“Unsung,” Ugly Egos and a Superstar That Wasn’t.

"Unsung? Who me?"

I watch very little television anymore.  I’ve been getting smarter every day.  A lot of pro football, throw in some news and DVR Frontline, and I’m pretty much good.  I don’t do reality shoes, competition shows, talent search shoes and any kind of Real Basketball Skanks from Jersey Whores crap.

Television doesn’t entertain me much these days so I’ll settle for being educated.

Which is why I enjoy TV One’s Unsung.   I learn stuff.  If you’ve got a favorite R n’ B act you’ve been jonesing to find out what they’ve been up to after they fell off the charts and have been relegated to night clubs and state fairs, this is your show.   It’s about as good a Behind the Music clone can be since VH-1 killed that show off and resurrected it as an zombiefied version of the original.  .

For those whom aren’t familiar with the show, the Wikipedia synopsis will fill in the blanks.

Each episode usually begins with the upbringing of the artist within his family, painting a picture of the issues driving the artist in his adult music career. Themes of “escaping the hard-life of the streets” and “experiencing physical abuse”, as well as “signs of musical genius”, can be found in many of the lives of the subjects of Unsung. Those interviewed in this segment of the show typically are family and friends, although some are famous if the subject of the episode is an R&B group. The story then progresses into the trials and triumphs of the artist’s early days in the music business, as the artist chases his “big break” which propels him into the limelight on the way to stardom. Fellow artists / music producers / managers of that time pepper this section of the show with anecdotes of the artist’s musical prowess and potential, and also possible hints to what may have lead to the subject’s downfall. The next stage highlights the pinnacle of the artist’s fame with the perks and perils that come with it. The final part of the show details the “turning point”, in which a major incident, mainly of a tragic, health-related nature, occurred that caused the artist to put his music career on hold for an indefinite period, if not permanently.

Unsung has tailored this formula, depending on the show’s subject, to portray artists whose “turning point” occurred for more business or personal reasons, and who may have recovered from it to continue a far-less famous, but rewarding, career.

A wizard, a true star, and a total egotist

The three stories I wish they would tell are the rise and fall of Marvin Gaye, The Isley Brothers and Sly and the Family Stone and I doubt they ever will because nobody else has.   Remember a few years ago there were not one, but two Marvin Gaye bio-flicks in production, one that was supposed to star Jesse L.Martin from Law and Order?   Not ringing any bells?  Probably because they’ve been in development hell for so long we’re no closer to seeing a Marvin Gaye movie today than we were in 2008.

There are other acts I’d like to see get the Unsung treatment including Tevin Campbell, Ray Parker Jr., Angela Bofill, Mtume, Stephanie Mills, Starpoint, Karyn White, The Brothers Johnson, Stevie Woods, Atlantic Starr, and Terence Trent D’Arby,  Especially Terence Trent D’Arby.   As far as “the Next Big Thing” goes, it doesn’t get bigger than D’arby.

Ah, TTD.  Before Kanye West grabbed the crown of the world’s most arrogant pop star, the American-born, British transplanted singer was the undisputed champion of the Ugly Ego.

D’arby was good.  Real good.  His 1987 debut album Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby (pompous album titles was a running theme with TTD) sold 12 million copies including a million copies within the first three days it went on sale.

At the time, TTD was being mentioned in the same breath as other superstars like Prince and Michael Jackson. It seemed like he could do everything they could and then some.  He was also something of an egotistical prick.  He was nasty to interviewers, uncharitable to his competitors and hostile to his record label.   He had a Master’s Degree in boastful braggadocio.

“I had a job writing in a weekly newspaper but after a while that got boring because I realized the people I was interviewing were far less interesting than me and I didn’t see why I should be talking to them.”

“I am a true soul genius and, unlike certain other singers, 100 per cent man.”

“I may say a lot of strange and incomprehensible things as far as other people are concerned, but that is the way of all brilliance.”

These are not the words of a man suffering from a surplus of humility.   Long before Kanye West declared himself a genius and the rest of the world had better come to accept it, Terrence Trent D’arby was letting Prince and Michael Jackson, that there was a new neo-soul sensation on the scene and he wasn’t settling for running third behind them.

Hadn’t he already proclaimed his first album was better than Thriller and The Beatles ‘ Sgt. Pepper?  TTD was here to kick pop star ass, take names and without naming Jackson and Prince, serve notice there was only one “100 percent man” on the scene and it was him, not them.

What did D’arby in was the failure to follow-up The Hardline with a sophomore effort that could approach the debut’s brilliance.   The follow-up Neither Fish Nor Flesh: A Soundtrack of Love, Faith, Hope & Destruction was a pompous, sprawling, eccentric mess that tanked without fielding even one hit song. Nobody who sings as well as D’arby and has as many ideas can be a total failure, but by into indulging his excesses, D’arby confused his audience, turned off the critics and missed his chance to solidify his status.

You can be a smug little goof and an indulgent flake, but you have to deliver when it comes time to feed the fans.  A wounded D’arby chose retreat after Neither Fish flopped and wouldn’t release another record for four years until Symphony or Damn which while not as good as The Hardline,  it’s not as terrible as Neither Flesh Nor Fish.

Instead of showing he was 100 percent man, all D’arby’s bluster, hype and b.s. proved  was the difference between a shooting star and an enduring superstar.   A star does it once and flames out.   A superstar does it over and over and even when they fall off, they have built a legacy that extends beyond one lucky hit.

D’arby came, saw and he didn’t conquer.   He didn’t even have enough successes to be a failure.  He did it once and anybody can do it once.

That’s pretty much where the story ended for Terence Trent D’arby.  Literally.  He changed record labels, cut his dreads, dyed his hair blonde and legally changed his name to Sananda Maitreya.    He still makes music on his own label and like most other Unsung subjects, claims he’s never been happier.

Riiiiiiight.  Who wants to sell millions of records and make millions of more dollars?.  Going back to bars and nighclubs to sing for your supper is so much more rewarding.

Look, I get it that it’s better to be true to yourself and have no audience than play to the audience and have no self.   I’ve been known to put the intangible of art before the commerce of being a salesman, but one of the most played, tired and unbelievable clichés is the Musician Who Has It All, Loses It All and Couldn’t Be Happier That It’s Gone.   I’m not saying it’s impossible.  I am saying not everybody is happy about it and they need to stop lying that they are.

I am not expecting Sananda to be the first.  Okay Unsung, I’ve practically written the episode for you.  Go to work.

"Man, I'm boring myself."

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3 thoughts on ““Unsung,” Ugly Egos and a Superstar That Wasn’t.

  1. Wow. Ambush. Ok, im not saying Sananda didnt let his self love cripple his chance at stardom and adoration from the masses. This can happen to anyone. So, he fucked up. He got too big for his briches. But the man is fantastic, and shit, its not all about money, and popularity. And just MAYBE my fav music man ttd is finding this out. So why knock him for it? Id give my life for him. Thats some crazy shit, but hes so good, that his enormous ego never did matter to me. Hes breathtaking, then, and now, even more so now. (=

  2. What was needed for TTD was a creative team to channel his talent and restrain his ego in the studio. The man has obvious gifts, but lacks the objectivity required to make records. There needed to be a producer to polish the work and exorcise the shite. He also needed to simplify lyrically. He got caught up in trying to be brilliant word by word and wound up losing meaning and power. The ego outside of the studio could have worked in the modern era, but in the 80s and early 90s, the US was not ready for the rock attitude from a black artist. He can’t really be faulted for this. There was no way of knowing without trying. When I was a younger singer/songwriter TTD became a cautionary tale of squandered potential.

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