Born Major Lance on April 4, 1941, in Winterville, MS; died on September 3, 1994, in Decatur, GA.
Soul singer Major Lance had several songs in the top ten during the 1960s. He was noted for his sweet, warm voice, and in his heyday his record sales were second only to those of the Impressions. However, Lance did not keep pace with the changes in soul music, and although he tried to make a comeback in the 1970s, his career faltered. He is still remembered as an influential voice in Northern Soul.
Born in Winterville, Mississippi, Major Lance grew up in a family that eventually included eleven children. He moved with his family to Chicago when he was still a child. They initially settled on the west side of the city, a tough neighborhood where Lance took up boxing as a means of self-defense; he thought he would become a professional boxer some day. After moving to the Cabrini-Green housing projects on the city's north side, Lance switched to Wells High School, where he became interested in music. With his friends Otis Leavell and Barbara Tyson he formed the group The Floats. He also sang with the Five Gospel Harmonaires.
In addition to being a singer, Lance was a good dancer, and he won a spot on a local program hosted by disc jockey Jim Lounsbury, "The Jim Lounsbury Record Hop." With Lounsbury's connections, Lance got a one-shot deal to record a single on the Mercury label in 1959, "I Got a Girl." The song was written and produced by Curtis Mayfield, and Lance performed it with the backing of the Impressions. The record got modest airplay in Chicago, but did not receive major public exposure.
Lance's musical career stalled until three years later, when he signed with Carl Davis at OKeh Records. His debut recording was also written by Mayfield; titled "Delilah," it became a mild hit. On May 8, 1963, Lance recorded another Mayfield song, "Monkey Time," which reached the number two spot on the R&B charts and the number eight spot on the pop charts, and also fueled a nationwide dance craze. As a reviewer noted in the Austin Chronicle, Lance's "sweet, seductive voice ... monkeyed this Curtis Mayfield gem to the top of the charts." The record sold a million copies.
Lance and Curtis continued to work together in 1963 and 1964, producing a string of pop hits, including 1963's "Hey Little Girl," which sounded very much like "Monkey Time," and which reached number 12 on the pop charts and number 13 on the R&B charts. In January of 1964 OKeh released "Um Um Um Um Um Um Um," which hit number 5 on the Hot 100 charts; the R&B chart was temporarily on hiatus. This was to be the biggest hit of Lance's career.
Although R&B seemed to be on the wane during this period, Lance did well in 1964. He reached number 20 on the pop charts with "The Matador," and reached number 24 with "Rhythm." Lance made the Top 40 on the reinstated R&B chart 45 times in 1965 and 1966.
By the end of 1965, Lance and Mayfield's partnership had broken up. In addition, Lance's producer at OKeh, Carl Davis, left the company. This left Lance at loose ends, but he remained on the charts, selling 5.5 million records.
However, his success did not last, and by 1968 Lance had been off the R&B charts for more than a year. OKeh was having trouble breaking even. Lance left the label and signed with Dakar Records, which was owned by Carl Davis and Otis Leaville. He had some success with "Follow the Leader." By 1969 he had left Dakar and was working with Curtis Mayfield's Curtom Records in Atlanta.
He released "Stay Away from Me" and "Must Be Love Coming Down," which both made the Top 40 R&B lists, but then left Curtom and returned to Chicago. He recorded for Stax in Memphis, and then lived in Britain from 1972 to 1974, where he recorded for Contempo and Warner Brothers. In the mid-1970s he recorded for Playboy Records.
Perhaps tired of working for other people, Lance founded his own label, Osiris, in 1975, with Al Jackson of Booker T. and the MGs. However, in 1978 he was convicted of selling cocaine, and as a result spent several years in prison. After being released from prison, he began playing in beach clubs on the Carolina coast. In 1987 Lance suffered a heart attack, which prevented him from relaunching his career.
Lance played at the Chicago Blues Festival in 1994; this turned out to be his last show. He died of heart failure on September 3, 1994, at the age of 55.
by Kelly Winters
Major Lance's Career
Sang with The Floats and the Five Gospel Harmonaires; danced on "The Jim Lounsbury Record Hop"; recorded "I Got a Girl" with Mercury, 1959; signed with OKeh and released Monkey Time, 1963; released Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, 1964; The Rhythm of Major Lance, 1968; Major Lance's Greatest Hits: Recorded Live at the Torch, 1973; Now Arriving, 1978; The Major's Back, 1983; Live at Hinkley, 1986.
- Selected discography
- Monkey Time OKeh, 1963.
- Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um OKeh, 1964.
- The Rhythm of Major Lance OKeh, 1968.
- Major Lance's Greatest Hits: Recorded Live at the Torch Contempo, 1973.
- Now Arriving Soul, 1978.
- The Major's Back 1983.
- Live at Hinkley 1986.
- "The Monkey Time," Austin Chronicle, August 5, 2005, http://www.austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2005-08-05/music_string_all.html (February 20, 2006).
- "Major Lance," Soul Express Radio, http://www.soulexpressradio.com/soulbio.htm (February 20, 2006).
- "Major Lance," Soulwalking, http://www.soulwalking.co.uk/Major%20Lance.html (January 25, 2006).
- "Major Lance," Tsimon.com, http://www.tsimon.com/lance.htm (January 25, 2006).