I’m not one for hyperbole, but when I say TVOne’s “Unsung” series is what BET SHOULD be, I’m not kidding.
Virtually the fledgling network’s version of VH1’s “Behind the Music,” TVOne has shone the spotlight on forgotten urban music artists and groups for over two years now. Almost anyone you can think of and say “Yo…what happened to them?” Unsung has profiled them. Unsung has become so popular that a six-episode summer season has run its course with so much success that the network has started to run their next string of episodes that weren’t schedule for later in the year or even next year (starting with Billy Preston this coming Monday night).
With that in mind, now’s as good as time as any to think about what are the greatest episodes of Unsung ever. There are a few clunkers (Musical Youth comes to mind), but other than that, every episode has been filled with enough highs and lows and twists and turns to keep anyone interested.
What makes a top 10 Unsung in my opinion is equal parts of these characteristics – little known facts, the reach and influence of their talents and of course, the crash and burn. The last is what makes Unsung, well unsung – how epic of a fall from grace did this person or people have? If you’ve watched Unsung, you know some folks have had some SERIOUSLY bad luck over the years. That said, let’s get into some Unsung eps that were pretty good, but just didn’t make the cut.
Heatwave: One of the 70s hottest bands, the group started in Germany, had an Englishman (Rod Temperton) writing their best hits and were based out of Chicago. Their stay on top was brief, but their slow jams and disco bangers still get plenty of run on adult/contemporary R&B radio stations to this day.
Evelyn Champagne King: From singing in the bathrooms of Sigma Sound Studios in South Philly to rocking the dance floor with various hits over the next decade, Evelyn King had to grow up before a nation’s eyes and lose her only child, but at 50 years old is still as bubbly and energetic as ever as she continues to perform for loyal audience to this day.
Bootsy Collins: Who else can say they’ve played bass with James Brown and George Clinton and had a dynamite solo/bandleader career of their own? The man whose mom gave him the nickname because he looked like a Bootsy, that’s who. Plus it gives me an excuse to throw this ultra dope live performance in there:
The O’Jays: Arguably the power group at Philly International, the O’Jays were just another struggling act until they got a hold of “Back Stabbers” along with other Kenny Gamble/Leon Huff classics and took off. Between Walter Williams’ secret battle with Multiple Sclerosis, original O’Jay William Powell losing a battle with drugs and Eddie Levert losing his sons, plenty of drama and success for anyone.
Teena Marie: This was one of the happier Unsung eps, maybe even the happiest. Lady T was happy, still tearing up stages left and right when this was recorded. She passed away suddenly a couple of days after Christmas, making the episode all the more important so that at least younger people could see why a white woman was held in such high regard in a black genre of music – or maybe that’s the point – music is color blind, especially Lady T’s brand of it.
Deniece Williams: Niecy continues to sing to this day and has worked with so many greats, but that came at a cost as her personal life was a constant chase for the right man. However, like another singer with a dope octave range mentioned later in this post, her voice and songs are classic staples of an era in which there was no such thing as Autotune…well at least it wasn’t necessary.
Angela Winbush: One of the more interesting stories of a woman who dealt with an abusive duet partner, being the wife of Ron Isley and beating ovarian cancer, this talented lady gets her just due for her strong voice and her groundbreaking work as a woman producer in what continues to be a male dominated aspect of the music industry.
Teddy Pendergrass: Not much is known of Teddy’s life after the tragic 1982 crash that stalled his career, but thanks to TVOne you find out he lived four times as long as he was supposed to and thrived in the process. Before the accident, no one singer brought liquid to women’s undergarments quite like Teddy P, a North Philly original whose rugged good looks and gruff demanding vocals excited the fantasies within most women at the time.
Tammi Terrell: Her brief life had many twists and turns, but her duets with another tortured soul (Marvin Gaye) painted a crystalized picture of love and happiness during turbulent times during the Civil Rights era. Her story is as close as to the Top 10 as it gets, but not quite.
The Chris Stevens Unsung Top 10
10. Klymaxx: A group of funky divas who had a brief but revolutionary run as an all-girl R&B/funk band that played their own instruments. Of course, their drama came from their talents – each wanted to write, produce, go solo, and the chemistry they once had quickly disintegrated.
9. Alexander O’Neal and Cherrelle: Both artists had solid solo careers separately, but when they joined together for records like Saturday Love, Love Like This and Everything I miss at home, they were a new wave Marvin and Tammi. TVOne delves into Alexander O’Neal’s many contradictions and talents while focusing on Cherrelle’s struggles with the spotlight and her personal demons. The unintentional comedy scale is in the red with Alex’s funky poses and his drug-affected speech.
8. (Tie) Zapp and The Ohio Players: Who knew that an industrial rust belt town like Dayton, Ohio was the hub of Funk back in the day? The Ohio Players were the OGs from the Buckeye state who influenced Zapp, Slave and Lakeside after them. Just as the Ohio Players’ unprecedented run of success wound down, Zapp’s electro funk, led by Roger Troutman on the talk box, began to rule the dance floor. Both episodes are high on the drama scale, with members stealing money, cocaine busts and tragically, a murder-suicide.
7. Phyllis Hyman: One of the most beautiful voices I’ve personally ever heard, Phyllis never could reach mainstream success because of squabbles with record execs and her own battles with bi-polar disorder. Phyllis remains one of the people who has yet to receive their just due in death just as they never got it in life, which is a shame because her fans and fans of music understand what a talent this woman was.
6. Minnie Riperton: A songbird. One of the greatest voices ever. And lastly, gone too soon. Minnie Riperton’s thrilling soaring octave ranges made for some of the best love songs of a decade full of love. Even more so, her brave fight with breast cancer endured her to a nation that was just beginning to understand how evil and debilitating a disease cancer was/is.
5. Big Daddy Kane: The man who gave Christopher Wallace and Shawn Carter swag and forced every rapper to step their game up in the late 1980s, Kane continues to perform with a live band while staying true to the golden era of hip-hop. One of TVOne’s two forays into hip-hop on Unsung, it’s certainly their best as they break down everything from Kane’s fashion sense to his status as hip-hop’s first sex symbol.
4. Sylvester: An openly gay black drag queen disco/dance singer in the 1970s and 1980s. Let that marinate. In less than tolerant times, Sylvester James gave no damns about what anyone thought of him or the way he lived his life. His musical career was obscured by his refusal to play along with politics, but he earned a tremendous amount of respect and loyalty from his core audience. Unsung brought Sylvesters story to a public that really knew nothing about him or refused to know. An open mind is necessary for this episode and you’ll be glad you afterwards.
3. Donny Hathaway: A star who burned brightly but all-too briefly because of mental health issues, Donny Hathaway was the very definition of a tortured artist. His death in early 1979 left way more questions than answers, but as with Phyllis, it brought mental illness to the forefront – it’s nothing new and it’s been a major problem and continues to be as such. TVOne went deep into detail about how stark treatments were at the time, and you got the sense Donny was doomed. But his hits with Roberta Flack and his solo albums which his talent and discipline were on full display cement his legacy as one of the soul game’s greatest.
2. DeBarge: While Vibe magazine’s scorching series on the family preceded the actual episode, TVOne did a great job of summarizing the family drama that occurred on a regular basis. The abuse from Robert DeBarge no doubt had an affect on his children as they all self-medicated with drugs even as they ruled the music scene in the late 70s and early 80s in different groups. A perfect example of why fame is hard for anyone to deal with, especially families.
1. Shalamar: Nobody died except the potential mid to late 80s superstardom that Shalamar would have experienced in the synth pop era of R&B, but the drama level was on level orange from the group’s beginning as an anonymous disco song in 1975 until their last album with a completely different line-up 15 years later. The classic line-up of Howard Hewett, Jeffrey Daniel and Jody Watley are the best known members of the group, with all having various degrees of solo success after parting ways in 1983. This episode of Unsung perfect captures what the show is all about – the highs, the lows, the drama and the endgame. It left you wanting more, which is what TVOne has been able to do with Unsung on a consistent basis.