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Ronnie Dyson: A Transitional Soul Figure Lost To Time

Ronnie Dyson is remembered for his 1970 hit "Why Can't I Touch You" and starring in the Broadway musical <em>Hair</em>. Mark Anthony Neal argues that we overlook Dyson's influence as a transitional soul figure.
Ronnie Dyson is remembered for his 1970 hit "Why Can't I Touch You" and starring in the Broadway musical <em>Hair</em>. Mark Anthony Neal argues that we overlook Dyson's influence as a transitional soul figure.

Morning Edition 's series One-Hit Wonders / Second-Best Songs focuses on musicians or bands whose careers in the United States are defined by a single monster hit, and explains why their catalogs have much more to offer.

In this installment, Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University and the author ofWhat the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture , makes a case for Ronnie Dyson. He got his start in musical theater, giving voice to one of the most familiar themes in rock opera history when he was only a teenager and scored a hit in 1970 with "(If You Let Me Make Love to You Then) Why Can't I Touch You?" Read Neal in his own words below, and hear the radio version at the audio link.


This is going to sound weird: ["(If You Let Me Make Love to You Then) Why Can't I Touch You?"] doesn't sound like a black record. It sounds like a real mainstream pop song, something that Glen Campbell might have sang. You don't necessarily hear what some of his peers were singing at the time, so you don't hear Marvin Gaye, you don't hear Curtis Mayfield, you don't hear James Brown.

His forte really was the showtune, and he was trying to find the right kind of pop songs that would translate his talent to a broad audience. He got signed at age 17 to appear in the musical Hair. In fact, he sings " Aquarius." And he was able to translate that moment of stardom into a recording contract from Columbia.

Ronnie Dyson does a couple of records and takes a pause for about three years. Then he records a kind of comeback album in 1976. And for the follow-up album, Love in All Flavors, he reaches out to the combination of Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy, the songwriters with Natalie Cole. They were at the height of their powers, the peak of their fame. So they give him this song called "Ain't Nothing Wrong."

It is such a beautiful ballad that [Dyson] turns into almost a church experience. He takes a song that seems so simplistic on the surface, and he turns it into a grand performance.

Ronnie Dyson passed away in 1990; he was only 40 years old. In many ways, he's one of those transitional figures who gets lost. This is a period in time in which black R&B and soul singers were seen as a kind of extension of black masculinity. When you think about the gruffness of the lead singers of the O'Jays, when you think about Teddy Pendergrass, they brought a bass quality to their voice; Barry White is another great example.

Ronnie Dyson was a direct opposite of that. He was a falsetto singer, and not just singing in falsetto in the ways that we think about Eddie Kendricks or Smokey Robinson, but incredibly emotive. And I think that was held against him for some audiences that were looking for a different sound from black male vocalists of that era.

This is someone who should have generated more attention then, and we clearly need to remember him now.

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