DeepSoul: Pieces of a Dream - "Fo Fi Fo"

With their 1984 hit, Pieces of a Dream demonstrated that jazz has more in common with soul, R&B, and funk than listeners may realize.
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Take three gifted teenagers equally versed in jazz and R&B, and what results is the crossover jazz sound of Pieces of a Dream. Still recording today, the group helped pioneer contemporary jazz with their smooth sound, pop hooks, and street feel. Their third album, 1983's Imagine This, proved to be one of their most successful due to the silky single "Fo Fi Fo."

Philadelphia has spawned an impressive array of talent, and its roster includes keyboards James Lloyd, drummer Curtis Harmon, and bassist Cedric Napoleon. The teen musicians formed the group in 1976 and played throughout the Tri-State area. Their jazz chops impressed listeners and critics, including one specific fan: Grover Washington, Jr. After attending the trio's concert at the Bijou, Washington joined them onstage to perform a version of his own classic, "Mr. Magic." Impressed, Washington signed them to his production company, releasing their debut self-titled album in 1981. Since then, Pieces of a Dream have collaborated with various artists such as Gerald Albright, Eva Cassidy, Maysa Leak, Maurice White, and Bernard Wright. Napoleon departed the act in the 1990s, but Lloyd and Harmon have continued Pieces of a Dream with a rotating cast of top musicians.

Pieces of a Dream are often credited with sparking the "smooth jazz" movement, and their highest charting single "Fo Fi Fo" does reflect the genre. Cowritten by Dexter Wansel and Washington, the track retains the mellow tone of contemporary jazz. However, an electric guitar solo further modernizes the song, blending numerous genres into one track. Indeed, "Fo Fi Fo" faintly echoes "Mr. Magic" in its mixture of R&B, funk, and jazz elements. However, Napoleon's youthful lead vocals add a dose of Marvin Gaye to the song, giving it a slightly funkier edge.

The lyrics are fun, with the narrator repeating his lucky number: 454. Interestingly, some lines reference basketball players Moses Malone and Dr. J. While those words may slightly date the song, Napoleon's vocals (as well as his subtle bass lines) saves the song from becoming passé. "You know sometimes you win / And there are times you lose / But there's always a chance / That luck will smile on you," he sings earnestly; however, when he lets his voice drop on the titular numbers, one can hear a wink. His voice particularly shines in the bridge, demonstrating his range on the lines "And I don't believe in the fictitious / But astrologically it is my number today." The "oohs" come straight from the Gaye playbook, yet he sounds squarely in the 70s and 80s. In addition, the predominately minor key structure lends a more melancholy air to "Fo Fi Fo," a somewhat cynical tone that undermines the narrator's guarded optimism about luck and fortune.

"Fo Fi Fo" became a crossover R&B hit, earning urban radio airplay and peaking at number 15 on the charts in 1984. It also became a staple of the "smooth jazz" stations that emerged in the mid-80s. Along with Washington, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, George Benson, and Roy Ayres, Pieces of a Dream demonstrated that jazz has more in common with soul, R&B, and funk than some listeners may realize.