Say the name "Atlantic Starr," and most people think of their two best known hits: "Always" and "Secret Lovers," both from 1986. The tracks defined the band as a "quiet storm," ballad-driven act. However, their roots lay solidly in R&B, their earlier material balancing ballads with dance and funk. Anchored by original lead singer Sharon Bryant, the 1978-1983 Atlantic Starr lineup still wins over fans such as Erykah Badu, who covered their 1983 single "Touch A Four Leaf Clover" on her debut album. Their breakthrough track "When Love Calls" combines funk, the lingering effects of disco, and smooth R&B, proving Atlantic Starr should be remember for more than just their two huge mid-80s slow jams.
Formed in White Plains, New York, Atlantic Starr was founded by three brothers: David Lewis (lead vocal and guitar), Wayne Lewis (lead vocal and keyboards), and Jonathan Lewis (trombone and percussion). In 1977 they recruited additional musicians William Sudderth (trumpet), Damon Rentie (saxophone--he was replaced by Koran Daniels in 1981), Clifford Archer (bass), Porter Carroll, Jr. (drums), Joseph Phillips (percussion and flute), and lead vocalist Bryant. Now named Atlantic Starr, they played shows around the northeastern U.S. until they signed with A&M records in 1978. They struggled to find their sound, with their first two albums Atlantic Starr (1978) and Straight to the Point (1979) meeting with only mild success.
The third time was finally the charm with 1981's Radiant, recorded under the guidance of new producer James Carmichael. Cracking the top 50 and peaking at number five on the R&B album charts, Radiant spawned the hit singles "Send for Me," "Am I Dreaming," and "When Love Calls." Brothers David and Wayne Lewis sang lead on the sultry "Send for Me," and David duetted with Bryant on "Am I Dreaming." But Bryant alone is featured on "When Love Calls," and her effortless, breezy style sells the disco-infused song. In addition, Archer's popping, rapid bass lines places the track firmly in Atlantic Starr's funk background.
Wayne and David's composition benefits from Carmichael's glossy production, its laid-back arrangement spotlighting Bryant's malleable vocals. Keyboards place the sound in the 1980s, but the chord changes, Bryant's passionate delivery, and the band's backing harmonies suggest a 70s old-school soul vibe. "I know that your heart is into playin' the field / And that blinds you," she cries, a change in volume and pitch from the first verse. Trumpets accentuate the beat during the middle eight, increasing the drama: "True love is so hard to come by . . . But I've got a lot of it to give / Don't miss out, don't you dare!" she cries. While the backing arrangement remains light, Bryant's emotions are in the forefront: "I'm willing and waiting," she croons, elongating the final syllables in "willing" and "waiting."
"When Love Calls" may be a danceable track, but it contains an intensity absent from many tracks of the genre. Bryant lingers over every word, allowing listeners to vicariously experience her frustration at her lover's inability to commit. Atlantic Starr would continue this streak with "Circles" and "Touch A Four Leaf Clover," but their early funk and soul sound changed once Bryant departed the band in 1984.
Today Atlantic Starr is best remembered for their two adult contemporary hits with singer Barbara Weathers. However, their pre-1986 work should not be overlooked, and hopefully today's neo-soul singers will continue covering Atlantic Starr's songs, introducing their catalog to future generations.