NOTE: TV One made last minute changes to the air schedule, and Gerald Levert will now air on Monday, August 20. The next new episode of Unsung, Arrested Development, will air Monday, August 13.
Crowned by fans as “the last soul singer,” Gerald Levert was one of the preeminent forces of ’80s and ’90s R&B. He took his pedigree from his father, Eddie Levert, of The O’Jays, and while still a teenager, formed his own singing group, LeVert, with Marc Gordon and his younger brother, Sean. LeVert dominated the charts. Thanks to infectious hits like “Casanova” and “(Pop Pop Pop Pop ) Goes My Mind,” LeVert scored four straight gold records and five chart-topping singles. From there, Gerald launched a formidable solo career, including a duet with his father, “Baby Hold on to Me,” which also hit number one. But Gerald could never find contentment in his many achievements, and remained driven to top himself throughout his career — a journey which ended tragically with his untimely death in 2006 at the age of 40.
Gerald Levert’s life and career will be chronicled in the next epsidode of TV One’s “Unsung,” airing Monday at 9 p.m. and repeating at midnight.
“He was on a quest to be all that he could be,” explained Eddie Levert of his late son. “The media and the business weren’t giving him the hoopla that they gave the Babyfaces and the other great writers and performers that came into the business. He didn’t feel like he was getting the same recognition and so he kept working harder and harder. He was a workaholic.”
Following the disclosure of Levert's cause of death, a family spokesman stated that all the drugs found in Levert's bloodstream were prescribed to the singer because of chronic pain from a lingering shoulder problem and surgery in 2005 to repair a severed Achilles tendon.
“He’s the one son — and I love all my sons, that goes without saying, and they took on characteristics of mine, and I see it every day, and I have to acknowledge, even with some of the messed-up things they do — he not only took on the mannerisms, he also took on the quest. The quest was to better our family life and our family’s position so that we could have a better life. That’s why I got in show business. And he took on that whole quest, and me — without knowing it — I put that on him. I use to apologize to him for making him like that because this is all I talked about to him…he took on that fight, and in taking on that fight, it made him very vulnerable. I used to have to tell him to save some for himself and not give it all to show business, but he gave it all, and kept none for himself. I think that, in rationalizing, part of why he suffered an early death is he took on the burden and he didn’t know how to save some for Gerald.”
Shortly before his death, Levert completed work on what would be his final album, “In My Songs.” In June 2007, a book Gerald was working to complete entitled, “I Got Your Back: A Father and Son Keep it Real About Love, Fatherhood, Family, and Friendship,” was released. The book was initially planned as a tie-in for a Levert album of the same name. “I Got Your Back” explores Gerald and Eddie’s father/son relationship, the necessity of male bonding, and importance of repairing fractured families. In 2008, the senior Levert suffered another loss when his son, Sean Levert died, at age 39.
“Out of all the things that I have done in show business, some of my greatest moments were with that kid on stage because everything didn’t have to be rehearsed,” recalled Eddie of their on-stage collaborations. “We were so spontaneous. We would have a mapped out show, but at any moment that would turn into something else, you know, it would turn into a revival. We were able to, on the spot, adjust to that. And that was the kind of artist he was. I could sing with this kid all day because there were no boundaries. You know, with a lot of people, you have to spell things out for them to perform. With him and me, we lived in the moment, and whatever comes, that’s what we’re going to do and God put his hand on it and it comes out great.”
And then the father pauses, and in a reflective voice says: “You know, I really miss him. And I really miss him from that standpoint because I got so much courage and some of my greatest moments were with this kid.”
Eddie, now 70, still performs regularly with mighty O’Jays (and will be in Philadelphia on July 27 at The Mann Music Center). The father laughed and noted that his son still informs his performances. “Every day, when I think about Gerald, I go ‘Look what you’ve done to me!’ the reason why I say that is because he stole all of my moves — he got it all from me and y’all try to play me like he didn’t — and now he’s not around, and now I got to act like I still got it.”
Despite a deep sense of loss, Levert says his faith gives him the strength to remember the good times. “I think it’s my love for God, and believing that God doesn’t put something on you that you cannot handle. I truly believe that, because you never get over it. At any point or on any day it can sneak up on you, and there you are blubbering in the car, in the bathroom. There you are using the toilet and then you’re crying. It’s like something that you never get used to, but you live with it. The one solace that I have with it is that he knew that I loved him, and I knew that he loved me. I had one of the most ‘wonderfullest’ times with that kid — I’ve had some of the greatest moments of my career with that kid and I look forward to seeing him again — and telling him off.”
Among the most influential groups in the history of popular music, Sly and The Family Stone fused funk, soul, rock and R&B to create a sound that resonated well beyond the charts. Led by the brilliant and charismatic Sly Stone, it was a sound that by turns reflected the idealism of the ’60s, and the fracturing of those ideals in the decade that followed. The band’s performance at the Woodstock festival in 1969 showed a group at the height of their powers, while suggesting a future of unlimited musical possibilities.
Stone (born Sylvester Stewart, March 15, 1944) was the youngest of four of a deeply religious middle-class household from Dallas, Texas. The parents encouraged musical expressions, and Stone excelled in mastering every instrument he touched. Early examples of Stone’s color-blind band dynamics were evident when he became one of the first non-white members of his high school musical group, The Viscaynes, and recorded several solo singles under the name “Danny Stewart.”
By 1964, Stewart had become Sly Stone, a disc jockey for San Francisco R&B radio station KSOL, where he integrated music by white artists into a Black radio playlist. Stone had produced for and performed with Black and white musicians during his early career, so the eventual Sly and the Family Stone sound continued that melting pot, or stew, of many influences and cultures, including James Brown proto-funk, Motown pop, Stax soul, Broadway showtunes and psychedelic rock music.
The Family Stone original founding members — saxophonist Jerry Martini, trumpeter Cynthia Robinson and drummer Greg Errico — are Rock & Roll Hall of fame inductees and still tour the globe featuring the songs of the first interracial, multi-gender band. Wah-wah guitars, distorted fuzz basslines, church-styled organ lines and horn riffs provided the musical backdrop for the vocals of the band’s four lead singers. Stone, Freddie Stone, Larry Graham and Rose Stone traded off on various bars of each verse, a style of vocal arrangement unusual and revolutionary at that time in popular music. Robinson shouted ad-libbed vocal directions to the audience and the band; for example, urging everyone to “get on up and ‘Dance to the Music’” and demanding that “all the squares go home!”
“One of the greatest things that Sly did as part of the line-up, with the original band, there wasn’t no four chicks or all the women in the background and just him out front — we were all on the front line, every one of us,” said Martini. “That’s how it is now. Cynthia really stands out now because she is so dynamic.”
Sly and the Family Stone cut a phenomenal swath through the landscape of popular music in the late 1960s and early 1970s, impacting music festivals and releasing some of the greatest rock and roll music ever recorded. The groups work would go on to influence generations of artists — from Herbie Hancock, who was inspired by Sly’s new funk sound to move towards a more electric sound with his material in1973’s “Head Hunters”; to Miles Davis, who worked with Stone for his 1972 LP “On The Corner”; to as varied a line-up of talents from Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Prince and Chuck D.
“The music was absolutely the catalyst that made it all stick; that gave us the focal point,” explained Errico. “When we went on the road we were a family. We had each other’s back and dealt with all the issues and allegations. It was good, and you’ve go to have that or otherwise you’re not going to make it through the moment. We definitely did have that, and you could feel it in the music and those moments, those recordings that were captured, and you could feel that spirit, that energy and that togetherness. It’s there — it lives in the music.”
But even while crafting great music, the group gradually disintegrated, torn apart by drugs, personality clashes, and the glare of the public spotlight. Stone, now 69, himself became deeply reclusive, his recordings increasingly sporadic, while refusing to grant interviews for decades. On June 25, the story of Sly and the Family Stone kicks off a new season of TV One’s “Unsung,” the NAACP Image Award-winning series celebrating the lives and careers of successful artists or groups who, despite great talent, have not received the level of recognition they deserve or whose stories have never been told. During this groundbreaking episode, Stone emerges to tell that tale, with the help of bandmates and family members — a unique and remarkable musical journey that, after four decades, is still unfolding.
Or, as Martini underscores: “His songs are going to live on — they’re standards.”
Sly and the Family Stone premieres on TV One’s series “Unsung” on Monday, June 25 at 9 p.m. The episode repeats at midnight.
Harlem native Mohandas “Kool Moe Dee” DeWese is best remembered for his ever-present hats and shades, but it’s his resistance to hip-hop clichés which fortifies his legacy. Anti-drugs and alcohol and pro-education, Moe was always willing to represent bold views in his music and in interviews.
“For me, I don’t play into that,” explained the rapper. “We let the nuance dictate to the essence [where] up is down; down is up. Who spread the memo around the ’hood that being dumb was cool? That’s part of the reason I named myself ‘Kool’ — how is it intelligence, doing your homework and knowing your lessons not be cool?”
DeWese demonstrated his lyrical complexity as a teen, when as a member of the groundbreaking Treacherous Three he created a new, fast-paced style of rhyming that was ultimately emulated by rap superstars like Twista and Busta Rhymes. As a solo artist, he ruled the charts and the clubs with hits like “Wild, Wild West” and “I Go to Work.” On the upcoming episode of TV One’s “Unsung,” and with help from friends and admirers, including Doug E. Fresh, Melle Mel and Teddy Riley, Kool Moe Dee tells his life story, but warns that there are vital portions on the cutting room floor.
“When you’re not in charge of telling your story, you get the version that whatever producers or network execs want to tell,” explained DeWese. “I finally saw the rough cut, and the angle that they are choosing to go is underwhelming, because I know what it is and I lived it. The unfortunate part is that the infrastructure, the capitalism and business is set up, it almost inadvertently (and sometimes maybe even overtly) pits the artist against the industry, or having a gripe with some form of media or something in that space. What they do, or what they have to do — or at least what we’re taught and told they have to do — is play to the lowest common denominator: sensationalize, titillate, exaggerate to get viewership ... So, we keep trading the content side off, just for the viewership. Of course, there is the humble side that is happy to be called, but I knew going in because it is one of my favorite shows. But I don’t smoke, drink or don’t have any drug issues, so there no ‘rise-and-fall’ stuff, so where are they going to get the drama they need to do the story.” Moe then imitates an announcer: “And then he lost it all!” To which he quickly responds: “No, I didn’t!”
In addition to being a groundbreaker in a new music genre (DeWase was one of the first rappers to earn a Grammy Award and was the first rapper to perform at the Grammys), a career standout was his lyrical assault on rival LL Cool J with “How Ya Like Me Now.”
“Some of his context was extremly jjuvenile and was counterproductive in terms of what I call social impact,” explained DeWese. “I thought it was socially irresponsible to say I am only 18 and I’m making more than your pop. You don’t tell a group of young Black boys that are idolizing you that you’re better than their fathers because you’re making more money than them; that is detrimental on more levels than you can’t even imagine. He was 16 when he started. Your wisdom comes at the state that it comes at, so everybody’s learning style is a little different. Some people need to learn by getting whipped on, so I just pull out my belt and do a little whipping — let me show you what mastery is if you’re going to talk that kind of stuff.”
DeWese (a lifelong bachelor) is currently working on a romantic tell-all entitled, “1,000 Kisses” and is the author of the critically acclaimed 2003 music guide, “There’s a God on the Mic: The 50 Greatest MCs.”
“(With) LL Cool J, like I said in the book, never underestimate the power of women,” observed DeWese. “He had an intangible in his equation that very few emcees/rappers have: a fan fare where ladies love what you look like, and the whole sexual chemistry, he had the whole ‘ladies’ man aspect. When you captivate women you are going to have success in this business. I thought that it wasn’t just that he was a ladies; man, he was one of the best lyricists of his era, without question. The book is called ‘The 50 Greatest,’ and he’s one of the greatest, without question.”
Kool Moe Dee premieres on TV One’s series “Unsung” on Monday, July 16 at 9 p.m. ET. The episode repeats at midnight.
With a gorgeous voice and five-octave range, exotic beauty and an intoxicating stage presence, Angela Bofill took the music world by storm. A native New Yorker who grew up in Harlem and the Bronx, she was a trained musician and sophisticated singer who invested ballads like “This Time I’ll be Sweeter” and her ode to heartbreak, “I Try” with palpable emotion. She could belt out hot dance numbers like “Too Tough,” and gospel-inflected inspirational hymns like “I’m on your Side” with equal aplomb. But after a run of hits in the 1980s, she faded rapidly from view, as record labels trained their sights on a younger generation of video vixens.
Bofill soldiered on for two decades, only to be literally silenced by two devastating strokes. Yet she refused to give up her dream and is gradually returning to the stage, while sharing her inspirational life story with hard earned wit and wisdom, on the latest episode of “Unsung”. In anticipation of the documentary, Bofill said, “I am a little bit nervous, and excited at the same time.”
In January 2006, Angela Bofill suffered a massive stroke that left her partially paralyzed and impaired her speech. Like millions of Americans, Bofill was without health coverage at the time. Currently, the vocalist is at home in California recovering. She is able to lift her leg slightly, and with the help of a leg brace is able to take a few steps. She is beginning to have some feeling in her shoulder but still has no mobility in her arm.
The singer continued to share about the life she now leads as a stroke survivor.
“After the stroke, I can not talk a long time, and also I’m wheelchair bound. But now walking around, cane still, and when I get to a wheelchair, that’s good. Also, I'm talking a lot — my daughter says too much.”
With that, Bofill let out a hardy laugh, revealing a solid sense of humor. “I have to laugh; crying not fun, you know? Not fun. But am able and glad to be able to tell my story. Maybe that will help a lot of people and others.”
According to the American Stroke Association, stroke is the third leading cause of death and the leading cause of adult disability in the U.S., and Bofill credits Philadelphian Davida Godett — a three-time stroke survivor — with helping her recover. During the interview, Bofill’s speech is slightly impaired, but she pushes through the words. She explains that she is far better now than even a year ago and is determined to sing again.
Bofill recalled her times performing at (the now shuttered) Bijou Cafe and Zanzibar Blue, and lamented that nowadays she can only sing “Happy Birthday.” The singer then beamed while describing happy sing-a-long moments with her one-year-old grandson.
The award-winning recording artist (American Music Award nominee, Bammy Award and Blackbook Award recipient, to name a few) continued to reminisce about her earlier career. Bofill wowed audiences across the globe and her stellar sold-out performances are only equaled by the love and enthusiasm bestowed upon her by her many fans and colleagues, including Denzel Washington, Mary J. Blige, Aretha Franklin, Lenny Kravitz, Danny Glover, Prince, Santana, the late great Ray Charles and her godfather, Tito Puente.
Bofill says that while singing may be a struggle for her, she still feels the power and exciting in the music. “A chill ... I feel the chill, and that means a good thing, you know,” said Bofill, as she reflects. “That spirit, it helps me to heal. Every day.”
Angela Bofill premieres on TV One’s series “Unsung” on Monday, July 2 at 9 p.m. The episode repeats at midnight.
TV One’s top-rated “Unsung” series of one-hour biographies presents the full picture of Black music in America. These multfaceted artists featured in “Unsung” have contributed significantly to popular culture and to the life memories and experiences of the past three or four generations, yet have either failed to achieve that same level of superstardom — or have compelling life stories, the details of which have largely remained untold.
In 1961, five teenage girls from the sleepy Detroit suburb of Inkster, Mich., began a meteoric rise to fame that would revolutionize Motown, while creating a catalog of popular songs that endure to this day. Plucked from the obscurity of a high school talent show, the Marvelettes were signed on the strength of an original song titled “Please, Mr. Postman.” Within months, the song became Motown’s first number one pop single. But despite an impressive array of follow-up hits like “Beechwood 4-5789,” “Too Many Fish in the Sea,” and the Smokey Robinson-penned classics “Don’t Mess With Bill,” and “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game,” the Marvelettes remained strangely anonymous, never achieving the stature of rival acts like Martha and the Vandellas or the Supremes. And in the space of a few short years, a stunning series of misfortunes and personal tragedies put an end to the group for good.
Founded in 1960, The Marvelettes were an all-girl group that achieved popularity in the early to mid-1960s. They consisted of schoolmates Gladys Horton, Georgeanna Tillman (later Georgeanna Tillman-Gordon), Juanita Cowart (later Juanita Cowart Motley), Katherine Anderson (later Katherine Anderson Schnaffer) and Georgia Dobbins, who was replaced by Wanda Young prior to the group’s signing their first deal.
“I am so excited, because, really,to be truthful, the Marvelettes never had the opportunity to do anything or be recognized for some of the contributions that they made to the music industry,” said Anderson, 68. “I am really excited for everybody to look at the TV One episode and hear our story — that makes me excited and really, really happy.”
The group ceased performing together in 1969, and, following the release of “The Return of the Marvelettes” in 1970, featuring only Wanda Rogers, the group disbanded for good, with both Rogers and Anderson leaving the music business.
Anderson married, raised three children, held several jobs, wrote a book and is a two- (possibly three-) time stroke survivor. “When I had my first stroke (in 1997), I was paralyzed on my left side. I worked hard and was determined because of the fact I was not going to let it beat me. And then, the bottom line is, vanity kills!”
Anderson then laughed long and hard and said, “You know, when you have had the life that I have had, and I had it from age 16 on, you do have a bit of vanity ,because you learn how to have vanity. I had to learn how to use my hand, how to walk. I’ve had the experience. It’s all good now.”
Despite their early successes, the group was eclipsed in popularity by groups like The Supremes, with whom they shared an intense rivalry, and struggled with issues of dismal promotion by Motown, illnesses, mental breakdowns and group infighting. “It’s pretty much a man’s industry,” explained Anderson. “They don’t really care that much about women being in it. But women always come in it, and they have to show out to show up — and that’s exactly what they do.”
In recent years the group has received several honors, including being named to the Vocal Group Hall of Fame and the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. In 2005, the band’s most successful recordings, “Please Mr. Postman” and “Don’t Mess with Bill” earned them two gold-certified awards from the Recording Industry of America. “I only remember two other girls groups that came out when we came out, and that was The Chantels and The Shirelles,” noted Anderson. “No other girl groups were out. So then I’m a pioneer of the girl groups.”
“The Marvelettes” premieres on TV One’s series “Unsung” on Monday, July 23 at 9 p.m. The episode repeats at midnight.
"Unsung," the popular TV One docu-series, recently won its third consecutive NAACP Image Award, and the show continues its tradition of telling some of the most compelling stories in the annals of popular music with the "Unsung" Disco Special, " airing at 9 p.m. on Feb. 20.
The two-hour special, thoroughly researched, written and produced by Henry Schipper, chronicles the meteoric rise and sudden demise of the genre and culture known as disco, illustrating how it went from slick dance records executed by superb musicians like the Trammps' Earl Young and Chic's Nile Rodgers to the commercialized nonsense of "Disco Duck" by Rick Dees, and the eventual backlash.
"This is the first time we've done something of this nature, said TV One's Jubba Seyyid, Sr. Director, Programming & Production. "We've done marathons and what the scheduling department has done in the past is they've put episodes of similar ilk together. I think we've done a Motown situation where there were several episodes back to back that were Motown, but this is the first time that we've created a two-hour episode that is dedicated to a genre."
Highlighting the dazzling career of the late Donna Summer, the disco phenomenon is explored by the stars of the genre, including Gloria Gaynor, Anita Ward, Nile Rodgers (Chic), Thelma Houston, Harry Casey (KC and the Sunshine Band), Janice Marie Johnson (A Taste of Honey) and Candi Staton, as well as legendary Philadelphia drummer Earl Young, founding member of The Trammps.
Before garnering international acclaim and a Grammy Award with the mega-hit "Disco Inferno" from the record-shattering "Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack, Young, a North Philly native, began his career as a drummer in the stellar house band of Philadelphia's historic Uptown Theater, and ultimately became one the most sought-after studio musicians in the industry. As a member of the renowned rhythm section of Ronald Baker (bass), Norman Harris (guitar) & Young, his unique beats can be heard on recordings by everyone from the O'Jays to Englebert Humperdinck to the Village People.
Young, a self-taught percussionist, widely regarded as the heartbeat of The Sound of Philadelphia, is credited with creating the unmistakable "disco beat" that immediately defined the genre. The crisp, yet hypnotic rhythm that drew people to the dance floor in droves took root in "The Love I Lost" and "Bad Luck," two monster dance tracks by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes for Philadelphia International Records. It was Young's impeccable timing and innovative instincts which determined that "The Love I Lost" should be an up-tempo track, and not a ballad as producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff originally intended. The song sold more than a million copies, reached number one on the R&B chart, and inspired a groove that made people want to move.
The "Unsung" disco special also examines how "Saturday Night Fever" made a disco dynasty of the Trammps, which actually began as an R&B group and became wildly popular on the club circuit.
"When disco came out, we had just left Philadelphia International Records and signed with Atlantic, and we had out 'Where Do We Go From Here?' " Young said during a recent interview. "Ronnie Baker decided, 'Let's cut a song called, 'That's Where the Happy People Go,' — to the disco,' and we cut 'That's Where the Happy People Go' and 'The Night the Lights Went Out [in New York City],' and that started us out as disco. We were selling records, so Atlantic said, 'Well, let's keep 'em disco!'
"That was a bad mistake for us, because everything they cut after that was disco! When we put out 'Disco Inferno,' it didn't do well, at first! Our attorney, David Steinberg, made a deal when they were putting 'Saturday Night Fever' together to use the song, because they needed another song, and luckily they remembered 'Disco Inferno.' They put it in the movie, and wherever that movie went, it made us go around the world too! It made us popular too — that one song!"
The career of disco diva Thelma Houston was heavily influenced, if not solidified by The Sound of Philadelphia, with her signature song, "Don't Leave Me This Way," written by Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and Cary Gilbert, reaching number one on both the R&B and pop charts, and earning a Grammy Award.
Originally recorded by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, the song came to Houston through Motown icon Suzanne de Passe while Houston was signed to the MoWest label. "She had heard Harold Melvin's latest album, and on it was this song called, 'Don't Leave Me This Way,' but it was done more like a regular R&B mid-tempo song," Houston recalled.
"She told me to go get the album, listen to it and see if I liked it, and I did. So [producer] Hal Davis came up with an idea to cut it — instead of the mid-tempo, to cut it like disco, so that it was engineered to be done in a precise manner, and it worked!"
By her own admission," "Don't Leave Me This Way" came to define Houston's career and she observed, "My first real manager — his name was Marc Gordon, and Marc Gordon was also the manager of the Fifth Dimension. He said to me that a hit record was good for ten years. Well, my song had a shelf life of 40 years! That's the only big hit I've ever had! I had one song by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis that got pretty good. It was called, 'You Used to Hold Me So Tight,' and people think that I've had more hits. But really, 'Don't Leave Me This Way' was the first major, and so far, the only one.
"It's been very good for me, and people ask me all the time, 'Do you get tired of singing that?' and I say, 'No! I sure don't!' And it won me a Grammy! I was working in Phoenix, doing a gig Saturday night, and of course I always sing it because everybody expects me to sing it. And I just started looking when I started singing [humming the opening measures]. It wasn't even a dance floor in there, and people started getting up and coming toward me, and they started dancing when there wasn't even a dance floor!"
The "Unsung Disco Special" completely captures the fun and fantasy of the disco era, along with the drugs and debauchery, and ultimately dissects the factors that so effectively demolished disco.
"Not only do I think disco is unsung, I think the Trammps are unsung," said Young, who, at a startlingly youthful age 72, still actively performs with the group. "A lot of people had the wrong idea about disco. They think that disco is bad music, but it's not. In every group of music, there are some bad songs and there are some good songs. There's bad songs in R&B, there's bad songs in every sort of music. So when disco jumped off, everybody thought they could take that four-on-the-floor beat of mine and that sock cymbal, and put out 'Disco Duck,' disco this and disco that, and everybody threw one of those mirror balls in their little bar and called it a disco!"
On Feb. 16 at 7:30 p.m., Earl Young will be featured on the 6ABC lifestyle magazine "Visions." He will discuss the past, present and future of the historic Uptown Theater or North Broad Street, where he was once a member of the phenomenal house band. The theater is now under renovation.
Seyyid said of the "Unsung Disco Special," an entertaining and engrossing documentary, "With this particular show, we had a lot of artists to cover, we have a lot of music, we have a lot of history to cover, because disco was not just about the music. It was about the culture. It was about the dancing. It was about the culture of the clubs, and we cover all of that."
Summer and music go hand in hand, and the latest TV One “Unsung” series helps celebrate the season with several new documentaries. The top-rated series of one-hour biographies recalls the lives and careers of successful artists or groups who, despite great talent, have not received the level of recognition they deserve.
The multi-faceted artists featured on “Unsung” have contributed significantly to popular culture and to the life memories and experiences of the past three or four generations, yet have either failed to achieve that same level of superstardom, or have compelling life stories the details of which have largely remained untold. “Unsung” focuses on gifted musical talents who have played an important role in recent music history, but have not necessarily become household names.
“What better way to celebrate summer than with music, and what better way to celebrate music than with new episodes of Unsung?” said TV One Executive Vice President of original programming and production Toni Judkins. “While we have now produced several dozen episodes of ‘Unsung,’ it t is remarkable that we have no shortage of incredibly talented candidates for new episodes — and our audience continues to want more. The winter 2012 season of ‘Unsung’ was our highest-rated, most-watched season ever, and we look forward to celebrating with our viewers more amazing stories of great talent this summer and helping to paint that richer portrait of Black music in America.”
For the latest episode, the soul funk disco band Con Funk Shun gather for the first time to tell the story of a truly “Unsung” band. With five gold albums and 16 top 40 singles, Con Funk Shun strode across the funk and R&B scene for more than a decade. From their roots as high-school friends in Vallejo, California, they honed their chops at Stax records in Memphis, while developing an irrepressibly danceable sound. With hits like “Fun,” “Shake & Dance With Me,” “Chase Me,” and “Love’s Train,” the group performed in sold-out arenas around the country, while showing off lavish outfits and tightly choreographed moves. But after 17 years together, a succession of personal conflicts caused the band to fall apart. And a decade later, one of their founding members was killed in circumstances at once mysterious and chilling.
Con Funk Shun was formed in Vallejo, California, in 1969 by classmates Louis A. McCall and Michael Cooper. With McCall on drums and percussion and Cooper providing lead vocals and lead guitar, the group went on to include Karl Fuller (trumpet), Paul Harrell (saxophone/flute), Cedric Martin (bass guitar), Danny Thomas (keyboards), and Felton C. Pilate II (trombone/lead vocals). They moved to Memphis in 1973 and got a major record deal with Mercury in 1976.
During their 10 years with Mercury, the band received four RIAA gold album awards and other industry accolades, while performing on major national tours and overseas. The group disbanded in 1986 after lead singers Cooper and Pilate II left for solo careers. Cooper had a few moderate hits while signed to Warner Bros. and Pilate went on to be the musical director and producer for rapper MC Hammer. In 1994, they started appearing together as Con Funk Shun again with sidemen in the place of the original members. The new band appears at old school festivals and nostalgia shows throughout the country.
McCall was murdered in 1997 in a home invasion robbery in Stone Mountain, Ga. His wife, Linda Lou, fought to keep the case active for 11 years, only to see the suspect release on home arrest. For this “Unsung” episode, the remaining original members, along with family and friends, tell the behind-the-scenes story of an important American band.
Con Funk Shun’s documentary premieres on TV One’s series “Unsung” on Monday, July 9 at 9 p.m. The episode repeats at midnight.
Rarely has a group risen so high and fallen so fast as Arrested Development (AD). This captivating musical collective stormed to the top of the charts with an exhilarating brand of countrified rap that mixed the spirit of Sly and the Family Stone with the political charge of Public Enemy, providing a positive alternative to more confrontational gangsta stylings. Their debut album “3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of...,” which chronicled the time it took the group to get a record deal, sold four million copies and sparked three top ten hits: “Tennessee,” “Mr. Wendal” and “People Everyday.” It also won two Grammys, including the coveted Best New Artist award in 1993, the first time hip-hop had ever taken that prize.
And then it all abruptly fell apart, as internal feuding over control, direction and money belied the group’s idealistic vibe. By the time Arrested Development began work on their second album, they had split into two camps and were communicating with each other through agents and managers. After just two albums of original material, Arrested Development called it quits. Now mostly reunited, the members of this pioneering band reveal the full story of a group who flew high, fell far, and survived to tell the tale.
“The truth is that it has been 20 years removed,” explains AD’s front man Speech. “A lot of beefs that we had, in fact to be honest, all of the beefs that we’ve had, have been reconciled for a while now, say about 10 years or so. We all respect, and even love one another to some extent. When you’ve lived through such highlights and such amazing journeys that we’ve been through with each other, you have a kindred spirit. you know what you’ve been through with each other, and no one can replace that, so there’s a certain bond that comes with the territory.”
AD continues to be a music group that respects women, promotes family, spirituality and male responsibility. Their music addresses consciousness, the earth, African self-determination and love. They call their live shows celebrations. They celebrate the power of life, the certainty of death and struggles of the ancestors. This month, the group released with a mixtape called, “Standing At The Crossroads”.
“From the very beginning, we always wanted to do message music and include the spiritual component to the music,” explained Speech. “It one thing about politics, but then to me, the essence of everybody is our spirit. Our spirit is what tells us what to do. It’s what drives us in the morning and the evening. I became a Christian 17 years ago, and that helped me to really understand a lot more about spirit; what we were created for, purpose and how we can shine the light that God has planted inside of us to the world so that people can also see their way around as well. So its an amazing thing that I was introduced through God.”
Arrested Development premieres on TV One’s series “Unsung” on Aug. 13 at 9 p.m. The episode repeats at midnight. AD’s 20th Anniversary Tour comes to Philadelphia on Sept. 27 at 8 p.m. at The Blockley Pourhouse, 3801 Chestnut St. For information, call (215) 222-1234. For a free download of 13 of AD’s new songs, visit http://newarresteddevelopment.com/.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Bobby Womack has been frustrated.
He’s relaunching his career after what amounts to a two-decade, self-imposed exile and he can’t get his doctor to cooperate. There’s so much to do, Womack says in a gravelly voice, which has aged like the most expensive single-malt whiskey. Yet his doctor has ordered him to shut down for nearly two weeks — an eternity for a restless man seeking a rare second act at age 68.
“Can I tell you the honest truth? I’ve been through a lot, more than I’ve ever been through in my life, in the last two months,” Womack says in a telephone interview from his Los Angeles home. “You know, I had prostate cancer, then they got rid of that and discovered I had colon cancer. Then after that my lungs completely shut down and they had to put me on a machine and I was out in a coma for 10 days. Then after that I had walking pneumonia — twice. So there’s only so much the body can take. I want to go back to work, but the doctor says, ‘Man, you’ve got to rest 10 days and not do NOTHING.’ He said, ‘Because we done lost you,’ and he said, ‘It’s a miracle you’re walking around.’“
And Womack can’t disagree, especially when you take the long view.
A gospel and soul singer, a songwriter and a guitar player with few peers, Womack is largely a forgotten figure today — but one who is getting a close re-examination. His new album, “The Bravest Man in the Universe,” was produced by Damon Albarn, and Womack has ambitious plans for a tour later this year — if his body and doctor cooperate.
His return is a welcome development for those who recognize his deep contributions to modern music — as Sam Cooke’s guitarist, the writer of the Rolling Stones’ first hit and someone who scored many of his own during his solo career. Some worried Womack might not have the same vitality that made him one of the most inspiring and imitated artists of his generation. And even Womack wondered sometimes. He admits to having seizures during his tour with Albarn’s Gorillaz several years ago and his health problems loomed large.
“Yet as so often is the case with Bobby,” said Mark Rowland, executive producer of the “Unsung” series, “he gets counted out over and over in different ways throughout his career, and yet he keeps coming back.”
The “Unsung” episode that aired in January on TV One featuring Womack was among the most watched and commented upon in the series.
“There’s so much to say about his music and there’s so much to say about his life,” Rowland said. “He’s had a life that’s really even more dramatic than some of the more dramatic aspects of the songs he’s written.”
Womack hopes for a little drama in the next chapter of his career and calls “Bravest Man” ‘‘a fresh start.” It’s his first collection of original material in 18 years — since he quit the life to save his life. He gave up music because he was addicted to drugs and alcohol. Drugs and music. Music and drugs. The two were so intrinsically entwined, he felt the only way to really quit one was to give up the other.
He released a few albums of others’ material during this hiatus, but it wasn’t until Albarn tapped him for his Gorillaz side project that Womack caught the fever again. The way he sees it, he’s carrying the torch for all those friends who fell victim to the lifestyle or were forgotten by time.
“I’ve got to represent some of the greatest soul singers that ever walked in life. I still feel that they don’t get their propers for what really happened,” he said. “Since I’ve outlived 90 percent of those people, I said, ‘Let me make a statement.’”
“The Bravest Man in the Universe” is a broadside at soul traditionalists looking for a recreation of something Womack might have dropped in the 1960s or ’70s at the height of his influence. Programmed beats and electronic sounds skitter behind Womack’s voice and a smattering of traditional instruments, including piano and Womack’s guitar.
Richard Russell, Albarn’s co-producer on “Bravest Man,” thinks their work fits right into the spirit of Womack’s career. He calls it “organic and earthy.”
“I didn’t see what we were doing being in any way any type of radical departure from what he’s ever done before, and I’ve been quite surprised at some of the feedback to it which has suggested that it is that,” Russell said in a phone interview from London. “Bobby’s always made rhythmic records that have always been modern at the point he’s been doing them, right? Bobby’s never made retro records and there’s no reason why he should now.”
Womack entered the 2011 recording sessions for the album with an open mind and knew they’d be using programmed beats. But he admitted the recording style employed by Albarn, the Blur frontman, and Russell, the XL Recordings owner, took some getting used to.
The trio sat down together in the round, joined by Womack’s writing partner Harold Payne, and hammered out arrangements as they went. Womack worried they were moving too quickly, but says he loved the final product.
“As loooong as the most dominant thing is there and that’s your vocals and your lyrics — that’s your story — that’s all that matters,” Womack said. “Ain’t nobody going to be listening to who programmed the drums or who did the piano. They don’t care. They’re just listening to the basic song itself. And when you hear me sing, even if you’ve only heard me sing once, you know my voice.” — (AP)