This post is overdue, but I only recently heard about the passing of a singer who deserves to be recognised as one of the true great soul voices. Lillian Lopez was the lead singer of the soul funk group Odyssey who had a string of hits in the late 1970's and early 1980's. You might not remember them, but you would remember their songs and undoubtedly you'll recall the magical combination of warmth and power of Lillian's unique vocals. Here is my tribute to Lillian and the songs that are forever part of my personal jukebox.
Native New Yorker (1977, US #21, UK #5)
Odyssey was the brainchild of the Lopez sisters, Lillian, Louise and Carmen, but it took perseverance and many line-up changes before the band achieved success. The one constant and their unique selling point was Lillian's voice. Their breakthrough hit was this hook-laden ode to the Big Apple. Like all the best songs about New York it effortlessly evokes the energy and cool of the city and the resilience of its natives. It tells the tale of someone who came to the city with big dreams only to see them fall away. Rather than a pity party though, the song is an anthem about how you pick yourself up, dust yourself down and get on with living. Lillian's gorgeous vocal is able to suggest the underlying heartbreak while also embracing the energy of a New York night. I fell instantly in love with that voice and the sparkle in Lillian's eyes.
Use It Up And Wear It Out (1980, UK #1)
For some unknown reason Odyssey had their greatest commercial success in the UK, but then the British have always had great taste in music. Their chart success peaked with this number one UK hit from 1980. I doubt anyone who's been to a club in the last thirty years has got away without dancing to this one, but then I haven't been to a club since 1997, so who knows what the kids dance to these days (shudder). While not the most lyrically challenging song, the chorus is just insistent and once heard it is never forgotten. Lillian sang it with great swagger, effortlessly dancing through the verses before punching the energy in the chorus. The "do it all night" bridge is a particular delight, providing an almost literal climax to the song.
If You're Looking For A Way Out (1980, UK #6)
Now I'm a sentimental soul and it has been known for me to shed a tear or two at a sad song. The champion tearjerker in my book is this unbelievable song, which has one of the all-time great vocals by any singer, ever. We all know unrequited love is the most painful, but rarely has it been so perfectly imagined in song than with this harrowing lyric combined with a delivery where you can feel every ounce of hurt. When Lillian sings "oh come on stop pretending, tell me what's in your heart" it's all I can do to avoid breaking down in sobs. And when she sings "don't you know I'll always love you" at the end of the song all my resolve is gone. Bittersweet brilliance.
It Will Be Alright (1981, UK #43)
Where If You're Looking For A Way Out is desperate, this gem is its hopeful counterbalance. It's all about giving love that all-important second chance. Lillian's vocal is again spectacular, this is a voice of a woman who understands the power of a pop song and the critical role music plays in our lives. She knows she's not singing about herself, but for all the lovers who will use this song to pluck up the courage to give love one more chance. Lillian is able to channel genuine emotion into every nuanced line, her voice seems to wrap itself around your ears, holding you until you believe her; it will be alright.
Inside Out (1982, UK #3)
Odyssey's last sizeable hit was perhaps their most sophisticated pop moment. It feels like a culmination of their strengths, the funky power of their dance music mixed with the raw emotion of their ballads. It is basically about being stalked, but Lillian makes it sound rather an attractive proposition. She is the other woman promising her man that they will ultimately be together. How this will be achieved is probably best left to the imagination, but Lillian again delivers a truly incredible vocal, less intensely emotional than usual, but full of tension and meaning, perfectly matching the tone of the lyric. That was why I loved Lillian's voice so much, she always knew how to perfectly pitch a song, which feelings to surrender, what buttons she needed to press. It was an immediately recognisable voice that to me sounded like a trusted and close friend, full of wisdom, experience and love.
Sadly, as is often the case, Odyssey were dropped by their label when the hits dried up, but Lillian kept performing until her retirement in 2000. Lillian lost her battle with cancer in September. She may not be a household name, but her magical voice will remain part of the fabric of our lives and her performances will undoubtedly continue to soundtrack the love affairs of new listeners for as long as there are ears to listen and hearts that break.
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