Sun | Jan 20, 2019

The Music Diaries | Ronnie Dyson achieves much in short lifespan

Published:Sunday | October 9, 2016 | 12:00 AMRoy Black
Ronnie Dyson going through one of his numbers at the National Arena on the 'Soul to Soul Explosion' one Christmas morning.
Superstar Ronnie Dyson holding the attention of the crowd as he performed at the St Andrew Club one New Year's Eve.

Ronnie Dyson was en route to become one of the greatest entertainers of all times, when illness aborted his career at the tender age of 40. An immensely talented singer, he enjoyed both stage and musical recording success before age 19, probably the youngest artiste to have done so. Dyson was only 18 years old when he won a lead role in the Broadway production of the 1968 musical, Hair.

A year later he had a role in the 1969 film Putney Swope, and began his stage career the following year, performing in the off-Broadway musical, Salvation, which included the song that successfully launched his recording career - the very popular, (If You Let Me Make Love To You Then) Why Can't I Touch You. Written by Charles Courtney and Peter Link, and originally performed by Dyson for Columbia Records, the recording inspired a series of cover versions by artistes like Johnny Mathis, Reuben Wilson, Billy Paul, Barrington Levy and perhaps the one best known to Jamaicans, by John Holt. But it was difficult to match the beauty that was embodied in Dyson's crystalline vocal delivery as he sang:

"If you let me make love to you,

then why can't I touch you?

From the very first moment I saw you, it's been a different world

From the very first moment I saw you, it's been such a different world".

The quality of Dyson's voice becomes even more evident as he goes to the bridge with:

"I'm not saying I want to change you

I don't want to rearrange you

But you're still the same

You're like a frozen flame

Well it sure seems a shame

You let me make love to you

But you wont let me touch you".




The recording broke into the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 Charts, peaking at number eight, and into the R&B Charts peaking at number nine in 1970.

Dyson was born in Washington, D.C., on June 5, 1950, but grew up in Brooklyn, New York, where he was first exposed to music while singing gospel songs in church as a child. It was Dyson's 16 year-old voice, that led off and opened the show's anthem of the Hippie era - Aquarius, with the famous lyrics, "When the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with mars".

Described by one critic as the voice that was different from all other falsettos and one that was embodied in a talent that was destined to become the supreme superstar of the 1970s, Dyson followed up at Columbia Records with other R&B material in the 1970s. These included the top 10 R&B hit, I Don't Wanna Cry (1970), When You Get Right Down To It (1971) and Just Don't Want To Be Lonely (1973). Made popular in Jamaica by Freddie McGregor in the mid-1970s, the last cut conjures up passionate emotions of loneliness:

"I don't mind when you say that you're going away

I just don't want to be lonely

And I don't care if we share only moments a day

I just don't wanna be lonely

I'd rather be loved and needed, depended on

to give a love I can't give when you're gone".

Sensing the vast vocal potential that was seen in the Washington D.C. native, Columbia Records, in an effort to polish Dyson's style and boost his popularity, sent him with several tracks to Philadelphia in 1973 to be produced by one of the premier producers of the day, Thom Bell. Bell's highly orchestrated style suited Dyson well and the association produced some of the biggest hits of his career, including, When You Get Right Down To It, Just Don't Want To Be Lonely, I Think I'll Tell Her, A Wednesday In Your Garden, all contained in the CBS 1973 album, titled, One Man Band. The titled single from the album was a moral booster for Dyson:

"All my life I've been alone, but I've never really cared

Just a face inside a crowd, a stranger everywhere

Everyone I've ever known has disappointed me

I live and breathe only for me

No one's ever been inside the wall surrounding me

I depend on me myself to keep me company

No one cares about me so I take care of me

I'm in a world all of my own

One man band plays all alone

He plays to a song of his own".




Working with top producers at Columbia Records, Dyson recorded three more classic albums for the label between 1976 and 1979 - The More You Do It, Love In All Flavors and If The Shoe Fits. The title track of the first reached number six on the R&B charts, becoming one of the singer's biggest selling records. By 1981 Dyson had signed a new contract with Cotillion Records, an Atlantic subsidiary, and recorded two albums - Phase 2 and All Over Your Face, in duet with MFSB artiste, Bobby Eli.

In the midst of all this, Dyson still found time to continue his acting career, performing in the movie version of the film, Hair. He continued to be active during the 1970s, but towards the end of that decade, his acting and singing career began to show signs of slowing down due to heart condition. He however, pressed on with his career by continuing to record for Cotillion during the 1980s, appearing on the R&B charts for the last time in 1983 with, All Over Your Face. His last effort however, was a duet with Vicki Austin in 1990, titled, Are We So Far Apart. Released posthumously, it entered the R&B charts in 1991 and had a five-week run.

A heart condition which affected him from the late 1970s, worsened in the late 1980s and he died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania from heart failure on November 10, 1990. The stories about Dyson's amazing voice and prodigious character have been repeated time and again in pop journals of every persuasion, while his achievements in a short lifespan continue to befuddle many. In an ironic twist of fate, Dyson's father died earlier in 1990.