Mystic Merlin may be a soul-funk group, but they may be better known for launching the career of a 1980s hitmaker. Originally a band that incorporated magic tricks into their live shows, Mystic Merlin eventually focused strictly on their brand of sophisticated funk. On their final album, they recruited an unknown singer to provide the lead vocal on the track "Mr. Magician." The struggling vocalist, Freddie Jackson, had departed the group before the album Full Moon was even released. But Jackson would soon enjoy a run of hit singles such as "You Ae My Lady," "Nice N Slow," "Jam Tonight," and "Rock Me Tonight." Listening to "Mr. Magician," however, foreshadows just how big Jackson would become; in addition, it showcases a funky band that deserves more attention.
The New York-based band originally consisted of Clyde Bullard (bass), Barry Roark Strutt (saxophone and keyboards), Leslie Dorsey (keyboards and lead/background vocals), Jerry Anderson (guitars and backing vocals), Keith Gonzales (lead vocals and harmonica), Sly Randolph (drums, percussion, and backing vocals), and Betty Brown (lead and backing vocals). One band member could legitimately claim royal lineage in music: Bullard's uncle is R&B legend Bill Withers. Originally called Mystic Merlin's Magic Band, the group emulated Earth, Wind and Fire in sound and showmanship. Their stage shows and videos often incorporated magic tricks, unfortunately placing them initially in the "novelty" category. However, they slowly gained respect in the soul and dance genres, particularly after dropping the "Magic Band" from their band moniker.
According to Soulwalking, Mystic Merlin signed with Capitol and released their self-titled debut album in 1980. The LP found success in Britain, reaching the top 20 dance tracks with the single "Just Can't Give You Up." While primarily considered a club song, it can also be considered an early acid jazz record, very reminiscent of Incognito. Their second album, 1981's Sixty Thrills A Minute, featured an all-star lineup of contributors such as percussive great Paulinho Da Costa, vocalist Cheryl Lynn, and saxophonist Ernie Watts. By 1982, Mystic Merlin added another crucial member: Jackson, a New York singer on the rise. Having gained recognition as a gifted gospel vocalist and a popular performer on the nightclub scene, Jackson flew to Los Angeles after the band recruited him to sing lead on the album Full Moon. This proved to be Mystic Merlin's final album, and by the record's release Jackson had already departed the band to pursue a solo career.
Despite his brief tenure in the band, Jackson left an impression. He penned the track "Your Love" and sang lead on "Mr. Magician," a track that did not chart but became a favorite on the UK dance scene. Bullard's bass grounds this track, a funky riff that rumbles throughout the entire song. Horns pierce through the track, accompanied by a light string arrangement. Despite being his first recording, Jackson confidently handles the lead vocals. "Mr. Magician / Bring back my love today / What do I have to say?" he cries, executing effortless vocal runs on the words "today" and "say." Strutt's keyboards are subtle but effective, adding a jazzy touch to the dance track. Without Bullard's rapid bass lines and Jackson's enthusiastic, straightforward vocal, "Mr. Magician" could have devolved into corniness. Instead it entices listeners to the dance floor while stimulating their brains with sophisticated chord changes. Locate the 12-inch mix to fully experience the virtuosity of Mystic Merlin's outstanding musicians.
Mystic Merlin's magic show-filled concerts unfairly labeled the group as all flash and no substance. Tracks like "Mr. Magician," however, suggest otherwise. The band featured skilled players equally versed in soul, funk, jazz, and dance, resulting in a smooth sound that encourages dancing yet is utterly listenable. Jackson also owes Mystic Merlin for helping launch his highly successful 1980s solo career, and one need only listen to "Mr. Magician" to appreciate his considerable vocal gifts.