This week's DeepSoul kicks off a four-part series called "Behind the Scenes," a look at songwriters/producers you may not know by name, but you do know their work. These talented composers helped shape modern R&B and pop, penning and overseeing tracks by artists ranging from the Whispers to Whitney Houston, Phyllis Hyman to Michael Jackson. First in line is an artist who experienced his own success before achieving even greater success "behind the scenes": Leon Sylvers III.
Leon Sylvers honed his skills as the creative force behind the Sylvers, a group consisting of nine siblings who boasted impressive harmonies. The first incarnation of the group was the Little Angels, a late 60s act including of Leon, sisters Olympia and Charmaine, and brother James. Drawing the attention of Ray Charles, the child group opened for the R&B legend on several tour dates. By 1971 the Little Angels had outgrown their "cute kid" image; by adding more family members, the act transformed into the Sylvers. Signed to the Pride label, the act achieved success with Leon's first hit composition: 1972's "Fool's Paradise." This was quickly followed by "Misdemeanor," written for younger brother Foster Sylvers. Years later hip hop artists sampled the track, a Jackson 5-type song with a street edge.
As the hits waned, the Sylvers left Pride and signed with Capitol Records. Their career relaunched with the Leon Ware-penned dance track "Boogie Fever," followed by the pop-flavored single "Hotline." While Leon admitted that the Ware compositions brought them back to the charts, he wanted to move away from the bubblegum sound. Thus in 1978 he wrote and produced their ambitious 1978 album New Horizons, which featured the jazz-inflected title track. While critically praised, the album failed to sell as briskly as previous efforts. When Capitol refused to release the followup Forever Yours, Leon departed the group. This initially difficult move proved to be beneficial, however, as his work with his family prepared him for an even greater career as a song craftsman.
In 1978 SOLAR Records hired Leon as an in-house producer and songwriter, and there he would enjoy a string of successes with label acts such as Shalamar, Lakeside, and the Whispers. His brand of danceable but funky R&B resonated with audiences, as he is responsible for classics such as the Whspers' "And the Beat Goes On," Shalimar's "Second Time Around" and "Night to Remember," and Lakeside's first SOLAR album Shot of Love. He would go on to write and/or produce hits for artists on other labels, most notably Evelyn "Champagne" King ("Flirt"), Gladys Knight and the Pips ("Save the Overtime [for Me]"), and Blackstreet ("Before I Let You Go"). From the beginning, Leon proved to have an ear for hooks and melody, and possessed great versatility. No two of his productions sound exactly alike, and one such example is his composition for Shalamar called "Take That to the Bank."
Today best known for the 1984 hit "Dancing in the Sheets," the group grew out of Soul Train. Host Don Cornelius and booking agent Dick Griffey created the act to capitalize on the disco sound, and Shalamar's debut album Uptown Festival (1977) reflected that goal. For the second album, Cornelius and Griffey replaced the studio singers with Jody Watley (a Soul Train dancer who would go on to a successful solo career), Jeffrey Daniel (another Soul Train dancer often credited with teaching Jackson how to moonwalk), and Gerald Brown. The resulting album Disco Gardens would be the first and last to feature Brown, and charted much higher in Britain than the United States. Regardless, the single "Take That to the Bank" became a dance favorite, incorporated Latin-inflected percussion and a slight Philly Soul feel to rank above typical 1978 disco.
The keyboard riff weaves throughout the track, but the percussion transforms "Take That to the Bank" into something different. The lyrics may not be deep, but the chorus is infectious. Watley does not take center stage, but her contribution on the bridge adds interest. Leon understood how to integrate current trends with distinctive sounds, be it riffs or a "hook," that instantly please the ear. "Take It to the Bank" hints at the bigger hits to come with Shalamar and other artists, demonstrating how Leon became a major figure in late 1970s and 1980s R&B. He remains largely (and unfairly) unknown, even though most are already familiar with a great deal of his production and composition catalog. Updating old school soul with modern sounds--indeed, Leon Sylvers' formula greatly influenced today's R&B, hip hop, and pop hybrids.