Let’s take a trip back to the 70s. A Philly group is producing emotionally powerful ballads–Sideshow, Spell, What’s Come Over Me, Three Ring Circus, Chasing Rainbows and Stop to Start. The basement-blue-light hits were performed by the oh-so-familiar and beloved legendary R&B group Blue Magic.
Founded in 1972, Wendell Sawyer was one of the group’s original members along with his brother Vernon Sawyer, Ted Mills, Keith Beaton, and Richard Pratt. Blue Magic was one of the earliest acts produced by Philadelphia records veteran Norman Harris. He was also a founding member of the renowned studio musicians, MFSB, who were based at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios and who supported Blue Magic’s harmonies.
Just one year after Blue Magic came together, they rose to national attention by scoring their first-ever Billboard charted single with Spell. The record was produced by Norman Harris, a recording veteran who was also the founding member of the iconic Philly MFSB studio session band. In 1974, Blue Magic’s next single, Sideshow, solidified the group’s R&B status with its over one million sales. The group’s following two LPs, The Magic of the Blue (1974) and Thirteen Blue Magic Lane (1975), also became pop and R&B album chart hits.
By the mid-70s, the magic began to ebb for the group. Wendell and Vernon left Blue Magic in 1976. The 80s brought about even more musical changes as the now disco era nudged its way onto the music scene forcing R&B to take a backseat for a minute. With a lineup of newly added group members, Blue Magic did have a smattering of R&B hits in the 80s, but nothing could ever touch the soulful magic that was created by the original members.
Blue Magic’s music has had a far-reaching positive influence on various segments of society. There is the story of Vietnam vets who listened to Blue Magic’s music to keep their sanity as they stood in the trenches. Wendell also tells of a prison riot that was quelled by merely piping Blue Magic songs through the facility’s sound system.
The Philly born Wendell is the oldest of four siblings. He has lived a life of significant highs and heart-wrenching lows, one being the death of his beloved son Wendell, Jr., who at age 40, passed away from a brain tumor. The musician also discusses how he got caught up in the drug craze of the 80s.
With more than four decades in the music industry, gold and platinum records, and a host of industry accolades tucked under his belt, Wendell and Blue Magic still manage to excite a fan base that has loyally stuck by them throughout the years. As a member of one of the finest vocal groups to come out of Philly, Wendell Sawyer discusses the magic of the Blue.
50BOLD: I’m old school and just love back-in-the-day music! I am all in when I see those choreographed dance moves performed by singing groups like Blue Magic. Now Keith Beaton did the choreography for the group, right?
Wendell: Each group member wanted a title. Keith was in charge of choreography. I was the vocal arranger. My brother Vernon was the business manager. Rick was the group’s secretary. Ted was the lead singer.
50BOLD: Was Vernon the group’s fashion designer?
Wendell: Oh yeah, yeah, Vernon also took care of the clothing.
50BOLD: You began singing in a group called Shades of Love which eventually turned into Blue Magic. Is it true that Ted was added to Blue Magic from another group that was already in existence also called Blue Magic?
Wendell: It was destiny how the pieces came into play. We were doing shows on our own as Shades of Love. We did one show with the group War that was the biggest gig for us. We were these small guys from a street corner who were now opening for War! Performing on the same stage as the group War was one of the greatest moments in our lives. And we did our thing too!
50BOLD: I know the ladies LOVED you back-in-the-day. Do you have any crazed fan stories you’d like to share? Is it true ladies used to sit outside your hotel room and just wait for you to appear?
Wendell: Oh, you did hear that, huh! (laughs) We had just come out with our new album entitled Blue Magic. The cuts Spell, Stop to Start, Look Me Up were included on the album. We were performing at an outdoor show in Atlantic City. We got on stage and started singing and dancing and all of sudden, we heard all of this commotion. The crowd had rushed the stage. The security officers were trying to block the audience members but did so unsuccessfully! The female audience members knocked down the security officers and microphone stands. We ran out the side door. We were running down the boardwalk and these women were chasing us screaming.
I’ll never forget this one girl who just grabbed the back of my shirt. I pleaded with her to please, please let me go and she finally did so! It felt as if we had to run for our lives because the women were vicious! We managed to run into a hotel to get away from them all.
50BOLD: When the incident happened, had you all begun performing on stage?
Wendell: Yes! We were performing, singing. We couldn’t even finish the show.
50BOLD: Oh my God! (laughs)
Wendell: Those women ran after us like wild animals and when that incident happened, we just knew we had something special.
50BOLD: What’s your favorite Blue Magic song?
Wendell: I love the meaning of the song Spell. Spell was the first song that we did. I do the baritone part where it says: “You made a new man of me, Now I feel heavenly for you.” Sometimes you don’t hear the message of a song right away, it may take a while for you to really hear it. Then I began to really listen to the lyrics: “You made a new man of me, Now I feel heavenly.”
And speaking of heavenly, when we first started out, something happened to Vernon, Keith and myself that really shocked us. We were at a neighbor’s house next door to where we lived. The neighbor’s husband was an alcoholic. Anyway, the man’s neck began swelling up in front of us. He was choking and couldn’t breathe.
Now, we lived in the ghetto, so calling an ambulance would take 15, 20 minutes. The neighbor didn’t have 15, 20 minutes. He couldn’t breathe. The swelling was cutting off his windpipe. The guys and I went next door to get my mother. She came over to the neighbor’s house, laid her hand on his neck and began praying. I actually witnessed the man’s neck swelling go down as she continued praying for him.
Wendell: That’s right! The man got up, exhaled, then thanked my mother. While he was thanking her, Vernon, Keith, and I stared at each other in disbelief. I said, “Oh, my God, there is something to God!” About four months after the incident, Keith, Vernon and I accompanied my mother to church and we joined it. We got baptized because of what we experienced involving our neighbor.
50BOLD: How old were you when the neighbor’s incident happened?
Wendell: I was about 18 years old. We all witnessed the power of God. We joined the church choir. Within six months after we got baptized, we met Ted and then Blue Magic came to be. So when I say the words, “You made a new man of me, Now I feel heavenly,” there is a far greater meaning for me. I see the verse as God. “You made a new man of me, now I feel heavenly for you.”
Every time I sing Spell, I think about God. It was because of Him that Blue Magic came to be. He made our name known throughout the world; our success came from God.
50BOLD: What about today’s R&B music, is there a performer you like because I think nothing compares to the music back then.
Wendell: Come on now, (laughs) nothing these days can even compare to the R&B music of the 70s; nothing comes close.
I’ll put it to you like this. We recorded one song for example and there were 15 string players, 14-18 horn players, and a rhythm section. There were so many musicians playing on just one recording. Now, the musicians put their souls into playing their instruments and this is why our kind of music will live on forever. The music of today is created by computers. There is no soul in a computer. There’s just a person in a studio working buttons. Today’s music is computerized; it’s not real. People who are born today don’t know what real music sounds like.
Many of today’s musicians are not creating. They are just sampling all the stuff we created in the past. Our stuff will live on forever. These musicians can’t come up with anything new.
I’ve spoken to guys who were in Vietnam. And they revealed how they listened to our music while in trench holes. They said our music got them through, helped them cope.
A former prisoner told me that our music actually prevented a riot from taking place in prison. Our music was piped through the facility’s loud speakers and the riot did not take place.
Wendell: Oh yes! We don’t know the magnitude of how our music positively affected people. What we do know is that our music healed situations that were negative.
Today’s music feeds negativity instead of positivity.
50BOLD: Is there any current singer or group that you like?
Wendell: I give credit to Beyoncé. She wrote a good one: Me, Myself and I.
50BOLD: Some of the performers of your time got really caught up in drugs and drinking wouldn’t you say?
Wendell: So many performers did get roped into the drug and drinking scene. If you didn’t do it, something was wrong with you. It was glamorous. After we did a show, we didn’t go home, we’d go hang out at the after-hour spots.
At these hangouts, there would be coke, weed and everything else. If you didn’t indulge, then people would look at you and think something was wrong. So in order to fit in, you had to go with the flow. You were forced to fit in with your peers.
50BOLD: The lifestyle was addictive, of course.
Wendell: Of course, it was! Yes, yes! The drug thing was huge back then. It got real heavy when Richard Pryor burned himself up freebasing and this was when crack cocaine entered the scene.
I remember I was doing cocaine. I didn’t know anything about cooking it until the news about Richard came out. Once Richard’s freebasing news hit, imaginations went crazy! People’s curiosity took over and many wanted to see what freebasing was all about.
Frankly, the whole drug thing was only setting you up for your demise.
50BOLD: You’d think that the Richard Pryor incident would be a deterrent for many using drugs because he was burned so badly.
Wendell: The focus wasn’t on Richard’s injuries. The accident provided us with info about something we didn’t know we could do. It was all about experimentation. Ok, we didn’t care if Richard got burned freebasing. He was trying a new way to get high. You follow?
50BOLD: Yes, I got you.
Wendell: Now, I was not going to burn myself up, but I wanted to try what Richard was doing. We loved to experiment with drugs. That was the me before, but now, I like this me better. I don’t have to get high every day. I used to get high every day. I had weed beside my bed for as soon as I woke up.
When Blue Magic first for started that’s all we did was drugs. Drugs led us to believe that our minds were expanding and that we were doing great work.
50BOLD: Glad you left that life! Now Wendell, I know your son passed away in 2011 from a brain tumor.
50BOLD: I know you must have been devastated. What did Wendell, Jr. teach you when he was alive?
Wendell: I’ll put it to you like this, I was around my son when he was born. When he got to be around age 7 or 8, I disappeared. The drugs took control of me, so I stayed away from him. We finally came together again when he was older at around age 30. We reconnected and at the base of our coming together again was an understanding God. He was a very religious person.
50BOLD: How interesting.
Wendell: When my son and I hooked up again, we became so tight. I had asked him to forgive me for not being in his life. I realized that I had followed the same path as my father. My father left me when I was about 12 and his reasons for leaving were different. I didn’t know about my father’s reasons until later. Back in the day, if Black mothers got rid of their man, welfare would give them medical benefits, food and everything else. My father told me that my mother put him out for welfare.
When my son passed, it was one of the most hurtful things for me. He was my first. I remember I was 18 years old when he was born. I watched him grow and turn into a man. He always said, “I don’t want to do what you did to me.”
My son has a son, Wendell III and he loved him. He was going to remain with his son forever but it wasn’t meant to be. I see the world as life and death. You have a time period to be here. When your time is up, you leave, it doesn’t matter the age.
My son, he left us when he was only 40 years old.
50BOLD: Was it your way of thinking that helped you get through Wendell’s passing?
Wendell: Yes. I came to the realization that my son’s death hurts, but I believe he’s better off. He was suffering. I saw my son lying in a hospital unconscious with tubes in him, that wasn’t him. My son was always on the go, independent, powerful. He was stronger than me. He had his own house, his own car, a family. He was living well. He had a job. He passed out at work and that’s when he was told of the brain tumor. My son’s story was like Tammy Terrell’s. I remember her story. He went through the same thing. The doctors operated on him and they took out the tumor but couldn’t get it all; it came back. I watched my son as he lay in that hospital bed, we were told there was nothing more that could have been done. One day, the doctors took me over to him to watch them pierce his foot, and his eyeball. My son didn’t move. Those doctors wanted me to see that he was brain dead.
50BOLD: Oh, my God!
Wendell: The doctors wanted to pull the plug, but could not do it unless we consented. I saw what my son was going through, and then I said, “Go ahead….”
50BOLD: You are a true survivor…. Just a few more questions, now when disco hit the scene, did this genre of music shut you down?
Wendell: Ahhh, God, Jesus! Yes. That’s what killed off stand up R&B acts. Okay, most of the music on the radio came from singing groups. The O’Jays, Earth Wind and Fire, The Whispers, The Manhattans, when they performed, you knew which groups were singing because you knew the voices. We wanted to sound like the popular R&B groups. We mimicked their sound.
I remember when disco started, the kinds of clubs we had performed in began closing down. Venues like Studio 54 started opening up. Disco music came and killed off R&B.
50BOLD: I interviewed Russell Thompkins, Jr. of The Stylistics, and he’s still fighting with his original group members. The members of Blue Magic don’t have beef with one another, right?
Wendell: Why are we going to fight? It’s like this, I know the whole story involving Russell. Russell is being worked like a horse. He’s the lead singer and the rest are just taking a few steps in the background. The lead singer’s voice needs to rest. They didn’t allow him to rest. They didn’t understand what he was going through with his throat. The voice needs a break. It was all about the money. The group got pissed at Russell. So he left. He rested and then came back with a new Stylistics lineup.
50BOLD: How often do you perform now?
Wendell: Oh, I perform quite a bit. As a matter of fact, lately it’s been really great. I’m a firm believer in a higher force. There were times about three years back when we did not work at all. I changed my thought pattern. The way you think connects you to the universe and the universe will, in turn, come and assist you in whatever you are doing.
50BOLD: Wendell, are you married now?
Wendell: Am I married now? (laughs)
50BOLD: Yes, I’m asking a simple question.
Wendell: Yes, okay, I’ll put it to you like this. I got married when I was 21. I shouldn’t have done it. I didn’t want to do it. I was forced to do it by my wife’s mother. But how can I be a good husband at 21 and singing in Blue Magic? Come on, I had women chasing me.
My wife and I, separated in 1980. And we’ve been separated ever since.
50BOLD: So, you are still married basically, just separated.
Wendell: Yeah, I tried to get a divorce, she wouldn’t give it to me.
50BOLD: I’m not going to even touch that!
50BOLD: How many children do you have?
Wendell: Four children, six grandkids.
50BOLD: Wendell, what is the motto that you live by?
Wendell: It’s all about positive thoughts. When I start thinking positive things, I feel better. My advice is to not let your thoughts control you; control them. We are not the body, we are the spirit that lives in the body and this is what connects us to a higher source of energy and power.