Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Curse of R&B's Great "Unsung"

Add Unsung to my 2013 list of new and rekindled obsessions, which also includes Radio Capital TV, Devious Maids and Rome. For those of who don't get the cable network TV One, Unsung is its Behind the Music-style documentary series featuring artists that Behind the Music probably never would (though Teddy Pendergrass, for one, landed both). To qualify, you must be an R&B act that enjoyed some commercial success in the past (relegated, for the most part, to the R&B charts, with the occasional pop crossover) but is now unknown or under-appreciated in mainstream circles. In short, you've got to be unsung.

I first discovered the series, which was launched in 2008 and completed its seventh season in March, last year, and watched a batch of episodes featuring Freddie Jackson, Klymaxx, Minnie Riperton, Shalamar, The Spinners, Deniece Williams, Angela Winbush, Bobby Womack, Alexander O'Neal and Cherelle before putting the show aside for a year and half. I rediscovered it about a week ago (via the 2010 Tammi Terrell episode) while searching for something else on YouTube, and a dozen more Unsung episodes later, I've discovered some interesting -- and occasionally disturbing -- trends among R&B's Unsung heroes and heroines.

1. If you're Unsung, God probably played a major role in your success. No, I still don't believe that He is actively involved in our everyday good fortune, but if it weren't for Him, there wouldn't have been a holy training ground -- namely church -- for the likes of Johnny Gill, Eddie Kendricks, Teddy Pendergrass, Lou Rawls and DeBarge.

2. Unsung men are more likely to have fathered multiple children with multiple baby mamas. Kendricks, his former fellow Temptation David Ruffin and Lou Rawls all did. The late Isaac Hayes had 11 children; the late Roger Troutman, the fourth of six kids, had 12; and El DeBarge has a whopping 12. Interestingly, DeBarge's nine siblings, like the 10 Sylvers, all had the same mom and dad.

3. Being Unsung means you probably had money problems after your commercial heyday. At one point, Teena Marie had to sell her personal belongings to support her daughter. Eddie Kendricks was arrested at David Ruffin's 1990 funeral for failing to pay child support. Roger Troutman and Issac Hayes both had to file for bankruptcy.

4. If you're Unsung, you probably witnessed, suffered from or committed domestic abuse. The DeBarges grew up with a rage-aholic dad who beat his wife and kids. Lou Rawls abused his first wife and his namesake son, whose nose he broke several times. Tammi Terrell, who was raped by three neighborhood boys when she was 11 years old, had an abusive love affair with James Brown, who beat her up backstage after one of his shows with fellow soul great Gene Chandler as a witness, and a mutually abusive one with David Ruffin, who once hit her on the side of the face with a motorcycle helmet.

5. Dying too young was the sad fate of too many of the Unsung. Tammi Terrell died of a brain tumor in 1970 at age 24 after being diagnosed in 1967, just as her career was taking off due to a series of iconic duets with Marvin Gaye. Eddie Kendricks died of lung cancer at age 52 in 1992, two years after David Ruffin succumbed to years of drug abuse at age 50.

Of the two family acts whose Unsung episodes I watched over the course of the last week, both featured members who were gone too soon: Bobby DeBarge Jr. died in 1995 at age 39 of complications from AIDS, while Edmund Sylver, died of lung cancer at age 45. (Christopher Sylver, who was never a member of his sibling' singing group, died of hepatitis at age 17 in 1985.)

Roger Troutman was 47 when he was shot to death in 1999 by his brother and Zapp bandmate Larry Troutman, who then took his own life. Isaac Hayes suffered a fatal heart attack while he was running on the treadmill at home in 2008, 10 days before his 66th birthday. Teddy Pendergrass died in 2010 of respiratory failure at age 59. Later that same year, Teena Marie died of natural causes at age 54, some 14 months after the airing of her Unsung episode.

6. If you were part of an Unsung family act, you had a better chance of spending time in prison. Three of the DeBarges -- Bobby, El and Chico -- served time, and as of the taping of The Sylvers documentary, both Ricky and Foster Sylver were imprisoned for drug possession.

7. If you're Unsung, watch out for addiction. David Ruffin and various members of DeBarge and The Sylvers all battled drug dependency, and years of heavy smoking led to the lung cancer which eventually killed Eddie Kendricks.

8. The Unsung's discography likely includes at least one modern classic that mainstream pop fans at the time totally slept on. Luckily for DeBarge, whose members probably owe their financial solvency to publishing royalties, the next generation of R&B stars didn't. "Stay With Me," from the group's 1983 third album, In a Special Way, has been sampled by The Notorious B.I.G., Ashanti and Mary J. Blige, and it remains one of black America's most-beloved '80s R&B tracks, though it was never released as a single.

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