Newnan Groove Machine Hamilton Bohannon Dies

Hamilton Bohannon, the influential Newnan, Georgia-born funk/disco singer, drummer, bandleader and producer responsible for assorted R&B/dance hits in the 1970s and ‘80s, died on Friday, April 24 at age 78.

Although neither his name nor his songs are widely known among modern-day pop music listeners, Bohannon’s music continues to be heard via the widespread practice of sampling by hip-hop and pop artists. Jay-Z, Justin Timberlake, Musiq Soulchild, Public Enemy, Paul Hardcastle, Ultramagnetic MC’s, Jungle Brothers, Digable Planets, Mary J. Blige and Snoop Dogg are among many that have used bits and pieces or hooks or beats or lines from Bohannon’s songs. He had a strong impact on house music, and his 1979 single “Me and the Gang” was heavily sampled for house DJ/producer Paul Johnson’s 1999 hit “Get Get Down.” David Byrne has acknowledged Bohannon as an influence on Talking Heads, and offshoot Tom Tom Club took obvious inspiration from Bohannon’s distinctive sound, giving him a shout out in “Genius of Love.”

Bohannon was born in Newnan in 1942. In a 2017 interview for Fox 5 News, he remembered “when I was just a little boy, [Peachtree Street in Newnan] was just a dirt street, and we had to water it to go out and cool off when it got hot, because [black children] couldn’t go to the swimming pool at the time.

“My father had a barbershop,” he recalled in the same TV interview. “He had a café, as well, with a jukebox in it, and the guys would come get their haircuts, and they would go over there and eat. And they would play the jukebox. And I was about four years old, and I used to dance – I really could dance! And they would give me money.”

Bohannon took to drumming, and started organizing his own bands while he was still in grammar school, playing weekend dances at the local schools. “After I graduated from high school, I had a scholarship…actually, I had two scholarships – one for Florida A&M, and one for Clark College. At the time [Clark Atlanta University] was called Clark College,” he said in another 2017 interview. “I chose Clark College because I wanted to come to a bigger city, because they had more opportunities for me to meet key people, great musicians, or good musicians, and more outlets to play, or venues to play. And that’s why I chose to come to Atlanta. And one of the first guys I met was Jimi Hendrix.” Bohannon was playing drums in the house band at the Royal Peacock at the time; it was there he met Hendrix, who was playing guitar with the Isley Brothers and soon to tour with Little Richard.

Bohannon was working on a Jackie Wilson package tour in the early 1960s when he crossed paths with a young Stevie Wonder in Louisville. “He was onstage playing the piano, practicing. Nobody was in there, only Stevie,” Bohannon told Fox 5. “He and I became instant friends, because I started bangin’ on the piano, on top of the piano, and he said, ‘Oh, man, you play the drums!’” After the tour ended, Bohannon moved from Atlanta to Detroit and began playing full-time with Stevie Wonder. By 1967 he had been hired by Motown to lead a touring band called Bohannon & the Motown Sound, which backed up assorted Motown acts including Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross & the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, The Four Tops and others.

Bohannon began performing with his own group (which in its early stages included a young Ray Parker Jr.) around Detroit in the early 1970s, leading to a deal with Dakar Records which released his debut album Stop & Go in 1973, establishing Bohannon’s trademark minimal, repetitive funk groove. His biggest crossover hit during this time was 1975’s “Foot Stompin’ Music;” other notables were “South African Man,” which he performed on Soul Train in 1974, and the following year’s “Disco Stomp” which carried a discernible Bo Diddley influence. He signed with Mercury in 1976, and his song “Let’s Start the Dance” hit #9 on Billboard’s R&B chart in 1978. Bohannon continued to record throughout the ‘80s, scoring a few more minor R&B hits.

Bohannon received the National Black College Alumni Hall of Fame’s Chairman’s Award in 2017, the same year Newnan’s Peachtree Street, on which he lived as a child, was renamed Hamilton Bohannon Drive. He continued to perform occasionally up through last year.

On a personal note, I remember accidentally happening upon a music video shoot Bohannon was doing one night in the mid-to-late 1980s. To the best of my recollection, it was in Midtown, outside of a building on Peachtree Street or maybe West Peachtree. My group of friends and I were not familiar with Bohannon at that point, but we stood around and watched them film it for a while because, well, music videos were the coolest thing happening back then and we’d never seen one made. It was obviously a pretty low-budget affair, as Bohannon’s hitmaking days – even minor ones – were behind him. To this day I’ve never seen that video. I have no idea what song it was for, or if it was ever completed or used. If anyone has seen it or knows any information about it, I’d love to hear from you.