Results tagged “soul”

Heaven, Hell, Marvin, Prince and the Party

January 4, 2013

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 Chapelle, 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.

Ever After

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.

Related Reading

These themes have been fixations here for a while; Here are some variations on the theme:

Remembering Bobby Byrd

September 17, 2007

Alan Leeds, one of my heroes and our greatest record of the living history of funk music, offers a warm remembrance of Bobby Byrd after Byrd's passing last week. Well worth a read, especially to understand that every great sidekick had the potential to be the front man.

You might also want to revisit Goodbye, Godfather, from when we lost James Brown last year.

Goodbye, Godfather

December 25, 2006

To those of us who grew up after his artistic heyday, James Brown is some combination of legend, influence, icon, and inevitably, caricature. So on the day we find out about his passing, I thought I'd point out some examples of what an amazing cultural force he was, in the hopes this will help overshadow the endless broadcasts of "Living in America" or other trifles that might otherwise be the most prominent examples of his legacy.

James BrownThough one of his best known sobriquets is "The Godfather of Soul", a more accurate title would have been "The Father of Funk". James didn't just popularize the term, he defined the genre as a unique combination of sex, sweat, and social awareness. And it worked, at every level.

How profound was the change? Well, when Martin Luther King was assassinated, cities across the country threatened to explode into riots -- New York, Los Angeles and Chicago all had outbreaks of violence. James Brown was in Boston, and convinced the mayor to let him play his scheduled show at the Boston Garden. The show was broadcast on local TV and continued for hours, and is credited with quelling the threat of violence in the city. James Brown stops riots.

Just a short while later, when Richard Nixon was inaugurated, James Brown played the song he'd written in honor of King's memory, "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud". With Muhammad Ali banned from boxing at the time, and the Tommie Smith and John Carlos black power salute on the Olympic podium still a few months away, it was an astonishingly prominent venue for delivering a message of black pride. Nobody else had the combination of cultural currency and real-world credibility for a move like that.

James Brown was an innovator in the music industry as well. He was the first black artist to own his own master recordings for some of his work, was the first to create side acts and spinoff artists to help capitalize on his success, and was one of the first popular artists to actively court a bidding war between record labels while at the height of his popularity. It's unlikely we'd have black artists today owning record labels, clothing lines, and producing thier own acts without his influence.

Of course, James Brown's legacy is a complex one. He was an abuser, of the women in his life as well as himself through various addictions over the years. By contemporary standards, it's likely that other artists in his act would be credited with songwriting or production, especially given that James didn't usually play any instruments on his compositions. The breadth of his cultural presence is such that "James Brown is Dead" became a hit song for L.A. Style in 1991, the same year that the career-spanning box set Star Time was released. And the Tom Tom Club single "Genius of Love" is about James Brown. That's right -- you can make a hit song by making a song about James Brown.

20 All-Time Greatest Hits So when looking at his legacy, it makes sense to look to the music itself. It's not an overstatement to say that without James Brown popular music as we know it tonight might well not exist. Besides being a founding father of funk and shepherding many of the best musicians in the genre through his band at various points in his career, his songs and the songs of his side projects formed the first and most widely-used samples for hip hop artists from the very beginning.

(As I write this, The Breaks, the definitive database of music samples, is down, replaced with a simple, appropriate page in memoriam.)

There are so many releases, re-issues, obscure songs in various formats, and sheer volume of records that James Brown has released under his own name and under the names of his band members and partners that it may well be impossible to create a complete archive of all his commercial recordings. The sheer statistics are overwhelming: Over 100 charting singles. Almost as many released albums. And the album version of "Papa Don't Take No Mess" is a mind-blowing fourteen minutes long.

Brown's output was wildly uneven, especially later in his career, with all-time classics sandwiched between laughable tracks that were clearly tossed off in the studio. The man was clearly not afraid of embracing any material that he thought might help him reach a new audience -- the last time I saw his show, he'd worked in a few bars of "Who Let The Dogs Out" in the midst of a particularly frenetic medley. But the lunacy of his material was irrelevant in a live setting -- if James Brown hadn't named himself "The Hardest Working Man In Show Business", someone else would inevitably have done it for him.

The live show well be the best place to start with an overview of his recordings.

  • Love Power Peace captures the original JBs at the height of their powers. The recording features a single show in Paris in 1971 so famously funky that a French woman stripped down naked and started dancing on a table at the show and nobody moved to stop her. People will tell you to get "Live at the Apollo" -- if you don't have either of the records, get this one instead.
  • Star Time. The definitive James Brown box set is also one of the definitive box sets of all time, by any artist. The liner notes alone won a Grammy. But all 71 tracks on the set are astounding. The third disc alone, highlighting a range of 70s funk classics, is essential. By featuring three additional discs of material of that quality, Star Time indispensable.
  • Not yet a fan? Try 20 All-Time Greatest Hits distills the best of Star Time into a single disc. You'll recognize nearly every song on this record, even if you've never known that you've heard them before, either from being sampled in newer songs or just from the sheer pervasiveness of James Brown's influence on popular culture.