Last week's DeepSoul spotlighted the 80s R&B vocalist Alexander O'Neal, so this time the focus turns to frequent duet partner Cherrelle. The two have been permanently linked ever since their 1986 classic jam "Saturday Love," although both experienced success apart as well as together. Cherrelle's light, breathy vocals graced early Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis productions, most notably the funky "I Didn't Mean to Turn You On."
Born in Los Angeles in 1958, Cheryl Norton and her family spent summers in Detroit. In the 1970s she met bassist/singer Michael Henderson (also known for his collaborations with Phyllis Hyman); he later featured the budding singer on his 1978 disc In the Night-Time. After spending time as a backup singer for Henderson and Luther Vandross, she earned a contract with Tabu Records in the early 1980s. Immediately teamed with Jam and Lewis, she took the stage name "Cherrelle," a reference to how a former boss mispronounced her name. The Time members wrote and produced her debut album Fragile, released in 1984. Although filled with 80s production fingerprints--namely drum machines and synthesizers--her soulful delivery set her apart from her peers. In amongst the uptempo numbers and ballads is "I Didn't Mean to Turn You On," a sassy track that allowed Cherrelle to exude confidence and femininity.
Yes, the electronic drums and keyboards dominate the backing track. But her warm and flirtatious style adds charm and attitude to the song. Cherrelle narrates from the first person, assuming the role of a woman who is fending off a man's advances. "Now you bring me home / And tell me good night's not enough for you / I'm sorry baby / I didn't mean to turn you on," she coos, sneaking some feminism into the track. Here she is in charge of her sexuality, spelling out her disinterest clearly: "You read me wrong / I wasn't trying to lead you on / I want a friend," she asserts. In a refreshing turn of events, Cherrelle emphatically turns down the would-be lover, never wavering in her decision. She claims she feels no remorse in resisting temptation, and even admits that she knew before the date started what the man expected: "I know you / Expected a one night stand, when I refused / I knew you wouldn't understand."
"I Didn't Mean to Turn You On" contains surprisingly assertive lyrics, particularly considering that two men wrote the tune. Here the female narrator is portrayed as strong, in control, and nobody's victim. While Cherrelle's voice may not resound like Aretha Franklin's, the two share one aspect: both demand respect. Strangely the accompanying video downplayed the song's feminist leanings, instead having her star in a sort of remake of King Kong. Perhaps music executives believed a literal interpretation of the words would scare off audiences.
Interestingly "I Didn't Mean to Turn You On" endured through numerous covers. Robert Palmer scored a hit with the tune in 1986, his masculine perspective altering the song's original meaning. Fifteen years later, Mariah Carey tried to put her stamp on the track in her ill-fated film Glitter. Yet no one has equaled Cherrelle's original, as her confidence shines through the empowering lyrics.