The 1980 murder of Kyle Ray the Super DJ set a mournful tone for the Twin Cities. He was so beloved for his conversational Taste Show Lounge sets that the three-story 5th Street venue christened its DJ booth the “Kyle Ray Room” in his honor. Staff members and patrons of community radio station KMOJ lamented Ray’s tragic end as well, in light of the pivotal role he’d played in popularizing 89.7 on the FM dial. To fill Ray’s Tuesday and Thursday drive-time slots, station manager Jeanette Cotton recruited dutiful intern J. R. Maddox, a senior at Marshall-University High School. In June 1980, Orville Shannon visited the 10-watt station’s compound at 810 5th Avenue North during Maddox’s shift. Maddox’s aunt and uncle, it turned out, had attended Central High during Shannon’s years there, a connection that Shannon would parlay into his request that the impressionable young DJ spin the newly cut Orville Shannon single, “Oh Lover.”
Born Orval Hayden Joseph Shannon in April 1954, Orville Shannon had made his mid-’70s musical debut under the mentorship of guitarist Donald Breedlove as rhythm guitarist for Band of Thieves, the sizable stage band led by Napoleon Crayton, formerly of St. Paul’s immensely popular Amazers. Band of Thieves had begun tracking material at Sound 80 when smitten studio owner Herb Pilhofer brokered the group’s deal with Dick Schory’s Ovation Records of Glenview, Illinois. Pilhofer, a noted jazz pianist and German emigre, had built his own reputation for his Music That Works library series, which found favor with advertising agencies and sound houses. Pilhofer’s chart work had rendered 1976’s Band of Thieves LP a distinctly commercial affair. For overstuffed Twin Cities dancehalls, though, Band of Thieves live onstage were their true selves and Shannon’s personality stood out front-and-center during the group’s cover-heavy opening sets. Before Crayton’s star turns for the group’s core repertoire, Shannon mingled with audience members, sang directly to female patrons, and played guitar behind his back. After Crayton’s 1978 departure, Band of Thieves evolved into Breedlove, then dissolved, sending its members in search of other employment.
Liberated in 1980, Shannon minted “One Life to Live” b/w “Oh Lover” on his own 4 Reel label. After allying with Maddox, he tapped the recent graduate to handle the disc’s promotion. Maddox secured “Oh Lover” shelf real estate at independent shops from Oar Folkjokeopus to Mr. Crowns—and spun it consistently over KMOJ airwaves. The Rounders column inside bi-weekly entertainment rag Sweet Potato set aside a few words for Shannon’s debut, calling its up-beat A-side “a contemporary adult pop tune done up in a big production, but in search of the big hook.” As for the flip “Oh Lover,” which scored a modest hit on KMOJ, it “slows the pace to a lover’s rub-up, but the busy sax fill, strings, and back-up vocals seem to be making up for average-sounding material.” For this, the Rounders scribe awarded the single a C+.
Though unique, Shannon’s compositions flirted openly with the updated arsenal of Minneapolis sounds being minted by Prince’s recently sprawling catalog (already at 10 LPs and singles by the close of 1980). Shannon’s fixation on a lover, detailed in both breathy whisper and trembling falsetto on “Oh Lover,” are pages from the Prince Nelson playbook, as well as borrows from the Stylistics toolbox. “One Life to Live” moves similarly, as disco lasers pierce trap drums, with reedman Morris Wilson refereeing between the rival factions. Still, both tracks hail more from an old school than a Purple One; they’re well-dressed productions cut from available fabrics near and dear to Prince, though not by a plagiaristic tailor. Those close to Shannon maintain that he held Rick James in a higher regard than the superfreaks of his hometown. “It didn’t have the Minneapolis Sound, but [Shannon] didn’t want that,” J. R. Maddox claimed. “If he was alive he’d tell you, ‘I’m a balladeer—I write hits.’ He wasn’t into keeping up with the Joneses. He wanted to be distinct. He wanted to keep the old school alive.”