Do you remember Caron Wheeler? The voice behind the group Soul II Soul? The band collectively known as the“Funki Dreds”, how they conquered the world with their signature sound and style? The world rocked to the beats of “Back to Life” and “Keep on Movin”? All the while, breathing life into the sound, rang the voice of Caron Wheeler.
Her cool, mellow vocal style and arrangements, flowing, becoming one with a tidal wave of sound. Recall the accapella version of “Back to Life”, this alone bears testament to the strength of Wheeler’s instrument, her voice. Flashback to midnite ravers singing along with her, unknowingly creating maybe the biggest ever British R&B international club classic of all time. Groovin to nothing but her solid tones until a wall of harmonies, heralded the beats return and…. THEY…LOST IT! The single version of the song also won Caron a Grammy for that year’s best R&B vocal performance by a duo or group.
Despite being billed as a featured singer on Soul II Soul’s first album to their audience, Caron was an integral member of the band. With a crown of locks, sitting majestically on her head, she gave vision to the term “Funki Dreds”. Sparse lyrics gave colour to that sound and hinted at deeper mysteries. The album opened with the lines “IT’S OUR TIME, TIME TODAY, THE RIGHT TIME IS HERE TO STAY. STAY IN MY LIFE, MY LIFE ALWAYS, YELLOW IS THE COLOR OF SUNRAYS.”
So whatever happened to Caron Wheeler? If Soul II Soul had only hinted at her potential, then her first solo album “UK Blak” released in 1990, exposed her spirit.
UK Blak chronicled the plight of Caribbean and African peoples in England. It rejoiced in Black pride and strength, as experienced by people of African descent, raised in Britain. When her first single, “Living In The Light” stole across the UK charts rising to no. 14, with the haunting lyric “CHILDREN OF NATURE, FROM ANOTHER CULTURE, HAD TO SURVIVE, LIVING IN THE LIGHT. STOLEN FROM THE CENTER OF THE WORLD, UNTIMELY DEPARTURE, SOMEHOW SURVIVED LIVING IN THE LIGHT”. It signaled a return to music created to soothe the spirit. Wheeler’s music now explored a spiritual arena. It was within that landscape that her second album, “Beach of the War Goddess” was released in 1993, solely on the EMI U.S. label. Despite containing the Billboard R&B Top 10 Radio hit “I Adore You” (Which also appeared on the multi-platinum selling soundtrack “Mo’ Money”) the album never reached the market place. Defying easy categorization, it failed commercially due to a weak marketing campaign, along with being uniquely ahead of its time. Simply put, “Beach”, laid foundations for the advent of Erykah Badu & Lauryn Hill’s multi-million selling debuts almost a decade later.
Though Caron’s solo work was critically acclaimed at the time of its release (often times achieving four out of five stars by many music critics), the media misunderstood, and therefore caused her to reassess her musical career and life focus. She questioned whether there was indeed an audience for this type of music. White audiences were intimidated by her so-called “militancy”, whereas Black fans didn’t seem to care. For a while Caron thought of quitting, but the urge to create and the need for an outlet for her soulful expressions prevailed.
Apparently the world still remembers her as the lead singer of Soul II Soul, regardless of the band having showcased numerous vocalists, they never achieved the same success as when Caron was fronting the group. So, in 94, when the call came from Virgin Records to guest on Soul II Soul’s fifth album, curiosity and hunger to record again drew her back into the past. The initial demos for the album, hinted at recovering the strength of the original releases, but the disappointing final mixes, along with inclusion of constricted string and rhythm arrangements, resulted in Caron exiting the project. Wheeler felt the band should be producing contemporary beats, not just replicating the old sound. Although the band retained the songs she had co-written with other vocalists recording over her lead vocals, the album as Caron had predicted, was a commercial failure, resulting in the band being unceremoniously released by Virgin Records.
The past ten years have been a process of re-evaluation for Wheeler, seeking to reclaim the core of herself and her music. However during this time, Caron’s music could still be heard on successful movie soundtracks including: Barbara Streisand’s, The Prince of Tides, How Stella Got Her Groove Back starring Angela Bassett, Jason’s Lyric starring Jada Pinkett-Smith, The Hip Hop cult classic, Belly, starring Rap stars DMX and Nas, and Black Rain starring Oscar winner Michael Douglas.
Finally, in her own words she says “living has taught me a lot”. “It’s helped me to appreciate what I have and who I am. Reflecting back to the beginning, the BROWN SUGAR, AFRODIZIAK, SOUL II SOUL days, I have realized that I’m a songwriter, a singer and I’ve been blessed to live fully, doing what I love best, MUSIC!” “Presently I’ve decided to bring my music back to those die-hard fans directly; live shows, touching souls.” “Bringing the art full circle is what it’s all about, creating a special platform, serving up dynamic beats without apology or restriction and letting the people decide for themselves.”
Surviving industry changes, growing and re-building through numerous management, record label and personal life situations, it seems Caron is still very much in demand as ever, maybe even more. The songs she sang over 2 decades ago, can be heard daily around the globe. Caron Wheeler can arguably be called the most famous voice of Black British Soul ever!
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