Until recently, I thought of the 1970s group The Sylvers as a disco group; after all, their biggest hit was the 1975 dance track "Boogie Fever." Yet before that danceable song, the group recorded some funky, sophisticated tunes that receive little to no airplay today. Their 1972 single "Fool's Paradise" announced the arrival of another talented family group--at various points, nine out of the ten Sylvers children performed in the band--but also introduced listeners to the talents of songwriter Leon Sylvers.
Hailing from Memphis, Tennessee, the Sylvers came from a musical background. Their mother was a former opera singer, and exposed her kids to diverse music and artists such as the Four Freshmen. The children learned from their intricate harmonies, and eventually the four oldest siblings--Olympia-Ann, Leon Frank III, Charmaine, and James--formed a group called the Little Angels in the late 60s. Ray Charles loved their act, and soon the group found themselves opening for the R&B legend. By 1971 the Little Angels had outgrown their "cute little kids" image, and thus expanded the group by adding younger siblings Ricky and Edmund. Renaming themselves The Sylvers, the brothers and sisters added intricate choreography and performed their own material, penned by budding songwriter Leon. Signed to the Pride label, the group released their debut single, "Fool's Paradise," in 1972. The single peaked at number 14 on the R&B charts, and The Sylvers drew inevitable comparisons to another family group: The Jackson Five.
Despite the comparisons, The Sylvers distinguished themselves as an exciting live act who performed sophisticated yet funky tracks. For the next few years, they scored a number of R&B hits, including the often sampled "Misdemeanor" from 1973. Leon originally wrote the track for Edmund, but after puberty hit and his brother's voice changed, Leon recruited little brother Foster to sing the lead vocal. While Foster's voice recalls Michael Jackson's falsetto tones, the tune sounds grittier than some of the Jackson Five's sunny, innocent Motown tracks. As R&B shifted to disco, The Sylvers began sliding in popularity until they signed with Capitol Records in 1975. Their subsequent single, "Boogie Fever," became a monster dance hit, followed by "Hot Line" and "High School Dance." Leon chafed under this "bubblegum pop" image, wanting to return to their earlier sound. Squabbles among the group members, Leon's departure from the band, and their management led to The Sylvers' demise in 1985. Leon, however, became one of the most prolific songwriters of the late 70s, composing such hits as "The Second Time Around" by Shalamar, "And the Beat Goes On" by The Whispers, and "Flirt" by Evelyn "Champagne" King.
According to a recent Unsung documentary on TVOne, Leon penned the lyrics to "Fool's Paradise" after listening to his high school history teacher's lectures. At the beginning, the slower tempo and guitar licks sounds as if the track belongs in a Superfly orShaft. With Charmaine, Edmund, and Ricky trading off vocals, the lyrics emphasize the chorus' sentiments: "Living your life in a fool's paradise/ And it's not for me, I'll you yeah." To fully appreciate the deeply layered arrangement, listen to the track through headphones. The intricate bass line and scratchy guitar place the song squarely in 70s funk, yet the lyrics resemble Gamble & Huff crossed with Curtis Mayfield. What causes evil in a fool's paradise? "More money, more power, more security/ So busy trying to get ahead/ That he starts forgetting how to live, live live." the siblings chant. The Sylvers' tight harmonies drive home the chorus and lend just the right amount of anger and righteousness Leon's words require.
As time marched on and the disco era faded, critics branded The Sylvers as a "disco group"; today, "Boogie Fever" is trotted out for 1970s retrospectives and retro nights at clubs. While that track remains a catchy relic from that time, it's their earlier work that should truly define this special group. Watch their appearance on Soul Train, with their precise choreography and engaging personalities, and see why The Sylvers deserve to be known as more than just a Jacksons knockoff--instead, they were a talented group headed by a truly gifted songwriter.