The talented quartet from Detroit known as The Floaters unfortunately became synonymous with the term "One Hit Wonder," but that one hit took the country by storm and kept them working regularly for three decades.
The Floaters started as a quartet in the early 70s with members Larry Cunningham, Charles Clark, Robert Palmer and Paul Mitchell, and became a very popular club act in Detroit. Wooed by another local group with a small label contract, Palmer left and was replaced by Ralph Mitchell, who was with the group when they were subsequently discovered and signed by ABC Records executive Otis Smith.
The group's self-titled debut album hit the stores with virtually no fanfare, but a young New York disc-jockey threw the single "Float On," with its memorable bass line, on the air during a break and the phone lines lit up. A disc jockey in Cleveland had similar results and soon ABC realized it had a potential hit on its hands. The single ultimately climbed to the top of both the Pop and Soul charts, one of the most unlikely hits of 1977. "Float On" came in various lengths and mixes, the most ponderous of which was an 11 minute version that dominated Side One of the debut album. The lyrics were rather preposterous - as each member of the group gave an inane monologue about his zodiac sign and what he liked in a woman - but the groove was absolutely infectious and carried the day. The follow-up single, a surprise cover of Dusty Springfield's "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me," showed lead singer Charles Clark had some pipes, but it stalled on the charts.
The sale of ABC Records in 1978 spelled disaster for the group's second album, Magic, which also featured a tremendously long first single (the title track), but wasn't nearly as compelling as its predecessor and it faded quickly from the charts. New label MCA brought in veteran writer/producer Eugene McDaniels for the group's third album, Float Into The Future, but it died an even quicker death.
Internal group struggles and a battle over the Floaters name led to the departure of Larry Cunningham and Ralph Mitchell in 1980, and a local female singer, Shu Ga, was recruited to work with the remaining duo for the forgettable Get Ready for the Floaters and Shu Ga. It again featured an oversized single (the 10+ minute "Get Ready") but nobody seemed to notice.
The song "Float On" continued to have a long life on radio, and even received the royal treatment in multiple version recorded with guest artists by super-producers Full Force.
With legal issues behind them, the group reunited in 1990 and began playing dates with their long-standing Floaters Orchestra. They also started working in multi-group soul shows around the world. During the next decade Clark left the group for a new career in Gospel and Paul Mitchell became a local Detroit producer. Original member Robert Palmer rejoined Cunningham and Ralph Mitchell in the lineup that toured regularly and in 2005 recorded a limited edition EP, The Way We Were, that included an excellent cover of Charles Wright's "Loveland." Sadly, group leader Larry Cunningham died in 2019 after an extended illness.
It's tough to say what the Floaters could have done with better material in their limited run as recording artists, but in their performances on their albums and in concert they showed signs that they deserved more than the "one hit wonder" label. And it was good to see that for more than three decades after their recording career was over, they continued to be appreciated by live audiences around the world.
By Chris Rizik
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