ARTICLE KNOX ROBINSON
PHOTOGRAPHY DANIEL LINDH
THESE FOUR DANCE, DISCO, AND R&B ARTISTS PAVED THE WAY FOR TODAY'S POP SOUND, AND LEFT RIPPLES OF RADIANT STYLE INFLUENCE FOR DIVAS TO COME. READ ON AND REVIEW WHAT IT TAKES TO BE A LEGEND
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Jamaican-born, Syracuse-raised Grace Jones already had a successful modeling career and a handful of disco singles when she signed with Island Records, in 1977. Thereafter, she released a string of angular yet soulful New Wave club classics, including “Pull Up to the Bumper” and “Slave to the Rhythm.” (She returned to music in 2008, with riveting personal work on the Hurricane LP.) She also made memorable appearances in forgettable films—a Conan movie with Schwarzenegger, a Bond flick, Eddie Murphy’s Boomerang—and in short order became an icon of the era. Grace bravely blurred sexuality, gender, and established modes of femininity. Longtime collaborator Jean-Paul Goude recalls the genesis of their Nightclubbing album art (seen here) as a direct riff on the lyrics “Feeling like a woman / Looking like a man” in her song “Walking In The Rain.” Her fierce swagger and irrevocable, confrontational black beauty make it easy to overlook the fact that she was one of the first multihyphenates, a model-singer-actor who defined the formula. Grace was killing the fashion and music game before many of today’s pop divas were even born.
Because Phyllis Hyman stands out as a pained and tragic icon of late ’80s–early ’90s jazzy, quiet-storm R&B, it’s almost possible to overlook the raw style quotient of her smoldering presentation. She brought her multidimensional voice—even her whistle had vibrato!—from a ’70s avant-jazz background to a lauded turn on Broadway. Even at six feet tall she sometimes seemed to be merely a vessel for her outsize gifts. The same could be said for her personal style, from the curvaceous frame, masses of hair, and smoky eyes that dramatized her delivery to her wardrobe: chandelier earrings, sculptured shoulder pads in linear, oversize jackets, and of course the hats. The combined effect was one of regal largesse and elegance—part fin de siècle afrocentrism, part overt “fashion.” Phyllis took everything to the max, sadly including an appetite for destruction, which led to a fatal overdose shortly before her forty-sixth birthday, in 1995, but not before she had left her mark in so many hearts.
In the time before hip-hop ruled the airwaves, Anita Baker was the sound of urban radio. Her 1986 breakout album, Rapture, was precisely that. With an emotive sense of timing and a voice that passed easily along three octaves, Anita drew you into a world of her own making. Lines could begin as an idea deep down in her throat and end up as airy ad libs; her delivery could turn from percussive vernacular to abstract jazz in a few measures. But if these songs sent the listener soaring, they were also quite literal—simplistic and devoted to expressing a somnolent kind of love, beyond the cheap thrills of lusty lyrics and sex for sale. Anita’s songs still stand up—and stand out—as evocative references for those of today’s generation of singers who aspire to make sexy music that isn’t cheap.
If your education in ’70s disco comes largely from a late ’90s movie about Studio 54, then you’ll remember the scene with the wild staging of the song “Knock on Wood”—an actual, factual disco hit by Amii Stewart. Musically speaking, Stewart’s number one hit single aspired to far less than the original 1966 soul classic, by Eddie Floyd, but its video was over-the-top, even by disco standards. Any aspiring pop star brave enough to watch it today will find a treasure trove of outlandish style cues there for the harvesting, from Technicolor eye shadow treatments to long frosted lashes and luscious lips to clothes that can only be called costume. And all the while, Stewart bops with just the right amount of groove to match the tune’s suspect production.
Prop stylist Michele Faro (Art Department) Photo assistants Nick Damiano and Cole Slutzky Production Bo Zhang (Management Artists) Location ROOT Studios Catering Monterone