Welcome To The Club – Cynthia Cherry’s classic house compilation
As I mentioned in my last post, when I stopped writing in February, it wasn’t due to a lack of something to write about. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth – I had something amazing to write up: an interview with another of the original Queens of US House: Jump Street records’ Cynthia Cherry. I had so much material I barely knew where to start! I finally think I’ve managed to get it all organised, so here goes:
Around Christmas I had been thinking I’d like to switch my focus back across the Hudson after having written quite a bit about New Jersey, when I got a message on the Facebook page from the guy behind the HairyToes Youtube channel – Allan B. We got chatting about old records (as you do) and in particular about one of our absolute favourites, the 1987 Jump Street compilation “Welcome To The Club“.
Allan wondered if it might be possible to contact Cynthia and find out some more about some of the artists and music on the album, one that has “lost classic” written all over it. A few weeks later, I’d managed to get in touch on Facebook and so, as arctic winds blasted through her native North Carolina, I was lucky enough to have Cynthia share her Jump Street story with me. Funnily enough, the story begins with another transatlantic call, made a few decades earlier:
Cynthia: I was in London in 1985 and Cathy Jacobson (a friend of Cynthia’s from her earlier days in NYC) called me; I’d told her (previously) that my visa was up in London and I was coming back to New York. So she called me and told me “good timing!”, because her and Jonathan Mann were about to start a company – it was gonna be called Jump Street. She wanted me to come and be a part of it, so I came home from London for a job working with Jump Street, (with) Cathy and me doing the A&R. Our first signing was Russ Brown – Gotta Find A Way.
At that time it was very exciting in the industry because there were a lot of labels doing a lot of good music and the parties like The Garage til it closed in 1987. Before that we had a really big party at a club, that at the time that was called Area – downtown – it was humungous! Timmy Regisford DJed the party and every room in the place was packed. We had our artists perform and everybody came out – industry people, dancing people, artists, engineers, to clubheads, to church goers… It was a great party, it really was!
We had another big record on Jump Street (in the early days) which was Wax The Van – Lola. That was a big record for Jump Street – I don’t know if it was the most paid for licensing, but I got Chrysalis to license it and and that time – 85/86 – we got $22,000 for that one record! Larry liked that, so I was really really excited about having a record that Larry liked and played, and if Larry played it, everybody liked it! Jump Street had great credibility during that time, there was labels like Sam Records, there was Sleeping Bag Records, there was Emergency Records, Prelude Records, Salsoul Records – all those. We were right up in there with them, that was the good thing.
With so much great music being made in and around New York, and Jump Street building up such a great reputation, Cynthia’s next step was to suggest to Jonathan that they release a compilation:
Cynthia: Island records struck up a deal with Jump Street to distribute and promote the label and so Cathy went to Island to oversee our label and make sure we got due props. That left me doing the A&R and I came up with the idea of doing a compilation, which was Welcome To The Club.
Yvonne Turner came to work with me and we put out the compilation and some singles – Debbe and The Code (Mic Murphy and David Frank, AKA The System), Debby Blackwell – but the main thing was the compilation because it was an assortment of different kinds of music.
Ben: How did you pick the tracks? Were artists coming to you because the record label was already well known, or did you ask people to write tracks specifically?
Cynthia: No, what happened is – I dunno, I just like doing compilations! Me and Yvonne Turner had did a cassette together – she’d play a song and I’d play a song – and one of the songs that I played was “Welcome To The Club“. So I’m like – I’m gonna do a compilation called “Welcome To The Club“!
So I went to Jonathan and I took it from there – The Basement Boys were just starting out, they came to New York to my office and played some tracks. One of the tracks was a version they did of Love Don’t Live Here No More, which is the old Rose Royce ballad. I’m like: this is gonna be one of the songs on my compilation! That was the first one I got.
Then, I was good friends with James Bratton who produced Lisa Mitchell‘s record “Rescue Me” – he had played it for me prior to me coming up with this idea to do a compilation. There were a few companies trying to get that same record, so when I came up with the idea I called him and I begged him to give it to me, and he did because we did right by him.
Then Bob Blank was working with Jeff Young and Yvonne had written this poem “In My Nighttime” – they were recording that, so I decided to use that for the compilation. Then there was Jazzy Jay and Skeff Anslen – they were friends of mine – and I said I wanted a Hip Hop vibe, so they gave me a hip hop record. Criminal Mind was a black guy and a white guy – they were friends of Jonathan’s and they came in. It was pretty much like a family thing, it came together real well.
To finish off the album, Cynthia really wanted a great instrumental track. She set her aim pretty high, and although she was unable to get the track she initially wanted, this would result in one of my absolute favourite tracks from the whole era:
We tried to license E2:E4 by Manuel Gottsching, but he wasn’t having it, so we tried to come up with our own E2:E4 and that’s how B-Cause came about. He (Jonathan Mann) did that record in his studio in his house, then we got Marshall Jefferson in to do some additional keyboards. We booked the studio and Marshall put the finishing touches on it. I knew I wasn’t going to get E2:E4, but I tried and I was all disappointed, so that’s when he went into the studio and came up with B-Cause.
If you listen to one of the links on this post, listen to this one – I already knew it as one of house musics absolute lost classics, but to hear it was Jonathan’s attempt to recreate one of Larry Levan’s most celebrated Garage records blew my mind! Nothing connects the Paradise Garage era with what came after in New York’s house music scene for me quite like this track. The connections back to Larry and the Paradise Garage didn’t end their either:
Cynthia: The Garage at that time was talking about closing and Herb Powers, who was a good friend of mine, mastered the record and we got a bunch of test pressings. On the Saturday Yvonne and I rented a car, which we used to do on weekends whenever we had a new record (we would hit all the record shops – Jersey, New York – to give them to the key people so that they would have the test pressings). That Saturday night I remember we got to The Garage and you know, Larry may or may not play your record… but this particular time I gave him the test pressing of Welcome To The Club myself. He played Lisa Mitchell (Rescue Me) maybe 4 or 5 times! I mean – he played a bunch of things – Love Don’t Live Here No More which I was really proud of too. He helped break the record.
Everything seemed set for Welcome To The Club to become a landmark record in New York house music’s history, but sadly, in Cynthia’s own words, things then got a bit “discombobulated”. Although the record was getting great support, things became strained between Cynthia and Jonathan: “he started feeling a little left out, feeling like I was taking over his label”. Eventually Jonathan brought in Gregg Fore as A&R and Cynthia decided to leave: “It got kind of out of place for a minute. Yvonne left right after I did and after that I was kinda… not very happy about the industry.”
Gregg had told me last year of his regret around not understanding what he had with the album:
Gregg Fore: Cynthia Cherry came up with a really great record, a Jump Street compilation, and one of the groups on it was the Basement Boys. That was a group that, if I’d had more faith in the genre, should have gone a lot farther than it went. I spent more time pushing a “Wokie” Stewart record than I did that record and I probably could have did a lot better.
And so “Welcome To The Club” sadly never quite made the impact it truly deserved to. Looking back on how things worked out, particularly following her later years working in the cut-throat world of the major label music business, Cynthia is philosophical about the opportunity she was given by Jonathan to do something all of her own:
Cynthia: So when I was at Warner Brothers I went in and I said I wanted to concentrate on the dance stuff. They started up, but they didn’t get it – you have to have the machinery inside a company that gets it. I was thinking – work for a major label, everyone’s getting paid, you make your music, you hand it to them and everybody’s happy; but that’s not how it goes. It’s like – you don’t do this for me, I’m not gonna promote your record – just a whole lot of bickering. So I decided, well let me do a compilation of dance music, house music – if you wanna say what it is that’s you – but on that record I had Blaze, I had Larry Heard, I had Byron Stingily, Phillip Damien. It was a good compilation, but then when Sony got it, they they to put some of their acts on it – so it gave it a whole different kind of feel. They put it out and it did alright, but my baby is Welcome To The Club…
The morning we shot the cover – all those people on the cover are friends of mine, we got up really early in the morning and we did it. We had a good time doing it! So yeah, that was something that I had control over – not to the point where I didn’t take suggestions from other people, but there wasn’t somebody saying “oh, you can’t write this” or “you can’t put this on.” I went to Jonathan, and I’m like I wanna put this on the compilation – he wrote the cheque and it was done. That made a big difference.
Despite all the drama around Welcome To The Club, this story still has a happy ending. Although she was unable to really make an impact with her Jump Street compilation, the fall out would help Cynthia launch the career of one of 90s house music most iconic divas
Cynthia: The Basement Boys had come to me when I was at Jump Street with a cassette with a bunch of tunes on it – that’s how Love Don’t Live came about, with Teddy on the vocals. On the cassette was Ultra Nate – It’s Over Now and that was my leverage. I gave it to all the jocks – like Pete Tong – cos it was the Seminar that year. So I waited and waited and nobody got back in touch with me. Then – I was living in London and Norman Jay actually broke the record when he played at Dingwalls, he played in Camden on Thursdays. It became a big record and then labels started calling me, saying like “why didn’t you tell me?!” and I’m like “you guys… if you look in your trash can probably, you’ll find it!! So that’s really how I got my job at Warner Brothers (who owned Chrysalis). I said: you make sure I get a job here, so I can live in London and I can make sure you get this record!”
Ultra Naté would go on to have 3 top 10 singles in the UK charts, 7 number 1s in the US Billboard dance charts and with Free, provide the soundtrack to pretty much everything I can still remember from 1997!
So if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the wonderful time I spent chatting with Cynthia while those arctic winds were howling, it’s this: there’s no accounting for how things might turn out. Who knows, 27 years later, Welcome To The Club might even finally get the attention it’s always deserved. Spread the word!