Most R&B bands who found success in the Seventies and Eighties followed a pretty simple formula. Shore up soul success by kicking out funk jams to please your core constituency. Score a fluke hit with a ballad that’s atypical of your usual sound. Take that sound to the bank and homogenize your sound to maintain that crossover success. That’s essentially what Atlantic Starr (not to be confused with Midnight Star-I’ve done that a few times) did over the course of the first decade as an active band, although the New York-based band was also notable for changing female singers more than some people change their underwear.
The key members of the band were brothers David Lewis (vocals), Wayne Lewis (keyboards) and Jonathan Lewis (percussion.) Joined by a slew of other musicians (funk bands were pretty large in number during the Seventies) and lead singer Sharon Bryant (who had a sultry tone comparable to Chaka Khan’s when using her lower register,) the group signed to A&M Records in the late Seventies. They scored a handful of R&B hits with a harder funk sound at the outset of their career, and as the hits got bigger, their sound got smoother. Their big tracks during this period included the sensual ballad “Let’s Get Closer,” the bouncy “When Love Calls,” and the dance classic “Circles,” which became the band’s first Top 40 pop hit.
The band essentially split in half over finances before releasing what would be their pop breakthrough album, As The Band Turns and Bryant was replaced by Barbara Weathers, who (to my ears) had a vocal tone much more conducive to pop radio than Bryant did. Two singles were released from the album before Atlantic Starr hit pay dirt. “Secret Lovers” became Atlantic Starr’s biggest hit to that point. The juicy storyline (a forbidden affair between two married people—you’d never glean that from the song’s title) helped it reach #3 on the pop charts (as well as #1 on the adult contemporary list.)
The video features a lengthy monologue from Barbara Weathers, and alternates between live footage and something of a narrative arc. It’s resplendently Eighties. Bad outfits? Yes. Jheri curls? Lots of ’em. The Lewis brothers themselves must’ve kept Care Free Curl in business for a solid year.
“Secret Lovers” greased the skids for Atlantic Starr’s biggest success. “Always,” a more homogenized piece of adult contemporary soul that became something of a wedding standard, topped the pop and R&B charts in the summer of 1987. It should’ve elevated Atlantic Starr into the upper echelon of soul groups, but by the time their next album, 1989’s We’re Movin’ Up, was released, Barbara Weathers was gone. It’s kinda hard for a band to establish an identity when their singer keeps changing, right? The group scored another ballad hit in the early Nineties with “Masterpiece” (featuring yet another female singer) before fading away for good.
“Secret Lovers” has had a longer life, surfacing most recently in a fantastic T-Mobile commercial. I hope they at least gave free lifetime service to the members of Atlantic Starr, although I imagine things could get pricey with all those female singers.