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The Ultimate ’80s R&B Single: Junior’s “Mama Used to Say”

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One of the reasons I began the “Cutout Bin” column was to spotlight unfairly neglected artists from several decades.  One such artist, 80s R&B singer Junior, many be remembered for one song — but oh, what a song it is. 

As a kid growing up in suburban Chicago in 1982, I began listening to WJPC-AM, an urban music station owned by the Johnson Family Publishing Company (Ebony, Jet).  Unlike the top 40 stations of the time, WJPC played infinitely cooler music, introducing me to the Tom Tom Club, Mtume, the SOS Band, the Gap Band, and other legendary 80s R&B acts.  JuniorBut one song stood out amidst all this great music: “Mama Used to Say” by Junior.  Since WJCP’s signal was so weak, it would fade out at about 5 PM each night, switching to another station.  Therefore I would pray that the signal could hold out just one minute longer so I could hear that incredible tune one more time. 

The song grabs the listener from the first few seconds: the thumping bass line, the bongo drums, and the offbeat cowbell or chimes (I never could figure that part out) signal that this sound will be different.  Then Junior kicks in with his strident vocals, alternating between growls and falsetto.  Who could forget that chorus:

 

Mama used to say, take your time young man

And Mama used to say, don’t you rush to get old

And Mama used to say, take it in your stride

And Mama used to say, live your life

 

To this day I can type (and sing) those lyrics from memory.  The lyrics also address a universal theme: growing up too fast.  The narrator describes a young boy first wanting to be an adult; once he reaches adulthood, he yearns to be young again: “As the years went rushing by, he would cut down on his age/He would tell his girl of how it used to be.”  At the same time, Junior warns, one shouldn't waste youth: “do what you want to do/Now is the time for you to strive,” he sings.  While the lyrics are memorable, the funky beat and unusual instrumentation truly sell the song.

For years I searched out the single, unable to find any Junior albums or even compilations.  Finally, several years ago I discovered a vinyl copy of his first album, Ji, which contains the single.  While “Mama Used to Say” clearly stands out from the LP’s other tracks, another song, “Down Down,” shows his ability to inject funk with his smooth vocals and an undeniable beat.  Why this song was not released as a follow-up single?

Unfortunately, Junior never equaled the success of “Mama Used to Say” — he released several subsequent albums which charted in the U.K., but he ultimately became a “one hit wonder” in the U.S.  Even today, information about Junior’s career is scarce.

According to All Music, he was born Junior Giscombe on June 6, 1960, to Jamaican parents.  After graduating from college in the mid-70s, he decided to pursue his passion: music.  After releasing a single, “Hot Up & Heated,” on a small British independent label, Polygram gave him his first major label opportunity.  With “Mama Used to Say” (which Junior co-wrote with Bob Carter), he became one of the first British R&B/pop acts to become successful in America.  According to All Music, his material paved the way for artists such as Sade, Billy Ocean, Loose Ends, and Soul II Soul. 

While Junior remains relegated to “one hit wonder” status in America, his brand of funk seems timeless.  His success opened doors for other British R&B artists, and having one song accomplish that feat is truly impressive. 

Finding Junior’s music can present a challenge, but is well worth the effort.  Right now a compilation, The Best of Junior (1995), offers the most complete selection of his greatest hits.  “Mama Used to Say” can be found on 80s dance compilations, but try to find the 12-inch version of the song. 

Below is the original video for "Mama Used to Say" — while it reeks of early 80s primitive (and at times silly) clips, Junior's enthusiastic dancing and lip syncing still charm.  

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