Major Lance: The Iconic American R&B Singer of the 1960s

Major Lance, an American R&B singer, rose to fame in the 1960s and he became an iconic figure among Northern Soul enthusiasts in Britain during the 1970s.

Major Lance

Early Life and Birth Controversy

Major Lance, an American R&B singer, rose to fame in the 1960s with several hit songs, including “The Monkey Time” and “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um.” He became an iconic figure among Northern Soul enthusiasts in Britain during the 1970s. Despite ceasing to release records in 1982, Lance continued to captivate audiences with his performances until his unfortunate passing in 1994. Notably, his daughter, Keisha Lance Bottoms, later became the 60th mayor of Atlanta.

The exact birth year of Major Lance has been a subject of dispute. Some sources claim he was born in 1941, while others suggest 1942, as per Lance’s own claim. However, extensive research indicates that 1939 is the correct year of his birth. The 1940 U.S. Census lists “Mager” Lance as a one-year-old son of Lucendy Lance, a widow, in Washington County, Mississippi. Furthermore, Lance’s gravestone confirms his birth year as 1939. It is essential to note that “Major” was his given name and not a nickname or stage name.

Early Life and Influences

Major Lance, one of twelve children, spent his childhood in the Cabrini-Green projects, a high-crime area on the midnorth side of Chicago. It was during this time that he developed a close friendship with Otis Leavill, who would later become a prominent figure in the music industry. Both Lance and Leavill attended Wells High School, where they formed lasting connections with other notable musicians such as Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler. Curtis Mayfield, in particular, held Lance in high regard, describing him as a “sparkly fellow” and a talented basketball player. Lance idolised Jackie Wilson and often sought Mayfield’s guidance in selecting songs. His keen ear for music often led him to discover hidden gems among Mayfield’s compositions.

In addition to his passion for music, Lance was also an accomplished baseball player. Furthermore, he and Otis engaged in boxing and showcased their vocal talents as members of the Five Gospel Harmonaires. The duo also found employment together at a local drug store.

Career Beginnings and Partnership with Okeh Records

Major Lance and Otis Leavill initially formed a group called the Floats in the mid-1950s. However, the group disbanded before they could record any material. Lance then ventured into the entertainment industry as a featured dancer on the local television show, Time for Teens. It was during this time that Jim Lounsbury, a presenter on the show, recognised Lance’s potential and offered him a one-off record deal with Mercury Records. In 1959, Mercury released Lance’s single, “I Got a Girl,” which was written and produced by Curtis Mayfield. Despite the involvement of such esteemed talent, the single did not achieve commercial success. In the subsequent years, Lance explored various job opportunities while keeping his musical aspirations alive.

In 1962, Lance’s fortunes took a turn when he signed with Okeh Records, a record label known for its association with Curtis Mayfield. Lance’s determination to succeed was evident as he persistently appeared at the Okeh offices, volunteering to run errands for Carl Davis. He often reminisced about the records he had previously made and his friendship with Curtis Mayfield since childhood. These interactions laid the foundation for Lance’s partnership with the talented writing and arranging team of Mayfield, Carl Davis, and Johnny Pate. Additionally, members of Mayfield’s group, the Impressions, frequently provided backing vocals for Lance’s songs. Together, they developed a distinctive Latin-tinged sound that came to epitomise Chicago soul music, distinguishing it from recordings produced elsewhere.

“The Monkey Time” and a String of Hits

Major Lance’s breakthrough came with his second single on Okeh Records, titled “The Monkey Time.” Written by Curtis Mayfield, the song climbed to No. 2 on the Billboard R&B chart and reached No. 8 on the pop chart in 1963. Notably, “The Monkey Time” marked Okeh Records’ first hit single in a decade, further solidifying Lance’s rising stardom. Following this success, Lance delivered a series of chart-topping hits, including “Hey Little Girl,” “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um” (his most significant hit, peaking at No. 5 on the US pop chart and No. 40 in the UK), “The Matador” (the sole track not penned by Mayfield), “Rhythm,” “Sometimes I Wonder,” “Come See,” and “Ain’t It a Shame.”

Despite the departure of Johnny Pate from Okeh Records in 1965 and Mayfield’s subsequent focus on his own group, Lance and Carl Davis continued to collaborate. Their joint efforts produced the minor hit “Too Hot to Hold.” However, their subsequent releases experienced diminishing success, eventually leading to Davis’s departure from the company.

Major Lance’s contributions to the R&B and soul music scene of the 1960s solidified his status as an influential artist. His unique sound, fostered by the collaboration with Curtis Mayfield and Carl Davis, left an indelible mark on the Chicago soul genre. While his active recording career ended in 1982, Lance’s music continues to resonate with audiences, ensuring his legacy as an exceptional talent in American music history.