Breakwater burst forth in the 1970s, confident that its sound would grow like ivy and choke back the dominance of bands ruling the airwaves, like the Ohio Players, Tower of Power, and Earth, Wind and Fire. A funk-heavy Philadelphia crew that emerged from a music scene flowing with hits the hard way, Breakwater cranked out covers and original cuts at block parties, rec centers and bars in and around town. It paid off.
They signed to Arista Records. Singles crept into radio rotation and up the music charts. All seemed set. And Gene Robinson Jr., a founding member and lead vocalist, stood ready for the fame and fortune.
It wasn’t to be, at least in that iteration. By the mid-’80s, they had broken up and drifted apart.
Now, in the second decade of a new millennium, Breakwater has re-tooled and re-emerged, outlasting even their old label. They’ll bring their classic sound, with a few new twists, to World Cafe Live on Saturday.
“We tell anyone, ‘Come on out if you want to have a good time and party,’ because that’s what we do,” Robinson says.
Their self-titled debut set off many a party in 1978. The 1980 follow-up, Splashdown, made waves too, peaking at No. 33 on the Billboard R&B charts, largely on the strength of its smooth, mid-tempo single, “Say You Love Me Girl.” Their songs still find some airplay on classic R&B formats, but not quite enough to make Breakwater a household name for the uninitiated.
“It’s funny,” Robinson says. “Certain places that did get a taste of Breakwater fell in love with it. There are some people in pockets of the country and overseas who know us. Then I could go across the street, and they don’t know who we are.”
That plight is not uncommon. Poor marketing and label neglect—the tandem industry kiss of death—forced the crew from its limelight quest back to Life As Normal. Some fared well; others, not so much.
For Robinson, sliding back to earth meant picking up an IT career, now nearly at the 30-year mark, along with marriage, four kids and a suburban home.
The death of fellow founding member Kae Williams Jr. in 2008 drew them all back. They realized they still had that creative itch, a desire to finish what they started years ago. It’s just five of eight members playing now, though. Turns out, this isn’t an endeavor short of complexities for 50- and 60-somethings.
After all, there are careers to juggle, families to consider, lives to manage away from the stage. Even assembling for a publicity shot is complicated, let alone rehearsal times or travel dates.
“You hear from folks, ‘I got Bible class that night;’ ‘I have to get my kids or grandkids,’” Robinson says, laughing. “It’s not like when you’re in your 20s, and all you have to do is play.”
That doesn’t mean they have forgotten how to jam. Older, pudgier, maybe, but Breakwater is still in it to win it. They’re even finishing up a new CD and a label is pending. But their second date with destiny isn’t.
Sat., July 21, 6pm. $25. World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St. 215.222.1400. worldcafelive.com
PW's Music Issue 2014