World-renowned for their Gold-selling mid-`70s hits “Boogie Fever” and “Hot Line” on Capitol Records, The Sylvers were a bright spot of the `70s. The 9-strong family of handsome brothers and foxy sisters jockeyed for Soul Supremacy with The Jacksons family. Though they’d recorded one single for Verve Records in 1971 (“I’m Just a Lonely Soul” b/w “Come On, Give Me a Chance”), the Sylvers caught on locally like wildfire the following year (1972) with their eponymous debut LP on Pride/MGM Records. It featured two big hits: the haunting love song “Wish That I Could Talk To You” and the funky, thought-provoking message “Fool’s Paradise.” The group was instantly noted for its sophisticated harmonic blend, self-contained creativity and all around good looks…crowned by the most perfectly rounded Afros known to mankind.
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However, inside of their stardom raged a storm. The Sylvers experienced a string of crippling tragedies leading to substance and alcohol abuse, incarceration, parole violations, homelessness, mental and physical health challenges, family infighting and financial hardship. Olympia (the eldest) lived through a violent and harrowing kidnapping. The youngest, Christopher (never a member of the singing group), died at age 18 from hepatitis. And mighty lead singer, Edmund Sylvers, passed in 2004 from lung cancer at age 47.
The Sylvers disbanded in the mid-`80s…but on Thursday, September 21, 2017 at The Rose Theater in Pasadena, California (where Foster Sylvers was born in 1962), seven of the eight members took the stage for the first time in over 30 years. In age order, they are Olympia, Leon, James, Ricky, Angie, Pat and Foster. An eighth member, Charmaine (now an accountant), was not on stage because she is recuperating from injuries but present supporting her family’s historic reunion.
KJLH-FM ‘s Roland Bynum presented the all-ages-welcome “Throwback Thursday” program under the banner “Old School Block Party,” including sensational local singer LaQuita and a revue dubbed The Soul Vibers. Bynum, celebrating his 50th anniversary in Los Angeles radio, was excited.
“Leon and I have had an ongoing relationship since the `70s,” Bynum states. “He’s a workaholic - always doing music - always calling me to meet him in a restaurant or in his car to play me stuff he’s working on. My wife said, ‘The Sylvers haven’t performed in 30 years. What a great reunion - for them and the community.’ I said, ‘Carolyn, you are absolutely right.’”!
Robert DeVaughn of Pasadena, who never saw The Sylvers, said a friend told him about the show and he could not miss it. “I remember their songs and ‘Soul Train’ shows on TV,” he shared. Tyrone Smith, “a big fan,” trekked out from Imperial and Hoover in South Central L.A. when he heard about The Sylvers’ reunion on the radio. “I just feel something when I hear their songs. ‘Hot Line’ makes you wanna get up and dance…reminds me of New Edition’s ‘Mr. Telephone Man’”. Tal Hawkins, in the house showing love and support, proudly shared that he played electric bass for The Sylvers for three years in their heyday; a hot seat as Leon Sylvers is not only a great bassist but a perfectionist as a band leader. “I got the gig when I was 19. We played the United States extensively; Madison Square Garden and a week at the Apollo Theater in Harlem when The Temptations were staying in the same hotel stand out. It was the greatest musical experience of my life.”
Before the Sylvers took the stage, Bynum read a certificate of recognition from Congresswoman Maxine Waters citing the group’s “significant role in the history of American Soul Music in the `70s”. Big Brother Leon crept onstage - fully dressed in his stage attire - to personally give all of the microphones a final check. Then…it was showtime. Bynum introduced The Sylvers to a tsunami of cheers from a house full of family, friends and fans.
For a first show after 30+ years – to track, sans a live band – this was a strong first effort. Pat, who never stopped singing after the group broke up thanks to her music ministry, was the strongest most consistent lead singing presence. Foster, in the shadow of phenomenal Edmund, had brilliant moments but needs to relax and make himself at home within those numbers so he can deliver the vocals while still commanding the stage as a world class front man entertainer. The group, as a unit, is tight and unified. With new material such as the single “How Do You Say Goodbye” from a forthcoming album, The Sylvers – No Compromise, that is more faith-based and message-oriented, they will have the perfect balance of people-pleasing hits plus songs of urgency for difficult days in the world at large.
Sam Watson, acting manager for The Sylvers, could not be prouder. “When I was very poor coming up (late `70s/early `80s), I met the Sylvers. I started “The Sam Watson Celebrity Basketball Game.” I put the Sylvers, Marvin Gaye, Switch and The Whispers on the court to raise money for high schools – Locke, Crenshaw, Dorsey, L.A. High. Kids loved seeing their teachers go up against the singers, actors like Eric Laneuville and young baseball star Darryl Strawberry. Leon and Ricky were two of my best players.
“I never forgot The Sylvers,” Watson adds. “When they weren’t doing nothin’, I’d check on them. I promised their mother Shirley, before she died, that I’d do anything to help them. I’ve done well for myself as a boxing manager and concert promoter (mentored by Al Haymon). Now, (The Sylvers) are happening again.
I will work for them for free forever because they helped me when I was nothing.
“This is a great time for them to work,” Watson concludes. “They’re doing the ‘Tom Joyner Fantastic Voyage Cruise’ in April. They can play casinos, fairs, overseas – anywhere! There’s a whole bunch of Sylvers. Except for Edmund, they’re all still living… That’s what I’m betting on. You can’t beat original.”
A week before the show, sitting in the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC) on Central Avenue where they were rehearsing - right around the corner from where they used to live – Pat, James, Olympia, Ricky and Foster reflected on the circuitous route that brought them back together. Their memories are enhanced by phone conversations conducted with Leon, Charmaine and Angie. This commemorative piece marks the first time that the voices of all the living Sylvers have been gathered together in print in decades.
Angie: It was our mother passing that made it serious. We realized we don’t have a whole lot of time left. We’re either going to line up and do it or we’re not.
Leon: Everyone’s voices were still cool. We just needed commitment. Everybody had to be willing to have the time to do it.
Pat: Even after being taken advantage of financially by our old manager, we made a collective decision – despite our anger – that God forgave us so we are to forgive others. Now we can move on to higher heights and deeper depths as a result of our learning. We’re ready to do things right - to check situations and people to make sure we are exploring the best avenues.
James: We are more in accord with each other than ever before. We’re learning to yield to one another. Concerning any mistakes, we’re forgiving each other. At this time, when there are so many disturbances happening in the world, I’m happy because God is giving us a part to play.
Olympia: Our father would hear us singing in the back room; he taught us four-part harmony. My mother had a music degree in college studying opera. It wasn’t hard for us. They filled our bodies with joy.
Angie: Singing was never fun to me unless I did it with my family. Not because we’re super close - short of working together, we really only see each other on holidays and birthdays. The guys hang out and the girls hang out. I’m not saying we’re not close…but I don’t want people to have this false impression that we’re up under each other 24/7.
GROWING UP IN “WATTS-ANGELES”
Leon: When we first moved from Memphis to Los Angeles, we lived near Adams and Crenshaw. I was three. We didn’t get to Watts until I was 12. It was just Moms and us. Downsizing into a smaller house, we had to adjust. Later on, her brother/our uncle came out and helped. So, we had a man figure around for a minute. As I was going into 12th grade, we got a record deal from MGM.
Foster: When I was at 111TH Street School, they called me ‘white boy’ so I had to fight a lot. I ran into a lot of jealousy. Girls asked if they could comb my afro. I’d be sitting there with four girls combing my `fro…and dudes wanted to kill me! I run into grown men to this day who tell me to my face, ‘I hated you, man. My girlfriend wouldn’t kiss me until she took your poster down first.’
Pat: It got to the point where Leon said, “You’re going to learn how to fight.” He brought me, Angie and Foster into the living room, told Ricky to come in then said he wanted us to hit Ricky as hard as we could. Ricky said, ‘I can get `em with one hand tied behind my back!’ So, Leon tied Ricky’s hand but he didn’t expect us to go off on him like we did. We knocked him on the ground! Leon was shocked that we had that in us. We weren’t angry kids. We always had each other backs.
Ricky: We lived on 114th & Success
Angie: We were out of Nickerson Gardens by the time I was 12. We moved into the Wilshire area then Palos Verdes, The Valley…we lived down the street from The Jacksons. They were on Hayvenhurst and we were on Woodley. We’ve lived in every county except Orange County!
LEARNING THEIR CRAFT
James: We performed at
Charmaine: We started out singing as The Little Angels then stopped for a while. When we moved to Watts, the budget changed for schools and they stopped hiring security guards. Kids started bringing guns to school. That’s when we started singing for real! We had to get out! We ended up in Vegas. (Singer/dancer/movie star) Ann Margret was the first to hire us. We were doing cover songs like The Beatles’ “Yesterday” with our original arrangements and choreography. Claude Thompson (an original Alvin Ailey danced company alumnus who worked with Black cabaret legend Josephine Baker) saw what we could do and was determined not to change anything, only enhance it with lighting and staging.
Once the first album came out, we did a lot of TV <“Soul Train,” “American Bandstand,” “Dinah,” “The Mike Douglas Show,” “Black Omnibus”>. The first local club we did was the Whisky a Go-Go in West Hollywood. I liked performing in clubs. In big places, all you hear is screams and howling – it’s almost surreal. You can’t really see anybody because they’re all so far away. But the clubs you can get right down in it. We also performed at Cow Palace (San Francisco). New York was really fun. When the curtain opened at the Apollo, they had tambourines, congas AND drums in the audience - partying harder than us!
Ricky: When we came into show business, for a group to get ‘turned out’
Ricky: When I was in prison, I was the head of the choir. They didn’t even know how to count a song off! The C.O. would see me and this other dude singing after dinner every night in our dorm. The Mexicans, Blacks and Whites would all watch us sing. We didn’t have the fights that other buildings had. So, the C.O. would come over and sing with us. He’s the one who sent me to Soledad 1 Yard – the last band room in the penitentiary system. We had microphones, guitars, a drum machine. I learned to sing and play guitar at the same time. At the end of my sentence three years later, I sounded good.
When Pat said she wanted to sing “In It’s Time” at Mama’s funeral, I said, ‘Don’t worry. I got this!’ I’d been singing it in prison for years.
Foster: My (upcoming) solo album was not done conventionally. I wrote and recorded it in my car – a PT Cruiser. The engine blew, so the car sat near Crenshaw and Coliseum for 5 months. At first, I was mad but the Lord said, “Be still”. So, I sat there and wrote over 50 songs. The Lord told me go back to basics. I wasted 20 years of my life. I want to help the younger generation find their minds. They’re quick to say, ‘I’m smarter than you. I’m cuter than you.’ The Lord preserved me to come back and say, “You know what, Champ? I’m a ‘Survivor of Stardom.’ What we thought was ‘fun’ was actually a yoke.
Ricky: When Edmund was 5 and I was 3, our father sat us in a big rocking sofa chair while he was teaching Leon and James vocal parts. We had an ear by the time Leon started giving us notes. I was joking all the time. Edmund was more serious when it came to lead singing. Me and Edmund watched The Little Angels. Foster, Pat and Angie watched The Sylvers. Now our kids and grandkids watch us.
Foster: I’m getting abs from singing Edmund’s leads! “Hot Line” alone is wearing my throat out. It gave me a new perspective on what Edmund did on that stage, night-in and night-out. Before he died, I told Edmund, ‘You should have gotten a little more money for the hard work you did.’
James: On “Fool’s Paradise,” Leon wrote, “I didn’t make this world / I was only born / That’s everybody’s attitude whose life was torn / Life’s not what you make it / It’s what the upper class make it seem to you.” That’s still going on today. Our calling is for our concerts to comfort people.
Leon: The new album (forthcoming) is called The Sylvers: No Compromise. It’s spiritual, faith-based lyrics - music about real life - contemporary and R&B style.
The first single is “How Do You Say Goodbye”. I originally recorded that on a young group, EK System, featuring my son Leon IV and daughter Lea. But when Edmund and my mother passed on, the Sylvers dedicated that song to them.
Pat: Four months ago, Olympia lost her husband. This song is bringing healing even in rehearsing it. It’s about letting go. There is such ministry in the lyrical content.
Ricky: It’s like starting all over again because we’ve been off for so long. Plus, it’s a lot more rehearsal than we figured!
Angie: Singing will help build my paralegal business…open doors for everything else we want to do to help people. God will use us to help heal a dying world.
Charmaine: I hope to be back soon…but they’re going to be fine. Back in the day I was my Mom’s helper, so I’ve always been the “Mother/Sister” behind the scenes. When I came off stage, there were costumes that needed to be disinfected because they were soaked through with sweat. I’d hang `em up, hit `em with the blow dryer, spray `em with Lysol! I’m proud of them. Some of the new songs, which I sang on in the studio, are the best we’ve ever done…ever!
Pat: This is just the first of many things we’re about to do. By no means are we too old to perform. God has given us open doors and blessed us to come back. He’s kept our name out there all these years through motion pictures (“Despicable Me”) and television (“The Unit”). I saw this day coming in the midst of things that didn’t look like this would come to pass. When I came to the Lord (she is now co-founding Minister, with husband Lorne Deruso, of Season of Omega Christian Center). God gave me a promise that I would sing with my family again. There was a point where I was almost going to give up. He said, ‘Don’t stop praying.’
From the bottom of our hearts, we want to thank all of the faithful for never forgetting about us. You have been such champions… weathering with us through the storm of waiting.
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(The writer acknowledges Lorne Deruso, E. Mesiyah McGinnis, Teri Littlejohn, Lawrence Worrell, Greg Johnson and Eric Thrasher for assistance with this report.)
Contributing Writer A. Scott Galloway is a prolific Baldwin Vista-based Music Journalist who has composed over 300 liner note essays found within reissues of classic albums on CD and anthologies, including The Sylvers Classic Masters (Capitol Records – 2002).