Since June 1979, Black Music Month has honored African American contributions to music culture. Locally, Cincinnati’s history traces back to commercial music’s beginnings in the 1920s through blues singer Mamie Smith. This April, Hamilton County Commissioner Alicia Reece offered a proposal to add a Black Music Walk of Fame to the newly constructed Andrew J Brady ICON Music Center to preserve the region’s cultural history.
While the city’s involvement in funk and soul music is widely known through James Brown’s King Records recordings as well as those of musical ambassadors Bootsy Collins, The Isley Brothers, and Midnight Star, there are many others that tie back to the Queen City. The area’s influence on R&B and hip hop culture also comes from bands like 24 Carat Black, RAMP, Zapp, The Spinners, and Parliament Funkadelic by way of Phillipe Wynne, and disco group Wood, Brass & Steel, and funk band Skull Snaps through drummer Harold Sargent. As Black Music Month closes out, here are a few songs and musical connections to reflect on.
Funk band Pure Essence formed in Cincinnati in 1973 and included Queen City natives Antonio “L.A.” Reid and Kevin “Kayo” Roberson, who would go on to become members of ’80s band, The Deele. Backed by Pittsburgh Pirates right-fielder Dave Parker (he joined the Cincinnati Reds roster in 1983), they recorded and released one single, “Wake Up” b/w “Third Rock.” “Wake Up” received some airplay on WCIN-AM while “Third Rock” was featured on WEBN – The Album Project #2. Penned by Pure Essence’s guitarist, Stephen Tucker, “Third Rock” is often described as having a Sly and the Family Stone influence. Decades after it seemed to vanish entirely, the song gained a cultish resurgence among rare groove vinyl collectors and fans of underground hip hop. It was sampled on RJD2’s “Clean Living” from his 2004 album, Since We Last Spoke, and the following year, the recording was reissued through Soul Cal, a subsidiary of Stones Throw Records. It was also on the 2006 Adult Swim compilation, Chrome Children.
Shalamar’s first album, Uptown Festival, was unsuccessful because the studio group didn’t have a firm identity. When Cincinnati native Gerald Brown (who was part of R&B quintet Soul Train Gang with his brother, Terry) replaced Gary Mumford as Shalamar’s lead singer, the new lineup included Soul Train dancers Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniels. “Take That to the Bank” from their second album, Disco Garden, peaked at 17 on the R&B singles chart. But before their third album, Brown was replaced by Akron, Ohio, singer Howard Hewitt, who became the voice fans still associate with hits like “The Second Time Around,” “A Night to Remember,” and “This Is for the Lover in You.” After leaving Shalamar, Brown sang jingles, one of which was an ode to Skyline Chili, “It’s Skyline Time.”
When this single made impact, jazz vocalist Randy Crawford wasn’t a newcomer, but she was relatively fresh to radio. The Macon native spent her teen years in Cincinnati, where she gained singing exposure through Bootsy and the jazz-funk ensemble Dee Felice Trio. By the mid-’70s, Crawford appeared on Cannonball Adderley’s Big Man and released “Everything Must Change,” yet it was the crossover success of “Street Life” that catapulted Crawford’s career. Her plaintive yet powerful vocal over the gliding, striding 11-minute track helped the record peak at 36 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Crawford was nominated for a Grammy award twice over the years.
On January 20, 1985, Prince recorded several demo tracks in downtown Cincinnati for Sheila E’s second album, Romance 1600, at Fifth Floor Studios. According to Duane Tudahl, the author of Prince Studio Sessions: 1985–1986, Prince left the Purple Rain tour after a stop in Birmingham, Alabama, to come to the Queen City to record “A Love Bizarre” and “Dear Michaelangelo.” Prince supposedly chose the space because it was where pioneering ’80s funk happened (Slave, Zapp, Bootsy, Sun, and The Ohio Players also recorded albums there).
Midnight Star, along with The Deele, had a prototypical sound in the ’80s that shifted between the experimental, industrial street sound of vocoder electro-funk and smooth R&B ballads. Reggie Calloway and his brother Vincent recorded Midnight Star’s No Parking on the Dance Floor at QCA Recording Studios and Fifth Floor Studios before going on to produce a string of hits for other artists. They co-produced Klymaxx’s “Meeting in the Ladies Room,” which ranks at 85 on Billboard’s list “100 Greatest Girl Group Songs of All Time.” Other hits include LeVert’s “Casanova,” Natalie Cole’s “Jumpstart,” Teddy Pendergrass’s “Joy,” Gladys Knight & The Pips’s “Love Overboard,” and The Whispers’s “Contagious.” In addition, Bo Watson, Midnight Star’s keyboardist, teamed up with Indianapolis’s Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds and Antonio “L.A.” Reid of The Deele to compose The Whispers’s timeless 1987 classic, “Rock Steady.”
Before launching LaFace Records, Edmonds and Reid composed songs with The Deele’s bass synthesizer player Kevin “Kayo” Roberson for Bobby Brown’s second album, Don’t Be Cruel, and breakout R&B singles for Karyn White, Pebbles, and Paula Abdul. In the case of Abdul, 1988’s “Knocked Out” from Forever Your Girl was intended to test out her commercial viability as a choreographer-turned-singer. It was the only Edmonds/Reid/Roberson produced song on the album, and 64 weeks after its release, Forever Your Girl topped Billboard’s Hot 100.
Vocalist (and Walnut Hills High School graduate) Penny Ford is the daughter of Gene Redd, a former A&R man at King Records. In the early ’80s, Ford signed to Total Experience, which was founded by Lonnie Simmons of The Gap Band, and released Pennye, featuring the Top 20 R&B single, “Change Your Wicked Ways.” Ford also toured as a background singer for Chaka Khan and Vesta Williams, but her fiery lead on Eurodance group Snap’s mega-hit “The Power” is the best example of her powerful voice. Thirty-one years later, the song is still infectious and remains a pop culture staple, heard in television shows like Pose and This Is Us.