Broad public credit for the hit machines of Detroit in the 60s and Philadelphia in the 70s and 80s are often limited to corporate heads Gordy, Gamble and Huff. But each was a story of a confluence of circumstances, opportunity and loads of great talent. And while her name may not be familiar to the masses, Cynthia Biggs is recognized by soul music insiders as one of the truly underrated songwriters of the past three decades and a key contributor to the Philadelphia International Records (PIR) chart success of the late 70s and early 80s.
Raised in Philadelphia, Biggs learned to play the piano as a child and took an unusual interest in the structure of songs she heard on the radio. She performed in the Overbrook Singers gospel group in high school, and began writing songs for the group with Bruce Hawes, who went on to become a staff writer for PIR (Hawes co-wrote several major hits for the Spinners). Hawes' elevation at PIR opened the door for Biggs and the Overbrook Singers to be signed, with the septet releasing the 1975 album Circles under the new name City Limits. Cynthia continued writing with Hawes for PIR while at the same time attending Philadelphia's Temple University, ultimately receiving a bachelors degree in Communications.
A late 70s downsizing at PIR appeared to doom Biggs' songwriting position at the company. However, up-and-coming producer/arranger Dexter Wansel interceded on Biggs' behalf and convinced company head Kenny Gamble to retain her on a trial basis as Wansel's writing partner. It turned out to be a wonderful match, as Wansel's vast musical knowledge and creativity fit perfectly with Biggs' poetic lyrics and sense of melody. Almost immediately, the duo became one of the most prolific teams in the PIR stable of songwriters. Hits for Grover Washington ("The Best Is Yet To Come"), the Stylistics ("Hurry Up This Way Again"), Patti LaBelle ("If Only You Knew"), the Jones Girls ("Nights Over Egypt") and others came from the Wansel/Biggs combination, as well as a series of gorgeous, lush ballads (such as "I Really Need You Now" for the O'Jays, "It's Only Love" for the Stylistics and "We're A Melody" for the Jones Girls) that became the highlights of many PIR album releases in the early 80s. The duo's collaboration culminated with Phyllis Hyman's haunting 1987 classic "Living All Alone," the title track from arguably Hyman's greatest album.
As PIR started a decade-long implosion in the late 80s, many talented artists and songwriters were released from the label and never recovered. Dexter Wansel elected to stay on at the sinking company for another dozen years, until the label removed all creative elements, essentially reducing itself to a licensor of old hits. Seeing the writing on the wall, Biggs left by 1988, essentially ending songwriting relationship with Wansel. She took a job in corporate America before returning to music in the mid 90s via a publishing contract with Polygram. During that period she co-wrote "Don't You Love Me," which became a European hit for the group Eternal, and also began collaborating with a new generation of soul and smooth jazz writers and producers, including Barry Eastmond, James Poyser and Rex Rideout. In 1999, Biggs signed with London-based FER Records, which resulted in the release of The Songs of Cynthia Biggs and The Cynthia Biggs Project featuring Sharon Bryant, albums of both old and newer Biggs compositions featuring guest vocalists such as Bunny Sigler and Bryant, the former Atlantic Starr lead vocalist. The song "Stay Just As You Are" from the former album was named "Best R&B Song" in the annual Just Plain Folks awards. Four years later Biggs received theIAAAM (International Association of African-American Music)Linda Creed Contributor's Award for Promoting, Protecting, and Perpetuating African-American Music Globally.
As the 21st Century arose, Biggs continued writing while also returning to her academic roots as a high school teacher. She also began working on her doctorate in Educational Leadership at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. In the meantime, those who know her work continue to revere it.
While Cynthia Biggs may never receive her just due in fame, soul music lovers will sing her praises every time they listen to the catalog of exceptional material that she's been a part of creating over the last three decades. Her poetic imagery and female perspective on love and relationships became the lyrical underpinnings of some of the best music of that era.
By Chris Rizik