Cherry Red’s Robinsongs imprint continues to unleash classic funk and soul albums on CD in two, three, and four-for-one packages. The label has been reissuing classic albums from such marquee names as The Whispers, Shalamar, Midnight Star, The Bar-Kays, Lakeside, and Crown Heights Affair. Today’s Part One looks at the new and upcoming releases from the first three of those groups!
The Whispers’ first three albums on Dick Griffey and Don Cornelius’ Soul Train and SOLAR (Sound of Los Angeles Records) labels – One for the Money (1976), Open Up Your Love (1977), and Headlights (1978) – have arrived on a 2-CD set with bonus tracks. Though The Whispers had been recording since 1963, they only came into their own during the sweet soul revolution of the 1970s. In 1971, Leaveil Degree of The Friends of Distinction replaced Gordy Harmon in the line-up, completing the classic roster of Degree, lead singers Walter Scott and his twin brother Wallace Scott, Nicholas Caldwell, and Marcus Hutson. One for the Money inaugurated the Soul Train label (named for Cornelius’ influential television show) and reunited the group with the producer of their 1974 album Bingo, Norman Harris. The Philly soul veteran brought along song from the some of the city’s brightest talents including Allan Felder, Bruce Gray and T.G. Conway, and the team of Jerry Akines, Johnny Bellmon, and Reginald Drayton. The top 40 R&B LP yielded a top 10 R&B/top 5 disco hit with the Akines/Bellmon/Drayton title track. Two more songs charted, including Van McCoy’s controversial “Living Together (In Sin).” The 7-inch single versions of “You’re Only as Good as You Think You Are” and “Sounds Like a Love Song” have been added to this release.
The Whispers then moved from Philadelphia back to their home base of Los Angeles for their next two LPs. Open Up Your Love and Headlights were both produced by the group, with Cornelius and Griffey sharing credit on the former and Griffey alone on the latter following his professional split from the Soul Train host. Both LPs featured songs from staff songwriters Wayne Bell and Malcolm Anthony, paving the way for their further successes at the Griffey-owned SOLAR. Open Up Your Love placed within the R&B top 25 and included a hit remake of Bread’s MOR staple “Make It with You,” while Headlights’ “Let’s Go All the Way” and “(Olivia) Lost and Turned Out” both charted, as well. By 1979, the group would reach a new plateau of success. Christian John Wikane tells the story of these seminal albums on the group’s climb to crossover success in his liner notes, and Alan Wilson has remastered. This title is available now.
On August 10, The Whispers’ story continues with another three-album package of Whisper In Your Ear (1979), The Whispers (1979), and Imagination (1980). Whisper In Your Ear marked the first time the group worked with Leon Sylvers, who outside of his work with The Sylvers was producing Lakeside and Shalamar. Sylvers gifted two of his songs, “Homemade Lovin'” and “Whisper In Your Ear,” to the group. Lakeside contributed a song, too, with the funky “Jump for Joy.” Other tracks came from the pens of Solar staff writer Malcolm Anthony (“If I Don’t Get Your Love,” “You’ll Never Get Away”) and Motown alums Kathy Wakefield and Ken Hirsch (“Love At Its Best”). But the LP’s most successful cut was Keni Burke and Curtis Mayfield’s “Can’t Do Without Love,” which came in just under the R&B top forty at No. 43.
Self-titled follow-up The Whispers welcomed Leon Sylvers to the existing production team of Dick Griffey with the group. The LP kicked off with the touching “A Song for Donny,” saluting the late Hathaway by setting new lyrics to his timeless melody to “This Christmas.” The song dovetailed with The Whispers’ establishment of a college scholarship fund in Hathaway’s name. Leon Sylvers brought along another pair of songs, and The Whispers even performed a rare “oldies” cover with their take on The Temptations’ immortal “My Girl.” The album fared much better than its predecessor, reaching No. 1 R&B and crossing over to No. 6 Pop. “And the Beat Goes On,” co-written by Leon Sylvers, topped the Disco and R&B charts and also made the top 20 of the Pop chart. “My Girl” scored in the U.K., while “Lady” made No. 3 R&B and the Pop top forty.
The third album in this set, Imagination, followed a Christmas album not included in this series. Its title track tipped its musical hat to Earth Wind & Fire, while the other tracks played to the group’s own considerable strengths including lush vocal harmonies. The album even premiered a new theme for Soul Train, “Up on Soul Train.” Another R&B hit was scored with “It’s a Love Thing,” which also charted on the Disco survey alongside “I Can Make It Better.” Six single versions have been added to CD 2 including 7-inch edits of “Can’t Do Without Love,” “Can You Do the Boogie,” “And the Beat Goes On,” “It’s a Love Thing,” and “I Can Make It Better,” plus the instrumental of ‘A Song for Donny.” Christian John Wikane and Alan Wilson have repeated their duties here.
Like The Whispers, Shalamar made the move from Soul Train Records to SOLAR. The group’s first three albums Uptown Festival, Disco Gardens, and Big Fun (the first released on Soul Train, and the second and third on SOLAR) have been reissued with bonus tracks on two CDs from Robinsongs. Shalamar began life as a studio group created for the nine-minute “Uptown Festival,” a medley of popular Motown tunes aimed at the disco market. When the medley became a top 5 disco hit, a real group was needed to be the “face” of the song, so Cornelius plucked Jeffrey Daniels and Jody Watley from the ranks of the famous Soul Train dancers. Gary Mumford was selected as the third member and was the only one of the original trio to sing on the Uptown Festival album which had been inspired by the single’s success.
Following the LP’s 1977 release, Soul Train Records folded, and Griffey launched SOLAR. Mumford, uncomfortable with the spotlight, resigned and was replaced by Gerald Brown. Disco Gardens, produced by Griffey and Leon Sylvers, introduced the “real” Shalamar. Blending a traditional vocal group style with a dance-oriented vibe, Disco Gardens‘ “Take That to the Bank” peaked at No. 11 R&B though the album itself peaked at a disappointing No. 52 R&B/No. 171 Pop. Brown, balking at Griffey’s business practices, was then replaced by the mogul with Howard Hewett. Leon Sylvers returned to produce Big Fun and also co-wrote the song which became the group’s biggest hit. “The Second Time Around” shot to the Pop top 10 as well as No. 1 R&B and Disco. It propelled the album not only to R&B success but to the top 25 of the Billboard 200. Despite personal tensions between the group members, the classic Shalamar line-up was born. Robinsongs’ reissue features comprehensive liner notes by Wikane drawing on a candid and revealing interview with Jody Watley. It adds five single versions and has been remastered by Alan Wilson.
The SOLAR library has also been tapped for a three-for-one release from Midnight Star. The funk band with a horn section had formed at the University of Kentucky and debuted on SOLAR in 1980. Robinsongs picks up the band’s story with their fourth (and most successful) release, 1983’s No Parking on the Dance Floor, and packages it with 1984’s Planetary Invasion and 1986’s Headlines on a 2-CD set. The nine-piece unit anchored No Parking with two of their strongest ever songs: “Wet My Whistle,” which songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist had originally written for labelmates The Whispers, and “Freak-a-Zoid,” the latter which immersed the band in a new, techno-funk sound. The cutting-edge sounds on the LP helped propel it to multi-platinum status as well as a No. 2 R&B Albums Chat placement and top 40 crossover Pop success. Both singles made the R&B top ten, as well.
The band followed it up with Planetary Invasion, taking the techno-funk and sci-fi influence a bit further with songs like “Body Snatchers,” “Scientific Love,” and the title track. They were rewarded with another Gold crossover hit album; “Scientific Love” placed in the R&B top 20. For Headlines, however, Midnight Star chose to reflect the changing musical times. The 1986 album incorporated hip-hop and go-go rhythms and harkening back to the band’s college days, even a touch of jazz. “Headlines” went to the R&B top five, and “Midas Touch” gave them another hit pop single (just missing the top 40 at No. 42). The album went Gold – and it, indeed, was a golden era for the band. They would release two more albums on SOLAR through 1990. Robinsongs’ reissue has been copiously annotated by Wikane and remastered by Wilson. Four bonus single versions have been added. (Note, too, that Planetary Invasion has been spread across two discs.)
All of these SOLAR classics are available now from Cherry Red and Robinsongs at the links below!