Like slouch socks and fluorescent Reeboks is how I describe my 31 year friendship with my oldest, bestest friend, Tamara. Actually, the phrase is “we go back like slouch socks and fluorescent Reeboks” and it’s usually a disclaimer before I say something bluntly, no filter. The first time I used that phrase, a year popped up in my head: 1986. For me, 1986 exists only in the context of my two favorite albums at the time.
The first was Prince’s Parade album — — if you know me that’s a no brainer. The second was the debut self-titled album by The Jets. That time in my life can only be summed up by what The Jets were wearing on the album’s cover: slouch socks and multi-colored Converse. That was on my mind a few weeks ago as I was calling Moana Wolfgramm-Feinga, the youngest member of the original group, to discuss the group’s upcoming episode of Unsung on TV One.
The TV One episode is many years in the making as fans of the group have been lobbying producers to feature them going all the way back to 2010 and they are quite worthy. After a string of hit songs like, “Crush On You”, “You Got It All,” “Make It Real,” “Rocket 2U,” and my favorite, “Curiosity.” The Jets’ musical background in Minneapolis dovetails, in part with Prince’s. Their video for “Cross My Broken Heart” was filmed at what was then his newly opened Paisley Park facility. They were the first outside act to film there. Also, their video for “I Do You” was filmed at First Avenue, the club featured in Purple Rain.
The group is the first of Polynesian descent to make their way to Billboard’s R&B, Pop and Dance charts. Today, they perform as two separate groups. One with the three sisters and their brother, Eddie. The other is comprised of the remaining four brothers. Each had added one or more younger sisters to their acts.
When asked about whether or not she was ready for the airing of the Unsung episode, Moana responded that she was “excited, but worried that it will open up a can of worms” as the family has begun mending fences following litigation over the name and the settlement that came of it. I assured her that Unsung is typically kinder to artists than other docuseries of its kind and ultimately the producers try to put things in context by the end and leave fans with something that was uplifting. Some artists, like Stephanie Mills, have turned down many requests to be featured on the show. So did The Jets.
“We were asked about two or three years ago, but we declined and that was partly because we were involved in this suit over the name…the business can do a number on your family.” It seemed the timing was off and a feature like Unsung could have done more harm than good during a time as relationships were being mended and bonds rebuilt. Still, the story of the Jets is a fascinating one.
So, let’s go back! How did your family get started in the business and was that always the goal or did you just kind of fall into it? How did that happen?
We were blessed with the success we had. Our parents decided in the 70s this is what we were going to do. We had no choice but to succeed because they didn’t have a Plan B. Music is very much a part of our Polynesian culture and it played a big part in our upbringing.
Our parents came to this country as immigrants in the 60s, they didn’t speak English. Both come from big families where everyone is taught the music and dances of Polynesian culture. We had a big family, we learned all the songs and dances growing up. They were inspired by the Jacksons and the Osmonds, both are groups from big families. We started out as a Polynesian revue. At first it was my parents and the older siblings. When Elizabeth and I got older, we joined the act. After a while, it just became the kids, the eight of us, performing in hotels and other venues.
My brother Leroy, he’s the oldest, he learned to play instruments by ear and then he taught the rest of us, the younger ones, how to play and everyone played something. Even if it was just percussion, we all learned to play something. We were doing shows at different hotels and got an offer from a Midwestern chain called the Hawaiian Inn to perform at their various locations. We were doing shows at one of their hotels in Minnesota when the chain went bankrupt and we were stranded there. An owner of another hotel told us that if we could learn to perform Top 40, he could give us regular work.
We changed the show and the name of the group. We started out as The Polynesian Pearls. Since we are all big Earth, Wind & Fire fans, we picked the name Quazar because we thought it sounded like that had an Earth, Wind & Fire feel to it.
At this point you are in Minneapolis, Minnesota at an exciting time because Prince just had this massive success with Purple Rain, the film and the album, and there was this interest in the “Minneapolis Sound.” That’s really how I came to be a fan of the group. How did his being from there benefit the group?
Yes. Prince was hot. Managers and record companies were looking into the Minneapolis music scene more. Don Powell who used to be Stevie Wonder’s manager and worked for Motown lived in Minneapolis. We got him to come see the group and he liked us and thought he could do something with the group. But, we had to change our name. Quazar didn’t work and he didn’t think our last name had presence as a stage name. Don came up with “The Jets” one day while driving to see one of our shows and he heard the Elton John song “Benny & The Jets” on the radio. So we became The Jets.
So now you have a manager. Did you get a record deal right away, were there a lot of offers?
Every record company pretty much passed except MCA.
That would have been with Jheryl Busby, right?
Right. We were signed by Jheryl Busby and Louil Silas, Jr. That was in 1984.
Jheryl was also responsible for signing New Edition to MCA and then he later went to Motown and signed another sibling group, The Boys, who also did Unsung last season.
Yeah, I saw theirs it’s good to see that they’re still doing music, but on their terms. They just walked away from the business. This business can tear families apart, it’s good to see that they’re still close, still a family.
Yes. I’ve actually spoken to three of the brothers and I can see that. And it’s important because when that’s over, all you have is the foundation you started with.
Ultimately, that’s why we broke apart. The business works for record companies, not for artists or writers with the royalties. Opportunities change all the time. Not everybody can make it and you’re hot only for the time that you are. For us, gigs began drying up, our friends were going to college and it really was a time of transition.
Our manager told our parents that there are always peaks and valleys. All artists go through peaks in valleys and that you have to roll with the valleys. That’s true. The business loves you while you’re walking the red carpet with fur coats, but when you don’t have a song on the radio, they drop you.
That had to be a hard lesson to learn at such a young age.
It is. We got our contract when I was 9 or 10 and by 16, I was done. But, it was surreal for us. When we started recording the first album, we just couldn’t believe it was happening. Everything was brand new. We had been working at getting this contract for two years. Then comes Prince and record companies start looking for artists from the region, we get signed and almost immediately we’re on tour. When you’re that young, you’re sort of just going through the motions.
Like, “this is life, this is what we do?”
Exactly. Success to us was staying in hotels and ordering room service. We came from a big family so, calling room service for a hamburger was a big deal to us.
Tell me about making the first album.
It’s funny how now, people still love those early hits. We were recording the songs. We didn’t play the instruments on the album, there were studio musicians, but we sang all the songs. I remember being in the booth with Liz and in between, I kept asking her, “Can you believe this is happening?” We were so excited.
I did an interview with Andre Cymone who is from Minneapolis, he played with Prince and then when he got his own record deal, we talked about how labels back then had Black Music Departments. What was that like having the label decide that as where you would go and what kind of music you were making?
We didn’t realize it, we welcomed it and R&B welcomed us. People didn’t know what we were. We’re Polynesian, but people thought we were Mexican or mixed like Debarge. We’re all ethnic, so it didn’t matter. I thought that was cool and love that diversity. We were performing R&B anywhere. Soul music is pop music and that’s what we listened to anyway.
When things started to change and the success wasn’t there, how did you all not go the way of so many acts who get into the business as kids, but struggle to remain relevant as adults and end up on drugs or with other substance issues like what happened with Debarge and others?
We were raised in the Mormon Church, so we believe that you don’t put substances in your body. That strict Mormon upbringing kept us from substance abuse.
What did you all do afterwards, when the radio stopped playing your records?
Our last album was in the 90s. After, we severed ties with our manager. MCA dropped us, but my parents kept us working until ’95. We just got burned out, one by one. Elizabeth took a break first, she had breast cancer. We were always really close, we still are, and I remember her saying to me, “I have cancer, I have too much going on, I can’t do this anymore.”
As we struggled, it got stressful. Money was tight and we didn’t know how we were going to survive; we didn’t have a Plan B. So,here we are, young adults now, and we’re still getting paid peanuts. That’s basically how we broke up, we all left one by one. I got married, moved to Hawaii and started having a family and so did my siblings, but after 10 years, we started to miss it.
In 2010, we decided to do one show together, the 25th anniversary show and we saw there was an 80s trend happening, people were connecting to that time and the music again. I always say, the 80s were the last real decade where you had music so original like that. We did a few 80s tours, like one with the New Kids On The Block, then we started getting more work. We did a new album where we re-recorded the old hits and did a few new songs. But when we were looking at the money we were making, things weren’t adding up. We had contracts, but weren’t being told what was in them, the terms or how much we were supposed to be making.
Yes, when I spoke with your publicist about the Unsung episode, I was told there was some emotional drama there.
My brother Rudy was booking all the gigs and handling the contracts. He was doing everything. The rest of us asked him to take off one hat. I think he saw that as a threat and the the next thing we knew, we were getting cease and desist letters and being sued over use of the name, “The Jets.”
The Jets was an eight member family band, we all owned that name. So, for two years, we weren’t allowed to even use the name, “former members of The Jets.” Our manager, in the beginning, never filed trademark for the name so that we would all own it. We settled after two years. Now, there’s a LLC and all the original members own the name today and perform as two separate groups. We’re all just getting through it and healing now. But we’ll get over it, we’re still a family and the family unit needs to hold us together.
All these years later, what’s your favorite part about the whole experience?
I enjoy it so much now. I love the touring because we get to celebrate the music and the band, culminating with where we are now in our lives. Artists have to reinvent themselves. You always have to think, “what’s next?” We didn’t do that when we were younger. Now that there is this surge and interest in 80s music, that’s what we’re doing and we’re just happy there is a lane for us still. I’m happy that we still connect with fans we grew up with.
What advice would you give to young artists, kids, who want to get into the business?
If you’ve got talent and an opportunity, take it and take time to make it count. Leave your fans with a little more than they came with. Our fans remember us as kids from the 80s, but they get to know us a little bit more now in these shows than they did before.
That was our conversation. It was a journey into the past that explained a whole lot about the present. Sometimes you have to go back to move forward and that’s why I wanted to write this article. For me, 1986 was a stressful year. School was stressful, home was stressful and being 11 going on 12 was stressful. The only thing that made it better were those two albums. Prince isn’t with us anymore, The Jets are. We need to give our legends their “Props N Pounds” while they are still here because no one else is going to do it for us.
And yes, slouch socks were worn during this interview and while it was being edited for space and consistency. Reeboks were not.
Unsung featuring The Jets airs tonight on TV One at 9:00 pm EST.