Shalamar - Friends (Deluxe Edition Reissue) (2013)

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From 1978 to 1984, former Soul Train dancers Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniel, along with Ohio native Howard Hewett, ruled the R&B charts both stateside and abroad as the vocal group Shalamar. Propelled by the sophisticated production finesse of Leon Sylvers, III and Solar Records' "Throwdown Brothers" rhythm section, the energetic trio delivered six albums' worth of vibrant modern-soul sung with vibrance and grace.

From 1978 to 1984, former Soul Train dancers Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniel, along with Ohio native Howard Hewett, ruled the R&B charts both stateside and abroad as the vocal group Shalamar. Propelled by the sophisticated production finesse of Leon Sylvers, III and Solar Records' "Throwdown Brothers" rhythm section, the energetic trio delivered six albums' worth of vibrant modern-soul sung with vibrance and grace.

Coming off the strength of 1980's timeless "This Is for the Lover in You" (from Three for Love), Shalamar quickly released two follow-up albums which cemented their standing as mainstays on radio and with the record-buying public. This momentum culminated in 1982's Friends, newly reissued in an expanded double-CD package by U.K.-based Big Break Records. Dishearteningly, internal strife was taking its toll on the group's nucleus just as its across-the-board success was skyrocketing. However, that didn't stop Watley, Daniels and Hewett from turning in top-notch performances of high-caliber material.

Friends quickly worked its way up international R&B and Pop charts, owing to the springboard of "A Night to Remember," a celebratory duet between Watley and Hewett set to a highly danceable groove. The enthusiastic tale of love a long time coming has gone on to become a bona fide classic heard on dance floors, at weddings, and performed by countless cover bands. It's only one piece of the package, though. Proving the diversity of both Shalamar and Sylvers, the ahead-of-its-time slow-jam, "I Don't Wanna Be the Last to Know" (written by label mates Dynasty and sampled several times during the late '90s) melds early R&B drum programming with classic group harmonies. The lead pairing of Hewett and Watley once again emits a naturally emotive glow that doesn't once hint at any of the personal tensions that were taking place behind the mic.

In contrast to the mellow flow of "Last to Know," the sprightly "Playing to Win" (co-written by Watley) shows shades of a get-down-and-funky Shalamar that brings home the message to "take those odds and turn them right back around" with apropos efficiency. Notably, the under-utilized Daniel gets a moment to shine as both lead vocalist and co-producer here. His rich tone and sophisticated shifting between gutsy chest singing and falsetto gliding make an ideal match for the head-nodding arrangement.

One of Shalamar's biggest hits in the U.K. (where the group regularly sold out arenas) was the top-five-charting, silver-selling "There It Is," a stylish jam with Hewett's effortless phrasing and and suave strength as the focal points. Spiked by the nabbing guitar techniques of Ricky Sylvers and Richard Randolph, it's one of the highlights of Friends that was passed over for U.S. single release. Surprisingly, the uncharacteristically middle-of-the-road "Help Me" was elected instead—in the process, also forsaking the assertive uptempo swagger of "Don't Try to Change Me" (benefitting from Watley's lighthearted, yet sassy treatment) and the dreamy "On Top of the World" (fronted by Hewett).

The centerpiece of Friends, though, is the ethereal title cut, which gives air time to each third of Shalamar's distinctive sonic composure. The tune's resounding melody lends unmistakable authenticity its top-notch lyrics—providing a perfect example of the musical effervescence that the group consistently displayed over its all too short six-year run. In retrospect, it's hard to think of the unit as manufactured, given the impressive cohesion that its members displayed on both record and stage. But in fact, the powers that be had assembled Watley, Daniel, and Gary Mumford (a precursor to Hewett) in response to the 1977 success of "Uptown Festival," a recording featuring uncredited studio singers who put the Shalamar name on the map.

Beginnings aside, the reliable reputation that Shalamar established as quality hit-makers is on full exhibition on Friends. This two-CD reissue serves as a fine reminder of that, not only by way of the original album content—but also thanks to the inclusion of 13 tracks' worth of sought-after extended versions and edits, plus extensive, well-researched liner notes containing new interviews with Watley and several key contributors to the LP. Hopefully, contemporary R&B tunesmiths and artists will look to it as solid inspiration for standout composition and musicianship. Highly recommended.

by Justin Kantor

 
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