52nd Street were a British jazz-funk and R&B band formed in Manchester in late 1980. Throughout the 1980s the group enjoyed success not only in the UK but also on the Billboard chart in the United States. Their biggest and best-known hit single was "Tell Me (How It Feels)", released in 1985 by the 10 Records subsidiary of Virgin Records in the UK, and then months later on in 1986 on MCA Records in the US.
The original line-up consisted of Tony Henry (guitar), Derrick Johnson (bass), Desmond Isaacs (keyboards), Tony Thompson (drums) and Jennifer McCloud (vocals). Within six months vocalist Rose Williams and saxophonist Eric Godden both came and departed before the line-up settled with John Dennison (keyboards) replacing Desmond Isaacs and Beverley McDonald (lead vocals) replacing Jennifer McCloud.
The band played gigs around the Manchester scene, whilst at the same time recording demo tapes in local studios. Local funk DJ Mike Shaft became their mentor and played 52nd Street demos on his Piccadilly Radio shows. In mid-1981 soul DJ Richard Searling and ex-Sad Café manager Derek Brandwood (both of RCA Records) put the band in Revolution Studios, Manchester, to record what was supposed to be their debut single.
Whilst recording demos for RCA, the band was also put into Strawberry Studios to record tracks for Warner Bros. Records A&R scout and club promotions manager Erskine Thompson. With both major labels increasing the pressure to talk to the manager-less 52nd Street, bass player Derick Johnson instead contacted ex-DJ Rob Gretton, co-owner of Factory Records. (The connection was through Johnson's brother Donald, the drummer for Factory act A Certain Ratio). Gretton went to see the band play at jazz venue The Band on the Wall in Manchester. Soon after, Gretton and his partner Tony Wilson added the band to their roster.
52nd Street's first release on Factory Records in 1982 was "Look into My Eyes," backed with "Express", produced by Donald Johnson. Journalist Paul Morley, then reviewing singles for the NME, made it his single of the week, but his approval did little to get daytime radio play or enhance sales.
Toward the end of 1982, 52nd Street started experimenting with electronic sounds and drum machines, after being influenced by productions from New York City's hip hop community and Bill Laswell's work with jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock. In the early weeks of 1983 a rough cassette demo was played to Rob Gretton by Tony Henry and Derrick Johnson after Gretton requested the band forward material for a new single. That track was "Cool as Ice."
"Cool as Ice" (backed with "Twice as Nice") was not released in the UK, although BBC Radio 1 DJs John Peel and Janice Long were playing the track from white label pressings that Factory Records had made available.
A few bootlegs started to appear in the United States. Michael Shamberg, who headed Factory's United States office in New York City stepped in. Within the space of six weeks he had secured 52nd Street a major US deal with A&M Records and helped the song gain a top 20 Billboard Dance Chart position. A&M flew the band to the US to promote the release, playing live club dates mainly on the east side of the country, including two nights at the Danceteria in New York City.
Meanwhile, in the UK, Wilson began to include the band on Factory's publicity material. They also appeared twice on his Granada Reports news programme.
The success of "Cool as Ice" in 1983 led A&M (US) to demand a follow up single to maintain momentum.
However, 52nd Street became restless and started to implode. Major labels including A&M (UK) were starting to show interest, but certain band members felt loyal to the Factory organisation. Discussions followed that led to Wilson's ex-wife, Lindsay Reade, becoming their manager. She could make decisions on behalf of Factory Communications, once this was clarified by either Rob Gretton or Tony Wilson.
Reade had returned to Factory Records in 1984, to run the Overseas Licensing Department. Once manager, she put together a strategy to hasten productivity. After a short non-productive period, the band regrouped and reorganised. Vocalist Beverley McDonald departed and promptly began contributing to Quando Quango's LP Pigs and Battleships.
McDonald was replaced by Diane Charlemagne (later lead vocalist with Moby and would go on to bigger UK success with the Urban Cookie Collective).
New Order's Stephen Morris was called in to help out on production for 52nd Street's third single "Can't Afford". Morris also completed production on two other tracks that were supposed to appear on a later EP. Both those additional tracks, "Look I've Heard it all Before" and "Available", were re-recorded and released on the band's 1986 Virgin debut album titled Children of the Night.
Eleven months had passed since A&M US requested a follow up single. They finally lost patience with the unprofessionalism of Factory Records. Reade, implementing what she thought was agreed company policies and procedures, mailed copies of the new single to A&M US. They rejected the track, thus leaving the band free to negotiate with other interested parties. Profile Records heard "Can't Afford" on constant rotation in New York night clubs and noted that A&M had declined to exercise the option. Reade, as Overseas Licensing Manager, negotiated with Profile Records who wanted to release the record as bootleg recordings were already beginning to surface.
Reade's business dealings caused eruptions not just with Wilson and Gretton, but Michael Shamberg who ran Factory US. 52nd Street were caught in the middle and the band members' allegiance to Reade was beginning to fragment. In December 1984, a Factory Records management meeting took place at which Reade was sacked and told to leave the offices without the band.
"Can't Afford" was an even a bigger US success than "Cool as Ice," entering the Top 15 on the Billboard Dance Chart in early 1985.
Loyalties within the band were being tested. Derrick Johnson was a Factory Records man. He not only played bass for 52nd Street, but was also session guitarist alongside his brother Barry Johnson (former bass player with Sweet Sensation) in Quando Quango. After deliberation and against the wishes of both Gretton and Wilson, 52nd Street followed Lindsay Reade and left Factory Records in January 1985. Derrick Johnson refused to follow and stayed with the organisation.
The band went on to have success in the UK Singles Chart and US Billboard R&B Chart with several songs from their 1985 album Children of the Night. The album reached No. 23 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and No. 71 in the UK Albums Chart. It was produced by Philadelphia-based Nick Martinelli, who was producing two other successful UK based acts Loose Ends and Five Star at the time. The biggest hit from the album was "Tell Me (How it Feels)" which, in the winter of 1985, reached No. 8 on the US Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. It also reached No. 14 on the US Hot Dance Club Songs chart and No. 54 on the UK Singles Chart. The album spawned two other modest hits in the UK Singles Chart in early 1986 with "You're My Last Chance" (#49 UK) and "I Can't Let You Go (#57 UK).
Their second and final album, Something's Going On, was released in 1987. It was not a commercial success, although "I'll Return" reached No. 79 on the US Black Singles Chart. The album and single failed to chart in the UK. One other single from the album was released, "Are You Receiving Me?". In 1988, the group, minus Dennison, released one last unsuccessful single as 52nd Street, "Say You Will".
In 1990, Charlemagne and Bowry re-emerged under the name Cool Down Zone. They invited 52nd Street's live drummer Mike Wilson to join, and they released the album New Direction. They released two singles from the album; "Heaven Knows" and "Waiting For Love". "Heaven Knows" reached No. 52 on the UK Singles Chart. They released two more singles, "Lonely Hearts" in 1992 and "Essential Love" in 1993, before disbanding.