Last month, Cherry Red’s SoulMusic imprint released an exciting new compilation of Cheryl Lynn classics. Got To Be Real: The Columbia Anthology brings together 31 of the powerhouse vocalist’s most enduring tracks. The 2-CD set not only represents tracks from her classic Columbia albums Cheryl Lynn (1978), In Love (1979), In the Night (1981), Instant Love (1982), Preppie (1983) and It’s Gonna Be Right (1985), but also features rare 12″ remixes; dance versions; soundtrack selections; and duets with the likes of Toto, Hubert Laws, and Luther Vandross. The result is the first-ever multi-disc compilation of Cheryl Lynn material, and an outstanding overview that proves that “Got To Be Real” was more than a smash hit. It was a philosophical credo that guided Lynn through her entire, decades-long career. Though sometimes lumped in with other disco singers, Lynn’s is a career that spans genres, production teams, co-writers, and hit after hit – one that finally gets its due with this collection.
Like many of the best soul singers, Cheryl Lynn’s first brushes with music took place in the church. She developed her instrument from a young age and soon became the commander of a perfect pop voice, one with an impressive range that reached up from alto into the rare whistle range.
In 1976, Lynn’s boyfriend convinced the 19-year-old budding songstress to try out for The Gong Show. Chuck Barris’ comedic (and very cheesy) TV competition was often home to the strange, the terrible, and the down-right talentless, who’d tried out just to earn a couple minutes in the spotlight, and were routinely “gonged” off the stage by the judges’ panel. Every once in a while, though, a true talent might emerge. At least that was the case when Cheryl Lynn stunned the judges with a rendition of “You Are So Beautiful” on a 1976 episode. Lynn earned a perfect score of 30 from the panel and was also selected as the audience favorite of the night. Though she was in Chicago working as an understudy for The Wiz when the episode aired, it wasn’t long until she got word of the waves she had made on-air.
By 1977, major label execs were clamoring to add her to their roster. Elektra, Atlantic, and Don Kirshner’s Kirshner Records were all waving offers in her direction, but Lynn ended up selecting Columbia/CBS, where she signed later that year. Columbia’s A&R team was eager for material and first paired her with Bob Johnston before moving on to a more successful pairing with the father-and-son team of Marty and David Paich.
Marty Paich was a well-known figure in the industry, having worked with Sammy Davis, Jr., Mel Torme, Ray Charles, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, and many more in an illustrious career. David, meanwhile, was a skilled session player and producer who had collaborated with Boz Scaggs, George Benson, and The Jacksons, and was in the midst of forming Toto when he crossed paths with Lynn. In fact, Cheryl Lynn’s guest vocal on the long disco version of Toto’s “Georgy Porgy” (1979) opens this compilation.
It was another Lynn/Paich collaboration from her self-titled debut that launched her career and truly brought her unique talents to the public sphere. “Got To Be Real” (a Lynn co-write with Paich and David Foster) was her first-ever No. 1 hit on the R&B charts (it also peaked at a respectable No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100). The powerhouse tune displays the full range of her vocals – with that whistle register, dramatic glottal utterances, layered self-harmonies and a uniquely powerful tone – all placed against a funky and smooth R&B backing. The track is presented here in its full 5-minute LP version (the hit radio edit chops off about a minute and a half). With those extended grooves back in their rightful place, featuring dramatically building synth leads and horn parts before Lynn returns for another pair of choruses, it’s clear that “Got To Be Real” deserves its status as a dance-floor classic. With elements of soul, disco, and funk all in one, and a key change for the ages, it’s a tune that never goes out of style: a declaration of authenticity and self-empowerment that still resonates today.
While “Got To Be Real” was no doubt Lynn’s breakthrough, she proved she was no one-hit wonder. In fact, her self-titled album included other charting tracks. The single version of “Star Love” peaked at No. 16. The full-length album cut surpasses the 7-minute mark, building from a slow and seductive request to “kiss on Saturn’s rings [and] make the Milky Way blush to see the sight” into an all-out dancefloor jam that spotlights the diversity of Lynn’s vocal techniques and tricks as she imbues each repetition of the “Take me in your arms and rock me” refrain with different phrasing, emotion, and intent. In the end, the track explodes into a rousing finale that shows off all the things that makes her voice so unique. Her voice takes off into the stratosphere with an impossibly high glissando, but just as you begin hoping her improvised interjections and syncopated runs could go on forever, the track fades to a close.
Other highlights from Cheryl Lynn that feature here are the sweltering, brassy and rocking “All My Lovin’,” the impossibly smooth love song “You’re The One” (which served as the B-side to “Star Love”), and a cha-cha-tinged take on the future standard “Come In From the Rain.” Written by Carole Bayer Sager and Melissa Manchester and covered by the likes of Toni Tennille and Diana Ross, the song took on new life in Lynn’s hands.
The Cheryl Lynn album proved that the vocalist had all it takes to be a star. Undeniable vocal talent, a knack for songwriting, and a range of styles that could fit any song. The public saw her gifts and the album eventually went to No. 23 on the Pop Albums chart and was certified gold by the RIAA. The pressure was on for Lynn to create another unforgettable album, and with David Paich busy with Toto, Lynn was paired with British producer, songwriter, and singer Barry Blue whose resume included Heatwave and The Dead End Kids. The result was In Love, released in 1979. The album is represented by four songs on this anthology. First is “I’ve Got Faith in You” (No. 41 R&B). The angular and funky toe-tapper was built for the dancefloor. Its bouncy and sultry B-side, “Chances,” shows off Lynn’s considerable talents as a songwriter, while the groove of the George Bryant-Cheryl Lynn co-write “Keep It Hot” sizzles as much today as it did in 1979, when it reached No. 6 on the R&B charts.
Though Lynn maintained her momentum with a clutch of floor-filling hits in the late ’70s, by the next decade, many listeners rejected disco and anyone who seemed to still be holding onto what was viewed in certain quarters as a bygone fad. Lynn was never 100% disco, but “Got To Be Real” was often grouped in alongside the best and most danceable late-’70s tracks. So, as the ’80s began, Lynn was on the lookout for reinvention. She found her next successful collaborator in session veteran Ray Parker, Jr., who helped produce her next long-layer, In the Night (1981). Parker brought along some of the era’s brightest musicians, including Wah-Wah Watson on guitar, Marcus Miller on bass, and Barry White and Johnny Mathis associate Gene Page who supplied arrangements.
One of the highlights of the album is “Show You How,” with its lilting groove, sumptuous strings, breezy jazz guitar, and slapping bass underpinning Lynn’s gliding vocal. Its B-side, “What’s On Your Mind,” is also present on Got To Be Real. With Latin-tinged, layered percussion and melodic bass runs from Miller supporting Lynn’s stratospheric range, it’s a fast-paced and ever-danceable Lynn/George Dream original with vocal acrobatics reminiscent of “Got To Be Real.”
Disc Two of SoulMusic’s anthology opens with the title track to Instant Love. The 1982 album was a collaboration with another talented singer, Luther Vandross. His debut Never Too Much had just been released to great acclaim. Following an album with Aretha Franklin, Vandross was keen to work with another powerhouse vocalist and told Lynn he wanted to work with “the diva of [Columbia].” After sharing each other’s new songs, it was decided that Vandross would take the helm as producer. He used many of the musicians who made his own recordings so successful, including Nat Adderley Jr. on keys, the ever-present Marcus Miller providing the bottom end, Paulinho Da Costa on percussion, and renowned session musician (and later Heartbreaker) Steve Ferrone on drums. The title track (which reached No. 16 on the Billboard R&B charts) is a slice of synth-y soul with a moody melody and layers of backing vocals from the likes of Vandross, Brenda White, and CHIC’s Michelle Cobbs and Fonzi Thornton.
Got To Be Real also includes the seductive and ethereal “I Just Want to Be Your Fantasy,” which was also the B-side to “Instant Love,” the strings-laden pop ballad “Day After Day,” and the powerful testament to commitment, “Look Before You Leap.”
While Cheryl Lynn charted out a successful solo career, many of her most iconic performances were duets. Got To Be Real presents some of the most successful of these fruitful collaborations. Aside from the aforementioned Toto track, “Georgy Porgy,” there’s also the 1982 duet with Luther Vandross of “If This World Were Mine.” The pairing is undoubtedly magnificent, as the two master interpreters deliver a convincing and soulful rendition of the classic Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell duet. Also accounted for is the Stephen Sondheim-penned track “Goodbye For Now.” Originally the theme to the Warren Beatty-directed Oscar-winning Reds, renowned jazz flautist Hubert Laws recorded his own rendition in 1982 that features Lynn turning out an emotional and breathy vocal that makes the enduring love song all her own. Another soundtrack ballad, “At Last You’re Mine” from the dance-drama Heavenly Bodies, also features on the new compilation. The 1985 ballad was co-written by Doug James and adult-contemporary sweetheart Michael Bolton and placed Lynn on both the R&B and Adult Contemporary charts. Though it’s very much of its time, Lynn’s considerable vocal skills – her range undiminished even a decade into her career – made it something special.
As the ’80s wore on, Lynn was eager to evolve her musical approach and gain more control over her music. Preppie saw Lynn taking on the roles of songwriter, producer, and performer. Its title track – presented on Got To Be Real in its hard-to-find 12″ mix – is a guitar-heavy, new wave influenced-rocker with a punk attitude. Despite the best efforts of those involved, the single failed to make a splash in the changing tides of ’80s radio. For the album’s opener (the only track not produced by Lynn herself), the team of Jimmy “Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis delivered with the smoldering, rock-tinged soul number “Encore” which brought Lynn back to the top of the R&B charts. It’s presented here in its 8-minute “dance version” edit. Another Preppie tune, the heartfelt ballad “This Time,” peaked at a respectable No. 50 on the R&B chart. The success of the singles drove album sales, and the album eventually soared to No. 7 on the R&B album survey.
Lynn was once again paired with Harris and Lewis for her sixth album, It’s Gonna Be Alright. Among the tracks represented on the new collection are “Fidelity,” another song of commitment that’s set to a funky synth-pop backing that evokes (perhaps intentionally) the sound of “Encore.” The slow jam “Fade To Black” and the jaunty “Loafin'” also feature, all in their extended 12″ edits. While they don’t quite capture the magic of Preppie or Lynn’s ’70s smashes, the tracks on It’s Gonna Be Alright are saved by the authenticity, commitment, and power of her performances. Chart action proved to be underwhelming. The album peaked at No. 56 on the R&B album charts and failed to reach the Pop album rankings at all. As a result, Lynn’s chapter at Columbia came to a close.
In the seven years she was on the label, Cheryl Lynn delivered six albums, two No. 1 hits, a gold album, and 16 charting R&B singles. Now, that successful tenure is commemorated with SoulMusic’s new collection. Aside from the excellent music newly remastered by Nick Robbins, Got To Be Real: The Columbia Anthology also features an illustrated 20-page booklet with album covers and scans of original singles. The set also features detailed liner notes by R&B authority Janine Coveney, who expertly tracks the life and career of Cheryl Lynn, and ample discographical information.
In all, Got To Be Real: The Columbia Anthology is a welcome addition to any R&B fan’s music library, a comprehensive survey of Cheryl Lynn’s best-known work that never fails to get the toes tapping and hips swaying. The impressive collection is available now wherever good music is sold. In fact, you can purchase your copy using the following links: Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada.