As much as I love TVOne’s documentary series, “Unsung”, I’ll admit to having watched it inconsistently this season. Blame it on my decision to cut ties with DVR almost a year ago and the fact that I’m usually not home on Monday nights. I’ve found myself having to play catch up. I still haven’t watched the Ohio Players episode, and I’ve only caught about the last 20 minutes of the Big Daddy Kane profile.
I was psyched, however, to watch the most recent episode of the series, which followed the career of the family group The Sylvers. Best known for their hit singles “Boogie Fever” and “Hot Line”, the Sylvers, who numbered nine strong at their height, were a staple in my house when I was a little kid. I vividly remember being pretty attached to my aunts and uncles’ copies of Showcase (1975) and Something Special (1976), which had a flip-top cover!
In addition to those two pop smashes, The Sylvers scored a decade or so of R&B hits ranging from the funky, topical “Fool’s Paradise” (a pretty heavy song to be sung by a bunch of kids) to a disco cover of Diana Ross’s “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To?”. Older brother Leon was also responsible for “Misdemeanor”, a song credited to youngest singing brother Foster and a funky as hell tune that later became the basis to many a hip-hop tune, most notably The D.O.C.’s “It’s Funky Enough” (produced by Dr. Dre).
They were often derided as a poor man’s Jacksons, especially with the reversed Michael/Jermaine cute kid/heartthrob combo of Edmund and Foster Sylvers on lead vocals, but they were far from a knockoff. Although, in one of those weird coincidental bizarro-type situations, Edmund actually voiced Marlon Jackson in the Jackson 5’s cartoon back in the day.
Watching that “Unsung” episode, it’s pretty obvious that that family went through some serious shit. From Mama Sylvers protecting 10 kids as a single mother on the streets of Watts to them getting royally fleeced by their manager (who took half their earnings, leaving the other half to be split among NINE people), their story was a hard luck one indeed. Add that to a savage attack on sister Charmaine that may have led to severe mental illness, and this might be one of the most difficult “Unsung” episodes to watch. But that’s not the end of it! The rest of the group voted songwriting/producing brother Leon out of the group in the late Seventies. Their career as a group faltered after that, but Leon went on to become one of the most sought-after producer/arrangers of the next decade, working with Gladys Knight (“Save the Overtime (For Me)”, The S.O.S. Band (“High Hopes”), BLACKstreet (“Before I Let You Go”), New Kids on the Block (“Never Let You Go”) and serving as SOLAR Records’ in-house producer, with credits on practically every hit single of the late Seventies and early Eighties by The Whispers (including “And The Beat Goes On”), Shalamar (“The Second Time Around”) and his own band, Dynasty, for which he played bass.
The band’s success had pretty much faded by the early Eighties, with only Leon (obviously) and Foster (who produced for Evelyn “Champagne” King and Janet Jackson among others) managing any kind of notoriety.
Unfortunately Foster got caught up in the drug culture of the Eighties and he and brother Ricky are both currently incarcerated (man, shades of DeBarge here). Also sadly, lead singer Edmund met with tragedy as well…passing away a couple of years back due to lung cancer.
I must say, “Unsung” is (as expected) doing a fantastic job bringing the story of some of R&B’s most beloved artists (that have not had the proper mainstream recognition) to light. The Sylvers story is heartbreaking, but they’ve also left a legacy of great music. I can’t wait for the next installment of episodes!
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