In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
In the late ’80s, the sound of R&B changed. Drums got louder. Tempos got faster. Club-ready programmed beats started to dominate. The silky quiet storm ballads of the early ’80s slowly faded from the pop charts. R&B had to keep up with Prince and his Minneapolis associates, with rap music, and with the big-boom pop music that got played in clubs. The genre adjusted, but that adjustment didn’t happen all at once. It took time. And in the summer of 1987, one last piece of proudly gloopy adult-contempo balladry fought its way out of the R&B charts, finally topping the Hot 100 for a week. Atlantic Starr’s “Always” was the group’s crowning achievement, and it might’ve also been the last crossover R&B hit of its kind.
By the time Atlantic Starr scored their sole #1 hit, the group had been around for more than a decade. The band started up in the New York suburb of White Plains, and they moved to Westwood, California in 1977, playing the nightclub circuit in the area. This was a big band — nine members — but three brothers made up the nucleus of the group. David, Wayne, and Jonathan Lewis wrote the songs. David and Wayne played keyboards and sang, though their vocals usually backed up those of lead singer Sharon Bryant. Jonathan played trombone and percussion. All of them chipped in with different instruments as needed. At first, Atlantic Starr called themselves Newban, but they changed the new name at the request of former Number Ones artist Herb Alpert after Alpert signed them to his A&M label.
The newly rechristened Atlantic Starr released their self-titled debut album in 1978, and they recorded it with producer Bobby Eli, the former Philly soul studio musician who once led former Number Ones artists MFSB. Atlantic Starr’s first single, the lush disco track “Stand Up,” reached #16 on the R&B chart, but it didn’t cross over to the Hot 100. For years, that was how things went for Atlantic Starr. Most of their singles made the R&B chart. None of them went pop. That didn’t change until the band’s fourth album. Their slick 1982 funk-pop single “Circles,” recorded with Lionel Richie producer James Anthony Carmichael, reached #2 on the R&B charts, higher than any Atlantic Starr single before it. It also made it to #38 on the Hot 100.
The three Lewis brothers actually wrote their ballad “Always” in 1982, when they were working on their modestly titled album Brilliance with Carmichael. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Wayne Lewis says that Carmichael “decided that it wasn’t the right time. He wanted us to hold on to it. We never ended up using it with him.” Based on that, it sure sounds like Carmichael didn’t like “Always” at all — which is odd, considering that it sounds a whole lot like a Lionel Richie song.
While Atlantic Starr were working on the follow-up to Brilliance, the band basically broke up. Five of the nine members, including singer Sharon Bryant, rebelled against the Lewis brothers, trying to take control over the group’s direction. James Anthony Carmichael got sick of the fighting, and he quit working on the 1983 album Yours Forever before it was finished. The Lewis brothers, dissatisfied with the LP, didn’t even want it to come out. Yours Forever did come out, and it flopped.
Talking to the Los Angeles Times soon afterwards, Wayne Lewis said that the discord within the group killed the album: “Everybody wanted to do what David and I were doing. We’re the main writers, and we work hand-in-hand with the producers. All of a sudden everybody, had their own ideas about concepts and directions… The magic wasn’t there.” In the same interview, Wayne claimed that A&M had frozen the group’s royalties. They were going broke. When the other five musicians left Atlantic Starr, the group was down to just the three Lewis brothers and percussionist Joe Phillips. They recruited a new female singer, the 21-year-old North Carolina native Barbara Weathers, and they kept going as a quintet.
Atlantic Starr’s next album, 1985’s As The Band Turns, was their last for A&M. It turned out to be their breakthrough. The Lewis brothers started producing themselves, and their cheaters’ ballad “Secret Lovers” became an out-of-nowhere hit, peaking at #3 on the Hot 100. (“Secret Lovers” is a 3.) That hit pushed As The Band Turns to become the first Atlantic Starr album to go gold. Around the same time, their former singer Sharon Bryant went solo, and she turned down all the Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis tracks that would later become the Janet Jackson blockbuster Control. Bryant’s highest-charting single, 1989’s “Let Go,” peaked at #34. That’s just a stunning run of bad career decisions for Sharon Bryant. I’m weirdly impressed.
Soon after the success of As The Band Turns, Atlantic Starr moved over to Warner Bros — a new signing for Warner’s R&B exec Benny Medina, a former Motown A&R guy whose life would later serve as the inspiration for the TV show The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air. The group, tired of being pigeonholed as sedate balladeers, wanted to release a fast song as the first single from their 1987 album All In The Name Of Love, but Medina convinced them that “Always,” the as-yet-unrecorded ballad that they’d written five years ago, was the winner. He was right.
It’s hard to figure out quite why “Always” clicked the way it did. It’s a slow, chintzy love song, and its lyrics are pure cliché mush: “Ooh, you’re like the sun, chasing all of the rain away/ When you come around, you bring brighter days.” Wayne Lewis and Barbara Weathers sing “Always” as a duet, and both of them sing about love as an uncomplicated, blissful state. Neither of them acknowledge any kind of struggle or difficulty. It’s just two people professing that they’re in love and that they will be in love forever.
At one point on “Always,” Wayne Lewis sings, “Come with me, my sweet/ Let’s go make a family/ And they will bring us joy for always.” This is an awfully sunny vision of what it’s like to raise kids! Maybe “Always” is an attempt to immortalize the misty optimism of a relationship’s early days. Maybe that lends the song a certain pathos. Maybe the inevitable moments of anger and sadness and frustration are just lingering outside of the song’s frame. Or maybe I’m giving “Always” too much credit. Maybe it’s just a too-slick love song — an attempt to turn complicated and intense human emotion into Hallmark-card sentiment.
“Always” definitely sounds like Hallmark-card sentiment. The Lewis brothers’ production is sheer ’80s gloop: Fake strings, melodramatic Fender Rhodes plinks, painfully artificial synthetic flute-tootles, gated-drum booms. The two singers deliver the lyrics with a sort of variety-show cheeriness. They’re both gifted without being too showy about it, but you can practically hear the plastered-on smiles in their vocals. All that grating sap threatens to drown out what’s actually a really nice melody.
In the Bronson book, Wayne says that his brother Jonathan’s chord progression is “kind of hymnal, but with a country-western edge and also an R&B edge.” I’m not sure “Always” has any kind of edge, but he’s right about that combination of elements. It’s the same combination that drove so many Lionel Richie ballads up the charts earlier in the decade, and it works pretty nicely on “Always.” As a first dance at a wedding, or as a slow number at a high school prom, I bet “Always” did the job.
On the strength of “Always,” All In The Name Of Love became the only platinum album in Atlantic Starr’s career. But that version of Atlantic Starr did not last for always. Once the album cycle was over, Barbara Weathers became the second lead singer to leave Atlantic Starr. She went solo, but her career went nowhere. Atlantic Starr were, in fact, on their fourth singer by the time they made 1991’s “Masterpiece,” their third and final crossover hit. (“Masterpiece” peaked at #3. It’s a 5.)
All that turnover makes me wonder how the members of Atlantic Starr treated the women in the group. Maybe Sharon Bryant’s career decisions weren’t so bad. Atlantic Starr are still touring and performing today, though Wayne and Jonathan Lewis are the only original members still with the group. We won’t see them in this column again. We’ll see a whole lot more R&B ballads, but they won’t take quite the same form as “Always.”
BONUS BEATS: Here’s PM Dawn’s video for the 1991 single “Reality Used To Be A Friend Of Mine,” which samples “Always”:
(PM Dawn will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: When the man formerly known as Zev Love X rechristened himself MF DOOM, he chopped up a sample of “Always” and even sang a bit of it on his 1997 debut single “Dead Bent.” Here’s DOOM’s video for the track:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the R&B singer Megan Rochell singing “Always” on the hook of Method Man’s 2006 track “4 Ever”:
(Method Man’s highest-charting single, the 1995 Mary J. Blige collab “I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need To Get By,” peaked at #3. It’s a 9.)