The last time I visited Jay King in Sacramento, he was sitting behind a deck in his office chastising a Warner Bros. Records executive over the phone. It was March of 1987, and the brash 25-year-old producer was pleased that his recording of “Lean on Me” by his recently formed group Club Nouveau was No. 1 on Billboard’s pop chart but was incensed that it had stalled at No. 2 on the R&B chart. Club Nouveau’s version of the Bill Withers song, which utilized elements of reggae and a then-popular style of Washington, D.C., funk known as go-go, was King’s fourth Top 10 hit in 13 months. He would have only one more.
Club Nouveau, left to right: Samuelle Prater, Valerie Waston, and Jay King.
King, who now lives in Southern California, recently invited me to a Sacramento restaurant to celebrate our birthdays, which are a day apart. We were joined by his girlfriend, his brother, two sisters, a brother-in-law, an 18-month-old niece and a friend.
Born in Oroville and raised in Sacramento, King began his career as a teenage dancer in Vallejo. In 1986, he and his producing partners Denzel Foster and Thomas McElroy recorded a song titled “Rumors” by a trio of former Berkeley High students known as Timex Social Club. The record, issued on King’s own Jay label, rose to No. 1 on the R&B chart and to No. 8 pop. A rival label in Walnut Creek, having learned that Timex Social Club had no written contract with King, quickly signed the group, which broke up not long thereafter. King, Foster and McElroy, along with Sacramento singers Saumelle Prater and Valerie Watson, then formed Club Nouveau (“new club,” in French), recorded an album titled “Life, Love & Pain” and signed with Warner Bros. The disc yielded four Top 10 hit singles: “Jealousy” (an “answer” to “Rumors”), “Situation #9,” “Lean on Me,” and “Why You Treat Me So Bad.”
King’s temper would soon prove to be his undoing. As “Why You Treat Me So Bad” was climbing the charts, the producer threatened to “whip Mo Ostin’s a–.” King, now mellower at age 48, recalled that the Warner Bros. Records president “told me that his fights weren’t physical. I never had another hit record.” Foster and McElroy compounded King’s misfortunes by quitting Club Nouveau in 1988. They set up their own production company in Oakland and proceeded to cut hit after hit, at first with Tony Toni Tone, then with En Vogue.
King, Prater and Watson continued making records — some of which, such as a 1992 version of “Oh Happy Day,” have been minor hits –and still perform together 20 to 30 times a year as Club Nouveau. The three singers, along with their four-piece band of Bay Area musicians, will appear at Yoshi’s in San Francisco at 8 p.m. Friday, February 12.
“There’s no sequencing, no samples, “ the producer stated. “We’re a straight-up group, so what you see is what you get. Everything’s live.”
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