There’s a moment near the end of the Edge of Daybreak’s Eyes of Love where the LP’s structured soul gives way to a brief, fluid jam session. It happens on "Your Destiny", and it’s the freest moment of a recording made in five hours in a Virginia federal prison.
Released in 1979, Eyes of Love was recorded in one take on a $3,000 budget at the Powhatan Correctional Center in State Farm, Va. The band members were all inmates, incarcerated for armed robbery and assault, with sentences ranging from six to 60 years. The musicians, some of whom played in other bands before they were locked up, were allowed to play instruments at the prison complex. They covered songs by the Isley Brothers, Slave, and Earth, Wind & Fire. Jamal Jahal Nubi, the Edge of Daybreak’s lead singer and drummer, entered the Virginia prison in 1976 and established another group called Cosmic Conception with Edward Tucker and William Crawley. He’d later form Edge of Daybreak with fellow prisoners Harry Coleman on additional vocals, James Carrington on keys, Cornelius Cade on guitar, McEvoy Robinson on bass, and Willie Williams on percussion. The band didn't have equipment to overdub, so they brought in backup musicians to play instruments when the regulars had to sing.
A few local media outlets covered Eyes of Love upon its release. Only 1,000 copies were pressed. "PM Magazine", a now-defunct television news show, produced a segment called "Cellblock Rock" that aired footage of Edge of Daybreak’s recording. The album arrived as the outside world was moving away from brassier sounds for the likes of disco and nu-wave. Up the road in Washington, D.C., musicians like Chuck Brown and Trouble Funk were putting their own unique twist on black music. Their blend was called go-go, a percussive strain of funk designed to keep the beat going without breaks.
In a way, the Edge of Daybreak seemed influenced by the homegrown genre, and at certain points on Eyes of Love, you sense the band’s urge to break away from the literal and figurative structures that contained them. Given their circumstances, it would’ve been easy for the group to create something sullen. Yet on Eyes of Love, it’s as if the band wanted to uplift themselves through song, and to forget their living arrangements if only for a few hours. These songs are optimistic, touching on the brilliance of love and glorifying romance in all its sugary splendor. Songs like "Let Us" and "Let’s Be Friends" recall the 1960s doo-wop era, while "Edge of Daybreak" and "I Wanna Dance With You" are extensive dance grooves.
Thematically, Eyes of Love is about a group of guys making the best of a tough situation. That a collection of inmates even recorded an album is a testament, and the fact that it’s so well done is a plus. The inmates couldn’t just go to the studio. Prison personnel required Alpha Audio—in nearby Richmond—to record the band at the Powhatan complex. They had to sing and play their instruments simultaneously, and get everything right the first time. The album’s last song, "Our Love", was recorded as prison guards told the band to wrap up recording. The group members were taken back to their cells as soon as the last song finished. Despite the duress, there aren’t any noticeable hiccups on the LP, making me wonder what could’ve been if the band had more time to perfect it.
By the fall of 1980, keyboardist Carrington was transferred to another prison. Then vocalist Coleman. Then Cade, who was moved to Powhatan’s North Housing Unit, essentially breaking up the Edge of Daybreak. There were talks of a sophomore album, but with the musicians in separate prison facilities, it was impossible to rehearse. In the end, Eyes of Lovewould be the group’s swan song. Thirty-six years later, it’s still a living testament to what can be done in tumultuous conditions. It’s a push to make a way, and to persevere, even when the light is dim. Pitchfork.com/listen here
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