Funk music artists
An experience common to almost everyone who stepped onto a dance floor in the mid-1980s was hearing an upbeat, bass-heavy number called "Let It Whip." The song's popularity extended well beyond its base among R&B listeners, and it remained a dance-hall favorite into the hip-hop era. The group that made "Let It Whip" a hit was the Dazz Band, a sizable Cleveland ensemble with roots in Ohio's rich tradition of funk and jazz. While they never matched the success of "Let It Whip," Dazz Band produced consistent hits for several years during the 1980s, with talents that extended beyond funk into complex jazz-tinged arrangements and other styles.
The moving force behind the Dazz Band was singer and saxophonist Bobby Harris, who attended Cleveland's now-defunct John Adams High School and worked for a while toward a career as a jazz instrumentalist. "In Cleveland I was more known for playing saxophone in the clubs. I spent more years doing that than anything else. Jazz was my first love," he told Kevin C. Johnson of the Akron Beacon Journal. But by the early 1970s vigorous new trends in African-American music were established in Ohio, with Canton's O'Jays and Dayton's Ohio Players, among others, attaining national popularity with funk and R&B styles featuring large horn sections. Harris got on the bandwagon in 1974 with a funk-jazz fusion band called Bell Telefunk, which played nightspots such as Cleveland's Agora.
Taking on members of other groups, the band landed an ongoing gig at the Kinsman Grille. Many clubgoers thought that the venue lent its name to Bell Telfunk's next incarnation as Kinsman Dazz, but according to Harris he chose the name because he had grown up on Kinsman Street on Cleveland's east side. The "Dazz" name was a contraction of "danceable jazz," which was a good summary of the group's style; growing to a rotating membership of between eight and ten players, the group specialized in tight, dense arrangements in the style of R&B stalwarts Earth Wind & Fire.
Stabilizing as an eight-man group, Kinsman Dazz was signed to the Twentieth Century Fox label in 1978. They recorded the albums Kinsman Dazz (1978) and Dazz (1979), reaching the lower levels of Billboard magazine's national Black Albums sales chart and scoring minor successes with several singles. In Cleveland they were a major regional attraction, playing a circuit that included the Theatrical Restaurant, the Sir Rah House, and the Riviera Country Club. In 1980, dissatisfied with the support they were receiving at Twentieth Century Fox, the group moved to the Motown label, which by then was headquartered in Los Angeles, and shortened their name to the Dazz Band. That year they released their Motown debut, Invitation to Love, following it up with Let the Music Play in 1981.
That album marked a continuation of their upward trajectory, reaching the Black Albums Top 40 and cracking the pop top 200. By this point, the Dazz Band's membership included Harris, Pierre DeMudd, and Skip Martin III on horns, saxes, and vocals, guitarist Eric Fearman, keyboardist Steve Cox, bassist Michael Wiley, and percussionists Kenny Pettus and Isaac Wiley. The Dazz Band's third Motown release, Keep It Live, appeared in 1982 and featured input from Motown-associated West Coast talent such as producer Reggie Andrews. Andrews and drummer Leon "Ndugu" Chancler composed "Let It Whip," which appeared on Keep It Live and became the Dazz Band's trademark.
It wasn't just the fast-moving bass of "Let It Whip" that made the song a success. The record benefited from one of the key techniques of marketing in popular music, especially African-American popular music, at the time: independent promotion. Motown, in fact, wanted a different song to be released as a single and refused to devote promotional resources to "Let It Whip." But Dazz Band manager Joe Simone, who had backed the group since its days in Cleveland, put up $75,000 of his own money to hire promoters to pitch the record to R&B radio. "We did radio and record store tours all along the West Coast, like army troops," Cox recalled to Deanna R. Adams, as quoted in her book Rock 'n' Roll and the Cleveland Connection. "And as we worked and worked the record, it started climbing the charts. Then Motown looks at Billboard one day and goes, ‘Looks like we got a hit.’ That's when they started what's called chasing it. They got the credit, but it was really all Joe's doing."
"Let It Whip" temporarily put the Dazz Band on top of the R&B world. Keep It Live topped Billboard's Black Albums chart and made the top 15 of the general Pop Albums chart as the song crossed over beyond R&B audiences; the single itself hit the pop top five and garnered a Grammy Award for Best Performance by an R&B Group or Duo. The group spent the next year opening for superstar acts such as Kool & the Gang, Rick James, and the Commodores. They never quite reached those heights again, but their next two albums, Joystick and On the One, reached the Black Albums top 15, and they began to gain a following beyond the United States as the hard-funk "Let It All Blow" became a hit in Britain. The Dazz Band was also popular in Japan and remained together for tours there even after passing its commercial prime at home.
The band moved to the Geffen label for the Wild & Free album in 1986 and then to RCA for 1988's Rock the Room, but they failed to recapture their momentum. The Dazz Band continued to exist, sometimes appearing on package shows with other R&B groups of the era. Their classic funk sound attracted younger artists playing the harder-edged styles that arose in the 1990s; in Johnson's words, the Dazz Band became "one of those funk bands from the '70s and '80s many of today's younger R&B acts mention when speaking of early influences." With Harris as the only consistent member among more than 20 Dazz Band lineups, the group continued to record, releasing the live album Double Exposure to some success on the Atlanta-based independent label Intersound in 1997. As of 2008 their most recent release was 2001's Time Traveler, although they had continued to perform as late as 2006.
For the Record …
Members include: Steve Cox , keyboards; Pierre DeMudd , vocals and horns; Eric Fearman , keyboards; Bobby Harris , founder, vocals, keyboards; Skip Martin III , vocals and horns; Kenny Pettus , percussion; Isaac Wiley , percussion; Michael Wiley , bass.
Formed as Bell Telefunk, Cleveland, OH, 1974; changed name to Kinsman Dazz; signed to Twentieth Century Fox label, 1978; released album Kinsman Dazz; signed to Motown label, 1980; changed name to the Dazz Band; recorded seven albums for Motown, including Keep it Live (1982); recorded for Geffen, RCA, and Intersound labels, late 1980s and 1990s.
Awards: Grammy Award, Best Performance by an R&B Group or Duo, for "Let It Whip," 1982.
(As Kinsman Dazz) Kinsman Dazz, Twentieth Century Fox, 1978.
(As Kinsman Dazz) Dazz, Twentieth Century Fox, 1979.
Invitation to Love, Motown, 1980.
Let the Music Play, Motown, 1981.
Keep It Live, Motown, 1982.
Joystick, Motown, 1983.
On the One, Motown, 1983.
Jukebox, Motown, 1984.
Hot Spot, Motown, 1985.
Wild & Free, Geffen, 1986.
Rock the Room, RCA, 1988.
Funkology: The Definitive Dazz Band, Motown, 1994.
Under the Streetlights, LKY, 1995.
Double Exposure, Intersound, 1997.
Here We Go Again, Intersound, 1998.
Time Traveler, Major Hits, 2001.
20th Century Masters—The Millennium Collection: The Best of the Dazz Band, Motown, 2001.
Adams, Deanna R., Rock 'n' Roll and the Cleveland Connection, Kent State University Press, 2002.
Akron Beacon Journal, June 19, 1997, p. F2.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, ON, Canada), October 4, 1985.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), June 14, 2002, p. 16.
Recorder (Indianapolis, IN), July 7, 2006, p. 20.
Skanner (Portland, OR), November 5, 1980, p. 12.
"Dazz Band," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (June 25, 2008).
—James M. Manheim
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