2022 was a year in which new music faced stiff competition from older catalog releases thanks to film and TV soundtracks, as well as social media apps like TikTok resurfacing hits of yesteryear.
Among the influencers was Netflix’s sci-fi hit “Stranger Things,” staged in the ’80s, and a major engine of nostalgia for that decade’s music. When the show’s fourth season debuted last May, it launched Kate Bush’s art pop hit “Running Up That Hill” to new heights on the U.S. charts, and belatedly turned an early Metallica classic, “Master of Puppets,” into a Top 40 hit.
One of the first songs that appeared in Season 4 of “Stranger Things,” “Object of My Desire,” was the biggest hit by Starpoint, a Maryland-based band that was ubiquitous on the R&B charts throughout the ’80s. Television producers can often license songs via songwriting publishers without directly contacting the recording artists. So the members of Starpoint didn’t know about the “Stranger Things” needle drop ahead of time, and had never seen the show before, but the news reached them quickly.
“My sister and nephew were watching it,” says drummer Greg Phillips, 64, who lives in the Annapolis area today. Soon calls and texts started pouring in. “A lot of our fans let us know. I heard from many, many people.”
In December, the British reissue label SoulMusic Records released the 6-disc box set “Starpoint: Object of My Desire — The Elektra Recordings (1983-1990),” capping an unlikely year of renewed recognition for the band that released its last album over 30 years ago. Ironically, the members of Starpoint didn’t realize when they recorded their signature song that “Object of My Desire” was a hit.
“That became the single, and we were surprised that was the one that was picked [by the label], because there were others that I liked,” says bassist and keyboardist Orlando Phillips, 66, who also lives in the Annapolis area.
Starpoint was formed in the ‘70s by the four Phillips brothers, who all grew up in Crownsville, Maryland, and attended Arundel High School: George, Orlando, guitarist Ernesto McKenzie Phillips, who died in 2004, and singer/keyboardist George Phillips Jr., who died in 2021 (a fifth brother didn’t play in the band). Their father suggested the band’s first name, Licyndiana, which was a combination of the names of their mother and three sisters.
By the time the band adopted the name Starpoint, they’d settled into their definitive lineup. The expanded sextet included lead singer Renee Diggs, who died in 2005, and bassist-keyboardist Kayode Adeyemo, who still lives and makes music in Maryland, and co-wrote the Milli Vanilli hit “Girl You Know It’s True.”
In the early days, Starpoint played a little original material amidst a repertoire of pop covers and jazz standards, performing at colleges, clubs and talent shows throughout Maryland. But it was the changing landscape of live entertainment that spurred the band to break into the recording industry.
“When disco came out and DJs started getting popular, bands were not getting much work, so we figured out we should pursue a record contract,” Orlando said.
Ernesto Phillips produced a demo tape in the family’s basement that got Starpoint signed to Chocolate City Records, a PolyGram imprint where the band became labelmates with the group Cameo and Kevin Moore (later known as Keb’ Mo’). In 1983, the band jumped to Elektra Records and Warner Bros., where they experienced their greatest commercial success.
The ten albums Starpoint made over the course of a decade spun off two dozen entries on Billboard’s R&B charts, including the top 10 hits “He Wants My Body” and Orlando’s personal favorite, “What You Been Missin’.” And Starpoint’s evolving sound tells the story of how the genre changed in the ‘80s, from the post-disco boogie of 1980′s “Starpoint” to the Teddy Riley-produced New Jack Swing sound of 1990′s “Have You Got What It Takes?”
“The last album we did had some really good stuff on it,” Orlando said.
The band never stopped playing their instruments live onstage, but the sound of their albums reflected the more automated and synthetic sound permitted by new technology like synthesizers and drum machines.
“As far as me being the drummer, I started programming drums,” Greg said. “Orlando, I think he played a lot more keyboard bass.”
Greg’s flashy drum solos were a staple of the band’s stage show, usually appearing before the grand finale of “Object of My Desire.”
Starpoint drew strong crowds on their home turf, performing at Pier Six Pavilion in Baltimore and the Capital Centre in Landover. And the band performed during many tours, including a stint opening for Morris Day & The Time as well as a package tour with two similarly named R&B groups of the era, Atlantic Starr and Midnight Star. The band met legends like Stevie Wonder and their Warner Bros. labelmate Prince.
But Greg Phillips singles out a 1986 tour supporting Luther Vandross as the group’s pinnacle, particularly the night in New York that Starpoint learned they’d sold half a million copies of their 1985 album “Restless.”
“At Madison Square Garden, at the Luther Vandross show, we were presented with a gold record,” he remembers with pride.
Unfortunately, it was during that 1986 tour that frontwoman Renee Diggs was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, though she’d continue performing a few more years with the band. As Starpoint wound down in the ‘90s, Ernesto Phillips helped mentor one of the biggest R&B artists to ever come out of Maryland, Toni Braxton, producing her demos before she signed to LaFace Records. Both Ernesto and Orlando Phillips played on “Best Friend” from Braxton’s multiplatinum 1993 debut album.
The “Object of My Desire — The Elektra Recordings” box set may collect Starpoint’s most famous crossover hits. But the band’s earlier, funkier work that remains out of print in America and unavailable on streaming services remains worth seeking out. And it was those tracks that gained an international following and led to Starpoint’s last concert a decade ago.
When French house music producers took a particular interest in ‘80s funk, Starpoint influenced artists including Pierre De La Touche, who sampled 1981′s “Wanting You,” and Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter, whose solo track “Club Soda” is built on the groove from 1980′s “I Just Wanna Dance With You.” The surviving members of Starpoint were invited to perform in Lyon, France, in 2011, where Greg says their Chocolate City catalog received a bigger reaction than “Object of My Desire.”
“They like the older stuff. When we went in 2011, ‘Wanting You’ was the song that they loved the most,” he said
Of course, “Object of My Desire” has returned to the forefront since the “Stranger Things” appearance. The song has racked up 15 million streams on Spotify alone, many of them this year. And even if strangers on the street are no more likely to recognize the Orlando brothers than they were before, the Netflix residuals have already made an impact on their royalty payments. “I got a check a week ago, and it was bigger than it usually is, and I know it’s because of that show.”
Today, Orlando and Greg Phillips still periodically perform together, but they don’t play Starpoint songs. When I spoke to the brothers in December, they were preparing for a performance in Davidsonville that focused on Caribbean music, a nod to their father’s side of the family who came to America from Tobago.
Still, the surviving Phillips brothers maintain Starpoint’s official social media channels and a website, StarpointMusic.com, and remain in contact with fans.
“I try to keep the band alive,” says Greg.
Al Shipley is a Maryland-based music and culture writer.