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Originally from Yazoo City, Mississippi, Mike James Kirkland grew up singing doo wop and gospel. Eventually settling in California, Kirkland and his brother started a record label, Bryan Records, to release the love songs and socially conscious soul music that Kirkland had been writing. The two albums they released -- "Hang On In There" in 1972 and its follow-up, "Doin It Right" -- both echoed the style and sentiments of other artists weaving social issues into their sounds: soul heavies like Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and Stevie Wonder. The reputation of both albums slowly spread over the ensuing years, finally resulting in reissues in the '90s by Luv N Haight.
In 2010 John Legend will release an album that includes a cover of the classic “Hang On In There,” which will bring another deserved batch of new listeners to know the work of Mike James Kirkland.
Mike James Kirkland was lead singer for Mike & the Censations and would also become known as Bo Kirkland outside of the releases under his own name. Born 1949 in Yazoo City, Mississippi, he became a member of the local gospel act, the Seven Seals, along with his two brothers, Walter and Robert. They later moved to Los Angeles around 1956. In addition to gospel his early influences were jazz singers of the day like Dinah Washington, Nat King Cole etc. Later on he would find much inspiration in the great Sam Cooke.
A bet with his brother Robert, that he could cut a record as good as any Motown work, led to his first official release. Starting out in August, MJK gave himself until Christmas to get the job done. In the winter of 1965, Mike & the Censations recorded “Victim of circumstance” and self-released on Robert’s Bryan label. It made the top 50 of the R&B Charts. They also recorded “There is Nothing I Can do About It” which caught the eyes and ears of MCA records, if only for a brief-lasting deal.
These first few recordings were mellow doo wop numbers. But as the 1960s were drawing to a close MJK was inspired to interject social commentary into his musical output along with a more funky- soul and experimental side to the production. First he released “Together” b/w “The prophet” on Bryan in 1971. And he followed this up with the amazing “Hang on in there” LP in 1972. Then came “Doin’ It Right” which was released in 1973.
“If we were on a bigger label we would have done amazing things,” reminisces Kirkland. “But we did the best we could. I’m amazed that John Legend has decided to cover the title track of my first album, that’s very cool.”
MJK later changed his name to Bo Kirkland, apparently to avoid confusion with the newly-turned-solo-artist Michael Jackson. The first single release under his new moniker, “Grandfather Clock reached #80 on theR&B charts in 1975. This was the prelude to him joining forces with Ruth Davis (formerly of the Ikettes) and the release of the classic “You’re gonna get next to me” in 1976.