After releasing a quartet of albums on Philadelphia International Records, where Dexter Wansel was a pivotal figure in the label’s success, Dexter left Philadelphia International, signing for 10 Records, where he’d release Captured in 1986. This was Dexter’s first album since Time Is Slipping Away in 1979 and only his fifth solo album since 1976. Mind you, his previous albums were something special, with 1976s Life On Mars, followed by 1977s What Is the World Coming To and 1978s Voyager containing some great music. However, while Dexter had only produced four previous albums, he’d been kept busy writing, arranging and producing music for Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International Records. Although Dexter had moved to a new label, Captured which will be rereleased on Cherry Red’s Robinsongs label on 26 March 2012, features some familiar faces from his Philadelphia International days. Six of the ten tracks on Captured were co-written by Dexter’s songwriting partner Cynthia Biggs, who also features on the album, along with The Jones Girls, Pearl William Jones and Bunny Sigler. In many ways this made Captured a Philadelphia International reunion. With talent like this collaborating with Dexter, then Captured looks like being a feast of Philly soul. However, before I tell you about the music on Captured, I’ll tell you about the background to the album.
By the eighties, Dexter Wansel had got from being a solo artist to a songwriter, arranger and producer. It seemed his solo career had been put on hold. Much of his work was with Cynthia Biggs, with whom Dexter had written songs since the pair collaborated on Dee Dee Sharp’s What Color Is Love album. After this, they cowrote numerous songs, songs that would be sung by some of Philadelphia International’s biggest names and other non Philadelphia International artists. Among the Philadelphia International artists who recorded their songs were Billy Paul, The Jacksons and The Jones Girls, who recorded Dexter and Cynthia’s classic Nights Over Egypt. Cynthia would become so close to the three Jones Girls, so much so, that she became a cross between older sister and fourth member. Grover Washington Jr and The Stylistics were just two of many non Philadelphia International artists who benefited from the Cynthia Biggs and Dexter Washington partnership. However, by the mid-eighties, Dexter was getting restless, ready to record a new solo album. This came after producing both P.P Arnold’s Smile and Saass,’ a vocal trio for 10 Records in 1985. 10 Records gave Dexter the chance to record a new album, his first since Time Is Slipping Away in 1979. This album would become Captured and featured some familiar Philly faces.
Dexter and Cynthia set about writing songs for Dexter’s new album. They cowrote seven songs of Captured’s ten tracks, while Dexter wrote two. The other track was a cover of Maurice Jarre’s The Year of Living Dangerously, which Dexter interpreted magically. Now that the ten tracks for Captured were written, recording would take place at three studios.
One studio was familiar territory for Dexter and everyone involved, Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios, scene of so many legendary Philly sound recordings. Just two tracks were recorded there, although the album mixed there. Seven tracks were recorded at Kajem Studios in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, while another track was recorded at Turtle Beach Recording Studios, York, Pennsylvania. With a cast of guest artists that included The Jones Girls, Bunny Sigler and up and coming singer Meeta Gajjar, the ten tracks that made up Captured were recorded. However, how would Dexter’s fans respond to Captured?
Sadly, when Dexter Wansel’s fifth album was released, it was neither the commercial success it had been hoped for, nor the success the music deserved. Everyone concerned with Captured enjoyed recording the album, but for some reason it didn’t resonate with the record buying public. Undeterred, Dexter and Cynthia continued their careers, occasionally collaborating in years to come. This included Dexter’s 2004 album Digital Groove Project, and co-writing new material during the Thanksgiving holiday period in 2007. However, Captured remains a memorable musical landmark in the career of both Cynthia Biggs and Dexter Wansel, featuring some wonderful music which I’ll now tell you about.
Captured opens with the title track Captured, which features The Jones Girls, Brenda, Valerie and Shirley. This is a mid-tempo track, that opens with just synths and drums combining, before keyboards signal the tight, beautiful harmonies of The Jones Girls. Their vocals are peerless, accompanied by just drums and flourishes of synths. One minute their vocals are tight and sweet, the next soaring gracefully and soulfully above the myriad of keyboards, synths and drums. Later, guitars and piano enter, adding a contrast to synth heavy arrangement, that provides the perfect backdrop for The Jones Girls’ peerless vocals.
A vocoder opens Do What You Wanna Do, before an electronic arrangement unfolds with Meeta Gajjar Parker contributing vocals. This track is much faster, 130 beats per minute, with synths, drums and keyboards combining. When the vocal enters, it provides a real contrast. It’s delivered in a different style from the opening track, with Meeta taking turns delivering the lower parts and the higher parts. This works well and is really effectively. Her vocals are a mixture of subtlety, drama and emotion. Meanwhile, Dexter provides a timeless eighties backdrop, with percussion joining the synths, drums and keyboards. When Meeta’s vocal added to this arrangement, the result is one of the best tracks on Captured.
Maurice Jarre, father of Jean Michel Jarre wrote The Year of Living Dangerously, and here, Dexter gives it a thoughtful sound. It’s just keyboards and guitars that combine, before pounding drums enter. Gradually, the track meanders along, as you await to see the direction Maurice Jarre’s track will take. Still its just the wall of keyboards and drums, with a cymbal crashing. As the track builds up, you hear elements of both Dexter’s earlier work reveal themselves and even Jean Michel Jarre. There’s a sense of drama throughout the track, as you await what happens next. Although very different from the two previous tracks, Dexter gives Maurice Jarre a new twist as Dexter demonstrates his virtuoso skills on the keyboards.
The tempo quickens on Heart On the Line, another track featuring The Jones Girls. They contribute punchy vocals, while the quick, punchy drums set the tempo. Meanwhile, stabs of keyboards and blazing horns punctuate the arrangement, before percussion and a sizzling guitar solo augment the arrangement. However, what makes this such a memorable track are The Jones Girls punchy, dramatic vocals. The deliver Dexter and Cynthia Biggs’ lyrics with aplomb against Dexter’s driving arrangement.
One of the most beautiful tracks on Captured is Each Moment. Opening with just a lovely, thoughtful piano solo, before Cynthia Biggs’ vocal enters. Her vocal is gorgeous, made all the better with angelic backing vocalists accompanying her. Behind her, it’s jus piano and the rhythm section that accompany Cynthia, who wrote the stunning lyrics about love and waiting for the one you love. This track, which is one the gems on Captured, demonstrates not just how talented a songwriter Cynthia is, but how talented a vocalist she is too.
Conversations is one of two tracks written by Dexter himself and totally different from the preceding track. It has a bigger, bolder and dramatic sound. Opening with a short spoken word vocal, this gives way to a combination of keyboards, drums and a sultry, rasping horn. This is interspersed with occasional bells, as the saxophone soars high above the arrangement, while a guitar drifts in and out of the track. As Dexter’s arrangement unfolds, the saxophone steals the show, transforming the earlier drama into something emotional and quite beautiful.
Turn Me On is another track from the Cynthia Biggs and Dexter Wansel songwriting partnership. Featuring the then up and coming vocalist Meeta Gajjar, her vocal is set against a pared down arrangement. The track has an eastern sound, before the combination of keyboards and drums combine. It’s then that Meeta’s vocal enters. Her voice has a sweet, impassioned sound, which is augmented by backing vocalists. Meanwhile, crisp drums and keyboards are key to the quick arrangement. This arrangemenent is driven along by the rhythm section, while the keyboards and backing vocalists help give this track its dance-floor friendly sound. Although Meeta was a newcomer to music, you wouldn’t know by her performance, which is highly accomplished and key to the track’s success.
NAM (I Can’t Get No Sleep At Night) was written by Dexter and is the traumatic story of a Vietnam veteran. It’s told from his point of view and is a song written about Dexter’s experiences in the Vietnam War. Bunny Sigler sings the song’s moving and distressing lyrics. Opening with keyboards that have an emotive, moving sound, they’re joined by pounding drums and percussion. Then squelchy synths enter, accompanied by Bunny’s vocal. The addition of the sounds of a helicopter add the emotion of the track, lending the track authenticity. What makes the song are Dexter’s lyrics. They’re poignant and haunting, bringing to life the trauma the supposed “lucky” ones who returned from the war continued to relive.
Following on from the poignant, haunting previous track is In the Wind, which features Cynthia’s old musical theory teacher Dr. Pearl Williams Jones. Her voice is strong, but soulful, as she’s accompanied by a bright arrangement of synths, drums and hugely soulful backing vocalists. The arrangement has a bright, jaunty sound as it reveals its charms. Later, a guitar is added, joining the combination of drums, synths and percussion. Together with her backing vocalists, Dr. Jones adds some soulfulness to Dexter’s uplifting, jaunty arrangement.
Closing Captured is the seventh Cynthia Biggs and Dexter Wansel penned track East Meets West. Opening with pounding drums, keyboards cut in, adding drama before Cynthia’s vocal enters. She sings the vocal, and is later joined by Dexter. The lyrics are about the final home for humans, The House of Peace. While the arrangement is bold and powerful, Cynthia’s vocal is impassioned and thoughtful. Blazing horns and percussion join the drums and keyboards. Rock tinged guitars cut in briefly, as Cynthia’s vocal is enveloped by horns and then the guitars. As the drums pound, the arrangement is dramatic and much fuller than many arrangements on Captured. However, this suits the song and of course, the lyric’s subject matter. It almost seems fitting that this is the track is so bold and dramatic, as Dexter says goodbye to music until 2004, eighteen years after the release of Captured.
Having spent some time listening to Dexter Wansel’s fifth album Captured, it’s very much a return to form from Dexter. Captured features ten tracks, seven of which were co-written by his songwriting partner Cynthia Biggs. Their songs are of the quality you’d come to expect from Cynthia and Dexter. Among the highlights of these seven tracks are the title track Captured, which features the beautiful vocals of The Jones Girls , while Do What You Wanna Do features Meeta Gajjar Parker. My favorite track written by Dexter and Cynthia, is Each Moment, featuring Cynthia’s stunning vocal. Another of Captured’s best tracks is the compelling, poignant and haunting NAM (I Can’t Get No Sleep At Night). Apart from this quartet of tracks, Turn Me On sung by Meeta Gajjar a dance-floor friendly track is one that’s hugely catchy, while In the Wind features the soulful strains of Dr. Pearl Williams Jones, Cynthia’s old music theory teacher. In truth, there aren’t really any poor tracks on Captured. Really, this a return to form for virtuoso keyboard player, and songwriter, arranger and producer extraordinaire. After being behind the scenes at Philadelphia International Records for too long, 1986 was time for Dexter to take centre-stage on his fifth solo album. Thankfully, the album was a real return to form for Dexter, and after being previously unavailable on compact disc, Captured will be remastered and rereleased on Cherry Red’s Robinsongs label on 26 March 2012. This gives music fans the opportunity to rediscover the talents of Dexter Wansel and a cast that includes some of his Philly friends on his fifth album Captured. Standout Tracks: Captured, Each Moment, Do What You Wanna Do and NAM (I Can’t Get No Sleep At Night).