Listen to this track by London-based hit-single generating vocal group All Saints. It’s “Never Ever”, their smash 1997 single as taken from their self-titled album All Saints, their debut full-length. The group had been together since 1993, led by members Melanie Blatt and Shaznay Lewis, along with former member Simone Rainford, after serving as back-up vocalists for ZTT recording studios. With this song, and with then-new members in Canadian sisters Nicole and Natalie Appleton joining them, they managed to score a number one single that would eventually become the second best selling single by a British girl group, just behind The Spice Girls “Wannabe”.
Like their spicy contemporaries, All Saints (named after a road in London) sought to appeal to a pure pop audience with a decidedly R&B flavour. With the kind of hooks their material featured, they were certainly able to get the attention of commercial radio, although perhaps with a bit less cultural impact than The Spice Girls initially. But one thing that All Saints had was an instinct for writing their own material. Shaznay Lewis wrote this song with writers Robert Jazayeri and Sean Mather. “Never Ever” was released in Britain in November of 1997, becoming a smash hit and remaining to be their biggest charting single to date with scores of accolades attached to it.
But like many hit songs, it was based in some very real struggles, specifically on Lewis’ part. Its success and its positive impact on the group struck her as ironic, rooted as it was in the pain of a real break-up. Beyond its undeniable commercial value and appealing pop hooks, there is a lot of darkness swimming below the surface that brings out some pertinent questions about break ups, and how they can very often skew our perceptions of ourselves. Read more
Listen to this track by tremendously gifted and seemingly cursed British R&B singer Amy Winehouse. It’s “Back To Black”, the title track to her 2007 sophomore album, Back To Black. The song comes off an album produced by Mark Ronson, who also co-wrote this tune with Winehouse, a tale of a lost relationship, and the mourning period that often follows.
This was the third single off of a record that made her name on the international stage, with “Rehab” and “You Know I’m No Good” being the other two. One of the reasons that these songs, and this record was a success was Winehouse’s voice which connected to a rich seam of R&B singing tradition laid down by Etta James, Erma Franklin, Betty Wright, and others. By the 2000s, these influences were new all over again. Yet, Winehouse was a new voice beyond her influences, with a seemingly effortless capacity for the blues and soulful phrasing all of her own.
But, I think another reason why this song works so well is because it establishes the persona of its author. Of course it would be this that would secure her place in the pop pantheon (not to mention the tabloids), and be her downfall, too. Read more
There have been many vital legendary musical venues that have helped to shape the destiny of pop music. But, few have the pedigree of the immortal Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York City.
Since it was founded in 1934, several of the musical acts that now stand as pioneers in jazz, blues, soul, funk, rock, and hip hop got their start in this otherwise humble theatre located at 253 West 125th Street. And while these artists developed from beginners, to practicioners, to exemplars, and onto immortality, the world changed as a result.
Their work helped in breaking down barriers between musical styles, and also between groups of people who had been separated by the oppressive social norms of their times. As these norms were torn down (and good riddance), the music they made has endured, and the lives of music fans everywhere have been enriched.
Listing every artist that came out of the Apollo Theatre, or had career-defining shows there, would make for a very long read, indeed. So, as is my custom here at the Delete Bin, here is a list of 10 that I hope will suggest the wide spectrum of talent they represent. Take a look!
Listen to this track by neo-soul pianist, singer, songwriter, and R&B ingenue Alicia Keys. It’s “Fallin'”, the first single as taken from her debut record Songs In A Minor, a record that succeeded in making her the talk of the town when it was released in 2001. Part of that buzz was down to it’s classic feel, plugging into the spirit of classic soul music.
Further to that connection to music of past eras, the themes would be familiar too; a troubled relationship that cannot be denied, despite the pain that is associated equally with the pleasure it brings. This is certainly a common theme in pop music, and R&B music from a woman’s point of view in particular, from Billie Holiday’s take on “Ain’t Nobody’s Business”, to Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved A Man The Way I love You”, to Keys’ contemporary Macy Gray, with her song “I Try” by the end of the 1990s.
Listen to this track by Alabama rock ‘n’ soul, and so much more quartet Alabama Shakes. It’s “Hold On” a storming track as taken from their word-of-mouth meteoric 2012 debut Boys & Girls. The song is a single from that record, pulling in a myriad of influences from eras past.
Particularly evident is a strain of classic soul music that sounds like it came from Otis Redding’s pen is interwoven into the lines and the general feel on this song, and on others. But, the spirit of early ’70s British blues rock and hard rock, with traces of Led Zeppelin, the Faces, and the Stones, isn’t undetectable either.
There’s something ineffable that roots the young band firmly into the now as well. In tapping into traditions of the past as they do, they somehow escape the cliches completely. To rise above bar band blues, and to become a part of a grand continuum of disparate and complementary styles instead is a tremendously difficult feat.
It’s not been easy for many bands working out an identity in these kinds of musical milieus without the term ‘retro’ being mentioned. Carving a unique path through a musical landscape marked by many broad and asphalted sonic highways is a rare accomplishment. But, I think Alabama Shakes have done it.
Listen to this track from retro soul-jazzsters and Afrobeat enthused instrumentalists from Staten Island, NY The Budos Band. It’s their smokin’ Afrobeat-style jam “Up From the South” featured as the opening track on their eponymous 2005 Daptone Records release The Budos Band.
There are certain combinations of sounds that evoke certain musical and cultural associations, like the sound of horns, mixed with a B-3 organ, and congas. In some ways, it’s almost impossible to avoid mining the seam of a certain era of instrumental music when this combination of sounds is employed.
The Budos Band take their cues from classic 60s soul-jazz, to 70s funk, and to Afrobeat, particularly on this track where you expect Fela Kuti to start singing any second. Yet, despite the tried-and-true approach to making rhythmically interlocked music out of the elements that have come before, the music itself remains to be compelling, and viscerally so. This stuff is made for movement, good people; all kinds of movement. And with this track, does “Up From the South” refer to the progression of southern R&B to urban centers in northern cities, or does it mean something a bit more, shall we say, physical? I’m betting on the latter.
Listen to this track, a unique slice of psych-pop-soul from R&B wunderkind Shuggie Otis. It’s his glorious ‘Strawberry Letter 23’, a piece of delectable ear candy that seemed to indicate that soul-funk may be headed in something of a Prince-ly direction. The song comes from Shuggie’s 1971LP Freedom Flight, also appearing in an early form on an album produced by his father, bandleader Johnny Otis two years before that.
This song, written by a fifteen year old Otis as a paean to his ladylove at the time who had a propensity for strawberry scented love letters, was a hit for the Brothers Johnson a few years later, and for R&B pinup Tevin Campbell in the early 90s. But it’s Shuggie’s version that stands out for me, particularly with its aural sunshine outro. As far as I’m concerned, that outro could last for days and I’d still love it.
The sheer pop perfection of the track makes it undeniable, punctuated by mallet percussion as a lead instrument, with guitars, bass, keyboards, and even early models of drum machines, layering the sound into a glorious sonic dessert, and played solely by teenager Shuggie. This model of recording by a multi-instrumentalist producer on songs that cross genres and then back again would be something of a pioneering approach to making records at the time (see also Todd Rundgren). Shuggie would never rise above cult status. Yet, as previously mentioned, burgeoning talents like Prince were certainly taking notes.
Shuggie had been a part of his father’s bands as a guitarist, playing in clubs while very much underage, and often times sporting fake moustache and shades to keep from being spotted. He also played with Frank Zappa, Al Kooper, and was also courted to tour with the Rolling Stones. Needless to say, Shuggie Otis was a musical prodigy. The Inspiration Information album would show him to be an ambitious producer who seemed to ignore the high walls between the rock world, the jazz world, and the world of soul-funk. ‘Strawberry Letter 23″ in particular revealed him to be an incredibly imaginative songwriter and arranger to boot.
But Otis’ reputation faltered, and by the end of the 1970s, and his potential as a household name faded despite his considerable talent. But, he continues as an active musician, having collaborated more recently with with Mos Def. This song of Otis’ and other songs have been sampled heavily by artists ranging from Digible Planets to Dr. Dre to Beyoncé.
Listen to this track, a superlative soul duet from two of my favourite singers in any genre; Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. It’s “Be Real Black For Me”, as taken from their classic 1972 album appropriately titled Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway.
You’ve heard of Roberta Flack; a multi-grammy winner, and with a number of now-standard pop tunes under her belt in “Killing Me Softly”, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, “The Closer I Get To You”, and many others. You may also have heard a song called “Where is the Love?” which is a duet, with a lesser-known singer in the pop culture stakes: Donny Hathaway.
When I think of this album, I think of it as the soul equivalent of the duets between Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. This is not because Flack and Hathaway have contrasting voices so much as it is because, like Ella and Louis, the two of them are so in command of themselves in relation to one another, yet are complementary too.
“Be Real Black For Me” is a shining gem on a shining gem of an album, infused with love and positivity, and wrapped in the gospel overtones which both singers knew inside and out, and enough to infuse something of their own personalities into it too. And there are layers of meaning here to be found too. Is this a love song between two lovers, or an ode to a culture and a heritage?
Whatever the answer to this, if there is one, this is what makes this song, and all of the songs on the album, so essential to anyone interested in this type of music. Often with duets, you get the impression that the two singers are in competition with each other, even if the chemistry is there. Also, duets albums have a bad rap because they are usually too sugary and sentimental by half – especially if it’s between a man and a woman. They are often contrived, forced. Not so here. There is real respect between the two singers that bursts out of every number. You can hear that they love each other in a way that the sentimentality that plagues so much of the R&B duet subgenre can only imitate.
Hathaway in particular is a force of nature on this, although Flack remains to be one of my favourite singers. The music he brought into being here is as far above the pit of despair as it can be, buoyed up by the voice of his friend Roberta who would mourn him years later. In seven years after this recording, Hathaway would be dead by suicide, or rather as a result of deep depression that he struggled with for a good deal of his life. Still, his influence is felt in the work of contemporary R&B/soul singers John Legend and Alicia Keyes, among others.
This album’s success would help to decide the trajectory of both careers. Roberta Flack would have a stellar career mostly thanks to how her light-as-air voice suited 1970s and 80s MOR radio, along with more hit duets with Hathaway acolytes like Peabo Bryson, and later by the 90s with Maxi Priest on their “Set the Night To Music”.
Listen to this song by Motown wunderkind turned soul-funk sonic visionary Stevie Wonder. It’s “Jesus Children of America” as taken from his 1973 LP Innervisions.
From 1971 to 1976, Stevie Wonder pursued his own vision as an album artist with something to say about his country’s social landscape. It was an artistic trajectory which most critics and fans agree represents his prime period as a songwriter, producer, and performer.
Innervisions is arguably his best record of this period, although this is a point on which many can argue for hours being as it is in extremely close competition with albums like Talking Book,Music of My Mind, and Fulfillingness’ First Finale, all of which were written and recorded in very close succession.
One of the most amazing things about this period was that Stevie Wonder fully embraced the latest technology of the times to make these albums, and yet the music he created is entirely timeless. Any one of the songs he recorded and which are now considered classics could have been recorded yesterday. And thematically, of course, many of the songs which touch upon the issues of poverty, political alienation, and spiritual despondence are also sadly relevant today.
For instance, “Jesus Children of America” is an examination of a culture, with the questions surrounding how spirituality has the power to inspire people to change themselves and to change the world in which they live. Yet, I think it also touches on the idea that a culture can often make faith into something that is little more than an accessory to human experience, not applied to the potential it has to inspire change.
At the same time, this song is a rally cry to those in states of confusion, that a spiritual dimension to life can be a stabilizing force – “transcendental meditation can give you peace of mind”. This aspect of things stops this tune from being a judgmental finger-waggling exercise. What it does is to turn the song into a statement of genuine concern about losing out on the real message behind most religions, which I believe is to draw one closer to one’s true origins to finding meaning there, and then make the world better for others as a result.
And as the most important line in the song says: “you better tell your story fast”; the world isn’t getting any better without those stories, and without those stories being understood by others.
Here’s a clip of one of the most important groups in music history with the one of the greatest instrumental tracks of our time; Booker T. & the MGs with their signature hit “Green Onions”. The clip shows the classic line-up of the band, with Booker T. Jones on organ, Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass, Steve Cropper on guitar, and Al Jackson, Jr. on drums.
“Green Onions” is probably their most recognized piece, a tune which would appear in several instances of pop culture, as well as being a huge hit for the group who released it in 1962. It made number one on the R&B charts, and crossed over to the pop charts too, reaching number three. The song is somewhat related to Ray Charles “What’d I Say” which is certainly an inspiration to its structure, yet is something special on its own. Listen to that organ riff – where the hell did it come from? And Steve Cropper’s guitar – just a series of razor-sharp stabs that serve as a call-and-response to it. This is not to mention the steady, relentless rhythm section that pushes the whole thing along.
The group would gel to an unbelievable degree when “Duck” Dunn joined the band in 1965, after original bassist Lewie Steinberg left. At this point, the group began a golden age in soul music, along with producer Chips Moman, and writers Isaac Hayes and David Porter, all under the watchful eye of Stax owner Jim Stewart. Due to how often they played and recorded together as a house band, while also releasing their own records, they became one of the most imitated bands of the era – everyone wanted to nail down their sound.
In addition to soul bands like the Bar-Keys and the Mar-Keys in the States, Booker T. and the MGs also had an effect on mod groups in Britain, like the Who, a group who also traded on soul music as a part of their musical engine. Take a listen to their early instrumental The Ox (so named after bassist John Entwistle), which is a clear tip of the hat to the Memphis group. The two bands would share a stage in 1967, when Booker T. & the MGs played the Monterey Pop Festival as Otis Redding’s back-up band. It was at this time that the imaginary barriers between soul music and rock music were revealed to be just that – imaginary. Further, the group’s last album on the Stax label “Melting Pot” was something of a block party favourite, later to be sampled by early hip-hop pioneers.
Yet by the early 70s, all was not well at Stax, and as a result Jones and Cropper left, leaving Dunn and Jackson behind as sessioners for the remaining years the label had. Although the group would reunite a few times, their run was over. A big comeback which was planned in the mid-70s was cancelled when drummer Al Jackson was murdered during a home invasion.
At the end of the 70s, Cropper and Dunn would play with Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi in the Blues Brothers both on record and on film, Levon Helm‘s RCO All-stars album, and with Booker T. Jones on Neil Young’s 2002 album Are You Passionate?, which featured the band as Young’s backing group on all of the songs. Jones would continue to be a sought-after session musician, and would reunite with his bandmates a number of times over the decades with a number of well-respected drummers in Jackson’s seat, including Willie Hall, Steve Jordan, and Steve Potts.
But, they never bettered “Green Onions”. Everytime I hear it, I get something new. And it never fails to excite me, to make me want to move. Even now, the groove they created has potency.
For more information on Booker T. & The MGs, I suggest you check out my fellow music geek, and a former professor of mine from my York University days, Rob Bowman and his book Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story Of Stax Records. It is the definitive work on the subject, and is written by a Canadian, eh.