(November 9, 2019). We’ve lost yet another of the talented musicians who played with one of the 1970s’ greatest disco/funk/R&B bands, Chic.
Ms. Valerie Heywood, former Chic Strings member, died unexpectedly on Halloween at age 67. Her death follows that of Chic bassist and co-founder Bernard Edwards (in 1996) and drummer Tony Thompson (in 2003).
On Saturday, a memorial service will be held for Heywood, in Williamsville, NY.
Heywood was one of three violinists who formed the famed Chic Strings, the ensemble of violinists that also included the talented Cheryl Hong and Karen Milne. They played on several of the band Chic’s early albums (Valerie played on two of them) and toured with the group from 1979 into the early ‘80s.
Joining the Chic Strings for their 1979 third album, Risqué, Valerie would contribute to such disco classics as “Good Times,” “My Forbidden Lover” and “My Feet Keep Dancin’.”
She also played on Chic’s 1980 album, Real People, their fourth and last one to feature the Chic Strings prominently. The band’s leaders – Nile Rodgers and the late Bernard Edwards – made conscious efforts to distance themselves from disco after the genre imploded and began to lose favor with mainstream America in late 1979.
Still, when the band did incorporate those strings, there was no half-steppin – they went all-in.
Chic would continue to use strings liberally in 1980 on their own album that year plus albums by Diana Ross (the Diana album featuring “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out”) and Sister Sledge’s Love Somebody Today, a holdover from late 1979.
Heywood played on all of those sets, plus disco classics by Norma Jean Wright (“High Society”) and Sheila & B. Devotion (“Spacer”).
The Chic Strings’ Masterpiece:
Perhaps no Chic-related record showcased the strings more majestically than a tune called “Open Up,” an under-appreciated instrumental track that opened the Real People album and served as the B-side to “Rebels Are We” – the first single released from it.
Despite their intentions, if Chic were abandoning disco in 1980, listeners wouldn’t have known it from one listen to “Open Up,” easily the funkiest groove on the album. It had all the elements of Chic’s earlier hits – sans the vocals – and even more sophistication.
With Nile’s guitar, ‘Nard’s bass, and the late Tony Thompson’s tight drumming providing the song’s rhythm track, it was the Chic Strings – Heywood, Hong and Milne – who were front and center for “Open Up” under the direction of the late concertmaster Gene Orloff.
Never before had such a string-heavy dance track sounded so polished and funky as “Open Up.” Sonically, the tune was among the group’s best productions, with the strings playfully and persistently wrapping themselves around the rhythm track that Chic’s principle members had laid out as the song’s foundation.
“Open Up” even veered from its disco orientation in certain spots, incorporating jazzier elements throughout, particularly at the 2:00 mark and especially at the 2:10 point where it goes into a snazzy drum riff, all with the strings carrying the bridge’s complex melody.
The only fault to “Open Up” was that it came too late. By the time Real People was released in summer 1980, Chic was quickly falling out of vogue with pop (and later R&B) radio, with disco having run its course and the band unfairly being singularly associated with the genre despite their best efforts to the contrary.
But the strings had been an integral part of the Chic’s former commercial success, and in 1980 Rodgers and Edwards weren’t quite ready to part ways with them just yet.
Indeed, when the group made concert and TV appearances in the late 1970s and during 1980 – including Soul Train, Tops of the Pops, and in their own music videos – the Chic Strings provided an important audio and visual element. The three women – Heywood, Milne and Hong – added even more sophistication and depth to a funky dance-oriented outfit that already had plenty of both.
Or as the late Bernard Edwards told NME in a January 1979 interview after “Le Freak” was certified platinum and while it was still ruling the pop charts, “the three women who play violins are very important, too, for our balance, our look and our sound…I think they add a necessary sweetener to our rhythm.”
Not long after the album Real People ran its undeservedly short-lived course, The Chic Strings no longer were a part of Chic’s artistic direction and the three violinists went their separate ways.
Heywood went on to her longest professional stint as an accomplished violist for the Buffalo (N.Y.) Philharmonic Orchestra, where she played for nearly 35 years. At the orchestra’s performance last Saturday, there was a moment of silence before the ensemble played Bach’s “Air on the G String” in Heywood’s memory.
Despite her longevity and success in what some might consider a more natural habitat for a classical artist like Heywood, the music contribution I’ll most remember her for is what she and her fellow violinists helped create with my all-time favorite band during some of their most creative years.
As a tribute to the late Valerie Heywood, here is the song that showcased her and the other Chic Strings the best: 1980’s “Open Up” from the Real People album. Links are provided for clips on both YouTube and Spotify.
R.I.P. Valerie Heywood (April 16, 1952 – October 31, 2019).
Chic fans – See these Chic 40th Anniversary tributes:
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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