In the annals of underrated R&B vocalists, Ronnie Dyson (1950-1990) was among the greatest. A versatile singer equally comfortable with smooth soul, pure pop and showbiz pizzazz, Dyson left behind a small but rich catalogue for the Columbia and Cotillion labels. With the recent release of Phase 2 and Brand New Day from 1982 and 1983, respectively, Real Gone Music and SoulMusic Records have filled in two of the major holes in Dyson’s CD discography (RGM-0294). With the release of this stellar two-on-one disc, 1979’s If the Shoe Fits remains the late soul man’s lone album not yet on CD. (Dyson’s first and highest-charting album, 1970’s (If You Let Me Make Love to You Then) Why Can’t I Touch You?, will be included on SoulMusic’s Lady in Red: The Columbia Sides, Plus, now available from Cherry Red. Watch for our full report soon.)
Ronnie Dyson was already a seasoned performer before he turned 20 years old; at the age of 18, he was selected to lead the company of Broadway’s groundbreaking Hair in introducing the future standard “Aquarius.” The Washington, DC-born actor/singer soon turned his attention to recording, scoring a Top 10 hit with a song from another rock musical (“(If You Let Me Make Love to You) Then Why Can’t I Touch You” from 1969’s Salvation) and inking a deal with Columbia Records. In 1973, Columbia sent Dyson to Philadelphia to work with Thom Bell in the hopes that Bell’s lush productions would prove a match with Dyson’s silky-smooth yet powerful falsetto vocals. Bell composed and produced a number of sides for the album that became One Man Band, and the LP was rounded out with remixed versions of past recordings including Barry Mann’s “When You Get Right Down to It” from 1971. Among Bell and lyricist Linda Creed’s contributions to One Man Band were the irresistible title track (No. 28 Pop, No. 15 R&B) and the wistful “I Think I’ll Tell Her,”) both as strongly melodic and lyrically memorable as the team’s best for the Stylistics and the Spinners. Thanks to the Bell/Creed productions, One Man Band remains one of the most criminally unknown albums in the R&B canon.
One of the Bell-produced tracks was written by the team of Bobby Eli, Vinnie Barrett and John Freeman. “Just Don’t Want to Be Lonely” earned Dyson a No. 60 Pop/No. 29 R&B hit, and years later, Dyson turned to Eli for the production of his Cotillion debut album, appropriately entitled Phase 2. Guitarist-arranger Eli, of course, was a member of MFSB, the veteran crew of Sigma Sound house musicians so frequently utilized by Bell for his majestic productions. In addition to his dynamic session work for Philadelphia International, Salsoul and other labels, Eli had also come into his own a producer for such artists as Atlantic Starr and Keith Barrow. Recording at studios in New York and Philly and splitting the arrangement chores with fellow Philly veteran Richie Rome, Eli crafted a set for Dyson that subtly updated his sound for a new decade.
On Phase 2 as well as its follow-up LP included on this disc, Dyson’s voice is a bit rougher around the edges than on his earlier Columbia recordings, but it’s still a recognizable and powerful instrument. The brassy uptempo dancer “Bring It on Home,” written by Eltesa Weatherby, Frank Fuchs and Gavin Spencer, opens Phase 2. It adds a 1980s production sheen to the classic Philly soul formula; its opening drum pattern echoes that of The Spinners’ “One a Kind Love Affair,” and elsewhere Don Renaldo’s Horns and Strings swing as female backing vocalists coo sensually. A similar sound with then-modern keyboard flourishes and big drums is achieved on a contemporary makeover of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Soul Survivors oldie “Expressway to Your Heart.”
Dyson was always comfortable with ballads, and Eli – co-writer of Blue Magic’s stunning “Side Show,” among other songs – naturally knew his way around softer material. Eban Kelly and Charles Williams’ “Heart to Heart” is a slickly insinuating mid-tempo groove, and Dyson pleads with intensity on Samm Culley’s “Say You Will.” He conjures similar vocal fire on Allee Willis and Patrick Henderson’s “Now” and keeps things smooth and romantic on the album’s closing track, Timothy Wright’s “I Found Someone.”
After the jump: more on Phase 2, plus a look at Brand New Day!
The multi-hyphenate Eli also penned three tracks for the LP. The verses of “One More Chance for the Fool” have an innate swing, while the choruses allow for a dramatic release savored by Dyson. Lyrics were provided by Arlye Matza, who co-wrote the richly melodic “Even in the Darkness” with Eli. Its opening recalls another top-drawer Eli composition, the smoldering “Love Won’t Let Me Wait,” a No. 1 R&B/No. 5 Pop record for Major Harris in 1975. Steamier than “Even in the Darkness,” however, is “Foreplay” (“a spicy appetizer before the main course!”), a slab of post-disco dance-funk co-written with Jeff Prusan.
If Bobby Eli put one foot into the eighties with Phase 2, Butch Ingram went headfirst into the pool with Brand New Day. The producer, a Philadelphia-area native, tells Rashod Ollison in his excellent new liner notes that “we wanted to try a club sound” on Dyson. That style is immediately evident on the album’s opening cut, “All Over Your Face.” Dyson is at his most insinuating (“I can see it all over you face!”), accusing his lying lover over bubbling synthesizers, insistent percussion and a nonstop beat. The track returned him to the Top 30 of the R&B chart. “Don’t Need You Now” continues in this pulsating style, while “I Need Just a Little More Lovin’” is a funky, bluesy strut.
Ingram’s rhythmic approach didn’t completely alienate Dyson’s core fans, though. He found room for Joe Russo’s ballad “Let the Love Begin,” sung as a duet with Ingram’s sister, Barbara Ingram. (As one-third of the Sweethearts of Sigma, Ingram’s voice was ubiquitous on countless records coming out of Philadelphia International and Salsoul in the 1970s.) Butch’s composition “Waiting for You” features a rare spoken introduction by Dyson – whose speaking voice was quite different than his singing voice – and a subtle arrangement allowing the purity and emotion of his vocals to shine both solo and in tandem with the prominent female background vocalists.
Ronnie even wrote one song on Brand New Day himself. “Tender Lovin’ Care” is in the ballad mode, a promise of affection sung by a huskier-voiced Dyson. The sound of an unadorned, acoustic piano which opens “I Gave You All of Me” from Ingram sibling James is perhaps the most unusual sound on the album; Dyson is at his finest on this tender, understated ballad. But, in all its many facets, Brand New Day adhered to the message of the closing track penned by Butch and Barbara: “You Better Be Fierce.” Perhaps the time just wasn’t right for this bubbly, dance-driven track which could have taken on anthemic proportions when “fierce” more fully entered the cultural lexicon. “Go on, girl, with your bad self!,” Dyson implores in a spoken interlude during the nearly seven-minute club-ready performance. “I am truly scared of you!”
Ronnie Dyson certainly was fierce in his vocal performances, especially considering the demon of drug addiction he reportedly battled for much of his career. Both Phase 2 and Brand New Day, different as they are, are integral pieces of the Dyson puzzle, and will likely leave you wondering why this singer with the expressive, often beautiful voice didn’t have more chart success. This Real Gone/SoulMusic reissue has been worth the wait.