Boogaloo Down Broadway

The Macedonia Baptist Church in Norristown, Pennsylvania seemed to be a good place for a singer to launch a career in secular music. It worked out, at least, for The Fantastic Johnny C, a singer in the choir who was impressive enough to grab the attention of soul singer and producer Jesse James, also a member of the congregation. James McClelland had moved from Arkansas to the San Francisco area in the early 1960s, developing his own singing skills in church...and nightclubs. He hooked up with Sly Stone (still known by his real name, Sylvester Stewart) and recorded a single, "I Will Go," written and produced by Jimmy McCracklin and credited to Jesse James and the Royal Aces. Other singles followed and one of these, "Believe in Me Baby" on 20th Century Records, appeared on both the pop and R&B charts in the fall of 1967. In the early '70s, James had a more consistent string of charting singles. In between, his music career went in another direction.

Bugalu, a rhythmic style of Latin music, emerged in the early 1960s to widespread popularity, at first with Cubans and Puerto Ricans. It evolved into a free-form dance, with lots of movement in the feet and hips, and when the black audience took notice, the name developed a slightly more Americanized spelling, "Boo-ga-loo." Several popular songs came as a result of the hot dance trend, including "Boo-ga-loo" by Tom and Jerrio in the spring of 1965, "The Boogaloo Party" (hyphens removed) by The Flamingos in March '66, Chubby Checker's "Hey You! Little Boo-ga-loo" midyear and "Alvin's Boo-ga-loo" by Alvin Cash and the Registers at the end of '66. Then the novelty seemingly wore off until Jerryo (Jerry Murray, same as the abovementioned Jerrio) came out with "Karate-Boo-ga-loo" the following summer.

In 1967, Jesse James was hired to write and produce for a new record label with one of the all-time strangest names. Larry Cohen (who ran Philadelphia's 919 Sound Studio) started Phil-L.A. of Soul Records under an agreement that had the Jamie/Guyden company distributing the product. He came up with the name through the rather self-centered opinion that Philadelphia was the heart of the music industry, with Los Angeles running a close second. Intended as an R&B label, the words "Of Soul" put it together as a catchy double entendre pronounced very close to "fillet of sole," thus the scaled fish art on the labels of the records. The one thing that didn't quite fit was that no one from Los Angeles really had anything to do with the east coast-based company.

James brought in John Corley, the young singer from his church choir, and recorded a couple of demos with him. 24-year-old Corley, originally from Greenwood, South Carolina, had spent some time in the U.S. Army Air Force, later settling in Norristown, about 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia, to work as a heavy machinery operator. The music career was an afterthought, something he didn't expect to pursue until the opportunity with James led him to the studio and soon after made him the center of attention.

The Fantastic Johnny C

"Boogaloo Down Broadway," working a bit of Dyke and the Blazers' "Funky Broadway" into the mix, was a standout; when a couple of Corley's friends heard it, their reaction was, "That's fantastic!" James had been considering coming up with an unusual name for the young soul singer and The Fantastic Johnny C became the name he would forever be known by. The soul-shoutin' dance tune (...'baby, it ain't hard to been doin' it ever since you were two!') was released with an obvious filler on the flip: "Look What Love Can Make You Do," using the same instrumental track as the A side, a time-saving gimmick (that took advantage of the unsuspecting record-buying public) later reused by James on other artists' 45s. The results were pretty funny, actually.

The single debuted on the national charts the first week of October, 1967, making a gradual climb; top 40 a month later, then top ten in mid-December...the biggest of all Boogaloo records! Corley was rushed back into the studio to record an album. Three successive singles hit the charts in 1968, the next two written and produced by James as the first had been. "Got What You Need" was followed by "Hitch it to the Horse," a top 40 hit in August (this particular dance tune hitching its wagon to the even bigger Phil-L.A. of Soul hit "The Horse," an instrumental by Cliff Nobles, another singer James met at Macedonia Baptist). "(She's) Some Kind of Wonderful," written by John Ellison, was a minor chart single for Ellison's group The Soul Brothers Six in the summer of '67. Johnny's remake went slightly higher a year later; in 1975, it was a major hit when rockers Grand Funk Railroad revived it.

Johnny stayed with Phil-L.A. of Soul until 1970, then moved to the Kama Sutra label (continuing to work with Jesse James) for two more singles before year's end, going by simply Johnny C on the final release, "You've Got Your Hooks in Me," though second pressings restored the full name. After 1970, he resumed life as he'd previously known it except for the occasional return to performance glory wherein The Fantastic Johnny C would once again "Boogaloo Down Broadway," wowing the crowds with his signature smash. And the '60s dance with the notorious name kept going too, only there were no more hit singles...other than the title of Ringo Starr's 1972 hit "Back Off Boogaloo," with lyrics that have no reference at all to the dance. Besides, it's hard to imagine Ringo wiggling his hips or doing any fast foot movements in connection to it!

- Michael Jack Kirby


Boogaloo Down Broadway