Henry Stone and 50 Years of Miami Sound


Henry Stone swivels in his chair as the music blares from the speakers. He is excited. Tito Puente Jr. is doing a Latin- techno-hip hop-disco version of his father’s classic “Oye Como Va,” and Stone wonders if this could be his next winner.
If not, well, we have a great Japanese remix here. And did you know dance-oriented Italian remixes are very hot right now? They’re doing great in the clubs, he says. Kids go crazy with that. Then he shrugs.
He listens intently but never taps his foot.
At 70, after 50 years of making and selling records, Henry Stone is still trying to figure out what makes a hit — while hyping his latest release, of course.
He is the last of an era, one of the few remaining active members of a gallery of fabled rogue record-industry pioneers that includes Leonard Chess, Ahmet Ertegun, Berry Gordy, and Jerry Wexler.
He started before there was a music industry, went on to build one of the largest record-distributing companies in the country, founded a dozen labels, recorded stars such as Ray Charles, James Brown, Hank Ballard and Sam and Dave, reigned over the disco era and its demise and lived to tell about it.
“I love this business,” he says at the offices of Hot Productions, his 8-year-old recording company in South Miami. “But I don’t fall in love with my records. I love what I do, that’s why I still do it, but some fall in love with their projects, and if it doesn’t work, they remix and go on and on. I don’t. . . . once it’s gone, there’s a next one.”
He should know.

Back in the 1970s, well before there was a Gloria and Emilio Estefan, a Miami Sound Machine or the idea of creating a “Miami Motown,” there was Henry Stone, a Miami sound, and TKRecords in Hialeah. With Stone behind the desk and Steve Alaimo, a former recording artist and star of Dick Clark’s TV show Where the Action Is, in the recording booth, the hits kept coming.
There were That’s The Way (I Like It) and (Shake, Shake Shake) Your Booty by K.C. and the Sunshine Band; Get Off by Foxy; Clean Up Woman by Betty Wright; Rock You Baby by George McCrae and What You Won’t Do For Love by Bobby Caldwell. Plus hits by Little Beaver, Anita Ward, Latimore, Gwen McCrae, Timmy Thomas, Clarence Reid, and more, many more.
“TK was the Motown of the South,” says Stone. “We sold 50 million records. We were big worldwide. People used to come from all over the world to Hialeah to take pictures in front of TK.”
Producer Joe Galdo, a member of Foxy and part of TK Records house band, was later instrumental in shaping the sound of the Miami Sound Machine. He agrees.
“Henry is the father of the real Miami sound,” says Galdo, now an A&R man for Island Records. “TK was my university of music.”
Even Harry Wayne “K.C.” Casey — who complains bitterly that Stone and TK Records owe him more than $19 million in royalties — concedes, “they did a lot for me.”
“I learned by just hanging around (the studio). I started doing backgrounds for other musicians, and then I started doing my own recording by just waiting for the studio to empty and going in there. I had the talent, and they had the means. We both did very good for each other. Of course, one of us did much better.”
(Stone says he “never heard anything about (Casey’s claim) until now. K.C. got . . . every nickel he was supposed to get. And I’m glad. That’s the way it should be.”)

Born in the Bronx, Stone started out in music as a trumpeter, playing with long-forgotten names before moving to Los Angeles, where he sold records to jukebox owners out of the trunk of his car. “There was no record business. There were no record stores. I remember (selling) records at a shoe-shine parlor.”
In 1946, he moved to Miami and set up Tone, his record- distribution business.
“There was nothing here,” he says. “This was the (end) of the world. So I started selling to jukeboxes here. They were dying for records, especially black records. I used to travel around the state, and they would be waiting for me because I would bring all these hit records.
“But I’ve always had a little studio in the back pocket.”

The first artist Stone recorded was young and black, a singer and pianist fresh out of the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine who aspired to imitate Nat “King” Cole. His name was Ray Charles.
“I had heard of him through the grapevine, so I asked him to call me whenever he came to Miami, and he did,”Stone says.
While running Tone, Stone pursued his dream of his own studio. He founded a series of labels — Deluxe, Dade, Allston — and recorded such premier R & B artists as James Brown, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters and Sam and Dave.
“Other people played golf and billiards, my thing was recording,” he says.

Typical of Stone’s approach, the beginnings of TK Records were a mixture of artistic impulse and street-wise business sense.
By 1975 the major labels were getting into record distribution themselves, pushing independent operators like Stone out of business. “I realized I wouldn’t even be able to sell my own song,” he recalls, “and I said, ‘The hell with it.’ So we formed TK.”
The small studio with a four-track machine was on the second floor of the Tone warehouse. It operated 24 hours a day with a loose, if-no-one-is-using-it-go-to-it policy.
“There was always someone doing an overdub, singing, mixing, laying a track, whatever,” says Galdo, who tells of Foxy recording its first album after gigs “without anyone at TK knowing about it.”
“You could try out stuff. Henry let things happen. He didn’t force his personality or his taste down your throat, and his door was always open.”
Perhaps inevitably, the sound that emerged from that environment was distinctively Miami. It was disco but with a blend of R & B, Latin and other Caribbean influences.
“It was a family. Everybody got along,” says Alaimo. “And the combination of music just happened.”

Henry Stone in an old photograph, center, at the phone in his office with Betty Wright, Harry Wayne Casey (of KC and The Sunshine Band), producer Willie Clarke and Benny Lattimore

Not everyone, however, felt like one, big, happy family. There is a seamy underbelly to the music industry, and the Stone and TK Records legend includes tales of low pay, one-sided recording contracts and unpaid royalties — practices that, in all fairness, have been and are common in the record industry.
“I got paid $20 a song,” says Galdo, recalling his days in TKRecords’ house band. “If you complained, the word was, ‘Hey, there are a million like you out there, so if you don’t like it, you can leave.’ But you stayed because you loved going in there.”

Adds Miami entertainment attorney Alan Jacobi: “I used to joke that I started my career suing Henry Stone.”
But perhaps no tale is as famous as the one told by Frederic Dannen in his book Hit Men, a chilling look at the inner workings of the record business.
Dannen, quoting an unidentified witness, tells of the day George McRae, who had the No. 1 hit in the country at the time, pulled a knife and threatened to “cut” Stone for owing him royalties.
Stone, the story goes, took a roll of bills out of his pocket and gave it to McCrae. “But that isn’t all,” he said, handing over a set of car keys and pointing to a Cadillac parked out front. “You see that Cadillac? It’s yours.”
“I said, ‘Henry, how much did that Cadillac cost?’ ” the witness is quoted as saying. “He said, ‘What cost? It’s rented.’ ”
In a footnote, Dannen writes that while Stone said he couldn’t remember the incident, it was “very, very possible.” When asked recently, however, he denied it ever happened.

But TK Records had bigger problems. By the late ’70s, disco had stretched as far as it would go.
“Things were still going until the fatal day in 1979, when 60 Minutes went on the air and said, ‘Disco is dead,’ “Stone says. “That was it. My bank called me up the next day. I had a $3 million credit line, and they called it, and that was that.”
A plan to sell the company to CBS Records for $17.5 million stalled at the last minute, and in 1981 TK went bankrupt.
Stone moved on. He founded Sunnyview Records and, later, Hot Productions. Two months ago, he and James Brown founded yet another label, Brownstone. He still goes to the office every day.

“But the business has changed. It’s all corporate now, all accountants and lawyers,” he says. “All the people I started with . . . have left the business or just go to meetings. I’m the last fragment of the old record business.
“But we still can give a chance to a Tito Puente Jr. He went around to everybody, and everybody threw him out. He came here, and we came up with this concept of “Oye Como Va” and . . . ”
And he is off again. He has the feeling this one could be a hit.

This story appeared in the Miami Herald, July, 1995

Ed.Note: Henry Stone passed on August 7, 2014. He was 93.

Fernando González