40 Years Ago: “Magic Man” Robert Winters overcame disability and made the greatest R&B ballad of an era.

(January 16, 2021).  “I can pull a rabbit…out of a hat, disappear and return like (snap)…that!  ‘Cause baby, I’m your magic man, yeah…”

Those were the memorable opening lyrics to a song whose title pretty much described the man who made it – a magically gifted singer out of Detroit who overcame a major physical disability to write, record and release one of the sweetest R&B love ballads this side of the 1970s.

Robert Winters ‘Magic Man’ album (released 1981)

“Magic Man” was the beautifully crafted and even more wonderfully executed soul classic by Robert Winters – billed as Robert Winters and Fall – on Buddah Records.  It wove its captivating spell on our ears and dazzled our hearts 40 years ago during the first half of 1981, and completed an unlikely journey that made it one of the biggest R&B sleepers of that or any other year during the decade. 

Recorded and released in late 1980, the song entered the Billboard Hot Soul Singles chart at a very modest No. 85 during the last week of December, and would spend the next six months scaling the list while making a slow, grueling climb to its No. 11 peak in May 1981, where it remained for two weeks before beginning its inevitable descent down and off the chart.

These were the chart numbers on “Magic Man” during its incredible 25-week chart run that didn’t end until mid-June: 85-85-75-68-61-55-49-42-37-32-28-24-21-21-19-15-13-12-1111-22-23-24-25-97-off.

When Billboard calculated its year-end Top 50 Soul Singles of 1981, “Magic Man” ranked at an impressive No. 20, making it the only song on the entire list that didn’t reach the top ten during its weekly chart run that year.

Those figures were impressive, but not nearly as much so as the fact that Winters even had a hit in the first place.

“Made by a ‘handicap’”

Robert L. Winters battled polio as a young child and was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life as a result.  Not one to use his disability as a liability, Winters pursued his dream of becoming a recording star – first by singing gospel with his sister as a youngster and then by cutting a few records in the 1960s, none of which were big hits.

Winters honed his deep baritone vocals in the church, giving it the rich gospel feel he later employed on records.  But it was his wide range that allowed him to effortlessly glide from baritone to soprano to falsetto with the ease of a hot knife cutting through butter.

Yet as talented as he was, his “handicap” – as he and many others referred to it at a time when that term was still acceptable – threatened to hold him back.  This was not because of his own perceived inabilities, but because of the mindsets of others who felt he would not be marketable. 

Winters recalled this on the liner notes in the back cover of his Magic Man album:

“I could go through the details of the pain and suffering and the years of “no’s” coming from behind huge corporate doors, but you all have had pain, and why should I inform you of something you already know.”

In describing his wheelchair status, Winters thanked the many people in his corner who told him: “Don’t let them tell you a wheelchair means give up. It just means you can reach the rainbow walking or rolling.”

He optimistically continued the story of how he overcame this adversity: “I will tell you of someone who went through the battle of taking “no” for an answer time and time again, but he kept his convictions and has finally gotten more than family and friends to the music…”

Budda-Buddah-Buddha

Indeed much more than family and friends jumped aboard the “Magic Man” train.  In fact, it was the legendary industry mogul Clive Davis – founder and president (at the time) of Arista Records – who first recognized the hit potential of Winters’ ballad.  Upon hearing the song’s demo, he signed Winters to a one-album deal with Buddah Records, which was under Arista’s marketing and distribution arm at the time.

The story goes that friends had referred to Winters by the nickname “Budda” long before his affiliation with the alternately spelled label.  This was attributed to his habit of sitting with his legs crossed in the same way that the enlightened philosopher and religious leader Buddha (Siddhārtha Gautama) did.  

The three spelling variations aside, it was Buddah Records that gave Robert Winters the chance he needed, and the result was one of the greatest soul ballads of the 1980s and one of the last true hits in Buddah’s immense catalogue.

Robert Winters generously shared credit. 

One read of his album’s liner notes would suggest that Robert Winters was, for all intents and purposes, a solo artist.  But he recorded as Robert Winters and Fall with “a dear and faithful friend” Walter “W. T.” Turner, whom Winters thanked on the back cover for giving him the “strength to carry on whether we had the strength or not.”  It was Turner who is pictured with Winters on the back cover of the Magic Man album.

The back cover of ‘Magic Man’ – the album. Pictured are Robert Winters (left) and Walter Turner.

It is believed, then, that Winters did all of the vocal parts for “Magic Man” – his incredible lead and those amazing backing harmonies that punctuated the verses and choruses.  The backing arrangement alone is truly a work of art – a stirring testimony to how a great producer can weave a simple love song into a soul masterpiece.  The producers in this case were listed as Ray Dewey and Jimmy George, both of whom were also credited as songwriters on the hit. 

As “Magic Man” continued its slow chart ascent – debuting on the 100-position soul list at No. 85 in December 1980, and not reaching the top 40 until the week after Valentine’s Day, Winters began making the rounds.  He appeared on the episode of Soul Train that aired March 14, 1981.  Seated at his piano, he performed “Magic Man” and “Face The Music,” the album’s lead off track. 

Suddenly, a song that had stalled at No. 21 without a bullet in its 14th chart week saw new life.  “Magic Man” regained its bullet and moved into the top 20, where it reached its ultimate peak of No. 11 in early May.

As a boy of 14 at the time, I don’t exactly recall where I was when I first heard “Magic Man.”  It was one of those songs you didn’t really pay attention to as a young teenager – a tune kind of relegated to the background whenever it played.  My folks might have called it baby-making music with lyric lines like “tricks with cards are easy to do, but tricks with hearts will cast a spell on you,” and “on stage in lights I’ll dazzle your eyes, and later on that night I’ll make you realize, baby, I’m your magic man, yeah.”

But I know it eventually left an impression on me that paralleled the impact it had on the rest of the nation.  In a personal weekly chart I kept at the time, the song made an equally grinding climb up the list, spending months before reaching its lucky No. 13 peak that spring.

Even a 14-going-on-15-year-old boy who had just been through puberty knew a great love song when he heard one, and – to me – “Magic Man” was among the greatest my young ears had heard up to that point.

A dim afterglow as the “Magic” fades

After “Magic Man,” Buddah released “When Will My Love Be Right” as the album’s second single.  It entered the chart as “Magic Man” was descending, and looked as if it was going to outpace its predecessor.  As fate would have it though, radio never caught on to the followup and it petered out at No. 46 on the Hot Soul Singles chart.

Robert Winters and Fall left Buddah Records after that and moved to the Casablanca label, where he released the followup album L-O-V-E in 1982.  That LP unfortunately flopped and didn’t yield any big hit singles (“Do It Any Way You Want” peaked at No. 39 on the soul chart), whereupon Winters was left without a label contract.  I can’t help but wonder if Winters had been tied to more solvent labels – both Buddah and Casablanca (both ironically founded by Neil Bogart) were struggling in the early 1980s – might he have had a more successful longer-term career.  

Sadly, Winters – who reportedly suffered from an enlarged heart – died in 1989, leaving behind a wife – Connie – and their children.

It is presumably his children to whom he dedicated thanks in this postscript on the back cover of Magic Man, the album: 

“PS: A never ending song to Shawanda, Shalise, and ShaCrista”

He closed with this: “made by a handicap”

Robert Winters has been gone for a long while now, but “Magic Man” will forever live on with soul music fans of a certain age who remember how it made them feel back in 1981. 

On the occasion of its 40th anniversary, djrobblog submits to you one of the greatest love songs in history: “Magic Man” by the late Robert Winters (and Fall).

Enjoy this audio clip.

The song “Magic Man” as performed by Robert Winters and Fall

DJRob 

DJRob is a freelance blogger from Chicago who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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