What do you think of when you think of Washington, D.C.? If you’re like me you think of the grandeur of the nation’s capitol, perhaps some of the magnificent monuments and museums. And of course you think of politics and maybe these days you would rather not. But there’s another side to Washington, D.C. The fact is that the District has produced some fine music over the years.
That brings us to the Unifics. Marvin Brown, Tom Fauntleroy, Bob Hayes, Al Johnson, and George Roland met in 1966 while they were students at Howard University. Johnson was the group’s leader, in fact they originally called themselves Al & the Vikings before they changed their name to the Unique Five, and that name eventually evolved into the Unifics.
They sang at dances and clubs but the group was in turmoil early on. Not a year had gone by in their existence when Fauntleroy was drafted, and Hayes and Roland were out the door. They were replaced by Greg Cook and Michael Ward, and when Brown left he was replaced by Harold Worthington. Guy Draper wasn’t put off by all of the lineup changes however, and he took the group on as a manager, and got them signed to Kapp Records.
The first Unifics single on Kapp Records was “Court of Love” in 1966, and it was a hit. Written and produced by Draper (and arranged by fellow Howard student Donny Hathaway) the record reached #25 on the Billboard Hot 100, and made it all the way to #3 on the U.S. Black Singles chart.
The Unifics, with their white gloves and strobe lights, became an enormously popular live act. Their stage presentation was so powerful that no acts wanted to follow them to the stage. Despite their touring schedule, Draper found time to get the Unifics back into the studio to record an album to capitalize on the success of the single. It was called Sittin’ in At the Court of Love. Unfortunately, the race to get the album out fast meant that Draper didn’t have time to write enough original songs for it. And while Draper originals like “Which Ones Should I Choose,” and “Tables Turned” were very effective, covers like “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” and “This Guy’s in Love With You” were not.
The next Unifics single, “The Beginning of the End,” did nearly as well as “Court of Love,” reaching #36 on the Pop chart, and #9 on the R&B chart. But 1969’s “It’s a Groovy World” barely managed to crawl into the Top 100, although it was a Top 40 R&B hit.
The group had a falling out with Draper, and after recording two more singles, “Memories,” and the quirky “Toshisumasi” for Kapp, Ward and Worthington left the group. They were replaced by original members Brown and Fauntleroy. Facing dwindling records sales, Kapp dropped the Unifics, but they were quickly picked up by Fountain Records in 1970. Their single for the label, “Dawn of a New Day” didn’t do much business, and by 1972 the Unifics were done.
It was hardly the end for Al Johnson however. He spent the next 30 years building a huge career as a producer and songwriter, working with artists like Norman Connors, Jean Carn, the Whispers, and the Dells. Reuniting with Fauntleroy and adding two new members, Johnson resurrected the Unifics in 2004. That year they released their first album in more than 30 years, the aptly named Unifics Return.
Al Johnson passed away in 2013. Fauntleroy decided to retire from performing, but continued to create choreography for the group, which continued on with two new members.