Nineties Nostalgia | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

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Nineties Nostalgia

For music lovers with a long enough memory, it's a big deal that Black Janet is reconnecting.

Ask anyone who was on the scene in the late '80s and early '90s and they'll tell you that South Florida was once a rich breeding ground for musical talent — much of it poised to seize the national spotlight. It was a time when acts like the Mavericks, Marilyn Manson, the Goods, Nuclear Valdez, Natural Causes, Vesper Sparrow, Mary Karlzen, and, yes, Black Janet gave major labels cause to scour the scene for homegrown artists who had potential to put cash in their coffers.

Although Black Janet's grasp on that golden ring may have been somewhat tenuous compared to its contemporaries, it was easily among the most adventurous of the lot — Manson and his early aggregate, the Spooky Kids, notwithstanding. Earnest, edgy, dark, and brooding, its music evoked the sounds of early goth and Britain's new-romantic movement: a melodic mix of the Cult, Depeche Mode, and Echo and the Bunnymen filtered through the caress and croon of David Bowie, Jim Morrison, Peter Murphy, and Bryan Ferry.

The band's lineup shifted frequently during its relatively short six-year tenure, with vocalist/guitarist Jim Wurster the one constant. Wurster, a fan of singer/songwriter types like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and John Prine, formed Black Janet in 1989 with guitarist/keyboard player Pete Campbell. Although Campbell would eventually leave, Wurster and various session recruits recorded a solid eponymous debut EP that laid the groundwork for local music lovers to begin paying attention. Meanwhile, Campbell's brief stint with Black Janet helped influence its sound and continued to give the band a sense of direction.

"I'd play Pete these songs that were influenced by my heroes, and he told me to make my major chords minor," Wurster recalls. "We decided to create a sound that wasn't on the radio, something that was unique and different. When I added all the layering and effects, people told me that we sounded like Roxy Music. Yet I hadn't even heard Roxy Music at that time."

By the time Wurster reentered the studio to record the eight-song cassette In Many Colors as a follow-up, a permanent lineup began coalescing around Wurster as singer Marsha Lewis, guitarist John Pappalardo, drummer Frank Binger, and bassist Rick Santese were growing into a cohesive unit. Much of this can be heard on the stellar debut full-length album, 1993's Love Thirsty. For all its haunting, atmos­pheric ambiance and seductive, suggestive posturing, Love Thirsty earned Black Janet numerous accolades, including a Jammy award. Thanks in large part to manager Helaine Blum's relentless promotion efforts, consistent airplay from alternative radio station WKPX, and regular gigs at popular Broward nightspots like Squeeze and the Reunion Room, the band became a consistent draw, eventually extending its reach to Tampa and Orlando.

"They were the biggest band in Broward," recalls Rich Ulloa, head of Miami-based Y&T Records, home to budding hometown acts like the Mavericks, Mary Karlzen, and Amanda Green. "I saw one of their final shows, and it was one of the most compelling live performances I'd ever seen. Jim was always a great, stellar songwriter, and with Marsha's singing, I thought they were destined to reach great heights."

At one point, Atlantic Records expressed interest in signing the band, although the possibility was thwarted when the A&R rep left the company. Wurster also recalls being courted by a local dentist who claimed that he was starting a record company and that Black Janet would be his first signing. "He had this huge mansion in Boca," Wurster remembers. "We all wondered how he could afford living there on a dentist's salary. Next thing we knew, he had gotten in trouble due to medical fraud, so that kind of explained it." Needless to say, their record deal fell through.

Meanwhile, Black Janet was undergoing a shakeup of its own. Singer Amy Baxter, guitarist Rose Guilot, and bassist David Paul eventually replaced Lewis, Pappalardo, and Santese, joining Wurster and Binger for a final recording, the six-song EP She. Despite a notice from Billboard magazine heralding the group's new incarnation as "a phoenix rising from the ashes," She sold poorly in comparison to its predecessors. Figuring it was time to change direction, Wurster began branching out on his own, recording solo material and eventually forming a new amalgam, the Atomic Cowboys.

"We were losing our fire," he insists. "We weren't used to the bad reaction. Besides, each of us was moving into different things, so I felt breaking up was the right thing to do." Ironically, Wurster assumes some responsibility for stunting the band's potential. "Getting to that next level would have meant us going out on tour, and that was tough for me," he concedes. "I was kind of reluctant to give up my day job. I've been a teacher for 24 years, and frankly, I felt I was a better teacher than a musician."

And so, Black Janet might have faded into the far recesses of South Florida music lore had Wurster, who still teaches in Broward, not received an unexpected phone call earlier this month. Having recently returned from a lengthy stay in Israel, former vocalist Marsha Lewis suggested they re-form the band for a one-off reunion. The musicians they reconvene will comprise what Wurster refers to as the classic Black Janet lineup — himself, Lewis, Pappalardo, Thompson, and Binger. Although it will mark the first time they've played together in 15 years, Wurster dismisses any ideas about a permanent re-formation. However, he says that there are plans to reissue the first two Black Janet cassette-only releases as a single CD and that they're also entertaining the idea of bringing the band back into the studio to record another album.

"I had never thought about it," Wurster confesses. "I've never been the nostalgic type. I've always been intent on moving forward. But the reaction to this reunion's been great, and I'm really excited."