Sunday, 15 June 2008

Tommy Stewart interview

1)Like most British soul and funk fans I was introduced to your music by the track Bump & Hustle music which was a staple on the rare groove scene of the late 80’s and early 90’s. It was a very influential record with nights at clubs, record labels and records taking their name from the track. What’s the story about the making of the album and the title track?
In 1974, Floyd Smith, a veteran music producer from Chicago, approached me about doing some arranging for Lolletta Holloway. Floyd had already produced several sides in Chicago and a complete album on Lolletta with GRC.

During these sessions, I was approached by producer Marlin McNichols from Detroit, Mi. Marlin was also working at GRC at the time producing such groups as the Counts and Mose Davis (Funk Pump).

McNichols talked to me about writing some tunes for his new Third World Band. Since Bill Wright and I had co-written some tunes on Richard Marks and Vivilore Jordan, I told McNichols that I would like to add Bill on the project and the deal was sealed.

Within a few days, we arranged for and rehearsed the Third World Band in McNichols garage. I taught the band a tune that had been going around in my head since there were no written arrangements. I detailed a unison bass/guitar line and arranged the other rhythm around it. Then I taught the band the lyrics. From these sketches came "Disco Hop". Bill and I collaborated on "Boogie at the Disco". This 45 was released on Abraxas records, owned by John Salstone.

Based on the success of the 45, McNichols asked me if he had any more tunes along the same lines as the 45. I informed him that I had some ideas about the direction of dance music. I then called on some of the greatest session musicians in popular music at the time:

* Stevo Milner (Drums)
* Charles Terrell (Bass)
* Richard Marks (Guitar)
* Kenny Mims (Guitar)
* Mose Davis (Organ/Keyboard) - Listen to Mose on Disco Hop

The album was recorded at Sound Pit Studio with Milan Bogdan at the console. They recorded the rhythm tracks in one session.

I felt like we needed another tune and in another session we recorded a track without any knowledge of what the name of the tune was going to be. I gave Charles the bass line and indicated the beat to Stevo. Even after completing the track we still didn't have a name for it! Within a few days, I completed the horn and string arrangements. Marlin and I decided to overdub the horns, strings, and vocals at Ardent Studios in Memphis, TN. Both horns and strings were recorded at the same time. For vocals we called on Issac Hayes background singers (Hot Buttered Soul"), to complete the background vocals. This was the creating of the rare grooves classic "Bump And Hustle Music". Finally we had a name for this hot tune!

The overdubs for the other songs were all done in one day. Bill Easley took Sax solos on Make Happy Music, and Bump N Hustle Music. He also played a flute solo on Ridin' High. They finished the recording and went back to Atlanta where Milan Bogden completed a masterful mix. The final product was sent to Glenn Meadows for Mastering in Nashville, TN.

The album was advertised on billboards in all Peaches Record Stores for promotion. It was released on Abraxas Records located in Chicago, IL. John Salstone was the president of the label. Marlin McNichols was the Executive Producer. Myself and Bill were the producers. I wrote all of the arrangements and Bill co-wrote some of the songs.

Bump and Hustle Music almost did not get recorded. The track was recorded because we needed an extra song to complete the album.

The musicians on this project understood what I wanted and created one of the most sought after albums in the history of disco!

2) When and how did you find out that the track was being revived in the UK and how did it feel to know your music was reaching a new audience the second time around?

We found out that the tune was popular in the U.K. by Michael McFadden (Ubiquity Records) around 1996. That's when we started to do internet-based research on other tunes that were being revived in the U.K. It made me have a great appreciation for D.J.'s and record collectors that put the time into bringing my music to the international markets.

3) Around 1994 I picked up a compilation EP called Darker than blue – I think it was a bootleg and it had an 11 minute version of Bump and Hustle music. How did that manage to get on there?

The compilation was never cleared by my publishing company and it was released without my knowledge. I never received any royalties for that LP. I have no idea how, when, or who put it out.

4) One last Bump and Hustle question, where is Fulton County Line?
Although the Fulton County Line is located around the perimeter of Atlanta, for the purposes of this song, I got the idea while riding my son to school near the county line between Dekalb County and Fulton County.

5) A lot of people having been asking about the mythical Musica Negra album which I believe was going to be the follow up to Bump and Hustle music. How did this album move on from Bump and Hustle and why did it never get released?

This album was initially recorded to showcase the talents of the great drummer Stevenson Milner also known as Stev-o. Stev-o was tragically killed in 1980 and many of the original tracks that were cut never got released. Eight of those tracks were put out on the Musica Negra album.

6) Are there any plans to release it?

We are currently in the process of locating the right company not only to re-release Musica Negra, but also to release tracks by Stev-o that have never been heard before. The problem is that the tracks that have never been heard are not really re-issues, and we want to close the deal as a new release with a label that will put marketing behind it to reach a larger market than normal.

7) Another big record in the UK, popular with the jazz dancers is Spirit of Atlanta – Messin’ Around taken from the album The Burning of Atlanta. It’s a very interesting title for an album, how did it come about and what was the concept behind the album?

In March of 1973, Mr. Ed Waller dropped by Lance-Arnold Recording Studios to see me. At the time I was producing and arranging for several R&B and funk artists. A partial list of these artists were as follows: Billy Byrd, Southside Coalition, Thomasina Walker, Calvin Arnold, Videlore Jordan, Prophecy, and Liz Lands. Also, we recorded the rhythm tracks to "Let It Flow" and "Boy You're Growing on me" for Tamiko Jones.

The 4-track studio was owned by Herb Lance and Calvin Arnold and was built from the ground up! The recording engineer was the very talented Barney Conway.

When Ed arrived at the studio he had a gentlemen with him by the name of Bill Stokes. Bill was carrying a hand-sketched script of a proposed movie. A meeting was called and Stokes proposed that I write the music score for "The Burning of Atlanta Movie".

While working part-time at Johnson's Music Store (owned by Cleopus Johnson) on Hunter Street (now called Martin Luther King, Jr Drive), I was also writing marching band arrangements for Booker T. High School under the direction of Bobby Jordan. Booker T. Washington was located next door to the music store.

Cleopus Johnson was also the manager of T.C. Jasons group which consisted of: Jason (Keyboards) who later became keyboard player for S.O.S., J.D. Morris (Guitar), "Stevo Milner" (Drums),and Charles Terrell (Bass). The band was performing at the Mine Shaft in Underground Atlanta. The Mine Shaft was owned by the McMillian Brothers.

Being in Atlanta for over three years (1969) gave me the opportunity to develop a very good relationship with Cleopus and members of his band. I asked Jason if his group would be willing to work on the Burning of Atlanta sound track with me and he agreed.

We began rehearsing in the back room of Johnson's Music Store with the blessings of Mr. Johnson. Jason's group helped co-write five of the songs: Peachtree Street, Auburn Ave, Fredie's Alive and Well, Hunter Street, and Messin Around. Jason added sound effects and J.D. Morris (Guitar), provided some of the greatest music ever recorded. Charles and Stevo played solid rhythm and stabilized all phases of the creative juices. From the very beginning I knew this was going to be a great recording!

Mr. Ed told me that that Johnny Lloyd, a great promotion man for Neil Bogart at Buddah Records, had a office in the Lowe's Building in Downtown Atlanta. We decided to have a meeting with Johnny and invited him to the first recording.

On April 15th, 1973, I went home and wrote the string and horn parts in one night with my daughter Franita at the table.

Jason's group recorded all but three of the tunes on the album. For reasons unknown, Mr. Stokes and Jason's group had a disagreement and could not complete the project. I was forced to write two more tunes and assemble other musicians to help us out. One of those musicians was a drummer by the name of G.C. Coleman, the man behind the "Amen Break", the most sampled drum break in Hip-Hop history! We recorded Vine City and Down Underground. Vine City featured Jimmy Brown (Trombone) who later played with Brick, and Skip Lane (Tenor Sax)who was also a great arranger.

I called Clarence Carter and went to his house with my sons (Ben and Rod) to solicit his tastes and talents. Clarence decided to drop by the studio (Sound Pit Studio) to cut Buttermilk Bottom. I called in G.C. Coleman's band in to record the track. Clarence did not want anyone in the studio but me, the engineer, and the musicians. He asked me for my input on the tune and I told him how I would do it. Clarence and I were used to working together because we started and finished Alabama State University together. While in college he performed at the Tyjauna Club with Calvin Scott in a group called the Mellow Men. Donald Sutton played trumpet in the group. Buttermilk Bottom has Clarence's signature all over it. We worked all through the night. It was a head arrrangement all the way!

I arranged Vine City and Down Underground for six horns and a rhythm section. We recorded everything "Heads Up"! This means that we did not over dub anything but the strings. G.C. Coleman's rhythm section played on these tunes also.

I was determined to name the group "The Spirit of Atlanta". Everyone soon agreed.

In May of 1973, we premiered the musical score at the new Atlanta International Hotel on Capital Ave. It should be noted that the great group "Blue Majic" made their debut in Atlanta at the premier.

The entire album was recorded and mixed at Sound Pit and the engineer was Ken Laxton.The album was released on Buddah Records, Neil Bogart was the president at the time.

8) Looking through your discography it says you were involved with Tyrone Thomas and the Whole Family’s album. The album contains the immortal break 7 minutes of funk and the amazing, unique bassline that has been the basis of many a great hip hop track. What was your involvement with the album and can you tell me more about that bassline on 7 minutes of funk.

In the spring of 1976, August Moon recorded some tracks at Sound Pit Studios in Atlanta, Ga. The enginneer on the session was Milan Bogdan (the same engineer that did the Tommy Stewart Album). Glenn Barbour (Baritone Sax) and I were contacted to lay some horn tracks on several tunes which we found out later was going on the album "The Whole Darn Family". We were not given any names of any tunes until the album was released. I had no written music but gave Mr. Moon my ideas on how to best arrange each tune. The bassline for 7 mins of funk was not written. It was simple and provided a good backdrop for dancers. I later used an extension of that same bassline on "Fulton County Line" for Tommy Stewart Album and "Your'e In the Pocket" for Reanna Coleman. These were very successful in establishing a groove for dancers. In today's music terms, this bassline would be based on the II chord.

9) Moving on to the disco era in which you were involved with many great tracks that still sound good today (when so much disco now sounds dated). How did it feel to move from funk to disco? Did it feel like a natural progression? Did you feel part of movement?

It was a natural progression because my musical influences came from Big Band Jazz, Popular Music, Gospel Music, and Blues that were being played on a regular basis on radio stations during the course of my childhood. The main influence on my early musical development was Louis Jordon who became real famous in the mid-40's with a group called the "tymphany five". This band first began as a junk band that played a lot of blues and Big Band-influenced compositions. However, the music was a favorite of dancers because of it's shuffle ryhthms. This band was later cited as being the first R&B band. Other artists who later played in this style were Charles Brown, Amos Milburn, Joe Liggens, Jimmy Liggens, T-Bone Walker, Ruth Brown, and Paul Williams. In addition to studying fundamental music and arranging, I incorporated all the above styles. By the 1960's I had developed an arraging style that encompased jazz and black dance music (ie, jitter bug, swing, and shuffles). These influences were perpetuated by such bands as Ray Charles, Bobby Blue Bland, and BB King. From these studies and influences, my arranging style in the 1970's matured, and I began to develop ideas on how to advance the style of R&B music. Disco never was mentioned by any musician! A number of arrangers such as Gene Page (Barry White), Paul Riser (Supremes), and several other arrangers such as Van McCoy (The Hustle), developed their styles based on similar studies and influences. As a result concurrent ideas came from various producers/arrangers. Remember, funk music has its roots in gospel, spirituals, and blues. The disco ryhtym was defined by the four to the bar beat of the bass drum. The bass guitar and guitar formed the basis of the funky licks. Anything from 116 to 120 beats is placed in the category of disco.

10) I’ve discussed your music with some people who know a whole lot more than me about disco who have commented that the disco records you produced have a much more mellow sound to them compared to the output of say New York (e.g. Crème de Coco – Disco Strut). They believe it’s because you produced your music in the southern state of America. Do you think your geographical location has influenced your style of disco music?

My style comes from my ability to arrange popular american songs such as Stardust, Body & Soul, and Stars Fell on Alabama. I've had extensive arranging experience with Symphony Orchestras, Pop bands, Jazz Bands, Funk Bands, and Soul Bands. Remember, most producers during that period came out of "funk" only backgrounds.

11) A favourite record of the disco era that you produced was Madd Dog Fire Departments – Cosmic Funk. That’s a very strange name for a band, how did it come about?

Calvin Arnold who was a part owner of Lance/Arnold studios and Larry Maxwell of Shield Records in Miami, Fl, came up with this creative name. I recorded the rhythm tracks at Lance/Arnold studios with no album title in mind. It was part of 14 tracks that we recorded that day.

12) This record can go for a lot of money on the collectors circuit as will many other records you have been involved in. How does it feel to see these records go for such high prices, especially if they didn’t have commercial success when first released?

It is amazing that the work we did is held in such high esteem. I feel honored that you take pride in these albums. I wish that I could have received more royalties from them. Also, I wish I would have held on to all the 45's and Lp's that I had! Some of the tunes I did not even know were released until I saw them on the internet!

13) Tommy do you still perform and is their any chance of seeing you in the UK? I know you’d draw a crowd, you’ve got lots of fans of your music over here.

I am currently performing with an eleven piece orchestra. Also, this weekend, I will be performing with Houston Persons (renowned jazz sax player) in Huntsville, Al. As far as the U.K. goes, we are looking for a good promoter to set up a 30- 60 day tour with all expenses paid. We are willing to temporarily re-locate to the U.K. for touring and recording as I am in excellant health.

14) Do you still produce music? The reason I ask is because Al Kent the man behind the Million Dollar Orchestra who makes modern day disco in an analogue style wants you to help him produce his next album!

Yes I still produce and arrange music. I am looking for a distribution deal for an album that was pressed up in 2007 on a jazz sextet. Yes, just have him to contact me and we can make a deal!

15) What releases can we expect from Tommy Stewart in the future, are any un-issued gems going to see the light of day?

Yes, we are waiting on jazzman records to release some raregrooves in the near future. We have some tunes from Stev-o that needs to be released because no one has heard them yet. We have a lot of jazz that needs to be released! On the jazz we have musicians that have worked with artists such as Count Basie, Ramsey Lewis, Maceo Parker, Duke Pearson, The Temptations, Art Blakely, and the Mingis Dynasty.

Tommy can be contacted through his son and manager Ben on

For more information check Tommy's website

Many thanks to the forum members of and brownswood ( for their help in coming up with many of the questions in this interview

Tommy Stewart facebook group


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Darcy said...

Great post.

I have come to realise I have been a Tommy Stewart fan for a long time - bought Loleatta's "Cry To Me", Counts "Funk Pump", Southside Coalition "Get Down Get Down", and the fantastic Sil Austin "Disco Music"* on release in the 70s. Now with the help of enthusiasts like you and the wonders of tinternet I can fill in the back story.

*featured this on my blog back in 2006.

(Only just found your blog - will link it).