Welcome to our second feature today spotlighting artists of the Philadelphia International label! First we looked at The O’Jays’ pre-PIR period! Now it’s time to look at a lost post-PIR album from Dexter Wansel!
Philadelphia-born Dexter Wansel made quite an impression in the City of Brotherly Love, becoming one of the leading lights of the Gamble and Huff organization’s “second golden age” of 1976-1983 and playing a key role in shaping the latter-day Sound of Philadelphia. A keyboard virtuoso equally at home as a composer, arranger and producer, Wansel recorded four well-regarded albums for Philadelphia International Records’. Between 1976’s Life on Mars and 1979’s Time is Slipping Away, the versatile Wansel incorporated funk, jazz, soul and disco, all of which were major components of the Philly Sound. He also found time to serve as PIR’s director of A&R and contribute to albums from Lou Rawls, Teddy Pendergrass, Patti LaBelle and others on the label roster.
Robinsongs, a label of the Cherry Red Group, has just turned its attention to a rare post-PIR effort from Dexter Wansel. Captured was the musician’s 1986 10 Records release which reunited him with PIR alumni Bunny Sigler, The Jones Girls and Cynthia Biggs. The Wansel/Biggs team had previously penned songs for The Jones Girls including “Nights Over Egypt” in addition to tracks by The Jacksons (“Jump for Joy”), Lou Rawls (“Lover’s Holiday”), Grover Washington Jr. (“The Best is Yet to Come”) and Patti LaBelle (the chart-topping “If Only You Knew”). A couple of tracks for the album were even recorded at Philadelphia’s hallowed Sigma Sound Studios. Robinsongs’ edition marks the first appearance of Captured on CD, and includes the 12-inch mix of the title song as a bonus track.
Hit the jump for more!
With his first (and only solo) release of the 1980s, Wansel jumped headfirst into the decade’s style, but this wasn’t altogether unexpected. After all, his PIR debut Life on Mars lightly applied a spacey, “futuristic” sound to the Gamble and Huff template, latching onto the science-fiction craze in a non-exploitative way that supported the music. Here, gleaming synthesizers and prominent drum machines feature under the Jones Girls’ smooth harmonies on the album-opening title song. “Captured” was one of seven songs co-written for the album with Biggs, marking a near full-length collaboration. This updating of the traditional Philadelphia sound wasn’t solely the province of Wansel; even Gamble, Huff and Bell embraced electronic textures in the “me decade.” The dancefloor-ready groove of “Captured,” however, sat comfortably alongside The Jones Girls’ earlier disco successes. Shirley, Brenda and Valerie return for “Heart on the Line,” in which brass accents support Biggs’ earthy lyric.
Meeta Gajjar provided the vocals for “Do What You Wanna Do” and “Turn Me On,” two more songs readymade for the club scene. These are even more slickly pop-oriented than “Captured.” Like his earlier PIR efforts, Captured blends both vocal tracks and instrumentals, and in the latter category, Wansel applied his shimmering electronic keyboard textures to Maurice Jarre’s theme for the 1982 film The Year of Living Dangerously. The smoky “Conversations” is highlighted by Sam Peaks’ soaring saxophone over the keyboards, drums, guitar and even some spoken word vocals. The liner notes inform us that, other than Jeff Lee’s guitar and Peaks’ saxophone, one-man band Wansel provided all of the instrumentation for this track. Some of Wansel’s solo PIR work was the closest the label ever came to true fusion jazz, recalling the sound of the famed CTI label, and although nothing on Captured approaches that sound, there’s plenty of top-notch musicianship to appreciate. Similarly evocative is “NAM (I Can’t Sleep at Night),” on which Bunny Sigler voices Wansel’s own traumatic days as a Vietnam veteran over a pulsating background of keyboards and sound effects including gunfire.
Cynthia Biggs herself takes the vocal lead on the romantic “Each Moment,” a sultry ballad that deserved more attention than it received on its first airing. Wansel’s light, airy arrangement even adds a stately touch with some acoustic piano in the mix, and it’s among the most traditionally soulful tracks here. Biggs enlisted her own high school music teacher, Dr. Pearl Williams Jones, for the bright, calypso-inflected “In the Wind.” The song’s familiar message (“loud and clear,” as the lyric proclaims) of love is echoed on the energetic but spiritual “East Meets West,” which features Wansel’s only vocal on the album.
Christian John Wikane offers six pages of liner notes, recounting the careers of both Wansel and Biggs as well as detailing the stories behind the songs on Captured. Alan Wilson has remastered. With Philadelphia International Records celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the time has never been more right to celebrate the achievements of that label’s roster, even long after the Golden Age of Philly Soul concluded. As Gamble and Huff famously proclaimed, the message was in the music, and that message of peace, love and brotherhood has continued to resonate. Should you want to capture Captured for yourself, you can order below! Robinsongs’ reissue is in stores now.
Dexter Wansel, Captured (Virgin/10 Records DIX 36, 1986 – reissued Robinsongs/Cherry Red CDMRED 525, 2012)
- Do What You Wanna Do
- The Year of Living Dangerously
- Heart on the Line
- Each Moment
- Turn Me On
- NAM (I Can’t Sleep at Night)
- In the Wind
- East Meets West
- Captured (12-Inch Mix, from 10 single TEN 80-12)