Richard Lee (guitar), Norman Durham (bass), Paul Crutchfield (percussion/keyboards) and Woody Cunningham (lead vocals/drums) united in 1972 as The Choice 4 before evolving into The Jam Band, Pipeline and, under the aegis of Patrick Adams and Greg Carmichael, The Universal Robot Band. After flirting with R&B, funk, disco and even straight-ahead rock, the quartet settled as Kleeer and signed to Atlantic Records. The rest is, as they say, dance music history. Now, that history has been chronicled in comprehensive fashion on Get Tough: The Kleeer Anthology 1978-1985 from Big Break Records.
Between those years, Kleeer released seven albums on Atlantic Records, proving worthy of a spot on the venerable label’s impressive R&B roster. All of those LPs are sampled on this 28-track collection, as well as choice extended 12-inch mixes. The group’s debut album I Love to Dance, produced by engineer Dennis King, featured Isabelle Coles on lead and background vocals, with Luther Vandross and Jocelyn Brown (Inner Life) also lending their voices. A quick success, it yielded the anthemic disco staples “Keeep Your Body Workin'” and “Tonight’s the Night (Good Time)” (the latter, an R&B chart hit, heard here in its 12-inch mix) as well as the equally-intoxicating title track/mission statement and the mellower “Happy Me,” featuring Randy Brecker and Marvin Stamm on flugelhorn.
The success of I Love to Dance pigeonholed the band as a disco act, but Kleeer showed their musical versatility on Winners, honed after years playing in various styles. (Winners has previously been reissued as an expanded edition by Big Break.) Like Kleeer’s first album, it wholly consisted of compositions written by the band members. Funk took a front seat on the title track though it still incorporated lush strings into its heady mix. “Open Your Mind” allowed the group to be topical and socially aware while still rooted in rhythm. The core group members were joined on Winners by both of the Brecker Brothers this time (with Michael soloing on “Open”), as well as by vocalists Coles, Yvette Flowers and Melanie Moore. Two hit singles charted off Winners, with the title track (presented here in its 12-inch mix) going No. 24 R&B/No. 140 Pop, and “Open Your Mind” hitting No. 86 R&B.
The sound of dance music was, of course, rapidly evolving, but Kleeer kept one foot in disco even as it embraced more electronic sounds for 1981’s License to Dream. The title of this compilation – Get Tough – is drawn from one of the four selections from that album, Kleeer’s highest-charting LP. Additional band members were officially recognized on its back cover photo, including the trio of Coles, Flowers and Moore, plus Terry Dolphin (piano) and Eric Rohrbaugh (synthesizer). Christian John Wikane’s liner notes reveal that Top 20 R&B hit “Get Tough” was inspired by the Iran hostage crisis. With its subtle message of support for America’s veterans, the track caught listeners’ ears with a typically funky rhythm and a goofy John Wayne impersonation. (Janice Pendarvis and Lisa Fischer also sent their golden pipes to the track!) The soulful but still pulsating “Running Back to You” sung by its writer Woody Cunningham maintained the band’s blend of the gritty and the sleek; “License to Dream” emphasized the latter part of that equation with its shiny synths. “De Kleeer Ting,” with its laser-esque sound effects, made it clear that Kleeer was ready to embrace the new direction of dance and R&B.
“De Ting Continues” is one of three songs reprised here from Kleeer’s next album Taste the Music; it would be the final album co-produced by the band’s original producer, Dennis King. “Continues” further progressed the band in its inclusion of (humorous) rap segments. The title track (a top 40 Dance hit) boasts almost robotic, staccato vocals; the catchy. uptempo “Wall to Wall” is a bit more mellifluous. Two tracks, including the 12-inch version of “She Said She Loves Me,” have been culled from 1982’s Get Ready. That track boasted a very special guest: none other than Motown funkmeister and Kleeer fan Rick James. A special guest also features on the lithe soul cut “Say You’ll Stay”: the returning Luther Vandross, who contributed backgrounds.
The great Eumir Deodato took the reins of Kleeer’s final two albums for Atlantic, 1984’s Intimate Connection and 1985’s Seeekret. Deodato’s talent extended to many genres. His early bossa nova work led him to prime gigs such as arranging for Frank Sinatra’s later sessions with Antonio Carlos Jobim, and his embrace of fusion jazz resulted in a funky reworking of Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” that netted him a Grammy and a No. 2 Pop hit, almost unheard-of for a jazz recording. By the time Deodato took on Kleeer, he had already wrapped a stunning run with Kool and the Gang showcasing his ability to create smooth R&B/funk/dance grooves par excellence with a jazzman’s musicianship. Deodato’s productions dominate the second disc of BBR’s anthology, with five tracks taken from each of the two albums he produced. He didn’t radically alter the group’s sound, but embraced more programming, drum machines and vocal processing within the R&B/funk framework. “Go for It” and “You Did It Again” (which even has a bit of a Kool and the Gang feel) are among the infectious highlights from Intimate Connection. The big drum sound of “Never Cry Again” on Seeekret was Kleeer in full ’80s mode; more inspired was the romantic “Lay Ya Down EZ” with its classic-soul vocal harmonies over the modern production.
Get Tough: The Kleeer Anthology is a worthy successor to BBR’s similarly exemplary collections for artists such as Loleatta Holloway and Evelyn “Champagne” King. Liner notes by Christian John Wikane in the generously-illustrated booklet are comprehensive and detailed; remastering by Nick Robbins and reissue compiler/producer Wayne A. Dickson is crisp. The Atlantic-style label replicas are a welcome touch. Though Kleeer broke up after Seekret, it wasn’t acrimonious. The music the group created for Atlantic remains some of the most lively, driving dance music of all time, and Get Tough is a stellar tribute to that legacy. Now, keeep your body workin’!