Chicago’s R.J. Griffith honors uncle with song from The Fabulous Turks, his 1970s R&B group
The older singer ‘was really impressed’ by his nephew’s cover of ‘You Turn Me On.’
R.J. Griffith, an acclaimed Chicago singer, songwriter and audio engineer, wants to give his uncle, R&B singer Thomas Williams, his flowers before it’s too late.
He came up with an idea to ensure that his uncle’s legacy stands the test of time by covering “You Turn Me On,” a 1970 song by The Fabulous Turks, Williams’ group.
In many cases, Black creatives from bygone eras die two deaths: the physical one and the second when their legacies fall by the wayside.
“I think I had to be about 25 or 26 when [Williams] played the music for me, but when he played ‘You Turn Me On,’ I said, ‘Wait, I need to hear this one again,’ ” said Griffith. “My uncle gave me a CD with the music on there, and then come to find out my mom had a 45 [vinyl record] in the basement of the song, so I went home and started using her record player and was listening to the song.
“As technology advanced, I found it on YouTube. I just ripped it off of YouTube and kept listening to it over and over again. I went to my uncle and said, ‘I want to remake the song.’ ”
Griffith, 31, a Seton Academy alumnus, says singing is in his genes, and he can pinpoint when he knew music was what he wanted to do with his life.
His career started in 2016 with “Prey,” an EP that received favorable views from multiple media outlets. Griffith’s music has appeared in films such as “The Assumptions” and “Canal Street,” starring Bryshere Y. Gray (“Empire”), Mekhi Phifer (“E.R.”), and Harry Lennix (“The Five Heartbeats”).
“I started singing because I liked a girl at summer camp, and they said, ‘Who wants to sing a duet with her?” and I raised my hand saying: ‘I do,’ ” said Griffith. “I didn’t win her over, but I found out that I was able to sing. ... I used to go to church and see my uncle Thomas singing all the time, and I was like: ‘Man, I wish I can be like that’ — he was a very smooth singer. In my teenage years, I started imitating Jamie Foxx. That’s how I developed my voice, by singing for girls in high school and seeing if it worked, and if it did, I knew I was onto something. And if not, I just kept working.”
The Turks opened up for James Brown and Isaac Hayes at the first Black Expo started by Operation PUSH in 1972.
Jerome Davis, a retired postal service employee, not only remembers hearing “You Turn Me On” for the first time on WVON, he also was a manager of a record store where customers came in specifically to purchase it.
“It was different, and if you stretched out your imagination a bit, it may have fit into a doo-wop style, but [The Turks] were mainly an R&B group,” said Davis, who says “You Turn Me On” was a local hit. “I vividly recall that song. As a salesman, I remember recommending it to customers.”
Williams says he was receptive to hearing that his nephew was looking into his music.
“I was very honored,” said Williams, who lives in Romeoville. “A young man would look back at something that was done way before he was born, and see something in it.”
Griffith’s next step was to find Willie Weems, the man who wrote “You Turn Me On.”
Once everything started to fall into place, Griffith worried about how he’d measure up to his uncle’s singing chops.
“Growing up, I was always afraid to sing in front of him,” said Griffith. “It was the most nervous I’ve ever been to release a song, and let alone remake it because I wanted to do some justice because the original is so great. I pray the world is as receptive to it as I was when I first heard it.”
It turns out Weems had a specific woman in mind when he wrote “You Turn Me On.”
“Her name was June Wright,” said Weems. “When you see a woman you admire, it’s a natural feeling. … At the time I was doing sets, and we were making music, and she would show up to watch us play. There were issues that kept us from going forward; we were friends but never lovers. She inspired me to come up with the lyrics.”
Williams, who says he was inspired by Frankie Lymon, the lead singer of the doo-wop group The Teenagers, believes making music kept him on the straight and narrow.
“You would do something with your time instead of hanging on the corner doing nothing, but it was something you enjoyed,” said Williams. “To be around people that were doing something that creative felt good.”
Did Williams give his nephew a stamp of approval?
“I love what [Griffith] did because he brought it up to date. I was really impressed,” said Williams.
And that level of affirmation means everything to Griffith since learning the backstory of the song’s lyrics.
“When I first heard it, I thought about me as a teenager with the hormones going through your body. You’re looking at the girl but you don’t know how to express yourself,” said Griffith, who says he has some shows lined up in the near future. “Most men don’t express themselves anymore, so it’s bringing back that vibe of R&B and love songs.”