Last week we visited Chicago to spend some time with Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. I’ve been to Chicago a few times in my life, and it’s so nice I decided to stay for another week. We’re not leaving Curtis Mayfield behind either because Major Lance, like so many other Chicago soul artists, had a tight connection to Mayfield.
Lance was born in Mississippi but he followed the trail blazed by the great blues artists who came before him and lit out for the promise of a better life in Chicago. He went to Wells High School, the same school that Mayfield and Jerry Butler attended. Lance tried boxing but soon decided that music was a lot less painful and formed a group called the Floats. Otis Leavill, who became a soul singer of some note himself, was also in the group.
The Floats never released any records, but Lance became known for his dancing and he was invited to be part of a dance party show that was hosted by Jim Lounsbury, a local DJ. Lounsbury secured a one-shot deal for Lance with Mercury Records in 1959. That single turned out to be a record called “I Got A Girl” which was written and produced by, that’s right, Curtis Mayfield. The single sunk without a trace and Lance went back to working day jobs.
Three years later Lance got a deal with the revived Okeh label largely due to his work with Mayfield, who by that time had hits with the Impressions for ABC Records. Lance’s first single for Okeh was “Delilah,” another song written by Mayfied, and arranged by Johnny Pate who also worked with the Impressions. The single didn’t do much, but success for Lance was on the horizon.
“Monkey Time” was the second Lance single for Okeh, and it was huge. In 1963 the record reached #2 on the R&B chart and crossed over to a #8 position on the pop chart. Major Lance was established as a singer, and Okeh had its first hit in ten years. “Hey Little Girl” followed and made the Top 15 on both the R&B and pop charts. In early 1964 Lance released “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um”. It was another song written by Mayfield, and produced by Okeh president Carl Davis, who had worked on Lance’s other hits as well. “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um” was Lance’s biggest hit ever. The record hit the top of the R&B chart and reached #5 on the pop chart.
The team of Lance, Mayfield, Pate, and Davis had more hits with songs like “The Matador” (the only one not written by Mayfield), “Rhythm,” “Sometimes I Wonder,” “Come See,” and “Ain’t It A Shame.” By 1965 however, Pate had left Okeh, and Mayfield was spending more time on his work with the Impressions. Lance soldiered on, working with Davis, and they had a small hit with “Too Hot To Hold.” Then Davis left Okeh too.
Lance worked with several other producers over the next few years and eventually landed on Mayfield’s Curtom label where he had Top 40 R&B hits with “Stay Away From Me (I Love You Too Much),” and “Must Be Love Coming Down,” but by 1971 he had left the label. Lance kept trying, even releasing a disco version of “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um,” but it failed to revive his career. Later in the ’70s Lance ran into legal problems, serving four years in prison. In 1987 he had a heart attack, and was nearly blind from glaucoma. When Lance died in his sleep in 1994 he was only 55 years-old. A great soul voice had been stilled.
Thankfully Carolina Beach Music and Northern Soul fans gave new life to Lance’s music, just as they had for many other worthy but nearly forgotten soul artists. He may be gone, but he’ll always be an icon on the beaches of Carolina, and in clubs in the UK. A year after Lance’s death Sony Records released a critically-acclaimed compilation called Everybody Loves A Good Time: Best of Major Lance.[youtube id=”xMRLrf4pNn4″ width=”600″ height=”350″]