by Jeff Meier (FB: Jeff.Meier.90)
This month, as part of African American Music Appreciation Month, Good Black News will offer a set of playlists rediscovering some pioneering musical talents who should no longer be allowed to slip through the cracks of history.
For R&B music fans, it can be a true thrill to discover (or rediscover) an artist whose music has been sitting under our noses the entire time – the familiar production sounds of an era we love, but with songs we’ve never heard before – or barely remember.
It is in that spirit that today’s playlist honors the late Ronnie Dyson, who would have turned 70 this past week.
“When the moon is in the Seventh House, and Jupiter aligns with Mars…” – in 1968 at the age of just 18 years old, Ronnie Dyson sang the words that captured a generation when, as an original cast member of the the Broadway musical “Hair,” he was picked to solo on “Aquarius,” the hippie anthem that opens and sets the tone for the whole show.
Following his introduction to the world in “Hair” (which also featured such original Broadway cast members as Melba Moore, Diane Keaton and ‘Last Dance’ disco songwriter Paul Jabara), Dyson was immediately propelled onto a career trajectory designed to turn him into a soul star.Dyson signed to Columbia Records in the Clive Davis era and started putting out records – and by 1970, he had his first modest R&B hit, “Why Can’t I Touch You?,” from an off-Broadway show called “Salvation.”
Over the next dozen or so years, though, while he managed to hit the R&B Top 40 eight times, Dyson never really struck chart gold. Most writers discussing Dyson talk about him as an artist coming of age potentially in the wrong era.
With a boyish face and lanky frame – and a gospel-infused, higher register tenor voice that sometimes made you wonder whether a man or a woman was singing, perhaps Dyson (and his penchant for standards and big ballads) was out of place during a time of sexy, more traditionally masculine vocalists like Marvin Gaye, Isaac Hayes, Barry White and Teddy Pendergrass.
Nevertheless, in trying to find that elusive smash, Columbia teamed Dyson up with some very skilled producers, including Thom Bell & Linda Creed (The Stylistics, The Spinners and more) and later, Chuck Jackson & Marvin Yancy (who had launched Natalie Cole‘s career). And in the process, they created some unsung classics.
Today, the Bell & Creed produced “One Man Band“ album feels like a true lost Philly Soul masterpiece. It generated Dyson’s dramatic original version of “Just Don’t Want to Be Lonely,” later a hit for The Main Ingredient, as well as the beautiful ballad “Give In To Love,” later covered by such artists as Dee Dee Bridgewater and Sister Sledge.
Listening to the two albums Jackson & Yancy produced for Dyson, you’ll note similarities between songs like “Close to You” and the hits that Natalie Cole had that same year. (Late in her career, Natalie actually covered a Dyson tune from this era, ‘The More You Do It.’)
Across all his records, Dyson proves to have almost Luther Vandross-like interpretive skills in covering great songs of the era, from stunning versions of “A Song For You,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Love Won’t Let Me Wait,” and Beatles standard “Something” – to more esoteric covers of Laura Nyro‘s “Emmie,” “Jesus Is Just Alright” (the Doobie Brothers song), and a soulful take on Hall & Oates “Sara Smile.”
Ultimately, after waning career fortunes, Dyson’s last major label release arrived in 1983 (though, ironically, this underperforming “Brand New Day“ LP did manage to yield a prominent club hit, “All Over Your Face,” that is by far Dyson’s most streamed Spotify song today). Unfortunately, reported drug issues sent Dyson’s health on a downward spiral – he passed away of heart failure in 1990 at the age of 40.
In 1986, several years before he passed away, then rising young filmmaker Spike Lee recognized Dyson’s stellar talents, hiring him to sing the vocal version of the composition “Nola” for Lee’s debut movie ‘She’s Gotta Have It’. Unfortunately, this song is unavailable on Spotify (seek it out on youtube.com).
But fortunately, most of Dyson’s other recorded work is available for you to rediscover now during the 70th anniversary of his birth. We’ve populated this playlist with all his hits, plus many other highlights that will have you reliving that nostalgic mid-70s sound, by way of a spectacular and unique voice that shouldn’t be forgotten.
You are not likely to find these songs on your local oldies radio station. But they should be. Enjoy!
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