Every great career in rhythm and blues leads only to heaven or hell. The path to hell is obvious: From Sam Cooke gunned down to James Brown leading a multi-state police chase to Sly Stone strung out on crack and living in a van to Whitney Houston’s body lying dead as the industry partied a few floors below, our culture’s never treated the shining lights of our most soulful genre with kindness. The archetype of this path is Marvin Gaye, facing his demons at the wrong end of a gun aimed by the man who gave him his name and his life.
But heaven doesn’t look much better. Whether it’s Al Green leading rote singalongs of his greatest hits, or Stevie Wonder’s once-essential annual albums slowing down to a trickle of treacle, or Aretha Franklin being used largely as set decoration to signify which events are deemed Worthy Of A Legend. We start to understand why someone like me who loves Lauryn Hill or D’Angelo (or even Dave Chappelle, a comedian who’s lived the career of a soul singer) often want to tell them “I’ve gotten all I ever need from you; Go take care of yourself.” Even my beloved Prince has taken to generously sprinkling a still-vital and compelling live show with bowdlerized medleys of greatest hits, interpreting his ever-present religious fixation as a compulsion to undo the ferocity and provocation that earned him his audience three decades ago.
I always thought Michael was going to buy his way to heaven, but held a grim conviction that he might meet his end at the hands of a crazed fan. With the hindsight of a few years, it would appear that, in a way, he did. Those on the heavenly path of an R&B legend are of course faced with the constant temptations of fate and fame; Given enough success, you can just keep paying doctors on retainer until you find the one who’s greedy and starstruck enough to not quit in protest when you ask for a lethal dose of anesthetic.
It’s no wonder Questlove’s most recent quest is to encourage himself and others in the world of soul music to do what it takes to live well past 50. A grim goal made even sadder by the humility of its ambitions.
This is a simple audio essay I put together to go alongside the rest of this essay, explaining some of the ideas.
The father, the son, the lions, the lambs
You don’t even have to wait for a soul artist to say “I was raised in the church” when they’re interviewed; If they don’t recite it themselves, the interviewer will inevitably provide the affirmation without prompting. But R&B legends are also raised by their families, ranging from a litany of “never knew my dad” absences to the all-too-present presence of Joseph Jackson. But as surely as Tito picked up Joseph’s guitar, there’s a world of difference between preacher dads and player dads.
Marvin’s father was a preacher, his last name spelled “Gay” without the “e”, the least-fitting name possible. Marvin Sr. was fire and brimstone and an Old Testament-style lack of compromise. Even years before he murdered his son, he’d undermined his musical genius son enough that Marvin Jr. was constantly felt the need to prove his masculinity, whether through adding a vowel to diminish the presumed affront to his heterosexuality that lurked in his own surname, or through outrageously transparent attempts to affirm how virile and conventionally male he truly was.
Hence the Detroit Lions. Marvin Gaye not only befriended the players — he tried out for the team. While he was a competent player, he was nowhere near capable of playing at an NFL level. But as a symbol of hypermasculine strength, what could be more credible than being a professional football player?
Naturally, an obsession (and insecurity) of this magnitude shows up in the music. Though any “party” that appears in a pop song is necessarily artificial, there really were Detroit Lions players in the studio to provide the introductory party vibe that starts “What’s Going On”. Marvin spoke of sidelining his musical career in favor of athletics, but the seriousness of the threat was undermined by the ferocity with which he fought Berry Gordy for the right to release What’s Going On despite Gordy’s objections to its brazenly political stance.
Hired Gun Brimstone
Prince’s party was carefully constructed, arranged as if it were a string section, to be multiracial and ambiguously gendered.
Prince’s dad John Nelson had none of Marvin Gay Sr.’s misgivings about the music; He was in a band called the Prince Rogers Trio, whence came his second son’s name. And though they too had a tumultuous relationship, there was at least enough of a rapport between Prince and his father that they collaborated several times during John’s life.
But having a dad who was also a musician must have helped shaped Prince’s utilitarian view of relationships, where the people in his life were sometimes just instruments to be arranged in the service of a composition.
It shows up in the way that parties appear on Prince’s work. From the track “Eye No” that opens up 1988’s Lovesexy, we get a party breaking out over the final fade that segues into Alphabet Street, the next track on the record. But a closer listen to the “party” reveals it to be far more scripted than Marvin’s “What’s Going On”; All of the folks taking part were part of Prince’s studio crew or touring band.
More telling than the fact that the party was scripted (because obviously, it’s not like Marvin Gaye was spontaneously recording a house party on What’s Going On) is the fact that Prince reuses the exact same recording of party sounds a number of times in his work. Before appearing at the end of I No, the party segue showed up at the end of an unreleased track called The Ball, which was a sort of prototype for the song made a few years earlier. That original recording segued into one of Prince’s all-time greatest blues guitar tracks, Joy In Repetition. But that song wouldn’t be released until 1990’s Graffiti Bridge.
That time period also marked the beginning of the first signs of the wild unevenness that would characterize Prince’s post-80s work, so some of the reuse of the party sounds may have simply been in-studio laziness on his part. But the fact that the party didn’t even have the pretense of being anything but an element of a larger composition offers a glimpse into the intense, nearly obsessive focus Prince had on seeing everything, and everyone, in his world through the lens of how they could be part of his soundtrack.
It’s not hard to picture that kind of single-mindedness being grounded in having a father who, in stark contrast to Marvin Gay Sr.’s skepticism, was in fact an accomplished musician himself. Fortunately in Prince’s case, that turned into a competitive drive that fueled a nearly-unparalleled burst of pop creativity. The downside was that, rather than seeking out success in a wildly-unfamiliar territory like professional sports, Prince’s world retreated to the safe-but-well-known path that leads to being a greatest-hits jukebox.
I love this music. It’s the soundtrack of my whole world, and usually the way I end the day with my son, listening to these artists and their peers and the echoes of their fathers and their faults. I’m an optimist; I want to believe that it doesn’t take extreme and trying circumstances for a talented child to grow up to be a truly profound artist as an adult.
More broadly, I want to think I can be moved by an artist’s work without thinking I’m being complicit in their destruction. If they’re finding redemption, from the tribulations of their youth or from the challenges of their faith, in creating a work, I don’t want my embrace of their celebrity to be an instrument of their undoing.
That soul music is grounded in heaven in hell is the basis of its power. This is why songs that seem like they’re incessantly talking about superficial aspects of being in love can tell stories that are profound and timeless. But it seems truly profane that the people most blessed to tell these stories are doomed to follow them to paths that either leave them tormented or robbed of their flame. Maybe the next people who can find salvation in these songs can be those who actually create them.
These themes have been fixations here for a while; Here are some variations on the theme:
- D’Angelo and the Demons of the New Minstrel Movement
- A Decade After Aaliyah
- Goodbye, Godfather, on James Brown’s death, and a review of the last live show of his that I got to see