A Stabbing, a Car Accident, Paralysis, a Coma: Nothing Could Stop the Heatwave – the Pre-Eminent Multi-Ethnic Band of the Funk, Boogie and Disco Era.
While noodling about this issue’s subject, it occurred to me that during the foundational period of today’s dance floor, music was quite often labeled and/or aligned by race or ethnicity. Think about it. When I write “Rock”… you think of what ethnic group? How about “Soul”? Therefore, bands were often thought of or labeled as Caucasian, African American or Latin, with few that crossed outside the lines. While there are still some demographic tendencies with music today, more often than not Hip-hop, House and Pop overall represent the tapestry of diversity in the U.S. and abroad.
The band I’d like to share a bit about was different in that its composition was multi-racial and multi-ethnic during a time (mid-’70s to early-’80s) when most groups of a similar ilk were not. It was a group that never rose to the moniker of “the best” but man, were they great, and did they produce some anthems for the dance floor. Still hunkered down in winter’s freeze, I present the gift of a Heatwave!
Johnnie Wilder, Jr. had a vision while he was in the army in Germany and upon pulling some like-minded musicians and singers (including his brother Keith from Dayton, Ohio) together, they began to tour as “Johnnie Wilder and the Chicago Heatwave. Guitarist Jesse Whitten hailed from that great city and was the rationale behind the name, but in a perverse bit of foreshadowing of the tragedy that would befall the band, Whitten was stabbed and killed before the group recorded their first album. With their army connections, military bases in Europe became fertile ground for the band to fine tune their skills and find their niche. They also began to perform in clubs in London, opening up for American soul and R&B bands.
The spark that ignited Heatwave occurred when a British songwriter and musician answered an ad that Johnnie placed in a British music publication. Rod Temperton was chock-full o’ talent and material. The immortal Mr. Temperton, of course, would late write or co-author songs including “Thriller,” “Stomp,” “Razzamatazz,” “Give Me the Night (LP),” “Rock With You,” “Live In Me” (one of my all-timers by Rufus & Chaka), “Yah Mo B There,” “Off the Wall,” “The Secret Garden,” “Baby Come To Me,” “The Lady In My Life,” “The Genie,” “Light Up the Night” and “Sweet Freedom” to just scratch the surface of his Grammy-laden career.
Temperton’s material and the group’s signing to Britain’s GTO Records in 1976 would lead Heatwave to their first album, Too Hot To Handle. Catapulted by the epic hit “Boogie Nights,” there was no doubt the boys were there to party!
Yet even as the band and the album began to sell like crazy in the U.S., CBS Records decided to NOT put the multi-racial/ethnic group’s picture on the album. There was a concern that “sociological factors” might negatively impact Heatwave’s appeal with U.S. consumers. This was in direct contrast to Europe where artists are artists!
Rod would also pen “Always and Forever,” “The Groove Line,” “Star of a Story,” “Gangsters of the Groove,” “Lettin’ It Loose,” “Keep Tomorrow for Me” and “Party Suite” with the band and after he left, in ’78, to work for Quincy Jones along with the boatload of other star artists.
In 1978, Heatwave bass player and vocalist Mario Mantese was stabbed in the heart by his girlfriend. He awoke from a coma to find he could no longer play or sing, as he was blind, mute and paralyzed. The band rallied, but a year later, founder and lead vocalist Johnnie Wilder, Jr. was involved in a car accident that left him paraplegic. Johnnie overcame that obstacle and continued to do studio production and some singing but his live work, which included skilled dancing, would sadly be finished.
Heatwave added British-born J.D. Nicolas, who did a great job with singing but was not nearly the dancer that Wilder was, and that element of Heatwave’s shows began to be reduced. While the next several years brought some success, once J.D. left (replacing Lionel Ritchie in The Commodores), the band’s luster began to subside. Album sales dropped precipitously by the mid-’80s though the group continued to heavily tour England, the rest of Europe and the Far East through the ’90s. Even today, a “new look” Heatwave led by Keith still does their thing. Mario Mantese miraculously recovered from his paralysis and regained his eyesight and has written books and acts as a “spiritual teacher.” Johnnie Wilder continued to produce and sing into the early-’90s in the gospel arena. He died in his hometown in 2006.
Thus is tale of a band that had its foundation in America, its growth in Europe and its legacy worldwide. Once again, we see the magic and lubricity of music. In this case, Johnnie’s own tragedy and that of others did not deter his musical vision. It illustrates how the diversity of this self-contained band led to its strength through adversity. Thankfully for “Always And Forever”, we will have Heatwave!
Foundations is a monthly column by DEL. This column originally appeared in 5 Magazine’s March 2015 issue.