The “supergroup” concept first took root in 1969, when Eric Clapton teamed up with his former partner in Cream, Ginger Baker, and Traffic alumnus Steve Winwood to form Blind Faith.
The idea was to build a creative conglomerate whose collective star power would reap large record sales. But when inevitable ego clashes led to Blind Faith’s dissolution after only one album, superstar mergers became synonymous with a cynical music-biz mind-set that placed a higher premium on all-star flash than artistic merit.
Raphael Saadiq, Dawn Robinson and Ali Shaheed Muhammad are familiar with crash-and-burn scenarios associated with supergroups, but it didn’t deter the three artists, who have all spent time with high-profile acts of their own, from forming their new band, Lucy Pearl.
“I’ve always felt comfortable in a group situation. There’s so much you can learn by being in a supportive band,” says Robinson. “Plus, the burden doesn’t fall only on you if the project isn’t a hit!”
That shouldn’t be a concern, according to followers of contemporary R&B;, who have seized on the new single “Dance Tonight” as a sign of big things to come.
“The reaction [to the single] so far is phenomenal,” says Tawala Sharp, assistant music director at Los Angeles radio station KKBT-FM (92.3 the Beat). “It has such a classic R&B; sound. . . . It just got instant phone requests out of nowhere. The album is going to be one of the biggest R&B; albums for a while, up there with Lauryn [Hill], D’Angelo. Cut for cut, it’s a phenomenal album.”
The single is from the “Love and Basketball” soundtrack album, which comes out Tuesday, as well as on Lucy Pearl’s self-titled debut album, due May 23.
“You know, it’s funny,” says Allen Kovac, whose label Beyond Music is partnering with Saadiq’s Pookie Records to distribute Lucy Pearl. “Record executives like Kedar Massenburg like to take credit for creating the neo-soul movement with artists like Erykah Badu and D’Angelo, but Raphael was doing this stuff seven years ago with Tony Toni Tone.
“He’s just a phenomenally talented artist, and when you have artists like Q-Tip and D’Angelo working with him, you know the trust is gonna be there with the audience. We’re blessed that we can work with people like this.”
As the band members are quick to point out, Lucy Pearl is not a jury-rigged attempt to create commercial synergy by combining well-known names. All three members have the resources to establish solo careers if they are so inclined. After all, they came from three of the most influential or celebrated groups in R&B; and hip-hop history.
Robinson was an original member of En Vogue, the funky divas who sold millions of records in the early ‘90s with their lushly produced R&B.; (The post-Dawn En Vogue also has a new album due soon.) As the bassist and primary vocalist for the defunct Tony Toni Tone, Saadiq brought sleek style and old-school musical values to urban music during the same period, while DJ Ali provided the turntable skills for the recently disbanded A Tribe Called Quest, one of hip-hop’s most innovative and critically acclaimed bands.
So why join forces?
“The ‘Lucy’ in Lucy Pearl means it’s a very loose situation business-wise,” Saadiq says, explaining the wordplay. “No one is bound to an eight-year contract in this band. No one’s here to say what you can and can’t do.”
For musicians who have grown accustomed to hatching ideas within the hothouse environment of a band situation, Lucy Pearl is a logical move. The loosely structured business arrangement, which allows any band member to pursue other projects at any time, keeps the pressure off and the ideas flowing freely.
“Because we’ve all come from bands, we know how everything works and doesn’t work,” says Saadiq. “We all have respect as musicians in our own right, so there are no ego problems.”
Lucy Pearl’s album reflects that casual bonhomie. The tracks flow with feathery funk riffs that weave around leisurely grooves, rippling harmonies and songs that blithely disregard commercial dictates in favor of a blissed-out soul picnic. It’s not unlike the slow-burn urban cool of D’Angelo’s “Voodoo,” an album to which Saadiq contributed guitar and a song, “Untitled.” D’Angelo was originally slated to be a partner in what would become Lucy Pearl, but never joined because his own album took so long to record.
“With me and D’Angelo, it was like we were in a band,” says Saadiq, who also produced and wrote “Lady” for D’Angelo’s first album, “Brown Sugar,” and co-wrote and co-produced with Q-Tip a song for Whitney Houston’s upcoming greatest-hits album. “I like to act as a band member, you know? Just come in and do my thing, unlike producers, who just look forward to the next project.”
Body Language, Chemistry and Creative Fusion
Saadiq is the creative lightning rod for Lucy Pearl; his input is the connective tissue that allows the band’s notions, no matter how half-baked, to be turned into full-blown songs. Part teacher, part motivator, he taught Ali, whose primary skill was turntable scratching and sampling, how to play guitar and compose for the album.
“Our whole chemistry has to do with body language,” says Saadiq. “Just by looking at Dawn and Ali, I came up with things for the album. We would just roll with it, and before you knew it, the album was done.”
For Robinson, Lucy Pearl was a chance to participate in creative decisions--something in short supply during her En Vogue tenure. “With En Vogue, our producers had the tracks ready for us,” she says. “I never saw musicians. To watch the process with Lucy Pearl was really amazing. When you’re the only girl in the studio, it gives you a thicker skin and makes you a better writer.”
Saadiq and Robinson both grew up in Oakland, a breeding ground for great R&B; and funk for the past two decades.
Although Robinson and Saadiq briefly crossed paths, the two never hooked up until they formed Lucy Pearl with Ali. It was a covenant forged in the belief that song craft and musicianship deserve a place in urban music.
“Isaac Hayes once told me that there’s no such thing as old school,” says Saadiq. “Either you went to school or you didn’t.”
If that’s the case, the members of Lucy Pearl are honor students.
Times staff writer Richard Cromelin contributed to this story.