Babyface looks back on Solar Records founder Richard Griffey's 'fantastic voyage'
Kenny Edmonds is adamant that had there been no Richard "Dick" Griffey, there wouldn't have been much of a black music scene in the '80s.
Griffey, the founder of the Los Angeles-based R&B record label Solar, died at the age of 71 of complications from quadruple-bypass heart surgery that he underwent last year (read more about Griffey’s life in The Times' obituary).
From 1977 when Griffey founded the label, which stands for Sounds of Los Angeles Records, through its peak in the 1980s, the label quickly earned its moniker, “the Motown of the '80s,” for its stable of artists. Acts like the Whispers, Shalamar (featuring Jody Watley and Howard Hewett), Klymaxx, Midnight Star and the Deele (featuring Antonio "L.A." Reid and Edmonds) all have Griffey’s imprint on them. His hits are inescapable, with classics including “Fantastic Voyage,” “And the Beat Goes On,” “Rock Steady” and “Tender Lover.”
The string of success led to Griffey being pegged "the most promising new black music executive," which The Times reported in 1980.
The R&B, funk and soul jams his acts crafted laid the foundation for the early-1990s G-funk West Coast flavor of Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and Warren G, among others. Edmonds said it was all part of Griffey’s genius.
“He had a great ear. He was a genius in many ways in terms of what he built, creating the label at the time that he did it. The sound he created,” Edmonds said. “From the Whispers to Midnight Star, to Dynasty to Shalamar, he created music with a force behind it.”
Before he became Babyface, Edmonds was just a background player in the Deele, struggling to get noticed as a songwriter, and he credited Griffey with bringing him to the forefront -– this after being voted down to sing lead on a song he wrote.
Griffey said, " 'Well, how come he isn’t singing it?' It was a political problem. They had a meeting on it and they voted me on not singing. He said, 'That’s some ... . He’s singing the song,' " Edmonds said. "He was responsible for getting my voice on the record. ... He said, 'If they don’t want you to sing all the time, you should be doing your own thing.' That’s how I ended up recording my own album."
For all his achievements, Griffey was a hard businessman, Edmonds said, and, even moreso, a “complicated” man.
“He was a black man to the depths, he was a black activist. He believed in black businesses and black people standing on their own two feet, to the point where he could scare you sometimes. Some people thought he was harsh, and he could be,” Edmonds said. “There were those that liked him and those that didn’t want to deal with him. Ultimately, I think that overrode the things he accomplished.”
But regardless of how stringent he may have been, Griffey's contribution outweighs how his peers regard him –- even if his former artists and Griffey’s family have to do the reminding. "His legacy isn’t as known because they don’t know the guy behind it all. I think he got frustrated with the music business, and it wasn’t as important to him,” Edmonds said. “At some point, when it relates to your legacy, you have to fight to remember. And at some point, I don’t think he cared anymore. But I, for one, wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t sing the praises for the talent he was.”
-- Gerrick D. Kennedy
Photo: Dick Griffey in 1973. Credit: Los Angeles Times