Thursday, January 8, 2009

S.O.S. Band Answer The Call

One of the stand out songs from late ‘83/early ‘84 was the pop-funk number ‘Just Be Good To Me’. I can imagine that it would have packed out dance floors wherever it was played, though having been afflicted by ‘two left feet’ syndrome, I had to be content with tapping my feet (of the two left variety) in time with the song’s infectious rhythm track.

The group behind ’Just Be Good To Me’ was the Atlanta based R&B-funk outfit, the S.O.S. Band, the S.O.S. acronym representing ‘Sounds Of Success’. They formed during 1977, just as disco was going nuclear, with an initial line-up featuring Jason ‘TC’ Bryant (keyboards/ vocals), Bruno Speight (guitar/ vocals), Billy Ellis (flute), Willie ‘Sonny’ Killebrew (sax), John Simpson (bass/vocals), James Earl Jones III (drums - not of the ‘voice of Darth Vader’ variety), and the sublime vocal stylings of Mary Davis (also keyboards). At that time they went by the name Santa Monica (because they once played a great show there), and regularly played at the Lamar’s Regal Room nightclub in Atlanta.

The band came under the management guidance of Bunny Jackson-Ransom (later to manage Cameo - see previous post), who organised a demo tape of their music to reach Clarence Avant, the head of Columbia affiliate Tabu Records. Avant liked what he heard and signed Santa Monica to a recording deal. Producer Sigidi Abdullah was assigned to work with Santa Monica, but raised the issue of the band’s name. He felt that Santa Monica may be a bit misleading, considering they hailed from Atlanta, Georgia. Abdullah suggested their new name, S.O.S. Band.

The newly dubbed S.O.S. Band set to work with Abdullah on their debut album. The self-titled set was released in 1980, and featured the lead-out single ‘Take Your Time (Do It Right)’, co-written by Abdullah with Harold Clayton. The S.O.S. Band had hit upon their ‘sound of success’ first time out, with the disco-funk style single soaring to #3 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart during mid 1980. The song racked up platinum sales, spent five weeks at the summit of the U.S. R&B charts, and performed well in both Britain (#51), and Australia (#40). The success of ‘Take Your Time (Do It Right)’ helped spur sales for the ‘S.O.S.’ album (US#12), which sold over 800,000 copies. The promising debut set featured a well balanced mix of up-tempo funk infused numbers, along with some well crafted ballads, and also yielded a #20 R&B dance hit with the title track. The S.O.S. band embarked on a world tour during 1980, which saw the addition of trumpeter/vocalist Abdul Ra’oof to the roster.

As confronts all artists to score a major hit with their debut album, the S.O.S. Band were challenged to the ‘beat that’ scenario with the recording of their sophomore set in 1981. The inventively titled ‘Too’ (US#30-R&B) was released in mid ‘81, and whilst it didn’t deliver the same five star sound experience of its predecessor, or rack up the same level of sales, the album featured a number of catchy cuts, including the US#15 R&B hit ‘Do It Now (Part 1)’. Following the ‘Too’ album, the S.O.S. Band experienced the first departure from their ranks, with drummer Jones replaced by Jerome ‘JT’ Thomas. The next album saw the S.O.S Band. commence a fruitful collaboration with the writing team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. 1982’s ‘S.O.S. Band III’ (no prizes there for imaginative titling), was produced by Leon Sylvers III (see earlier Sylvers post), but came to notice for the catchy synth-funk track ‘High Hopes’ (US#25-R&B), written by Jam and Lewis, who were then still members of the Prince project, the Time. The album also spawned the minor U.K. hit ‘Groovin’ (That’s What We’re Doin’)(#72) in early ’83, and featured a more prominent up-tempo funk feel. Whilst it didn’t set the charts on fire (US#27-R&B), it proved an important stepping stone on the S.O.S. voyage.

The collaboration with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on ‘High Hopes’ had delivered a solid result, so in March ‘83 Jam and Lewis took advantage of a break in their Prince and the Time tour, to fly to Atlanta and produce several tracks for the next S.O.S. band album. As fate would have it, a freak snow storm hit the area and prevented the pair from returning to the Prince tour in time for the next Time gig. The ‘royal one’ was not amused, and summarily dismissed Jam & Lewis from Time - that’s the group Time, not ‘time’ as in the measure of infinite temporal displacement - Prince’s powers at that stage did not encompass bending time and space (I think he developed that around the time of ‘Paisley Park’). Prince’s loss proved just the help the S.O.S. Band needed to rejuvenate their flagging fortunes. Jam and Lewis assumed production duties fulltime for the band’s fourth album, ‘On The Rise’ (US#47-#7R&B). The revitalised S.O.S. Band surged back into the charts during the second half of ‘83 with the synth-funk masterpiece ‘Just Be Good To Me’, which featured the signature sound of the Roland TR-808 drum machine (such an 80s thing). The song may have only peaked at #55 on the U.S. Hot 100, but it soared to #2 on the R&B charts, and was a huge club hit. ‘Just Be Good To Me’ achieved more of the mainstream success it richly warranted in both Britain (#13) and Australia (#17). The instrumental track for the song returned to the charts in a big way during 1990 as ‘Dub Be Good To Me’ (UK#1/US#76/OZ#13) for Norman Cook’s project Beats International. ‘On The Rise’ received rave reviews for its slick, high energy sound, and also spawned the U.S. #5 R&B hit ‘Tell Me If You Still Care’. The Jam and Lewis reputation was eminently enhanced by the project, with comparisons being drawn to the highly acclaimed Chic production team of Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers (see earlier post).

With the Jam and Lewis blueprint in place, S.O.S. Band managed to avoid the same slump that ensued after the runaway success of their debut set. 1984’s album ‘Just The Way You Like It’ (UK#29/US#60 - #6R&B) built on the fresh foundations of ‘On The Rise’, or at least prevented any immediate erosion. The album realised the hits ‘Just The Way You Like It’ (UK#32/US#64 - #6R&B), ‘Weekend Girl’ (UK#51), and ‘No One’s Gonna Love You’ (US#15 R&B), but lacked a killer track like ‘Just Be Good To Me’. Post the release of ‘Just The Way You Like It’, rumours began to surface that vocalist Mary Davis was looking to pursue a solo career. But the S.O.S. and Jam/Lewis collective had one more album left in the locker. ‘Sands Of Time’ (UK#15/US#44) was released in 1986, and perhaps was aptly titled, given that the S.O.S. Band’s time as a chart force was about to end. It’s interesting that during this latter part of their career, the S.O.S. Band enjoyed greater commercial return in Britain, than at home. The single ‘The Finest’ was arguable the finest track on the album, once again penned by Jam and Lewis, and peaked at #17 in Britain (US#44 - #2R&B). Nothing else really stood out from the pack, though ‘Borrowed Love’ (UK#50, US#14-R&B) managed to deliver a final top 50 hit.

The long running rumours finally became an actuality, post ‘Sands Of Time’, when Mary Davis split from the S.O.S. Band to take up a solo career. She released the song ‘Steppin’ Out’ in 1987 and her debut album ‘Separate Ways’ (US#82-R&B) surfaced in 1990, yielding the hit ‘Don’t Wear It Out’ (US#19 - R&B). Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis also split the scene to continue their hugely successful union with Janet Jackson on her 1989 album ‘Rhythm Nation 1814’, founded their own label Perspective, and continued their stellar work as a production and writing team.

The S.O.S. Band elected to continue, and recruited vocalist Penny Ford in place of Davis during 1987. The ensuing year was a turbulent one for the band, with the tragic death of saxophonist Billy Ellis dealing a major blow during work on their next album. Vocalists Chandra Currelly and Fredi Grace also came on board, with the album’s production overseen by Curtis Williams (ex-Kool & The Gang). The album ‘Diamonds In The Raw’ (US#43 - R&B) was released in 1989, and though receiving positive reviews as a classy and stylish effort, failed to reignite commercial interest in the U.S. for the S.O.S. Band brand, though a couple of tracks did hit the lower reaches of the mainstream charts; ‘No Lies’ (UK#64/OZ#83) and ‘I’m Still Missing Your Love’ (US#7-R&B). The S.O.S. Band did experience a surge of interest in Europe during this period, with ‘Diamonds In The Raw’ shifting a considerable number of units across the continent, backed by the live set ‘Escape’. There was sufficient spark left in the S.O.S. apparatus to generate one more album of original material, with 1991’s ‘One Of Many Nights’. Sales were lacklustre though, and the set only spawned one hit on the R&B charts, with ‘Sometimes I Wonder’ (#12). The S.O.S. band subsequently split, but in 1994 original vocalist Mary Davis reunited with S.O.S. alumnus Abdul Ra’oof and Jason Bryant, on a new S.O.S. related project.

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