The Tempests (pt 12): Insight Talent and Surfside Records

E. Mark Windle. 13 Oct 2021

Mike and Roger Branch formed Insight Talent, a booking and promotional agency in 1974. However, Roger was being tempted by an opportunity to take up a position as Polydor promotional representative for North Carolina. Weighing up the pros and cons, rather than take a risk on a new company with a potentially unpredictable outcome, he decided to go with Polydor. Mike took over control of Insight Talent in partnership with Don Strawn and Paul Scoggins. For several years the company would continue to harvest local singing acts; a process which more than partly contributed to the beach music revival of the late 1970s.

Joe Crayton Clinard Jr. was involved in sponsoring events and printing promotional T-shirts for the agency. Insight Talent Inc. were also responsible for the production of a series of Beach Blast open air rock festivals (and later, a showcase opportunity for beach music bands) held around Charlotte.

Courtesy of Joe Crayton Clinard, jr.

“I knew the family from when Mike and Roger’s mom helped me out with a little mail order for the Rock and Roll T-shirt biz I started. I also worked with Mike when he was our booking agent around the time when Cannonball’s You Keep Telling Me Yes was out. He was the biggest beach music promoter at the time and in the years that followed Beach Blast. I mean, large music outdoor festivals that started the concept in the area. They lasted for years in one form or other. After I got out of music I supported the promotion of Mike’s shows with my retail jeans store group called Cheap Joes.”

The momentum of the beach music revival was in no small way down to the partnership of Mike Branch, singer General Norman Johnson (b. 1941 d. 2010) and their desire to progress beach music beyond merely a retrospective, nostalgic oldies scene. Johnson’s first group The Showmen had minor national success in the early 1960s with It Will Stand on Minit, breaking the Billboard Hot 100 in 1961, and R&B Charts at #40. Their 39-21-46 (Shape) was also a popular east coast regional hit. The Showmen’s releases on Swan in Philadelphia are also well known to record collectors of soul music. Johnson departed from The Showmen in 1968 with a move to Detroit. The Holland-Dozier-Holland song-writing team had recently left Motown, having refused to follow the Gordy empire to the west coast. They immediately set out to find fresh talent for their newly formed Invictus label. With the newly formed group Chairmen of the Board at the helm, the label went from strength to strength. Give Me Just A Little More Time was a million seller by May 1970, reaching number 3 in the Billboard Hot 100. Other hits followed though eventually members of the original group went their own ways. Johnson stayed on with Invictus for a while as a producer and staff writer. Finally business relationships at the label soured and Johnson left in the mid-1970s to work with Arista and Greg Perry.

General Johnson met Mike Branch when he brought a reformed Chairmen Of The Board, now also featuring Danny Woods and Ken Knox, to North Carolina. Ken recollects these early years:

“Growing up in Detroit, music was in the air. I could walk down my street and hear The Temptations being played alongside Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels, MC5 and gospel music. In 1974 Danny Woods walked into a club where my band was performing. He liked what I was doing and invited me to come audition for the touring band for Chairmen. I was a bit intimidated because there was General Johnson, Harrison Kennedy, arranger McKinley Jackson and Funkadelic all in the same room. To my surprise I made the cut. Within a couple of years and after a lot of touring we came south on General’s knowledge of the audiences in the Carolinas from his days with The Showmen. I believe Mike Branch reached out to us after seeing us perform in Charlotte and we ended up staying with Insight Talent for the next couple of decades. The company was housed in a little building at 2300 E. Independent Blvd. The Insight Talent Beach Blast festivals included acts such as Chairmen, Archie Bell and The Drells, Bill Pinkney’s Drifters, Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose and local beach music bands. They also later promoted jazz concerts featuring Kenny G. Mike was a very hard worker and was hands on in promoting Chairmen Of The Board in the south-east. He was always last to leave at night from his office and made sure we had the best of everything. We used two studios; early recordings were made at Reflection Sound Studios but Arthur Smith was like our home away from home. Mike set all this up for us there partly because The Tempests had recorded there… and of course the legendary James Brown recorded Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag at Arthur Smith’s place.

Author collection

General Johnson and Mike Branch also struck up a partnership via Surfside Records in 1979. The label also operated from the Insight Talent building. Mike concentrated on the business whilst General Johnson and Ken Knox produced Chairmen of the Board and other artists on the label roster. Jerry Goodman, who since post Smash days had been a representative for Atlantic Records and Warner Brothers, was put on promotions. Given Johnson’s local knowledge and popularity, singing and writing talent, and industry skills picked up along the way, he was also the perfect business partner for Mike. Both were keen on the idea of a label to present new recording artists and original music, revitalizing what was being perceived by many as a ‘tired’ beach music market. Even an attempt by Motown to lure General Johnson to California was resisted and Surfside continued to sell well for the next couple of decades. Artists appearing on the label included General Johnson and the Chairmen, The Band Of Oz, Poor Souls, The Tams, Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose – and even a release by The Tempests featuring a singer called Pat Carpenter. The label quickly found its niche, and Surfside along with other labels was doubtless a major catalyst for the live band beach music scene which still exists to this day in the Carolinas.    

Copyright 2021 E. Mark Windle. Modified excerpt from The Tempests: A Carolina Soul Story available to order from A Nickel And A Nail and Blurb.com

Published by E. Mark Windle

Freelance writer, biographer and soul music lover.

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