Before there was a recognized music industry, long before there was a “Miami Sound” and Boogie Shoes and booties to Shake, Shake, Shake and a musical Rockin’ Chair that had the nation grooving under one beat, there was Henry Stone.
He was instrumental in the careers of Ray Charles, James Brown, KC & the Sunshine Band and that whole stable of R&B and disco stars from Hialeah’s TK Records. And, he was one of the last of an era of fabled music industry pioneers like Berry Gordy of Motown, Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records and trailblazing producers Tom Dowd and Jerry Wexler.
Stone, 93, died Thursday at Mercy Hospital of natural causes.
Stone’s career stretched back to post-war Los Angeles, where the Bronx-born trumpeter sold vinyl records to jukebox owners out of the trunk of his car.
In 1948, Stone moved to Miami where he set up Seminole, a record-distribution business and Crystal recording studio. Three years later, he recorded his first artist, a pianist-singer from the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine who would soon gain world-wide fame as Ray Charles.
Charles’ St. Pete Florida Blues was cut here for Stone’s Rockin’ imprint. “I had heard of him through the grapevine, so I asked him to call me whenever he came to Miami, and he did,” Stone said in a 1995 Miami Herald profile.
As Stone started other small blues, gospel and R&B labels and began an association with King Records, he released Otis Williams and the Charms’ No. 1 R&B hit, Heart of Stone, in 1954. Stone was instrumental in signing James Brown and the Famous Flames to King where Brown scored his first hit, Please, Please, Please, which reached No. 6 R&B in 1956.
“There was nothing here, this was the end of the world,” Stone said in the Herald feature. So he did what he did best on the West Coast. He recognized talent and sold it to the masses.
He oversaw every aspect of the music business, from performance to promotion, independent music manufacturing to distribution.
“I started selling to jukebox here. They were dying for records, especially black records. I used to travel around the state, and they would be waiting for me because I would bring all these hit records,” he said.
Stone’s ears were well-tuned to what people responded to: a blend of energetic, soulful, gritty, hand-crafted music that set feet to moving, lips to locking and nervous parents to fretting.
He “got it” because he played it himself, parlaying music skills he learned as a teen when he played his trumpet while in a Pleasantville, New York orphanage. During World War II, he served in the Army where he played trumpet in a racially integrated band and developed an appreciation of what were then called “race records.”
Thirty years later, his most lucrative discovery also would be a rarity in the music business: a racially-integrated, crazy quilt conglomeration of Junkanoo, R&B, disco and pop called KC & the Sunshine Band.
On Friday, group co-founder Harry Wayne “KC” Casey, 63, called Stone his “mentor.” Casey was in his early 20s, working as a part-timer at the independent TK Records when he began hanging around the studios and recording snatches of music he heard when the bigger names cleared out after their sessions.
Casey cowrote Rock Your Baby with Richard Finch in 1974 and it became the songwriters’ first No. 1 pop single for TK when singer George McRae recorded the hit version. Legend has it in the pages of Frederic Dannen’s music industry book, Hit Men, McRae pulled a knife on Stone and threatened him for not paying him royalties. Stone reportedly handed the disgruntled singer a wad of bills and the keys to his Cadillac. His rented Cadillac.
True tale, or not, “Henry believed in me when no one else did,” Casey said.
“The world of music has lost a trailblazer — a legend — but personally, I've lost the only father I've ever known,” Finch added. “He was my friend and mentor. He brought a 15-year-old teen from Opa-locka into the studios of TK Records and gave him the freedom to perfect his craft as a recording engineer and the room to grow as a songwriter and producer. He gave life to the studio concept that Harry and I created together at TK, resulting in the birth of our band, KC & the Sunshine Band. Our success, the success of so many other TK artists, all props and thanks lie solely at the feet of Henry Stone.”
Stone’s background in distributing records in the South for the major labels was one aspect of his success. So were his ears for recognizing the next big sound.
“Henry was not only instrumental in bringing the Miami talent to the masses but he was also responsible for many other artists’ success as his company represented Motown and their roster of artists — Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Four Tops. As well as Atlantic Records with Aretha Franklin, the Bee Gees, Eric Clapton, Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Stax artists,” Casey said. “The list is so vast of the music that he brought to South Florida. Not to mention Betty Wright, KC & the Sunshine Band and all the dance music in the TK labels that was his and my vision that influenced a world even to this day and made Miami the place to be to make music and brought so much attention to our wonderful city.”
Stone’s nationwide hits on TK, which he co-founded with Steve Alaimo in 1972, and similar labels he founded, read like a 1970s Greatest Hits soundtrack:
Beginning of the End’s Funky Nassau. Betty Wright’s Clean Up Woman. Timmy Thomas’ Why Can’t We Live Together.
There were the No. 1s Get Down Tonight, That’s the Way (I Like It), Shake, Shake, Shake (Shake Your Booty), I’m Your Boogie Man and Please Don’t Go for KC & the Sunshine Band and Ring My Bell for Anita Ward in 1979.
McRae’s wife Gwen scored with Rockin’ Chair. Peter Brown hit discos hard with Do You Want to Get Funky With Me and Dance With Me. Bobby Caldwell’s velveteen What You Won’t Do for Love in 1978 remains a smooth jazz, pop staple.
“My college years were hanging out at TK Records — that was my education, seeing how records are made,” Miami-born songwriter/producer Lawrence Dermer told the Herald in 1998 after he had gained fame as a songwriter for Gloria Estefan.
When taste makers deemed disco dead as Donna Summer’s Bad Girls found religion and ‘80s synth-pop dominated pop airwaves, Stone weathered his losses. TK went bankrupt in 1981. But he never stopped founding new companies like The Legendary Henry Stone Presents… and Hot Productions, which had an off-beat hit in 1990 with novelty act 2 Live Jews and its album, As Kosher As They Wanna Be, a parody of 2 Live Crew that featured Stone’s actor, songwriter-producer son, Joseph Stone.
“One of the biggest lessons he taught me was how to listen better and how to live in this moment,” Joseph said. “He had an incredible sense of principal and kindness and understanding.”
And persistence. He would tell everyone about his latest project, which could be an unsigned artist or his 2006 involvement with The Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and a music production program he started with the organization.
“If he was excited about something he’d grab on to it and tell everybody: the person serving him dinner, the valet parking his car, the traffic cop, anyone who got in front of him,” his son said.
Though his eyesight was failing in the end, Stone’s ears never failed him. “Up to the end this guy knew his music,” Joseph said. “My sister had brought some of his discs and we had some tracks playing as he was laying there and he was half out of it. But I see his hand come up in the air during one of the horn section parts, conducting it. I asked him, ‘Do you know what artist that is?’ He said, ‘Peter Brown. Come on. Do You Want to Get Funky With Me.’
“I always tell people this guy forgot more about the music business than most people will ever know.”
Stone is survived by his wife Inez, and his children Donna, Joseph, Lynda, Crystal, Sheri, Kim and David and 14 grandchildren.
Services will be at 2 p.m. Sunday at Riverside Gordon Memorial Chapels at Mount Nebo-Kendall, 5900 SW 77th Ave., Kendall. Donations can be made in Stone’s name to the Blind Veterans Association at http://www.bva.org.