For close to four decades, Lillian Lopez was the soulful lead vocalist and the radiant focal point of Odyssey, the "soft disco" group who introduced themselves to radio listeners and club-goers on both sides of the Atlantic with the infectious "Native New Yorker" in 1977, and topped the British charts with the irresistible "Use It Up And Wear It Out" in July 1980. Her flawless delivery and her sophisticated, jazz-infused phrasing, perfected during her time at the Juilliard School, were at their most mesmerising and memorable on the heart-wrenching ballad "If You're Looking For A Way Out", a Top Ten hit in 1980, and on the funky groover "Inside Out" which soundtracked the summer of 1982.
The youngest of three girls born to a family who had moved to Connecticut from the Virgin Islands, she first performed with her sisters Carmen and Louise as the Lopez Sisters in the late 1960s. They played bars and supper club engagements and caught the eye of a New York agent, who booked them on a five-month tour of Europe. When they returned to the US, Carmen left to get married, but Lillian and Louise continued, renamed the group Odyssey and adding the Manila-born male vocalist Tony Reynolds to spice things up.
In 1976, they met Sandy Linzer, who had just produced "Cherchez La Femme", a US dance smash for Dr Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, featuring August Darnell in his pre-Kid Creole guise. With his songwriting partner Denny Randell, Linzer conceived the idea for "Native New Yorker", an ode to the street-smart citizens of the Big Apple, as a possible Savannah Band release, but held it back.
Encouraged by his wife, who loved the song, Linzer cut "Native New Yorker" with Odyssey, whose eponymous debut album for RCA he was masterminding with the arranger and producer Charlie Callelo. According to Linzer, quoted in the liner notes for the Cherry Red reissues of the Odyssey catalogue, Lopez "had a very natural feel for the song. I loved her sound. Some artists just have a quality that, when you hear their voice on a song, it just elevates the level. I don't think it took Lillian more than one or two takes for a song."
The stellar contributions of leading New York session players, including the guitarist John Tropea, pianist Richard Tee and saxophonist Michael Brecker – whose evocative solo matched Lopez's vocal brilliance to conjure up the vibrant atmosphere of the Big Apple – helped make "Native New Yorker'"one of the most enduring tracks of the disco era and a firm favourite at the famed Studio 54. It was subsequently recorded by Frankie Valli on his Lady Put The Light Out album produced by Callelo and was under consideration by Frank Sinatra before he plumped for "New York, New York" instead.
Lopez also put her unique stamp on "Weekend Lover", the group's Caribbean-flavoured follow-up, but it only proved a minor hit in the US and missed the British charts altogether. In 1978, Bill McEachern replaced Reynolds for the Hollywood Party Tonight album which failed to live up to its title. However, two years later, Linzer relaunched Odyssey with the Hang Together album and "Use It Up And Wear It Out". Co-written with guitarist Larry Russell Brown, the floorfiller originally languished on the B-side of "Don't Tell Me, Tell Her" until club DJs began playing it and forced the British arm of RCA to flip the release for radio.
Penned by Linzer and Ralph Kotkov, "If You're Looking For A Way Out" confirmed Lopez as one of the definitive soul vocalists, on a par with Phyllis Hyman, and an influence on Tanita Tikaram. Picking the "tracks of her years" on Ken Bruce's Radio 2 show last week, Tikaram said, "Lillian Lopez had one of those very striking, mature, compassionate voices that almost sits oddly with disco music, but that's the magic of that band. 'If You're Looking For A Way Out' is one of the most generous love songs I've ever heard. It really tugs at your heart strings."
In 1981, Odyssey scored another Top 5 hit with their reinterpretation of Lamont Dozier's "Going Back To My Roots" – on which McEachern took the gritty lead – from the I Got The Melody album produced by Steve Tyrell, while Tom Dowd associate Jimmy Douglass oversaw Happy Together, calling on members of funk group Slave for the all-conquering "Inside Out", written by the Scottish blue-eyed soul singer Jesse Rae, best known for wearing the full regalia, including claymore.
Unfortunately, with radio and club play now concentrated on Odyssey's five major hits and their US profile dwindling, RCA dropped the group afetr their next single, "Magic Touch" stalled at 41 in the UK. They soldiered on with Al Jackson in McEachern's stead, Lillian delivering another spine-chilling vocal on "(Joy) I Know It", written by her sister Louise in 1985, but they soon became a fixture on the UK nostalgia circuit, including several outings on the Best Disco In Town bills promoted by Tony Denton in the 1990s, as well as outings to continental Europe and the Middle East.
Lillian's son Steven Collazo, a backing vocalist and musical director with Odyssey in their early '80s heyday, partnered his mother on stage for several years and, with the addition of twins Anne and Annis Peters, took over the family franchise when she and Jackson married and retired in 2000. Lopez died from cancer. "Her magical voice can still be heard any day, anywhere in the UK," Collazo posted on Facebook. "When you next do, turn it up! She'd like that."
Lillian Lopez Collazo Jackson, singer and songwriter: born Connecticut 16 November 1935; twice married (two sons); died Basingstoke, Hampshire 4 September 2012.
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