CRYSTAL WINGS-FIRST FLIGHT.

CRYSTAL WINGS-FIRST FLIGHT.

For many people, their introduction to the music of Crystal Wings was on BBE Music’s 2011 compilation, The Real Sound Of Chicago and Beyond: Underground Disco and Boogie. It featured It Ain’t Easy, a track from Crystal Wings one and only album, First Flight, which was a private pressing released back in 1982, on Chicago’s Cash Ear label. First Flight which was recently released by BBE Music, would belatedly become a cult classic.  

The story behind Crystal Wings began in 1981. That’s when Crystal Wings released their debut single, Signs Of Winter’s Time. This was a Paul Coleman and Joyce Alicia Lagrone composition. It was recorded at Chicago’s Streeterville Recording Studio. Producing Signs Of Winter’s Time was Paul Gibson, Cash Ear Records’ in-house producer and artistic coordinator for modern soul productions. On Signs Of Winter’s Time’s release, its jazz-tinged beauty showcased a talented band who looked as if they had a bright future ahead of them.

Sadly, however, Signs Of Winter’s Time wasn’t a commercial success. Although it was popular within Chi-Town, that was as good as it got for Crystal Winds. However, it was obvious that Crystal Winds had potential. No wonder. Their lineup featured some experienced musicians.

The driving forces behind Crystal Winds were Paul Coleman and M.C. (Morris) Brown. Along with Crystal Winds’ drummer Frank Donaldson, they had been members of Rasputin’s Stash. They released two albums during the early-‘70s. Their debut album was 1971s Rasputin’s Stash, which was released on Cotillion, a subsidiary label of Atlantic Records. Three years later, in 1974, Devil Made Me Do It was released on Gemigo Records. Apart from their 1977 single Dance With Me, which was released on Curtis Mayfield’s Curton Records, that was the end of the Rasputin’s Stash story. 

Four years later, in 1981, Paul Coleman, M.C. (Morris) Brown and Frank Donaldson had reinvented themselves as Crystal Wings. Having released their debut single Signs Of Winter’s Time, Crystal Wings pressed ahead with their debut album First Flight.

That’s not surprising. First Flight were perceived as a group with potential. So they began work on what would become First Flight. They already had recorded Signs Of Winter’s Time as a single. An instrumental version featured on the B-Side. Both tracks were Paul Coleman and Joyce Alicia Lagrone compositions. They also cowrote So Sad with Paul Coleman. He and M.C. (Morris) Brown contributed Love Ain’t Easy, Love Ain’t Easy II, It’s A Wonderous ThingRasputin’s Stash and Funk Ain’t Easy. The other track was Lovers Holiday, which Paul Coleman and M. Dunman Jr. wrote. These eight tracks  became First Flight, which was recorded at Chicago’s Streeterville Recording Studio.

At Streeterville Recording Studio, Crystal Wings’s extensive lineup began recording the six new tracks. The rhythm section included drummers Wayne Stewart and E. Frank Donaldson, bassists Jimmy Allen and Tony Brown and guitarists Martin Dumas Jr, Henry Johnson and Baitsche. They were joined by Paul Coleman on congas, keyboards and percussion, while M. Cortez Brown played saxophone and percussion. Jimmy Dolan Jr. added orchestral bells and Frank Donaldson and Pennington McGhee congas. Lead vocals came courtesy Paul Coleman, M. Cortez Brown and Theresa Davis. Backing vocals were added by Paul Coleman, M. Cortez Brown, Martin Dumas Jr, Theresa Davis and Sherry Scott. Producing First Flight were Paul Coleman and M. Cortez Brown. Once the six new tracks were recorded, it was released in 1982.

On its release, First Flight passed American record buyers by. Not however, in Britain. Somehow, copies of First Flight found their way across the Atlantic. Straight away, it became a firm favourite amongst the British jazz-funk scene. To some extent, Cash Ear Records’ decision to release Crystal Wings debut album First Flight had been vindicated. First Flight, which I’ll tell you about, was well on its way to becoming a cult classic.

From the opening bars of Sad, which opens First Flight, it’s apparent that Crystal Wings’ music is very different from Rasputin’s Stash. Gone is the brash funk. Replacing it is a smooth, soulful, jazz-tinged sound. As the rhythm section create a slow, sultry heartbeat, seductive voice overlays sit atop the arrangement. They’re joined by Paul Coleman and M. Cortez Brown’s heartfelt, soulful vocal. Meanwhile, a slap bass, lush sweeping strings and harmonies flit in and out of the arrangement. It’s best described as a smooth, soulful, jazz-tinged, heartfelt paean. 

Love Ain’t Easy is a two part track. Straight away, Crystal Wings’ rhythm section take the track in the direction of funk. This is early eighties funk. That’s down to the type of drums used. They’ve a slightly synthetic sound. That’s an observation, not a criticism. It was a sound of the time. Guitars chime, the bass is funky and a jazzy keyboard is joined by stabs of blazing horns. Atop the arrangement, voice overlays give way to Paul Coleman and M. Cortez Brown’s vocals and the track veers between soulful, funky and jazzy. Irresistible and hook-laden describes Love Ain’t Easy.

After the uptempo sound of Love Ain’t Easy, Love Ain’t Easy II takes on a  different sound and style. It heads in the direction of a soulful jam. Crystal Wings’ rhythm section add a funky backdrop. They’re aided and abetted by keyboards and percussion. As for Paul Coleman and M. Cortez Brown’s vocals, they fill the spaces left by the rest of Crystal Wings. Their vocals are breathy, heartfelt and hopeful, soaring above this soulful jam.

Signs Of Winter’s Time was Crystal Wings’ debut single. Just a lone jazzy guitar sets the scene. It’s soon joined by the bass, keyboards and drums played by brushes. The lushest of strings sweep subtly in. By now, a beautiful, ethereal soundscape is unfolding. Then Paul and Theresa Davis deliver the tenderest of lead vocals. Chiming guitars, pizzicato strings and harmonies compliment their vocals, which grow in urgency. Later, a sultry saxophone is added. With flourishes of strings for company, this is the finishing touch to a a quite beautiful, ethereal track.

A swaggering, bravado fuelled vocal opens It’s A Wonderous Thing. Bursts of searing guitars, stabs of growling horns and Crystal Wings’ rhythm section combine. They’re responsible for a track that’s funky and soulful. That’s not all. The track has an unmistakable eighties sound. This comes courtesy of the rocky guitars, synths and drums. However, hooks haven’t been spared. Crystal Wings continue to create funky, soulful, dance-floor friendly music.

Lovers Holiday sees Crystal Winds drop the tempo, as they unleash more of their trademark, tight, smooth harmonies. They sit above a rhythm section that glides along, bursts of funky bass making its presence felt. So do the swathes of lush strings. This frames Paul and Theresa’s vocals, which sit well together. They’re akin to yin and yang, as they make the lyrics to this slice of slow, soulful music come to life.

The instrumental version of Signs Of Winter’s Time was the B-Side to Crystal Wings’ debut single. Just a lone jazzy guitar sets the scene. It’s soon joined by the bass, keyboards and drums played by brushes. The lushest of strings sweep subtly in. By now, a beautiful, ethereal soundscape is unfolding. Chiming guitars, pizzicato strings and harmonies unite. Later, a sultry saxophone is added. With flourishes of strings for company, this is the finishing touch to a a quite beautiful, elegiac ethereal track.

Closing First Flight is Funk Ain’t Easy, a short one-minute track. It’s a tantalising taste of what Crystal Wings were capable of. So much so, that you’re left wanting more. Sadly, there is no more. First Flight was Crystal Wings only album. 

Just like so many private pressings, First Flight never enjoyed the commercial success and critical acclaim the album could’ve and should’ve enjoyed. The failure of First Flight was nothing to do with the music. Far from it. Crystal Wings were a band with an abundance of potential. This is apparent throughout First Flight. Seamlessly, the flit between funk, jazz, R&B and soul. There’s even a nod to eighties rock on this captivating cult classic. Sadly, upon its release First Flight passed most people by. There’s a reason for this, it was a private pressing.

Thirty-two years ago, the world was a very different place. Releasing an album on a small, independent label was much more risky. Most independent labels didn’t have the budget to properly promote an album. The best they could hope was that an album like First Flight was a local hit. Maybe then, the album would be picked up by a major label. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen with First Flight. That’s despite First Flight popularity in Britain.

Somehow, copies of First Flight made their way across the Atlantic. Some of the copies made their way into the hands of some of the leading lights of Britain’s jazz funk scene. These self-appointed tastemakers, started spinning First Flight. Soon, people picked up on the First Flight. Word was out about this little known album by Crystal Wings, a Chi-Town based band. However, soon, the self-appointed tastemakers picked up on what they thought would be the next big thing. That was the end of the First Flight story until 2003.

In 2003, I came across a review of First Flight in a soul magazine. The album was released on Escrow Records. However, nobody had asked Crystal Wings’ permission to release First Flight. For the members of Crystal Wings, this was a frustrating and worrying time. Someone was making money out of their one and only album. The bootleg reissue of First Flight was selling well. Unsuspecting record buyers however, never knew the version of First Flight was a bootleg. This meant that members of Crystal Wings didn’t see a penny. The only people who made anything were the people behind Escrow Records. The only avenue open to Crystal Wings was legal action. This however, was expensive. Frustratingly, it was a case of grin and bare it for Crystal Wings. However, eleven years later, and First Flight has been officially reissued for the first time.

Recently, BBE Music rereleased Crystal Wings’ debut album First Flight. This long forgotten cult classic makes a very welcome return. Funky, soulful and jazz tinged, Crystal Wings’ one and only album First Flight, is also ethereal, hook-laden and irresistible. First Flight is a reminder that Crystal Wings could’ve and should’ve been a contender.

CRYSTAL WINGS-FIRST FLIGHT.

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