With a succession of specialist radio and club anthems ("Keep Your Body Working". "Get Tough"' "Intimate Connection" etc. having made Kleeer one of the most consistently acclaimed American funk outfits on the thriving early eighties UK soul scene,
it is perhaps appropriate for their one-time vocalist/drummer/
songwriter. Woody Cunningham
to kick-start his own solo
career this month via the exclusive UK-only release of his new album
"Never Say Never"
Initially emanating from small Manchester label Olde English (and taken on board for national release via West London soul independent Expansion Records), said album sees Woody teaming up with Manchester-based producers Andy Madhatter" Holmes (owner of Olde English), Steve Christian and Si Brad to deliver a primarily eighties-rooted set of R&B/funk whose contemporary-edged new material like the sensuously undulating "Animal" and bass-prodded, midtempo title track sits comfortably alongside a warmly enveloping update of The Isleys' haunting "Highways Of My Life".
went our separate ways I wasn't really looking at performing any more", begins an affable Woody on the line from his temporary Manchester abode, "instead I was concentrating more on production and songwriting for other artists when around 1990 I got a call from Andy, who'd gotten my number from a small label we'd released a song on. He asked me if I'd send him some tapes. I told him "Sure, no problem' and one thing led to another over the years. In '94 he released a song I'd done called "Oooh With You" on Olde English. I came over; did quite a few PA's around it and the next step was for Andy and me to go into the studio together!"
Which in turn led to Woody teaming up with the aforementioned team of north west England-based producers with recording sessions for his debut solo album taking place in both Manchester and his hometown of Rockville, Maryland. "Yeah, looking at what we've done on this particular LP, I'd consider it very very representative of my be;lief in staying true to R&B while adding a definite English twist", continues Woody. "Andy, being a DJ in Manchester is very true to R&B. while Christian is very jazzy. Then, with Simon having worked mostly in the house field, the blend of all four of us together worked veiy well because they all really respected what I was trying to do. Which, rather than trying to reinvent myself as some young person, meant basically staying true to an age group that has followed Kleeer since the eighties. In fact, the only slight discrepancy we had while recording the whole album happened when Andy came up with the idea of me doing "Highways Of My Life"! You know, in my opinion there are certain vocalists you just don't even attempt to cover... and Ronald Isley is one of them ! But. bearing in mind I've had nothing but compliments since I did it. I guess I'm glad that Andy's idea won out!"
Meanwhile. Woody's recent experiences as a part-time Mancunian (!) have allowed him to recognise significant differences between today's US and UK markets. "When I came to England in "94 a friend of mine who lives here now, Jocelyn Brown, explained to me how. by basing herself here, she no longer had to struggle against all those so-called what's happening now American fads. And she was right! "Because here in England you don't have to keep telling people you're young! You don t have to constantly be trying to knock down those doors by saying Oh, I'm 20 years old. OK, I was with Kleeer 19 years ago , but I was just .1 baby at the time because here they don't core about that and you can feel it from the crowds when you're onstage! They really just want a good performance! Also, I've found the actual history of Kleeer to be more noteable here; whereas in America it's lost in amongst all the other groups. But then, as far as the actual recording process goes, I guess there's not really much difference except that here in England we drink tea every 15 minutes!"
Having actually started out back in 1971 as drummer to then nationally successful soul vocal group. The Choice Four, Baltimore-born Woody initally formed the nucleus of Kleeer back in '72 when, having relocated to New York, he teamed up with bass player Norman Durham and keyboardist Richard Lee to form a black heavy metal band called Pipeline: "Well, while I'd always appreciated both jazz and R&B styles of playing, I was at that time searching for something heavier. So. when I found other like-minded guys like Norman and Richard, once we performed in front of people they were blown away, because they weren't used to African-Americans playing that Led Zeppelin-type of music! But then, because every time we went along to record companies, they'd be suggesting' Cant you play anything that's danceable?" Finally, we had to learn to adjust. And consequently the reason for us changing and becoming Kleeer was really just us saying "Look, we can't continue to fight the system and play what we like to play. So why don't we try something that could still have our feel to it but be commercially acceptable? And, once Atlantic Records back in '78 heard our first demos as Kleeer and decided they liked what they heard, we found them to be very keen and supportive and I guess the rest is history!"
Meanwhile, it was during his days as a struggling black rock musician with Pipeline that Woody at the same time became one of the most in-demand drummers on New York's disco scene, playing on sessions for such globally-acclaimed seventies disco music icons as Sylvester
and even the outrageously camp Disco Tex & The Sexolettes! "Yeah, and I look back at that whole disco movement as something that gave people a social function", he retorts without hesitation. "It was all so easy to dance to that, even the people who couldn't dance managed to hold their own andwould say Welt this is simple! This beat is gonna stay right here!'. And in that way it made a lotta shy people come outta their shell because in every country I toured as drummer with those acts, everyone - no matter what the language barrier could relate to 'boom-boom-boom-boom' with a pretty melody over it! And from a musical standpoint, no matter what some people may say, there was a lot of creativity involved! Because the good musicians were always able to just go in and put a lot of really great things on top of that beat!"
Thus, with his soul, rock and disco background eventually merging into the danceable funk of Kleeer (which also, amongst others, included female vocalists Isabelle Coles, Melanie Moore and Yvette Flowers in its line-up), how does Woody now look back on the outfit's time ("79-85) with Atlantic Records? "Well, the only downer occured in "84 when both the group and our producer, Eumir Deodato
. felt the title track to the "Intimate Connection" album - which was a song way way ahead of its time - should have been a single, and Henry Allen, the guy in charge of Atlantic, refused to release it. But other than that, having been on a label with good friends like Chic
and Sister Sledge
was. to be honest, a nice ride. Especially coming over here, where the people treated us like royalty! I mean, doing Caister and the various weekenders like Bognor Regis was a real thrill -because we literally didn't have to sing anything ! The audience knew our songs so well they sang them all for us!"
And so what actually happened between those Atlantic days and Woody now re-remerging with his first-ever solo album? "Once Kleeer split up , body-building and racket-ball became my daily routine with music just becoming a peripheral thing". And I actually became sales manager of a car showroom in New York . selling Isuzus and Subarus! You know. I started liking the money I was making and just getting away from the music. Because looking at the whole business as an outsider, rather than knocking on record company doors trying to get people to remember who I was, kinda made me relax more and let me enjoy being a regular person. But. while my wife was very supportive, it always kinda bothered her that I had what she considered to be a talent that I was no longer sharing with people. So, looking back, I guess she's really been the person who's encouraged me to kinda try again. And the fact that I'm now a solo artist doing something totally by myself that I totally enjoy, for me, really does represent happiness beyond my wildest dreams!"
PL B&S June 1997