Saturday, November 15, 2008

Call The Hot Line, I Got A Case Of Boogie Fever!

Talented family groups have featured regularly throughout popular music history, but the 70s seemed to embrace them more than most other eras. Arguably the two biggest family names on the pop music scene during the 70s, particularly in the U.S., were the Jackson and Osmond clans. But during the mid 70s a family group hailing from Memphis, put forth a concerted challenge to the existing pop dynasties.

The Sylvers’ family home must have been an entertaining place to visit for a get together and casual sing-a-long. Nine of the ten Sylvers’ siblings - comprising four sisters and five brothers - mixed and matched in various combinations as The Sylvers over a twenty year period. Olympia-Ann, Leon Frank III, Charmaine and James were the four eldest in the brood, and originally performed as a pop/R&B quartet called the Little Angels. Their mother Shirley was a former opera singer and encouraged the kids to enter a string of local talent contests around Memphis and surrounding areas during the late 60s. The Sylvers’ family relocated to Harlem, New York, and having already conquered Tennessee the Little Angels soon found themselves appearing regularly on TV variety shows alongside show business legends like Groucho Marx, Dinah Shore and Danny Thomas. They also toured across the U.S. and Europe as an opening act for both Johnny Mathis and Ray Charles, but for some reason didn’t attract quite the hype that the Jacksons were surrounded by during the same period.

In 1971 the quartet were joined by younger siblings Edmund, Ricky and Foster, and the newly dubbed Sylvers were soon signed up to a recording deal with MGM’s Pride label. Their eponymous debut album was released in 1972 (US#180) and realised a couple of minor hit singles in ‘Fool’s Paradise’ (US#94 Hot 100 - #14 R&B) and ‘Wish That I Could Talk To You’ (US#77 Hot 100 - #10 R&B). Soon after the baby of the family, eleven year old Foster, released a solo album (well if Michael Jackson could do it why not), and scored a US#22 hit with his single ‘Misdemeanour’ in mid ‘73, followed up by ‘Hey, Little Girl’ (US#92). As Foster’s hit ‘Misdemeanour’ started its descent on the charts, The Sylvers released their follow up album, the appropriately titled ‘Sylvers II’ (US#164), also produced by R&B legend Jerry Butler. The first single ‘Stay Away From Me’ failed to convince enough people to follow its advice, allowing it to reach #89 on the U.S. Hot 100. Interestingly, during this period Edmund Sylvers provided the voice for Marlon Jackson’s part in the animated ABC-TV show ‘The Jackson Five’ from 1971-73. 1974’s album ‘Sylvers III’ missed gold, silver and possibly even aluminium, though a complete absence of support from the MGM label didn’t help matters. Whilst the Jacksons continued to rack up hit after hit, for The Sylvers that major score on the charts remained elusive, though not for long.

In 1975 Capitol Records vice president Larkin Arnold signed The Sylvers to his label, and hired veteran Motown producer Freddie Perren to oversee production on their next album. Let’s face it, Perren had impeccable pedigree working with family acts. He had helped write/produce three consecutive U.S. #1’s for the Jacksons (‘I Want You Back’, ‘ABC’ and ‘The Love You Save’), not to mention Michael Jackson’s first #1 ‘Ben’, and was fresh from an assignment with another family based group the Tavares, producing their 1975 US#10 hit ‘It Only Takes A Minute’. If anyone could crack the alchemic formula for The Sylvers, Perren could. He knew The Sylvers had all the right ingredients to strike gold, with the entire vocal range covered, and sublime harmonies - it just needed the right commercial vehicle to capture that magic.

Disco was right on the cusp of conquering the world music scene, so with that market in mind, Perren joined with lyricist Keni St. Lewis to pen one of the great disco anthems. The fabulously infectious ‘Boogie Fever’ would prove to be just the catchy number needed to sweep the world in 1976. Edmund Sylvers handled the majority of the lead vocal duties, supported now by eight siblings, with sisters Angelia and Pat added to the vocal mix. When The Sylvers presented with a bad case of ‘Boogie Fever’ the U.S. public prescribed a one week stay at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 during May of ‘76 (replacing Jon Sebastian’s ‘Welcome Back’ in the top spot - see Aug post). Australia put up a little more resistance but eventually succumbed to the latest disco bug, to send ‘Boogie Fever’ to a peak of #7 soon after.

I have to be careful not to listen to ‘Boogie Fever’ on an empty stomach, because for some reason the line “I took my baby to the pizza parlour” has a not so subliminal effect on my prevailing appetite. But I’m guessing the line “I took my baby to the vegetarian restaurant” just wouldn’t work as well. Speaking of food The Sylvers followed up their visit to the pizza parlour with some ‘Cotton Candy’ (US#59), with both tracks featured on the group’s latest album ‘Showcase’ (US#58/OZ#37). Aside from the obvious polish of Perren’s production, the album gave a hint to the individual talent of Leon Sylvers, who added the funk-laden tracks ‘Clap Your Hands To The Music’ and ‘Freestyle’ to the mix.

The following YouTube clip is taken from American Bandstand and features an interview by Dick Clark with the Sylvers following their performance of ‘Boogie Fever’.

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