Rewind: The Lost Harmonies Of Oscar


Here's a fun fact to use at your leisure: The last R&B group* to have a #1 hit single was Destiny's Child. The song was "Independent Women (Part 1)" and it was 2001. 

2001. The last R&B group. Good lord.

Maybe that's not a 'fun fact' as it reads as a sad admission that R&B groups are a extinct entity whose presence is about as archaic as the compact discs they once resided on. In the The Paris Review piece "Alone Together", Dan Piepenbring points out such an admission in his discussion about D'Angelo's celebrated comeback and how his use of wealth of overdubs on Black Messiah has made him nostalgic for vocal harmonies:
Not that you have to be a music scholar to enjoy the sound of people singing together. At the risk of getting all Kumbaya about it, isn’t it just sort of nice to hear voices working in harmony? To me, the sound of a group has always been more approachable than that of a soloist—a collective is bound to be more welcoming than an individual, especially if they’re a collective of really pretty voices. I think pop music at the moment is as inventive as it’s ever been, but still: Where have our great R&B groups gone, and why have they ceased to capture the public imagination?
Exactly. Where have all the voices gone and why don't we care anymore?

On the tip Piepenbring's tongue is the acknowledgement that money is the prime suspect towards the dismantling of the R&B group. We may all be surprised how much green paper is utilized to water and fertilize a just-budding group, and these days, not every record label has the patience or time for such a task, as competition mounts almost hourly due to streaming sites, and fickle consumers waffling and chasing trends. So it comes down to cutting costs, and the cut cost is often the four 'background performers' who are holding back the fifth member's chance for meteoric stardom. It all sounds as if it's tampering the natural course of music as an artistic medium, but music is a business lest we forget, and its money train often out-paces creative output.

Downbeat and uncontrollable this all sounds, but R&B's shortcut is far from monetary as it carving out unified harmonies proves to be its biggest deficit. Piepenbring is oh so right about how almost vacant R&B sounds these days due to this omission.

As I enter the twilight of my twenties, its become swiftly apparent to me that the R&B I grew up listening too is considered, but is reinvented in such cheapened plastic ways and too often I want the new mutations of R&B to get off my lawn for the sheer lack of imagination they possess. Sure there are current fierce curators of the sound as the all-female crews of KING and JUCE, are intent on. Even Janelle Monae's multi-gendered Wondaland crew is viewed as a collective of new classic R&B, but in the '90s look to the left and the right and there were groups galore who were interested in extending the conversations of yesteryear without forsaking its core craftwork.

Some groups like En Vogue and SWV rose to higher heights than others in the 1990s, but at least there was some presence and some competition. Some sort of camaraderie between persons, as they riffed off of each other, sounding like the warmest of conversations. Overdubs might give the impression of such an act, manufactured assembly-lined pop groups may give the image, but both can never can it replace the feel and tonal color that variant harmonies bring.

Oscar is a curiosity in my collection as they are apart of the 'conversational R&B' groups that emerged in the 1990s, but for all their technique and talent they just didn't make it. Looking back, the multi-ethnic quartet appears to be the response towards En Vogue who enchanted the market with their vocal proficiency and fine-tuned finesse via their 1990 debut, Born To Sing. Born To Sing swung New Jack Swing into a different lane, prompting the movement to not only be aware of its growth spurt, but gave women a more powerful position in the genre. Oscar no doubt wanted to emulate and extend such a path, and capitalize off of their self-empowerment showmanship, and they set their stage with 1992's Spotlight, sadly, their one and only effort.

Spotlight is no Born To Sing, or even Funky Divas (which was released the same year), but like those two albums it goes out of its way to make sure that blended harmonies were are the forefront, and that they are soulful and crystal clear. Oscar's debut single from Spotlight, "I'm Calling You ((Do-Po-Liddle-Lo-Le Yeah)" is a definition of what it means to harmonize as it combines hot jazz scats, rhythmic riffs, and sweet n' low tone changes.


Oscar's biggest strike against them has to be their name. I'm not one to disparage names because I was blessed with the most generic name in the English language and if I could think of a whimsical name to suit my whimsical personality (I'm currently taking suggestions) I'd change it in a heartbeat, but if I was to ever come up with a name for the kick-ass R&B girl group I've always wanted to be in I know for damn certain I wouldn't name it to where the first thing that comes to mind is a green monster who lives in a rusty and dented trash can. In the Google age, their name is difficult to look up as either you're greeted with tons search options for Academy Award coverage or a terrible-looking Sylvester Stallone movie. 

Terrible name or not, Oscar had things going for them. The group, consisting of members Kia Jefferies, Debbie Lewis, Sally Ries, and Hiromi Kuroiwa, were a multi-racial act out of California (so they easily could avoid being dubbed #OscarsSoWhite, ha!) who wrote their own music and were guided by the production expertise of The Characters, a crew of multi-instrumentalists who would later go on to do memorable music for Brandy, Johnny Gill, Eternal, and SWV


Spotlight houses New Jill Swingin' with sleek House elements and the results pack a nice punch. "I'm Calling You" of course is a winner and didn't deserve it's #69 position on Billboards Hot R&B Singles chart, but "Give A Little More", "Let Me Make It Better" and "Just For You" are tightly focused dance jams that are full of spunk and funky rhymes. If dimming the lights and pouring the wine is how you like to swing your R&B then the title track is a pretty steamy number to try on for size as well as their take on A Taste Of Honey's 1981 classic, "Sukiyaki".

Even with such a fine package of tunes, sadly, Oscar was in the spotlight for a mere flicker of time. I myself can only remember "I'm Calling You", but vaguely, and it took me many years later when I became interested in discovering misbegotten groups of the 1980s and 1990s for me to discover their names as well as seek out their cursory catalog. Still Oscar didn't have a prayer when they broke out in 1992 as the year was active with the marked debuts of future R&B elites such as TLC, SWV, Jade, Toni Braxton, CeCe Peniston and Mary J. Blige, and of course En Vogue released a little album called Funky Divas. Not only bad timing plagued them, but weird single choices sealed their fate as after busting out strong with "I'm Calling You", the response should've been "Give A Little More" or "Let Me Make It Better", not the ballad, "Keep Touching Me", which unfortunately, became the group's final single.

Looking back, it's a shame that groups like Oscar and En Vogue would be considered anomalies in today's music paradigm. This was something mentioned in my interview with journalist, Quentin Harrison about the Spice Girls. Too accustomed to the flash and flair of single-named vocalists like Beyonce and Rihanna we've become too brand-based (and funny Beyonce was in Destiny's Child, the last R&B girl group to get a #1...), too accustomed to how solo artists like them rack up high sales and stream play and prioritize image and reputation over pure vocal invention. Listening to Spotlight, it's interesting how much this ideal of a group who could harmonized and muster up the courage to combat with En Vogue was pushed as the norm, with no exception to the rule, and how it all fizzled out within decades time. 

Time in a bottle is what Spotlight is, so open and savor those harmonies, reminiscing on those times we had. 

+ If you're interested in hearing Oscar's Spotlight, The Isle of Failed Pop Stars has their album available for download!

*While in the midst of compiling research and working on this post, Fifth Harmony ended the 15-year drought when their single, "Work From Home", hit #1 on the Hot 100 Rhythmic chart. Still, to me, R&B isn't the same stand-alone genre or harbors the type of competitive talent during Oscar's brief entrance or Destiny's Child reign, thus while a victory, is still a hollow one, at least from my perspective...
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