Lillo – Lillo Thomas (1987)

Lillo album cover

Its easy to dismiss the ’80s as the decade for one hit wonders, especially in R&B where the business was centered around singles vs. albums. By the middle of the decade a few major movements were competing for chart dominance. Outside the Prince influenced camp, there was a lively evolution of sophisticated R&B that resisted hip hop’s influences. Many of these artist had considerable talent, and a few of them went on to become stars outside of Black radio and BET.

That never happened to Lillo Thomas, but it should have. The talented singer/songwriter- musician had much of what it took to stand out, even if his sound mirrored that of Kashif or Howard Johnson.

The production by Steven Ray and Wayne Edwards was in many ways somewhere between the lush styled vocal of Kashif and the smooth funk of Howard Johnson. It also featured timely influences of Melba Moore (directly) and Freddie Jackson (in directly). Although you would not know it by this album, 1987 was in a transitional time for R&B. Rap was invading the average R&B song to the point of giving some of it a gruff street persona.

On the other hand a movement led by Melba Moore, Luther Vandross, Kashif and others produced a more refined sound aimed at a more mature audience. Often laid back in the Quiet Storm mode, it was a sound free of rap cameos and the rough elements of other contemporary R&B. Lillo Thomas seemed to thrive on the more dance oriented side of this movement.

Thomas was riding this wave of sophistication for some time with a trio of strong records made over five year period from 1983 to 1987. By his second release, All Of You, he had become a R&B chart staple with his hit “Your Love’s Got A Hold On Me”. The next album Lillo would continue with the polished formula that made him a rising star.

The slick funk of “I’m In Love” and “Sexy Girl” were club and radio favorites that sounded like they could have been on a Howard Johnson or Surface album. This was how I came to discover Lillo Thomas music – via BET. Lillo’s rather mush mouth vocal delivery was similar to Bernard Jackson of Surface or Freddie Jackson. But instead of ballads like those singers, Thomas made his reputation on the strength of his dance music. Five of the nine tracks were hip swingers. Of those, “Sexy Girl” seemed to have the longest shelf life on the radio, although it was never a single. In fact all of Lillo’s three singles were up tempo songs.

While dance music was the dominate force on Lillo, it was the  ballads like “Wanna Make Love” that reflected the Melba Moore/Kashif school of production. While not necessarily a conflict, I remember the promotion of this record to be centered around jams, when in actuality any one of the albums ballads might have been as good a choice for the record’s last single.

Maybe it was that pegging Lillo Thomas as a dance artist that shorted the spark his artistic promise held. He certainly had the voice to be a crooner, which makes his absence from the New Jack Swing movement so puzzling. Of course, the Kashif-like production so popular through the ’80s would fall out of favor thanks to New Jack Swing. The new hip hop influenced elements of late ’80s R&B made artist like Lillo sound quaint to the rap loving R&B fan. That might be why it was years before Lillo would record again.


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