WHY CAN'T I TOUCH YOU?
By Mark Anthony Neal
Tuesday, June 9, 2009.
A few years ago, I sat in a hotel lobby in Greensboro, North Carolina, talking with R&B singer Rahsaan Patterson about his artistic influences. Patterson cited Eddie Kendricks, Frankie Lymon and Russell Thompkins, Jr. as obvious exemplars of the falsetto style that he represents so exquisitely today. But when the name of Ronnie Dyson is mentioned, Patterson is almost beside himself:
“Dyson had a beautiful [expletive] voice. Beautiful,” exclaimed Patterson, adding that the late Pop-Soul singer was “one of the first voices that I remember hearing that possessed this quality in a male voice that was different from even some of the falsetto guys that I mentioned before.”
Patterson was not alone. As Earl Calloway, longtime arts critic at the Chicago Defender wrote of the singer, “Dyson has the voice and talent to become the supreme super star of the ‘70s in the manner of Nat “King” Cole, Billy Eckstine, Frank Sinatra or even greater.” Yet some 35 years after Calloway's prediction, Ronnie Dyson, who died in 1990, has remained, at best, an afterthought and at worst, totally forgotten. What happened?
Born in Washington, DC in 1950 and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Dyson spent his early years singing in the choir at the Washington Temple in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of the borough. Dyson’s big break came in the spring of 1968 when he was cast, at age 17, in the Broadway production of the groundbreaking “rock musical” Hair. Dyson’s star-turn in the musical occurred at the opening with his rendition of “Aquarius”—a song purportedly written for him. That audiences are most familiar with The Fifth Dimension’s medley version of “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” which topped the pop charts for six weeks in 1969 and earned the group two Grammy Awards in 1970 as “Record of the Year” and “Best Vocal Performance by a Group” (both mainstream pop categories), speaks volumes about the difficulties that Dyson faced very early in his professional career.
Dyson had the misfortune, perhaps, to emerge in the late 1960s recording in the same era as signature Soul Men such as Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, and Donny Hathaway. Unlike many of his peers, Dyson’s musical sensibilities were more geared to the theater and the cabaret as than the Chitlin’ Circuit of the day. Dyson was above all, a song stylist who was most comfortable singing tunes in the vein of aforementioned Fifth Dimension, Nancy Wilson, Dionne Warwick, and Johnny Mathis.
At the dawning of the 1970s and with Stax and Motown defining the sounds of Blackness for mainstream audiences, pitching the youthful Dyson to mainstream audiences with show tunes and 1960s pop standards was going to be a difficult sell. As such, Dyson spent the better part of the first decade of his career trying to find his voice. Nevertheless, it was a show tune, “(If You Let Me Make Love To You) Why Can’t I Touch You?,” from the musical Salvation! that gave Dyson his first taste of pop stardom in 1970, peaking at #9 on both the Pop and Soul charts.
Dyson followed up “Why Can’t I Touch You,” with a cover of Chuck Jackson’s (another progenitor of “white bread Soul”) “I Don’t Wanna Cry,” which made a tepid entry into the pop charts. Dyson then began to work, on what would be the most ambitious project on his career.
In 1973, Dyson released One Man Band, working with the production and songwriting duo of Thom Bell and Linda Creed. Though Bell had earlier success with his work with The Delfonics and The Stylistics, his skills were in particular demand in 1973 after he had resurrected the careers of Motown cast-offs The Spinners and turned the group into the epitome of 1970s era Corporate Soul. Clearly Dyson’s record company, Columbia, was hoping find such success, not just for Dyson, but also Johnny Mathis who recorded I’m Coming Home with Bell and Creed in 1973.
Dyson expressed excitement at the time telling the Atlanta Daily World, “I feel very good about the new product I recorded with Thom Bell. He’s probably the hottest producer in the world today…[and] his writing partner Linda Creed also helped a great deal,” adding that “they’re both dynamic people.”
Bell’s work with Dyson and Mathis was arguably some of the finest of his career and One Man Band is one of the best testaments to Dyson’s own talents, but neither recording found an audience. To add insult to injury, the second single from One Man Band, “Just Don’t Wanna Be Lonely” barely charted for Dyson, though the same song would become a major crossover hit for The Main Ingredient six months later. Granted, The Main Ingredient, then led by Cuba Gooding, Sr. was a known pop entity—their 1972 single Everybody Plays the Fool peaked at #2 on the pop charts—and their version of the song was arguably a better product, but there’s still little explanation as to why the song didn’t help Dyson find more success.
It would be nearly three years before Dyson would capture audience attention again and in the interim there were minor shifts in the black musical landscape as the so-called Philly Sound, culled by The Mighty Three outfit of Bell, Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff (using the same Philadelphia based musicians) and disco began to catch the attention of the major labels.
Part of that shift also included the emergence of the duo of Chuck Jackson (not the legendary singer) and Marvin Yancy, who initially met in Chicago at one of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s (Chuck’s brother) Operation Breadbasket gatherings. After recording some deep Soul with The Independents, Jackson and Yancy found mainstream success with Natalie Cole who became a major pop star courtesy of Jackson and Yancy compositions like “This Will Be,” “Mr. Melody” and “I’ve Got Love on My Mind.” Indeed, Dyson’s work with the duo allowed him not only an re-introduction to Black audiences, but a another shot at crossover success. As Dyson noted at the time, “those times I fell from the public eye made it hard to get the acceptance back…but meeting Chuck and Marvin was like a whole new life.”
The initial product of Dyson’s work with Jackson and Yancy was The More You Do It (1976). The lead single and title track became Dyson’s highest charting single ever on the R&B Charts and in the parlance of record company executives, easily the “blackest” recording in Dyson’s oeuvre. Dyson followed up The More You Do It with Love in All Flavors (1977) and both recordings are testament to Jackson and Yancy providing, perhaps, the best musical environment for Dyson’s talents. Highlights from the recordings include a stellar and jaw-dropping rendition of Major Harris’s “Love Won’t Let Me Wait” (the likely template for Luther Vandross’s later version of the song) and Jackson and Yancy originals “Ain’t Nothing Wrong” and “No Way” which are on-par with the best of any of the Soul and R&B ballads produced at the time.
For the next decade of his career, Dyson essentially followed trends, mainly to the dance floor, though his subsequent recordings If the Shoe Fits (1979), Phase 2 (1982) and Brand New Day (1983) all contained glimpses of Dyson’s vocal genius, particularly on the track “Say You Will” from Phase 2. “All Over Your Face” was Dyson’s last foray onto the charts, finding some favor among audiences congregating in spaces like The Paradise Garage and The Loft. After a brief appearance on the soundtrack on Spike Lee’s first theatrical release She’s Gotta Have It (1986), Dyson disappeared from the public eye. After years of chain-smoking and other excesses, Dyson died at the age of 40 in November of 1990.
There are lots of reasons to speculate as to why someone with Dyson’s talents never achieved more lasting success; indeed the recording industry is littered with exceptional talents who never find the right material or audience. As a singer who craved mainstream success, at a historical moment when mainstream record companies were more concerned with selling “black” music to black audiences and much less interested in selling black artists to white audiences, Dyson had a difficult path to follow. His were difficulties that were shared by figures like Johnny Mathis (after the 1960s), Clint Holmes (“Playground in My Mind’), Al Wilson (“Show and Tell”) and a host of other black male singers from the era.
When acts like Lionel Ritchie, Michael Jackson, and to a lesser extent, Jeffrey Osborne began to generate a mainstream appeal in the early 1980s and transcend the black music divisions at the major labels, they did so after cultivating a strong following among black audiences—audiences that in some instances they never recovered after they crossed-over. In the case of Dyson, he was a black pop singer that really had to cultivate a black following, and he never quite found that balance.
But Ronnie Dyson, if we are to be honest, was also challenged by his quite different investment in the performance of black masculinity at the time. This is part of what Rahsaan Patterson alludes to in his remembrance of Dyson as possessing “this quality in a male voice that was different.” Dyson, like Jimmy Scott before him and Rahsaan Paterson after him, possessed a vocal instrument that deconstructed and collapsed our notions of the hyper-sexualized black male soul singers of his era like Teddy Pendergrass and Barry White and Wilson Pickett from an earlier generation.
In an arena in which the range of black male emotions continued to be restricted by corporate desires for only certain mode of black male expression, Ronnie Dyson was simply too emotive. In light of his own singing style Patterson admits “The fact that I can consciously sing a song in falsetto, knowing that people are gonna ask, 'Is that a girl?' doesn't bother me at all… It's scares them, because it's raw and it's real and it's human and it has no contrived phony bullshit on top of it. It's raw emotion."
As Ernest Hardy brilliantly argues in his two volume collection Blood Beats "naked emotionalism renders almost any male in American culture suspect, but especially if he's of the Negro persuasion, and most especially if the emotion is not exaggeratedly countered with macho or thug signifiers." In simple terms, Ronnie Dyson was too suspect for much of his career.
In the end, Ronnie Dyson left an incredible body of work—much of it unavailable commercially at this time—and offers an example of a black male singer who was comfortable in his body—or rather, comfortable in his voice. Rahsaan Patterson perhaps says it best when he says that Ronnie Dyson “had this really independent spirit and freedom to just sing and express who he was.”
Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books including What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture (1999) and Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation (2003). He is currently completing Looking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities for NYU Press.
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