The first time I saw The Jets on TV, I freaked out. I didn’t know who they were or where they were from but the first time i said was “wait a minute: they look like me. They have my same nose and they make good music that I like. Who are they?” It was for their first video “Curiosity” and as for comparing noses, it was a Polynesian thing. I’m Hawaiian and I would learn that they are Tongan. How in the world did a Tongan singing group have a hit song and video and on top of them, how in the hell were they signed to one of the biggest record labels of the 1980’s, MCA? MCA stood for “Music Corporation of America” but due to how much music they released and how much did not sell, they were nicknamed the “Music Cemetery of America” but The Jets were signed, so there had to be a reason. Someone felt they were going to profit from them and “Curiosity” felt like something that would be one of the biggest songs of 1985. For me, it felt like it. Keep in mind that for soul/R&B, 1985 was the year of debut albums by Whitney Houston, Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, and Full Force, plus successful albums from Sade, The Mary Jane Girls, DeBarge, and Freddie Jackson, plus new albums from New Edition and Grace Jones. So just who were these guys and girls from Minneapolis, and will there be more Tongans on my TV?
The Jets were a family group consisting of the Wolfgamm’s: sisters Elizabeth, Moana, and Kathi, plus brothers Eddie, Eugene, Haini, Leroy, and Rudy. At the time, it wasn’t odd to see a group playing instruments compared to now, where everything may be done by others in a recording studio. They were like bands like Full Force, Klymaxx, and being from Minneapolis, they perhaps were on their way to being as prosperous as Prince & The Revolution or The Time. The group had done local talent shows and hosted their own Polynesian act, where they played a wide range of different island styles, and called themselves Quazar. However, their love of soul and pop came from their parents and what they listened to in the house, so it was natural for them to include it as a part of their shows. When it was the soul and pop getting attention from audiences, they realized that perhaps they should not only form a group but give it a proper name, which was given to them by their manager, Don Powell. Powell had worked with David Bowie and Stevie Wonder, which meant he was considered a success. By working with him, he suggested they should change their name to something he came up with, thus The Jets.
Their debut album came out when the media was talking about “The Minneapolis sound”, when everyone wanted to know what Prince was making, how and why. They also wanted to know back then if Prince was actually making the music, with some believing he could not be… well, not so much “not as talented”, but if he actually played the guitar at all. Little did they know Prince not only played the guitar, but bass, drums, keyboards, and a wide range of other instruments. He also sang in many octaves, wrote his own material, and was a producer who was capable of engineering his work, although he did used outside help to be sure his music was the best around. Not only that, but it was learned Prince played most of the music on The Time’s first two albums along with background vocals, and the first and only album by The Time. Prince was a multi-everything so once people realized of his capabilities, the media wanted to know more about him after the massive success of Purple Rain and if there were others behind him. For a short time, The Jets were contenders but in truth, they were very much part of the Minneapolis Sound, however small, and it began with this album.
When they went into the studio, they worked with producer David Rivkin, with Powell assisting. Rivkin was known amongst Minneapolis musicians not only for his work, but he’s the brother of Bobby Z., longtime member of Prince’s band which became The Revolution.
As far as material to record, none of The Jets were songwriters so Powell didn’t have to go too far to find some people to work with. Two of the people he worked with for songs are Aaron Zigman and Jerry Knight. Knight was a member of Raydio (Ray Parker Jr.’s group) and Zigman had done his share of songwriting, including songs by Johnny Gill, Lakeside, and Carly Simon, so Zigman and Knight worked together extensively. It makes sense that three of the four singles from The Jets’ debut were all Zigman & Knight songs, there was a formula and it worked.
One of the Zigman & Knight songs was “Curiosity”, with a synthesized bassline that was not unlike what Prince played in “Erotic City” so while the group had no connection with Mr. Nelson, there was an obvious city vibe going on. Maybe everyone influenced once another but whatever the sound was in Minneapolis, it was very much a part of what they played. In the video, when they walked out of the classrooms, I thought to myself “oh damn, these people got their own style”, then it became “oh, these Tongans have a swagger.” For me, I had just started the 10th grade and I know I said “I don’t have people like The Jets at my school. If I did, I would write about them.” What worked about the song was the background vocals from the ladies in the group, with Elizabeth taking the lead but what worked amazingly was the bridge when they sang, with a slight soulful accent:
“baby, I don’t want to be just a play thang
baby, I got to have it all”
To me, the way they sang “I got to have it all” reminded me of Jermaine Stewart’s “The Word Is Out”, specifically during the chorus when he sang “that you and I are lovers/that you and I are lovers/that you and I been getting it on”. Add to that the chicken scratch of the guitar from Leroy and it sounded like they were ready to be a massively huge group, they wanted to compete and they did. I’m sure the extras within the song were aided with assistance from Zigman and Knight, but that’s what made it work.
BTW: when Elizabeth split herself in two in the video, I was magically hoping she would come out of the TV so we could go out. Only in my head.
It was their second hit from the album that became not only the most successful of the four singles, but remains the song The Jets are known for. What works is while lead singers Elizabeth and Moana were teenagers, it was written by Zigman & Knight in a way that would appeal to everyone, you could be 40 and realize what it meant to have a crush on someone. It wasn’t just a song about puppy love, it was written as a way to say no matter how old or young you are, you’re able to feel something that may be meaning full. What also worked was when Elizabeth and Moana would trade lead duties briefly, with Moana’s high falsetto taking over during the third line:
“You must have heard it from my best friend
she’s always talkin’ when she should be listenin’
can’t keep a secret to save her life
but still I trusted her with all I felt inside
I never knew, a rumor could spread so fast”
‘Cause now the word is out all over town
that I’m longing for you
“Maybe I was the one who left the trace
was there a message written on my face?
were my emotions so easily read
that you would know my love before a word was said
was it my eyes that let you know you had control?
because the way you move was so self-assured
you knew I would surrender”
The song worked off of two verses and that was it, and an addictive chorus that would also help the song and the group crossover to the pop charts. They pulled fans in and kept them there.
The Jets’ fourth single was a ballad, and it happened to be a Rupert Holmes composition. Holmes is the man who wrote ” “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” so they felt if he could write one of the biggest songs of the 1970’s, The Jets would be successful too with one of his contributions. It was the first Jets song to feature a saxophone solo, which was fitting of the time since every other hit song or artist had one sax solo somewhere. While the video shows it as being played by Eddie, I still have a feeling it is not him playing that specific solo, despite being fully capable of doing it.
My favorite part of the song is during the chorus at the end, when you hear Elizabeth’s voice getting a lot of reverb and she sings “honey it’s true, there’s just you” and the song gradually fades. While the video and song very much had a 60’s vibe going for it, it was very much 80’s too. On top of that, while YouTube doesn’t show the beginning of it, every day will remember when the guys were looking in the jukebox, deciding on what song to play and all of them uniting in saying they wanted to play “H-3”. For a lot of Hawaiians, that referred to the then-unfinished highway that up until that point, had not finished after almost 30 years.
Side 1 of the album ended with “Love Umbrella”, which also was the first Jets song to feature a lead vocal by a male voice, in this case Eugene. There was always something extra in the way he sang his vocals and perhaps that had a lot to do with being raised in Minneapolis. If anything, it is why when he left the group and become one half of Boys Club, their music stood out on its own.
After the success of “Crush On You” on the R&B and pop charts, MCA Records wanted to be sure to keep fans aware of the group so instead of releasing “You Got It All” as a single, they decided to give them something slightly similar with another uptempo song, and it was indeed another Zigman/Knight composition. The lead was from Elizabeth, which included the falsettos and at a time when going to an actual phone still mattered, it was a time when The Jets also had their own phone line where you were able to hear the hottest news about the group.
Miles Waters and Peter Vale were with the group L’Equipe but had worked successfully to write songs for Sheena Easton, which is why they were used to contribute a song, “Heart On The Line”. Perhaps Rivkin and Powell felt that since the song before had to do with calling a private number, the listener should keep that person on the line and have a male’s perspective. Eugene handles the lead for this one and for me at least, his lead and vocal harmonies sounded a lot like other pop and soul music from Hawai’i, that vibe that comes from either being where they were from or singing amongst family members.
“Right Before My Eyes” was written by David Paul Bryant and Dean Chamberlain and while it doesn’t list who does the lead vocal, it doesn’t quite sound like Eugene so I’ll guess that it was done by Rudy, with nice harmonies from Elizabeth and Moana. To be honest, this sounds very much like an album track that works within its own context and settles in nicely in the program.
The the album has a cover version and that honor is given to The Delphonics’ “La La Means I Love You”, the lead of which is shared by Elizabeth and Rudy, where they not only trade the lead but also get a chance to sings quite nicely together. While it may sound odd for a brother and sister to sing together in a love song, Debra Laws recorded the hit “Very Special” with her brother, Ronnie Laws. This could have easily been released as its own single too but I think The Jets and their managers wanted to continue to establish the group as their own entity. The song also helped show the parents of their fans how they’re connected with the older music they grew up with.
The album closes with “Mesmerized”, written by keyboardist Joey Gallo and producer Wardell Potts, both of whom worked with Shalamar, The Whispers, and Carrie Lucas, with Potts also being a member of the group Dynasty. By listening to this song, if this sounds as if it could’ve been perfect in the hands of Howart Hewett, now you know the reason. With Eugene handling the vocals, it’s an okay way to end a good album but I think it would’ve been more effective with a song that shared the lead with Elizabeth or Moana or have all of them unite. The album ends, fades out and you’re left with wondering “wait, is that it?” Maybe the album was not designed to be as solid as other artists, it could’ve been nothing more than a collection of talents, not something with a more solid beginning, middle and end.
With the nine songs that make up the album, it works very nicely and showed that the group could easily record more music with possible hits. They followed it up with a Christmas album before doing their third LP, Magic, with a song made for the soundtrack to Beverly Hills Cop II, “Cross My Broken Heart”. In between this, they worked with the Kool-Aid company and released an exclusive cassette single that would not be released anywhere else. The group would continue to tour for a few more years, with Eugene leaving the group to become Gene Hunt and become a part of the duo Boys Club. The group ended up recording four albums before taking a brief break from the mainstream spotlight, and maybe that had to do with their hit songs becoming less chart-worthy. It also had to do with the group not being happy with their manager, as Powell had been accused of taking money from the group’s earnings, which would sometimes leave them broke. Trying to keep yourselves together as a group, especially when you’re all in the same family, was a bit too much and they chose to take a break.
Elizabeth did make an attempt to record a solo album in 1995 with producer Brian Blosil (Marie Osmond’s husband) when she would have been 23 but that project never was released. However, she would continue to do tracks with sister Moana for a few compilations. She had breast cancer as well, which did slow her down for a bit. Once her health made her capable of performing, she still does shows when her brothers and sisters decide to reunite The Jets every now and then.
In the end, the group released 16 singles, 12 of which were successful, 6 of which were on the Top 20 R&B charts (4 of those in the top 10), 5 of which were on the Top 10 Pop charts, and 2 of which actually topped the Adult Contemporary charts, not bad for a group who were primarily targeted to teens. The group’s popularity began to fade when they released the first single (“You Better Dance”) from their fourth album, which coincided with the end of the 1980’s and the start of the new decade. Despite never making a fifth album, all of their hits are still remembered by fams who still keep their memories alive through their songs. While “Crush On You” is arguably their post popular song, it was “You Got It All” that went as high as #2 on the R&B Singles chart and was one of the two songs that topped the Adult Contempoary chart. Regardless of chart statistics, it shows how much of an impact they did make on the charts and most importantly the fans, who will still do the choreography from the videos when they hear the song on the radio and think of the crushes they may have had on members of the group, as I did back in 1985 when I had a thing for Elizabeth. We’re all older now but fans of the group will never forget the power of the debut album that kept them in our collections and on the wall when you bought a Jets poster (as my sister did).