1984: Cherrelle's 'Fragile' Remains Strong

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Cherrelle's 1984 debut, Fragile begins with a smashing of glass, and in a way it's metaphorical. Soul music was in the midst of flux as the 1980s steamrolled in and reconstruction of the genre was taking place after disco's infiltration were beginning to wane. Ribbons of disco still wove into the folds of the spiky synths and quiet storm smoothness of early '80s R&B; most of it just dressed up as with the glossier funk epithet attached to it. By 1983, variations on the soul theme were becoming more and more prominent, as technological advancements and innovative techniques began to foreshadow the tone of how the rest of the decade would play out.

By now it's constant echo to mention the names of Michael Jackson and Prince when we discuss how Black music in the '80s made seamless transitions and broke new sound ground as they crossed over to pop (White) audiences. But let's not count out the ladies, as Shannon's "Let The Music Play" birthed Freestyle, and Disco's reigning queen Donna Summer slipped into new inventive shoes as her early '80s offerings were drenched in New Wave nourishment. Cherrelle is an interesting entry in all of this, because her debut was the unlikely home of a monster post-disco song that ended up shattering old ways and introducing new ones.

When you give "I Didn't Mean To Turn You On" a spin, you're hard pressed to deny how much of a masterclass jam it is. It was ahead of the game in every sense of the word, bursting with a web of synthesized and drum machine trappings, and vocally delivered by Cherrelle with a pithy, almost mocking tone where she's telling some thirsty dude to take a cold shower as she didn't mean to turn his libido on. It's a literal musical side-eye to the entitled male and its fantastic.

Interestingly, the song was written and produced by two men, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, fedora topped cats from Minneapolis who seemed on a mission to revive the waning disco crowd with new beats to step to. "I Didn't Mean To Turn You On" follows through on that mission several times over. It still maintains a disco narrative on time length alone (it clocks in at seven minutes) and you do feel that length as the song chugs along on, but it grooves in a gummy synth encasement that this isn't your usual sweeping disco glider. Still the track is danceable enough to give Soul Train line dancers and burgeoning breakdancers (including the breakdancing King Kong in the song's oddball music video) a quenching elixir to get feet moving, but it also completely smashes the sunny-side up of the disco plot, rearranging the dismembered pieces of the genre in order to create a sound that was distinctly rhythm n' funk, but also flirted within the pop bracket.

The song's versatility as a pop and R&B number have been proven by two notable covers. In 1985 Robert Palmer put a male spin on his remake and took the song all the way to the #2 slot on the Hot 100, and in an ironic twist crossed what was first Cherrelle's heavy-duty R&B stunner over to pop audiences just on a lighter, more glossier note. Almost twenty years later, Mariah Carey re-dressed the song with her brassier vocals and whistle registers for the underrated soundtrack to her ill-fated Glitter project in 2001. Still she honored Jam and Lewis groundwork (who re-produced it for Carey), as she just simply laid her voice over the exact same music track as the original, and in a way proved that even in the 21st Century "I Didn't Mean To Turn You On" continued to shimmer with vibrancy.

"I Didn't Mean To Turn You On" isn't just Cherrelle's introduction to the world as it is the breakout of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis' production expertise. After departing (or being tossed out --- whatever you feel is more exciting) from from the Prince off-shoot troop, The Time, Jam and Lewis forged ahead as a duo spinning the unique Minneapolis sound into the soul/R&B formula. Their first known success came from crafting material for The SOS Band and yanking them out of the fading shadows of disco and bringing them into the '80s with a series of hit singles like, "Just Be Good To Me" and "Tell Me If You Still Care".

Thereafter their collaborations seemed to be the caffeinated jolt needed for artist's whose careers were needing new directions in the new decade. Disco divas of yore like Cheryl Lynn ("Encore") and Thelma Houston (Qualifying Heat) scored hits and high-selling albums under Jam and Lewis' direction. Jazz vocalist Patti Austin, in her fruitless attempts to cross-over to pop radio in the '80s, scored her biggest hit with them ("Heat Of Heat"). And pegged in the beginning to be forever in the shadows of her iconic big brother, Janet Jackson went from being a preppy teen dream to a stylish and edgy icon of pop and R&B in her own right under Jam and Lewis' tutelage and it became a partnership that ended up lasting for three decades.

Cherrelle didn't need a career boost, she needed a career as the Los Angeles native began singing background for the likes of Michael Henderson and Norman Connors. She got her break after her demo was picked up by Tabu Records and she signed to the label in 1983, releasing Fragile the following year. As much as "I Didn't Mean To Turn You On" was the biggest seller for the album, with it going #8 on the R&B charts and #2 on the Dance charts, Fragile is still blessed with brightly lit funk and electric nighttime soul numbers that were equally matched.

The opening title track is another dance opus, beginning with that good ol' luminous squeal of an '80s saxophone, as it charges full speed ahead with Cherrelle attempting to be delicate, but being anything but. Cherrelle, while possessing a angelic soprano, is a vocal powerhouse and she claws and punches at the walls of synthesized fervor without hesitation. I always liked how on songs like "Fragile" and "I Didn't Mean To Turn You On" she sounds like she's scoffing, batting her eyelashes, and tossing her hair all at once. The woman had spunk and knew how to use it. The crunchy funk abstract "Like I Will" continues to have Cherrelle chew and spit out feministic boasts, just that after the previous two numbers, it pales just a tad.

To catch your breath "Who's It Gonna Be" and "When You Look In My Eyes" dim the lights into a slow dance of twilight soul, and both predate the insulated mood pieces that would become Jam and Lewis' signature mark. Personally I prefer the love triangle narrative of "Who's It Gonna Be" as Cherrelle really lets out some emotional belts, but "When You Look In My Eyes" is another example of how Jam and Lewis made synthesizers quite orchestral and its the big event ballad featured.

Jam and Lewis pretty much dominate this record, and it's quite glaring on the 8-track set how their expertise was light years ahead of their contemporaries, as the material on Fragile not produced by the duo are by-the-numbers soul serenades, mostly elevated thanks to Cherrelle's light and airy vocal touch and savvy. Isaac Suthers and Michael Everitt Dunlap of short-lived funk outfits Dayton and Klique, respectively offer the better non-Jam and Lewis number, the yearning "Stay With Me". Even though I like it fine, it still feels massively outdated when paired with "When You Look In My Eyes" which takes soul balladry to another level.

Cherrelle no doubt noted how much Jam and Lewis aided in her success and could craft a distinct sound for her unlike anyone else, as she had them handle her two follow-up albums, 1986's High Priority and (my personal favorite) 1988's Affair, both of which out-sold and scored bigger hits than Fragile and expanded on the crafty funk narrative that the duo became synonymous for. As much as Jam and Lewis dominate, Cherrelle shouldn't be counted out. I actually find her quite underrated as a vocalist and she usually brought the comedy whenever the songs dip off into tongue-in-cheek dialogue. It's true that Janet Jackson (sans her famous last name) benefited somewhat from Jam and Lewis' time with Cherrelle, as the sounds and techniques present on Fragile and High Priority would reflect immensely on Jackson's breakout classic, Control. But while Jackson received more polished mainstream tunes, Cherrelle got the rawer rubies, and for me being fans of both ladies it's great to hear that contrast.

Fragile is somewhat forgotten as an album largely because "I Didn't Mean To Turn You On", "Fragile (Handle With Care)" and "When You Look In My Eyes" were just massive genre breakthroughs on their own. Still it's been 30 years, and the songs and their techniques on Fragile remain huge influences to today's crop of pop and R&B leaders that its hard to slight it, so yeah, it may have been a little album, but Cherrelle, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis made it big enough to where the soul and dance genres were forever changed thereafter.

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