The music business can be cruel and unforgiving â€“ clichÃ©d, sure, but as I found out years ago, very true.
In 1985, William â€œBoogie Knightâ€ Stroman was in the Top Ten of the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Singles Chart and on airwaves everywhere with the Boogie Boysâ€™ smash, â€œFly Girlâ€.
A little more than three years later, he was a fellow E-1 buck Private in my Army Basic Training Unit, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 46th Infantry, stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky.
I was 20, going on 21 years old when I joined the Army, so that made me one of the older men in our unit, since most guys join fresh out of high school. Stroman was even older than me, probably 24 or 25 at the time, so we sort of gravitated to each other since we were a little more patient and laid back than more of our younger, hyperactive and loud unit members. As it often happens when people talk to me, the conversation turned to music and we were surprised to find out each of us had an impressive depth of knowledge and taste. Anytime we had a lull in training (which wasnâ€™t often, obviously), weâ€™d talk music.
A few weeks into training, during a Sunday morning â€œfree timeâ€ break, Stroman told me to follow him to his locker â€“ he had something he wanted to share with me. I sat on his bunk as he ruffled through his things and he asked me â€œHave you ever heard of the Boogie Boys?â€ I perked up and started singing â€œA FLY GIRL. A FLY GIRL. A FLYYYYY GIRRRRRRL.â€ He laughed and tossed a cassette of the Boogie Boysâ€™ second album, â€œSurvival of the Freshest,â€ at me. â€œOh, cool,â€ I said, â€œyou brought it with you.â€
â€œLook closer,â€ he said. There he was on the cover, dressed in yellow threads and a gold chain. Private William Stroman aka â€œBoogie Knightâ€. Holy crap.
Now, Iâ€™m a very cynical person, so, of course I started peppering him with questions; Is that really you, what happened to all the money, why are you in the frigginâ€™ Army?? He patiently answered each one, seemingly used to being questioned about his authenticity. I would later come to learn several guys out there used to claim membership in the Boogie Boys, but there was no doubt in my mind Stroman was the real deal â€“ first off, you canâ€™t fake your name in the Army â€“ he was William Stroman, from New York. And shit, that was him, right there on the cover. Another thing in that made him very believable was that he didnâ€™t tell anyone about his past â€“ he even seemed to downplay it a bit and swore me to secrecy. I got the impression he was burned hard by both his record company and his management. Things got tight, he had people to support, so here comes the Army. He told me that not only did he not make anything off the albums and singles, he was actually in debt to the record company, a fairly common practice in those days of hefty recoupable advances. Stroman trusted me with this info since we were both older and he respected my love of music. I kept his secret.
Unfortunately, someone else in the unit did not.
Stroman must have told someone else his hip-hop past, because word got out and the entire barracks was buzzing with the news. Someone even goaded Stroman into an impromtu performance of â€œA Fly Girlâ€â€¦our drill sergeant, Sergeant George. Once our drill found out, it was all over. He made Stroman toe the line and perform his rap. Now I realized why he wanted it kept a secret. Luckily, he knew who blabbed, so our friendship survived.
William Stroman was razor sharp, smart, witty as hell and loved music more than just about anything. He was also the calmest, most rational and mature man in our unit, a tough thing to pull off while youâ€™re spending eight weeks running through the woods with drills screaming at you. Iâ€™d like to think that since he already went through record company hell, Army Basic Training was a breeze. Plus, he had already served a stint in the Air Force, which was a relatively strange thing to do…go from the Air Force to the Army. But hey, the Army offered more money and bonuses – that’s why I picked it. After graduation, everyone said theyâ€™d keep in touch, but as often happens in these situations, none of us really did. I never saw or heard from Stroman again.
If this sounds like a eulogy, thatâ€™s because, sadly, it is. In a fit of nostalgia a few years ago, I set out to try to find William via the Internet, only to discover he was killed in October, 2001. I havenâ€™t been able to find a decent obituary or biography for him online, especially one that deals with his life from the disillusion of the Boogie Boys until his untimely death, including his time in the Army.
As for the track itself, câ€™mon. A classic. Retroactively considered a pioneering â€œelectroâ€ track, at the time we just thought it was the fucking jam. And yes, during one of our talks I brought up Sly Foxâ€™s â€œLetâ€™s Go All the Wayâ€, which used the same exact beat. Which was first? Stroman told me Sly Fox was actually released first, but flopped. He took the beat, created â€œA Fly Girl,â€ had a hit, then the Sly Fox joint was re-released to Top Ten Pop success. So who helped who? Both acts were label-mates on Capitol, so there didnâ€™t seem to be any animosity.
I just hope Sly Fox fared better financially. RIP, Stroman â€“ you are missed.
Download â€œA Fly Girlâ€ by the Boogie Boys.
â€A Fly Girlâ€ peaked at #6 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Chart in 1985.