Sylvia St. James – 1980 – Magic
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To be honest a few months ago I had no idea who Sylvia St. James was. But my dear friend MsMerising reminded me she was first a member of Side Effect and that she had also released a great album in 1980 called “Magic”. MsM proceeded to than email me several songs that impressed me and of course, I began my odyssey to find the vinyl. Finally (after a few missed shots) I got my hands on it and here it is! I asked MsMerising to write a short bio on Sylvia’s career as well as a review. All writing below (except where noted) is all her own.
This is a @320 vinyl rip of my original Elektra record with covers.
A1. Can’t Make You Mine 3.24
A2. Better Things 4.48
A3. Ghetto Lament 5.00
A4. Let Love Groove Me 3.37
B1. Motherland 5.08
B2. Black Diamond 4.22
B3. Magic Minstrel 3.50
B4. So I Say To You 3.22
B5. Almaz Interlude 1.00
Sylvia St. James was born and raised in Waukeegan, Illinois. Later in life she would re-locate to the Los Angeles area and for a year and a half would live in an Ashram. Reflecting on this period Sylvia revealed that “…It was while I was at the Ashram that I got seriously involved with music. It just happened that everyone I lived with was a musician and when the Ashram broke up, I made a conscious decision to be a professional musician and dancer” (1). Not long after Sylvia came under the employ of the Mike Curb Congregation, which was her first professional foray into the Pop music scene. Sylvia sang back-up vocals both live and on recordings for a myriad of artists such as Connie Francis, the Pointer Sisters, Ronnie Laws, George Duke, Roland Bautista, Willie Bobo & Frank Zappa.
In 1977 she would become the 3rd female vocalist for L.A. based group Side Effect. Sylvia would stay with the band through 2 albums – ‘Goin’ Bananas’ (recorded in 1977 and featuring the rare-groove classic “Private Joy”) and ‘Rainbow Visions’ in 1978.
In 1980 Sylvia cut her debut album for Elektra. Entitled ‘Magic’, the album is unique for an 80’s project due to its thoughtful, conscious approach with lyrics that reflect somewhat mystical leanings. Producers Lenny White (Return To Forever, Twennynine) & Larry Dunn (Earth, Wind & Fire) bring Sylvia’s strong vocal style to the fore and compliment it perfectly with a light jazzy R&B sound, adding flourishes of lushness where needed.
Opening with the sweet boogie bounce of “Can’t Make You Mine” things continue to groove along with the light funk of “Better Things”. Propelled forward by bass, swirling strings, handclaps & the tinker of cowbells it’s a supreme lyrical disco manifesto celebrating empowerment & a hard work ethic atop the beat. Uplifting boogie at it’s best; the applause at the end of the song is deserved.
The celebration of rich, Black legacies was a theme many musicians explored after the gains of the Civil Rights Movement as a way of celebrating positive, black images. Such themes of empowerment are also found on this album with the strongest being “Motherland”. It’s opens with rumbling bass & touches of Eastern-inspired strings to conjure up scenes of majesty. The song aims to paint a sweeping, grandiose picture in awe of the architectural marvels of Ancient Egypt. But behind that awe of that past lays a deep-rooted connection that echoes very much in the present:
“Mother, motherland. I must come back – back to you.
You hold the answer to what I know and feel is true.
Quench my thirst for my past; it’s so vast,
My life relived once more.
The albums grand opus arguably is “Ghetto Lament”. Co-penned by the incomparable Weldon Irvine the spoken dialogue between mother & child over a sweet piano solo adds further poignancy to an already moving song that indeed mourns the current state of poverty but holds hope that the future will bring about the changes needed to move people up and out of hardships.
The dreamy harp & string crescendos of “So I Say To You” create a beautifully intimate sonic cocoon. The chord structure will remind serious audiophiles of Don Blackman’s classic “Holding You, Loving You”. Not surprisingly, one scan of the LP’s credits will reveal that Don Blackman composed the track as well as played keyboards throughout the album. One suspects this track is the template for his own classic that would follow two years later.
Sylvia’s second LP for the label ‘Echoes & Images’ which was produced by Andre Fischer followed a more conventional, pop formula. In my opinion it sacrifices Sylvia’s very personal essence & unique vocal tone in an effort to secure hits. But it’s Sylvia’s ear for lyrics rooted in pride and affirmation as well as surrounding herself with stellar musicians that made ‘Magic’ such a jewel of an album. Her spirit rooted in the love-ethic of 1960’s soul, her vocal freedom honed through the jazz-fusion/rock projects in the 1970’s and her overall celebration of all things Divine and beautiful makes ‘Magic’ truly a bewitching slice of vinyl.
DID YOU KNOW?
* Sylvia is the featured vocalist on Family At Max’s 45” on the Sound Odyssey label? The single fetches for no less than $80 amongst collectors.
* Producer Madlib sampled “Ghetto Lament” for Talib Kweli’s “Eat To Live” (‘Eardrum’ 2007).
* Sylvia St. James is an in-demand choir director who has worked with artists diverse as Harry Connick Jnr. to Kanye West.
– MsMerising is an addict for fierce, funkin’ females who can sang. A relentless digger & researcher of obscure women artists in rare-groove/funk music she is currently in the embryonic stages of writing a book on the subject. Feel free to join her social network for music addicts at http://dustyfingers.ning.com
(1). Quotes taken from the 1977 press file which can be found at Concordmusicgroup.com