Halo James: Witness (Cherry Pop)


Halo James
Cherry Pop

Sometimes the only thing that stands in the way of a band’s success is the changing of the times. Over the years great records have been recorded, released, and disappeared without a trace, and the only real explanation one can accept is that, well, the times changed, and that particular sound was no longer fashionable. It’s a shame, really—but it leaves the potential opportunity for rediscovery and reevaluation years later.

Such was the fate of Halo James, a short-lived British pop trio, formed by songwriter and producer Ray St. John, who had tasted success with the song “Smooth Operator,” the first hit single by former bandmate Sade, who formed her band with ex-members of Pride, St. John’s Latin group.  Halo James debuted in 1989 with two fabulous songs. “Wanted,” their debut single, was a minor hit, but when the band released “Could Have Told You So,” their fortunes changed, and the song was a top twenty British hit. It’s easy to understand why; a combination of superb songwriting, a catchy beat, and the superb vocals of Christian James, a young man with a deep, soulful pop voice. 

Debut album Witness quickly followed, building nicely on the promising quality only hinted at on their hit singles. Unlike many albums of the era, it wasn’t endlessly plundered for b-sides, and the two additional singles to stem from it, “Baby” and ‘Magic Hour” were of the same high quality as the two that preceded it, though neither performed nearly as well. Other highlights from Witness included the soulful ballad, “Pure Velvet,” which name-checks Marvin Gaye and, um, Martin Luther King as beacons of soul. The Latin groove of “Is This The Way Love’s Supposed To Be” and “Only End In Tears” adds a level of sophistication lacking from most of the era’s pop offerings. It’s also a testament to the quality of songwriting that the group’s b-sides are of the same high quality as the album tracks, with “Promises” and “Just Say That You Love Me” being highlights of this expanded edition. Witness was an excellent debut album, and a promising start for an exciting new band.

Sadly, that future never came. This type of sophisticated, adult-contemporary pop was quickly growing passé, in favor of the more exciting sounds offered by the baggy scene, the burgeoning Britpop sound, and the American import of grunge and alternative rock. It didn’t help the band, either, that their label seemed unsure to market them; wrongly promoted as a teen pop band, with James being the sole focus, leading to create the image that Halo James was simply a manufactured face, This cursed them on two fronts: “the kids” weren’t going to go for this slick, sophisticated pop, and adults wouldn’t take to them, because they were thought of as a pop band. When the debut album and its singles failed to make a bigger impression, their label dropped them, and they quietly disbanded.

For all its modest success,  in retrospect, it’s easy to see that Halo James was doomed from the start. This revision of Witness shows that it’s an unfortunate dismissal, as there was great promise—and great songs—to be found here. Disappointing, to be sure, but this reissue rights that wrong, presenting a band that deserves a second chance.

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