TVOne’s series Unsung has shaped up to be must-see TV in my house. The documentary program offers in-depth looks at R&B artists who have not gotten their proper due by the mainstream media. Over the course of three seasons, the series has aired excellent pieces on the lives and careers of artists like Minnie Riperton, Phyllis Hyman, DeBarge, Teena Marie and Shalamar. They recently revealed the subjects for the first part of their upcoming fourth season, and the artists being profiled rank among R&B and hip-hop’s all-time greats.

They are…

Alexander O’ Neal & Cherrelle- Their hit duets “Never Knew Love Like This” and “Saturday Love” made them the Eighties’ version of Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell. Because of those hits (not to mention Cherrelle’s killer album cut “Keep it Inside” and their appearance on The S.O.S. Band’s “The Finest”), they are often closely associated. So although I feel like they should probably be profiled separately, I’ll take what I can get. Cherrelle’s otherwise largely known for being the first person to record “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” (later covered by Robert Palmer and turned into a Top 5 pop hit) and for being the cousin of singer Pebbles (who deserves her own “Unsung”).  Meanwhile, Alex was the original lead singer of The Time before being fired by Prince. After recording his first solo album in 1985, he went on to a string of hits with “Fake”, “Criticize” and “All True Man”, achieving spectacular success in the U.K. Drug issues derailed his career in the U.S. by the mid-nineties, however. I’d love to see Alex tell his side of the Prince story, and I’m sure there will be appearances by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, who were instrumental when it came to the careers of both artists.

Deniece Williams- Best known for her #1 smash “Let’s Hear it for the Boy” (a song that I used to HATE), the lady they call “Niecy” got her start as a singer in Stevie Wonder’s group Wonderlove (she can be heard prominently on Fulfillingness’ First Finale). Striking it solo in 1976, she went on to score a multitude of hits including “Free” and the smash “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” with Johnny Mathis. She’s recorded mostly gospel music for much of the past two decades, but recently resurfaced via the sample of her hit “Silly” on Monica’s #1 R&B hit “Everything to Me”. She was also born in Gary, Indiana. So maybe she has some Jackson stories to share?

Big Daddy Kane- One of the greatest emcees of his or anyone’s generation, Big Daddy Kane is very much deserving of the bio treatment. The Brooklyn MC heralded the start of hip-hop’s second wave, with a lyrical dexterity only topped by his contemporary Rakim.  He is the king of all “punchline emcees”, with at least one line per song guaranteed to make you go “did he say that?”

Kane also ushered in the era of the dark-skinned sex symbol in a time period when a) it wasn’t cool to be a pretty boy in hip-hop, and b) the only black sex symbols in popular music were light-skinned types like El DeBarge and Prince. In addition to classic albums like Long Live the Kane and It’s a Big Daddy Thing, the former Antonio Hardy acted in films and posed for Madonna’s Sex book and for Playgirl magazine. He also served as one of the earliest mentors of Jay-Z, featuring a young Shawn Carter on record way back in 1993.

The Spinners- Coming straight out of Detroit, The Spinners got their first national ink as a Motown act, toiling in semi-obscurity for a decade before scoring a huge hit with the Stevie Wonder-penned “It’s a Shame”. Original lead singer G.C. Cameron split shortly after, and the rest of the group broke out to Atlantic Records. Cameron is best known as the singer who recorded the original version of “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” (later turned into a smash by Boyz II Men). He was replaced by the dynamic Phillippe Wynne, widely regarded as one of the greatest vocalists and live performers in history. The Spinners went on to record a string of smashes in the mid-late Seventies including “The Rubberband Man”, “Then Came You”, “Mighty Love” and “Love Don’t Love Nobody”. Wynne himself departed in the late Seventies to work with George Clinton, and the Spinners had a handful of supper-club soul hits in the early Eighties before finally flaming out. The current version of The Spinners still features two original members. Wynne suffered a heart attack on stage in 1984.

The Ohio Players- Nekkid women on their album covers. A member named Sugarfoot. The rumors that a woman was murdered and her screams are on the “Love Rollercoaster” record. The other rumor that the woman on the Honey album cover was disfigured by having hot honey poured on her. In other words, lots of stuff for the Ohio Players to discuss. They were one of the hottest funk bands of the Seventies (and their Christmas song “Happy Holidays” is one of the awesomest Yuletide jams in history) and then they got swept aside by the disco wave and then by the proliferation of the synthesizer. I’m pretty sure all of this will be discussed in their “Unsung” segment.

Evelyn “Champagne” King- Folklore has it that Evelyn King was discovered while filling in for her mother as the cleaning lady at Sigma Sound studios in Philadelphia. Signed when she was just 16 years old, she scored huge disco hits with “I Don’t Know if It’s Right” and “Shame” before she could even buy cigarettes. She adapted well into the post-disco era, scoring two #1 R&B smashes with “I’m in Love” and “Love Come Down”, and kept on scoring R&B hits until the end of the decade. She was beset by a personal setback in the latter part of the decade-giving birth to a child that eventually passed away because of myriad health problems, but King still records and tours today.

All in all, a fantastic list of artists, and there’s more to come! I look forward to seeing what else TVOne has up it’s sleeve!

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