By Jesse Serwer
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, March 29, 2010; C01
Stacy Lattisaw guesses that more than a decade had elapsed between her last television interview and the ones she taped for an episode next month of TV One's music biography series, "Unsung." Lattisaw, a Southeast Washington native whose 1980 singles "Dynamite!" and "Let Me Be Your Angel" made her a star at age 14, abruptly ditched her music career for the quiet life in Prince George's County in the early 1990s. Though her ballads and dance hits helped set the tempo for successive generations of youthful R&B divas like Mariah Carey and Aaliyah, she enjoys little of their name recognition.
Which is precisely what makes her a good subject for "Unsung," a series of hour-long programs spotlighting artists whose musical contributions have, for various reasons, been shortchanged by history. Now in its third season, the show, which airs Mondays at 9 p.m., has found a particularly fertile niche by focusing on black acts from the 1970s and 1980s, an era when R&B music was wildly popular but, Michael Jackson notwithstanding, rarely piqued the attention of mainstream media.
In addition to Lattisaw, other artists featured this season include Rose Royce, the Los Angeles pop-funk outfit best known for its contributions to 1976's "Car Wash" soundtrack; the late gay disco icon Sylvester (whose episode airs Monday); and Memphis soul survivors the Bar-Kays.
"It's important that they're paying attention to these artists and telling their stories because no one else is," says Jason King, artistic director of the Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music at New York University and a cultural critic who has written extensively on R&B. "The only place you can find information on some of these folks is on the Web, if you happen to want to go and search for them."
"Unsung" has been the highest-rated original series for Silver Spring-based TV One since its debut in 2008. (Other shows on the network include "Washington Watch With Roland Martin" and another biography show, "Life After.") The series premiered that year with episodes on Phyllis Hyman and Donny Hathaway, tragic figures whose songs remain staples of urban adult contemporary radio but whose bouts with mental illness, and eventual suicides, are little discussed.
The episodes resonated instantly with TV One's core demographic of African American adults in their 30s and 40s, says Toni Judkins, TV One's senior vice president of original programming.
"I had all of Phyllis Hyman's albums, I had all of Donny Hathaway's albums," Judkins says. "We were heartbroken when they left us, and no one ever gave us the story of what happened. As development executives, we were aching for these stories, so we knew our viewers were as well."Attention to detail
Mark Rowland, co-executive producer for A. Smith & Co. Productions, the independent company that produces "Unsung," observes that there is a level of "intimacy" between the TV One audience and the artists the show covers.
"A lot of chat boards come up about the series, and it's not just people going 'Wonderful show.' There's an attention to detail. The viewers know quite a bit about the artists, even if no one else does, and they're expecting to see that and more."
"Unsung" borrows many of the conventions of VH1's "Behind the Music," winding its way through extreme career highs and lows via interviews with family members, musical collaborators, DJs, critics and -- provided they are still living -- the artists themselves. But, while "Behind the Music" often repackages well-worn stories for mass consumption, "Unsung's" emphasis on previously untold stories endows the show with a more adventurous spirit.
"You're kind of winging it a little bit, trusting there's a good story here," says Rowland, who previously produced episodes of "Behind the Music." (Judkins also worked at VH1 before coming to TV One.)
A first-season episode on DeBarge, the '80s-era sibling act whose membership has been racked by drug addiction, made for particularly jarring TV. "Bunny [DeBarge] and the others were shockingly frank in detailing these alleged instances of physical and sexual abuse by their father," Rowland recalls. "That was not something we were expecting."
Lattisaw, whose episode airs April 12, is working on a gospel album after a 20-year absence from recording. She says she was waiting for the right opportunity to explain why she vanished from the R&B scene after scoring the biggest hit of her career in "Where Do We Go From Here," a 1990 duet with her former boyfriend and Southeast neighbor Johnny Gill.
"The stress of the music business just took a toll on me and, around 23, I decided, 'This is it for me,' " says Lattisaw, who now lives in Clinton and runs a recording studio and audio equipment company in nearby Fort Washington with her husband. "I watched some of the episodes [of 'Unsung'], so I figured sooner or later that I'd get a call from them."Episode brought closure
Approaching the surviving members of Zapp, the influential Ohio funk outfit whose leader, Roger Troutman, was killed by his brother Larry in a mysterious 1999 murder-suicide, required more finesse. Although younger brothers Lester and Terry Troutman continue to perform under the name Zapp, they had largely avoided discussing the tragedy prior to the taping of their episode. After months of phone conversations with Rowland and the episode's producer, P. Frank Williams, Lester Troutman was ultimately won over by their diligence, he says.
"Everything they said they would do, they did," says Lester Troutman, the group's drummer. "It's brought closure that I would never have gotten if I hadn't done it. Now people understand what we understand. Which is nobody really knows, and nobody will ever know, what happened that morning."
The episode has increased awareness that Zapp, whose influence can be felt today in the music of Snoop Dogg and T-Pain, is still a touring band. "It's been almost the same as having a hit record," Lester Troutman says. "People who didn't know we were still playing are calling to book us and saying, 'Oh, by the way, I was so touched by the 'Unsung' episode.' "
(one hour) airs at 9 p.m. Monday on TV One.