Blessed with a warm, sweet voice, Major Lance was one of the leading figures of Chicago soul during the '60s and the top-selling artist for OKeh Records during the decade. Lance not only had a lovely voice, but his material was excellent. During the height of his success, the majority of his songs were written by Curtis Mayfield and produced by Carl Davis, and the pair developed a smooth, Latin-flavored sound that was punctuated by brass and layered with vocal harmonies, usually from the Impressions. It was urban, uptown soul and while it was considerably less gritty than its Southern counterpart, its breezy rhythms and joyous melodies made songs like "The Monkey Time" and "Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um" some of the most popular good-time R&B of its era. Major Lance's career declined significantly after he parted ways with Mayfield and Davis in the late '60s, but his classic OKeh recordings remain some of the best-loved soul music of the decade.
Born in Winterville, Mississippi, Major Lance moved to Chicago as a child, where he was initially raised on the west side of the city, before he moved near the north. While studying at Wells High School — where Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler also attended — Lance began boxing, but his attention soon turned to music and he formed the Floats with Otis Leavill. Although the Floats never released any records, his dancing earned him a spot on a local American Bandstand-styled program hosted by disc jockey Jim Lounsbury. The DJ helped Lance secure a one-shot single for Mercury Records in 1959, and the singer recorded "I Got a Girl," which was written and produced by Mayfield. The single disappeared and Lance spent the next three years working odd jobs.
In 1962, Lance was signed to the revived OKeh Records, based on his connections with Otis Leavill and, especially, Curtis Mayfield, who signed with the Impressions to ABC Records and had hits with his own group. Later that year, Lance recorded his first single, "Delilah," for the label. Like most of the Major's material, the song was written by Mayfield who, along with OKeh president Carl Davis and arranger Johnny Pate, developed a distinctive, Latin-tinged sound for the record, filled with sliding trombones and a light-stepping rhythms in order to distinguish Chicago soul from its counterparts in the South, New York, Detroit, and California. Though "Delilah" wasn't a hit, Lance's second single, "The Monkey Time," was a monster. Released in the summer of 1963, "The Monkey Time" reached number two on the R&B charts and number eight pop, establishing not only Lance as a singer but the revitalized OKeh Records as a pop music force. "Hey Little Girl" was a Top 15 pop and R&B hit later that year, followed by the Top Ten "Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um" early in 1964.
"The Monkey Time" and "Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um" proved to be the height of Lance's popularity. Over the next year-and-a-half, he continued to turn out a series of Mayfield-written and Davis-produced singles, nearly all of which reached the R&B Top 40, but only a handful — "The Matador" (which Mayfield didn't write), "Rhythm," "Come See"— were pop hits. Following the summer 1965 release of the Top 20 R&B hit "Ain't It a Shame," Pate departed for ABC Records and Mayfield began concentrating on his group, but Lance and Davis continued to mine the same Chicago sound, using guitarist Gerald Sim as a songwriter and co-producer. After releasing a few singles, including the R&B hit "Too Hot to Hold" and the Van McCoy-written "Everybody Loves a Good Time," Davis left OKeh Records due to arguments with his superiors at Epic Records and Lance was sent to work with Billy Sherrill in Nashville. Out of these sessions, "It's the Beat" became Lance's only Top 40 hit. Since the teaming with Sherrill wasn't working out, Lance worked with a number of producers during 1966 and 1967, with only "Without a Doubt" scraping the R&B charts in 1968. He left OKeh shortly after that single, moving to Daka Records the following year, where he had the Top 40 R&B hit "Follow the Leader." Within a year, he moved to Mayfield's Curtom label, which resulted in his last two Top 40 R&B hits — the number 13 "Stay Away from Me (I Love You Too Much)" and "Must Be Love Coming Down."
Lance left Curtom later in 1971 and he moved through a variety of labels, including Volt and Columbia, over the next several years without much success. In 1972, he relocated to England, where Northern soul — a phenomenon of dance clubs playing rare, underappreciated, and just plain obscure American soul and R&B records — was in full force. For the next two years, Lance was a staple on the Northern soul circuit, eventually returning to Atlanta in 1974. He signed with Playboy and released a disco version of "Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um" that became a minor hit, which was followed by a pair of minor hits in 1975. Shortly afterward, his career entered a downward spiral, and in 1978, he hit rock bottom when he was convicted of selling cocaine. Lance spent the next four years in prison. Upon his release, he began playing the beach music circuit on the Carolina coast, but a 1987 heart attack prevented him from launching a full-scale comeback. In 1994, Lance gave a final, triumphant performance at the Chicago Blues Festival, which turned out to be his last. He died of heart failure on September 3, 1994 at the age of 55, leaving behind a recorded legacy that stands among the best Midwestern soul of the '60s. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine