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 used to go to church and see my uncle Thomas singing all the time,” Griffith said, “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.”
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.”
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.”