[inhale] “Eyeeee!…” From those first five notes and a sigh on “Pillow Talk”, her biggest hit, Sylvia became the first female with the “Estrogen rap” that counteracted the Barry White’s and Isaac Hayes’ Testosterone macho love monologues of that day. “That’s Sexy Sylvia with Pillow Talk, ‘Iye yaye yayie!’, we DJ’s would backannounce with it appropriate double-sexy entendres, well-placed within the fade (if you were good at it, lol).
I heard that Sylvia (Robinson) passed away with the ending of September 2011 – I didn’t even know she was in ill-health! – I was saddened again at the loss of another of those who have formed my musical mind like the recent passing of Nick of “Ashford & Simpson” did. Most on-line accounts had her famed as the “Godmother of Rap music” because she produced “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang, but to me, her legacy is much, much more than that. Sylvia (Robinson) was the first woman to truly “exhale” – literally – on a hit record! So please now, get “coached-up” on some Sylvia history via “My Vinyls”, that is, prior to the rap era so that you can digest a total portrait of this sexy female pioneer and icon of popular Rhythm & Blues (Soul) music.
Her records/songs always amused me quietly while other people took them all-too seriously. Actually, her musical act cast her as Sylvia, the self-deprecating singer! The overt sexiness of “Pillow Talk” was almost scandalous at that time (1973)! Her purring was, at times, reminiscent of another female pioneer, Eartha Kitt! Six months later she teamed with Ralfi Pagan on the bi-lingual “Soul Je T’Aime” which sounds like they were really “doing it” in the studio that day. If you are like me and havent “had any” in years, this song can still almost get those “juices” flowing – especially Ralfi’s vocalizations! “Oh my Gooodd!” indeed. [Pagan died way too soon, by the way. ]
“Pillow Talk” crossed all music radio formats in 1973 for Sylvia, who I chanced to meet while commanding the WBLS
“Juicemobile” in the mid-1980s; our promotional assignment took me to the headquarters of All Platinum Records in Englewood, New Jersey one afternoon. Mrs. Robinson was a very cordial, unpretentious host for that brief moment, as I surprised them by pulling up there when I recognized the sign of a company whose sound I always admired. You see, Stang/All Platinum/Vibration Records was kind of the antithesis to the more “polished” labels like Atlantic or even Philly Groove where one of Sylvia’s main groups’ rivals,The Delfonics’ sang in direct competition with her dip-city crooners, The Moments. Their studio had a more “tinny” sound, but that was part of its charm! I first heard it on New York City’s legendary (back in the day called) Soul music WWRL AM radio when they played “Make Me Your Slave” by Willie & The Mighty Magnificents. Ms. Robinson was not yet on the writer credits, only Val Burke. “Pillow Talk” put them into the mainstream and on FM! So, now what for sexy Sylvia…? Four months later, the naughty “Didn’t I” unabashedly whispered, poked and provoked our earholes into admitting that the former “talk” left us wanting more with alto sexiphone solos and self-deprecating monologue like “at last you know… I’m not margarine, but I AM the high-priced spread…”, [a play on a TV commercial slogan of the day] punctuated by the laughing background strings. Her streak of hits was just taking-off.
She was astute enough to repeat that signature “Oh my – Godd!” from “Pillow Talk” through the ensuing follow-ups like March of 1974’s creeping under the sheets “Sweet Stuff”. This song had a firmer “bottom” and the studios of Vibration suddenly sounded more competitive even as Sylvia’s purrings were sometimes unintelligible. Funny about that: “Private Performance” came in handy during my days as a Gentleman’s Club disc jockey!
Also in 1974, she teamed-up with her label mates, those sexy Moments, on a brightly slow, simmering cooker called “Sho Nuff Boogie (Parts 1 & 2) over on All Platinum where The Moments recorded; sharing the wealth as always, a trait that would serve her producer career well as we’ve seen. And so it is late in 1974 and Sylvia his riding a string of R&B radio hits; still not rising back to that level of the “pillow”. What I love is that she was not about to stop the feeling of the day! Riding that pony, girl!, in November of 1974 she jazzed-up the former formula on, “Gimme A Little Action”. When Sylvia would whisper, “Oh my Godd…!” it was like she climaxed right there in the recording session; one of those “I wish I could have been a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ moments.
So now, by 1975 her sound is getting a bit trite, right? What does this legend do? She swivels upon her feline cats paws with a more uptempo and animated “Pussycat”. Dueting with a gentleman singer unknown to me ( but he could have been one of The Moments- do you know which one?) it didn’t do much of anything on the charts and brings us to our final vinyl “45” from sexy Sylvia. on April 22, 1976, I acquired “L.A. Sunshine” from the record shop after hearing in in-rotation on (I guess) WBLS FM. Vibration Records had a new, yellow label and Sylvia a brighter, Stang Records/moments-sound.
Sylvia began to sing more than purr on this song, even though she maintained that ‘breathy” quality that was her signature. She sang about a Los Angeles awakening, “Its nice but I can’t stay/L.A. Sunshine can’t warm this heart of mine, Baby, baby only you can make me feel like , new/Ooohh!” Sylvia established a sound that many other female artists since her day use, sometimes without a clue as to how it became acceptable to be sexy and themselves, if that is what they want to sell via music. I admired her long before the success of ‘Rappers Delight” late at night. Digging these 45s out of my closeted boxes, dusting them off and replaying them as I composed this post is a pleasant memory lane journey of romance, sensuality and rhythm. Which one is your favorite Sylvia record? What about Grandmaster Flash (“Freedom” is my favorite with her name on it) and The Sugarhill Gang [another post entirely, btw]?
Pick Hit: Too bad that whoever posted this video clipped the best part of the song, the vamp, that ran to to a total of 3:41