Are you ready to blast off? With the August 5 release of Dexter Wansel’s Stargazer: The Philadelphia International Records Anthology 1976-1980, Big Break Records is headed for the stars. Wansel was one of the brightest lights of PIR’s “Mk. II” period, releasing four criminally underrated LPs on the label. His work as an artist, songwriter, arranger and producer pushed the envelope of Philly soul, bringing in elements of jazz fusion and even progressive rock. Stargazer brings together all of Wansel’s exhilarating tracks recorded for Philadelphia International in one 2-CD, imaginatively-sequenced compendium.
Arriving home after a tour of duty in Vietnam, Philadelphia native Wansel first made a splash at The House That Gamble and Huff Built in 1973 as a member of Yellow Sunshine. An eight-piece band also counting MFSB guitarist Roland Chambers and his brother Karl (late of Don Kirshner’s Toomorrow) among its members, Yellow Sunshine delivered a potent brand of funk-rock that stood out in the sleek and soulful PIR landscape. Gamble and Huff recognized the young keyboardist-composer’s talent, and soon he was placing songs with the label’s major artists like Billy Paul, Archie Bell and the Drells, Jean Carn and Lou Rawls. Outside of PIR, he took on songwriting and session assignments for Carl Carlton, Evelyn “Champagne” King, Major Harris and Gabor Szabo
Philadelphia International was going through major changes. Famed arranger Bobby Martin, an architect of the Philly soul sound, was soon to leave the label to pursue greener pastures elsewhere. Against a backdrop of credit and financial disputes, gifted MFSB vibraphonist Vince Montana delivered a blow when he led an exodus to New York-based Salsoul Records. To create The Salsoul Orchestra (the label’s equivalent to MFSB), Montana enlisted the likes of Jack Faith (flute), Earl Young (drums), Ronnie Baker (bass), Bobby Eli, Norman Harris and T.J. Tindall (guitars), Ron Kersey (keyboards), Larry Washington (percussion) and Don Renaldo (strings), plus background vocalists The Sweethearts of Sigma, vocalists Carla Benson, Barbara Ingram and Evette Benton.
Not all of the Salsoul Orchestra players burned their bridges with Gamble and Huff permanently; Eli remained a loyal member of both MFSB and The Salsoul Orchestra, Renaldo continued to provide horns and strings for PIR and Salsoul Records, and Faith came into his own as an arranger in the PIR period that spawned MFSB Mk. II (as the second iteration of the group is informally known). But the birth of The Salsoul Orchestra, fusing more pronounced Latin and disco elements to Philly soul’s trademark lush, sweeping style, certainly made waves.
Around this time, Dexter Wansel had formed his own band, The Planets, reflecting his interest in matters off-Earth. As he had already become an integral part of the label as a musician and a songwriter, Wansel was signed to PIR as an artist as the label sought to redefine its identity following the departure of Montana, Baker, Harris and Young. Wansel’s debut LP Life on Mars arrived in 1976 (no relation to the David Bowie song) featuring The Planets backing him on all but two tracks. This alone gave the album a very different sound than the “typical” PIR platter. Supporting him on the propulsive, rhythmic title track and the funk workout “You Can Be What You Wanna Be” were the members of the band Instant Funk, PIR artists who later also recorded for Salsoul. Though primarily an instrumental album, Mars found room for vocal highlights like the dreamily beautiful “One Million Miles from the Ground.” The Sweethearts of Sigma provided the background vocals for the LP, with two members of MFSB Mk. II – Charles Collins and Joe Johnson – providing additional percussion. Terri Wells, of PIR group City Limits, took the lead vocal on the soft, yearning ballad “Together Once Again.”
While crafting his sophomore LP What the World Is Coming To, Wansel contributed to records by Teddy Pendergrass and The Jacksons. Jack Faith, who had arranged “Stargazer” on Life on Mars, returned for two tracks on World, “First Light of the Morning” and the mellow, jazz-influenced instrumental title track. The Planets were back to provide musical accompaniment, joined by Charles Collins, guitarist Dennis Harris and guest drummer Idris Muhammad. World again showcased the breadth of Wansel’s talents on such tracks as the smooth ballad “Holdin’ On” (co-written with Bunny Sigler), the spellbinding and spiritual “Dreams of Tomorrow” featuring a lead vocal by Jean Carn, and the bright, brassy “Dance with Me Tonight.” The latter is notable for bearing the first credit on one of Dexter’s albums for lyricist Cynthia Biggs, soon to become his usual writing partner.
In early 1978, Wansel was appointed in an A&R capacity at PIR. That year’s solo release Voyager further emphasized Wansel’s progressive keyboard textures and expanded song structures. He enlisted the collaborative efforts of The Planets and band bassist Derrick Graves, who also penned the album’s “Latin Love (Let Me Know).” Opening track “All Night Long” was in the same danceable jazz-funk vein of “Life on Mars” while Wansel and Biggs got serious on the funky yet socially-conscious “Solutions.” The team also wrote the ballad “I’m in Love,” graced with one of Jack Faith’s loveliest arrangements. The upbeat, 8+-minute “Voyager” was composed jointly with The Planets, and featured ample room for each member to shine.
Time is Slipping Away, the fourth and final of Wansel’s PIR LPs, is also the most unusual. The Planets didn’t appear, and instead, he utilized members of the then-current MFSB rhythm section and the background vocals of The Jones Girls. The result is the most R&B-oriented, and arguably most accessible, of his four PIR albums. Time reflected the sound of Philly International circa 1979, which was far removed from the style pioneered by Bobby Martin, Thom Bell, Norman Harris and company. Terri Wells returned for the album’s most indelible track: Wansel and Biggs’ smooth, timeless “The Sweetest Pain.” Wells and The Jones Girls sang on their CHIC-flavored “I’ll Never Forget (My Favorite Disco),” presented on Stargazer in its extended, 12-inch Disco Version, while Wansel took the lead on the title song, an attractive, wistful ballad in a soft-rock vein. Guitarist Herb Smith wrote and sang the hopeful “New Beginning.”
The 1980s found Wansel working for other labels as a composer and arranger before he returned to the reactivated PIR in 1986 to work with Shirley Jones of The Jones Girls and Phyllis Hyman. Solo albums followed for Virgin (1986’s Captured, recently reissued by Cherry Red’s Robinsongs label) and once more PIR (1991’s Universe Featuring Dexter Wansel) and he is still recording and writing today.
Stargazer: The Philadelphia International Records Anthology is a comprehensive look at an incredibly fertile creative period. It features all 32 tracks from Wansel’s four original PIR albums as well as a deluxe 24-page booklet containing lengthy liner notes by Christian John Wikane featuring interviews with Wansel and the key players. Producer Wayne A. Dickson, who has sequenced Stargazer for maximum listening pleasure, has also remastered with Nick Robbins. This celebration of one of Philadelphia’s most innovative and unheralded musical talents arrives on August 5 in the U.K. and one week later in the U.S., and can be pre-ordered at the links below!
- Life on Mars
- Disco Lights
- It’s Been Cool
- All Night Long
- I’ll Never Forget (My Favorite Disco) (12-Inch Version)
- You Can Be What You Wanna Be
- Let Me Rock You
- Dance with Me Tonight
- I Just Want to Love You
- Latin Love (Let Me Know)
- Ode Infinitum
- One for the Road
- Going Back to Kingston Town
- Funk Attack
- Prelude # 1
- The Sweetest Pain
- Holdin’ On
- One Million Miles from the Ground
- I’m in Love
- Time is Slipping Away
- What The World is Coming To
- A Prophet Named K.G.
- First Light of the Morning
- Theme from The Planets
- Dreams of Tomorrow
- Rings of Saturn
- Time is the Teacher
- Together Once Again
- New Beginning
CD 1, Tracks 1, 7 & 13 and CD 2, Tracks 4, 9, 11, 13 & 15 from Life on Mars, Philadelphia International LP PZ-34079, 1979
CD 1, Tracks 2, 5, 10 & 11 and CD 2, Tracks 5, 8 & 14 from Voyager, Philadelphia International LP JX-34985, 1978
CD 1, Tracks 3, 9, 12 & 15 and CD 2, Tracks 1, 3, 7, 10 & 12 from What The World Is Coming To, Philadelphia International LP PZ-34487, 1977
CD 1, Tracks 4, 8, 14 & 16 and CD 2, Tracks 2, 6 & 16 from Time Is Slipping Away, Philadelphia International LP JZ-36024, 1979
CD 1, Track 6 from Philadelphia International 12-inch single 2Z8-3692, 1979 – original version from Time Is Slipping Away