have something---"what is that?" Curiosity...I had another called The Return Of Leroy.
For whom? I've never seen that album.
For Salsoul...Dream Records.
What year was this?
1983, '84. I'm jumpin' up again (on the cover, just like on Phase Two in '72) but my saxophone case is there, I have the damn boots on...
What did you do for the rest of the eighties? You dropped off the radar there...
I just couldn't do anything! I was rejected. Also, I just practiced my horn and eventually got away from that and really did nothing, just lived off of royalties. We had a beautiful home up in the mountains in Jersey, by the river. It was a very dark time there, and then all the bugs and the humidity and the snow, I said, "I don't want to live here anymore." So we just packed up and moved to Vegas. We decided to go where there would be no snow.
What year did you move to Vegas?
'96. So from the eighties it was a real depressing time. I did cameos and a few things here & there, but that was it.
Speaking of cameos, how did you work your way into acting in the Jacksons' miniseries (The Jacksons: An American Dream, 1992 on ABC)?
My friend Suzanne De Passe called me and said, "Listen, you ARE Royal." That was when (the Jackson 5ive's father) Joseph Jackson first started, I played his best friend. Royal played the saxophone, he was slick, he always wore white suits. So she said, "Come out and do that part, man." So I did. I did a lot more but they cut it on the floor. We did that for eight hours and they cut it down to four hours.
We're moving into the nineties. People are rediscovering Funk, and Chuck Eddy names Phase Two as one of the Top 500 Heavy Metal albums of all time (in his 1991 book, Stairway To Hell). How did you feel about all the attention again?
There were a lot of samples...if they tried to do it at first without getting licensing, then I fought a few people. But then they started licensing, and I wound up being sampled over 3000 times. "King Kong," "Bertha Butt"...Teddy Riley just did a song, "Benzino," and this guy's called Booty...it's all "Bertha Butt." "It's Just Begun" is on everything...the Spice Girls, everything. And "Troglodyte," you have "what we're gonna do right here is go back," NWA, everybody. And I appreciated that...if I got paid. Most of them, I did. Those I didn't...like C&C Music Factory, I had to go after them big time when they did (sings) "You gotta rock & roll...you gotta feel the groove." I got that song, that's "Watch me now..." (from "It's Just Begun"), that's the same thing. Marky Mark did a song which is all "Just Begun." Finally, since I've paved the way, everybody's licensing now.
What did you think of that Rhino best-of?
Well, it beats a blank, you know? Everybody would have forgotten about me if it wasn't for that Rhino. It's not selling like it should because they don't promote it.
I would think they would have talked to you for the liner notes but apparently they didn't.
No, they didn't talk to me at all. They got the wrong birthdate on there. June 2, they have. I'm June 23, 1947. What they have is June 2, 1943. It's a downer when they e-mail me a "happy birthday" on June 2. I have to say, no, it's June 23rd. As long as "Leroy" is on there, "Bertha," "Troglodyte," "Space Age," that's their favorites. I've got my favorites that should be on there. They don't have one horn thing on there---they have "Maggie," which is okay, but I'm kinda grateful to them for putting that out because I would have been just lost in the shuffle if they hadn't put that out.
Wasn't there a Jimmy Castor Bunch reunion show?
We played S.O.B.'s (in New York, ca. 1995) before I moved out here.
Is it true that for "Just Begun," the audience had to clear the floor for the breakdancers?
Yeah, man, it was the breakdancers from the movie! The Rock Steady Crew! They showed up---everybody showed up! Paul Shaffer, Kool & the Gang, they came out to see us!
Did Paul Shaffer ever try to get you on David Letterman's show?
Paul came down to the dressing room, he says, "Listen man, you wrote a great Xmas song called 'Merry Xmas.'" See, I tried to do a Xmas album for Atlantic, but they wouldn't let us so I cut a single. They just wouldn't give me the budget to do it. Plus they didn't believe in me. I did "The Xmas Song" on horn, and the flip side is a thing I wrote called "Merry Xmas." Paul loves it! I mean, he had the nerve to say, "Could you send me the chart, the lead sheet..." I thought he was gonna ask me to sing it. "I love you, I used to see you in Toronto all the time, I'm from Canada, I used to come see you every night, me and David Clayton-Thomas."
So what's Jimmy Castor up to today?
Here's what he's doing---he's put his group back together, and I've got two of my originals because I don't want people that don't live here, and I wanna play Vegas. I want a room of my own and play Vegas because I'm qualified, and eventually play New York. It's in the works now. Somebody asked me to put the group together to do S.O.B.'s, so I got the old originals. We did it, man. Smoked. I couldn't follow it up because no one would book us after that. I would still be playing if people booked us. But they just don't. Maybe now they will because I've got the fire to do it. So I see it happening again.
One final thing: there's a story going around that George W. Bush's favorite song is, or was, "The Bertha Butt Boogie."
Ooh, that's tough, man. I don't wanna knock him if he likes my song, but I don't consider him our president. They just took the election and it's a joke. A complete joke. The way they had us dangling and the way they chased our people away from the polls...my sister lives in Miami, she said it was Selma, Alabama all over again.