After Detroit, after Memphis, after Philadelphia, black music temporarily found its capital in California as the Seventies stumbled into the Eighties, for the first time since the vocal rock’n'rollers such as the Platters had made the Sunshine State a significant production line during the very early years of the new pop.
Solar Records—the Sound of Los Angeles Records—brought various talents to its roster, talents who would briefly flower and quite rapidly fade. Shalamar were perhaps most notable. Master-minded by the TV producer of Soul Train, Don Cornelius, the three-piece vocal act enjoyed a string of hits and provided a spingboard for the trio—Jody Watley, Howard Hewett and Jeffrey Daniel—to embark on solo careers, too.
But the Whispers, a five man singing group very much in the tradition of earlier Motown and Philly line-ups, were not so far behind. While Shalamar easily fitted the new mood that arose in the wake of disco—Jeffrey Daniel was one of the first to bring body popping to mainstream audiences—their rivals had a vocal sophistication that would have placed them more logically in the Thom Bell and Leon Huff school just a few years earlier.
Yet on memorable tunes like “It’s a Love Thing” and “And the Beat Goes On”—most recently revived as Will Smith’s infectious backing track on “Miami”—the group proved that the vogue for upbeat, danceable work was not beyond them.
However, as the title of this new collection suggests, this CD is heavily immersed in the smooth and the sophisticated, not quite as syrupy, not quite as string-laden as the Stylistics, for example, but nonetheless a gathering of slick, adult-oriented soul set pieces. The arrangements are over-ornate, dripping with orchestral faux soul, most bringing to mind that dubious notion of Seventies sexiness personified perhaps by Lou Rawls.
In the midst of this sea of gutless funk, we don’t quite drown however. One gem lurks to save us from the rising waters. “Just Gets Better With Time” is a stunning, stand out track. It reminds me of both Brian Wilson in the “Holland” period and, more extraordinarily, Steely Dan, as the relentless forward motion of the song is cut by the sort of guitar solo Becker and Fagen would have happily trawled the lost studios of session land to locate.
Solar’s moment in the spotlight was fleeting—the cities of Detroit and Chicago were ready to take disco into a new era—yet its legacy largely stands re-listening. But not, in the main, this set of Whispers re-issues. Soul may have thought it looked good in a tuxedo for a little while, but too much of the music, I’m afraid, was as synthetic as the polyester fabric.