SYLVERS - “SOMETHING SPECIAL” (SoulMusic Records CD reissue, 2015)
Released in November of 1976, weeks before Thanksgiving, SOMETHING SPECIAL was the second Capitol album for the LA-based SYLVERS. The family – Leon III, Olympia, Charmaine, Pat, Edmund, James, Ricky, Angela and Foster – were on a roll, thanks to their #1 Pop/Soul smash, “Boogie Fever”, from earlier that year (produced by the late Freddie Perren). SOMETHING SPECIAL reunited the Sylvers with Perren and featured their Top 5 Pop/Soul hit, “Hot Line”, as well as the follow up smash, “High School Dance”. The album was their biggest selling disc on Capitol as it peaked at #13 on Billboard's R&B LP Chart (#80/Pop LP's).
To briefly recap the Sylvers' history, the family (headed by Leon II and Shirley) hailed from Memphis, Tennessee. When the eldest four (Olympia, Leon III, Charmaine and James) were still little, Mom and Dad Sylvers moved their growing brood to California in the mid-1950's, where they became an established singing group called the Little Angels. The foursome soon made TV appearances on Danny Thomas' “Make Room For Daddy” as well as Groucho Marx's “You Bet Your Life” (both can be seen on You Tube!). In addition, the Little Angels recorded singles for Morty Craft's Warwick label (“Santa Claus Parade”) as well as – believe it or not! - Capitol! (“Says You”).
By the mid-1960's, the Sylvers family grew to ten children (Edmund, Joseph - “Ricky”, Angie, Patricia - “Pat”, Foster and Christopher – the latter never sang with the group). Unfortunately, Leon II and Shirley's marriage fell apart and they divorced. After relocating numerous of times, Mother Shirley and the kids settled in Los Angeles' Watts area, which was still reeling from the 1965 riot that all but destroyed the community. It was decided then that the siblings should concentrate on education, rather than live performances.
While Leon Sylvers III was attending Alexander Hamilton High School in LA, he began songwriting in his teens, inspired by a school teacher. “Mr. Simon was my history instructor at Hamilton High,” Leon explained in a 2015 telephone interview. “The way Mr. Simon taught history was he'd give us the 'textbook' version of events, then he'd flip over the chalkboard and said, 'now, THIS is what really happened!!' He knew that the school books didn't give the full and honest truth about our country. We loved the way Mr. Simon taught, even though some folks didn't quite like it and had officials, even government people, come by our classroom to 'observe' what he did! It was while being in his class that I composed 'Fool's Paradise' (the Sylvers' first hit single on MGM/Pride Records in 1972), which was my way of saying that one should not believe one point of view.”
At that time (1971), the Sylvers – Olympia, Leon, James, Ricky, Edmund, Charmaine – were signed to MGM Records. After cutting a couple of singles that didn't make any noise, they were placed under a new label within MGM called Pride Records (headed by Michael Viner). With Keg Johnson,Jerry Butler and Jerry Peters producing, the hits came - “Fool's Paradise”, “Wish That I Could Talk To You”, “Stay Away From Me”, “Through The Love In Your Heart”. In 1973, Foster Sylvers with Pat and Angie scored the monster smash, “Misdemeanor” (composed by Leon). The family cut three albums (Foster had two) for MGM by 1974.
While the group enjoyed success with MGM/Pride, it came at a cost. Soon, the Sylvers discovered that they were thousands of dollars in debt to Pride Records executive, Michael Viner (he sued them for monies due, the family agreed to repayment). This prompted the Sylvers to leave MGM/Pride for a better landscape. That's when manager Al Ross came in. “Al became our representative and helped us get ourselves together financially,” Leon explained. “That's when we started looking for a new label and found out that Capitol Records were interested in signing us”.
Yes, Capitol had their eye on the group, or rather, the company's head of Black music, Larkin Arnold. “When I learned that the Sylvers were available, I wasted no time signing them in 1975”, said Mr. Arnold in a 2015 phone interview from his home in LA. “In fact, I had the perfect producer in mind, Freddie Perren. He and I were classmates at (the Washington DC-based) Howard University. I knew Freddie was available because he had just left Motown Records – where he had a tremendous run as a songwriter/arranger/producer for several years”.
The word “tremendous” is an understatement. Freddie came on board to Motown in 1967, after working as a vibraphonist/percussionist with Jerry Butler, he teamed up with Deke Richards, Fonce Mizell and label chief Berry Gordy as The Corporation – the brain trust that came up with monster hits for the Jackson 5 (“I Want You Back”, “ABC”, “The Love You Save”, “Mama's Pearl”, “Maybe Tomorrow”). Freddie went on to work with the Miracles when Billy Griffin was the lead singer and the result - “Do It, Baby”, “Don't Cha Love It” and the #1 smash, “Love Machine'. By this time (1975), Freddie had left Motown to form his own company, Grand Slam Productions.
Leon picks up the story, “We went to Capitol because Larkin Arnold had Freddie Perren there, ready to work with us on making hits. I have to say that there were two producers who had a great impact on my learning how to produce records – Keg Johnson and Freddie Perren. Yet, Freddie inspired me the most because he had a very calm demeanor in the studio. He didn't yell or anything. If matters became stressful at a session, Freddie would diffuse the situation in a cool, controlled and no-nonsense manner. He'd have folks take a break, breathe, relax for a bit – then back to work”.
The Sylvers' first Capitol album, “Showcase” (1975), featured the group's first #1 pop/soul smash, “Boogie Fever” (composed by Freddie Perren and Keni St. Lewis). The album also featured the single, “Cotton Candy” as well as the family jam, “Freestyle” - which featured Leon on bass, Edmund on drums, Ricky on guitar and James on keyboards. It was also the first album to have the nine siblings all together. Leon - “We decided to bring in Foster, Pat and Angie into the group to give our music a fuller sound. Also, at the time, both Charmaine and Olympia were each having children at the time. So, it benefited us to expand the group to include Pat, Angie and Foster.”
Soon after the Sylvers had nailed their first RIAA-issued Certified Gold and Platinum singles plaques for “Boogie Fever” onto the walls of the family house, they went back into the studio with Freddie Perren to cut the SOMETHING SPECIAL album in early 1976. Leon - “What I loved about our hit single, 'Hot Line', was how Freddie and Keni put the most interesting part of the song, lyrically, at the moment where it would catch the listener in a subliminal way. The part – 'you're my lover, undercover, you know what I'm talkin' about' – Freddie went over that particular line with Edmund repeatedly, to make sure he delivered it the right way. I didn't understand why, at first, he was doing this until we performed it on TV months later. THAT'S when it hit me what the song was about! The guy was having a thing with this girl 'on the low'! And what really got me was that line was there towards the end of the song! That was a big lesson for me as a songwriter and producer, knowing WHERE to put a lyric so it will help send the message home – and leave the listener wanting to hear more”.
For the follow-up single, “High School Dance” (co-written by Leon, James, Edmumd and Ricky), the Sylvers went “back to school” for sound effects purposes! “We actually went into our alma mater, Alexander Hamilton High School, to record the bell as it had rung to dismiss classes! The family and I had wanted an authentic school bell at the beginning of 'High School Dance', but not from a sound effects record. So, we went into Hamilton High, put a microphone under the bell as it was ringing and went back to the studio to cut the song. The brothers and I played on that tune – James on keyboards, Edmund did drums, Ricky on guitar and I on bass”.
Leon continued - “My favorite on the album is 'Ain't No Doubt About It', which I had sung with Olympia. Freddie wrote that with both of us in mind. Now, Olympia has a wide range – from low to falsetto. On this tune, she's singing in her lower voice. Olympia is more of a jazz/soul vocalist, which worked for the song”.
“Loving You Is Like Loving The Wind” found sister Angie in a Motown-type groove (think Diana Ross & the Supremes!) while “Disco Showdown” was one of two of tunes led by Foster (the other was “Now That I Want You”) Pat handled the lead on “Got To Have You (For My Very Own)”, Edmund took care of “Shake 'Em Up” (with Foster) and “That's What Love Is Made Of” with Pat on the chorus. The funk-driven “Mista Guitar Man” rounded out the album.
After the release of SOMETHING SPECIAL as well as the singles, “Hot Line” and “High School Dance”, Freddie went back to work with Tavares (he produced their “Sky High”, “Love Storm” and “Future Bound” albums) and Yvonne Elliman for the soundtrack to “Saturday Night Fever”. This made him unavailable to work with the Sylvers, who went on to self-produce their 1977 album, “New Horizons”, with mixed results, sales-wise.
A year later (1978), when the Sylvers offered Capitol the tracks for the then-proposed “Forever Yours” disc, the label execs rejected those songs. This prompted the group to leave Capitol for Casablanca Records (which released the “Forever Yours” album), while Leon became a successful in-house producer/songwriter for SOLAR Records (“Second Time Around” - Shalamar; “And The Beat Goes On” - Whispers, among other hits).
In time, the Sylvers went on to record an album each for SOLAR and Geffen (both produced by Leon III) but the hits eluded them. The siblings faced numerous challenges – the passing of brothers Christopher and Edmund, both Ricky and Foster had legal issues (since resolved), followed by the death of their beloved mother, Shirley. Before their mom passed away, the USA-based cable channel, TV-One, featured the Sylvers on the popular entertainment documentary series, “Unsung” - which resulted in thousands of old and new fans showing interest in the group.
As for the Sylvers, Leon says that all his brothers and sisters (and extended family!) are doing well. “We're working on a new album”, he explained, “that will be a contemporary Christian recording. It's been a three-year process because everyone has their own families and lives to take care of. But, it's slowly coming to completion”.
In conclusion, SOMETHING SPECIAL lived up to its title, for each tune and the vocal prowess of the Sylvers did indeed offer that “something special” for fans. A soulfully colorful treat as bright as the group's red and white stage wear against the blue background on the cover! To paraphrase a tune from the album, this is what great music is made of.
Kevin L. GoinsAugust 30, 2015New York City
Telephone interviews with LEON SYLVERS III (August 26, 2015) and LARKIN ARNOLD (August 19, 2015)
First of all, a big THANK YOU to A.SCOTT GALLOWAY of the Urban Network, for connecting me with Leon Sylvers III
Thank you's to Leon Sylvers III, Larkin Arnold, Pat Shields, Chrisl Rizik, Robert “Boogie” Bowles and David Nathan.
KEVIN GOINS is a music journalist and researcher who has authored liner notes for SoulMusic Records reissues by Noel Pointer, Nancy Wilson, Jerry Butler, GC Cameron, Freda Payne, Tavares, Temptations, Five Stairsteps, Main Ingredient Seawind and Ray Parker, Jr. A radio broadcasting veteran, Kevin is the host/producer of the Soulful Conversations and New Grooves Radio podcast series (mixcloud.com/musicmankevin). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org