By KARU F. DANIELS
Though it seems that VH1’s storied documentary-style series Behind the Music has been put out to pasture for more raunchy fare in the form of reality TV shows like Basketball Wives and Love & Hip-Hop, an audience continues to yearn for content telling the true-life stories of popular music talents.
This past summer, filmgoers flocked to art house cinemas to see the acclaimed 20 Feet From Stardom documentary, which explored the career highs and lows of Black background singers who were the literal foundation for pop and rock music’s biggest songs. Muscle Shoals, another doc about the legendary Alabama recording studio where Aretha Franklin, Mick Jagger and Jimmy Cliff recorded hits, hit theaters last month.
TV One has turned the beat around: its award-winning Unsung series returns for a seventh season on October 30.
Since November 2008, the docu-series has broken much ground telling the untold stories of some of Black music’s forgotten artists, who in some cases are relatively unknown to mainstream music consumers (hence the name of the show). The first season kicked off with four episodes focusing on the tragic stories of late R&B greats Phyllis Hyman and Donny Hathaway, and the harrowing journeys of gospel trailblazers The Clark Sisters and Motown family group, DeBarge.
Since then, 70 episodes have been produced on a multitude of musical acts that made an impact during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. From disco icon Sylvester to crossover reggae group Musical Youth; from blue-eyed soul diva Teena Marie to hip-hop’s undeniable sex symbol Big Daddy Kane, Unsung has run the gamut in celebrating the achievements and giving voice to the legacy of Black music acts who never got their just due—or who never reached their potential. And in the case of some legendary Motown acts (most notably Tammi Terrell, Florence Ballard, David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks), Unsung explores their tragic fates after mainstream notoriety.
“A lot of these artists were very popular in the Black community… but we never knew what happened to them,” explains Jubba Seyyid, TV One’s senior director of programming and production. Seyyid, who’s been with the network for close to five years, has shepherded Unsung into appointment television.
“When we first started,” he says, “we wanted to make sure we tackled artists who our audience would certainly be a familiar with, and that included the artists from the ’60s [and] the ’70s, and those were very popular. Now that we’re in our seventh season, we knew that we had to grow along with our audience. Although our demo is still the same, the audience has evolved. Now what we’re doing is continuing to expand into the ’80s and ’90s.”
Acts featured on the upcoming season include Heavy D & the Boyz, Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, Geto Boys, the Delfonics and CeCe Peniston.
Working in close tandem with the show’s co-executive producer Mark Rowland, of the award winning Los Angeles-based production house A. Smith & Co, Seyyid has built on the flagship show’s initial success and created an NAACP Award-winning program with a loyal following.
“I believe that Unsung has resonated with audiences in a huge way because the artists featured are very much a part of our lives,” says Philadelphia radio personality and Black music authority Dyana Williams, who’s appeared on many Unsung episodes as a commentator. “These artists and their songs articulate the experiences of our memories. The catalogue of their songs are indeed the soundtrack to our lives.”
Rowland believes the audience was hungry to get an appreciative and in-depth portrait of the subjects. “They never had this kind of approach and treatment before,” he adds.
Noelle Bonham, a Washington D.C.-based administrator, says she’s seen too many episodes to count and “absolutely loves the show.” Aside from hearing some of her favorite music, the series offers up an unknown education about her favorite singers. “I had no idea Freddie Jackson was at one time [one of] the most popular male artists and was commanding sold out shows,” she maintains. “I mean, to me he was Black radio only. And who knew that Madonna wanted to be managed by his team as well? I sure didn’t until it was mentioned during the episode.”
Freddie Jackson’s Unsung episode has been the most watched to date.
“Freddie Jackson grabbed us a huge number, which was a surprise to a lot of us,” Syyeed says. “Not that we weren’t expecting him to do well. But at the time it was a huge surprise. Full Force, prior to Freddie Jackson, had gotten the highest rated number of any series that we’ve had. So that sort of gave us a reading of what the audience liked and what they were looking for. Both artists were popular in the ’80s and Freddie Jackson’s still working. I think a lot of people were curious about his life, his sexuality and those kind of things.
“We know our research will give us numbers and tell us what the audience is interested in finding out about, and sometimes we’re really surprised,” he continues. “One of my personal favorites and one that sort of trended on Twitter was Sylvester. Sylvester got us a very good number but that also spawned a lot of conversation on the web and in the gay community. The music itself was coming from the disco era and transitioning into dance. There was a lot of history there, and there was a lot of interest from new communities for TV One.”
Yet, with all of its success and accolades, there are a few challenges. And even detractors.
In the case of Grammy Award-winning R&B legend Stephanie Mills, she’s not only declined an offer to be featured on (or be the focus of) Unsung, she’s blasted the series in the media. In a May 2012 interview with Brennan Williams of The Huffington Post, the pint-sized vocal powerhouse noted that her career wasn’t “unsung,” and that it [goes against] everything she believes in.
Mark Rowland, a former music journalist turned television producer, has experienced a few challenges with some Unsung acts over the years, but was baffled by Mills’s very public dis of the show. “I was only disappointed in the sense that she seemed to be angry at the fact that we asked her. I didn’t think it was inherently insulting to ask someone if they’d like a show done on them. But that’s her decision. She’s not the only artist who has declined. Most of our offers have been accepted, and there are a few exceptions. And she’s one.”
Yet, the Unsung movement is still in motion.
A spin-off series, Unsung Hollywood—showcasing behind-the-scenes stories of Black actors, comedians, movies and TV shows from yesteryear—has been ordered. Although a network spokesperson was squirmy when Syyed was asked details about the new show (“because it hasn’t been announced”), production is currently underway on episodes about both the late TV legend Flip Wilson and the 1970s sitcom, What’s Happening!!