*Whoowee, break out the popcorn! That’s all we can say about the upcoming season of “Unsung.”
In a press release from uber publicists Lynn McReynolds and Gilda Squire, TV One is getting the New Year off to a rockin’ start with ten all-new episodes of its NAACP Image Award-winning series of one-hour biographies celebrating the lives and careers of successful artists or groups who, despite great talent, have not received the level of recognition they deserve or whose stories have never been told, beginning Monday, January 2 at 10pm Eastern with the late Vesta Williams.
The release goes on to say that the full picture of black music in America is a rich kaleidoscope of talented artists and so much bigger than acknowledged superstars and household names like Aretha, Whitney, Stevie and Marvin. Many of the greatest have either failed to achieve that same level of superstardom – or have compelling life stories the details of which have largely remained untold. Ten of black music’s most talented artists and groups will be recognized this winter in all-new episodes of “Unsung,” TV One’s top-rated and most highly anticipated series. The episodes will air weekly on Mondays at 10pm, repeating at 1am (all times Eastern) and will chronicle the careers of:
Vesta Williams (January 2) – With one of the biggest, brassiest voices in R&B and contemporary jazz, along with a four-octave range, Vesta Williams charged through the 80s from an A-list backup singer, who recorded with the likes of Gladys Knight, Anita Baker, and Sting, to a hit-making diva. Her 1986 debut album included two top ten singles, “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” and “Don’t Blow a Good Thing,” while her follow-up produced the classic, “Congratulations.” But Vesta’s surging stardom overwhelmed her, and she comforted herself with drugs and food. Her weight ballooned, she was dropped by major labels, and her career seemed over. But Vesta vowed to clean up her act. She quit drugs, lost over 100 pounds, and kept her musical chops limber while working with artists like George Duke, Howard Hewitt and Lee Ritenour. Though she continued to rely sporadically on pain-killers and sleep medication, she was determined to survive. In 2011, as she completed the definitive profile of her life for “Unsung”, Vesta Williams was back in high spirits, optimistic that this filmed portrait would help re-ignite her career. Then on September 22, 2011, she suddenly died in her sleep, at age 53. This is her story.
Bobby Womack (January 9) – He’s been called the Poet, the Preacher, and the last Soul Man. By whatever name, there’s never been anyone quite like Bobby Womack, who has lived an eventful life that mirrors the painful dramas of his classic songs. He grew up as the middle child among the talented Womack brothers, later re-named the Valentinos, where they forged success as a pop group under the tutelage of soul icon Sam Cooke. Bobby became Cooke’s protégé, a guitar-playing and songwriting prodigy who penned his first number one hit, ‘It’s All over Now’, as a teenager. But his budding career took a wild turn when, within months of Cooke’s shocking murder in 1964, the 21-year-old married Sam’s widow, Barbara. He became a pariah among former fans, a target for violence by Cooke’s brothers, and was all but banned from the record industry. But talent persevered, and Womack emerged in the ’70s and ’80s as a singer-songwriter of uncommon range, penning soulful standards, from ‘That’s the Way I feel about Cha’ to ‘Across 100th Street,’ to ‘If You think You’re Lonely Now.’ Then an astonishing string of tragedies, including the death of Bobby’s brother Harry, and the loss of two of his sons, sent his life and career into a tailspin. Now, after five decades of making music, he’s a storied survivor, who tells it all – as only he can – in this riveting episode of ‘Unsung.’
Atlantic Starr (January 16) – Atlantic Starr made their mark with slow grooves like “Secret Lovers” and the wedding classic “Always”. But the band had its roots as a close-knit group of nine friends and family members, hailing from a small town in upstate New York, who were devoted to fun and to funk. With help from Commodores producer James Anthony Carmichael, and songs written by group members David and Wayne Lewis, they shot to stardom with “When Love Calls” and “Circles” – both featuring singer Sharon Bryant. But the band’s sheer size, and the fight for control within it, led to conflicts which ultimately split the group in two. Bryant was replaced by Barbara Weathers, after which Atlantic Starr achieved its greatest success with “Always.” But more personality conflicts spurred Weathers to quit the band, leading to a steady march of replacement singers, and ultimately, to the departure of key songwriter David Lewis himself. In this episode of ‘Unsung’, members of Atlantic Starr, past and present, come together for the first time to discuss candidly the rise and fall of a group whose bonds of friendship frayed in the crucible of making music.
Freddie Jackson (January 23) – Freddie Jackson’s soulful ballads are the stuff of velvet sheets, intimate encounters and rose petaled Jacuzzis. With nine number one hits, including ‘Rock Me Tonight (For Old Times Sake)’ and ‘You Are My Lady’, Freddie gave voice to sentiments men often struggled to communicate, and women longed to hear. But super-stardom wasn’t all strawberries and whipped cream. Struggling with his weight since childhood, Freddie found his persona at odds with his ballooning figure, while whispers questioning his sexuality swirled amongst fans. Through the 1980s, Freddie helped catapult the Hush productions sound to the R&B forefront – but when the hits ran out, he found himself facing financial ruin. In this revealing episode of ‘Unsung’, Freddie and his closest collaborators, including Melba Moore and M’lissa Morgan, chart his popular success and his personal struggles.
Full Force (January 30) – Few musical artists can boast a career as wide-ranging, influential and yet truly ‘unsung’ as Brooklyn’s Full Force. For more than three decades the pioneering three brother, three cousin collective have broken ground as writers, producers and performers. They’ve helped launch the careers of pop stars as diverse as Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, the Backstreet Boys and Cheryl Pepsii Riley, while reviving the career of the Godfather himself, James Brown. They gained cult status after portraying hilarious bullies in the classic comedy “House Party”, by playing up their buffed out & Jheri curled image, and rocked the dance floor with irresistible jams like ‘Ain’t My Type of Hype’ and ‘Alice, I Want You Just For Me!’ But behind the scenes, the band members have battled career ups and downs, along with health issues that have imperiled one member’s survival. On this remarkable episode of Unsung’, one of popular music’s most prolific musical families gets busy one more time.
Millie Jackson (February 6) – Millie Jackson’s voice was enough to make her an R&B singing star, but it was what she said between songs – and how she said it – that made her famous. Tackling topics previously considered taboo, and with unrivaled comic timing, Millie spoke to a generation of young black women who didn’t often hear themselves represented on TV or on the radio. Years later, her place in music history grew when the first wave of female hip-hop stars anointed her the Godmother of Rap. From renegade to pioneer, Millie made her mark. Now, along with testimony from some of the artists she’s influenced, including Roxanne Chante’ and Da Brat, Millie Jackson tells her story to ‘Unsung’ – and needless to say, she doesn’t mince words.
Ray Parker, Jr. (February 13) – Whether singing, playing guitar, or crafting smooth-sailing hits like ‘Jack and Jill, ‘The Other Woman’ or ‘You Can’t Change That’, Ray Parker Jr. made success look easy. But behind the show-biz façade, Parker was an obsessive musician – a guitarist who’d cut his teeth with Motown’s house band, the Funk brothers, as a teenager, and later played with Stevie Wonder and Barry White. Long before his emergence as a headliner, he’d written hits for White and Chaka Khan, while crafting a Grammy winning single for Leo Sayer – ‘You Make Me Feel Like Dancing’ – for which he never received credit, a hard lesson in business that drove him to contemplate suicide. All of which was just a prelude to Parker’s own Grammy winning triumph with ‘Ghostbusters’ – and the controversy which followed, in which he stood accused of plagiarizing someone else’s hit. A double-dose of baby mama drama, family loss, and an ill-advised decision to leave his safe haven at Arista Records accelerated his descent from the top of the charts. But Ray Parker proved unsinkable, and along with testimony from his extended musical family – including Cheryl Lynn, Chaka Khan and Clive Davis – he tells ‘Unsung’ the tale of his still-unfolding journey.
Sheila E. (and the E. family) (February 20) – While the Jacksons, Sylvers and Debarge define family singing groups, the Escovedos are something else: a family that learned how to stay together by playing together. Even before Sheila E. garnered international celebrity for 80’s mega hits “The Glamorous Life” and “A Love Bizarre,” her father, brothers and extended family were acclaimed musicians, with associations ranging from Santana to Tito Puente, Lionel Richie, Jennifer Lopez, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. Of course, Sheila remains the family’s shining star, whose partnership with Prince on songs like ‘A Love Bizarre’ and ‘Erotic City’ produced plenty of heat on stage and off. But her rise to the top as a lovely Latina with serious musical chops came with a cost, including serious health issues, and a childhood trauma which would shadow her direction in decades to come. On this episode of ‘Unsung’, Sheila, her father, and her talented siblings come together to trace the remarkable journey of Oakland’s musical first family.
David Ruffin (February 27) – The raspy and anguished lead voice on mega-hits “My Girl,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” and “I Know (I’m Losing You),” David Ruffin was the center of The Temptations in their peak years. But his expanding ego forced his bandmates to cut ties with him in 1968. And with only one significant solo hit, “My Whole World Ended,” Ruffin never again reached the heights he’d enjoyed as the swoon-inducing leader of The Tempts. In private life, David was a talented, self-tortured soul, capable of kindness and generosity along with untempered anger. But drug abuse wore him down in the ’70s and ’80s, costing him precious opportunities to reunite with friends and former bandmates, and damaging his relationships with those closest to his heart. Less than two years after joining The Temptations onstage for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he was found dead from an apparent drug overdose at the age 50. Now, his family, friends and musical associates come together to help ‘Unsung’ portray the tumultuous life and career of a legendary singer.
Whodini (March 5) – With a string of up-tempo, R&B inflected hits in the mid to late 1980’s, the New York bred rap trio of Jalil Hutchins, John Fletcher (aka Ecstasy) and Drew Carter (aka Grandmaster Dee) dominated the Billboard charts to become one of rap’s first superstars. Along with Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, LL Cool J, RUN-DMC & The Fat Boys, they helped define hip hop’s ‘golden age’ with platinum success. And with hits like “Friends,” “Big Mouth” & “Five Minutes of Funk,” Whodini mastered a difficult magic trick by making danceable music that was reflective and thoughtful. But along with the perks of success, Whodini battled drug addictions, squabbles over money and clashing egos, which ultimately caused the group to break up. Yet the group never completely lost sight of their earlier ambitions, reuniting after realizing they were stronger together than apart. For ‘Unsung’, Whodini’s members tell the story of a fun-loving, trailblazing brotherhood who have survived 3 decades of wild ups and downs.
“There’s no better way for TV One to say Happy New Year to our viewers than with new episodes of Unsung,” said TV One Executive Vice President of Original Programming Toni Judkins. “We are honored that Unsung has become a beloved classic, and are confident that these talented artists and their stories will resonate with our viewers and continue to build on Unsung’s legacy of helping to paint a richer portrait of black music in America.”