Kleeer, whose sophomore album Winners was recently released by BBR Records, could be described as a band with an identity crisis. After all, how many bands change their name five times? Kleeer did. Their origins can be traced to The Choice 4, an R&B band who were guided by Van McCoy. Richard Lee was The Choice 4’s guitarist during their 1972 tour. As the tour swung through Baltimore, the band’s drummer left the band. Filling the vacancy was Woody Cunningham. Soon, another new member joined the band. This was Norman Durham. He come highly recommended by a member of The Choice 4. A former trombonist, he’d switched to bass. This prompted another change of name. What had been The Choice 4, became The Choice 4 Inc. Then as The Choice 4 Inc. reached New York, they added their final member, Paul Crutchfield, percussionist and later, keyboardist. Now a quartet and already onto their second name the next chapter in their career unfolded.
Disillusioned with being a backup band, The Choice 4 Inc. were fed-up singing other people’s songs. While that paid the bills, it would neither make them successful nor rich. They wanted to be a success in their own right. This meant writing and playing their own songs. Right through to 1974, The Choice 4 Inc. worked at honing their own sound. By 1974, they realized they’d come as far as they could as The Choice 4 Inc. It was time for another change of name.
It proved not to be a case of third time lucky for The Choice 4 Inc. They’d rechristened themselves as The Jam Band and were accompanying Disco-Tex and The Sex-O-Lettes. With the benefit of hindsight, this might not have been the best career move for musicians wanting to be taken seriously. Luckily, a year later, whether having “seen the light” The Jam Band were no more.
After spending just a year as The Jam Band, it was time for another name change, the fourth of their career. By 1975, The Jam Band decided to change their name to Pipeline, and switched from disco to rock. This prompted a bidding war, which Columbia Records one. Unfortunately, this proved to be a Phyrrhic victory. Pipeline’s debut single Gypsie Rider flopped and their career was almost over before it began. Luckily, Patrick Adams and Greg Carmichael were looking for musicians to be become the Universal Robot Band.
Pipeline fitted the bill. They became the Universal Robot Band. This was always meant to be a temporary measure, a way of paying the bills. Ironically, it was the most successful period of their career. Their debut single Dance and Shake Your Tambourine was released in 1976. It was released on Red Greg Records and became a huge disco hit. A year later, in 1977, the Universal Robot Band released their debut album Shake Your Tambourine. Then with no other offers of work on the horizon, Richard Lee, Woody Cunningham, Norman Durham and, Paul Crutchfield headed out on tour as the Universal Robot Band. Luckily for them, this was only until 1978, when a chance meeting saw a change in their fortunes.
Woody Cunningham just happened to be at Atlantic Records when he met Denis King. Denis was a mastering engineer, who in time, would almost become the fifth member of Kleeer. With Denis onboard everything came together. He was like their guru, advising them what to do, and just as importantly, what not to do. Whether it was their image, sound or name, Denis helped. This included the recording of a demo, Keep Your Body Workin,’ a track Denis King produced. It was released on a DJ compilation, credited to Kleeer, which was the group’s new name. Through Keep Your Body Workin,’ Kleer were signed to Atlantic Records in October 1978.
Having signed to Atlantic just as disco was on its last legs, Kleeer were about to release their debut album I Love To Dance in the spring of 1979. Kleeer’s timing was perfect. They’d managed to release I Love To Dance just before disco’s bubble burst. Reaching number fifty-three in the US R&B Charts, considering the circumstances, this could be considered a success. Now Kleeer would begin work on what’s always seen as a group’s most challenging album, their second album.
Ever since the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll, sophomore albums have gained a reputation as difficult. This is especially the case if a group’s debut album was successful. In Kleeer’s case, their sophomore album would be difficult, given they were perceived as a disco or dance group. They met this challenge head-on with Winners, their sophomore album.
Winners featured eight tracks. Each of the tracks were penned by members of Kleeer. Woody Cunningham wrote I Still Love You and Nothin’ Said. He penned Winners, Your Way and Open Your Mind with Norman Durham, plus Hunger For Your Love with Paul Crutchfield. Paul and Richard Lee cowrote Hunger For Love, while Richard contributed Close To You. These eight tracks became Winners, which was recorded at the Power Plant in New York, with Denis and Kleeer producing the album.
For the recording of Winners, Norman Durham sang lead vocal and played bass, Fender Rhodes, clavinet, guitar, harpsichord and percussion. Woody Cunningham sang lead vocals and played drums and percussion. Richard Lee played guitar and percussion, while Paul Crutchfield played percussion and congas. Kleeer were joined by a number of session musicians. Many of them played on just one or two tracks. Among them were Louis Small on Fender Rhodes, Terry Dolphin on Fender Rhodes, clavinet and grand piano, while Eric Rohrbaugh played Arp Omni, Fender Rhodes, clavinet and Mini Moog. Among the horn section were trumpeter Randy Brecker and tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker. Yvette Flowers and Melanie Moore sang backing vocals on Winners, which was released in February 1980.
Winners was released in February 1980 and proved to be both an ironic and prophetic title. The album reached a lowly number 140 in the US Billboard 200 which proved ironic. Reaching number twenty-four in the US R&B Charts proved prophetic. In March 1983, the title-track was released as a single, reached number twenty-three in the US R&B Charts and number thirty-seven in the US Disco Charts. Open Your Mind then stalled at a disappointing number eighty-six in the US R&B Charts. Looking at Winners optimistically, at least it had charted in the US Billboard 200 and surpassed the success of their debut album. That showed that Kleeer’s career was heading in the right direction. After five changes of name, Winners, which I’ll tell you about, saw the four members of Kleeer somewhat belatedly, enjoy the success their talent deserved.
Opening Winners is the title-track. After a trumpet sounds the reville, Kleeer’s funky rhythm section joins eighties synths and flourishes of disco strings. They set the scene for an assured and powerful vocal. It’s accompanied by tender, soulful harmonies. As they provide the perfect foil, drums pound, strings sweep and the rhythm section provide a funky, dance-floor friendly backdrop. Drawing inspiration from classic disco a myriad of harmonies, lush strings and horns play their part in this seven-minute epic where disco, soul, funk unite seamlessly.
I Still Love You sees the tempo drop slightly. Isabella Coles delivers the lead vocal as funk, reggae and soul combine. Her vocal is tender, heartfelt and needy. Accompanied by soaring harmonies, Kleeer provide an understated, but funky backdrop. Driven along by the bass, plenty of space is left in the arrangement. Drums and keyboards fill in some of the space. So do lush strings, chiming guitars and synths. They leave plenty of room for Isabella and the gospel tinged harmonies which are at the heart of track’s success
Your Way meanders into being. Straight away, you notice the similarities with Chic. From the swathes of the lushest strings, the funky bass and chiming guitars Your Way is more like Chic’s way. Having said that, it’s a quality fusion of soul and funk. The soul comes courtesy of the vocal, which changes hands, allowing Kleeer to showcase their vocal prowess. Woody and Norman take turns of delivering emotive vocals. Playing an equally important part are the backing vocals. They’re accompanied by handclaps, as this downtempo hidden gem shows another side of Kleeer.
A pounding rhythm section and chiming guitars drive the funky arrangement to Close To You along. Bursts of dramatic, soaring and soulful harmonies set the scene to a powerhouse of a vocal. It’s sassy and feisty. Horns growl, as punchy harmonies augment the vocal. Stabs of horns, congas and percussion join forces with the rhythm section, who up the funk quotient. Turning it up to eleven, elegant and crystalline harmonies are accompanied by dancing strings and a stabs of keyboards. They play their part in a track that’s dramatic and ethereal, as disco, funk and soul melt into one.
Rollin’ On sees Kleeer draw inspiration from their days as Pipeline. This means there’s a rockier sound fused to their good-time, party sound. Rolls of Eddie Martinez’s searing guitar and pounding rhythm section join sweeping, soaring harmonies. When it drops out, a vampish vocal takes charge. From there, they feed off each other. Stealing the show from Kleeer is Eddie Martinez, whose scorching guitar solo proves the perfect accompaniment and foil to Kleeer, whose good-time, party sound make them funk’s answer to The Faces.
Nothin’ Said is a track that draws inspiration from a variety of influence. Not for the first time, Kleeer sound as if they’ve been listening to Earth, Wind and Fire. Then there’s P-Funk and boogie. Kleeer’s rhythm section and chiming guitars get busy, before a flourish of piano signals the arrival of buzzing synths and harmonies. By the time the baton is passed to the vocal, this dance-floor friendly track is swinging. The vampish vocal struts its way through the lyrics, bursts of piano adding a contrast, while hooks are certainly not in short supply.
Ethereal harmonies are part of the meandering, but funky arrangement to Hunger For Your Love. They join the slow, deliberate rhythm section and swathes of strings. Soon, the tempo increases and the arrangement takes on a jaunty style. With a burst of drums, one of the most impassioned, soul-baring vocals unfolds. Delivered with emotion, strings, keyboards and the bass, which helps drive the arrangement to this slow jam along. Augmented by sweeping, sometimes punchy harmonies, the vocal is needy and full of longing. Adding the finishing touch is the sultriest of saxophone solos, as Kleeer get in touch with their soulful side.
Closing Winners, is Open Your Mind, a track with lyrics that are bristling with social comment. It’s a plea for people to “Open Your Mind” to all sorts of new possibilities and ideas that were unfolding as a new decade dawned. Delivered with feeling, Kleeer’s uber funky rhythm section join forces with sweeping, soulful harmonies and swirling strings. During the track, Kleeer veer between disco, funk, jazz-funk and soul. Genres melt into one as Kleeer deliver their message soulfully and with sincerity, bringing Winners to a pensive close.
After Eight years and five changes of name, Kleeer were born in 1978. They’d released their debut album I Love To Dance in the spring of 1979, just before disco nearly died. I Love To Dance saw Kleeer wrongly referred to as a disco band. Not only was that wrong, but considering what happened, could’ve proved fatal for Kleeer. They weren’t a disco band. No. Instead, they were a band whose music was a fusion of musical influences and genres. That was the case on I Love To Dance and their sophomore album Winners.
Winners was released in the post-disco era. By February 1980, the musical landscape was very different. Disco was yesterday’s music, a remnant of the seventies. Labels dropped disco artists, disco albums lay unreleased and disco labels folded. Lucky then, that Kleeer weren’t a disco group. No. Their music was a fusion of funk, soul, R&B, boogie, jazz and rock. It was also music with a disco influence. Dance-floor friendly, funky, rock-tinged and soulful, Kleeer’s music was eclectic. They’d not bet the house on red. Instead, they’d spread their bets and their risk, by releasing music that appealing to a variety of music lovers. This eclectic approach to music meant Kleeer enjoyed a longevity many other groups could only dream of.
Before signing to Atlantic Records, Richard Lee, Woody Cunningham, Norman Durham and, Paul Crutchfield had led a nomadic existence. They’d played in a series of short-lived bands. Following frequent changes of names and making other people and their music sound good, the four members of Kleeer finally found the place they would call home for the duration of their… Atlantic Records.
Following Winners, Kleeer released License To Dream in 1981, which reached number eighty-one in the US Billboard 200 and number thirteen in the US R&B Charts. It featured the single Get Tough, which reached number fifteen in the US Billboard 100 and number five in the US R&B Charts. That was Kleeer’s most successful album. Four further albums followed, including 1982s Get Ready, 1983s Taste The Music, 1984s Intimate Connection and their 1985 swan-song Seekret. Having released seven albums in seven years, Kleeer split-up. Nothing was heard of them until some of the band reunited in the nineties. By then a new generation of music lovers had discovered their music.
That a new generation discovered Kleeer’s music, is down to the next generation of hip hop producers. When Tupac and Snoop Dogg started sampling Kleeer’s music an inquisitive generation of music fans decided to rediscover Kleeer’s music. Like many bands before them, this proved an unexpected and welcome bonus for Kleeer. With seven albums to choose from, Kleer’s best and most accessible album album is Winners which was recently released by BBR Records. An eclectic, genre-melting album Winners features Kleeer at their best, producing music that’s dance-floor friendly, funky and deeply soulful. Standout Tracks: Winners, I Still Love You, Your Way and Hunger For Your Love.