If there was ever a list of musicians that don’t get the recognition that they deserve, Dexter Wansel is very high on that list. And it would not surprise me if the majority of the reading audience has never even heard of Mr. Wansel. Let’s change that, shall we?
Dexter is a very talented keyboardist/composer/arranger/producer that is primarily known for his musicianship in the R&B world. I submit that he was also an innovator in the jazz fusion genre. After some brief biographical information, I will state my case by letting Dexter’s music speak for itself.
When Dexter was 12 years old, he was the gofer for the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia, getting sandwiches and clothes from the cleaners for the various acts that performed at the venue like Stevie Wonder and Patti Labelle.
During the sixties, he served in the Vietnam War; an experience that he says left him with a fear of bullets. In 1975, he met Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff when he was a member of the band Yellow Sunshine. Roland Chambers, a guitarist in the group, would join Dexter as part of the house band for Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International Records. As a part of the music staff, he began writing, arranging and playing for The O’jays, Teddy Pendergrass, The Intruders and many other artists. How ironic that he would soon compose songs for one of the artist that he used to run errands for when he was a gofer-Patti Labelle. When Patti joined PIR, she recorded a song that Wansel originally wrote for Jackson Browne, “Shoot Him on Sight”, for her 1981 album The Spirit’s in It. He would help serve up another tasty tune for Patti along with co-writer Kenneth Gamble and Cynthia Biggs, “If You Only Knew”, which became a number one R&B hit from Patti’s project I’m in Love Again in 1984, with the album going gold. I can hear the grumbling of my old friend. Mr. Skeptic. “Why are you foaming at the mouth about what Dexter Wansel, whom I have never heard of, by the way, did as an R&B musician? What did he have to do with jazz, man?” I am so glad that you took the bait! Let’s get to it.
Dexter Wansel’s first solo effort, Life on Mars, was what grabbed my ear and the first LP that I ever purchased. It was released on PIR records in 1976. Since PIR was know for the success it enjoyed in R&B, the audience didn’t really connect as well as they would have had Dexter’s project been released on a subsidiary label of PIR. The music here was totally different that anything that PIR had ever released. The mid 1970’s sci-fi and space travel were becoming major themes in the U.S. and Wansel’s skillful blend of jazz and funk were reflected in his music and the song titles. Another little known fact is that in 1971, shortly after his 3-year army tour of duty in Viet Nam, he quietly joined the ranks of Walter Carlos (aka Wendy Carlos), Dick Hyman and Isao Tomita as one of the first synthesizer programmers to work in popular music recordings of the time. He became the first musician out of Philadelphia to own and program the legendary ARP 2600 synthesizer. It’s time to let Dexter’s music speak.
Dexter was just getting started! On his 1978 LP, Voyager, he would dazzle the listener with his penchant for jazz fusion, futuristic music and synthesizers.
This next tune is a tour de force and one of the best jazz fusion songs ever written, arranged and performed, in my humble opinion. It features another musician deserving wider recognition, bassist Derrick Graves.
Whew! To allow you to catch your breath, here is a mellower offering by Mr. Wansel, with George Howard again on sax.
If you didn’t know, now you know. Dexter Wansel and his musical cohorts are a force to be recognized and reckoned with.