Lucien, Jon 1942–2007

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Jon Lucien 1942–2007

Vocalist

With a deep baritone voice, a fund of original compositions, and a knack for creating arrangements that wove Latin rhythms into a rhythm and blues ballad style, Jon Lucien was a key forerunner of the smooth vocals that dominated the quieter side of urban and adult-contemporary radio for several decades. Never a top chart performer, Lucien was more of an artist ahead of his time. Influencing rhythm and blues balladeers such as Teddy Pendergrass, Al Jarreau, and Luther Vandross directly, he even found himself idolized in later life by young acid-jazz and electronica performers who noticed the distinctive rhythmic styles in his music and turned his albums of the 1970s into collectors' items.

Jon Lucien was born Lucien Harrigan (or John Lucien Harrigan) on Tortola, one of the British Virgin Islands, on January 8, 1942. He was raised mostly on St. Thomas, a nearby island that is part of the United States. Lucien's father, Eric “Rico” Harrigan, made a living as a guitarist, and Lucien grew up surrounded by music. He mastered the piano and guitar as a child, and by his teenage years he was playing the bass in his father's band, Rico and the Rhythmaires. In love with the music of vocalist Nat King Cole, he realized that singing was his greatest talent.

In 1961 he moved to New York. Experiencing little success at first, he made ends meet by singing jingles for commercials and performing at weddings and bar mitzvahs in the mountain resort belt of the Catskills north of the city. Sources differ as to whether he took the name Jon Lucien on his own initiative during this period or was given the name after being signed to the RCA label. Regardless, his breakthrough occurred in 1969, when an RCA executive happened to attend a wedding at which Lucien was performing.

Recorded I Am Now

Lucien's first album, I Am Now, appeared in 1970. Marketing Lucien as “the black Sinatra,” RCA furnished him with a set of songs by other writers. The album established Lucien as a romantic crooner but featured string arrangements that left him little room to stretch out into the relaxed phrasing that would later lead some programmers and retailers to classify him as a jazz artist. I Am Now had only modest commercial success, and it was not until 1973 that RCA released Lucien's second album, Rashida. With this album, Lucien began to assume greater control over the artistic direction of his music.

For one thing, he composed all the songs on Rashida, in contrast to the vast majority of pop vocal albums in which a singer interprets the creations of other songwriters. The songs on Rashida, several of which had women's first names for their titles, were originals that seemed to tell distinctive relationship stories. The album, noted Jason Elias of the All Music Guide, “solidified Lucien's status as a purveyor of intelligent romantic ballads and poetic if not gushy lyrics.” Lucien also conceptualized some of the arrangements on the album, during which he began to incorporate the Caribbean and Brazilian rhythms that became his trademark. As his career progressed, he filled more and more of the producer's role without being credited as such—something that began to weigh on him as he searched for a commercial breakthrough.

Lucien followed up Rashida with Mind's Eye in 1974. “With fiery bossa guitars, electric fretless bass, a chorus of backing singers, a few well-placed synthesizers, insistent yet muted percussion, and the uncanny arrangements of Dave Grusin (who also orchestrated Rashida),” wrote Thom Jurek of the All Music Guide, “the album was a sure hit.” Unfortunately, record buyers did not agree, and Lucien moved to the Columbia label for Song for My Lady (1975)—which contained one of his durable radio successes, a cover of Brazilian songwriter Antonio Carlos Jobim's “Dindi,”—and Premonition (1976). Even though these releases once again failed to make much of an impact commercially, Lucien was admired by jazz musicians, including those in the hit fusion group Weather Report, for whom he made a guest appearance on the 1978 album Mr. Gone.

Overcame Drug Addiction

By the time Premonition appeared, Lucien was becoming frustrated with the music business. The Frank Sinatra comparison rankled him. “The record company was attempting to package me as a sort of ‘black Sinatra,’” he was quoted as saying by Ben Sisario of the New York Times. “Once the white women started to swoon at my performances, their attitudes quickly changed.” He also felt that the structure of the industry prevented him from receiving full credit for his creative contributions. “The truth is, I was scared of the business,” he recalled to Benilde Little of Essence. “By the time I made my fifth album I began to realize that I was doing all the music and coming up with all the ideas. [Not] that I'm in dire need of attention, but I should've been getting the producer credit. I just thought, I've got to get outta here.”

Another reason for Lucien's restlessness was that he was increasingly troubled by cocaine abuse. Tragedy compounded his difficulties when one of his daughters from his third marriage (he was married four times) died in a drowning accident in 1980. During the 1980s Lucien was mostly inactive in music, moving first to Portugal and then to Los Angeles. Finally, he kicked his drug habit. “I don't know what made me stop using drugs. Nobody else can make you stop, but I did,” he told Little. Seeking renewal, he returned to his home region of the Caribbean, living for a time in Gurabo, Puerto Rico.

Lucien attempted a comeback with the 1991 album Listen Love, released on the Mercury label. When his first albums appeared in the 1970s, the adult-contemporary, smooth jazz, and so-called quiet storm radio formats were still mostly in the future, but by the early 1990s they were well established—and Lucien's old songs were staples of many playlists. Lucien finally experienced a measure of commercial success as the album topped Billboard's Contemporary Jazz sales chart. He also drew younger crowds to his concerts in the United Kingdom, where acid-jazz disc jockeys often sampled his early recordings.

At a Glance …

Born on January 8, 1942, on Tortola, British Virgin Islands; died of respiratory failure on August 18, 2007, in Orlando, Florida; married four times; five children (two deceased).

Career: Began performing on bass with father's band in U.S. Virgin Islands; moved to New York, 1961; performed at resorts and on commercial soundtracks, 1960s; signed to RCA label, 1969; released debut album, I Am Now, 1970; recording artist, 1973-2007.

In 1996 Lucien was touched by tragedy once again: His daughter Dalila was killed in the crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island. Lucien's 1997 release Endless Is Love, on the roots-oriented Shanachie label, was dedicated to her. Honored two years later with Sweet Control (1999), a greatest-hits collection on the hip Razor & Tie label, Lucien started his own label, Sugar Apple Music. He released a steady stream of albums in the last decade of his life, including the 2002 effort Man from Paradise, in which he made a direct connection with his Virgin Islands roots, and Live in NYC (2004). He was slowed by kidney problems in the mid-2000s but recovered with the help of dialysis treatments to a point where he could perform on the Superstars of Jazz Fusion tour. He died of respiratory failure in Orlando, Florida, on August 18, 2007. Remaining on his Web site after his death was his own description of his music: “I would say my sound is a romantic sound … it's water … it's ocean … it's tranquility.”

Selected discography

I Am Now, RCA, 1970.

Rashida, RCA, 1973.

Mind's Eye, RCA, 1974.

Song for My Lady, Columbia, 1975.

Premonition, Columbia, 1976.

Listen Love, Mercury, 1991.

Mother Nature's Son, PolyGram, 1993.

Endless Is Love, Shanachie, 1997.

By Request, Shanachie, 1999.

Sweet Control: The Best of Jon Lucien, Razor & Tie, 1999.

Man from Paradise, Sugar Apple, 2002.

Lucien Romantico, Sugar Apple, 2003.

Live in NYC, Sugar Apple, 2004.

A Time for Love, Sugar Apple, 2004.

Sources

Periodicals

Essence, October 1991, p. 42.

Guardian (London, England), September 4, 2001; October 4, 2007.

Jet, September 10, 2007, p. 61.

New York Times, August 22, 2007.

Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), August 26, 2007.

Times (London), September 19, 2007.

Online

Jon Lucien,http://www.jonlucien.com (accessed January 3, 2008).

“Jon Lucien,” All Music Guide, http://wm08.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&searchlink=JONɀCIEN&sql=11:fifpxqy5ld6e˜T0 (accessed January 3, 2008).

Elias, Jason, “Review of Rashida,All Music Guide, http://wm08.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=10:kbftxqqgldse (accessed January 3, 2008).

Jurek, Thom, “Review of Mind's Eye,All Music Guide, http://wm08.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=10:abftxqqgldse (accessed January 3, 2008).

—James M. Manheim

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