#SleptOnSoul: D’Wayne Wiggins’ ‘Eyes Never Lie’ by Michael A. Gonzales [FULL ALBUM STREAM]

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It was the winter of 1996 and Tony! Toni! Toné! was on the verge of falling apart. A few months before, as the group was set to release their best, and ultimately last, album House of Music, they were fighting with one another in the way that only family can: mean and vicious. Assigned by Vibe magazine to write a feature on the trio, the publicist told me that lead singer and bassist Raphael Saadiq (Wiggins) wanted to be interviewed separately from his older brother and group founder D’Wayne Wiggins, who was also the lead guitarist, and their (play) cousin and drummer Timothy Christian Riley.

With a quick tongue and spiteful spirit, Saadiq was the one with the most attitude during the interviews as he ragged his band-mates and label. One minute he was being snippy, the next he was the victim as he explained why one of the best songs on the advance (“Blind Man”) had been removed from the album; supposedly Wiggins and Riley didn’t think it was fair that he had more songs than them. In 2002, Saadiq re-recorded the song, making a less impressive version for his solo album Instant Vintage.

Eight years before, when no one outside of their native Oakland knew their names, Tony! Toni! Toné! released their debut album Why? to critical acclaim. Coming onto the R&B scene at a time when the brave new world of Black music was transforming to the digitized dopeness and synthesized soul of the new jack swinger crews spearheaded by the likes of Teddy Riley, LA & Babyface and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, the Tony’s played the type of old school soul and funk that was the soundtrack of their youth. “Sly Stone used to rehearse around the corner and Graham Central Station played in our school yard at lunch break,” D’Wayne explained to writer Simon Witter in 1993. “Those were very visual groups; they used to walk around in high platform boots, sprayed silver. So, to us, anyone who played guitar or bass had to be funky.”

In addition, the world of blaxploitation films, Players magazine, Iceberg Slim/Donald Goines novels and Soul Train on Saturday afternoons also contributed to a funky worldview and musical aesthetic that would become the bedrock of the “neo-soul” sound, influencing D’Angelo, Erkyah Badu, Maxwell, Chico DeBarge and Lauryn Hill, among countless others. “When people started calling our sound retro, I wasn’t sure what they were talking about,” Wiggins told me in 1996. “We were just doing what we had always done: playing real music with real instruments. We’ve paid a lot of dues, and I have a lot of respect for my instrument.”

A few years before their debut LP was released, Tony! Toni! Toné! honed their skills by playing local Bay Area gigs and talent shows, and later toured with glam percussionist Shelia E. At one point boss man Prince considered signing the players to Paisley Park, but the deal never happened. “Everything may be getting crazy, but we ain’t wearing paisley,” Saadiq later sang, referencing Prince on “Born Not to Know,” their second single. Yet, considering the fate of the artists that was signed by the purple wonder, the Tony boys dodged a career bullet they may never have recovered from.

Whereas Prince dropped the ball, a young music executive named Ed Eckstine signed them to Wing Records, a subsidiary of Mercury Records, in 1987. “They seemed to be inspired by both live instruments and turntable culture,” Eckstine explained nine years later. “With the growth of hip hop, we were beginning to see the death of black bands. I grew up on Earth, Wind & Fire and the Commodores, so I didn’t want to see soul music become a wasteland.”

Funny enough, considering that all three members, especially Saadiq, would later show that they had skills in the studio, Eckstine didn’t trust the group to produce themselves and hired Denzil Foster and Thomas McElroy (Club Nouveau, En Vogue) to handle the production chores on Why? Eckstine explained, “They had just fallen out with their group, Club Nouveau (“Lean on Me”), and were looking for a production deal. Every young producer has a brother or cousin who wants a record deal, but when I asked them who they wanted to work with, the answer was Tony! Toni! Toné!”

Their first single “Little Walter,” combined the flavor of a late-night jam in some neon-lit Oakland nightclub (Ivy’s or the Downstairs) and a Sunday morning gospel wailed at Union Baptist Church. Fusing genres with the smoothness of Ray Charles or Sly Stone throughout their eight years as a recording unit, Tony! Toni! Toné! merged the turntablism of hip-hop, ‘70s pop and Motown lushness into their updated Bay Area sound. However, as Tony! Toni! Toné! grew more successful and ambitious, their charismatic lead singer Saadiq began bopping with more swag as his genius for songwriting and production became more pronounced.

With each successive album, the once united group became another soul sibling cliché, as little bro took over the show and the other members simply looked like his band. Their label head Ed Eckstine, who had once managed the constantly bickering Brothers Johnson, told me, “The notion of brotherly un-love is nothing new, there’s always drama. In the beginning Wiggins, who’s the oldest, made the decisions for the group. Yet as the years went by, Ray became the more vocal member.”

Thankfully through their strive, Tony! Toni! Toné! still managed to construct beautiful ballads (“It Never Rains in Southern California,” “Anniversary”) and fun Cali funk (“Let’s Get Down,” “Feels Good”) that made them award-winning superstars in the land of the good groove. In the end, between the releases Sons of Soul (1993) and House of Music (1996), the boys were already working on outside projects. While drummer Riley put together a Tony! Toni! Toné! clone project called Art-n-Soul that was actually pretty good, Saadiq was working with D’Angelo (“Lady”) and Total (“Kissin’ You”) while Wiggins was developing talent, including Destiny’s Child, for his Grass Roots Entertainment company.

Since Saadiq created the group Lucy Pearl with Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Dawn Robinson in 1999, brother Wiggins was the first to go truly solo with his 2000 Motown release Eyes Never Lie. The album was created under the old school-tuned ears of Kedar Massenburg, the man who takes credit for the marketing term “neo-soul” and once managed D’Angelo and also had a hand in shaping the sound of Badu’s debut Baduizm (1997), Chico DeBarge’s brilliant Long Time, No See (1997) and India Arie’s acclaimed Acoustic Soul (2001).

As with most of Massenburg’s male singer projects, one could feel the ghost of Marvin Gaye floating through a few of the songs. Wiggins’ first single “What’s Really Going On (Strange Fruit)” was protest pop in the tradition of Gaye’s classic that details his real-life confrontation with police in his native Oakland. While Wiggins’ intentions of exposing police brutality in an R&B track were sincere, the song was the least interesting on the album.

Fortunately, “What’s Really Going On” came early, after which Wiggins jumps back into his regular profession of creating irresistible music that could be played at a family reunion cook-out beside Frankie Beverly or blared at a basement party alongside Prince and Lakeside. While the title track has a bit of Tony! Toni! Toné flavor, the mid-tempo jam “Move With Me,” a beautiful guitar driven collaboration with Carlos Santana, has a sense of freedom and darkness that makes it enticing.

The laidback ballad “Flower,” with its nasty groove and ghetto psychedelic vibe is seductive, even if the lyrics (“Honey let me plant my seed / Just like Adam did to Eve…”) are a little clunky. However, when he “gets all Jodeci” as he does on the gorgeous “Don’t Sleep,” with its Claire Fisher orchestrations, Wiggins is smooth as black ice. Later, teaming up with co-lyricist Jamie Foxx, he dives deep into Babyface territory with “Let’s Make a Baby.” Later, going in the opposite direction, Wiggins pays homage to his hood by covering Graham Central Station’s classic “Hair.” Reworking it into a head-nodding, hard-rocking, horns-in-the-background swinger called “Music is Power,” a collaboration with Darius Rucker, he gets a chance to expose his inner rock star while staying funky.

D’Wayne Wiggins, as he proudly proclaimed on the album’s second track “R&B Singer,” was different from  the regular bump ‘n’ grind soul men in the early 2000s, but that didn’t help him in becoming a solo star in the same way as baby bro Saadiq. Fifteen years after its release, the talent and textures spread throughout Eyes Never Lie prove that Wiggins was more than just a sideman, as his talents also contributed to making Tony! Toni! Toné! the last great soul band of the 20th century.

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