House fans are mourning the passing of Colonel Abrams, a 1980s club favorite whose best known hit remains 1985's "Trapped." In 2015, Abrams was found living on the streets suffering from diabetes; DJs (most notably Chicago house architect Marshall Jefferson) set up crowdfunding sites to raise money for his medical treatment as well as a possible comeback album, but he sadly passed from diabetes complications on November 24. It is indeed an unfortunate ending to a once promising career, as Abrams burned up dance floors with his deep, powerful voice and pounding beats. While "Trapped" may be his most famous hit, "I'm Not Gonna Let You" also demonstrates his ability to urge crowds onto their feet.
Born in Detroit in 1949, Colonel Abrams (his real name) moved with his family to New York when he was still a child. In the late 1960s, he formed a band with his brother Morris called Conservative Manor; by 1976, he joined the band 94 East as lead singer (another notable member of that group: Prince). After moving on to the New Jersey band Surprise Package, he finally embarked on a solo career with the 1984 single "Leave the Message Behind the Door." The followup single, "Music Is the Answer," became an international dance hit and led to his signing with MCA. His 1985 self-titled album debut scored the dance hits "Trapped" and "I'm Not Gonna Let You," which lit up club floors in the US and UK. The album also fared well on the Billboard R&B charts, peaking at number 13. His 1987 release You and Me Equals Us would become his final release for MCA, spawning the singles "How Soon We Forget" and "Nameless."
After leaving the label, Abrams began recording albums meant to showcase his range beyond that of a house singer. 1992's About Romance contains the smooth R&B slow jam "Good Things," which features a jazz-inflected keyboard solo. Unfortunately the album failed to connect with listeners, as did the positively reviewed work Make a Difference (1996). By the early 2000s, Abrams continued recording but never recaptured his 1980s popularity.
Abrams distinguished himself from other house music artists through his distinctive voice. Booming, deep, and expressive, he drew comparisons to Teddy Pendergrass and Abrams' house music contemporary D-Train ("Keep On," "You're the One for Me"). His commanding presence, along with his soulful vocals, excited listeners and dancers alike. For evidence of this, view his 1986 Soul Train performance of "I'm Not Gonna Let You" and note the enthusiastic reaction of the seasoned studio dancers.
His 1987 album You and Me Equals Us may not have performed as well as Colonel Abrams, but its single "How Soon We Forget" illustrates his mastery of the house genre. Synthesizers, strong bass, and electronic beat kick off the track, but Abrams immediately announces his presence with Pendergrass-eque "woo woos." His voice growls on lines such as "Please don't make me beg you to stay / I know I'll always love you, love you anyway." The earworm aspect of the cut, however, occurs during the chorus as he engages as a call-and-response section with his backing singers. "How soon we forget / Cause we forgot / The love we had before / Doesn't exist no more" they repeat back and forth. "It's killing me, well!" he cries, introducing a touch of gospel into the track (not a surprise, since many house singers got their start singing in the church). Some dance songs may not linger in the memory after leaving the club, but the "doesn't exist no more" hook makes the song unforgettable.
Colonel Abrams may have never experienced massive success--particularly in the US--but his imprint on 80s house music is undeniable. His role in early house will never be forgotten by dance music enthusiasts.