It’s not an overstatement to say that he is one of the most talented songwriters, musicians and producers all time in black music. With an almost unreal production career behind him he produced/wrote what we today should say is eternal music by such groups like Midnight star, Dynasty, Lakeside, Shalamar, SOS band, Tavares and The Whispers and many more. It’s almost like we all can’t believe and really understand how it is possible, but it is and Sylvers’ part in the success is big. This article focusing on Leon’s career between 1978-1989 when his most fantastic beats saw the dancelight.
His early years
Born on the 7th of March 1953 in Memphis, Tennessee, Sylvers started his main music career together with his younger brothers and sisters in the family group called “The Sylvers'” that had a couple of great hits in mid and late 70s and were considered to be the west coasts answer to the Jackson five. However, Sylvers started his major production career with “Shot of love” with Lakeside in 78 and Shalamar’s album “Big fun” from 79 where his talent made the latter release to one of the biggest that year. That same year he also wrote some material as well as produced Dynasty’s, Lakeside’s and the old-time band The Whispers albums, including Whispers mega hit “And the beat goes on”, Sylvers’ biggest achievement. Compared to the others groups Dynasty was a creation by Sylvers him self and Griffey. The group included his later wife Nidra Beard, Linda Carriere, both former members of the dance and song troupe DeBlanco and later members of the group Starfire, and Leon Sylvers and Kevin Spencer. Dynasty’s biggest hit that year was “I don’t wanna be a freak (but I can’t help myself)”, a number one hit on the lists.
All the albums were released on the new label SOLAR (Sound Of Los Angeles Records). SOLAR that had emerged from the Soul train records, founded in 1975 by Don Cornelius and Dick Griffey. Cornelius was working as a program leader for the popular music program “Soul train” and Griffey was a producer and promoter for the artists. All artist had performed on Cornelius show, for example Whispers track “Up on a soultrain” from 80 had a direct and obvious connection to the show. Before the new name Soul train had Whispers, Shalamar, Carrie Lucas Soul train gang and Sunbear (their ballad “Fantasy” were used by Whispers on their 80 album) in its sleeves. But in 1978 after the departure of Cornelius due to some legal controversies when he both had a record company and a TV program. Cornelius was still a companion, but not an official partner in the new company. Griffey decided to change the name to SOLAR. The work continued under the new name featuring the same artist. In all this, Sylvers’ played a huge role in the renamed company.
In 1980 it was once again time for Sylvers’ to write and produce timeless albums with The Whispers, Lakeside, Dynasty and his brother, Edmund Sylvers’ release “Have you heard”. All productions included dozens of hits like “It’s a love thing” (Whispers), “Fantastic voyage” (Lakeside) and “That burning love” (Edmund Sylvers).
This was probably Sylvers’ best year. Especially Whispers album was an excellent example of the slick, easy listening SOLAR sound when it showed its absolute maximum and the unbelievable BOMB “It’s a love thing” can blow anyone’s head of in a second.
In 1981 his old family group, The Sylvers signed to promoter Dick Griffey’s SOLAR and released their first album “Concept” on that label. The album however was not a hit and the most interesting track was the nice Shalamar-ish dance filler “Reach out”.
But the year had just started and at the end of it Sylvers had experienced his most successful one jam-packed with writing and production gigs. Dick Griffey had certainly learned how to use his golden egg to his advantage.
The incredible success continued in 81 and fantastic albums with Dynasty, including the classy “In the fast lane”, Whispers with “In the raw” and Shalamars bubblegum hit “Make that move” were released.
The SOLAR label grew in size and reputation all over the globe for its never-ending production of hits in an unbelievable speed with Sylvers’ talent in the driving seat. In 81 Sylvers’ married Nidra Beard from Dynasty. Obviously, it wasn’t only his interest in Dynasty’s music that made him a full member in 81.
1982 turned out to be a great year too, even though the mega success from 80 and 81 didn’t repeat it self. The two most prominent albums that year was Shalamars “Friends” with dozen of eternal hits like “A night to remember” and “There it is” the mention two. The other interesting project was SOS bands album “III” on which he produce a couple of great tracks and the newborn producers Jam/Lewis a few others. Both Shalamar’s and SOS band’s albums are for sure one of the best productions that year. Sylvers’ made also a guestplay on Michael Jackson little sister Janet’s debut album “Janet Jackson” that year when he produced one side and Angela Winbush and René Moore the other. Janet’s album was not a big hit but included three descent dance jams.
Also Sylvers’ managed Whispers “This kind of lovin” and Dynasty’s “Right back at cha”, both good but nothing sensational, Whispers title track was maybe the most memorable. This was Sylvers’ last year of greater success. During the rest of the decennium only one or two really great tracks was going to be released each year. Generally his sound turn more electronic, pop-orientdd and cold, which of course was a reflection of the time as much as by his own contribution. Understandable his success must have made him comfortable in a way that affected his creativity.
Leon Sylvers in the studioStudio work Sylvers (right) in his nice hill side L.A. studio/home with Howard Hewitt (middle) and Micki Free (left) recording the video of Shalamar’s “Over and over” in 83. The picture taken from the video featuring Hewitt driving his BMW 733i up the hill to the studio in the intro. To both watch and listen to this God sent voice is a powerful and blissful experience in one! Shalamar did a couple of extremely hard-to-find videos in the mid 80s. I just wonder when we are gonna see these or other SOLAR videos on a DVD for example!? Watch entire video!
Sylvers still holds one to the top
A new year, 1983 saw the morning light and Sylvers’ most interesting project this year was the new group Real to reel in which he seemed to play an important role. The album included two very catchy songs “Love me like this” and “Can you treat me like she does”. Sylvers also did get a try on the old war-horse in soul music Gladys Knights & the Pips on their album “Vision” which was an expressive and harmonious release. Most danceable, and in fact a damn good track was “Save the overtime for me” with its big fat bassguitars and well used keyboard. Catch the 12″ version though when the album version is way to short and don’t include the break. Also catchy “When you’re far away” is a typical Sylvers’ from that year and reminds you of Real to reel. Sylvers’ continued his work with Shalmars album, and “The look” that year, but it did not surpass their excellent 82 release.
This was actually a rather average album, but some similar sound from 82 could be heard with excellent presentation. Despite that, Shalamar’s time in the top league came closer the end. Much better albums to get that year when Sylvers’ showing his excellent touch on its best was Whispers “Love for love” and Tavares “Words and music”. Both very powerful releases including Whispers top hit “Tonight” and Tavares “Ten to one” and “I really miss you baby”. Whispers B-side was as always filled with outstanding ballads. In fact Tavares release, that Sylvers’ didn’t entirely produced was filled with lovely music, all danceable and joyfully presented and one of the better albums that year.
After the peak
The Brothers Johnson – You keep me coming back 12″ 1984Sylvers had now past his musical peak but he still produced and wrote a lot of great music. In 84 he produced the marvelous 12 inch “You keep me coming back” by Brothers Johnson that is just a splendid piece of music! Sylvers produce the album as well, but nothing on it could compare to this track with the exception of the polished jazz funk instrumental groove “Tokyo”. The best album by Sylver’ that year became the former gospel singer of Glenn Jones’ second release “Finesse”.
Jones’ expressive voice together with an excellent song material resulted in a spine chillin’ album, definitely one of that best achievements that year. Among the rest of his productions in 84 most could be found in the good to average fields. Krystol’s debut album was one of the good results, a fine R&B production that became the bands best one. Of course the oldies band Whispers released an album in 84 that Sylvers naturally produced as he had done since 79. The album was filled with good sensitive soul ballads, the strong mark of the group in later days but without any real hit. Really bad releases was Krystol’s debut and Sylvers’ family group The Sylvers’ that finally made a new, but all to poor market teaser.
All in all 84 was a year with ups and downs. The whole music scene had changed since the early 80s and the white pop music crawling in on every front, even in to the black music and the decline was unavoidable. Sylvers tried to adept himself to the new changes with great difficulty. To do so, even though your name is Sylvers is not an easy task and very few succeeds.
The music world is changing
In the mid of 80 black music had gone threw a major change as it had become more and more mixed up with “white” pop and synth music. It had almost lost its roots and the joy and groove from earlier wasn’t there any more. New groups that wanted to stick with the old feeling mostly headed towards smaller independent record companies. Meanwhile, most of the old black groups as Kool & gang, Shalamar, Con Funk Shun, Dynasty and Change became almost musically dead. Of course there was one or two good song that was released but on a whole it looked dark. Vinyl MasterpieceIn the middle of this Sylvers walked in. In 86 ex Shalamar vocalist Howard Hewitt album “I commit to love” was partly produced by Sylvers. In 87 Sylvers got hooked up with the new group “Jesse’s gang” and their debut album “Center of attraction” featuring the mid-tempo deep drum ‘n’ base like funk track “Back up”. The album however didn’t reach any musical or commercial success and vanished after one more try in 88. That same year a speeded up and absolutely brilliant and version up of “Back up” was released by Marva King that also dropped an album before disappearing. Both 12″ are highly recommendable!
One year later, in 88, Sylvers once again worked with the old disco lady Evelyn “Champagne” King as a producer and songwriter in the production of her album “Flirt”. It was an album that was surprisingly good considering the year and included both some nice fast tracks as well as tasty ballads. Among the faster tracks the hit “Hold on to what you got” was the most enjoyable and among the ballads the very smooth and sensual “Kisses don’t lie” makes you play it again.
In 89 Sylvers released his self titled debut album “Leon F. Sylvers III” but it was a poor and uninspiring set. The only thing good to say about it is that it proved that Sylvers really made the best tracks for others which was a generous gesture indeed. Further on in to the 90s Sylvers worked once again with Stacy Lattisaw besides Smokey Robinson, Double action theatre but didn’t show any great potential over all.
Sylvers had long time ago reached his zenith. Like most musicians in black music from the early 80s he had some difficulties to adapt himself the to always ongoing changes in the music, especially after the mid 80s. To produce such an amazing music again that he did back in the hey days is most likely not possible but when it comes to this God blessed talent no one knows for sure!