By Paul Cantor
Dick Griffey, the man behind venerable disco and R&B label S.O.L.A.R. Records as well as Death Row Records died September 24 of complications from quadruple bypass surgery. He was 71 years old.
S.O.L.A.R., which stood for Sound Of Los Angeles Records, was a fitting acronym, considering that Griffey was a music industry legend on the West Coast. In 1980, the LA Times dubbed him “the most promising new black music executive.” Over a decade later, he’d gone from promising to visionary when through S.O.L.A.R., he supplied Marion “Suge” Knight with financial backing and proper music distribution for his newly created gangsta rap powerhouse Death Row Records.
Griffey was born November 16th, 1938 in Nashville, Tennessee, where he grew up in the projects. He was the drummer in a band that played in local clubs and at age 17, enlisted in the Navy. In the 60s, he relocated to Los Angeles, where he booked talent for a night club called Guys and Dolls, which he co-owned with former New York Knicks shooting guard Dick Barnett. He eventually branched off and founded Dick Griffey Productions, where he produced and promoted concerts, as well as tours for acts like Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin and James Brown, among others. But he moved on to bigger things rather quickly.
"Concerts were becoming routine to me," he told the African American Review in 1995. "When you promote a concert you basically do the same thing every time. I was looking for new challenges."
So Griffey went to work as a talent coordinator for the famed dance show “Soul Train.” With the show’s producer, Don Cornelius, he started Soul Train Records in 1975 and created the group Shalamar, which had hits like “The Second Time Around” and “This Is For The Lover In You.” In 1977, Griffey founded S.O.L.A.R. Records as a spin-off label, its biggest act being The Whispers (“And The Beat Goes On”). Other acts included Lakeside, Dynasty Klymaxx, Midnight Star and the Deele (which included Kenneth “Babyface” Edwards and current Def Jam Chairman and CEO Antonio “LA” Reid).
“He had a great ear. He was a genius in many ways in terms of what he built, creating the label at the time that he did it. The sound he created,” Edmonds said in a September 29 article on the LA Times Pop and Hiss blog. “From the Whispers to Midnight Star, to Dynasty to Shalamar, he created music with a force behind it.”
In the early 90s, Griffey, a black activist, took a liking to Marion “Suge” Knight and his entrepreneurial hustle. He pushed for Sony Records to budget $1 million for Dr. Dre to produce the soundtrack to the movie Deep Cover, which was released through S.O.L.A.R. Records.The project became the germination of Death Row Records.
“He believed in black businesses and black people standing on their own two feet, to the point where he could scare you sometimes,” said Edmonds. “Some people thought he was harsh, and he could be. There were those that liked him and those that didn’t want to deal with him. Ultimately, I think that overrode the things he accomplished.”
Dick Griffey is survived by his second wife, Carrie Lucas, who he married in 1974; two daughters, Carolyn Griffey and Regina Griffey Hughes; two sons, Lucas and Che; five grandchildren, and Haile Williams, a teenager he raised as his son.