Five albums from 1976-1981 on a three-CD box set reveal the underappreciated talents of the Emotions, three Chicago sisters with a sophisticated R&B/disco sound. The group is well overdue for newfound appreciation as their sound has influenced contemporary pop more than one realizes.
Don't Ask My Neighbors: The Columbia / Arc Recordings 1976-1981
30 August 2019
The Emotions are three sisters from Chicago who began in the gospel world as the Heavenly Sunbeams before going secular and eventually signing with Volt (a Stax subsidiary known for soul) and then crossing over to pop as part of the Columbia record label. The new collection Don't Ask My Neighbors captures the five albums they made for Columbia between 1976-1981 on three CDs, along with some bonus tracks such as non-album B-sides of 45s and 12" dance singles. The package also contains informative liner notes about the recordings by David Nathan.
Earth, Wind & Fire's founder and leader Maurice White co-produced the Emotions' debut Columbia CD, Flowers (1976), which was certified Gold and featured the successful title track and the hit single "I Don't Want to Lose Your Love". Not surprisingly, the instrumentation on the album closely resembles that of Earth, Wind & Fire but with the addition of slick harmonies of the sisters. The music had a deep groove appreciated by dance fans at the time and appealed to black audiences because of its sophistication. The singing of the Emotions gave them a distinct identity as compared with other genre acts from the period, but they were still experimenting with their sound. The last song on Flowers is a 36-second acapella recitation of "God Will Take Care of You" that seems out of place amidst celebrations of more physical love.
It wasn't until their second Columbia release that the band really crossed over. The White-produced Rejoice (1977) went Platinum and reached the top ten on Billboard magazine's pop charts. The single "Best of My Love" went to number one and won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance By a Duo or Group with Vocals. The Emotions helped launch the disco tidal wave, but these were strange times. Politically, the mid-1970s were a period when one American president resigned only to be replaced by someone who was never elected to the Vice Presidency who lost re-election to a man who had never held a national office.
The music of the period reflected this confusion. The rock audience enlarged as acts such as Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles broke sales records. But the audience for music fragmented as punks, singer-songwriters, country rockers, and dance artists would have huge hits and large numbers of supportive audiences but be unknown by the general public. The Emotions were one of those bands. Despite having a number one record, they were linked to disco and known mostly by its fans.
Disco rose like a comet and crashed in 1977-78, thanks in part to the Bee Gees and the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. The Emotions' 1978 album Sunbeam went Gold, but it did not yield any hit singles. The change in zeitgeist from the Me Decade to more Urban Cowboy sensibility made the modern contemporary sound the sisters seem dated. Their first three records seem of a piece. Times may have changed, but they hadn't except to become more polished.
That was true for their 1979 release, Come Into Out World, which was again produced by White. Sales had declined, and neither the album nor any of its tracks reached the top ten. The Emotions did have a hit single with Earth, Wind & Fire on the song "Boogie Wonderland" that went Gold and was nominated for two Grammy Awards, but this title did not appear on the Emotions' album. (It is included here.) Their next album New Affair (1981) did even worse sales-wise.
On their last two Columbia albums, the Emotions sound tight to today's ears because the music is not considerably different than on the first three. That's a blessing and a curse. For audiences back then the similarities suggested times past. Now one can easily appreciate the professionalism. The Emotions' style evoked refinement and classiness, as well as an elegant sultriness. That was welcome after the earthiness of 1960s and early 1970s soul. The finesse with which the three sisters sang, the intricacies of their arrangements, bespoke taste and subtlety.
This collection suggests a reconsideration of the Emotions is due. One can hear echoes of them in current performers such as Robyn and Charli XCX. Their records have been sampled by artists such as Kanye West, Tupac Shakur, and Mariah Carey. The five releases on this collection contain the band's best work. It deserves fresh ears.