WASHINGTON — They are performers who made it big but crashed and burned from the lethal mix of sex, drugs and living large. Or they’re once-popular artists whose musical significance barely registers a blip with today’s younger listeners.
Whatever the case, these artists are the fuel for “Unsung,” TV One’s popular documentary-style show that chronicles the rise, fall — and sometimes resurrection — of black performers from the 1960s to the early 1990s who’ve either been done wrong, done-in or self-destructed.
The hour-long program returns for its fourth season Monday at 10 p.m. EDT on the black-oriented cable network with a profile of Deniece Williams, the five-octave songstress who achieved soul chart success with songs like “Free” and “Silly” and crossover fame with “Let’s Hear it For the Boy” from the movie “Footloose.”
But her road to stardom was a bumpy one, marked by being ostracized by her hometown church in her teen years for singing secular music, three failed marriages, and a cold shoulder later by some in the record industry after she moved from pop to religious music.
Later episodes examine the careers of the Spinners, Alexander O’Neal and Cherrelle, rapper Big Daddy Kane, funk’s Ohio Players and disco’s Evelyn “Champagne” King.
“We don’t shy away from any kind controversy, but we give them the freedom to basically tell their story from the inside,” said Mark Rowland, the show’s executive producer.
The artists rarely hold back. O’Neal, for example, talks freely about his fight with a drug addiction that was so bad that Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis — famed producers who were behind O’Neal’s solo hits like “Fake,” the “Saturday Love” duet with Cherrelle — stopped working with him.
“I would much rather be a has-been than a never was,” O’Neal said in explaining why he had no problem in telling all to “Unsung.” “I don’t have to exonerate myself and my drug use to any human being — it’s between me and God. Now, I’m OK with it, I’m very open and candid with it — I’m an addict. I have to deal with that fact.”
Henry Fambrough, one of two surviving original members of the still-touring Spinners, talks freely about the group’s frustrating years at Motown records, where they were buried under a deep talent bench that included Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and the Supremes.
Despite post-Motown success with songs like “I’ll Be Around,” “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love” and “Then Came You,” and cranking out 19 Top 20 hits in the 1970s, the group failed to get a single Grammy Award or even consideration for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after a six-decade career.
The Spinners, according to “Unsung,” are the Rodney Dangerfield of music.
“There are artists that are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that don’t have the background that we have,” said Fambrough, 73. “I feel we should be there ... I know that we as a group have achieved enough to be there.”
“Unsung” was devised by the executives at TV One, a cable channel that reaches 50 million households nationwide. The program was modeled after VH1’s “Behind the Music” and the “Biography series.
“We really wanted to investigate how we could tell stories about artists relevant to our community,” said Toni Judkins, TV One’s executive vice president for original programming. “Nostalgia is a component of our culture that really resonates. One of the things we’re happy to do is not only to tell the stories but to let people know that many of these acts are still doing what they love, which is touring and playing music.”
Deciding who’s worthy of an “Unsung” episode is an unscientific method done at TV One’s headquarters in suburban Washington.
“We get into a room, we have a list, we start yelling and screaming, we start singing songs, and then we say ‘OK, who’s still alive,’” Judkins joked. “We put together a list, hand it off to the most thorough music researcher on the planet — Mark Rowland — he vets the list ...”
After four seasons and 31 episodes, Rowland said it’s gotten easier to persuade artists to do “Unsung” — but not always. While O’Neal readily agreed to do it, it took some convincing to land the core members of the Ohio Players.
“That was a show I put feelers out on well over a year ago,” Rowland said. “As often the case with bands, there’s been some falling out among a few of the members. And that always makes it a little difficult in doing these shows because, inevitably, the first thing that comes to mind for a lot of them is not really wanting to revisit things that are unpleasant.”
Rowland added: “Eventually they warm up a little more and realize ‘Well, there are a lot of pleasant things we can revisit, too.’”
Still, some “Unsung” subjects say they’re surprised about how much they actually reveal on the program. Funk impresario William “Bootsy” Collins, of Bootsy’s Rubber Band and Parliament-Funkadelic fame, said once “Unsung” turned the cameras on him he couldn’t stop talking.
“I think they dig a little deeper into your personal soul, and it kind of comes out without you even thinking about it — they made me feel real comfortable,” Collins told BlackAmericaWeb.com last year. “When I saw it, it was like ‘Wow!’ I thought it was cool.”
But not everyone comes away with the same feeling. George Clinton, the founder of Parliament-Funkadelic, complained that last year’s profile of him centered too much on his financial difficulties and legal battles to regain ownership of his music.
“The show ... was a poor representation of the band and Clinton’s life today and at best, dismissive,” a press statement issued by Clinton shortly after the show said.
“It was a bit of a head-scratcher, but I love George Clinton,” Rowland said. “He just may have changed his mind when he saw it on TV.”
Rowland said about “99.6 percent” of the artists who’ve appeared on the show were “pleased with the way we tell stories.”
“And the audience is also happy that we’re not just giving them some bland whitewash,” he said.