Club Nouveau performs on Saturday in Elk Grove, but Jay King, the group’s producer/performer, says don’t call it a comeback for the 1980s Sacramento sensation.
Sure, it’s been more than two decades since Club Nouveau was a matter of civic pride with a chart-topping hit (a cover of Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me”) and a 1988 Grammy Award for best R&B song. The group hasn’t had a hit since 1992, and while Club Nouveau has recorded a few new songs over the years for compilation albums, the group hasn’t released a full-length album since 1995’s “Everything Is Black.”
Club Nouveau returns to the 916 area code with an upcoming album, “Consciousness.” King, the group’s figurehead, hasn’t lived in the area since Club Nouveau’s glory days but says the River City still feels like home.
“This is not a reunion,” said King, by phone from Los Angeles, where he resides. “We’ve always made records, always recorded music. … We represent Sacramento. It’s our city.”
Looking back, Sacramento’s relatively sparse music scene from the ’80s bears little resemblance to the current musical climate. The city has since spawned the Grammy-winning rockers Deftones, Spin’s 2012 artist of the year (Death Grips), a Prince protégée (Andy Allo) and alternative-rockers Cake, whose 2012 album “Showroom of Compassion” debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s album charts.
And that’s just for starters.
But along with hard rockers Tesla, Club Nouveau were among the first to prove that local groups could have a national impact – all without moving to Hollywood or New York City.
“Not only was it tough, everyone said it was impossible,” King said. “We did the undoable at a very opportune time in the industry. We were the beginning of what I see as a thriving urban scene in Sacramento, and we are proud of that.”
The 1980s were especially heady times for King, who grew up in Del Paso Heights and emerged as a type of Sacramento musical Svengali. He’d first found success with the Bay Area’s Timex Social Club. Released on King’s homegrown King Jay Records, its single “Rumors” hit the Top 10.
Club Nouveau was formed in the fallout of Timex Social Club, which ditched King for the Walnut Creek-based label Danya Records. But the hits kept coming for King. Club Nouveau’s “Jealousy,” sharing DNA with “Rumors” with its synthesized cowbell and dance-pop tempo, turned into a Top 10 hit on the R&B charts. King Jay Records had meanwhile scored a distribution deal through Warner Brothers, then led by the legendary record executive Mo Ostin.
By 1987, King had seen Club Nouveau’s cover of “Lean on Me” hit No. 1 and the album “Life, Love & Pain” sell more than 1.5 million copies. And with each success, King’s braggadocio became louder. He told People magazine, “Prince is the prince, but I am the King.”
Sacramento Bee articles in the ’80s and ’90s noted that King had earned a nickname of “Mighty Mouth”; they also mentioned that he berated employees when they failed to bring him gummi bears, and that he had become infamous for cussing out industry executives. King likened record companies to pimps in a 1987 profile in The Bee.
King says he’s mellowed over time. He regrets the pimp comments. (“If anything I would take that back – artists will really just go for what’s in front of them and complain about what doesn’t happen, but don’t try and make anything happen,” King said). And he knows those antics basically blackballed him in the relationship-based music industry.
“I shouldn’t have gone to Mo Ostin and said I was going to whoop his (butt),” King said. “(Ostin) said his fights were never physical – and I never had a hit record after that. He taught me the greatest lesson, and I have nothing but love for him.
“I said I would sell a million records and I did it,” King added. “I said I would win a Grammy then I did it. When you’re a kid you’re going to have bravado. To reach for greatness you have to say great things, and it’s a dangerous game you play. I didn’t take into consideration the people who were around me and the effect of what I said would have on them.”
King’s banking once again on Club Nouveau, which released an advance single, “That Ain’t Love,” in October. The group is eying a spring release of its “Consciousness” album. This marks some of the most musical activity in years for King, who turned his attention toward dominoes in the late 2000s and served as commissioner of the Professional Domino Association, hoping to position the game as the next poker.
“The music industry had become boring to me,” said King. “My mother died in 2007 and that had the most profound effect on me. I was angry for about a year. Then I realized how blessed I was to have a mom like her. She made me believe I could do anything and that inspired me to write again.”
Club Nouveau circa 2014 features King along with original members Samuelle Prater and Valerie Watson English. The new tracks bump with more of a grown-folks R&B sensibility, with topical lyrics (the songs “I Wanna Change the World,” “Come Together”) and smooth harmonies over snappy backbeats.
King, who’s releasing “Consciousness” independently, said he’s engineered a deal where the album will first be sold at Wal-Mart. From there, he wants to line up a distribution deal for the album to be sold at mom-and-pop stores and other outlets.
He says he feels upbeat about Club Nouveau’s chances to once again connect with audiences, especially given its cameos from Chuck D of Public Enemy and Chubb Rock, the old-school hip-hop favorite.
He’s also encouraged by “That Ain’t Love” registering on Billboard’s charts for “adult R&B national airplay,” where Club Nouveau holds the No. 27 spot (No. 28 is the hit “Royals” by Lorde). Mediabase, which monitors radio airplay, also shows Club Nouveau cracking the top 40 on its urban adult contemporary charts, and nestled near current tracks by Prince and Toni Braxton.
Meanwhile, King hosts a twice-weekly online radio show on his Jay King Network that helps artists wade through the industry. . He’s also mulling a full-time move back to Sacramento, and wants to join in community building efforts in his old Del Paso Heights neighborhood with Councilman Allen Warren, a longtime friend of King’s.
“I have the same kind of feeling as when ‘Rumors’ was taking off,” said King. “I told the other guys we’re getting ready to go on a run. It’s been an amazing life and what we know is this: to teach these young folks how to be gracious and appreciate the ride up more so than on the ride down.”
Call The Bee’s Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.