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Shalamar - Uptown Festival Music Album Reviews

Bernice - Puff LP: In the air without a shape Music Album Reviews

The first three records from the R&B group that came out of “Soul Train” show their evolution from a schmaltzy cash-grab to a bona fide bringer of disco joy.

The constant churn of an underground sound leads to mainstream success leads to brazen attempts to cash out. For every genre-shattering release, there are thousands of way-more-terrible versions of that release, all blatantly attempting to strike gold. In the late ’70s, disco’s made the ascent from the R&B-meets-psychedelic sound found in black, Italian, Latino and gay nightclubs and house parties to the schmaltz born in the wake of Saturday Night Fever’s massive global success. In Los Angeles, “Soul Train”—the influential syndicated dance television program that was revolutionary in its depictions of black American music—was undergoing a shift. Creator and host Don Cornelius bristled at the advent of disco music, but his show was a national phenomenon and set so many trends that he didn’t want to miss out on a chance to leverage his platform to dip a toe onto the dancefloor under the mirror ball.

Cornelius partnered with “Soul Train” talent coordinator Dick Griffey to launch Soul Train Records and for their first act, created a packaged pop-disco group they called Shalamar. This somewhat crass marketing tactic led to the Shalamar experiment’s first release, 1977’s Uptown Festival. Using session singers to get the album out quickly, Festival is a naked cash grab posing as a fully-formed concept. Save for the title track—a medley of familiar Motown standards laid over a disco beat—the record is completely forgettable unless used as a marketing case study and doesn’t have a ton of replayability.

However, just because the album wasn’t good doesn’t mean that album wasn’t successful. The record charted thanks to the promotional powerhouse of “Soul Train” backing it. After the first album proved successful, the follow-up would take a big step in associating Shalamar with “Train” forever.

Enter Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniel—two “Soul Train” dancers and members of a makeshift crew of “Soul Train” personalities known as the Waack Dancers (the name, per a 1978 Ebony profile, was just randomly made up). Like the dance legend Fred “Rerun” Berry, the duo was immensely popular on the program as visionaries of style and moves that were never before seen on such a wide platform. Watley was the always-smiling female lead who set style trends with her unique fashion sense and model-level good looks. Daniel—the man who debuted the Moonwalk on national television, which led to his recruitment by Michael Jackson as unofficial muse and official dance coordinator—was the innovator, capturing attention via his unique moves. In a Los Angeles Times interview from the late ’80s, Cornelius was blunt about how Shalamar came to be. “The group’s lead singer, Gary Mumford was excellent. I decided to replace the background people, however, with two ‘Soul Train’ dancers who would work behind Gary. Since Jody and Jeffrey were the most recognizable dancers on the show, then, I said, ‘Let’s use them. My partner said, ‘Jody Watley can’t sing.’ I said, ‘It doesn’t matter, only the look matters.’”

To compensate for the lack of vocal talent, Griffey recruited Gerald Brown and producer Leon Sylvers III and the new incarnation of Shalamar debuted on 1978’s Disco Gardens. The album was released on Griffey’s SOLAR (Sounds of Los Angeles Records) instead of Soul Train, as Cornelius moved on from the nascent label to focus on expanding the Soul Train brand via national syndication. SOLAR would later find larger success as a home of R&B by applying the Motown formula of record creation to black radio so effectively that The New York Times saw fit to run a profile of Griffey in 1980 with the not-at-all-subtle headline “Solar Records could be the Motown of the 80s.”

As an album, Garden serves as a great relic of disco’s waning influence on pop and R&B. Shalamar’s Disco Gardens could be slid into any contemporary disco mix without blinking an eye, but the novelty of the album blunts its impact a bit. In a nod towards the future, Leon Sylvers III pivoted the album’s sound from all-disco towards more traditional R&B ballads (“Lovely Lady”) and the black adult contemporary pop sound that would come to be known as the SOLAR sound in the ’80s.

After Gardens, Gerald Brown’s tenure as Shalamar’s male lead lasted only one album, as disputes about appropriate payment (an all-too-familiar refrain for those studying the history of black music in America) led to his departure from the group. Griffey’s replacement was Howard Hewett, an immensely talented singer from Akron, Ohio who also spent time dancing on “Soul Train” before being added to the group for the next Shalamar album, 1979’s appropriately-titled Big Fun.

Big Fun is the textbook for what made disco, well, fun (please just look at its cover). A thumping four-on-the-floor drum rhythm with plenty of identifiable hi-hat and basslines (the latter of which were laid down by Sylvers himself) incorporated into lasagna-thick layers of instrumentalization all come to a head on this album, specifically standout tracks “Let’s Find the Time for Love,” “I Owe You One,” and “Right in the Socket.” Fun also features the biggest single in the group's history, “The Second Time Around” which showcases Hewett’s apple-butter-smooth vocal stylings over a beat built for two-stepping. Good disco music should make you feel like you have an uncontrollable urge to throw your ass around and whether that’s on the dance floor or in the bedroom is your call. Big Fun is good disco music.

After the success of Fun (it hit at No. 4 on the R&B chart and No. 23 on the Billboard 200), the Hewett/Watley/Daniel/Sylvers lineup worked together for four more albums until Daniel and Watley left the group in 1983 due in equal parts to dissatisfaction with SOLAR and Watley’s solo career taking off. Shalamar’s legacy lives through those who grew up in black households in the UK and America. While the group started as a formulaic product trying to glom on disco’s popularity, they found their voice over the years by focusing on one goal: making people dance. It’s hard to have multiple hits as it is, but to grow and develop as artists while giving you solid tunes to dance to on every album? Give your long-overdue flowers to Shalamar.

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