When Richard Griffey took charge of Soul Train Records in 1978, the label was an underperforming spin-off of the dance-driven TV show, Soul Train. Griffey, who died Friday in Los Angeles from complications following heart surgery at the age of 71, renamed the label Solar, an acronym for "Sounds of Los Angeles Records," and under Griffey's leadership, the label became a hit factory that pumped out laid-back but efficient dance and radio hits.
Born in Nashville in 1938, Griffey was a concert promoter in the 1960s and later a talent coordinator for Soul Train. Solar's signature songs were clearly a product of that television show, and provided the soundtrack to many a romantic meeting on the dance floor (or what comes after): curtains of synths driven by funk bass lines and a simple beat. The label's early hits included "And The Beat Goes On" by the Whispers (which Griffey helped to write and produce), "Fantastic Voyage" by Lakeside, and "Second Time Around" by Shalamar.
These songs and others helped establish a sound of California R&B that carried forward into the late '80s and the hip hop sound of the mid-'90s (all three of those late '70s hits were later sampled by major rap acts). Solar was also the setting for the meeting of two more R&B hit makers: Antonio "L.A." Reid and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds were members of the Solar-signed group the Deele before breaking out on their own to become two of the biggest forces behind '90s R&B.
In 1980, the Los Angeles Times called Griffey "the most promising new black music executive." (The Times' obit, and a great interview with Edmonds in its Pop & His blog, are the places to look for more info on Griffey.)
Griffey himself credited Solar's success to its size, and independence. "We did a lot of nurturing," he said in a 1997 interview with Billboard. "Because we were a smaller shop, we didn't dismiss an act out of hand if they didn't make the chart."
But he was also a tough businessman, according to Edmonds.
"He believed in black businesses and black people standing on their own two feet, to the point where he could scare you sometimes. Some people thought he was harsh, and he could be," Edmonds told Pop & Hiss. "There were those that liked him and those that didn't want to deal with him. ... But I, for one, wouldn't feel right if I didn't sing the praises for the talent he was."