When thinking of places where great R&B music comes from, places like Philadelphia, Chicago or Detroit often come to mind. For me Dayton, Ohio would be at the top of that list. Along with Cincinnati, South Western Ohio is responsible for some of the best funk and R&B from the 1970s and ’80s.
The list of artists from this area is as long as the list of hits. They include Zapp, Dayton, Bootsy Collins and my personal favorite Slave. There were a lot of members in Slave. The back of their albums jackets of inner sleeves often featured them in sleeveless disco gear looking like a football team complete with afros and gerrycurls. Slave’s membership would hover around the ten member mark for much of its existence due to the a massive horn section, singers and other musicians.
It was not until the band’s fourth album Just a Touch of Love that Steve Arrington would arrive. His unique vocal style could be described as a kind of nasal wining, but it became the signature voice behind (or in front of) Slave’s sound. From his arrival on the band would consistently score hits with a more refined funky, yet slick sound.
On the sixth and final album to feature Arrington, the band was recovering from a mass membership exodus with nearly half its roster moving on to form Aurra. By this time Slave had established itself with songs like ‘Nobody Can Be You’ and ‘Weak at the Knees’. Now with six core members (some of them new) the band seemed to have lost nothing in the process of shedding talent as Show Time would find them at their commercial peak.
The first thing about Show Time that caught my imagination was the cover, worth the price of admission alone. It featured a paperback style 1970s sci-fi painting of an arena in space during (presumably) a Slave concert. The concept was cool and harkened to the vivid concept based story telling of New Romantic artists. Despite its Vincent Di Fate styled cover art, Show Time was no so much a concept album as its cover might have suggested, but its 8 tracks worth of infectious jams was certainly worthy of top billing.
The album produced by Jimmy Douglass (Hall & Oats, Foreigner, Gang of Four etc.) included some of Slave’s most funky songs. The raw funk of previous releases was tamed on songs like ‘Snap Shot’ by the smooth elastic delivery of Arrington’s voice. In what must have been one of 1983’s slickest funk songs, ‘Snap Shot’ became a top 10 R&B hit.
As unique sounding and refined as Show Time was it did not exist in a bubble (or a stadium in space) as there was a touch of the Time in how ‘Wait for Me’ swung. Arrington’s signature singing swagger made it distinctive and clearly recognizable as a Slave song, but it would have been easy imagining it coming from Minneapolis. This was just before a time when everyone wanted to sound like Prince or one of his minions.
Further polish could be heard on ‘Steal Your Heart’ with backing choruses reminiscent of the Brothers Johnson. All the elements that made Slave funky in the first place never went anywhere. The unique bass playing of Mark Adams was now joined by synthesizer based symphonic sounds. It was a high point technologically, but Slave like most R&B bands manage to make the technology sound organic. The essence of Slave’s sound with Arrington never sounded better.
Slave was all over black radio in the first half of the 80s with many of the tracks on Show Time leading the way. In a familiar story of peak and decline, Arrington left the band as it continued with less success with each release. Arrington meanwhile fared only slightly better becoming a Christian artist and starting a church in Dayton, Ohio.
It can be argued that Show Time was the best Slave album (if not best album cover). It certainly presents the band at its most polished and radio friendly during the Arrington era. While never officially released on CD in the United States by itself, the album was made available in a 2009 reissue on CD for the first time with Visions of Life, a follow-up from 1982. Hopefully more people will discover Show Time. Sadly most are likely to download it and play it back on a phone or smartwatch and miss out on the full splendor of its great cover art.