A life in song: Carmen Gillespie’s playlist

Poet, scholar-teacher, friend, and mother, Carmen Gillespie, who taught at Bucknell University for 13 years, died suddenly and unexpectedly this past August. In each of these roles she soared and touched an infinite number of lives. 

Carmen Gillespie (1965-2019) a beloved poet, teacher, friend, and mother who appreciated popular music of all kinds.

Carmen Gillespie (1965-2019) a beloved poet, teacher, friend, and mother who appreciated popular music of all kinds.

We knew each other for over 20 years. One of our most intimate connections was a shared love of music, film, theatre, the visual arts, and literature. Here, I reflect on our mutual passion for music in various forms—pre-rock popular standards, radio hits, Broadway and Off-Broadway repertoire, film songs and beyond. Whether cruising in a car, or lounging around the house, music always filled the atmosphere. Some of our most memorable adventures have included seeing Rent performed in Washington D.C., watching performances of Sunday in the Park with George and Sweeney Todd during a 2002 Stephen Sondheim revival, and hearing jazz vocalist Diane Schuur sing out in Bethesda, Maryland, among others. It’s important to share some of the contents of these conversations so they are not lost. Below, I walk through “Carmen’s Playlist” to illuminate an important dimension of her life.


“Over the Rainbow” (Judy Garland, 1939)


Carmen’s favorite motion picture was 1939’s Wizard of Oz defined by Judy Garland’s epic rendition of Harold Arlen’s beloved theme “Over the Rainbow.” As many times as other vocal artists have interpreted the song (Eva Cassidy’s 1992 rendition was a favorite of Carmen’s, for example), Judy’s version reigned supreme for Carmen.


Ella and Louis.jpg

Ella and Louis (Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, 1956)

 Carmen loved the peerless musicianship and effortless chemistry between these two beloved jazz masters. She often wondered if any contemporary singers could ever approach their sublime sound. This question remains an open challenge.


“Touch Me in the Morning” (Diana Ross, 1973)

“Theme from Mahogany (Do You know Where You’re Going To)” (Diana Ross, 1976)

Carmen and I often discussed her profound fascination with the 1970s, especially for African-Americans. For her, movies like Car Wash, new musicals such as The Wiz, and the budding popularity of icons like The Jackson Five, represented a renewed sense of optimism for African-Americans. She was especially interested in singer, actress, and icon Diana Ross. Years after propelling The Supremes to the forefront of American pop in the mid-1960s, Ross went solo in 1969. Along with admiring her bravura performance as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, Carmen appreciated Mahogany’s status as the rare screenplay to focus on the aspirations of a black female character.  She also found pleasures in the campy nature of songs with spoken passages, notably Ross’s 1973 hit “Touch Me in the Morning.”


“ABC” (The Jackson 5, 1970)

 “I’ll Be There” (Jackson 5, 1970)

“Never Can Say Goodbye” (Jackson 5, 1971)

Carmen was born in 1965 and grew up with the Jackson Five, whose precocious lead singer, Michael Jackson, left a deep impression on Carmen. An avid fan of 1970s pop, she adored Michael as a member of the J5 and as a solo vocalist. The J5 transcended music, appearing in a popular Saturday cartoon (The Jackson 5ive which aired for one season), on the cover of teen magazines, and inspiring imitators like The Osmonds. Her admiration for Jackson extended into his solo career, including key songs from Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad, and Dangerous.

Songs in the key.jpg


Songs in the Key of Life (Stevie Wonder, 1976)

 Carmen’s favorite album of all time was Stevie Wonder’s 1976 masterpiece, Songs in the Key of Life. Wonder spent over a year working on the album, which appeared as a double album with a four song EP. A pivotal album for popular music, it was the first album by a U.S. artist to debut at number one on the albums/LP charts, won four Grammys, including Album of the Year, and has influenced generations of artists. “Sir Duke,” “I Wish,” “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” “As” “Isn’t She Lovely,” and “If It’s Magic” would uplift any album as single recordings. The fact that each of these classics appeared on a single album is a marvel. Carmen recognized the album’s vibrancy most poignantly on Wonder’s epic ode to the power of love, “As” which she often quoted and sang in a very lively fashion.


Sign “O” the Times (Prince, 1987)

 Prince’s mastery of funk, rock, soul, and pop forms, dazzled Carmen who was adamant about his “genius” status. Though he was a prolific artist with a vast discography, she was most impressed by “his double album Sign O’ the Times. Though the lean Purple Rain soundtrack is my personal favorite of his, she always insisted that more of Prince (more songs, longer songs, more jams) was always better. It’s hard to argue with an album that included “Adore,” “U Got the Look,” “Hot Thang,” “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” and the topical title track.  

Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Volume 2 (Jill Scott, 2004)

Like many discriminating listeners we fell in love with the words and music of Ms. Jill Scott around 2000 when her debut dropped. Beyond all the “neo-soul” clichés people may have applied to her, Jill was everything—jazz, gospel, poetry, theater, and glorious black womanhood. As much as Carmen loved her debut, she was smitten with the songs of her second studio album. “I’m Not Afraid,” “Golden,” and “My Petition” were signature Jill Scott anthems Carmen enjoyed. She was especially attuned to the political and ethical nuances of Scott’s Bush era anthem “My Petition.”


“Get Happy/Happy Days Are Here Again” medley, (Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, The Judy Garland Show; originally broadcast in 1963)

Arguably, the two most iconic singing actresses film of our time singing two of their defining songs together is a kind of surreal vocal heaven. Carmen loved their two voices harmonizing together, flowing side-by-side holding hands. She loved playing songs on YouTube and regularly pulled up Barbra and Judy’s iconic moment. The duet appears in multiple places including Streisand’s 2002 Duets collection and Garland’s 1964 compilation That Old Feeling: Classic Ballads from the Judy Garland Show (Live).


Sweet honey.jpg

Sweet Honey in the Rock (collected works)

The beautiful, booming voice of Bernice Johnson Reagon felt like home for Carmen. Johnson Reagon, who began her career singing in the SNCC Freedom Singers in the 1960s, founded the four piece vocal ensemble group Sweet Honey in the Rock in 1973. The group’s voluminous stylistic range incorporated a sweeping range of influences, from gospel to folk to jazz, and though Johnson Reagon retired from the group in 2004, the group persists as a recording and performing ensemble.  Carmen was adamant about exposing her family and friends to the ensemble’s intricate vocal harmonies and uplifting lyric perspective.


Hamilton cast.jpg

Hamilton: An American Musical (Original Broadway Cast, 2015).

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s celebrated multicultural, hip-hop musical regarding the life of Alexander Hamilton was a sign of life for Carmen that the music of Broadway, which she has always respected, remained a vital cultural force. Before viewing the musical in person, Carmen, and her daughters, committed the lyrics, melodies, and rhythms to their memories. For Carmen, it was especially meaningful to visit Hamilton’s birthplace in Nevis with students during an annual summer abroad trip to the Caribbean, and explore the unfulfilled promise of democracy.


Other recordings Carmen enjoyed included Eva Cassidy’s “Oh, Had I a Golden Thread,” Ella Fitzgerald’s “Azure,” Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why,” k.d. lang’s “Skylark,” Linda Ronstadt’s “What’s New,” and “Seasons of Love” various artists from the original cast recording of Rent. Her personal musical canon was complex, unpredictable and formidable, much like the woman herself.


To learn more about the works of Dr. Gillespie please visit her website: https://www.carmengillespie.org/




Is Beyoncé an “artist” and other questions: Musical significance in a post-rock critic era

This fall the students in my course “The American Rock Music Canon since 1955” will assess the significance of one popular musical artist who has achieved prominence in the 21st century (2000-20) over the course of the entire semester.  Each student is required to study an artist exclusively to avoid multiple projects on one artist. Though I am highly curious about who the students will select I am even more curious about how they will define the concept of “significance.”


Crawdaddy   magazine was one of the first music magazines to examine rock music as a serious expressive form in the late 1960s and articulate evaluative criteria for pop music (Image source: Recordmecca).

Crawdaddy magazine was one of the first music magazines to examine rock music as a serious expressive form in the late 1960s and articulate evaluative criteria for pop music (Image source: Recordmecca).

Prior to the late 1960s music critics who wrote for mainstream publications did not usually view R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, and other commercial genres, as music warranting “serious” aesthetic consideration. Criticism was reserved for classical music and/or jazz, not the music pouring out of jukeboxes.  Writers might forecast the potential of singles to perform well on radio stations or in record stores sales in trade magazines, such as Billboard and Cash Box. Most critics, however, viewed the notion of “quality” as contrary to the music younger buyers consumed.


A new generation of writers who grew up with R&B and rock music inverted the old view of pop music as trivial. In the pages of youth-oriented music magazines such as Crawdaddy (f. 1960), Rolling Stone (f. 1967), and Creem (f. 1969), nascent music critics, including Paul Williams, Jon Landau, Dave Marsh, and Richard Goldstein, chronicled the latest recordings in acid rock, soul, and folk-rock, as metonyms for their generation. Many rock writers defined “quality” or “serious” music of their generation against the slick, glitzy, commercial pop music aesthetic epitomized by the music featured on tv variety shows, easy listening radio stations and Las Vegas.


Original songwriting, self-contained bands who played their own instruments, topical themes, and progressive political personae, defined artists as “authentic.” Overlapping the emergence of this aesthetic was the increased prominence of albums over singles, and a shift in rock music from a music for dancing, rooted in R&B, toward a music for listening and contemplation. As Elijah Wald observed in 2009’s How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll, the late 1960s generation gradually traded the joys of catchy, danceable 45s for the layered, studio produced, classically influenced listening suites such as The Beatles’ 1967 opus Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club. While musicians’ embrace of studio technology, heavier lyrics, classical music influences, and other signifiers of “sophistication” gave rock a more serious veneer, Wald laments the ways this created gaps between R&B’s original influence on rock ‘n’ roll. He also observed a divide between black and white listening tastes. This is the root of the notion of rock as “white” and R&B as “black.”


I recite this history because in the late 1960s and 1970s positive support from critics could make an artist’s career, and this legacy endures.  For example, Jon Landau was pivotal to attracting national attention to Bruce Springsteen in the 1970s. Rolling Stone exceeded the typical boundaries of a music magazine by becoming a vital force influencing the political and cultural life in the 1970s through the innovative  “new journalism” of writers like Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, among others. Today, rock criticism has far less overt sway on the public’s musical tastes. However, lingering attitudes about what constitutes “authentic” music informs the “official record” of musical significance including the artists who are inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and written into popular music history books.


Many of the artists who have risen to prominence in the 21st century, including Adele, Beyoncé, Justin Bieber, Michael Bublé, Chance the Rapper, Norah Jones, Kendrick Lamar, P!nk, Taylor Swift, and Kanye West, complicate notions of authenticity and the related concept of significance, as defined by early rock critics. For example, hip-hop composing, which involves writing melodies and lyrics over drum machines, pre-recorded tracks and/or patchworks of samples, is very different than the finger-strumming and piano tinkling we associate with 60s and 70s era singer-songwriters. Similarly, the dance-oriented pop of Beyoncé and P!nk seems more visceral and singles-oriented, thus akin to early 60s pop, than the “heavy” and “cerebral” art rock of the late 1960s.


Beyoncé offers a particularly interesting point of contrast here regarding the issue of significance. From her beginnings as a vocalist in the group Destiny’s Child (1998-2003) through her first few solo albums (2003’s Dangerously in Love and 2006’s B’Day) she has always been a skillful purveyor of irresistible ear candy. For dance fans the pulsating grooves of 1999’s “Say My Name,” 2000’s “Jumpin Jumpin,” 2001’s “Bootylicious,” and 2003’s “Crazy in Love” are undeniable.


2013’s self-titled album Beyonce was a conscious choice by the artist to showcase her artistic depth beyond singles.

2013’s self-titled album Beyonce was a conscious choice by the artist to showcase her artistic depth beyond singles.

But, by 2008’s I Am…Sasha Fierce Beyoncé wanted critical R-E-S-P-E-C-T. You can tell because she employs a format and persona musicians often use to showcase their artistic range—the double-album and the alter egoI Am sold well, spawned popular radio hits and won her accolades, including five Grammy Awards. However, 2013’s Beyoncé and 2016’s Lemonade were even more overt efforts to use the album format to tap into contemporary sensibilities and thus resonate as a statement rather than a collection of singles. I am referring to Beyoncé’s choice to release “visual albums” rather than traditional audio-only albums. Beyoncé was released unannounced on iTunes as a whole album rather than being previewed by singles. Lemonade’s lead single “Formation” (performed in spectacular fashion at 2016’s Super Bowl Halftime Show) evoked the Black Lives Matter movement and Beyoncé’s Black southern heritage in a far more overt fashion than previous efforts.


 The album, which reflected on multiple aspects of black female identity and experience, spawned a multitude of reflections from cultural critics and academics. These include Beyoncé themed syllabi and several books, including Omise'eke Natasha Tinsley’s 2018 Beyoncé in Formation: Remixing Black Feminism and Veronica Chambers’ 2019 edited collection Queen Bey: A Celebration of the Power and Creativity of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. It is unclear if Beyoncé is more likely to be remembered for her pop radio hits or her ambitious album projects. Or, to put it another way: Now that she has commanded the attention of tastemakers and scholars, as well as fans, will her efforts to make statements define her as significant artist or will her penchant for buoyant pop imbue her with a different kind of status?


2016’s video-album  Lemonade  inspired many scholars and critics to celebrate Beyonce as a defining artist for the millennium.

2016’s video-album Lemonade inspired many scholars and critics to celebrate Beyonce as a defining artist for the millennium.

I hope these thorny issues are the kinds of issues my students will navigate in the course. Record sales, industry awards and “influencer” status are quantifiable ways to assess a musician’s impact. But innovation, artistic influence and social relevance are more ambiguous and complex measures that require a different kind of insight and judgement beyond cataloging awards and counting followers. Authenticity, which rock critics tied to writing original material and playing one’s instruments, has endured as a nominal standard for decades.  But the narrow social identities of the critics who solidified this critical standard (which critic Kelefa Sanneh termed “rockism”) has eroded the influence of this trope and opened other avenues of consideration. When we factor in changes in technology, the proliferation of genres and sub-genres, and the influx of diverse voices in popular music the notion of “significance” seems more uncertain than ever. This ambiguity and decenteredness is a welcome development that provides an exciting critical opportunity for rethinking the kinds of conventions rock criticism originally sought to subvert.







Rocketman soars to new creative heights for musical biopics

Since 1970’s “Your Song” premiered on U.S. radio stations Elton John grown from the most popular singles artist of the 1970s to an accomplished composer for film (Lion King, Road to Eldorado) and theatre (Aida, Billy Elliot the Musical), a leading fundraiser for HIV/AIDS prevention and education, and patient support services and an enduring musical and visual icon. Director Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman, anchored by a star making turn by British actor Taron Egerton, depicts the dazzling songcraft, thrilling showmanship and sartorial splendor informing the Elton John legend. He also illuminates the family wounds, personal insecurities and addictive behaviors pulsating beneath the glittering surfaces.


Elton John was the most popular mainstream pop musician of the 1970s and has thrived well into the 2010s.

Elton John was the most popular mainstream pop musician of the 1970s and has thrived well into the 2010s.

John (born Reginald Dwight in 1947) stands apart from the stereotypically “sensitive” 70s era “singer-songwriter” in several important respects. During the 1970s John relied exclusively on Bernie Taupin to write song lyrics, so he was less prone to lapsing into solipsistic navel-gazing. Even when Taupin’s songs had biographical elements he employed allusions, metaphors and various forms of Western imagery more creatively than most lyricists. Musically, whereas male peers like Gordon Lightfoot, James Taylor and Cat Stevens focused on mellow toned folk-based melodies, John was a rock ‘n’ roller and a lover of R&B who could leap from sensitive songs like “Your Song” to rockers (“Saturday’s Alright for Fighting”), soul tunes (“Border Song”), and pop anthems (“Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”) authentically. John’s songs were as much about listening as they were for dancing. His penchant for customized eyewear and colorful, campy and often rococo costumes solidified him as both an artist and entertainer of the first rank, a description rarely associated with singer-songwriters of his generation. His impact on visual entertainers like Lady Gaga is clear.

Lyricist Bernie Taupin and pianist Elton John (portrayed by Jamie Bell and Taron Egerton in the 2019 film  Rocketman ),  crafted some of the most distinctive original songs in rock music history including “Your Song,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.”

Lyricist Bernie Taupin and pianist Elton John (portrayed by Jamie Bell and Taron Egerton in the 2019 film Rocketman), crafted some of the most distinctive original songs in rock music history including “Your Song,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.”


Rocketman eschews the hagiographic and literal approach of standard biopics of pop musicians by cloaking its episodic structure in an aural richness and visual grandeur of near operatic portions. Fletcher’s directorial style evokes that of Busby Berkeley and Baz Luhrmann by weaving together key John-Taupin songs with carefully crafted costuming and vibrant choreography to convey milestone moments in John’s life and career. By striving to capture the moods and tones of John’s life, rather than convey each literal detail, Fletcher moves us through John’s life, from childhood through his pursuit of sobriety, in an emotional rather than plot-driven way. At the film’s beginning Edgerton walks down a hallway in an orange Devil costume to an Alcoholics Anonymous type support group. Throughout the film this confessional framing device allows John to narrate his own story and gradually deconstruct himself. As the film flows through time Edgerton gradually removes pieces of the costume to get to the emotional essence below.


Actors Taron Egerton and Jamie Bell capture the essence of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s complex creative and personal dynamic in  Rocketman .

Actors Taron Egerton and Jamie Bell capture the essence of Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s complex creative and personal dynamic in Rocketman.

What emerges from this approach is a portrait of a fragmented person whose musical genius provided him with tools to perform “normalcy” publicly and channel a well of private emotions, including sadness, rejection, confusion and desire, in the subtexts of his music and Taupin’s lyrics. As such, the tender troubadour of “Your Song” represents him as authentically as does the tongue-in-cheek humor of “Honky Cat” and the pent-up emotion that explodes in “The Bitch is Back” and “Saturday.” The film has several standard narrative biopic tropes, including his struggle to garner love and respect from his parents (distant father Stanley portrayed by Stephen Mackintosh and unpredictable mother Sheila portrayed by Bryce Dallas Howard) and his descent from humble artist to demanding “star.” Thankfully, anytime the narrative seems ready to surrender to bland earnestness its collages of music, dance, humor and visual devices transport us to different moments. The film is not impatient or afraid to focus, it simply trusts us enough to let us take in the mood and move on.


From the film we see how essential his grandmother was to him as an early booster of his musical talents and esteem. We witness the organic chemistry between John and Taupin (portrayed gently by Jamie Bell), and how patient Taupin has been. The audience also has access to John’s complex sexuality through viewing an intimate moment with an R&B singer during his pre-fame days, multiple scenes an initially torrid affair with manager John Reid (played tenaciously Richard Middleton) that becomes toxic, and his brief marriage to female recording engineer Renate Blauel (in 1984).


We can see why people are drawn to him and his songs and embrace him with the zeal of the adoring audiences seen in re-creations of several iconic performances including his triumphant 1970s performance at L. A’s Troubadour club and his 1975 performances at Dodger Stadium. The movie continually reminds us that what was initially thrilling became burdensome as “Reginald” the insecure musician craving genuine affection felt increasingly compelled to be “Elton John” the campy, dynamic entertainer who owed his audience everything. This disjuncture between his public and private selves reaches its nadir in a brilliantly staged pool scene, featured in the trailer, where he drifts recklessly and nearly hits rock bottom, the result of numbing depressions and numbing addictions.


As an audience, we know that John rebounds eventually from his slumps and setbacks. But the journey to the present, anchored by Egerton’s stirring versions of John’s songs and sublime embodiment of John’s tenderness and toughness, is a mostly riveting one. Some of the film’s challenges include a flatness to Middleton’s portrayal of Reid, who goes from ally to villain too quickly, and a pop psychology “inner child” narrative that feels simplistic at times.  Ultimately though, Fletcher’s keen direction, John and Taupin’s eclectic songs, cinematographer George Richmond and editor Chris Dicken’s creative visualizations and a surfeit of extraordinary performances make this a satisfying feast worthy of its subject.   


Rocketman , directed by Dexter Fletcher, is an artistic triumph that largely avoids standard musical biopic cliches.

Rocketman, directed by Dexter Fletcher, is an artistic triumph that largely avoids standard musical biopic cliches.

Given the highly textured scenes we have witness overly nearly two hours one wonders how the film will conclude. Luckily, because the film avoids a chronological recital, its digital restaging of the video from his 1983 “comeback” hit “I’m Still Standing” makes great symbolic sense as the ending note. John outlived his 70s iconicity and thrived in the 1980s and 1990s in the commercial mainstream. He also became one of the leading voices from the performing arts community to lead HIV/AIDS activist efforts. Though he has become more associated with adult contemporary radio and film music than mainstream radio pop in the 2000s and 2010s he remains a vital artist. He still releases popular and acclaimed albums on major record labels and has mounted multiple successful tours. The film’s closing credits update us on his ongoing sobriety, his relationship with David Furnish and their roles as parents, and current touring activity. Rocketman enraptures us in the glamour of John’s celebrity while allowing us to feel the intimacy and complexity of the artist.  



To listen or not? Responding to “Baby, its Cold Outside,” Michael Jackson and R. Kelly in an age of sexual enlightenment

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside”

 When I think of the famous duet song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (written by Frank Loesser in 1944; popularized in the 1949 film Neptune’s Daughter) I think of recordings and TV scenes, rather than the composition itself. Specifically, I think pf Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald’s famous version recorded for Decca Records in 1949 a decade before their more famous duets at Verve. The song also takes me back to a playful scene from early 1990s TV when the characters Dwayne Wayne and Whitley Gilbert, of NBC’s Different World, were courting with Ray Charles and Betty Carter singing a 1961 rendition of “Baby.” More recently, I recall a pivotal 2010 episode of FOX’s Glee when the characters Kurt and Blaine harmonized together in a holiday themed episode.

In 1961 Ray Charles and Betty Carter recorded one of the most iconic versions of “Baby, It’s cold Outside.”

In 1961 Ray Charles and Betty Carter recorded one of the most iconic versions of “Baby, It’s cold Outside.”

 Given these fond personal memories I was surprised to learn that in 2018 several U.S. and Canadian radio stations decided to stop playing “Baby” because many listeners read its lyric as a veiled form of sexual coercion through the sly use of alcohol. The pointed use of the song in satirical scenes on episodes of Saturday Night Live and South Park featuring convicted rapist Bill Cosby only amplified this tie-in.

 According to daughter Susan Loesser’s 1993 biography, A Most Remarkable Fella: Frank Loesser and the guys and dolls in his life: A portrait by his daughter, Loesser wrote “Baby” originally as a tongue-in-cheek song for a housewarming part he and his wife hosted. The song, sang by Loesser and his wife Lynn Garland, aimed to gently encourage guests to leave the party. The song caught on and he eventually sold it to MGM studios; it won the 1949 Academy Award for Best Original Song after being featured in Neptune’s Daughter.

 I am sure Loesser did not imagine their song would engender so much controversy but, of course, authors who create public works lose control of the meanings and interpretations their creations long after they are written, published and broadcast. This issue came to the fore in when singer Connie Francis attempted to sue the Universal Music Group (UMG) for using her recordings for sexual scenes in several films. She lost in each case because UMG rather than Francis owns the copyright to the music.

 So what does one do with “Baby”? I respect the objections of those who find the song triggering or problematic. These are profoundly personal emotions that defy external judgment. If I were playing the song and someone asked me to not play it, I would comply out of regard for their well-being.

 Otherwise, I will continue to enjoy the classic recordings of the song. When sung by gifted interpreters its lovely melody and intricate lyrics, can weave a spell rare in contemporary pop. I can understand how a song could evoke bad memories or associations for listeners for many reasons; this is not a unique property of “Baby.” Harmful associations could be projected onto almost any song or recording given the context.  

 Interpreting art necessarily involves some level of interpretation and ambiguity. Isolating select lyrics from a song and declaring that only one interpretation or reading is possible or acceptable is anti-intellectual and censorious. In this instance, there is no direct causation between the song itself and actual sexual abuse.

 Sexual abuse is a serious social concern rooted in a pathological thirst for dominance and power that would not be lessened by taking “Baby” out of rotation. Sexual abuse is too serious of an issue to be whittled down to a consumer choice. To do so trivializes the complex reasons why sexual abuse happens and the often problematic way our society responds judicially and socially. There are more profound social measures, including early education about healthy sexuality and relationships, and the importance of affirmative consent that will impact the behavior and values more so than eliminating one song. Avoiding “Baby” may provide some individuals with temporary relief from what may feel tasteless, offensive and antiquated to many ears, but the larger battle for sexual justice is more difficult than turning down the volume or skipping to the next track.


Michael Jackson

 The 2018 premiere of Dan Reed’s documentary Leaving Neverland has reignited accusations of Michael Jackson as a pedophile. While he was never convicted successfully during his lifetime, two adults who first met Jackson as children, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, are adamant that, despite their previous statements, they were abused by the singer. Since trying Jackson from the grave is futile, I am more compelled by the seduction of celebrity, especially one whose image was largely defined by select ideas of innocence, and how it can cloud our willingness to consider certain possibilities, however ugly.

Filmmaker Dan Reed’s 2018 documentary has reignited controversies and questions over the nature of Michael Jackson’s behavior toward young male fans.

Filmmaker Dan Reed’s 2018 documentary has reignited controversies and questions over the nature of Michael Jackson’s behavior toward young male fans.

 Jackson, as lead singer of the Jackson 5, was highly iconic for a generation of children. This was arguably even more salient for black children who had few black teen idols in popular culture of the early 1970s. Talented, energetic and precocious, Motown was primarily interested in the J5 as a crossover group and hence very protective of the J5’s image. Motown did not want Jackson or his brothers commenting on politics, culture, or the larger world. Their job was to sing, smile, and sell records.

 The toll of this isolation has always been a distorted sense of reality that expanded when Jackson’s 1979’s solo album Off the Wall became a multi-platinum success and reached its acme with 1982’s Thriller, the best-selling album in history. As Jackson sold more records and became more exposed through innovative videos and iconic visual style, his identity became increasingly vulnerable to scrutiny. Suddenly, the child-star-turned-celebrity musician was ridiculed for his gendered affect, his appearance, his intelligence, his religious upbringing and anything else that would challenge his ascent to superstardom. As James Baldwin presciently commented in the 1985 essay “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” “The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all. I hope he has the good sense to know it and the good fortune to snatch his life out of the jaws of carnivorous success. He will swiftly not be forgiven for having turned so many tables, for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring, and the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo has nothing on Michael” (689 qtd. from The Price of the Ticket).

 Baldwin understood that a black man who broke the barriers Jackson was breaking would not be permitted an easy time in a country that has demonized black men from its outset. Jackson fulfilled his commercial goal to “crossover” and become the ultimate cross-cultural human commodity almost too well.  His did not seem fully capable of distinguishing commercial approval from authentic social acceptance. Unanchored by any reality known to most people he lost sight of the rules that typically govern the ways adults and children interact, as well as America’s persistent racial script.

 The personal attacks he endured regarding his style and persona during the 1980s and early 1990s always engendered sympathy from his loyal worldwide audience. But the 1993 accusations of child abuse permanently disrupted Jackson’s seeming imperviousness to consequences for his notoriety. While many questioned Jackson’s carefully cultivated image of Peter Pan like innocence, his most dedicated fans were emboldened against what they saw as the ultimate attempt to dislodge Jackson from his hard won cultural status (The case was settled out of court for millions in 1994). The re-emergence of these accusations in 2005 (Jackson was tried and acquitted) only intensified fans’ perceptions of Jackson as the eternal victim of a vicious manhunt aiming to dismantle Jackson’s musical and cultural legacy.

 Baldwin was prescient in predicting Jackson’s potential downfall as one mediated by deep-seated racial resentment and narrow American conceptions of masculinity. Fans’ fiercely protective attitudes about Jackson’s image and innocence was also understandable given popular media’s ongoing harassment of Jackson. Even after he settled out of court in the 1990s and was retried and acquitted in 2005, fans may have sensed that Jackson’s life would remain fodder for exploitation and ridicule.  

 Neither of these reflexes, however historically warranted, negate the possibility that Jackson may have acted inappropriately or abusively. For example, Jackson never denied sharing a bed with children in the past. Why is this acceptable from a beloved celebrity when it would be highly suspect in ordinary life? These questions are more perhaps properly directed at the parents who allowed their children to be enshrined in the glare of celebrity, but the parents were clearly seduced as well.

 The desire by multiple generations to appreciate Jackson’s music, enjoy his performing style and revel in his various personae should not preclude the idea that he could harm another being. By refusing to entertain this as a possibility Jackson’s fans replicate the reductive skepticism society has directed toward female victims of abuse toward Robson and Safechuck’s claims.  The power of celebrity is so blinding in this instance that for a large portion of the public no evidence Robson or Safechuck could ever present would warrant even cursory consideration.  Since Jackson was never formally convicted of a crime one could not legally declare his music as that of a pedophile, but this has not stopped radio networks, TV shows (e.g. The Simpsons) and other entertainers who use his music from turning down the volume and taking it out of circulation indefinitely.  Whether he was legally charged or not, to some, their reasonable doubt was compelling enough for them to take a stand.


R. Kelly

To this listener R. Kelly’s songs are either crude pillow talk or schmaltzy feel good anthems with limited variations. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a classic composition that has generated notable renditions from some of the finest singers of our time. And Jackson is an undeniable pioneer in contemporary music, Kelly’s music is predictable, formulaic and inessential. I was not listening to him intently before or after his conviction which amplifies further reasons to avoid him. His warbly tenor and almost campy sensibility have made his music easy to dismiss as ridiculous for decades. His recent conviction is the most persuasive evidence that beneath his moribund music lies a potentially disturbed and abusive person needing some form of intervention, whether judicial and/or therapeutic.

Kelly was tried in 2008 for multiple counts of child pornography but was acquitted. This has not stopped the tide of accusations about inappropriate and illegal sexual behavior dating back to the early 1990s. Lifetime’s January 2019 documentary Surviving R. Kelly inspired public concerns that led to him being indicted for criminal sexual abuse.

The Lifetime network’s 2019 Surviving R. Kelly documentary captured the voices of of women who accused the singer-songwriter of sexual abuse.

The Lifetime network’s 2019 Surviving R. Kelly documentary captured the voices of of women who accused the singer-songwriter of sexual abuse.

Rather than trying Kelly here, I am more interested in noting that famous musicians perceived to be as problematic in the ways Kelly has for many years can only thrive when fans and the industry allow them to do so. The artists Kelly has written and produced for, the remixes he has been featured on, the film makers that have commissioned him, the channels that have played his videos and related entities made him a “brand,” even if they were not fully aware of his alleged activities. The same holds true for his label and his loyal fans.  RCA Records recently dropped him from the label. But after multiple platinum sales successes that made him the most popular R&B musician from 1995-2010 (according to Billboard) these decisions seem more motivated by fears of bad publicity and decreased sales than a sudden moral awakening. Only now has the record label conceded to the notion that Kelly may have made some harmful choices. I wonder if they would have waited so long to respond if a less popular and profitable singer had experienced similar charges?

For his loyal fans I hope the boundary between loyalty and skepticism is wavering. As the example of Jackson proves, successful black male entertainers are often hyper visible and vulnerable to extraordinary scrutiny. As such, audiences are understandably skeptical and protective, and leery of presuming guilt.  Whereas Jackson was never convicted and there remains considerable ambiguity, the sad case of Bill Cosby’s assault victims illustrates how perpetual systematic sexual violence can be when it is overlooked. We should not need a formal conviction to ask why we give celebrities the benefit of the doubt but turn our eyes and ears away from potential survivors.  




Living legacies: Reflections on “Old School” 80s R&B

In the mid-1990s many emerging black popular singers consciously evoked elements of the 70s soul recordings of Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Donnie Hathaway, Minnie Riperton, Bill Withers and Stevie Wonder. Among these were Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Dionne Farris, Maxwell and Me’shell N’degeocello. By the early 2000s music writers applied the term “neo-soul” to Bilal, Musiq Soulchild, Jill Scott, John Legend, Alicia Keys and others who also drew on previous soul traditions.

 Arguably, the fusion of contemporary pop with the earthy soulfulness of the 70s was already occurring in the 1980s. Post mid-80s “Quiet Storm” and pre-early 1990s-hip-hop soul multiple vocalists wove together elements of classic soul and modern R&B to forge a distinctive style. Regina Belle, Miki Howard, Freddie Jackson and Stephanie Mills are among those performers who helped their listeners draw on the past while still looking ahead to the future. Each possessed a rich, highly expressive voice comparable to their influences, and were able to excel in the production styles of the time. Though their “pop” radio appeal was moderate their success on R&B stations was consistently strong: From 1985-90 Belle and Howard had six top 10 R&B hits; Jackson had 15 top 10 R&B hits; and Mills, who had begun having hits in 1979 but had a mid-80s upswing, scored seven top 10 R&B hits. The fact that they rarely scored top 40 pop radio hits is less about talent or the promotional skills of their record labels than ways deep cultural segregation infuses the music industry. The fact that black artists have to “crossover” speaks volumes about how the social construct of “race” distorts our sense of what counts are art, commercial or otherwise.   


Vocalist Regina Belle is part of generation of post-Quiet Storm/pre-hip-hop soul R&B singers often overlooked. 1989’s  Stay with Me  (Columbia) is one of her most accomplished vocal showcases.

Vocalist Regina Belle is part of generation of post-Quiet Storm/pre-hip-hop soul R&B singers often overlooked. 1989’s Stay with Me (Columbia) is one of her most accomplished vocal showcases.

 In the early 1990s hip-hop soul, led by Mary J. Blige, Jodeci, Faith Evans, and eventually neo-soul, rendered 80s R&B superstars as old-fashioned. Recently, I was catching up with the music of some of these artists and was continually surprised by how well their best music has aged. I was also perusing episodes of UnSung. The series, which airs on the cable network TV One, focuses on black popular singers of the past who have been unheralded or nearly forgotten by younger audiences. Given the ephemeral nature of American popular music, and the commercial gaps between black artists and the “pop” radio market there are perpetual fears of black art being forgotten so the series performs an interesting service for aficionados and novices of black popular music.


Belle, Howard and Jackson have each been the focus of an episode. Mills, who was nominated for a Tony for her performance in The Wiz on Broadway, won an R&B Grammy in 1980 and had five #1 R&B hits from 1986-89, declined because she felt that she had been heralded. Listening to her soulful performances on ballads such as 1986’s “I Have Learned to Respect the Power of Love,”1986’s “I Feel Good All Over,” and 1989’s “Home” (from The Wiz), neither of which crossed over to the pop charts I would say she remains underrated.

 Other R&B artists who might also fit comfortably into this space include Will Downing, Howard Hewett, Mica Paris and Vesta. Below, I focus on Belle and Howard whose are the most interesting artists among this group and whose discographies have remained most active among their peers.


Miki Howard, notable for soulful songs such as “Come Share My Love,” and “Love Under New Management,” gained fame in the mid-80s and remains a recording and performing artist.

Miki Howard, notable for soulful songs such as “Come Share My Love,” and “Love Under New Management,” gained fame in the mid-80s and remains a recording and performing artist.

Regina Belle   

 Watching the TV One UnSung episode on Regina Belle reminded me of what a splendid vocal artist she is and how the music industry never quite knew what to do with her. Her rich tone, fluid phrasing and emotional intelligence should have secured her a career comparable to other black female crossover artists of the time, including Anita Baker and Whitney Houston, to name two. Like them, she is someone who had to attain some commercial footing at “black radio” to reach a wider audience.

 Unlike them, however, she only had one major crossover hit, her duet with Peabo Bryson on “A Whole New World.” That song hit #1 and won the singers a Grammy as well as Oscars for its composers. As wonderful a song and recording as it was it did not reveal anything new about her talents. The only difference was the commercial machinery behind it. Columbia was content to promote Belle as a R&B singer with some adult contemporary appeal but left it at that.

 I decided to listen to her four Columbia albums recently to delve into what led her to move on to other labels. Three albums in (1993’s Passion) I figured out a few issues: While her singing never fails to engage, Belle emerged in the New Jack era, so her up-tempo songs have a dated feel that does not distinguish them from other dance pop from the time. In this regard she is a follower rather than a leader. More importantly, Belle is a balladeer, not a funkmaster. I’m not questioning her rhythmic drive so much as what seems to flatter her luscious tone and fundamental sensual delivery. Listening to her first albums, the R&B radio hits “Show me The Way” and “So Many Tears” have memorable melodies and flatter her voice. She knows exactly how to illuminate their melodic qualities and lyrical ideas.  The ballads surrounding them are less memorable and the light funk/dance cuts feel obligatory. Related to this, issue, which also surfaces on 1989’s Stay with Me, is the tendency to bog Belle down with one too many interchangeable “pillow talk” ballads drenched in a generically bombastic pop-soul style. The glittering keyboards, thundering drum machines, and outsized vocals get repetitive when every song has the same verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge structure. “Baby Come to Me” and “Make it Like it was” were understandable hits—she sings them with outstanding exuberance that separates them from the mundane material around them.

 Listening to Belle, I always long to hear her sing something in front of an acoustic band. Given her musical training in wind instruments, piano and voice—she has the chops, but the commercial formulas limit her to R&B and pop conventions. Whereas Baker was able to find a satisfying place between pop/soul and jazz Belle never quite makes the sensuous, jazzy mood album, like Rapture, that made Baker the most sophisticated R&B oriented singer of her generation. The bigger picture is the shift in black pop away from making music for adults to straining to capture everyone including teens. As a result, artists who excel making sensuous adult music try to branch out to funk and dance pop and flop. For example, the rap solo on “Tango in Paris,” is dated and distracting. 1995’s Reachin’ Back is a fine tribute to 70s Philly Soul, but its audience was primarily classicists of 70s R&B—a small audience. Too small for her to maintain her recording contract. 

 Belle’s timing also coincided with other changes in black pop. Blending New Jack and hip-hop, Mary J. Blige authored the hip-hop soul (“New Jill Swing”) sound. Mariah Carey’s Daydream, which featured “Fantasy” and “Always Be My Baby” was the hip-pop-soul blueprint. Black bohemian and neo-soul artists like N’degeocello, Farris, and Badu, also forecasted what became somewhat of a revolution in R&B toward a more organic and idiosyncratic soul music beyond love songs and dance cuts. Belle, who was always more of an interpreter than songwriter, was of a different generation and sensibility.

 1998’s Believe in Me was Belle’s attempt to reclaim a more contemporary R&B identify but it was a tame affair especially compared to Lauryn Hill’s triumphant solo debut, which overshadowed most albums released that year. Even Whitney Houston got hip on 1998’s My Love is Your Love.  This is Regina, released in 2001 on the smooth jazz boutique label Concord/Peak, felt like a bit of a retreat. She recorded the kind of ballads that made her an R&B star but even the inclusion of hip-hop elements made it feel like it was recorded in a bit of a time warp.

 In 2004 Belle finally released Lazy Afternoon the kind of album her fans have always felt she was capable of recording. Belle’s sense of standards spans from stalwarts like “the Man I Love” to ‘70s soul (“For the Love of You).” The result is a polished and engaging set of performances that avoids sounding retro or succumbing to watered down fusion or smooth jazz. It’s a refreshing change that finds Belle at her peak. Singing “Corcovado” and “Fly Me to the Moon” was hardly a commercial strategy in 2004 but the fact that she was able to record the album on a major label spoke to what was possible.  

 Four years later Belle turned to her first love, gospel music on 2008’s Love Forever Shines, which was followed shortly by serious health issues. Belle returned with 2012’s Higher, another gospel set and revisited secular R&B on 2016’s The Day Life Began on Shanachie, a record label home for many R&B veterans. Belle remains a remarkable singer in search of an audience.


Belle’s most recent album, 2016’s  The Day Life Began  (Shanachie Records), finds her singing in great voice.

Belle’s most recent album, 2016’s The Day Life Began (Shanachie Records), finds her singing in great voice.

Miki Howard

In terms of an aesthetic vision and success with black audiences Chicago native Miki Howard (b. 1960) is the most successful and consistent singer among the underrated R&B divas. She never achieved a big crossover single but has always seemed content to resonate with her core R&B audience, even if her talent warranted even greater exposure. When she emerged in 1986 on Come Share My Love not only was her sultry, gospel trained voice intact, but she knew the kind of songs she loved to sing and stuck to her interests continually. In listening to Howard, I hear few compromises in the material she chooses, her vocal technique, or the aesthetic she advances—notably the interconnected relationship of contemporary black music to the gospel and jazz traditions. The desire to “crossover” often stifles performers to the point of desperation. Too many of the talented divas I discuss in this section have bland discographies weighed down by mediocre albums with nary an interesting song. Comparatively, Howard is a dynamic presence with such a surefooted sensibility and radiance, that she could never be read as dull or dispassionate.

 A good point of comparison is the biggest black female vocalist of Howard’s era when she recorded for Atlantic and Giant Records, Whitney Houston. Houston, two years younger than Howard, debuted as a solo singer in 1984 at 21 and her debut mixed bubbly dance pop with emotive ballads. Howard debuted at 25 and projected a sultrier, more adult image. Though Howard’s first hit was actually written for Houston “Come Share My Love” feels so intrinsic to Howard’s sensual persona that it’s hard to hear anyone else sing it. It’s not a great song, but she makes it work. Even more radical for the time was Howard’s choice to interpret the Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen standard “Imagination” live with an orchestra. This is about as far away from cheesy dance pop as you can get. More importantly it reflected Howard’s genuine affection for her jazz predecessors (in this instance Jimmy Scott).  Like so many black vocalists she saw little distinction between genres and sang from a more timeless place than typical black pop of the era.

 Her follow-up continued in this fusion of contemporary and classic sensibilities. There’s solid new material, like the alluring waltz “Baby Be Mine,” and a sizzling duet with Gerald LeVert (“That’s What Love Is”), as well as a loving nod to Earth Wind and Fire on “Reasons” and to her hero Billie Holiday on “You’ve Changed.” Whereas many pop and soul singers treat standards as quaint museum pieces Howard employed contemporary instruments alongside strings and her gospel phrasing is used effectively enough that the songs sound contemporary, as they should.

 From 1986-89 New Jack Swing, the marrying of R&B with urban beats derived from hip-hop production, reshaped the sound of commercial R&B. The style suited young dance acts like Bobby Brown and Guy but was not always the best for the traditional voices of adult R&B to excel. Yet Howard was hip enough to make it work. Her first R&B #1 hit was the propulsive “Ain’t Nuthin’ in the World” which was squarely in the black mainstream and credible for a singer known more for ballads. Even more intriguing was her nod to Aretha Franklin on a sleek interpretation of “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” which juxtaposed New Jack rhythms and textures with Howard’s soulful wails in the main vocal and background. It reached #3 and succeeds on every level.


On 2008’s  Private Collection  (Branika Records), Miki Howard continues to showcase her soulful approach to pop, soul and jazz-oriented songs.

On 2008’s Private Collection (Branika Records), Miki Howard continues to showcase her soulful approach to pop, soul and jazz-oriented songs.

1989-90 was a great time for Howard’s career. The album Miki Howard is her finest and most successful album. It peaked at #4 on the R&B albums chart and spawned three big R&B hits including the two already mentioned, and “Love Under New Management” her best performance on record. The “neo-soul” tag (discussed elsewhere in this section) was a late-1990s term for young R&B singers with a penchant for classic soul, but “Love” was a forerunner to this sound. It begins with a swirling saxophone and steady beat that instantly establish the sultry journey to come—a woman discovers true love. From the brilliant title to the sage-like tone, to the call and response vocals, to the vernacular lyrics (“There’s nothing like someone who can take care of business”), to the spoken “rap” during the bridge this is classic soul writ large performed with expert finesse. 

 In 1992 Howard gained visibility portraying Billie Holiday in Spike Lee’s epic film Malcolm X. Unlike many soul singers who primarily model themselves after soul divas like Aretha, Tina, and Gladys, Howard leans more toward jazz singers particularly “blue” jazz singers like Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Etta Jones. Holiday is the clearest idol for Howard. Vocally Howard has a bigger voice and is far more extradited. She also favors Holiday’s smoldering ballads over her swing material. Their root commonality is their attraction to torchy, melancholic material. Howard’s gift is her contemporary outlook on the Holiday repertoire as one relevant to today. By working with modern arrangements and instruments Howard takes the risk of singing the material in her language which is bold considering the conformity rampant in contemporary R&B of the time. Howard’s Holiday tribute album is mixed (more on that later) but I appreciate her moxie. At a time when hip-hop soul was on the rise it was iconoclastic to go against the grain and follow her heart.  

 She also switched to Giant Records in 1992 and released Femme Fatale an interesting cross-section of Howard’s persona. She could have easily built on the momentum of Miki but chose to open her album with modern takes on “Good Morning Heartache” and “This Bitter Earth.” As always, she sings them in a modern vocal style that melds gospel inflections with jazz oriented phrasing. By doing so she “introduces” the songs to younger ears and legitimizes them as living melodies. She juxtaposes these with nods to ‘70s soul fare including a duet on the Teddy Pendergrass-cum-Philly Soul classic “Hope We Get Together Soon” and a funky mash-up of Sly Stone’s “Thank You” and “Dance to the Music.” These seemingly different eras, jazz, funk and Philly Soul sit comfortably beside each other in Howard’s universe. Howard balanced these classicist tendencies with smart commercial material including her second number one R&B hit “Ain’t Nobody Like You” a sultry, smart adult groove tune and the funky “Release Me.” Like her previous album these are contemporary songs perfectly in tune with the time, but with room for Howard to be herself. The remaining material on the album is listenable pop-soul.

 1993’s Miki Sings Billie: A Tribute to Billie Holiday is a muddled experiment. Perhaps Howard feels so close to Holiday that it’s hard to establish a critical distance. This might explain a version of “I’m a Fool to Want You” drowning in electronic keyboard/synthesizer textures and tinny electronic drumbeats. Whether it’s intended to sound contemporary or a reflection of early ‘90s production cost-cutting the gloss distracts from what is mostly a solid vocal performance.  This is a letdown given her past success with standards. “Don’t Explain” is less produced but her opening ad-lib about her equal access to the temptation of cheating seems too liberated in relation to the song’s fundamental resignation. “Yesterdays” is sung as a mid-tempo swing ballad then goes into double time then slows to mid-tempo then a ballad tempo; a different but not emotionally satisfying approach.

 As expected, she handles torch songs well including “My Man” which features a few embellishments and a potent “Solitude.” Some of her choices betray expectations quite nicely. The opener “What a little Moonlight Can Do” starts as a sultry ballad then a big band swing instrumental break comes in before returning to Howard’s ecstatic vocal. This approach differs enough from typical jazz versions that it’s memorable even if the arrangement seems a bit big for such a slight song. Though she usually leans toward Holiday’s torchier fare she has a lot of fun on a big band version of “Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do,” that she modernizes lyrically, and captures the fundamental levity of “My Mother’s Son-in-Law” with a similarly brassy arrangement. 

 Howard has often defined herself as a jazz singer, but R&B remains at her core. She lacks Holiday’s gift for subtly improvising melodies, is sometimes lacking in humor and is not always very emotionally subtle. Her gutsy, on-the-nose style is enjoyable, but she is more of a jazz stylist than an improviser. This set make me long for a big band jazz album, but this seems unlikely soon.

 Miki Sings Billie was her least successful endeavor commercially and she struggled for years as a result of industry politics and substance abuse. In 1996 she released the Can’t Count Me Out an uneven release that goes overboard showcasing her colors. She starts off with a solid cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Love Every Little Thing about You” with harmonies from Chaka Khan and Terence Trent D’Arby, follows this up with a lovely Brenda Russell and Ron Spearman tune “Sunshine” and spirals in to odd territory, like an overwrought guitar laden rendition of Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” (!) and some middling R&B. The best performance is a straight ahead version of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” refreshingly free of clutter. This independent release was barely released and did not restore her to glory. Five years later she released Three Wishes, which I have not heard. It garnered a 2011 Grammy Nomination for Traditional R&B Vocal Performance. She followed this up with a pop-soul cover album, Pillow Talk: Miki Sings the Classics, for Shanachie Records.

 In 2010 TV One aired a Miki Howard episode of UnSung. Compared to predecessors like Phyllis Hyman, Howard had a remarkable commercial run and seems to have had fewer struggles recording the material she desired. Still, I find it unfortunate that Howard, who remains a gifted singer, had to release her 2008 album Private Collection independently in an era when singers with lesser voices and no discernible aesthetic thrive at major labels. This was followed in 2015 by Live in Concert. Her sultry, gospel flavored approach to R&B, and her jazz orientation, has firm roots in black popular music traditions that never go out of style. Even if she is not in the mainstream commercially her musicality makes her part of a chain of formidable soul singers with talents that transcend the current pop moment.  

 Recommended listening:

 Regina Belle

Stay with Me (Columbia 1989)

Baby Come to Me: The Best of Regina Belle (compilation) (Columbia/Legacy 1997)

Lazy Afternoon (Peak 2004)

The Day Life Began (Shanachie Records 2016)


Miki Howard

Miki Howard (Atlantic 1989)

Very Best of Miki Howard (compilation) (Atlantic/Rhino 2001)

Live Plus (Warlock Records 1996)




Driving toward the middle of the road: Notes on The Green Book

Can you enjoy a film in the moment without respecting it in the morning? This question arose for me after watching 2018’s The Green Book, starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, one day before it won three Golden Globes.

 Inspired by a true story, the film has garnered acclaim for its performances and message of cross-racial unity. Many writers, however, have condemned it for being a typical Hollywood “white savior film,” as well as questioning the screenplay’s accuracy regarding Mr. Shirley’s life. My concern is of a different nature, notably, the challenge of enjoying aspects of a film—including its pacing, humor, and performances—while simultaneously sensing the screenplay willfully suppresses deeper depths for the sake of access. The first rule of public speaking is to know your audience; mainstream films often presume their audiences, even those seeking “adult” comedies and dramas, are unable and unwilling to be challenged. As a result, films like The Green Book shuffles about rather than moving confidently, fearful that audiences can’t catch up. I can imagine a viewer emerging from the film feeling optimistic that people can bond across races, but not necessarily thinking about why many Americans know so little about the struggles of African-Americans to maintain their dignity in a society that routinely challenges their humanity and patience.

A 1962 Cadillac traversing multiple Midwestern and Southern highways is the primary setting for the interactions between Dr. Shirley and Mr. Vallelonga.

A 1962 Cadillac traversing multiple Midwestern and Southern highways is the primary setting for the interactions between Dr. Shirley and Mr. Vallelonga.

 The plot: Ali plays Dr. Don Shirley (1927-2013) an erudite classically trained black pianist (Shirley was of Jamaican descent which the film does not mention) who leads a polished jazz trio. Shirley decides to embark on a national tour through the Midwest and South in fall 1962 and seeks a driver and personal valet to support the trio over two months. Mortensen plays Tony Vallelonga (aka Tony “Lip”; 1930-2013) an Italian-American bouncer who works at the Copacabana night club. Tony, as depicted by Mortensen, is a coarse “bullshitter” with limited formal education who regularly utters racial epithets in English and Italian. On hiatus from the club, he reluctantly agrees to serve as Mr. Shirley’s chauffeur and valet from October through Christmas. As the unlikely pair traverses the middle and lower half of the country via a blue 1962 Cadillac, they vacillate from Mr. Shirley advising Tony to be mindful of his language and manners to Tony “introducing” Shirley to some of life’s most underrated pleasures including fried chicken (which Tony assumes a black man would be familiar with) to rock ‘n’ roll and soul music. The film is a highly episodic comedy of manners, achieved mostly through comic banter on the road in the Cadillac, laced with blunt dramatic moments when the duo is not in motion.

Pictured at left is Dr. Don Shirley, a distinguished pianist portrayed by actor Mahershala Ali (right) in the 2018 feel good film  The Green Book .

Pictured at left is Dr. Don Shirley, a distinguished pianist portrayed by actor Mahershala Ali (right) in the 2018 feel good film The Green Book.

 The film addresses racial realities earnestly to a frustrating degree. For example, Tony is given a green book, information guides regarding black friendly hotels and restaurants, created for black motorists traveling through the interstate highway system. During the trip, Tony connects the dots when he discovers that Dr. Shirley is often not allowed to reside in nor dine in the same venues as whites. Though these indignities seem obvious today, mocking the film’s genuine attempts to illustrate the distance between the characters’ worlds, which some reviewers have done, seems churlish. One can easily believe Tony is unaware of these things as he is written as a highly insular character cloistered in his Bronx neighborhood.

 Where the film struggles its willing blindness to audience members who are already aware of these things and may crave more than just an introduction to racism. This is related to the film’s developmental arc. As noted above, much of the film is about Tony discovering systemic racism even though his language and attitudes are symptoms of it. Unfortunately, though the film provides Mr. Ali with some choice moments of dialogue, including eloquently expressing his plight as a black man who does not fit into the black or white worlds of the time, we never get know him as a person rather than a symbol.

 Aside from a few references to his education and nibbles about his family, aspects of his upbringing, such as his Caribbean heritage, are strangely absent. The screenwriters (including Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son) undoubtedly assumed that as a black man he did not need to be schooled on racism and needed less of an arc.  As such, the film skirts around significant details, such as his queer sexuality which is hinted at in a hasty scene, yet we are made intimately familiar with Tony’s home life and friends. While the imagined “general” viewer may well benefit from the expository racism lessons Mr. Ali’s fights to give his character some depth mirrors the frustration of more informed viewers to craving something more probing. By placing the presumed historical ignorance of the general audience at the center of its address the film cheats them by insisting they could not handle more and overlooking the bigger picture understood by many viewers.

 At issue is not just Dr. Shirley’s individual struggles with racism but the larger realities that defined the lives of black entertainers of Dr. Shirley’s generation. Numerous critics and scholars have documented the demands of black male entertainers such as Harry Belafonte and Sammy Davis Jr. to perform before racially mixed audiences and have equal access to dining and lodging. In the film, Shirley is experiencing these harrowing moments of humiliation nearly a decade after Brown vs. the Board of Education and in parallel to the civil rights movement. Yet he nor any other characters reference the movement in any significant capacity, nor the failure of the law or political organizing to protect blacks from discrimination in the South.

Dr. Shirley (portrayed by Mr. Ali) helps his chauffeur Tony Vallelonga (portrayed by Viggo Mortensen) grow in many ways. but we get few intimate glimpses of Dr. Shirley’s interior life.

Dr. Shirley (portrayed by Mr. Ali) helps his chauffeur Tony Vallelonga (portrayed by Viggo Mortensen) grow in many ways. but we get few intimate glimpses of Dr. Shirley’s interior life.

 Though the film’s depiction of Tony introducing Dr. Shirley to Kentucky Fried Chicken and the joys of Aretha Franklin is supposed to reveal how sheltered and tightly wound Shirley is, the need to “lighten up” and get in touch with some amorphous “roots” was not exactly the primary concern of African-Americans in the early 1960s.

 A more nuanced depiction of blackness would look beyond facile stereotypes about blackness and locate Shirley within the larger struggle for civil rights and social inclusion happening at the time. His insistence on maintaining his dignity, avoiding violence and projecting calm assurance is not an idiosyncratic quirk of the black elite—it’s a survival strategy. Had the film exposed us more to his background and his struggles rather than beginning his life with the road trip his didactic interactions with Tony would have more context. He’s not just trying to get Tony to mind his manners; he’s trying to get him to understand that any move he makes could easily lead to violence or death.

 There are moments when violence toward Dr. Shirley erupts in the film, and predictably Tony “saves” him. While these moments may have occurred in real life, the film’s insistence on zipping through them and moving the plot forward dulls their sting. These dual assaults to his racial and gender identity make Dr. Shirley’s ability to maintain and project dignity something worth lingering over. We know Dr. Shirley is lonely and even depressed, but the film wants us to turn away when things get too serious. Tony grows form what he observes but Dr. Shirley remains elusive.

 As I noted earlier, The Green Book is a very watchable film that succeeds within the modest parameters of Hollywood movies. Mr. Ali and Mr. Mortensen have a snappy rapport, the film is breezily paced, and the screenplay hits its big emotional targets expertly. While checking all the “feel good” boxes the film is not to be trusted emotionally or intellectually. Dr. Shirley’s immense talents, relative commercial obscurity and the richness of his story hinted at here is so intriguing it really deserves more than the standard Hollywood treatment.


The New York Public Library has an interactive digital collection called “Navigating The Green Book” that provides further education about the way black motorists used them to navigate travel in the U.S. The site can be accessed at:  https://publicdomain.nypl.org/greenbook-map/

The New York Public Library has an interactive digital collection called “Navigating The Green Book” that provides further education about the way black motorists used them to navigate travel in the U.S. The site can be accessed at: https://publicdomain.nypl.org/greenbook-map/


Rave & Faves: The Best of 2018

2018 inspired pointed responses to the political and social unrest of the last few years. Artists as varied as Barbra Streisand (Walls) and Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman) addressed the tenor of the current moment in their unique creative vernacular.  Others, such as Rumaan Alam and Uzodinma Iweala, have employed the written word to probe uncertainty and tension around identity, especially race, ethnicity and nation, and their intersections. Pose blazed a trail forward in TV exploring the lives of gender non-confirming people with skill and authenticity and employing trans performers to do so. Oakland, California is the setting and context for my favorite films of the year. Check out my faves from the past year:




2018 Anthem.jpg

Anthem (Madeleine Peyroux)

Peyroux and her bandmates create an endearing and highly varied suite of original songs with a few interpretations (“Last Night When We Were Young”). With an undercurrent of melancholy. Covering politics (“The Brand New Deal”) and romance (“Honey Party”) with equal passion this is an enchanting and highly listenable album elegantly produced.


2018 Dont you feel my leg.jpg

Don’t You Feel My Leg: The Naughty Bawdy Blues of Blue Lu Barker (Maria Muldaur)

Muldaur explores the underexplored legacy of singer and composer Blue “Lu” Barker on this continually surprising set of humorous, sensuous and earthy Southern blues. Muldaur and her bandmates perform with an infectious energy and enthusiasm.


Caution (Mariah Carey)

A tight, flowing mosaic of mid-tempo songs and ballads produced in a sleek laidback R&B production style. Beneath the grooves are emotionally intense, often dark themes, with an accessible yet personal quality. Carey’s subtlest and most seductive recording.


2018 Some of that Sunshine.jpg

Some of that Sunshine (Karrin Allyson)

Jazz vocalist and pianist Karrin Allyson wears her composing hat on this vibrant set of original tunes. She covers various themes within the desire and love lost realm and closes with the potent political tune “The Big Discount.”


Holly (Holly Cole)

A brisk and easygoing set of mostly swing standards highlighted by energetic duets with trombonist-vocalist Wycliffe Gordon and the original “We’ve Got a World that Swings.”


Another Time Another Place (Jennifer Warnes)

Jennifer Warnes is an accomplished interpreter who takes her time between recordings; her last album was 2001’s The Well. Her newest is a delightfully straightforward and understated collection of ballads highlighted by a contemporary version of the standard “I See Your Face Before Me” and the Crescent City homage “I Am the Big Easy.”  


The Window (Cecile McLorin Salvant)

Cecile McLorin Salvant and pianist Sullivan Fortner mine the emotional and melodic riches on an eclectic set of blues, chansons, pop and jazz ballads delivered in a highly dramatic style.


Walls (Barbra Streisand)

A lush collection of thematic ballads attuned to Streisand’s anxieties about the current political moment, tempered by an undercurrent of optimism. Streisand’s voice is as assured as ever and is bathed in rich, orchestrations with the epic emotionalism of film scores.


America’s Child (Shemekia Copeland)

Blues vocalist Shemekia Copeland explores the soul of America on this eclectic set of topical tunes. Songs like “Americans,” “Would you Take My Blood?” and “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” are thoughtful but spirited statements about the value of living in a diverse and inclusive society.



Books about MUSIC


2018 What will I be.jpg

What Will Be: American Music and Cold War Identity (Oxford University Press, 2017)

Phillip M. Gentry


Musicologist Philip M. Gentry’s What Will I Be: American Music and Cold War Identity is an insightful, original and highly readable argument about the role of musical performances on record, in concerts and on film, on the process of forming an identity in the post-World War II era. Gentry opens by laying out the post-World War II genesis of “identity” as a concept focused on understanding of the self in relation to others and to time. He explores different aspects of identity formation through intricate readings that include the alternative black masculinity performed by doo-wop groups, notably the pioneering R&B group The Orioles; the constructions of whiteness that emerge from the musical performances of 50s pop icons Rosemary Clooney and Patti Page and in Doris Day’s musical film performances; contested notions of Asian-American identity gleaned through performances associated with San Francisco’s Forbidden City nightclub; gay male identity in relation to the iconic performances of John Cage’s famous 4’33” score. Scholars and intellectually engaged readers of popular music studies, postwar U.S. culture, performance studies and/or area studies will find much to ponder in this unusually well-crafted and efficient scholarly study.



Beyond MUSIC media favorites




2018 That kind of mother.jpg

That Kind of Mother: A Novel (HarperCollins, 2018)

Rumaan Alam


Rumaan Alam’s second novel That Kind of Mother explores the complexities and limitations of good intentions through the lens of cross-racial adoption.  Alam offers a sympathetic portrait of Rebecca a white, relatively privileged mother with an Ivy League pedigree in poetry, who is married to a British diplomat. They reside in the tony Bethesda, Maryland community circa the mid-1980s. Rebecca loves the possibility of becoming a mother and longs to fulfill her professional ambitions. Her vocational desires temper the excitement of her pregnancy until she meets a skilled and sympathetic black wet nurse Priscilla in the hospital during delivery. Hiring Priscilla as her nanny frees her to write but also stimulates a genuine but awkwardly expressed curiosity about her life and experience. Rebecca wants to know Priscilla’s story but struggles to do so without being obtrusive or condescending.  Alam represents her interest in Priscilla’s life as genuine yet insufficient for masking her insular existence. Cosseted by a privileged life, she has very little insight about many social realities beyond her culturally homogenous world.

            After Priscilla’s unexpected death Rebecca takes care of Priscilla’s son Andrew informally with the blessing of Priscilla’s daughter Cheryl who births a newborn around the same period. Rebecca adopts Andrew with a mixed response from her husband and family, and his needs lead Rebecca to traverse a series of experiences she never anticipated. Rebecca attempts to treat Cheryl, her husband Ian, and daughter Ivy as family, inviting them over for holiday dinners. Within this friendly context they gently prompt Rebecca to remember Andrew is a black male child. Alam places readers in a variety of intricate scenes, that address seemingly mundane concerns issues like winter skin care to classroom bias to police harassment, where Rebecca (and well-intentioned readers) must go beyond “innocence” and “ignorance” toward understanding the sobering realities necessary to raise her adoptive son in a hostile world credibly for his survival. Alam, who is an American of Bangladeshi descent, has spoken candidly about he and his white husband’s experiences raising their two black adoptive sons. He has clearly been transformed, and through That Kind of Mother Alam has crafted an illuminating array of insights regarding the intimate contexts in which the power of race emerges.


Honorable mentions: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (Algonquin Books, 2018); Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala (HarperCollins, 2018)


Essay Collection


2018 How to write an autobiographical novel.jpg

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (Houghton Mifflin & Harcourt, 2018)

Alexander Chee


Novelist and essayist Alexander Chee has many fascinating stories to tell in his engrossing collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. Any aspiring writer contemplating enrolling in an MFA program and hoping to traverse the world of publishing will find bountiful wisdom and insight. Chee who is a gay man of Korean and White American descent, first gained fame for his novel Edinburgh.

How to Write maps out different elements of his life as a son, lover, artist and activist, in compelling detail. Some of his most memorable essays address his role as an AIDS activist and witness to state sanctioned violence toward queer protestors in the late 1980s; the emotional fallout from his father’s accidental death and the aftermath involving his estate; the mentoring he received from writer Annie Dillard; and perhaps, most memorably an eloquent defense of the important of writers in the post 9/11 world. There are other quirkier destinations ranging from his time serving as a cater-waiter for William F. Buckley Jr. and his wife Pat (“Mrs. B”) to his love of Tarot card reading. Though every essay many not be of interest to every reader the collection balances the intimate and the global with finesse.


Honorable mention: Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist discovers her Superpower by Brittney Cooper (Macmillan, 2018)



Music on TV


2018 Pose.jpg



FXX’s summer 2018 series Pose places viewers in the heart of New York’s drag ball scene circa the late 1980s. One of the unheralded stars of the show is a fabulous soundtrack that interweaves some of the best pop, dance and R&B music of the 1980s, including the Mary Jane Girls, Expose, Force MDs, among others to accompany the tightly choregraphed ball struts and to underline the drama. Pose which I wrote about in July’s blog also garnered Golden Globe and Critic’s Choice nominations for Best Drama series and Best Actor for Billy Porter and made several top 10 TV series lists including the American Film Institute (AFI) and the New York Times, among others.


Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Seasons 3 and 4 (so far!)


CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend began its fourth and final season this fall. As one of the few series to feature original music in each episode Crazy Ex is a unique series. Season Three delved more deeply into issues of mental health than most series would dare and did so with ample humor, intelligence and musicality. Season Four has begun promisingly with loving send-ups of New Jack Swing (“Don’t be a Lawyer”), “inspirational” songs, beach party movie music, and musicals (“The Group Mind Has Decided You’re in Love”). Check out these gems below:



Music on Film


18 Boho Strk.jpg

Bohemian Rhapsody


Though I find Bohemian Rhapsody missed opportunity dragged down by formulas and clichés, Rami Malek’s performance is a thrilling interpretation of Freddie Mercury’s immense physical presence and flair. Further, within the confines of the film the soundtrack employs their music effectively to illustrate their range as composers and performers. Incidentally, the film’s soundtrack (which is mostly greatest hits with a few live clips) has been a major album seller this fall and reignited interest in Queen’s vast catalog.



Notable Films (Based on what I have seen so far. Films are listed in order of preference):


18 STBY.jpg

Sorry to Bother You (Directed by Boots Riley)

Dizzying and delightfully surreal Oakland based meditation on money, authenticity, art and love with the most inspired plot twist in years.


2018 Blindspotting.jpg

Blindspotting (Directed by Daveed Diggs)

A hip-hop fueled buddy movie with provocative insights about race and gentrification in Oakland.


2018 Can you ever forgive me.jpg

Can you ever forgive me? (Directed by Marielle Heller)

Surly anti-heroes, brilliantly portrayed by Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, con New York’s early 1990s literary trade (temporarily) without a trace of sentimentality.


Three Identical Strangers (Directed by Tim Wardle)

A seemingly upbeat chronicle of three twins separated at birth challenges you to reconsider everything you think you know and becomes a fascinating detective story.


BlacKkKlansman (Directed by Spike Lee)

Spike Lee employs elements from Ron Stallworth’s autobiography chronicling his experiences as a black cop who integrates Colorado Springs’s police force in the 1970s as a catalyst for a broader look at racial identity then and now.


The Wife (Directed by Björn Runge)

Glenn Close unravels in a tense trickle in her role as a thankless wife living in the shadows of her husband, a feted author who receives the Nobel Prize in Literature in this adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s novel.


Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Directed by Morgan Neville)

A straightforward yet compelling look at a very layered public figure (Fred Rogers, aka Mr. Rogers) whose innovations redefined the way television spoke to children and expanded the notion of education.


Leave No Trace (Directed by Debra Granik)

An admirably lean and engaging depiction of a traumatized war veteran attempting to shelter his teenaged daughter from the world without realizing she is readier for it than him.


Notable Film performances (in alphabetical order):

Armie Hammer (Sorry to Bother You)

Ben Foster (Leave No Trace)

Daveed Diggs (Blindspotting)

Glenn Close (The Wife)

Lady Gaga (A Star is Born)

*Lakeith Stanfield (Sorry to Bother You)

Letitia Wright (Black Panther)

Lucas Hedges (Boy Erased)

Maura Tierney (Beautiful Boy)

*Melissa McCarthy (Can you ever forgive me?)

Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther)

Rafael Casal (Blindspotting)

Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody)

Richard E. Grant (Can you ever forgive me?)

Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace)

Topher Grace (BlacKkKlansman)


(*= My favorite film performances of the year)


Notable musician deaths (A selective list):


Aretha Franklin’s signature ‘60s songs “Respect,” “Think” and “Dr. Feelgood” helped secure her status as the “Queen of Soul,” though she had a broad stylistic range.

Aretha Franklin’s signature ‘60s songs “Respect,” “Think” and “Dr. Feelgood” helped secure her status as the “Queen of Soul,” though she had a broad stylistic range.

Charles Aznavour: Cabaret vocalist, songwriter and actor

Marty Balin (Jefferson Starship): Rock vocalist and songwriter

Bob Dorough: Jazz vocalist and composer

Bob Dorough wrote jazz classics like “Devil May Care” and the songs for the TV series  Schoolhouse Rock .

Bob Dorough wrote jazz classics like “Devil May Care” and the songs for the TV series Schoolhouse Rock.

Dennis Edwards (Temptations): Vocalist

Aretha Franklin: Vocalist, writer, songwriter and actress

Hugh Masekela: Vocalist, writer, and activist

Hugh Masekela was born in South Africa and was notable for his music and his anti-apartheid activism.

Hugh Masekela was born in South Africa and was notable for his music and his anti-apartheid activism.

Dolores O’Riordan (The Cranberries): Rock vocalist and songwriter

Yvonne Staples (The Staple Singers): R&B and gospel vocalist

Nancy Wilson: Vocalist, actress and radio and talk show host

Nancy Wilson was one of the most versatile voices in American popular music achieving success in the pop, jazz and R&B fields.

Nancy Wilson was one of the most versatile voices in American popular music achieving success in the pop, jazz and R&B fields.



Aging fiercely: Mariah Carey’s Caution and the new realities of pop music

The hottest selling R&B album in the nation currently belongs to…Mariah Carey. No, it’s not the 1990s it’s the 2010s and Carey still matters.  Carey has spent a lot of time perched at the top of the charts but at 48 she’s defying the typical music industry logic. Her determination to remain an active recording and touring artist is quite remarkable considering all the sexist and ageist rhetoric that relegates women over 40 to the has-been heap. 


Mariah Carey’s 2018 album  Caution  is an acclaimed and popular set that has garnered favorable reviews and healthy sales.

Mariah Carey’s 2018 album Caution is an acclaimed and popular set that has garnered favorable reviews and healthy sales.

Almost 30 years ago, when Carey first rose to prominence, the industry measured success by multiplatinum album sales, propelled by multiplatinum singles launched by traditional delivery systems—music videos, radio and select promotional appearances.


If her newest album Caution goes gold or has a single radio “hit” even her harshest critics would consider her truly back in the game. This may seem odd, but it tells you a lot about an industry that eats its young after they age and has struggled to avoid obsolescence. After decades of overcharging for CDs the digital revolution has altered the consumer landscape. Few artists are selling albums that go gold or platinum. How did we reach such low expectations for impact?


Around the time Carey experienced a generation gap (end of the 1990s) young people were discovering Napster and hip-hop was growing more insular. By 2001’s ill-fated release Glitter radio was more consolidated, and the short-lived teen pop and Latin pop bubbles were growing increasingly tired.


Just as Carey’s status of as the queen of 1990s pop seemed destined for other singers, she nearly fulfilled the prediction with the underwritten, overproduced and fussy Charmbracelet. The MC comeback trail actually began with 2005’s The Emancipation of Mimi. MC changed her aesthetic to leaner, more groove- oriented material and brilliantly synthesized elements of contemporary hip-hop and neo-soul without surrendering her almost baroque vocal style.


This happy balance generated four genuine hits and earned her newfound respect in the modern R&B world. Frankly, in terms of female vocal icons R& had few contemporary heroes left besides Carey, Mary J. Blige and the slightly younger Erykah Badu.


Though 15 years into Carey’s career was only a ripple compared to Streisand, Franklin, LaBelle, Warwick, Ross, Turner and other veteran vocalists, rare was the ‘90s pop star who thrived in the mid-2000s. Despite the increasing defragmentation in pop music—including the emergence of streaming services, the growth of YouTube and the nichification of pop (which deepened the adult and teen listening divides) 2008’s E=MC2 was a hit. It debuted at #1 and spawned a #1 pop single. Since then, the hits have been less fewer, but the albums have grown more distinct.  Memoirs, Elusive, the new Caution and even Merry Xmas II You are distinctly Carey. She remade herself into a persona—that of the maturing star who is gleefully adolescent at times and expects to be understood as a survivor/veteran/legend.


Distractions like the reality show or even public fiascos like the New Year’s Eve lip syncing debacle never fully erase her primary public identity as a recording artist whose best ideas typically emerge in recording studios rather than film studios or tv soundstages. In the era of “branding” certain moves solidify her brand as that of an idiosyncratic human, in stark contrast to the polished and well-behaved Carey of the early 1990s.


Carey and Ty Dolla Sign perform “The Distance” on  The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon  in November 2018. In the mid-1990s Carey pioneered the R&B and hop-hop fusion that persists today.

Carey and Ty Dolla Sign perform “The Distance” on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon in November 2018. In the mid-1990s Carey pioneered the R&B and hop-hop fusion that persists today.

Caution makes the case for Carey as comfortably accomplished by lowering the keys, scaling down the production and aiming for a more casual listening experience. Upon first listening few cuts will grab you the way hook driven pop music does typically. Rather, the record insinuates itself into your consciousness gradually. After listening a few times, you will find certain melodic fragments, rhythmic phrases, vocal passages and lyrics reverberate. It’s an unusually subtle element we do not usually associate with pop-soul divas. Everything is tightly produced—whereas before her vocal runs and the burnished production made every sentiment crystal clear, here she whisper-sings and phrases seductively with a laser sharp consistency.


For most of the album you must listen closely to understand and unpack what she’s saying. Despite the title of her last album the diva here is elusive. For once, you as a listener must do a little work to understand what have become increasingly personal blues. Critics have attributed all kinds of subtexts to her lyrics; whether this speculation is accurate is less notable than the fact that Carey has enough of a life and presence for there to be subtext.


In 1990, Carey was one of many mainstream voices competing for attention including Paula Abdul, Anita Baker, Michael Bolton, Taylor Dayne, Gloria Estefan, MC Hammer, Janet Jackson, Madonna, and Vanessa Williams among others. Several of these artists periodically release music on major record labels, but most have branched into other ventures, retired or faded from the mainstream. Understood in this light, Carey’s ability to stay current and yet still be her own artist is remarkable. Caution debuted at #1 on Billboard’s R&B albums chart, #1 on the separate Hip-Hop albums chart, and #5 on the Pop albums chart.  Once again Mariah is on top.




Cautionary rock tales on film: A Star is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody

Musical biopics and stories about celebrity are such predictable genres that 2007’s parody Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story was almost anticlimactic in its fusion of clichés. Almost anyone who has seen more than one film in these genres can trace their narrative arcs. They are typically cautionary tales that encourages us to root for underdogs and luxuriate in their stardom while admonishing us to be mindful of the dark forces endemic to celebrity. Few films in either genre transcend this push-pull narrative approach which usually makes performances their saving grace. Jamie Foxx’s performance as Ray Charles (Ray) and Jennifer Hudson’s as Effie White (Dreamgirls) are sterling examples of this phenomenon.


For some these films are a kind of cinematic comfort food; for others, they are frustratingly formulaic. The Bradley Cooper directed version of A Star is Born is the fourth version of a story told onscreen in 1937, 1954 and 1976. Because of this the test of its mettle is not necessarily plot but performance and tone. What is different in the 21st century that warrants another retelling? The Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody has a different mission, notably to narrativize the life Freddie Mercury, one of rock’s most dynamic figures in a way that enriches our understanding of him as an individual and as the primary face of arena rock’s most eclectic band, Queen. They are both highly watchable films limited by the genres they represent and the modest aspirations of their directors. How do they fare? Check out my thoughts below:


Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga make music together in 2018’s remake of  A Star is Born .

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga make music together in 2018’s remake of A Star is Born.

A Star is Born


Before the global film industry drew a wedge between mainstream and independent films, by demarcating the mainstream as a domain for teenagers (mostly) and more independent circuits for mature audiences (mostly), dramas of multiple varieties (e.g., romantic, melo, epic) were a staple in mainstream movies. Contemporarily, the lack of mainstream adult fare makes a film like A Star is Born standout. Conceptually, the film makes perfect Hollywood sense: Pair a successful pop singer, seeking to branch out artistically, with a talented actor, looking to gain credibility as a filmmaker, and you have not only a film but a mashup that has spawned a hit soundtrack, a celebrity power couple and juicy awards show fodder.


The story is skeletal: a grizzled, pill-popping, alcoholic rock veteran (Jackson Maine) stumbles onto a gifted singer/songwriter (Ally)who waitresses by day and performs by night. After seeing her do a might impressive Edith Piaf impression in a New York City drag bar he’s smitten. They click artistically, they bond emotionally and a magical concert duet, captured virally, thrusts her into the national spotlight. He supports her sudden ascent to major record label status but also feels overshadowed by it. As he deteriorates, he watches the star machine begin to taint her “authenticity” and confronts her about it. She persists and after he embarrasses her publicly in grand fashion, she motivates him to seek out the help he needs. But, its ultimately too late; her ascent signifies a changing of the guard that he cannot endure.


This is a performance driven film and in that it succeeds. Lady Gaga is believable as an independent hardscrabble singer accustomed to handling different kinds of men, ranging from her wannabe crooner father to her overbearing boss. Her singing is gorgeous throughout, even if some of the songs are not that memorable, and she is a fine sparring partner with Cooper. She is far less self-conscious and more natural than many of the pop singer-turned-actresses before her, including Madonna, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. Her deep roots as a chameleonic performer serve her well. Her transition from an unknown to a celebrity is convincing, as is her chemistry with Cooper. They achieve some genuine moments of intimacy, especially when they have time to share songs and express their craft.


Cooper is also at his best—he’s traditionally masculine, but also tender and sympathetic, even when his addictions and insecurities get the best of him. Timewise, the kind of pseudo country rock/arena rock he plays throughout the movie seems a few generations removed, even for an aging performer. I never quite bought the youth of his audience. But he sings and plays with enough conviction to not distract you, though at times he seems to channel Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart.


As a film, the story ticks along smoothly and is highly watchable, if familiar. Cooper’s triumph as a director is knowing when to pause and when to move us through the action. His ability to let the audience witness the budding tension between himself and Gaga is refreshing in the age of CGI. The final third of the movie is episodic and predictable. Though it clearly is building toward a foreseeable ending its rhythm feels forced moving both too quickly to wrap things up and still seeming to drag out the inevitable.  As a director, Cooper chooses inference over heavy handedness, which helps make the ending tolerable. It is an appropriately big moment for Lady Gaga who nails the finale with finesse and conviction.


A Star is Born is one of the more ambitious mainstream films I have seen in years in terms of the emotional terrain it aspires to cover. It’s a love story, a comment on celebrity, a concert film, a family saga, and a cautionary tale, among others. The film cannot bear the weight of all of these in its two hour and 14-minute playing time and is limited by its conservative storyline and thematic obviousness.  It is a modest triumph of craft more than innovation. Despite all the obvious talent on display it never illuminates why this story needs to be retold.


Rami Malek delivers a star-making performance as Freddie Mercury in the 2018 Queen biopic  Bohemian Rhapsody .

Rami Malek delivers a star-making performance as Freddie Mercury in the 2018 Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.

Bohemian Rhapsody


The genius of Queen’s pseudo-operatic 1977 ballad “Bohemian Rhapsody” is its focused excess. Despite the over the top nature of everything associated with it—those voices! those lyrics! that falsetto! —there is a meticulous intricacy to each of its components making it epic yet intimate. The new biopic on Queen should have taken a cue from its namesake.


People seeking a through overview of Queen should read some of the better books about the band such as Mark Blake’s excellent 2011 biography Is This the Real Life? The Untold Story of Queen. A two-hour film is too modest a format to hint at the full grandeur of the band. As such, the filmmakers have made a hybrid that chronicles select moments in Freddie Mercury’s life, mixes it with highly staged scenes of the band creating their art and performing, and throws in moments aiming to expose the machinations of the commercial recording industry.


Bohemian Rhapsody’s main attraction is its platform for actor Rami Malek whose performance as Mercury is so indelible it’s difficult to imagine any other actor pulling it off. Malek captures the lithe, feline-like quality of Mercury onstage and off as someone who knew how to manage any situation with wit, style and attitude. Whether this is objectively true of Mercury is beside the point. The film’s evasions of certain facts never get in the way of Malek’s performance of the character the screenplay constructs. Much like Diana Ross’s celebrated performance as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, Malek captures the emotional essence of a highly public musician, facts be damned. This is expert scenery chewing, conveyed with charm and conviction.


The film tries to cover so much about Queen’s rise from the early 1970s to mid-1980s period that you leave knowing you saw and heard a lot but emerge with no real insights. The way the film bounces through time, using montages, for example, sacrifices intimacy for an unsatisfying comprehensiveness. The band’s lead guitarist Brian May was involved with the production which may explain why the film attempts to convey the highly collaborative nature of the band as more than just a Freddie Mercury showcase. The screenplay still presents them flatly as likable journeymen who propelled Mercury’s vision. Their personalities and contributions remain elusive.


Further, the film delves into a lot of clichés about celebrity indulgence, through Mercury, but never explores his bandmates’ exploits including their dalliances with groupies and marital issues. He instead becomes the cautionary tale about the way money and fame are corrupting forces. Beyond his material possessions and drug use, the film treats his queer sexuality as a symptom of indulgence, even if unintentionally. Mercury was never “out” in traditional terms to his audience which was understandable given the demographics of arena rock. While the film presents his relationship to his longtime friend and companion Mary Austin respectfully, it never explores his own struggles with his sexuality or his navigation of the macho rock world. By presenting his sexuality through side glances, then showing his tentative effort to establish a relationship with Jim Hutton (who he lived with from the mid-1980s until his death), and then fast forwarding to his HIV diagnosis, the film cheats him of complexity. He becomes another victim with little exploration of what it was like for him, especially considering the cultural paranoia about HIV/AIDS at the time.


Had the film focused on the lesser known parts of the band’s storied (?) history we could have had a more intimate glance at an exciting manner of dynamics. Mercury’s navigations of the closet and his HIV positive status is one example. Another one: Mike Myers is delightfully cast as sleezy commercial minded record executive Ray Foster who focuses on what the radio will already play rather than trying to expand its parameters. Pop music’s transition from rigid formulas to more experimental sounds is an interesting phase of rock the film never explores, though Queen’s defiance of clichés would make it an ideal band for this type of exploration. Few rock-oriented bands of their time could cover as vast a range as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Somebody to Love,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “We Will Rock You” and “I Want to Break Free.” Queen offers a different kind of listening pleasure than Styx or Kansas or The Moody Blues. Their uniqueness deserves a film of similar stature.



Aretha’s Rainbow: Notes on Aretha Franklin’s music beyond ‘soul’

The loss of a musical and cultural titan as mighty as Aretha Franklin (March 25, 1942-August 18, 2018) naturally inspires critics, writers, bloggers, journalists and fans the opportunity to reflect on her legacy. I have listened to a wide range of Ms. Franklin’s music deeply over time and this month I discuss her remarkably underrated musical range and adaptability.


The cover of Aretha Franklin's 1961 debut album on Columbia.

The cover of Aretha Franklin's 1961 debut album on Columbia.

We have commonly known Aretha Franklin as “the Queen of Soul,” a recognition of her talents as the most influential singer in Rhythm & Blues (R&B). But her ascent to this role was not inevitable. She has always had the talent and drive to move in any musical direction of her choice. Franklin grew up the daughter of Reverend C.L. Franklin a prominent minister and civil rights activist. As a “PK” (Preacher’s Kid) Aretha’s exposure to gospel music was the outgrowth of being raised in a church environment, especially during a time when the church played an even more prominent role as a social and spiritual force in the lives of African-Americans. Her father regularly interacted with luminaries in the gospel world such as singer Clara Ward, who nurtured Aretha, so her emergence as a young gospel recording artist at the age of 14 is understandable.

In the 1950’s gospel music was far more segregated from secular music than it is today. Most popular black singers of Aretha’s youth, including jazz vocalists such as Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington, and R&B singers who preceded Franklin, such as Ray Charles and Etta James, began their musical training in a church environment. Many singers, such as Roy Hamilton, Sam Cooke, and Washington achieved commercial success on the gospel circuit, before deciding to make the leap to secular music and “cross over.” Crossing over was such a major issue that many of gospel’s most accomplished voices, including Mahalia Jackson, Marion Williams and Shirley Caesar, always made it a point to note that they had opportunities to sing secular music but refused.


Franklin's first top 40 pop hit was "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody" a pop song Al Jolson popularized in 1918.

Franklin's first top 40 pop hit was "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody" a pop song Al Jolson popularized in 1918.

Franklin’s ambitions, however, went beyond the circuit. Signed by John Hammond to sing at Columbia Records, her stint from 1961-66 is represents her complicated musical identity. While gospel vocal techniques, including the selective use of bent notes, melisma and call-and-response type arrangements, deeply inform Franklin’s singing, her taste in material extends well beyond the secularized gospel material known as R&B songs to include blues and pre-rock pop music from Broadway and film. Though she conveys a vocal intensity and emotional vulnerability best understood as “soul” her Columbia recordings tell a fuller story of her musical interests.

Her 1961 Columbia debut album Aretha (in Person with the Ray Bryant Combo) featured original songs such as “Won’t Be Long” with a strong flavor recognizable to R&B fans, but she also interpreted “Over the Rainbow” (from The Wizard of Oz) and “Ain’t Necessarily So” (from Porgy & Bess). These interpretations are distinctly Aretha-fied but cannot simply be understood as “soul” or “R&B. Like many musicians of her generation she absorbed a wide range of influences and these are as essential to understanding her career as hits like “Respect” and “Think.”


Yeah!!! released in 1965 is Franklin's finest jazz set at Columbia.

Yeah!!! released in 1965 is Franklin's finest jazz set at Columbia.

Columbia paired Franklin with many different arrangers and producers in search of commercial hits and this proved difficult. Franklin’s taste in material included a penchant for creatively reimagining tried and true standards (“Love for Sale”) and more contemporary (“If I Had a Hammer”) songs sung in jazz settings such as the superb jazz set Yeah!!! which could have made her the outstanding jazz vocalist of her generation. But she also enjoyed singing dated “showbiz” songs including “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody” made famous by Al Jolson in 1918 (!), and a flashy version of the pop warhorse “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey.” These kinds of songs, combined with period era touches such as strings and background choirs, found her at odds with changes occurring in popular music in the mid-1960s. This includes the transition of rock ‘n’ roll from dance-oriented music to more serious and sophisticated “rock,” the growth of R&B into “soul,” and newer variants in jazz such as “soul jazz” and the avant-garde.


Aretha's 1967 Atlantic Records debut focused more on Franklin's gospel roots and writing, playing and arranging skills than any of her previous albums.

Aretha's 1967 Atlantic Records debut focused more on Franklin's gospel roots and writing, playing and arranging skills than any of her previous albums.

Stuck in a commercial rut, she had not found consistent success in the pop, jazz and cabaret vein of Columbia and overtly sought a label that could help her secure hits on the radio and the record charts. At Columbia Records, she had 12 top 100 singles, with only one, the rather unfortunate “Rock-A-Bye,” hitting the pop top 40. Considering the social and racial segregation of the 1960’s she was more popular on the “black” singles charts where she had 8 top 40 songs though few were major hits. Atlantic Records, under the guidance of producer Jerry Wexler, helped Franklin realize her ambitions by providing more leeway to select songs, paly piano and arrange her material. From 1967’s “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” onward she grew into a creative and commercial acme that went until about 1974. Had her career been assessed by the first singles she released from 1967-68, which includes (in order): “I Never Loved a Man,” “Respect,” “Baby I Love You,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “(Sweet Sweet Baby)Since You’ve Been Gone,” “Ain’t No Way,” “Think,” she would have had the greatest streak of winners of any singer of her time. What’s so amazing is that she continued to produce more classics, on an almost routine casual basis, including her versions of “I Say a Little Prayer,” (1968) and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (1971) and original compositions such as like “Call Me” (1970) and “Daydreaming” (1972).

 Though the late 1960’s-early 1970’s is Franklin’s prime “classic” period this does not mean everything she recorded was classic. Franklin became an artist before albums were assembled as meticulously as they eventually became in the late 1960’s era of rock “concept” albums. Essentially her albums were compilations of potential singles and whatever was recorded recently. This shifted with 1969’s more conceptual big band jazz set Soul ’69 and on the gospel extravaganza 1972’s Amazing Grace. I mention this because even as her albums became more uneven in the early 1970’s there was still at least a handful of classic individual performances which is more than could be said for most artists. No matter how uneven an album, such as 1974’s Let Me in your Life, might be there was a classic performance like “Until you Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” that reminded you why she stirred so much excitement in 1967. Except for 1976’s Sparkle soundtrack the mid-to-late 1970’s was a commercial nadir as Franklin searched for suitable material to apply her naturally potent voice, a search complicated by the expanding strands of black pop which included quiet storm, funk, disco and Philly Soul.


1985's  Who's Zoomin' Who?  was a mid-career triumph hghlighted by "Freeway of Love."

1985's Who's Zoomin' Who? was a mid-career triumph hghlighted by "Freeway of Love."

Searching once again for “hits” Franklin took a cue from Dionne Warwick’s success at Arista Records and signed with the label. Many critics have noted how this era pales with her classic period. I respond to this in two ways. First, any artist’s peak would pale in comparison with Franklin’s late 1960s-early 1970’s hot streak. At Atlantic she as able to synthesize nearly all her disparate influences and interests into a cohesive style that was rooted in gospel but drew from a panoply of American music strands. Second, like most major artists Franklin faced a generation gap and major industrial and technological changes in the music industry. Franklin was 25 when “Respect” became a hit and nearly 40 when she had her first Arista “hit,” the ballad “United Together.” Franklin was not going to revert to the jazz and pop she began with as much of this material had been interpreted continually by a wide variety of singers since the 1910’s and she was interested in authoring new hits. Further, she was entering into an industry more defined by electric production technologies (e.g. synthesizers), personalized audio delivery systems (e.g. Walkman’s) and promotional outlets such as MTV, as well as a narrowing of radio programming menus.

In this more codified and demographically focused market Franklin made a noble effort to employ her still rich voice and sharp pop instincts to remain a vital pop figure. For someone of my vintage (ahem, mid-1970’s) I knew songs like “Respect” and “A Natural Woman,” as they were too iconic (and played on oldie stations) to not know, much like “Unchained Melody” or “Reach Out I’ll Be There.” I also experienced Franklin’s performances of 1982’s “Jump to It,” 1983’s “Get it Right” and the monstrous 1985 radio and MTV hit “Freeway of Love.” As a young listener, I was both aware of Franklin as a revered singer with a rich past and as a contemporary artist whose hits such as “Freeway,” “Sisters Are Doing It Themselves” and “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” were as good as pop got in the mid-1980’s. This was new music and it was commercially viable and genuinely exciting. Sustaining the commercial success of these hits eventually became harder as Franklin’s fusion of gospel technique and sleek modern production styles competed with hip-hop, New Jack swing, modern rock, and other emerging styles. The quality of material she recorded for Arista from the late 1970’s through the early 2000’s finds her locating ways to adapt her sound to the times. Sometimes this resulted in a sublime fusion, such as 1994’s “Honey” and 1998’s “A Rose is Still a Rose,” and sometimes it resulted in her “oversouling” on slight material or straining too hard to sound “hip.”


1998's  A Rose is Still a Rose  was one of the most popular and well-received albums Franklin released in the last 20 years of her career.

1998's A Rose is Still a Rose was one of the most popular and well-received albums Franklin released in the last 20 years of her career.

Franklin’s efforts to remain current has inspired controversy among many musicians and critics. For example, several of her past producers such as Wexler and arranger Clyde Otis, wanted her to skip the contemporary pop music scene and focus on being a jazz-oriented singer. Yet Franklin has never felt like a singer seeking to be confined to one style. She took risks “crossing over” from gospel to secular music and transitioning from the jazzy pop style of the 1960’s to the more overt “soul” approach of the late 1960’s.  Most musical artists are lucky to excel in one style and she found a credible voice in multiple styles and eras. As such, her missteps must be considered in the context of their creation and the transitory nature of pop music.


While many of her peers may have been associated with a defined time in the past and lauded for their endurance, she strived to achieve ongoing relevance. A talent like hers transcends charts, sales and awards. Her spectacular performances at the 1997 VH1 Divas Live concert, at the 1998 Grammys singing “Nessun Dorma” and stopping the show with “A Natural Woman” performance at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, attest to a highly cultivated musicality and showmanship. Though many singers think “soul” is only about raw emotion Franklin has deep roots that helped her balance the emotional and technical needs of her material. Her versatility, improvisational skill, musical technique and sheer heart are uniquely her own.


Please enjoy these two playlists I compiled via Spotify:







The stories behind the art: Notes on Pose

27 years ago, filmmaker Jeannie Livingston’s documentary Paris Is Burning propelled New York’s drag ball scene from a clandestine pleasure for those in the know to a feast for broader public consumption. In addition to winning acclaim for Livingston, the film garnered attention from journalists and academics who looked toward the scene as a hip trend warranting analysis. Overlapping the film was Madonna’s hit “Vogue” (video and song) a commercialized take on the intricate choreography of the scene tailored for MTV and top 40 radio.


FX's summer series  Pose  offers a radical representation of Black and Latinx trans and queer lives.

FX's summer series Pose offers a radical representation of Black and Latinx trans and queer lives.

Though audiences in the Americas have long enjoyed watching the bodies of Black and Latinx male entertainers in motion, the queer context of the ball culture, notably the danger of being openly queer and the alternative family offered by ball houses, was central. The abject economic circumstances for most ball participants was a visible yet strangely underdeveloped aspect of Paris. These deficiencies coupled with a lack of analysis toward many of the men’s (mostly) unironic aspirations to secure the social stability of white affluence did not go unnoticed. Cultural critic bell hooks’s 1992 essay “Is Paris Burning?” (in Black Looks: Race and Representation) was one of the more incisive critiques of the film’s limitations, many of which I share.

Though many gender theorists and performance studies folks rightfully lauded the brilliant performativity of the ball culture. And were astute in their praise for the highly cultivated parodic elements embodied in the aesthetic of “realness” the larger dangers of poverty, violence, disease and self-loathing in the film have always stuck with me long beyond quaint academic observations, however thoughtful they might be.

In 2006, German filmmaker Wolfgang Busch’s documentary How Do I Look, further documented the New York and Philadelphia ball scenes, including several performers from Paris. Whereas the performers in Paris often emulated tropes of style drawn from the very white worlds of Dynasty and Ralph Lauren commercials, Look showed something else. Notably, the scene matured from the mix of irony, envy and aspiration integral to Paris to a more independent and eclectic set of influences. The performances in Look are no less stunning than Paris, and more importantly, reflected an embrace of Black and Latinx urban aesthetics. Though the desire for mainstream acceptance, wealth and fame endure in the American psyche, one gets the sense that the scene’s participants shifted from pressing their fingertips against the sleek windows of Bloomingdales to get a glimpse of nice but unattainable objects to opening their own store. A more innovative and internal cultural sense of expression emerges in the film.

In this sense the summer 2018 FX series Pose offers a kind of narrative correction to some of Paris’s flaws while hinting toward the future documented in Look. Set in New York circa 1987, the series mixes melodrama, performance film, and elements of dramatic realism to thrust its audience in the center of the scene. While there are plenty of delightfully over the top costumes and dazzling choreography at the ball scenes, it’s the richness beyond the red walls of the runway that give the series its bite.

The series creators provide a firsthand look at how a family’s disapproval and violent rejection of their effeminate son Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) who loves to dance leads him to homelessness in the streets of New York, before the generous new house mother Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) takes him in and helps him get an education. The series also depicts the susceptibility of queer young people to selling drugs and engaging in various forms of sex work including prostitution and dancing for peep shows. Though the depictions are a bit sanitized and viewers are mostly sheltered from some of the seedier elements of these activities (at least, thus far) there is a refreshing attempt to provide a fuller context.

Actress Mj Rodriguez is one of several trans performers cast as central characters on  Pose .

Actress Mj Rodriguez is one of several trans performers cast as central characters on Pose.

The HIV/AIDS crisis, including anxieties about testing, medical discrimination toward patients and the toll of watching one’s generation perish from the virus impacts multiple characters profoundly. Another notable element is the show’s critique of different forms of normalcy. Though several characters embody the aspirational element of Paris’s interviewees the characters have multiple scenes where they acknowledge white privilege, racism and transphobia including several protestant scenes in a tony white gay bar, and a surprising exchange between a central character and a white lover. The fragility of the nouveau riche life for several white characters with working class backgrounds, and the predilection of closeted wealthy men for queer erotic exoticism is also depicted gamely. The show has a liminal element that acknowledges the pervasive desire for mainstream acceptance balanced with an appreciation of the structures, mores and cultural scenes the characters have created for themselves.

Pose has been renewed for a second season which should provide more opportunities to refine and develop the series. For example, there is a range of acting experience on display ranging from some stiff interpretations of dialogue to the virtuoso talents of Tony-winning actor Billy Porter (as Pray Tell) whose MCing of the balls is hilariously shady and whose offstage navigations of various life challenges are a marvel. There are many touches of TV movie style melodrama that result in some awkward dialogue and a few too many plot contrivances.   

The notion that Black and Latinx queer and transpeople matter remains a radical idea in the U.S. and on television.  

Still, Pose is easily one of scripted television’s most promising debuts. The series is a complex mosaic of characters and subplots. It goes beyond novelty and humanizes the characters beyond the ballroom floor. The notion that Black and Latinx queer and transpeople matter remains a radical idea in the U.S. and on television.  The casting of trans actresses Rodriguez, Indya Moore (Angel) and Dominique Jackson (Elektra) as lead characters is a milestone for the series as is the involvement of trans directors and writers, such as Janet Mock. These impactful behind-the scenes decisions, and the series’ narrative choices place the balls in context and amplify your ability to understand why the balls matter and to embrace their creativity. Fans of ‘80’s fashion will revel in some of the brilliant choreography and costuming showcased in the ball scenes, as will fans of ‘80s dance pop and R&B (Check out this Spotify playlist: https://open.spotify.com/user/g0u1d1e1/playlist/7a9qNUw7ojPCuPPrKm9VlZ?si=or8LwWrPRPyUUgs1Kn3lLA). Viewers will be entertained and enlightened, and most importantly compelled to value fuller representations of people whose lives have been obscured for too long.





Me, you and Mariah: A re-introduction of sorts

I resented her at first. Like many people listening to pop radio in the summer of 1990, I recall the soaring notes, the skillful gospel inflections, and soaring chorus of “Vision of Love.” The talent on display was undeniable. Yet, after growing up with the mellifluous tones of Whitney Houston did we really need Whitney II?

Many a diva had tried, and mostly failed, to imitate the power and technique Houston wielded and I was unwilling to relent. Further, there was the matter of race. Though Whitney received a lot of criticism from black people for “sounding White” and “lacking soul” we were proud of her achievements. She was not just the ultimate black diva of the era—she was the ultimate diva, period. She crossed over in a way no black female pop singer (even Diana Ross and Donna Summer!) had done before her, and I (we) felt very protective of her legacy.

MC vision single.jpg

Gradually, the details about this new diva Mariah emerged. Though Columbia Records marketed her as a pop artist, and was thus tacitly “white,” she was biracial actually. She had a white mother and an Afro-Venezuelan father and honed her talent listening to Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, the Clark Sisters and other legends mostly associated with African-American music. She was also open about her black, and white, cultural roots with an emphasis on the black musical influences.

Though she was open about her heritage, as a white-appearing singer she was still “suspicious” to some listeners and critics. She had more immediate pop access than many more phenotypically black singers, and as a Columbia Records artist she certainly had more marketing muscle behind her than a lot of other talented soul divas. Regina Belle, a black vocalist signed to Columbia had not really crossed over to the pop audience by 1990. Mikki Howard was still primarily known to the black R&B audience. Veteran divas like Randy Crawford and Phyllis Hyman, who began recording in the mid-1970's, were still striving for greater recognition. Who was this new voice and why was she so special?

For me, these questions remained present, but became less relevant as I continued listening. After “Vision” came lovelorn ballads such as “Love Takes Time” and “I Don’t Wanna Cry,” and the sassy dance tune “Someday.” By 1991, Mariah was the most successful female singer in pop. She won two awards at the 1991 Grammy's, beating out Houston, Bette Midler, Sinead O’Connor, and Lisa Stansfield for Female Pop Vocal Performance, and was a commercial phenomenon. The moment that solidified my interested were her almost ridiculous coloratura notes at the outro of her 1991 dance-pop hit “Emotions” the lead single from her new album Emotions. I had never heard any pop singer reach those heights technically, and on an emotional level, there was something about her exuberance and passion, and virtuosity, that spoke to my 15-year-old ears.  More hits from the album followed, and though I did not watch her 1992 MTV Unplugged episode when it first aired, she and Trey Lorenz’s soulful remake of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” mightily impressed me. To re-record such a classic and balance respect for the original with a personal flair was hard to pull off and they did it. My understanding is that even Michael Jackson was a fan.

Emotions single cover.jpg

As high school was ending I began developing other musical affinities including savoring new voices like the sultry tones of balladeer Toni Braxton and the modern girl groups Xscape, Jade, and SWV, whose debut I listened to incessantly on my black cassette player. Still, Carey’s voice always hovered somewhere in the background. My brother lent me his copy of Music Box, which had songs like the fluffy confection “Dreamlover” and the “inspirational” songs like “Hero” and “Anytime You Need a Friend.” If the lyrical themes were too literal, the singing and arrangements were gorgeous. Theoretically, based on demographics, I was supposed to be enjoying Tupac Shakur or Nirvana, but Mariah compelled me more. I remember combing the liner notes and being impressed by her level of creative control. Not only was she the singer, but also a writer, arranger, and producer. This seemed so different from what I remembered about other singers like Houston, Braxton, and Celine Dion. 

The summer before leaving for college, I interned at the local daily newspaper and saved my money well. Within my first semester at Emerson College, I had spent hundreds of dollars on cassettes tapes of the pop music I loved from childhood including Houston, Carey, Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Taylor Dayne, etc. I shopped mostly at Tower Records, but when my money ran low, I went to great used record stores in Boston, like Mystery Train and Newbury Comics. I was doing my own music education and Carey was part of my curriculum. That winter she released Merry Christmas, whose lead single “All I Want for Christmas is You,” I adored. It was one of the few seasonal songs I could stand to listen to beyond the season. My college friends, many of whom liked more outré music, seemed puzzled by my adoration. When you were in college in the mid-1990s you were supposed to like edgier, darker, more ironic music, but I was adamant that Carey was special. Even when she was obvious, or overwrought, I still forgave her.

In summer 1995, I returned to the internship and continued spending my salary disproportionately on music. I finally bought the MTV Unplugged EP. As impressive as the Jackson 5 cover was, I was impressed by her lean live arrangement of her live version of “Emotions” and transported by the way she and her background singers soared on the Carey and Carole King written soul ballad “If it’s Over.” The audience, whoever they were, applauded righteously. A few months after this purchase, Carey released “Fantasy” in a pop version and a remix featuring rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard (O.D.B). It was the second song to debut at #1 on the singles chart (after Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone”) and signified something new for Carey. After five years of wholesomeness, there was something funkier and even a bit trashy about the juxtaposition of Carey with O.D.B. I bought 1995’s Daydream the night of its release from Tower and could not wait to run to my dorm room and listen to it, as well as review the liner notes. Shortly after, I reviewed Daydream very positively for the college paper The Berkeley Beacon. I also noticed other reviews, such as Time magazine’s Christopher John Farley noticing something younger, sexier, and more interesting about Carey.

Mc if its over.jpg

Daydream was an artistic and commercial apex for Carey spawning three number one hits, earning her multiple awards and nominations, including six Grammy nods, and even a spot on a few year-end Best-Of lists. After five years, she was finally earning the critical respect I felt she deserved. I also felt vindicated in my tastes; even people who loathed pop, and Carey specifically, warmed up to songs like “Fantasy” and “Always Be My Baby.”

1997 began my scholarly interest in Carey. Right before departing Boston for graduate school in Ohio in late August 1997 news emerged that she and her husband, Sony Music President Tommy Mottola, were separating and her forthcoming album Butterfly was the first product of her newfound freedom. Carey, who always seemed upbeat and inaccessible, suddenly seemed more human and vulnerable than ever. Though she led with the hip-hop inflected single “Honey,” promoted via an escapist video of Carey escaping to an island, dancing with a group of sailors, and jumping into the arms of another man at its conclusion, the album was not exactly hip-hop. Mostly she used the ballad form, her greatest strength, to reflect on her childhood (“Close My Eyes”), racial insecurity (“Outside”), and heartache (“Whenever You Call”), co-written with her collaborator Walter Afanasieff. She also managed to blend her style with younger artists including the brilliant “Breakdown” recording with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and the taut “Babydoll” co-written with Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott. Though the album featured hip-hop associated personnel, the album is mostly downbeat. Lyrically, it is also richer in detail and the songs flow into each other with far more deliberateness than her typically singles-oriented albums. There are some meandering melodies, and at times, she barely enunciates, but it feels like her most personal work yet.

I wrote about Carey’s gospel influences in a music course I was taking and built from this blueprint by presenting papers on her music at academic conferences. I decided Carey’s life warranted deeper exploration and made her the focus of my Master’s thesis.  I collected a formidable archive of articles and images, watched her commercially released videos, and became a Carey “expert.” I was simultaneously meditating on the political economy of popular music. She was the rare female pop figure to possess such high levels of creative control. And as a biracial performer she was in an odd position: Though she was marketed as a pop singer with a soulful sound that could appeal to fans of black pop, she had fought with Columbia about integrating more hip-hop into her music and was defeated. That is, until she had earned enough commercial clout to do so; and this apparent “gamble” paid off.  She was a racially ambiguous singer typically read as “white,” who gradually integrated blacker urban influences into her music, as pop music itself was becoming more influenced by hip-hop. Though Mary J. Blige is understood as the queen of hip-hop soul, “Fantasy” and “Always Be My Baby” blended hip-hop, R&B and pop in a quietly transformative way. After Carey’s success in this style Houston embraced it on 1998’s My Love is Your Love, and even Celine Dion started adding R&B touches to her albums.  

Since the late 1990s, Carey’s influence on other singers has grown more apparent (e.g., Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé, Kelly Clarkson, Jessica Simpson) but her struggle to remain relevant has also emerged. Butterfly debuted at number one and had two number one hits but was not the colossal success of her previous albums in sales or in airplay. 1999’s Rainbow just missed the number one pop albums spot, and though she had two big pop/R&B hits from it the set was also perceived as a downturn in sales.  Her experience is similar to other female pop singers who regularly enjoyed robust sales and airplay in the 1990's such as Janet Jackson. In the 2000's Carey struggled personally and professionally to uphold her previous image. Midway through the decade she had a “comeback” with 2005’s Emancipation of Mimi, but has struggled to maintain its momentum as she has matured and as the record industry has adapted to the digital revolution, changing demographics, the decline of brick-and-mortar stores and competing forms of media influence.

MC we belong mtv.jpg

Carey emerged in the midst of “big pop” a period when pop stars regularly sold multiplatinum albums that spawned multiple singles, mostly from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s. This was the era of mega-selling albums such as Thriller, Can’t Slow Down, Like a Virgin, Purple Rain, She’s So Unusual, Whitney Houston, No Jacket Required, and Faith. She filled a void on Columbia’s roster and provided the label with a reliable commercial anchor who could compete with Paula Abdul, Phil Collins, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Madonna and other chart-makers of the early 1990s. She proved herself to be musically adept across age, format and taste cultures during several transitions in pop music. As a relatively self-contained musician, typically in tune with musical trends, her instincts served her well for over a decade. After over 25 years of recording, she has had to confront the artistic quandary for big pop stars:  Their talents gave them an audience, but as audiences shrink and tastes change, they have to figure out how, and if, their talents can keep them in the spotlight. The alternatives are to try to adapt to changing tastes and/or to relinquish the spotlight and simply make the music they want to make rather than competing with contemporary pop.

Pop fame is a remarkably addictive temptation. Legendary performers like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald Peggy Lee, and Sarah Vaughan all had fallow periods when they tried to stay current. Their natural abilities often clashed with attempts to cover rock material and they eventually returned to the kind of music that made them famous. 

Carey has to figure out how viable she is for present and future audiences.  As a listener I distinguish her career from more traditional divas like Houston and Dion who have always depended more on outside material and producer/executives’ instincts to shape their sounds. She also differs from singers like Jackson and Madonna whose careers depend more heavily on their personae and performing abilities than vocal precision.  Arguably, two promising approaches that continue to constrain her are ambition and risk. First, though pop is full of pretentious “art rock” and “concept albums” that go nowhere, I rarely sense Carey developing her albums conceptually. Beyond writing well-crafted love songs and scoring hits, it is not clear if she is thinking on the conceptual plane that musicians as varied as The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Terence Trent D’Arby, Lauryn Hill, Madonna, Joni Mitchell, U2, or Stevie Wonder have employed. She seems capable to this listener but I am not sure if she believes it.

Second, Carey might benefit from looking at the payoffs for some of pop music’s risk takers. A few examples:

·         After six years of albums featuring orchestras and show tunes Barbra Streisand made peace with modern pop on 1971’s Stoney End and Barbra Joan Streisand adding Carole King, John Lennon, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Randy Newman, and Harry Nilsson to her repertoire alongside of Harold Arlen and Jules Styne. Though she is not a rock singer by any stretch, she modernized her sound finding some folk-pop, R&B, and soft rock that gelled with her sound. She mostly maintained her audience and gained new ones.

·         Donna Summer quickly became the “Queen of Disco” around 1976, and she gradually grew beyond its confines adding conceptual dimensions, and other stylistic influences that peaked on 1979’s Bad Girls. But her finest album was actually 1980’s The Wanderer, a moderately popular but thoroughly accomplished album with touches of rock, new wave, pop, and even gospel that redefined her sound and career for the 1980s.

·         Linda Ronstadt completely upended her image in the 1980s by performing in Pirates of Penzance and La Boheme in New York, recording three standards albums with Nelson Riddle and recording what eventually became a trilogy of Spanish language albums. Though her record label was highly reluctant, she had earned the audience and profits to more than justify these experiments, which ultimately transformed her singing. 1987’s Trio and 1989’s Cry Like a Rainstorm illustrated her enduring commercial appeal even after seemingly abandoning mainstream pop.

·         Madonna had a succession of hit albums and singles from 1983 forward and from these successes came 1989’s Like a Prayer. Though it is clearly aiming for “seriousness” her conceptual reach indicated greater artistic ambitions than being an MTV provocateur. The album’s genuine explorations of religion, sexuality, and family propelled her from an entertainer to an artist and afforded her newfound critical respect without diminishing her commercial appeal.


As odd as it seems to reference albums recorded from 1971-89 this is part of my larger point: Pop musicians of Carey’s generation rarely deviate from established formulas. Daydream was definitely a progression in its blend of hip-hop elements with pop/soul, and Butterfly was even more experimental in many respects. But, there is an element of daring missing from Carey’s repertoire that would help her grow artistically and enrich her critical stature. Whether audiences will follow is less relevant than her potential to lead.

mc cbs.jpg


To enjoy listening to someone like Mariah Carey is a kind of badge of vulgarity, right?

She seems so obvious, so commercial, so pop, so excessive, so shameless, so over-the-top, so obsessive, so slick. Respectable people are not supposed to take pop divas like Carey (and forebears like Whitney Houston, or followers like Kelly Clarkson) “seriously.” Carl Wilson’s brilliant 2007 book on Celine Dion (reprinted and expanded in 2014) Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste is one of the best analyses of this subject of musical taste.

In rock and pop critical circles, “Serious” is a term reserved for male singer-songwriters in rock, soul, hip-hop and certain subgenres of country. “Serious” is mostly for music that is not “pop” except when it is. The critical community champions rock and roll for its cultural revolution of bringing black influenced culture to the mainstream. Yet, up until the 2000's, the demographics of rock criticism were incredibly homogeneous and conservative. Few non-white males had the opportunity to gain the national prominence or critical respect of Robert Christgau, Anthony DeCurtis, Jon Landau, Greil Marcus or Dave Marsh to name a few rock critic superstars.

As such, rock criticism’s’ insularity has narrowed the discourse of the aesthetic expressions respectable in mainstream popular music. Rockers, country outlaws, gritty soul men and hip-hop are OK. Women can also enter this club as long as they adhere to these archetypes. When critics accord female pop singer respect, they often write in tones of shock and condescension. Who knew she could do that.

Women who are angry and gritty are admitted to the canon, but other kinds of expression—vulnerability, optimism, ambivalence, buoyancy, sensuality—are harder to trace in the language of pop/rock criticism. The easiest way to address “pop” is to dismiss it as ephemeral drivel. Kelefan Sanneh has addressed this in her 2004 critique of Rockism in the New York Times, and it bears repeating (“The Rap Against Rockism,” New York Times, October 31, 2004, Sec. 2, pp. 1, 32). I disagree with the Rockist perspective on pop, and I have devoted much of my previous writing exploring the kinds of singers and genres critics often dismiss as light, trivial, and irrelevant to notions of “art.” Within this, I have located reservoirs of artistic richness and depth easy to dismiss if you are never encouraged to look.

Among these overlooked figures, Carey fascinates me because her vocal palette, range of skills, and facility with synthesizing influences is highly unusual in the pop world. My observations may sometimes seem defensive or even feature moments of appreciation, but my reading is not a defense or an appraisal. I am raising the question of why it might be useful to examine Carey critically, for I have seen little that convinces me that she is unworthy of study. I will state upfront that she is not conceptual in the vein of a pop artist like Madonna, nor is she renowned as a “performer” in the vein of singer-dance-performer extraordinaire Michael Jackson, to name two pop figures frequently subject to cultural criticism. Some of her contemporaries, notably Mary J. Blige, have stronger “personae” than she has ever mustered. Regardless, I still find her compelling; I always want to know what she it up to presently and next.

Buried within her discography are hundreds of special moments that set her apart. Her 2003 double-disc Remixes is as important to understanding her as her Greatest Hits collection. Her singles and her albums (in the digital era) regularly feature bonus cuts that include unreleased songs or interesting remixes that suggest all kinds of artistic frequencies beyond what you might hear on the radio or watch on a video channel. In the 1990's, she may have seemed like the most conventional, middle-of-the road (MOR) formulaic pop diva, but she was actually a champagne cork ready to be released. Things slowly seeped out on 1995’s Daydream, a pivotal recording where she began to split from MOR goddess to a more modern and believable singer. She aged backwards, embraced hipper styles and grew more sensuous abandoning the kind of wholesomeness that made her songs anthems of beauty pageants, proms and weddings.

Despite the misbegotten notion that she suddenly became “black” when she thought it would sell more records there are few pop singers of her generation more influenced by classic “black” American musical styles—especially gospel and jazz. At her best, her melismatic control, fluid phrasing, call and response arrangements and instrumental choices brilliantly signify to her musical predecessors. Within these, she has also integrated traces of hip-hop seamlessly. The little scat passages in “Dreamlover” and on the dance remix of “Anytime You Need a Friend” hint at vocal prowess yet unleashed. Her background vocal arrangements on songs like “Vision of Love,” “If It’s Over,” “Jesus (Oh What a Wonderful Child),” “I Am Free,” “Outside,” and “Fly Like a Bird” could easily make her a stellar full-time gospel arranger.

Carey’s challenge is the “hint” element. The raw talent is there and when it comes together, it is as brilliant and accomplished as any contemporary post 1980's popular music. Her struggle to pull it all together consistently is part of the appeal. She has accumulated an abundance of micro level ambitions that surface in fragments and patches, rather than the whole we favor in the albums era. I am faithful/hopeful her records have suggested what she can do but that more is to come.

From 2001-2004 she risked becoming a 1990's relic; then in 2005 she turned things around with The Emancipation of Mimi. 2008’s E=MC2 was less impactful though it spawned the requisite big hit (“Touch My Body”) and debuted at #1. Too bad, because in many ways it is a more idiosyncratic and distinctly personal album. If Emancipation re-established Carey as a commercial force in the digital era, E=MC2 allowed her more personal freedom. Rocker Ryan Adams had a very revealing interview that spoke to the odd frequencies she was operating in.

According to Adams, “I feel like Mariah is loosening up, finding herself again. This is a woman who makes amazing albums. She got panned for Glitter, but she was just taking a stab at her 8 Mile, Purple Rain and Xanadu. With The Emancipation of Mimi she figured out how to dig back into songs and jams and not overdo it vocally. Her pride probably got hurt, she had something to prove, she went nah, watch this, I’m going to emancipate myself — and the record demonstrated this. E=MC2 (Island) is a very sexy, cool record. She’s funny, the beats are great, a lot of slow jams. She’s not a pop star; she writes her own stuff, and she really collaborates. Her sampling ideas are well informed; she’s very involved in her recording process. Her records are masterpieces” (“A Dash of Metal and A Whole Lot of Mainstream,” New York Times, October 26, 2008, AR29).

 Though Carey does not need Adams to affirm her, he is a restless eclectic in the manner of Elvis Costello, who has certainly soaked up a lot of pop music in his day. Similarly, Ben Folds, wrote, “She’s got the most amazing voice. Although the production on her new album, The Emancipation of Mimi (Island), may turn some off, I find the sheer talent involved reason enough to listen. I love classic soul ballads like “Mine Again” and “Fly Like a Bird.”' I also like that she's using her voice on this album more like a male singer might, like Prince. She could show off and belt but she’s evolving and doesn’t seem to need to prove herself every bar, so you get the Interpretation of an amazing singer” (“Arty, Twangy and Carey,” New York Times, May 8, 2005, p. A17). 2009’s Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel is even weirder—there are traces of humor, regional slang, and allusions that defy the stereotype of Carey as a pop-soul simpleton. Her most recent studio album, 2014’s wildly eclectic Me. I Am Mariah. The Elusive Chanteuse, was not a big hit, but it also unpeeled some musical and personal layers.

I share all of this because I am working toward a book of cultural criticism on Carey. My interest in exploring Carey’s career as a book project is not to redeem, condemn, preserve or other finite functions, but to illuminate tones and layers people are not hearing. Her racial and ethnic identity, her relationship to different musical genres, the media’s framing of Carey’s professional relationships with men and women, and other related themes, are areas I am excited to explore. I hope this preview leads you to reconsider the familiar.




Johnny Mathis (Easy) Listening party! An appreciation in three parts (Part 3)

1986-present: Repertory singer

 Mathis has focused on songbook style albums for the last 30 years with rare exception. From movie songs to Duke Ellington to 2010 era hits by Pharrell Williams, he continues to mine the riches of multiple eras and styles.

 **=Highly recommended albums!

Mathis has dedicated the majority of his albums from the late 1980's-present to exploring genres including doo-wop, jazz, country music, and contemporary pop.

Mathis has dedicated the majority of his albums from the late 1980's-present to exploring genres including doo-wop, jazz, country music, and contemporary pop.

**#51: The Hollywood Musicals (with Henry Mancini)(1986): Though it is easy to frame Mathis as the king of ‘50s “makeout” music and dismiss his romantic crooning, the reality is that no one does dreamy, ethereal classic pop with the same flair and enthusiasm. Though rock critics rarely take this kind of music (e.g., film songs) seriously, the kinds of ballads composers like Vernon Duke, Rogers and Hammerstein, and Jerome Kern authored are a major touchstone in American popular music that continues to resonate. Partnering with the simpatico arrangements of Henry Mancini, with occasional choral backing, Mathis is completely in his element. His incredible vocal range combined with his interpretive persona as an eternally wide-eyed romantic gives new life to tunes like “When You wish Upon a Star,” and “It Might As Well Be Spring.” Mancini’s lush arrangements are surefooted, framing Mathis’s voice with the ideal level of cushioning for his voice to soar. A real triumph of taste and imagination.

 **#53: Once in a While: (1988): Once you get past the very ‘80’s glossy keyboards, you will emerge impressed. Mathis sounds fabulous on an impressively varied group of songs from the Great American Songbook (“Once in a While”), ‘50’s pop (“I’m on the Outside Looking In”), Motown (“Ain’t No Woman [Like the One I’ve Got]”), and singer-songwriters Todd Rundgren (“It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference”) and Lauren Wood (“Fallen”) set to more contemporary rhythms. Astute at delivering the melodies and lyrics, Mathis sounds comfortably contemporary. 

**#54: In The Still of the Night (1989): ‘50s nostalgia was big in the 1980’s so it seems obvious for Mathis to take a stab at it on this sweet and smooth tribute to '50's doo-wop, pre-rock pop, and early ‘60s pop. Because Mathis was at his vocal prime when many of these songs became hits, his approach feels informed by genuine enthusiasm for the songs and the artists rather than nostalgia.  His producers blend acoustic instruments with '80's electronics to contemporize songs made famous by Jo Stafford (“You Belong to Me”), Brenda Lee (“All Alone I Am”), The Skyliners (“Since I Don’t Have You”), Ed Townsend (“For Your Love”), and even Buddy Holly (“True Love Ways”[!]). The result is a delightful confection, including two songs recorded with the vocal group Take 6.

**#56: In a Sentimental Mood: Mathis Sings Ellington (1990): One of Mathis’s most impressive vocal performances finds him focusing on the compositions of Duke Ellington, including songs by Billy Strayhorn (“Lush Life”) and Juan Tizol (“Perdido”) that were associated with his band. Though there are jazz soloists including pianist Fred Hersch, this is a ballad focused set with a few mid-tempo songs. Mathis’s voice is rich and clear throughout, and his performances are elegant and emotionally astute. This album was among the first nominated for the Grammy in the new Traditional Pop Vocal Performance category in 1991.

 **#57: Better Together: The Duet Album (1991): Mathis is great on his own, but he definitely plays well with others. This unique compilation features eight duets from his various albums plus new duets with Patti Austin and Regina Belle, and a duet with Dionne Warwick on a song from the then unreleased album The Island.

#58: How Do You Keep the Music Playing? The Songs of Michel Legrand and Alan & Marilyn Bergman (1993): Mathis, the romantic ballads of the Bergman-Legrands, and soaring strings are a logical match. Mathis actually recorded several of these songs in the late 60’s/early 70’s when they were new including, “What are you doing the rest of your life?” and “The Windmills of Your Mind.” That may be why it feels a bit anticlimactic. Most of the songs are well-worn, and aside from some jazzy piano playing and solid solos, trumpet and saxophone, nothing here is truly surprising musically. A lovely set of performances, but the familiarity of the material diminishes its impact.

#59: All About Love (1996): The one divergence from the repertory approach is this stab at mid-1990’s adult contemporary pop/soul. Aside from Stephen Bishop’s “One More Night” none of these songs are especially well-known. The production is smooth and Mathis is poised but nothing stands out.

#60: Because You Loved Me: Songs of Diane Warren (1998): In a return to his 1970’s approach, Mathis goes for covers of new-ish tunes here. Diane Warren’s sentimental ballads (“Look Away,” “Because You Loved Me,” “Un-break My Heart”) and peppy up-tempo songs (“Rhythm of the Night” Live for Loving You”) made her a staple of pop radio from the mid-1980’s through the late 1990s. Her songs are highly melodic, and feature undeniable hooks; but many music critics find her lyrics generic and dismiss her songs as L.A. pop hackwork. Undoubtedly, the commercial success of Michael Bolton, Toni Braxton, Peabo Bryson, Taylor Dayne, Celine Dion, Gloria Estefan, and others, drew Mathis to one of the songs of one of last bastions of sentimental romantic pop. Mathis is in great voice, but the songs vary in quality, and there’s a generic quality to the slick arrangements and repetitive background vocals that makes it blend into the background rather than standout.

**#61: Mathis on Broadway (2000): 40 years after releasing two sets of songs from the Great White Way, not to mention an enduring penchant for Broadway fare, Mathis focuses on 10 songs from musicals of the late 1980's-mid 1990's including Into the Woods, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, and Rent. He, and duet partners Betty Buckley and Nell Carter each featured on one cut apiece, sound glorious.  

**#63: Isn’t It Romantic: The Standards Album (2005): Released during a resurgence of “standards” albums by rock singers such as Rod Stewart, Cyndi Lauper and Boz Scaggs, Mathis outshines them all. He is at his best here, soaring on a jaunty on “Day By Day” and delivering lovely renditions of classics like “Our Love is Here to Stay.” “Rainbow Connection” and “There’s a Kind of a Hush” are debatable “classics” but Mathis delivers warm, assured performances. 

 **#64: A Night to Remember (2008): This is a highly enjoyable cover album of “soft soul” material from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80's ranging from Bacharach and David’s “Walk On By” to DeBarge’s “All This Love.”  Though hardly an advance of Mathis’s firmly cemented style, it reminds listeners of his ability to apply his core sound to a range of contemporary ballads across multiple decades, which he previously proved on several ‘70's “soft-soul” albums. Mathis is nearly unrivaled among singers of his generation for maintaining his vocal chops and bridging stylistic and generational gaps in his choice of material. Unlike slightly older peers, such as Tony Bennett and the late Rosemary Clooney, Mathis often sounds very comfortable singing post-60's pop/R&B material. In this sense, the album is an entertaining confection featuring a few high profile duets and in sleek, state-of-the art adult contemporary arrangements. It reiterates Mathis’s endurance as one of pop’s most pliable voices.

**#65: Let It Be Me: Mathis in Nashville (2010): Despite the rural cover art and the song selection, this is more of a country flavored pop set—strings with pedal steel accents--than a true country album. Regardless, the listener is struck by the consistency and strength of Mathis’s singing, especially since the set was recorded live in the studio. He begins with a wistful “What a Wonderful World”—which never really sounds countrypolitan—and then delves into more predictable material including pop-country standards like “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Crazy,” and “Let it Be Me.” His performances are uniformly warm, and he projects a palpable yearning in “Crazy,” “Lovin’ Arms” (with Vince Gill’s harmonies), and “Let It Be Me” (recorded with Allison Krauss). His most surprising performances include an impassioned “Please Help Me I’m Falling” and a tender rendition of the folk standard “Shenandoah.” 

#68:  Johnny Mathis Sings the Great New American Songbook (2017): Always one to keep his ear open to new sounds, Mathis sifts through the catalogs of contemporary performers, including Adele, Bruno Mars, and Pharrell Williams (“Happy”) for his latest interpretive adventure. He also visits tunes made famous by some pop, soul and country stalwarts such as Whitney Houston (“Run to You”), R. Kelly (“I Believe I Can Fly”), Leonard Cohen (“Hallelujah”), and Alan Jackson (“Remember When”), among others. The results vary, in part because of the intrusive use of pitch correction on several tracks. He is at his best on Peter Allen’s classic “Once Before I Go” and country singer Keith Urban’s charming 2016 hit “Blue Ain’t Your Color” where he can sing the story without competing with the original versions or production effects.

The boxed set includes four special albums, three of which were never released. 1983's  Unforgettable  and 1989's  The Island  are two of the vocalist's finest recordings.

The boxed set includes four special albums, three of which were never released. 1983's Unforgettable and 1989's The Island are two of the vocalist's finest recordings.

1980’s Rarities: Unreleased albums

#46: I Love My Lady (1981): I know—the idea of someone with Mathis’s genteel, almost florid approach might seem like a misfit for the guitar-based funk of Chic, but the singer and group coalesce unexpectedly here. More in the vein of Luther Vandross’s “Never Too Much” funk-ish balladry than disco, Mathis, who is openly gay, sometimes sounds a bit distant singing the very straight lyrics. However, the rhythms perk along in a way very familiar to people who listened to black radio circa 1980-82. A dated, but intriguing set of songs and performances.

 **#48: Unforgettable: A Musical Tribute to Nat King Cole (1983): Mathis understandably idolized Cole, and like his idol, he has a warm tone, thoughtful phrasing, and a natural, emotionally restrained way with a lyric on this mix of live and studio performances. Though he and Cole have very different timbres, Mathis is in his element here imbuing some of Cole’s signatures with his own style. Mathis leans more toward ballads and mid-tempo songs than the swing songs in Cole’s repertoire, but he is as skillful an interpreter of this material as anyone. Natalie Cole sounds lovely and in command here, though she shows even greater aplomb on her 1991 blockbuster tribute.

 **#55: The Island (1989): Contemporary listeners may find the sleek keyboard laden production a bit retro, but the vocal performances on these mostly Brazilian classics are some of Mathis’s best. The lithe nature of his voice is well suited to the gentle melodies and slinking rhythms. He also makes true lyric poetry out of the best lyrics here. In terms of the quality of the material, especially on wistful songs like “Photograph,” “Your Smile,” and “Flower of Bahia,” and the passion in his voice, this is easily one of his most cohesive and enjoyable recordings.

#66: Odds & Ends: That’s What Keeps the Music Playing (2017): This 17-track compilation is exclusive to the boxed set. Interesting, if not essential, it features alternate takes of the Mathis hits “Teacher, Teacher” and “Wild is the Wind.” There are also five previously released tracks including his 1993 Westside Story duet with Barbra Streisand (“I Have A Love/One Hand, One Heart”), a 2007 version of “The Shadow of Your Smile” (recorded with saxophonist Dave Koz), and three Spanish tracks released previously on a 1993 Mathis boxed set Johnny Mathis: A Personal Collection. The key tracks are 10 songs recorded from 1960-76. Most fall within the conventions of ‘60s pop yearning, such as the Anglicized French ballad, “Now That You’ve Gone” or ‘70s soft rock, most notably his take on jazz composers Johnny Mandel and Dave Frishberg’s “You Are There.”


Johnny Mathis has recorded five Christmas albums for Columbia and one for Mercury. He is the undisputed King of Christmas among popular vocalists.

Johnny Mathis has recorded five Christmas albums for Columbia and one for Mercury. He is the undisputed King of Christmas among popular vocalists.

1958-2013: ‘Tis the Season: Johnny Mathis does Christmas!

In the rock era, roughly beginning in 1955, the vocalist most associated with Christmas music is Johnny Mathis. Mathis, whom I have described previously in a 2010 essay (“Shaking the Closet,” Popular Music & Society, December 2010, pages 597-623) as an exemplar of the Rock Era Crooner (REC) genre, has released six Christmas albums since 1958 including five on Columbia Records and one during his Mercury Records tenure. These include Merry Christmas (1958), Sounds of Christmas (Mercury, 1963), Give Me Your Love for Christmas (1969), Christmas Eve with Johnny Mathis (1986), The Christmas Album (2002), and Sending You a Little Christmas (2013). Over the course of these solo albums, he has sung 67 songs (!). Aside from Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby,” Darlene Love’s “Christmas, Baby Please Come Home” and novelty songs (e.g., “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer”) there are few major songs associated with Christmas that he has not recorded.

            I have listened to all of his Columbia sets in their entirety. Their appeal depends on your mood. 1958’s Merry Christmas (#6) set has an innocent, lighthearted ‘50s feel. He mixes the giddy (“Sleigh Ride”), the sacred (“O Holy Night”) and the torchy (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas”) in a lush, echo-laden production. Give Me Your Love for Christmas (#23) is a bit brassier and more up-tempo, including the selections “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” In between are lovely ballads such as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The key cut is a stellar rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer” that displays the impressive power of his formidable pipes. By 1986, synthesizers and keyboards were a cheaper way to record than full orchestras so he goes for a sleeker, more streamlined approach on Christmas Eve with Johnny Mathis (#52). Singing in a lower range than his ‘50s and ‘60s era albums, he sounds as elegant as ever on a program mixing new holiday songs with standard fare such as “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “The Christmas Waltz.”

My personal favorite is 2002’s #62 The Christmas Album. Mathis covers some songs he has surprisingly never sung including “Joy to the World,” “Frosty the Snowman” and “We Need a Little Christmas.” It is a very jovial album full of pleasant atmospheric production choices. No Mathis holiday album is complete without good ballads and his “Snowfall/Christmas Time is Here” fulfills this need. On 2013’s Grammy nominated Sending You a Little Christmas (#66), his voice is slightly less limber; he recorded it when he was 78 (!) and he still sings beautifully. He also shares the microphone on several selections including duets with Susan Boyle, Natalie Cole, Gloria Estefan, Vince Gill and Amy Grant, and Billy Joel. Highlights include his version of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” Karen Carpenter’s “Merry Christmas Darling,” and an “I’ll Be Home For Christmas/White Christmas” medley sung with Gill and Grant.  

If you are truly hardcore about it, try 2014’s The Classic Christmas Album a compilation album of unreleased performances, including several cuts from his Columbia holiday albums and a duet with Bette Midler from her 2006 Christmas album Cool Yule. In 2015, Real Gone Music released five seasonal sets from 1958-2010 on the three disc boxed set The Complete Christmas Collection 1958–2010 which features four relevant bonus cuts from his catalog.

Listening to his earnest style over the course of 65 years, Mathis is one of the most talented and least self-conscious singers I have experienced. If he is sometimes overly earnest and reverent to his material, there is no trace of pretentiousness in his work. There is a fascinating integrity of style in his oeuvre, something intangibly artful and distinctive about his singing.

Check out Part 1 and Part 2 on the Riffs, Beats & Codas blog for discussions of his 1956-69 and 1970-85 recordings.


Johnny Mathis (Easy) Listening party! An appreciation in three parts (Part 2)

“Cover” Albums (mostly): 1970-1977

Mathis is the rare singer of his generation who relied almost entirely on cover albums of contemporary popular radio hits for the 1970s and survived. In the ‘70s he was able to author some new songs that made an impact, such as “I’m Coming Home,” and “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” (with Deniece Williams), and transitioned into the '80s as a contemporary singer. Few of his ‘70s cover albums have been in print so the boxed set is a coup for Mathis fans. Sony/Legacy will release several with bonus tracks as CD's and digital downloads. Most of the albums recorded from 1970-77 are uneven, but there are some exceptions. Keep reading…

 **=Highly recommended album!

The 1970's was a prolific decade for Mathis who released 20+ albums during the decade!

The 1970's was a prolific decade for Mathis who released 20+ albums during the decade!

#24: Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head (1970): The artistic potential and the expressive limitations of the covers formula are readily apparent here. On romantic ballads such as “Watch What Happens” and “A Man and a Woman,” Mathis’s interpretations exemplify why such '60s era pop songs are regarded as standards today. Some of the material is either silly, such as Jimmy Webb’s “Honey Come Back,” or inappropriate. The quasi-existential almost solipsistic lyrics of “Midnight Cowboy” (Mathis’s producer added words to the Midnight Cowboy instrumental theme) and Nilsson’s hit from the film, “Everybody’s Talkin’” are not the kind of songs that made Mathis famous.

 #25: Close to You (1970): A very mixed bag of logical covers such as the nostalgic “Yellow Days” and “Pieces of Dreams” and material either too bombastic (“The Long and Winding Road”) or too below standard (Ray Stevens’s icky “Everything is Beautiful”) for a singer with Mathis’s voice.

 #26: Love Story (1970): Every singer alive had their turn at the theme from Love Story in 1970/71 so why not Mathis?  To his credit “Where Do I Begin?” and other late 60's/early 70's ballad fare, especially, “It’s Impossible” and “What are you doing the Rest of Your Life” are well suited to Mathis’s voice and sensibility. A true crooner, he makes these melodies melt. A few songs, like “Rose Garden” and “My Sweet Lord” are too poppy to cohere with the ballads.

 #27: Today’s Great Hits You’ve Got a Friend (1971): Despite the cheesy title (it literally screams for an obnoxious TV announcer proclaiming “Todays Great Hits!”) this set of high quality pop songs from everyone from Carole King to Kris Kristofferson is surprisingly amenable. Easy melodies, slick arrangements, and poised vocals—most of it slips on by, true easy listening. Mathis sings his heart out on Jacque Brel’s “If We Only Have Love” and he sounds absolutely at ease on a bonus cut of The Beatles’ classic “Golden Slumbers.”

 **#28: In Person (1971): Mathis’s approach to Vegas-style entertainment is very different from Elvis, Engelbert Humperdinck, or Wayne Newton—and that is a good thing. Taking sum of his ‘50's classics and his new role as a conduit for ‘70's soft pop, he represents the past and present quite strikingly on this live set. Mathis’s self-effacing style runs counter to the Vegas schlock aesthetic and allows the songs to shine. If the “Close to You/We’ve Only Just Begun” medley plays to the hit status of these songs in the early 70’s (hence the immediate applause), his medley of Errol Garner’s “Misty”/”Dreamy” and several signatures is for the ages. He also showcases a refreshing sense of humor on Ivor Novello’s “And Her Mother Came Too,” some soulful grit on “Come Runnin,’ ” and showcases his robust vocal mettle on Brel’s “If We Only Have Love.” If you want a quick summary of what he is capable of as a vocalist, entertainer, and artist, this is an excellent start.

**#29: The First Time Ever (I Saw Your Face) (1972): One of Mathis’s best early ‘70's albums hues to the covers formula and yet, succeeds. He sounds like himself on contemporary fare like the title track and “Betcha By Golly Wow,” and renders a fine rendition of the standard “Since I Fell for You.” There are several movie themes including the ubiquitous “Brian’s Song,” “Theme from “‘Summer of 42,’” and “Speak Softly Love” from The Godfather. As sappy as these songs are, his renditions are appropriately lush and respectable. There are a few redundant covers (“Without You,” “Last Night I Didn’t Get to Sleep at All”), and some forgettable tunes, but as lush romantic pop this works.

 #30: Song Sung Blue (1972): Some songs reflect the personae of their authors so strongly that covering (or even interpreting) them is borderline absurd. Neil Diamond’s imprint is all over the title song and “Play Me” making Mathis’s versions seem truly rote. A more general note is how morose songs were in the ‘70s.  In the right context songs like “Where is the Love” and “Along Again (Naturally)” are listenable enough, but listening to such songs in a steady state is enervating. Relief is here in the form of a Nat King Cole oldie, “Too Young,” and a deliciously lovelorn version of the doo-wop classic “I’m on the Outside Looking In.”

 #31: Me & Mrs. Jones (1972): The idea of Mathis sneaking around with the infamous secret mistress in the title track is beyond ridiculous. More enjoyable are his takes on softer, and less scandalous, songs from Bread (“Sweet Surrender”) and James Taylor (“Don’t Let Me Be lonely Tonight”) that place him on a continuum between crooning and a more polished version of folk singing.

 #32: Killing Me Softly with her Song (1973): The redundancy theme reaches an apex here. Overly familiar hits like the title song seem to drag onward with little deviation or surprise. Interestingly Mathis, not Al Wilson, debuted “Show and Tell,” though Wilson made it a #1 hit.

 **#33: I’m Coming Home (1973): Thom Bell and Linda Creed were two of the most creative songwriters of the period and their collaboration with Mathis bridges crooning and “soft” Philly Soul very comfortably. The backstory is that they interviewed Mathis to craft songs around his experiences and point of view. Whether this “story song” concept comes through is less important than Mathis’s subdued yet involving approach. There is a yearning quality to “Coming Home,” a measurable calm to the melodious “And I Think That’s What I’ll Do,” and a grandeur to “Life is a Song worth Singing” that offer signs of life that Mathis was not ready to surrender to covers completely.

 #34: Heart of a Woman (1974): On the cover Mathis is wearing all denim with his shirt fully unbuttoned, holding a microphone and standing in various poses ranging from the buoyant to the crouched over. Is this supposed to be sexy? Is this him singing in the studio? Are these physical manifestations of discomfort? Who knows, but the songs here, mostly originals, cast Mathis in a kind of “lover man” role that never quite works. Most of the songs and the production is more pop-soul than anything, but it’s an awkward, unfocused affair.

 **#35: When Will I See You Again (1975): Maybe it was Bell and Creed having Mathis sing in his lower range, or just a desire to mix things up, but When is among the more enjoyable of his cover projects. Once again, fit is everything. Mathis sounds just as comfortable singing “Nice to Be Around,” “You’re Right as Rain,” and “You and Me Against the World” as he does on many of his signatures. Frankly, he makes many of the songs here sound better than they are. That’s a gift.

 #36: Feelings (1975): Mathis continued When’s winning ways bringing out the best in good radio fare like “Midnight Blue”  and “99 Miles from L.A.” and showing how smart arranging can work on a contemporary rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.” From this point forward more pre-rock standards start to show up on his albums, which is usually a good thing.

 #37: I Only Have Eyes for You (1976): The title track is modernized quite skillfully here and is the standout performance. There are two lightweight originals, “Do Me Wrong But do Me” and “Ooh What We Do,” and cover songs ranging from interesting schlock (“Theme from Mahogany”) to pretentious irredeemable schlock (“I Write the Songs”).

 **#38: Mathis Is (1976):  Re-teaming with Thom Bell, this sequel to I’m Coming Home is lush, delicate, and modern. While no one song necessarily stands out, the songs sound like they were written for his voice, and there are some appealing instrumental touches throughout especially the interplay of strings, vibes, and percussion. Easily one of his most appealing and listenable sets.

 #39: Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me (1977): Mathis fuses a little bit of this and little bit of that from various eras and genres resulting in an eclectic and mostly entertaining set. The title is appropriately bubbly and romantic, and he navigates the very tricky modulations of “All the Things You Are” seamlessly.  Both make you long for a full album of standards…but alas. Mathis turns to Broadway on fine versions of “One,” from A Chorus Line and “Tomorrow” from Annie. Chorus has aged well, whereas Annie dated itself instantly, but he was trying to be progressive. On the pop side, Boz Scagg’s “We’re All Alone” and Streisand’s “Evergreen” showcase Mathis the torch singer and the romantic. Less pressing is his stab at “When I Need You” and the dreadful TV them song-ish “Don’t Give Up on Us.” The reissue is rescued toward the end by two excellent finds. One is a dynamic disco tune called “Experiment” (no composer is listed) that gels quite well with Mathis’s natural exuberance.  The other is a splendid version of Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic.” The idea that they put something this good aside so Mathis could cover David Soul and Leo Sayer boggles the mind, but we should be grateful it has now surfaced.

#40: You Light Up My Life (1977): Mathis’s most commercially successful album of the ‘70s replicates the covers formula with everything from Debby Boone to Bee Gees to “If You Believe” from The Wiz.  The main draw here is his hit duet with Deniece Williams on “Too Much Too Little Too Late” a frothy song that topped the pop, R&B and easy listening charts. Their duet version of the Bee Gees’s’ “Emotion” is very fun as is his modernized solo version of Rodgers & Hart’s “Where or When.”


Mathis pursued adult contemporary/soft rock, and adult R&B/soft soul in the 1980's.

Mathis pursued adult contemporary/soft rock, and adult R&B/soft soul in the 1980's.

1978-88: Mathis gets (adult) contemporary

At the tail end of the decade, Mathis began shifting gears from overt covers toward more original material. Mathis’s 1980s recordings are surprisingly varied. Though he consciously pursued the adult contemporary and adult soul markets, many of his better recordings found him experimenting with new material, such as the Brazilian pop on The Island (unreleased), or revisiting songs from previous eras including a Nat “King” Cole tribute, interpretations of classic Hollywood musicals, and a nod to 50s and 60s pop, R&B, and doo-wop.

**#41: That’s What Friends Are For (1978): Mathis and Deniece Williams built from “Too Much Too Little To Late’s” success by recording a whole album of pop-soul duets. They harmonize beautifully together and complement each other emotionally.  They revisit Marvin Gaye and Tami Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By” and reimagine songs associated with Aretha Franklin and Billy Joel. There are some frothy originals that showcase their chemistry plus an interesting reprise of the Williams penned title song which she recorded only 2 years earlier solo. The boxed set also features other Mathis-Williams pairings including the theme from Family Ties “Without Us.” Understandably popular, this is a delightful confection for the ears.

#42: The Best Days of My Life (1979): Other than discofied versions of “As Time Goes by” and “Begin the Beguine” and Mathis and Jane Olivor’s duet on the film theme “The Last Time I Felt Like This” (from Same Time Next Year) there’s not much here. Mostly disco and forgettable ballads.

 #43: Mathis Magic (1979): An uneasy mix of schmaltzy ballads (“She Believes in Me”), forgettable disco (“My Body Keeps Changing My Mind”), and oddball experiments. The disco versions of the standards “Night and Day,” “That Old Black Magic” and “To the Ends of the Earth” work better than they should, but are ultimately timepieces. The highlight is easily his warm, straight-ahead version of “New York State of Mind.”

 #44: Different Kinda Different (1980): A combo of soft balladry, disco, and a few numbers with a Latin tinge.  This set is more ambitious than the typical cover outing Mathis was recording at the time.  There are more original songs on the album, but none of them became staples of his performing repertoire.  Highlights include a fine version of “Deep Purple” set as a waltz, and a gentle version of “With You I’m Born Again.” Not an embarrassment, but not especially memorable.

#45: Friends in Love (1982): This album is notable for spawning Mathis’s last top 40 pop hit single in his duet with Dionne Warwick on the title track. A glossy adult contemporary pop album, it is most notable for a) not being a cover album and b) good renditions of some pop semi-classics including a pop version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Memory,”  a sleek version of Stevie Wonder’s “Lately,” and one of the first versions of “Warm” a ballad many singers, such as Jane Olivor, have covered. The bonus features a weird '50s semi-waltz version of “We Kiss in a Shadow.”

 **#47: A Special Part of Me (1984): This is one of Mathis’s best contemporary pop-soul sets circa the 1980's. Highlights include two of Mathis’s strongest duets, including a hit cover of “Love Won’t Let Me Wait” with Deniece Williams and “You’re a Special Part of Me” with Angela Bofill, and believably perky pop songs, “Simple” and “Love Never Felt So Good.” Few of these songs became Mathis classics a la “Misty,” but he is in great voice throughout and the material fits his ‘80's persona well.

** #49: Johnny Mathis Live (1984): Recorded in London in 1983 this is a tight focused concert. He mixes some contemporary songs of the late 70's/early 80's variety such as Kenny Loggins’s “I Believe in Love” and Albert Hammond’s “99 Miles from L.A.” with Mathis signatures (“A Certain Smile,” “The Twelfth of Never”) and a few surprises like “Orange Colored Sky,” the Nat King Cole hit. Mathis is flawless vocally, and his audience is with him every step of the way, especially on his signatures. A few of the songs, such as “Try to Win a Friend,” are mundane, but Mathis is poised, spirited, and highly listenable. 

 #50: Right From the Heart (1985): The sleek, anonymous sound of the DX-7 keyboard and the hook-driven nature of '80's “adult contemporary” music pervade this 10 song 45 minute pop-soul set. Instead of covers or standards, these are new but generic, anonymous songs vaguely reminiscent of George Benson and Al Jarreau’s early ‘80's radio hits. Mathis sounds good, but the generic production sheen washes over the eccentricities that make him unique.

Part 3 examines Mathis's recordings from 1986-present + Rarities & Christmas albums!


Johnny Mathis (Easy) Listening party! An appreciation in three parts (Part 1)

For the last 30 years or so, we have been celebrating the third act of the luminous Tony Bennett’s career. His re-signing with Columba Records in 1986 brought him back to the mainstream, but his early 1990s tributes to Sinatra and Astaire, as well as a generation transcending performance in MTV Unplugged made him everybody’s favorite hip classic crooner. Few pop singers have their first number one album when they are 85, but Bennett has expanded our understanding of hip.

A singer of similar vintage who has never quire registered as hip is the enduring crooner Johnny Mathis. Mathis signed with Columbia only five years after Bennett in 1956, and like Bennett, he eventually came under the tutelage of producer Mitch Miller. Whereas Bennett rebelled against Miller’s questionable tastes and hungered for jazz credibility, Mathis and his manager trusted Miller’s commercial instincts and he quickly transitioned from a fledgling pop-jazz singer (his debut album is tentative) to a skillful pop crooner whose appeal transcended age and generation. Despite the common rock-ist narrative that Elvis, Chuck, Buddy, and Little Richard knocked all the crooners off the charts, Mathis was popular on the radio and the album charts. He currently stands among the top five most popular albums sellers of all-time. Mathis was one of the first black singers to have a chart-topping album in the mid-1950s, he was the first artists to ever release a Greatest Hits album, and his name is virtually synonymous with Christmas.

Unlike Bennett, he has rarely had jazz pretentions and is quite comfortable being pop and not being hip. For 62 years (!) he has soldiered forth, stolidly applying his delectable tenor to a staggeringly broad range of popular, and occasionally semi-popular, songs. He has sung torch songs, ballads, disco tunes, Brazilian pop, soft soul, folk-rock, gospel hymns, holiday material, showtunes, Jewish sacred music, country, soft rock, movie themes, and pretty much everything else. He has sung solo, in duets, and with choirs. He has sang in English, Hebrew, Portuguese, and Spanish. This versatility is not part of a specific aesthetic strategy other than the old-fashioned notion, among his generation, that a popular singer is an entertainer who builds’ an audience by interpreting the songs of the day in their own vocal style.

I listened to all 68 albums featured in the 2017 Johnny Mathis boxed set  The Voice of Romance:   The Columbia Original Album Collection  (Sony/Legacy).

I listened to all 68 albums featured in the 2017 Johnny Mathis boxed set The Voice of Romance: The Columbia Original Album Collection (Sony/Legacy).

After releasing over 75 albums (excluding compilations!) albums, 65 on Columbia and 10 at Mercury Records during his 1963-66 stint, Sony/Legacy is honoring his legacy with The Voice of Romance: The Columbia Albums Collection. Within the pink box, a thick square book of liner notes, and 68 CD's in sleeves reproducing his album covers. One could easily track key trends in American male fashion and African-American hairstyles over the last 60 years gawking at the album covers (!), but the music is the most important stuff and there is a lot of it. In order to digest these recordings I decided to listen to them out or order.   Mathis’s Columbia recordings can be divided into a few phases including the following:

·         1957-63: Signature sound: These are the albums where he established his core vocal sound and repertoire. In addition, these albums first cemented his defining songs. At this time established composers such as New York cabaret favorite Bart Howard, and up and comers like Burt Bacharach regularly wrote new material for pop singers like Mathis to premiere.

·         1967-77: The “covers” era: Former Columbia Records executive Clive Davis is usually maligned for his baldly commercial strategy of directing Columbia veterans like Mathis and Andy Williams to cover the biggest hits of any given year rather than record new untested material. Though Mathis did not adhere strictly to this, for example Thom Bell and Linda creed wrote new songs for him on 1973’s Coming Home and 1975’s Mathis Is, this is the era of albums mostly titled after number one hits for other singers including like Song Sung Blue, Killing Me Softly with Her Song, You Light Up My Life, etc. Theoretically, these should represent the nadir of his career, but because most are being released on CD for the first time, and because he actually worked with arrangers to tweak them, they may be one of the biggest finds of the set. Toward the mid-to-late 1970s he began sprinkling pre-rock standards in with more contemporary hits, but updating them for the slick pop-soul lushness of the era.

·         1978-86: Mathis gets (adult) contemporary era: After having a #1 pop, R&B and adult contemporary hit with “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” with Deniece Williams, Mathis began recording more new songs and having hits with original material. His work with Williams was among his most popular material of the decade and he began the 1980s strongly, making appearances on the pop, adult contemporary and R&B charts.

·         1986-present: Repertory singer: Having recorded most of the major new pop songs of the '60s and '70s, and scored with contemporary lite FM and quiet storm type material, Mathis recorded mostly songbooks dedicated to composers ranging from Duke Ellington to Alan and Marilyn Bergman to Diane Warren (now that’s a leap!), as well as sets devoted to Broadway, countrypolitan classics, and of course Christmas music.    

·         1980’s Rarities: One of the intriguing aspects for a singer as recorded as Mathis is the relative abundance of unreleased material. Several albums, especially from the '70s and '80s, have the occasional bonus cut. Beyond these are three sets of particular interest to Mathis fans. One is 1982’s I Love My Lady a funk-pop recorded with Bernard Edwards and Nile Rogers of Chic but never released. Second is 1983’s Unforgettable: A Musical Tribute to Nat King Cole, a recording from a live BBC performance featuring a medley by Natalie Cole. Third, is 1989’s unreleased Brazilian pop set The Island, produced by Sergio Mendes. Stray tracks have appeared on previous compilations, but this is the full set featuring versions of songs by Ivan Lins, Dori Caymmi, and Mendes, among others.

·         1958-2013: ‘Tis the Season: Johnny Mathis does Christmas! Since 1958, Mathis has recorded six holiday albums including five at Columbia and one for Mercury Records. He is probably the signer most associated with Christmas, alongside Perry Como and Bing Crosby. He has recorded a holiday album in nearly every decade since the 1950s warranting special critical attention.

Below in Part 1 I trace Mathis’s discography chronologically, from 1956 through his including his 1963-67 Mercury Records tenure. Part 2 explores his career from the 1967 covers era through the 1980's. Part 3 addresses his career from the late 1980's-present when he focused more interpreting music thematically. I also explore the three unreleased albums featured in the box set, and his signature affinity for Christmas albums. The (#) refers to the numbering of CD’s featured in The Voice of Romance boxed set. Albums highlighted are albums I recommend as essential Mathis recordings.

**=Highly recommended album!


Johnny Mathis established his distinctive sound from 1956-59 during his first few years recording for Columbia Records.

Johnny Mathis established his distinctive sound from 1956-59 during his first few years recording for Columbia Records.

1950’s “Signature Sound” Albums

Mathis established himself as one of the premier new voices of the 1950s by carving out unmined territory that sandwiched him between generations. His crooning style, which blended crooning with his classical training and technique, drew on the ballad repertoire of his idols, such as Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald, was framed successfully by arrangers such as Ray Conniff, Percy Faith, and others whose lush, romantic approach resonated with his generation in parallel to rock and roll and other emerging forms.


#1: Johnny Mathis (1956) was an attempt to present Mathis as a jazz-oriented singer, but it is really a pop album, which for the 1950s meant pop standards with minimum vocal improvisation, featuring jazz musicians. Nothing here really distinguished Mathis. By 1957, when he released **#2:Wonderful Wonderful, (1957) arranged by Percy Faith, Mathis as we know him was emerging. Wonderful is a luscious and highly listenable album of ballads with a few uptempo songs for balance. The lush approach is predictably lush and sentimental; an approach that complements his voice and sensibility perfectly. #3:Warm (1957) continues the Mathis sound; it too is lush, orchestral balladry. There is probably a bit more reverb and echo than is necessary but it makes for very moody, enveloping listen. Besides, this was a production style of the ‘50’s. Mathis’s rendition of “Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do” was selected for The Smithsonian’s seminal  1984 five disc American Popular Song collection as an exemplary interpretation of the standard. Aside from Christmas music (see Part 3!) Mathis is not generally associated with sacred music. But he, arranger Percy Faith and Columbia apparently thought his voice was well-suited to classic religious songs from multiple faith traditions on **#4 Good Night, Dear Lord and…they were right. Though people associate Mathis with a high, refined tenor sound he sings in a slightly lower range and he sounds gorgeous and in control. On selections like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” for example, he does not cover other singers’ approaches. He instead sings in a key and tempo well suited to his distinctive voice and interpretive approach. “Where Will I Go,” is among the standouts, and two refreshingly varied versions of “Ave Maria” round out the set. A genuinely unexpected and moving performance.  **#5: Swing Softly (1958) is my favorite Mathis album. Though Mathis prefers to sing melodies as written, and does little improvising, he has a great feel for light swing and mid-tempo material and gives one of his most energetic and endearing performances here. Highlights include wonderful versions of “Like Someone in Love,” “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” and “Love Walked In.” After recording albums with orchestras and big bands Mathis approached things more intimately on **#7: Open Fire Two Guitars (1959) featuring just his voice supported by two guitars and bass. He is at his most sensuous on Cole Porter’s “In the Still of the Night” and at his romantic best on “You’ll Never Know.” A surprising approach in his vast catalog. Mathis’s legendary performance of Errol Garner’s “Misty” is featured on **#8: Heavenly (1959). Surrounding this classic performance are warm, relaxed renditions of gorgeous ballads such as “That’s All” and “More Than You Know.” In the span of three years, Mathis went from a new voice pitched awkwardly between vocal jazz and pop to a distinct new sound of late 1950’s pop.


1960-63 @ Columbia

1959’s Faithfully (#9) and 1960’s Johnny’s Mood (#12) reiterated the style of moody ballads bathed in strings and echo. Slightly more interesting conceptually, was 1960’s #10: Ballads of Broadway, packaged with #11: Rhythms of Broadway, which were sold separately and as a combined “deluxe edition” album.  Broadway had always informed Mathis’s repertoire. He was especially fond of songs from Westside Story, for example. But, these two sets brought together some of pop music’s most distinguished songs drawn from the theatrical stage. Mathis is at his best on ballads, such as “Isn’t it a Pity.” He sounds less sure of himself on some of the more uptempo songs where he vacillates between awkwardness, strangeness, and bombast. Mathis’s pairings with the renowned arranger for Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, and Frank Sinatra, Nelson Riddle, on 1961’s I’ll Buy You a Star (#13) (1961) and Live It Up (#14) are also uneven. His ethereal tenor seems designed for dreamy songs such as “Magic Garden,” but is a mismatch for the lustier “When My Sugar Walks Down the Street.”  A year later, however, he and arranger Don Costa recorded a Mathis masterpiece with sensuous and appropriately titled **Rapture (#15) (1962). The Costa connection persists well on 1963’s Johnny (#16), and **Romantically (#17) (1963).


In the 1960's Mathis recorded a broad range of themes with a variety of arrangers.

In the 1960's Mathis recorded a broad range of themes with a variety of arrangers.

1963-67: Mathis @ Mercury

From 1963-67, Mathis left Columbia for Mercury Records. He recorded 10 albums including sets dedicated to Broadway, Christmas, Latin American music, and established and contemporary standards, such as The Beatles’ “Michelle” and “Yesterday.” He also continued with contemporary fare ranging from new showtunes such as “The Impossible Dream,” (from The Man from La Mancha) to bossa nova songs such as “So Nice,” and recent movie themes, including “More,” and “Somewhere My Love.” Sonny/Legacy compiled all of these recordings on 2014’s The Complete Global Albums Collection.

In 2012, the record label Real Gone Music reissued several Mercury era Mathis albums in their entirety. These sets include 1964’s **The Wonderful World of Make Believe and Tender is the Night, 1965’s Love is Everything (featuring an unreleased album Broadway), 1965’s This is Love and Olé, 1965’s Sweetheart Tree and The Shadow of Your Smile and 1966’s So Nice and Johnny Mathis Sings. Hopefully, these will shed additional light on Mathis’s prolific career and inspire more critical assessments of his work. **Love is Everything is an appealingly lush and romantic set. He lives up to the title of Everything giving his all emotionally and vocally. He belts out the opener “Never Let Me Go” with tenacious vigor; “Young and Foolish” has an intense, meditative quality as does “This is All I Ask.” Pop songs were usually about three minutes in 1965 but at 3:40 (“Young”) and 4:04 (“This”) the arrangements provide room for him to stretch out. Broadway finds Mathis in his element, show tunes, but it has a very eclectic feel atypical of Mathis’s albums. He delivers some of his funkiest phrasing on a horn-laden version of “Ain’t It De Truth” (a Lena Horne number from Jamaica). “Manhattan” has a charmingly naïve romanticism via his vocal coloration choices. He chews through “Don’t Rain on my Parade” enthusiastically and delivers on fresh tunes like Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s “Once in a Lifetime.” It is puzzling why this album was not released.

**Wonderful World focuses on the dreamy ballads like “Beyond the Sea” and “When You Wish upon the Star”; Tender features more familiar ‘50s and ‘60s fare like “Call Me Irresponsible” and “Somewhere.”  As a whole, these recordings refute the sometimes-hysterical assertions that the mid-50s rise of rock ‘n’ roll “killed” romantic American pop. Most the songs featured on these albums are proof that many excellent songs of high melodic, harmonic and lyric qualities emerged throughout the 1960s; and Mathis recorded many of the most credible and enjoyable renditions.

1997’s double-disc compilation Global Masters was the only place to go until Collector’s Choice’s 2009 reissues. In 1969, Columbia allowed Mathis to repackage some of his best Mercury recordings on the compilations **The Impossible Dream and People. Dream is one of the finest crooner “cover” albums of ‘60s pop. Granted, “Strangers in the Night” and “Eleanor Rigby” are not exactly “Roll Over Beethoven”—which is to say not a great stretch for an experienced balladeer. However, this suite coheres amazingly well. Mathis’s performances are rich, impassioned and confident and the material is a strong match. 1960s era movie themes (“I Will Wait for You,” “Strangers,” “Somewhere My Love,” “Moment to Moment”) and showtunes ( “On a Clear Day,” the title track) balance tradition and modernity in their musical and lyrical style in a manner perfectly suitable to a singer who followed the decline of traditional pop and preceded the rise of rock ‘n’ roll. His covers of “Rigby,” “Go Away Little Girl,” and the standard “The Very Thought of You” are also satisfying.

People feels more forced and less coherent. He transforms Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny” into an impressively emotional orchestral epic, gently soars on “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” (sang in Portuguese), and gives a sprightly performance of “A Wonderful Day Like Today.” However, his robust voice and overripe arrangements almost overwhelm seemingly appropriate material like “The Shadow of Your Smile” and “People.” Other performances such as “What the World Needs Now” are routine retreads.


Listeners interested in Mathis's four-year stint at Mercury Records can purchase or download  The Complete Global Albums Collection .

Listeners interested in Mathis's four-year stint at Mercury Records can purchase or download The Complete Global Albums Collection.

Closing out the 1960’s

Albums #18-#22, recorded from 1967-69 find Mathis wavering between the tried and true and newer fare. Whereas some crooners departed major labels altogether but the end of the 1960's Mathis transitioned into a successful career in soft rock. 1967’s **#18 Up, Up and Away is a delightful collection rife with delicate textures, subtle choral backing, and naturalist vocal performances of mellow pop. Among its highlights are a laid-back rendition of the title track, the languorous “Drifting” and the surprisingly agreeable country and folk-flavored songs “Misty Roses” and “Far Above Cayuga’s Waters.” He also turns in fine renditions of the standard “The More I See You” and the Dr. Doolittle theme “When I Look in Your Eyes.” Though hardly a monumental recording, it is a tasteful and accomplished set of modern crooner pop. 1968’s Love is Blue (#19) is a similar suite of light pop. He sings four Bacharach-David songs well, gently croons on Lennon-McCartney’s “Here, There, and Everywhere” and delivers a fine “Moon River.” The rest is lighthearted; the only misstep is an awkward cover of Frankie Avalon’s “Venus” which feels out of place.

Mathis concluded the 1960's with  1968’sThose Were the Days (#20),  1968’s Johnny Mathis Sings the Music of Bert Kaempfert (#21), and 1969’s Love Theme from ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (#22). Days rises and falls based purely on the material. The hokey title song, the umpteenth cover of the silly pseudo-homily “Little Green Apples” and a reprise of Skeeter Davis’s “End of the World” seem like wastes of Mathis’s vocal resources. Jim Morrison, Paul Simon, and Rod McKuen are not compatible composers for Mathis’s sensibilities even if he turns in technically competent renderings of their material. Kaempfert is best known for MOR classics such as “Spanish Eyes,” “”L-O-V-E,” and “Strangers in the Night.” Mathis performs these, and other Kaempfert tunes, competently, but it is a pretty stock easy listening pop and does not make the case for the composer as a first-tier songwriter.  Love Theme is far more satisfying. Some of the more notable torch ballads from the era featured include fine versions of the Bergmans’ “The Windmills of Your Mind,” Charles Aznavour’s “Yesterday When I Was Young,” and Jimmy Webb’s “Didn’t We.” He is also quite appealing on “Live for Life” and his hit rendition of Bacharach and David’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” Whereas his renditions of film and musical theater tunes are generally reliable, the title track is epically schmaltzy and his version of the Fifth Dimension’s medley from Hair, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” feels forced. The remainder is agreeable pop material.

Part 2 examines Mathis's recordings from 1970-85!


Syllabus: Music in the United States: The American Rock Music Canon since 1955

After an eight-year absence, I am back in the classroom as a Contributing Faculty Member in the Department of Music at Dickinson College. This spring I am teaching the course Music in the United States: The American Rock Music Canon since 1955. I decided to organize this course around the notion that since the 60+ years when rock ‘n’ roll emerged as the dominant form of popular music a series of patterns define the most common stories about the genre.


Rock 'n' roll pioneer Chuck Berry is one of the many canonical artists my students read about in the seminar.

Rock 'n' roll pioneer Chuck Berry is one of the many canonical artists my students read about in the seminar.

Typically this means the following:

 1955-59: Known as the Golden Age of rock ‘n’ roll when pioneers like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and the Crickets, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, and Jerry Lee Lewis establish the sonic and cultural blueprint for rock ‘n’ roll.

1959-63: The era signifies the decline of rock ‘r’ roll’s initial vitality with the emergence of ersatz rock ‘n’ rollers (e.g., teen idols, American Bandstand) and more producer driven pop (e.g., girl groups)

1963-65: Some glimmers of hope emerge including Motown, Surf Music, The Beatles and the “British Invasion,” and folk-rock

1965-69: The mid to late 1960s era parallels significant shifts happening within the social sphere signified by soul music, acid/psychedelic rock, and art rock.

1970s: Pop music reaches a new eclecticism.  The prominence of singer-songwriters (e.g., Elton John, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell) and soft rock (e.g., Bread, The Carpenters) signifies a cultural “cooling” and a turn toward introspection; black pop expands into jazz fusion, funk and lush new territory (e.g., Quiet Storm, Philly Soul); mainstream rock (e.g., Led Zeppelin, Foreigner, Fleetwood Mac) grows more elaborate and commercially robust; bubbling from the urban underground come glam, punk, disco, which dominates the last few years of the decade, and the rumblings of a new urban dance culture called hip-hop.

Singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell represented a renewed interest in softer, introspective popular music in the 1970s.

Singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell represented a renewed interest in softer, introspective popular music in the 1970s.

1980s: MTV reinvigorates the promotional potential of pop, providing a platform for new wave, British synth-pop and the model for video pop exemplified by Michael Jackson’s triumph with Thriller. Record labels also take a strategic multimedia approach linking movies and soundtracks (e.g., Flashdance, Footloose). The combination of these and an increasingly deregulated economy foster a pop boom. Mainstream pop stars regularly generate multiplatinum sales a trend encompassing everyone from rockers such as Springsteen to video pop divas like Madonna and Whitney Houston to funksters like Prince. Youth oriented styles stimulate innovations including college rock, post-punk music, hip-hop, and New Jack swing.

MTV provided a major platform for British synthesizer pop bands such as the Human League in the early to mid 1980s.

MTV provided a major platform for British synthesizer pop bands such as the Human League in the early to mid 1980s.

1990s: Digital sales technology reveals country music and adult contemporary music as the most popular music in the country, and related acts like Garth Brooks and Mariah Carey dominate commercially. As these more traditional forms thrive, hip-hop and alternative rock become the lingua franca of a new generation of listeners.

2000-09: Musically, the angst laden nature of the 1990s surrenders to teen pop, boy bands, and a new generation of pop divas aiming for a young audience. New hybrids like rap metal emerge, and old ideas with a new twist, such as American Idol’s popular take on the talent show genre define much of the decade. The biggest industrial shift is the rise of MP3 technology and social media. Both make it easier for emerging artists to gain mass exposure without record companies, decentralize record stores as the primary sources of music for consumers, and shift sales dominance from physical albums to single downloads.

2010-present: The digitization of pop has also created an increasingly fragmented musical landscape devoid of a dominant style. Few acts have cross-generational appeal. Diva pop, afro-futurist R&B, EDM and teen pop compete for attention, though certain voices, including Adele, Beyoncé, Justin Bieber, Kendrick Lamar, Bruno Mars, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, and Kanye West have developed strong personae and established a commercial foothold. The story continues unfolding.

Hip-hop artists Kendrick Lamar is one of the most popular and acclaimed voices in popualr music of the 2010s.

Hip-hop artists Kendrick Lamar is one of the most popular and acclaimed voices in popualr music of the 2010s.


Buried within these generic narrative patterns are a host of overlooked artists, subgenres, movements, and innovations that challenge conventional wisdom. The ultimate aim for the course is for students to learn rock’s canonical narrative so they can challenge and deconstruct it in an informed, scholarly way. The continuity between pre-rock music genres, the influences of music originating outside of the United States, the strategies artists adapt to survive commercially, and other topics are rarely included in popular rock histories. By association, certain genres ranging from bossa nova to cabaret music to holiday music rarely figure into these stories though all three genres persist.

Holiday albums have been perennially popular in the post-1955 rock era, but rarely factor into the mainstream story of contemporary popular music.

Holiday albums have been perennially popular in the post-1955 rock era, but rarely factor into the mainstream story of contemporary popular music.

Mainstream rock history can be very ethnocentric in detailing the music of the 1960s. Where does the Brazilian style bossa nova fit?

Mainstream rock history can be very ethnocentric in detailing the music of the 1960s. Where does the Brazilian style bossa nova fit?

Rock era crooners such as Barbra Streisand, who has roots in "non-rock" fields like cabaret and musical theater, still record and tour successfully. How has mainstream rock hisotry addressed the continuity of these musicla stlyes?

Rock era crooners such as Barbra Streisand, who has roots in "non-rock" fields like cabaret and musical theater, still record and tour successfully. How has mainstream rock hisotry addressed the continuity of these musicla stlyes?


I am excited to share the readings on my syllabus for the spring 2018 semester. I have structured the class in two parts. Part One, functions as a literature review. Students either lead group presentations focused on readings from canonical texts, or they select readings from a “reader’s choice” menu. These readings complement, counter, challenge, and and/or complicate the themes from the canonical readings. In Part Two, students will focus on an overlooked or underdeveloped part of the rock story and develop final projects that illuminate these missing or overlooked pieces so we can expand the story and appreciate how multiple stories constitute post-1955 popular music.  I hope you enjoy the readings; I am excited to refine the course in future semesters and welcome suggestions for future readings!

Books (Required):

Flowers in the Dustbin: The rise of rock and roll, 1947-1977, James Miller

Rockin in Time (8th edition), David Szatmary

Rockin’ Out: Popular Music in the USA (6th edition), Rebee Garofalo and Steve Waksman


Reader’s Choice Reading Menu (Articles, chapters, and /or essays posted on Moodle)

Students have required readings from the books listed above and will also select readings from a reader’s choice “menu” of reading options drawn from the following:

Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture (1999), Bruce Horner and Thomas Swiss, editors

How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music (2009), Elijah Wald

Great Pretenders: My Strange Love Affair with ‘50s Pop Music, Karen Schoemer

The Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader: Histories and Debates (2005), David Brackett, editor

It’s  Too Late to Stop Now: A Rock and Roll Journal (1972), Jon Landau

All Shook Up: How Rock and Roll Changed America (2003), Glenn Altschuler

Sexing the Groove (1997), Sheila Whiteley, editor

The Latin Beat: The Rhythms and Roots of Latin Music from Bossa Nova to Salsa and Beyond (2003), Ed Morales

Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Story of Pop music from Bill Haley to Beyonce (2013), Bob Stanley

Love for Sale: Popular Music in America (2016), David Hajdu

Rock and Roll: An Unruly History (1995), Robert Palmer

Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination (2016), Jack Hamilton

The Essential Ellen Willis (2014), Nona Willis, Aronowitz, editor

The Rock History Reader [1st ed.] (2006), Theo Cateforis, editor

Any Old Way You Choose It: Rock and Other Pop Music, 1967-1973 (1973), Robert Christgau

Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music (2011), Nona Willis, Aronowitz, editor

What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture (1999), Mark Anthony Neal

The Sound of the City: The rise of rock and roll (multiple editions), Charlie Gillett

Right to Rock: the Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race (2004), Maureen Mahon

World Music: The Basics (2004), Richard Nidel

Understanding Popular Music Culture [3rd ed.] (2008), Roy Shuker

American Popular Music (2006), Larry Starr and Christopher Waterman

Check It, While You Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop culture, and the Public Sphere (2004), Gwendolyn D. Pough

Home Girls Make Some Noise: Hip Hop Feminism Anthology (2007), Gwendolyn D. Pough, Elaine Richardson, Aisha Durham, and Rachel Raimist, editors

The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic (2015), Jessica Hopper

Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black & White, Body and Soul in American Music, (2017), Ann Powers

Popular Music in Theory (1996), Keith Negus

Part One: Exposes students to the canonical contours of post-1950s pop music from rock ‘n’ roll to hip-hop, which are typically organized by genre.


Unit 1: Mid 1950s-1964

January 22: Welcomes & Introductions


January 24

What is the “Rock Era?”

ALL: Rodman, 35-45, Key Terms in Popular Music [Moodle]

ALL: Wald, 1-12, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll [Moodle]


In-class workshop: Précis peer review session


January 26

Rock ‘n’ Roll’s “Golden Age”

Group 1: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 4: Crossing Cultures: The Eruption of Rock ‘n’ Roll, 81-123

Group 2: Miller, Chapter 1, 80-94

Group 3: Szatmary, Chapter 1: The Blues, Rock-and-Roll, and Racism, 1-27


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least two):

“Chapter 11: Producers Answer Back,” Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, 44-49 [Moodle]

“Chapter 20: Langston Hughes Responds,” Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, 80-82 [Moodle]

“Chapter 21: From Rhythm and Blues to Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, 82-88 [Moodle]

Landau, “Introduction,” It’s Too Late to Stop Now, 13-18 [Moodle]


In-class workshop: Thesis writing


January 29

Rock ‘n’ Roll’s “Golden Age”

Group 4: Miller, Chapter 2, 97-128

Group 4: Miller, Chapter 3, 129-137


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Altschuler, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man: Rock ‘n’ Roll and Race,” All Shook Up, 35-66 [Moodle]

Sanjek, “Can a Fujiyama Mama Be the Female Elvis?” Sexing the Groove, 137-167 [Moodle]

Morales, “Ch. 9: The Hidden History of Latinos and Latin Influence in Rock and Hip-Hop,” The Latin Beat, 275-301 [Moodle]


In-class workshop: Integrating evidence


Unit 2: Teen pop, girl groups, and Motown

January 31

Group 1: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 5: The Empire Strikes Back: The Reaction to Rock ‘n’ Roll, 124-48

Group 2: Miller, 138-56

Group 3: Szatmary, Chapter 3: The Teen Market: From Bandstand to Girl Groups, 55-69


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Altschuler, “The Day the Music Died: Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Lull and Revival,” All Shook Up, 161-184 [Moodle]

Schoemer, “Introduction,” Great Pretenders, 1-21 [Moodle]

Stanley, Chapter 9: The Trouble with Boys: The Brill Building and Girl Groups, Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!, 65-73 [Moodle]


February 2

Group 4: Szatmary, Chapter 8: Motown: The Sound of Integration, 135-46

Group 4: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 6 (excerpt): The Civil Rights Movement and Popular Music: “Girl Groups, Male Producers, and Brill Building Pop”; “Motown: The Integration of Pop” 150-163


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Landau, “Motown: The First Yen Years,” It’s Too Late to Stop Now, 143-150 [Moodle]

Wald, “Twisting Girls Change the World,” How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll, 213-229 [Moodle]


Unit 3: Mid to late 1960s

February 5

British invasion

Group 1: Miller, Chapter 4, 177-217

Group 2: Szatmary, Chapter 6: The British Invasion of America, 102-20

Group 3: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 6 (excerpt): “The British Invasion Occupies the Pop Charts,” 163-68


February 7


Group 4: Miller, 217-31

Szatmary, Chapter 5: The New Frontier, 80-101

Group 4: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 6 (excerpt): “Breaking the Sounds of Silence: New Voices in the Music,” 169-71


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Palmer, “Chapter 4: A Rolling Stone,” Rock & Roll: An Unruly History, 99-111 [Moodle]


February 9


Group 1: Szatmary, Chapter 10: Fire from the Streets, 170-85

Group 2: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 6 (excerpt): “Black (Music) is Beautiful” 171-75 and “Latino Rock ‘n’ Roll,” 175.


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Palmer, “Chapter 3: R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” Rock & Roll: An Unruly History, 79-97 [Moodle]

Hamilton, Chapter 4: Being Good Isn’t Always Easy, Just Around Midnight, 169-212 [Moodle]

“Chapter 36: Aretha Franklin Meets the Mainstream,” Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, 164-170 [Moodle]


February 12

Acid rock & the Counterculture

Group 3: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 6 (excerpt): “Rock and Revolution: The Counterculture,” 181-96

Group 4:  Szatmary, Chapter 9: Acid Rock, 147-69


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Landau, “The Death of Janis Joplin,” It’s Too Late to Stop Now, 210-213 [Moodle]

Miller, Chapter 5, 260-70

Willis, “Janis Joplin,” The Essential Ellen Willis, 59-63 [Moodle]


February 14

Art Rock

ALL: Please select two of these three selections from Garofalo, Landau, and/or Brackett and be prepared to discuss them in class.


Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 7 (excerpt): “Creativity and Commerce: Rock as Art,” 203-11

Landau, “Rock and Art,” It’s Too Late to Stop Now, 129-134 [Moodle]

Brackett, Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, Chapter 48: The Aesthetics of Rock (all three pieces below must be read and count as one selection):

·         Williams, “Get Off of My Cloud,” 216-218 [Moodle]

·         Goldstein, “Pop Eye: Evaluating Media,” 218-220 [Moodle]

·         Willis, “Musical Events—Records: Rock, Etc.” 221-223 [Moodle]



Unit 4: The 1970s

February 16:

Soft(er) Rock

Group 1: Szatmary, Chapter 13: Escaping into the Seventies, 214-25

Group 1: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 7 (excerpt): “Singer/Songwriters, Soft Rock, and More,” 218-224


Corporate rock/Album-Oriented Rock (AOR)

Christgau essay on Classic Rock: https://www.robertchristgau.com/xg/music/60s-det.php


Heavy metal, blues-rock, psychedelia, etc.

Group 2: Szatmary, Chapter 11: Guitar Heroes and Heavy Metal, 186-205

Group 2: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 7 (excerpt): “Mad with Power: Heavy Metal,” 234-42


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least TWO):

Hiwatt, “Chapter 23: Cock Rock: Men Always Seem to End up On Top,” The Rock History Reader, 125-129 [Moodle]

Christgau, “Trying to Understand the Eagles,” Any Old Way You Choose It, 265-269 [Moodle]

Stanley, “Chapter 20: Pop Gets Sophisticated Soft Rock,” Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!, 178-189,


Stanley, “Chapter 45: American Rock (Ooh Yeah),” Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!,400-408,


Willis, “Randy Newman,” Out of the Vinyl Deeps, 104-106 [Moodle]

Willis, “Women’s Music,” Out of the Vinyl Deeps, 142-145 [Moodle]

Brackett, Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, “Chapter 60: Jazz Fusion,” 290-298 [Moodle]


February 19

Glam Rock

Group 3: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 7 (excerpt): “All that Glitters Does Not Sell Gold,” 242-46

Group 3: Szatmary, Chapter 14: The Era of Excess, 226-45


Soft-Soul/Quiet Storm

Group 4: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 7 (excerpt): “Sweeter Soul Music,” 211-18

Group 4: Neal, Chapter 5: Postindustrial Soul, What the Music Said, 125-29 [Moodle]


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least two):

Christgau, “Bette Midler: The Art of Compassion,” Any Old Way You Choose It, 294-299 [Moodle]

Stanley, “Chapter 28: The Sound of Philadelphia: Soft Soul,” Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! 250-259,


Willis, “Bowie’s Limitations,” Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, 38-41 [Moodle]

Willis, “Believing Bette Midler, Mostly,” Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, 93-95 [Moodle]



February 21

Funk and Disco

Group 1: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 8 (excerpt): “Disco: The Rhythm without the Blues,” 271-84

Group 1: Neal, Chapter 4: Soul for Real, What the Music Said, 112-24 [Moodle]



Group 2: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 8 (excerpt): “Punk: Rock as (White) Noise,” 250-71

Group 2: Szatmary, Chapter 15: Punk Rock and the New Generation, 246-71


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Kopkind, “The Dialectic of Disco,” Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, 298-308, [Moodle]

Hajdu, “Chapter 10: Punk Versus Disco: Who Needs Love?” Love for Sale, 171-184 [Moodle]



February 23

Rock’s Epitaph?

Group 3: Gillett, “End of a Revolution,” (339-42) and “Goodnight America,” (401-411) The Sound of the City, 1970 and 1984 [Moodle]

Group 3: Landau, “The Cooling of America,” It’s Too Late to Stop Now, 213-216 [Moodle]

Group 4: Miller, Chapter 5, 270-277, 285-294

Group 4: Miller-Chapter 6: “Rock and Roll Future 10/75,” “Anarchy in the U. K. 12/2/76,” “My Way 8/16/77,” Epilogue: “No Future”


February 26

Class Visit from the DIVA Jazz Orchestra! (Website: http://divajazz.com/)

Discussion: Women in the performing arts and music


Unit 5: 1980s & 1990s

February 28

MTV era pop

Group 1: Garofalo, Chapter 9: Are We the World? Music Videos, Superstars, and Mega-Events, 285-316

Group 2: Szatmary, Chapter 17: I Want My MTV, 279-94


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Mahon, “Chapter 1: Reclaiming the Right to Rock,” Right to Rock: The Black Rock Coalition and the Politics of Race, 1-32 [Moodle]

Nidel, “Introduction,” World Music: The Basics, 1-3 [Moodle]

Shuker, “U Got the Look: Film television and MTV,” Understanding Popular Music Culture, 147-159 [Moodle]

Stanley, “Just a King in Mirrors: Michael Jackson,”( 409-414) and “Highs in the Mid-Eighties: Prince and Madonna,” (415-422) Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! [Moodle]

Starr and Waterman, “Globalization and the Rise of World Music,” American Popular Music, 307-313 [Moodle]



March 2


Group 3: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 10 (excerpt): “Hip Hop, Don’t Stop,” 333-46

Group 4: Szatmary, Chapter 23: The Hip-Hop Nation, 350-71


MENU (Choose at least one):

Hajdu, “Chapter 12: Hip-Hop: Beats Want to Be Free,” Love for Sale, 197-209 [Moodle]

Pough, “Bringing the Wreck: Theorizing Race, Rap, Gender, and the Public Sphere,” Check it While You Wreck It, 15-40 [Moodle]

Powers, Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, Chapter 93: R&B Divas Go Retro, 494-498 [Moodle]

Starr and Waterman, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” excerpt American Popular Music, 270-289 [Moodle]

Worsley, “Loving Hip-Hop When It Denies Your Humanity,” Home Girls Make Some Noise, 274-299 [Moodle]


March 5

Modern rock/alternative music

Group 1: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 11 (excerpt): “From Indie Scenes to Alternative Nation,” 370-80

Group 2: Szatmary, Chapter 21: The Generation X Blues, 322-41


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Cateforis and Humphreys, “Constructing Communities and Identities: Riot Grrrl in New York City,” Musics of Multicultural America, 317-42 [Moodle]

France, 1996, “Chapter 51: Feminism Amplified,” The Rock History Reader, 295-302 [Moodle]

Hopper, “Nevermind Already: Nirvana’s 20th Anniversary Boxset,” The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, 143-145 [Moodle]

Starr and Waterman, “Alternate Currents,” American Popular Music, 291-300 [Moodle]



Unit 6: 2000-2010s

March 7


Group 1: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 11 (excerpt): “Country into Pop”; “The Latin Boom and Beyond”; “Black Music at the Base,” 381-406

Group 2: Stanley, “Chapter 59: A Vision of Love: R&B,” Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! 536-546 [Moodle]

Group 3: Szatmary, Chapter 22: Post-Grunge Party, 342-49


Reader’s Choice: Please read one of the readings listed above.


March 9

2000s and Beyond

Group 1: Garofalo, Chapter 12: Changing Channels: Music and Media in the New Millennium, 417-64


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Brooks, “Amy Winehouse and the (Black) Art of Appropriation,” September 28, 2008, The Nation: https://www.thenation.com/article/amy-winehouse-and-black-art-appropriation/

Hajdu, “Chapter 13: Digitization: The Immaterial World,” Love for Sale, 212-235 [Moodle]

Hopper, “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t,” The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, 15-20 [Moodle] 

Sanneh, “Chapter 59: The Rock Against Rockism,” The Rock History Reader, 351-354 [Moodle]

Powers, “All the Single Cyborgs,” 312-326, and “Epilogue,” 343-349, Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black & White, Body and Soul in American Music [Moodle]




Raves & Faves: The Best of 2017

In a cluttered media landscape Riffs, Beats, & Codas does the hard work for our readers by selecting some of the outstanding popular culture offerings of 2017. You are welcome ;-) Covering music, literature, television, and film (briefly), I hope some of my selections inspire you to explore. As always, I conclude with a list some of the notable musicians who have died this year.


Philadelphia based musician Son Little continues defying genre and expectation on his second full length album New Magic. Though Little exists nominally on the contemporary soul and electric blues spectrum, he is an incredibly resourceful musician who employs everything from surf guitar to choral chants to tell a fascinating range of stories. Humorous, literate, and sensuous, New Magic is rife with lyrical and sonic intrigue. Check out the video for the song "Blue Magic" below:


Somi, a Nigerian born jazz-oriented vocalist and songwriter based in New York, soars on Petite Afrique an endearingly personal and poignant collection of original songs. At the outset, on "Alien" she writes from the leans of an “African in New York” who feels eternally alienated from her surroundings. Among her most memorable moments are her impressionistic portrait of intracultural policing on “Black Enough,” and a subtle, incisive depiction of gentrification of "The Gentry." Rich in textures and tones, her lovely voice anchors this ambitious meditation. Learn more about the album's creation below:



Jazzmeia Horn received a thorough music education at the Manhattan School of Music and achieved consistent acclaim at various jazz competitions before releasing her stirring debut A Social Call. She draws her technique and repertoire from various strands of jazz, soul, and gospel, and nods to current social issues. The result is a truly relevant, aptly named portrait of a talented and conscientious young artist with chops, brains, and imagination. Meet the artist in this "trailer" for her album:


Memphis is Dee Dee Bridgewater’s loving homage to her hometown, which is better known as a hub for R&B and gospel than her métier jazz. Bridgewater is a highly versatile and expressive singer who is quite comfortable with R&B whether it be from Stax, Hi Records, or the electric blues tradition. Her reedy voice and supple phrasing are a great fit for her Hi Records style version of “I Can’t Get Next to You” and her version of “Thrill is Gone.” The best cut may be her stirring rendition of the gospel song “Take My Hand Precious Lord” where she is ably backed by a superb choir. Learn more about Bridgewater's journey making the album below:


Lizz Wright’s smoldering vocal sound is so lovely and measured; she can sometimes lapse into making mood music rather than compelling recordings. Her newest, Grace, represents an advance in her sound. Though she favors moody, minor key ballads she has selected a strong set. Though her vocal approach rarely varies, k.d. lang’s “Wash Me Clean,” Allen Toussaint’s “Southern Nights,” and Bob Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand” draw out her strongest performances and make one of her more memorable albums in years.



Cecile McLorin Salvant is the freshest and most acclaimed new voice in jazz since Gregory Porter’s debut. She has a lovely with a rainbow of colors, of which she has complete control. She is very comfortable and confident stretching her voice in multiple directions and always stays on pitch. She also possesses a strong rhythmic sense, a respect for melody, and genuine comedic flair. Many of these skills are on full display on her double album Dreams and Daggers. It is unusual in its blend of studio cuts, live recordings from a series of Village Vanguard concerts, and several pieces with strings. A bit jarring, but she sounds very solid throughout. Thematically, it traces the glories and tortures of female romanticism. Alongside dreamy standards like “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was” and “You’re My Thrill” are raunchy classic blues, and tongue-in-cheek songs, mostly composed by Salvant. Though a few of the songs are uneven, overall Salvant is carving out an identity as a jazz singer willing to take risks. She has a winning sense of humor and the chops to write, modernize the blues, and deliver in concert. McLorin Salvant discusses the album below on the TV program The Open Mind:


Paula Cole’s mid-1990s stardom was memorable, especially her intriguing satire “Where Have all the Cowboys Gone,” but her musical roots were actually in jazz. She studied jazz composition at the Berklee College of Music. Professionally, Cole has concentrated on singer-songwriter music for most of her career, which may distort the scope of her talents. However, her occasional interpretations of standards on other artists’ albums and some of the writing on her albums of the 2000s and 2010s indicated the jazz aspect her talents. On Ballads Cole is a very convincing interpreter of an impressive range of material including Bob Dylan, Bobbie Gentry, and songs drawn from the pre-rock songbook. Doing double duty as a vocalist and pianist, she is a steady and assured anchor who gives songs as disparate as “Naima,” “Body and Soul,” and “Ode to Billie Joe” her own flavor.



Books about music

Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan by Elaine M. Hayes

Elaine Hayes’s biography of Sarah Vaughan is a detailed, crisp and clearly organized portrait of the life and artistry of the great Vaughan. Hayes approaches her unique melding of jazz and classical elements into a distinctive style, and places her career in the context of the postwar pop and jazz industry. She also provides valuable social insights into Vaughan’s navigation of the era’s racial and gender politics. Easily one of the finest biographical portraits of a black female musician as a complex artist and a person.

Queen of Bebop cover.jpg

Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz by Fred Hersch

 Acclaimed jazz pianist Fred Hersch is adept on a variety of keyboards, as his accomplished memoir illustrates. Hersch details how his childhood love of music, fed by a strong sense of personal drive and discipline, resulted in a full time career as a jazz musician, composer, and teacher. As his career developed, he gained confidence in his identity as an openly gay man, in a homophobic society, and as a person living with HIV/AIDS. Hersch shares a wealth of insightful stories about life as a contemporary jazz musician, and details multiple health challenges that disturbed his momentum at times, but failed to deter his progress as a creative artist and as a person.

good-things 2.jpg

Beyond MUSIC media favorites


Lonesome Lies Before Us by Don Lee

 Don Lee uses the life of a nearly famous alt country singer songwriter struggling to say afloat financially and medically, to illustrate important questions about art, life, and spirituality. Returning to the fictional Rosarita Bay setting he employs in his books occasionally, he depicts a small community, beset by financial issues, struggling to survive on the literal level and striving to find meaning in lives littered by disappointment. As per usual, Lee’s crisp prose and deft storytelling lure you into a compellingly familiar fictional world.

lee and lonesome.jpg


Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

 Celeste Ng’s second novel is a genuine page-turner about class conflict in Shaker Heights circa the mid-1990s. An artist and her daughter rent an apartment from a well-heeled seemingly progressive white family. The daughter grows increasingly closer to the family’s idyllic life; her mother, who eventually works for the family, becomes increasingly concerned about these bonds. Both are accustomed to a nomadic existence dictated by her mother’s profession. Just as they appear to fall into a stable life routine, a wealth of secrets about the mother spills forth, resulting in fractures, misperceptions, and suburban dramas that seismically displace the semblance of stability.

new little fires.jpg



Beyond Respectability: The intellectual Thought of Race Women by Brittany Cooper

Black feminist scholar Brittany Cooper foregoes the flatly historical encyclopedic accounts of black female writers Anna Julia Cooper, Mary Church Terrell, Fannie Barrier Williams, Pauli Murray, and Toni Cade Bambara by focusing on their intellectual work as philosophies. Cooper masterfully synthesizes their ideas about social progress into functioning social and political ideas that influenced their respective eras. Informing her analysis is explicit attention to the intersectional work they were performing before this concept was more widely known in academic circles, and offering a nuanced critique of how respectability politics has operated historically and contemporarily.  Her writing opens a door for continued exploration of the intellectual output of overlooked figures.  

Beyond Respectability.jpg

 Essay collection

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxanne Gay

Nothing I read this year inspired me to discuss its contents with as many people as Roxane Gay’s Hunger, a memoir of her body detailing her struggles with weight, trauma, and familial and societal pressures. Gay is known for her honesty and bluntness, and her voice is relentless here. In a series of short, mostly captivating vignettes she eloquently reveals the tense hypervisibility and invisibility of being a large, tall black woman navigating a history of sexual trauma in a cruel culture. Gay’s perspective demands your attention and constantly illuminates experiences that implicates us all.

Hunger and Gay.jpg

 Music on TV

She’s Gotta Have It (The Series)


 Spike Lee’s reboot of his 1987 film She’s Gotta Have It into a Netflix series is a superb character study of a black female artist navigating love and sex, friendships, an ever gentrifying Brooklyn, and the eternal struggle of making a living as an artist. Music is a prominent character in each episode. In addition to serving as counterpoint in specific scenes, the source albums get their own screenshot. The series deftly employs a range of artists from Frank Sinatra to Sade to Floetry. The season ending group dance to Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” is one of the inspired moments of the 2017 season. Check out Popsugar's link to songs featured throughout the series: https://www.popsugar.com/entertainment/She-Gotta-Have-Season-1-Soundtrack-44296194

 Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Seasons 2 & 3)

CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, starring actress and co-creator Rachel Bloom, is not only the finest musical sitcom on television, but the only one technically. This uniqueness spares other series from having to compete; its continually inspired depiction of love, obsession, insecurity, and neurosis, under the veneer of musical comedy, is incomparable. As the seasons delve more deeply into main character Rebecca Bunch’s complicated psyche, the series continues to present smart, funny, and formally brilliant songs that amplify key moments. From Season Two’s jazzy opening theme “I’m Just a Girl in Love,” which borders on the cute and creepy , to the gleefully goofy duet “We Tapped That Ass” (complemented by a dance routine), the songs flesh out an inspired and evolving concept. Season Three’s ongoing journey through Rebecca’s complicated past continue to unpeel the layers in convincing dramatic, comedic and musical fashion.  

Czyx 3.jpg

 Music on Film


 In Disney-Pixar’s Coco, a young man struggles to adhere to his loyalty to family and his passion for music. Plotwise, a celebration of Dia de los Muertos opens up a (literal) portal to understanding the authentic roots of his family through convening with the dead but not forgotten. Though it is primarily a narrative animated film, music is central to the story’s narrative arc most notably the gorgeous “Remember Me” sung by multiple characters.  Coco is a funny, touching, smart film, and is notable for engaging genuinely with Mexican culture and featuring a Latinx cast.    

Coco soundtrack.jpg

 Notable 2017 Musician Deaths (A Selective List):

Greg Allman (Southern rock singer-songwriter)

Chester Bennington (lead singer of Linkin Park)

Chuck Berry (rock 'n' roll singer-songwriter)


David Cassidy (teen pop singer and actor)

Chris Cornell (rock singer-songwriter and lead singer of Soundgarden)


Fats Domino (rock 'n' roll/R&B  vocalist, pianist and bandleader)


Al Jarreau (jazz, R&B, and pop vocalist)


Tom Petty (rock singer-songwriter and bandleader)


Prodigy (rapper in Mobb Deep)

Della Reese (vocalist, actress, and pastor)


Grady Tate (jazz drummer and vocalist)


Mel Tillis (country singer-songwriter)

mel tillis.jpg







LOUD WOMEN: Portraits of disruptive women in American pop (Part 2)

Dear Riffs, Beats & Codas readers: I am drafting a new writing project called LOUD Women: Portraits of disruptive women in American pop. For many years, I have been drawn to female vocalists who are perceived as shrill, over-the-top and overly dramatic. I decided to interrogate the meaning of this notion in a series of vignettes. Please enjoy Part 2! I would love your feedback on this work-in-progress. Check out last month's blog for Part 1's discussion of Barbra Streisand, Cleo Laine, and Diane Schuur.


1968's  Eli & the Thirteenth Confession  is one of Nyro's earliest masterpieces.

1968's Eli & the Thirteenth Confession is one of Nyro's earliest masterpieces.

When I started listening to singer-songwriter Laura Nyro in college I began with her cover album of ‘50s doo-wop and ’60 soul music with LaBelle 1971’s Gonna Take a Miracle. I was so enchanted that I bought her first three albums of original material immediately afterward.  Her urgent, wailing sound felt like something I had been craving for years without realizing it. Sadly, around the time I started immersing myself in her serpentine melodies and impressionistic lyrics, she died. At the very least, some trickles of recognition emerged including Time and Love, a tribute to Nyro featuring an array of female admirers, was released with her blessing, and a double disc compilation. Though many people know songs like “Stoney End,” “Time and Love,” and “Stone Soul Picnic,” most people I knew were unfamiliar with her as an artist.

The music industry and critical establishment tend to spotlight a few artists to represent certain genres, and for female singer-songwriters Joni Mitchell emerged as the quintessential singer-songwriter, for achieving both acclaim and commercial success. They applied the same lens to Carole King and Carly Simon, but Nyro is the least commercially successful of all of them even if she is the most original. She was also the most controversial. Nyro has a piercing, full-bodied singing style that many people hear as overwhelming and shrill. Some critics have extended this interpretation of her sound to her music, which has been viewed as pretentious and self-serious.

 Critics are not the primary variable shaping the popularity of singers, but they are tastemakers whose voices partially shaped the late 1960s and informs rock histories and canon making venues like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Nyro finally received a biography in 2002 via Michele Kort’s excellent Soul Picnic, many of her more obscure albums have been remastered and re-released, in 2012 the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted her (finally), and jazz-pianist Billy Childs released 2014’s well-regarded album of Nyro songs Map to the Treasure which won a Vocal Jazz Grammy.

 Despite these accolades, Nyro remains a kind of shadow figure; it is painful that her only “hit” as an artist was a moderately popular cover of Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Up on the Roof.” Granted, it is a lovely version, but it hardly tells her story. The Mitchell of the 1960s sings in a delicate soprano borrowed from singers like Mary Travers and Judy Collins that is instantly recognizable as a young feminine folk voice. Nyro has a heartier and more seasoned voice that sounds more overtly “white ethnic” but it is hard to place. She borrows more devices and phrasings from R&B but there is something dark, gothic, and sensual about her voice that is not purely traditional soul music but is far tougher and streetwise than folk. I frequently joke with my friends that I have never put Nyro songs on a mix with other singers because when I listen to her I only want to listen to her because for me she constitutes her own genre. Barbra Streisand’s most successful entrée into modern pop was her 1971 hit cover of Nyro’s “Stoney End.” Besides being born Jewish women (Nyro was part Jewish) in New York (Nyro is from the Bronx, Streisand is from Brooklyn), they have few similarities, but critically they are innovative voices whose distinctions from their predecessors was a source of acclaim and disdain.

Just as Streisand was not a Doris Day clone, Nyro was not a compliant polite folkie. She was willing to write about, sex, drugs, mortality, and urban life unfiltered. There is something jarring and disruptive about Nyro, especially if one grew up listening to the polite and highly polished pop music of the early to mid-1960s, like Connie Francis, Joanie Somers, and Andy Williams Vocally she is fearless, unfettered and somewhat wild in her approach to melody and dynamics. As such she is incredibly freeing to listen to; she disrupts almost any conventional notion of pop singing and the unorthodox shape of her songs matches. 1967’s More Than a New Discovery stands out, but Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and New York Tendaberry push her into even more dynamic and unpredictable vocal twists. Hers is a wholly original sound that needed to be heard. Beyond the sonic qualities were the stories she told about female emotional intimacy and sensuality, and her broader philosophical observations evident on songs like “Poverty Train” and “Time and Love.”  She made it OK for female songwriters to write in code, just as Dylan did years earlier, and like Dylan, she had an unconventional sense of sound and structure. Whereas Dylan’s innovations grabbed attention relatively early in his career, Nyro remains a thrilling discovery.


Jennifer Holliday singing live in concert.

Jennifer Holliday singing live in concert.

In a 1998 appearance on The Rosie O’Donnell Show Tony Award winning actor Jennifer Holliday relayed how Ethel Merman told her she would have to tone down her voice to make it on Broadway. The irony of Merman telling another singer to sing more subtly is fairly ridiculous, but Holliday did not object overtly, she simply stayed true to the dynamic style she introduced to audiences Your Arm’s too Short to Box with God which propelled her to award-winning stardom as Effie White in Dreamgirls on Broadway. Her signature “And I Am Telling you I’m Not Going” is more than a torch song: it is a gut wrenching inferno. Singing in an almost guttural style, Holliday sang the song four years in a row and solidified herself as one of the greatest finds in musical theater since Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, and Stephanie Mills. In addition to receiving the Tony Award, she won a Grammy for the pop version, which exposed people without access to Broadway to a vocal style unmatched in intensity. Holliday’s bravura performance of the song, as well as “I Am Changing,” drew from the stylistic well of gospel, musical theatre, and torch song, and ultimately made her one of the decade’s most promising new star. Poised for success she never reached the heights of previous Broadway-cum-pop star predecessors.

 In the early 1980s, the music industry was as racially bifurcated as it had ever been with black singers confined to quiet storm ballads and funk and whites to soft rock and rock with few overlaps. The notion of a “black Streisand” was less than tenable, so rather than relying on Broadway material her Geffen debut featured a mix of relative “radio friendly” songs like the ballad “I Am Love” (an R&B hit) and the dance cut “Just Let Me Wait.” Her follow-up repeated this approach of targeting the neo-disco and adult soul markets. Unlike white Broadway predecessors like Streisand, Holliday needed to cross over from the black market to reach the pop audience and none of her songs performed at this level commercially. Holliday switched from Geffen Records to Arista Records in the early 1990s, but this did not change her fortunes significantly and she has remained a mostly independent recording artist. Sunset Boulevard’s aging, delusional fading silent film actress Norma Desmond believed she was not a successful actress because “the pictures got smaller,” rather than her talents. In Holliday’s case, the situation was the inverse: At the peak of her talents the industry got smaller, increasing the gap between black and white music, and reducing the space for singers with large voices to fit into an increasingly electronic musical landscape. The rise of MTV also increased racial segregation and a byproduct was the erasure and silencing of full-sized black female physiques like Holliday’s body. Though black women’s musicality was integral to the soul music that influenced ‘80s MTV pop stars like Annie Lennox and George Michael few black women had a prominent role on the channel.

Holliday’s talents were too big for the industry; she defied the industry’s emerging new standards and outside of Broadway found limited success in film, television or other arenas during the mid-to-late 1980s. Holliday has reflected on her struggles with weight, depression, and romance. I would imagine the failure of the industry to respond to the scope of her talents may have informed these struggles. In the mid-1990s, Holliday began appearing on television, including a recurring role on Ally McBeal, and in the early 2000s, she was back on Broadway and the dance charts. She has also released albums of gospel songs and standards, and benefited from some of the renewed attention to Dreamgirls that accompanied the 2007 film. These moments indicate clear awareness of her gifts within the industry, but she deserves a sustainable vehicle for her art.  In 2002, I saw her perform in concert in Washington D.C. and was awed by her talent, which included fine performances of the songs of Patsy Cline and Ella Fitzgerald, respectively, as well as her signature showtunes. Holliday, who was only born in 1960, still appears to be performing at her peak, and deserves to be seen and heard.


A still photo from Whitney Houston's performance in  The Bodyguard .

A still photo from Whitney Houston's performance in The Bodyguard.

Whitney Houston is one of the most misunderstood pop music icons because our society provided limited space for someone in her position to be understood. As a young black woman who debuted in the mid-1980s, audiences probably expected her to sing funk in the vein of Chaka Khan and Teena Marie, and/or gospel inflected music like Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle. Though hardly rebellious, Houston defied these racial and gender expectations. Houston’s energetic performances of dance tunes and sultry ballad interpretations indicated a vast aural sensibility. You hear elements of gospel in her voice, but there are also elements of Streisand style belting, Ross like drama, with traces of funk and disco, but ultimately no surrender to a singular sound. Houston does not sound stereotypically “white” or “black.” She sounds multiculturally black, meaning she is grounded in some familiar black idioms and able to illustrate how rich the palette of black music is in actuality.

Tellingly, before her album debuted she sang a version of Home on The Merv Griffin Show. Stephanie Mills originated “Home” in the original production of The Wiz and part of its innovation was its fusion of gospel elements with the control and showmanship of Broadway. The Broadway soul element is a deeply important texture of Houston’s music that a lot of music critics, steeped rock and soul music, miss and fail to appreciate in Houston’s music. Though reviewers always recognized the beauty of her voice, they have always fought the idea that black singers have something more to offer than the most obvious variations on the sound popularized by Franklin. This limits the room for other kinds of black vocal expression, thus by her second album (1987’s Whitney) Houston was maligned critically for making crossover pop (for white people) rather than some notion of  “authentic” black music. The only way such a notion is tenable is if you hold the essentialist view that black expression is finite and exhausted of possibility.

The notion that she was failing her people aesthetically, and by virtue politically, undoubtedly led her to record the rather muddled and unsatisfying album I’m Your Baby Tonight. In an effort to connect more deeply with urban black pop she collaborated with the urban L.A. funk brain trust of Babyface and L.A. Reid on multiple songs. The New Jack Swing title track was a big pop and R&B hit, but none of the other dance cuts made an impact. The album’s most successful cut was its most Houston-traditional: Her rendition of Dean Pitchford and Michael Gore’s anthemic “All the Man that I Need” produced by Narada Michael Walden, a black producer who shepherded most of her biggest hits previously.  Even working with Luther Vandross and Stevie Wonder failed to produce magic. The set is a downturn in her career, but she reversed her fortune with the most natural fit: the soundtrack to the soapy melodrama The Bodyguard.  After years of occasional acting cameos and a career of Broadway soul style singing the film’s music provided an appropriate context for her singing, which reached astronomical vocal heights on her propulsive version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” and suitably dramatic original songs “Run to You” and “I Have Nothing.” The album’s triumph featured some of her best singing, and set the stage for her similarly accomplished performances on the Waiting to Exhale and Preacher’s Wife soundtracks. Paralleling these triumphs were well-covered personal struggles in her marriage to Bobby Brown and drug addiction that derailed her career transforming her from a formidable voice to a caricature.

1998’s My Love is Your Love, her last great recording, was an agreeable fusion of  her “classic” Broadway soul approach with more contemporary rhythms provided by hip-hop and R&B producers. Her voice was slightly more seasoned and her range was smaller but she still had an appealing sound. The album was her last consistent success, spawning several hits and winning her awards and such, but it was a swan song in many regards. She finally achieved R&B credibility, for what it was worth, but she had already shown herself to be both within and beyond R&B confines.

Critics ultimately have limited access to a singer’s psyche and personal demons. Arguably, the pressure to balance commercial crossover ambitions and to appeal to black audiences was an artificial pressure she inherited and navigated gracefully for many years before it seems to have consumed her. We still struggle to envision female artists beyond the cartoonish “girl next door” and” bad girl” tropes which can leave female artists stranded between being themselves and trying to acquiesce to expectations. Music critics are not responsible for Houston’s death but the faux binaries they employed did not honor her artistic life.


MC rs sgng.jpg

Mariah Carey has always stood apart musically and professionally from most female pop singer-songwriters of her generation, yet critics constantly try to frame her in generic diva terms which diminishes her accomplishments. In 1990, when Carey debuted, videogenic singers with modest voices, like Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson, and Madonna, defined mainstream pop.  The primary exception was Whitney Houston whose powerful belting fused dulcet tones with gospel fervor on songs ranging from the fluff of “How Will I Know” to the rafter rattling angst of “Didn’t We Almost Have it All.” In between these extremes were solid singers like Taylor Dayne, Gloria Estefan, Karyn White, and Vanessa Williams, who also had slices of the commercial pop diva pie.

Though some parallels existed between Carey and these singers, including the emphasis on either dance-pop or romantic ballads in her repertory, she stood apart. Her voice had a top range that exceeded even the pop coloratura flights of Minnie Riperton and Deniece Williams. Her technique, particularly her command of melisma conveyed an authority to her songs that bellied her age. The fact that Carey co-wrote and arranged her songs, was atypical, as was her production credit on the album’s most unique cut, “Vanishing” featuring just voice and piano. “Prisoner” which featured Carey rapping verses to a faithless lover, years before hip-hop soul queens like Mary J. Blige and Lauryn Hill premiered was also a key track buried within the album. In short, she seemed like another diva but a closer look revealed a wider range of colors to her musicality. After her debut grabbed critics’ attention, sold well and won her awards a backlash ensued with her follow-up Emotions. Featuring dance pop co-produced with Cole & Clivilés (the architects of C+C Music Factory) and ballads with a 1960s soul flair, she became a critical target. Suddenly, she was accused of being bombastic, writing “schoolgirl” diary lyrics, and being the result of marketing hype. Her 1992 appearance on MTV Unplugged surprised many people who witnessed her live vocal mettle and had to concede that she was an excellent singer and commanding performer, not a studio concoction. The performance was released as an EP on the strength of her excellent interpretation of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” featuring call and response vocals from Trey Lorenz. This incredibly tender song could sink into saccharine mush in the wrong hands, or collapse under the weight of over singing, but she and Lorenz honor the original while singing with their own flair. I can think of no comparable singer who could have done this better. 1993’s Music Box found her garnering praise for employing her sensuous lower range more prominently, but some critics balked at generic lyrics, while others felt she downplayed her usual dynamism too much allowing the melodies to carry the day too prominently.

Three years and four albums in her critical profile remained confusing. She was either too over the top or not dynamic enough, and though she persisted in writing, producing and arranging her material and demonstrated genuine interpretive skill, she remained framed as a product of marketing. Her 1993 marriage to Sony’s CEO probably did not help with these perceptions. Critics also faulted her for being inaccessible and seemed poised to unmask her when her first tour began with an underwhelming performance in Miami. Carey was apparently a quick study, for her remaining dates impressed critics with her vocal poise and personable stage presence.

1994’s Merry Christmas elicited predictably mixed responses but the rousing closer “Jesus Oh What Wonderful Child” was a gospel masterpiece and “All I Want for Christmas is You” became an instant holiday standard. Carey’s turning point was 1995’s Daydream where she fused a range of musical interests in romantic pop ballads, ‘70s soul, 90s hip-hop, disco, and funk into a mini-masterpiece. She modernized her sound and image and won over new listeners, including critics, with an irresistible fusion of pop and urban music, a path she has pursued successfully since, most notable on 1997’s Butterfly, 2005’s The Emancipation of Mimi and 2008’s E=MC2. Because the press has turned its attention to her physical appearance, relationships, and alleged diva behavior younger audiences mistakenly view her as a quirky celebrity diva. Her best music is some of the most accomplished and influential pop music of the last 30 years. Carey’s career is uneven in spots, but she is a distinctive vocal artist not merely a generic diva.



LOUD WOMEN: Portraits of disruptive women in American pop (Part 1)

Dear Riffs, Beats & Codas readers: I am drafting a new writing project called LOUD Women: Portraits of disruptive women in American pop. For many years, I have been drawn to female vocalists who are perceived as shrill, over-the-top and overly dramatic. I decided to interrogate the meaning of this notion in a series of vignettes. Please enjoy Part 1. Part 2 is coming in November! I would love your feedback on this work-in-progress.

Diane Schuur's Big Beautiful Mouth

Diane Schuur has a big, beautiful mouth, capable of buoyant swing, raunchy blues, stirring gospel, and silken ballads and this scares many people, especially music critics. When she emerged in the 1980s as the latest vocal jazz star few critics knew how to assess her properly because she had no direct precedent. The jazz goddesses who preceded her always had a blind spot that stood out precisely because they were so proficient in other arenas. Ella and Sarah’s indisputably beautiful sonic qualities and almost super human improvisational genius offset their ability inability to sing the blues convincingly. Dinah Washington’s confident mastery of the blues and exemplary musicianship were so potent it made it easy for her to passively blend in or blithely sing over bland arrangements, especially in her final years. Carmen McRae’s sharpness distinguished her but it eventually lapsed into a wryness that sometimes undercut the vulnerability of her material. Billie Holiday’s dark history and the physical effects of drug abuse sometimes made it difficult for audiences to hear her skillful musicianship rather than the poignancy of vulnerability. Betty Carter’s radical deconstructions were impressive feats of improvisation that sometimes stretched songs beyond recognition. A swinging interpreter like Maxine Sullivan was sometimes so low key in her laidback approach she could seem emotionally detached.

DSchuur image.jpg

I mention these figures because Schuur has a lesser critical profile, but is worthy of being mentioned with these legends. Schuur has a beautiful voice full of color, range, and flexibility. As a pianist and vocalist, she clearly understands the musical demands of her material. She is also a highly versatile singer comfortable singing romantic ballads, swing tunes, torch songs, Brazilian pop and blues oriented material. None of these qualities is especially controversial but what sets her apart is that she isnot “cool.” Schuur has an exuberant, infectious energy that crackles in concert especially in her absorption of gospel music. Schuur can tap into an almost otherworldly passion in her music that evokes greats like Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. She, more than any jazz vocalist of her generation, exemplifies the notion of jazz as a form of soul music. Some of her most outstanding performances, including her interpretations of staples from the black pop music canon like “Amazing Grace,” “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” and a live version of Franklin’s “Climbing Higher Mountains,” exhibit a simultaneous command of gospel, blues, and R&B virtually unmatched by any singer of her generation.

Audiences have always reacted enthusiastically to her style but critics have dismissed her powerful style as shrill, over the top, and unsubtle.  Some even reframed her as a (mere) “pop” singer with jazz overtones rather than a true jazz singer. These kinds of responses reveal a deeply ingrained bias that women in jazz need to stay quiet and emotionally contained (e.g. the “cool” style of singers like Peggy Lee) or display a kind of athletic virtuosity (e.g. Carter). Both adhere to troubling patriarchal notions. Male critics often praise “cool” singers like June Christy, Chris Connor, Peggy Lee, Julie London, and Jo Stafford for being understated a rather coded term that often seems like shorthand for their ability to reign in an implied female emotionalism that makes critics uncomfortable. The inverse approach praises women for adhering to a highly prized form of overt improvisation critics tend to prize among male instrumentalists. In both instances, critics affirm vocalists who conform to narrow modes of expression.

I appreciate Schuur because she is disruptive. My Schuur conversion moment came in 1999 when she sang a stirring version of Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” during a live tribute to Wonder at the Kennedy Center. She rearranges the song entirely beginning in an acapella arrangement (backed by Take 6) and building toward a spine tingling climax laced with jazz and gospel inflections. A truly gifted and resourceful interpreter, she takes an ordinary pop song and uses a highly personal set of musical tools to get to the heart of the lyric and illuminate its musical contours. Her musical choices elevate the song into something more beautiful and resonant than ever and does so by balancing emotional intelligence with improvisation, while remaining true to herself and the song.

Cleo Laine: Out of this World

Cleo Laine, a jazz-oriented singer of English and Jamaican heritage, captures you instantly with her colorful and flexible vocal instrument, and penchant for drama. She is not just a gifted singer, but a really compelling presence. Never just a vocalist, she gained fame in England singing big band jazz, setting Shakespeare sonnets to music, and performing in musical theatre. While it is true that she first crossed over in the United States through a highly successful series of concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1973 (released on 1974, 1976, 1985 and 20001 sets), her studio recordings from 1985-1995 interest me most. They solidify her as one of the more gifted and eclectic singers to emerge in the jazz field, yet she is strangely underrated. As a vocalist, actress, and performer she has never approached her music from a commercial pop or strictly jazz virtuosic improvisational perspective, nor confined her style to a musical theater based approach. Failing to fall easily into these categories speaks more to what makes her interesting than her limitations but critics have tended to praise her sound but dismiss her as too bombastic, stylized, and over the top. When Laine gets excited, she punctuates her renditions with coloratura style trills that amplify the emotion. She and her husband and bandleader saxophonist John Dankworth also performed note-perfect unison scats. Some people heard this as a gimmick; my rejoinder is that she uses this sparingly, and more importantly, I question why she must repress this aspect of her range? Why is trilling less expressive or sincere than other modes? Like Diane Schuur she does many things well and has few precedents, which makes her difficult to classify and easy to condemn. Similarly, her exuberance defies the edict that jazz women would either stay cool or perform radical deconstructions.


Each Laine album from the 1984-95 period offers an interesting facet of her vocal persona. That Old Feeling is a sublime ballads album featuring voice and piano with occasional bass. She scales down her luminous voice to the setting and delivers consistently lovely intimate performances of popular standards. It is comparable to similar sets by Ella Fitzgerald (with Ellis Larkins and Paul Smith) and Tony Bennett (with Bill Evans). 1988 Cleo Sings Sondheim is one of the best showcases of his work in a more jazz-oriented context. Beyond perennials like “Send in the Clowns,” she does justice to “Ah But Underneath,” done in a brassy big band arrangement, perfectly capture the tension of “I’m Calm,” and masters “I’m Still Here.” She follows this fusion of Broadway and jazz on 1989’s Woman to Woman comprised exclusively of songs written by women. This was one of the first collections with this theme and she excels on a broad range of material composed by writers as disparate as Carol Bayer Sager, Billie Holiday and Flora Purim. While there is a jazz element, especially her sizzling take on “Fine and Mellow,” the set showcases a range of smart, melodic popular songs with an adult sensibility. In essence “good music” is not confined to jazz.

1991’s Jazz, featuring luminaires like Clark Terry, Gerry Mulligan, and Toots Thielemans, has my favorite version of Ellington’s “Just a Sittin and a Rockin’” in an exquisite duet with trumpeter Clark Terry, as well as fresh renditions of contemporary standards like “I Told you So” and a funky versionof “Lady Be Good” that somehow works. Some people think her brassy “It Don’t Mean a Thing” is too much; I hear a fine showcase for all the musicians involved. Blue and Sentimental from 1994 features yet another new standard in Francesca Blumenthal’s “The Lies of Handsome Men,” gets down and dirty on “Love Me” and “Soft Pedal Blues,” and generates serious heat on two superb duets with Joe Williams, including a sultry blues “A Cryin’ Shame” and a definitive rendition of Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do.” Though she has sung Ellington on multiple occasions 1995’s Solitude, performed with the Duke Ellington Orchestra is one of her finest swing showcases. She and the Orchestra harmonize flawlessly on Shakespeare’s “Take All My Loves,” gallop through “Rocking in Rhythm” confidently, and simmer on the Adelaide Hall classic “Creole Love Call” both featuring smart lyrics by Lorraine Feather. I also enjoy her highly personal take on Ellington and Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train” retitled “Cleo’s A Train” which interpolates melodies from multiple Ellington standards into the song’s melodic framework. Laine the balladeer, musical theatre actress, pop song interpreter, blues interpreter, and swinger, emerges in a variety of settings.  These recordings represent some of the finest vocal artistry of their period and defy any singular characterization of Laine. Her artistry is comparable to legendary jazz divas for the rawness of her talent and her singularity.

Barbra Streisand: Reclaiming her legend

Barbra Streisand is the most successful and accomplished vocalist to emerge from the early 1960s and remain relevant. She is also divisive because she is loud, disruptive, and unceasing in her ambition. Though it has been over 20 years since she had a radio hit, her albums regularly top the charts. On average, the self-proclaimed “actress who sings” from Brooklyn, who is in her early 70s as I write this, sells more albums than younger, trendier, and more aggressively marketed acts.

BSAlbum cover.jpg

 Streisand’s legendary endurance is indisputable, but her critical reputation has always been fraught. Writers have frequently devoted more time evaluating her appearance, her psyche, and rumors about her behavior, than her artistry, which as a singer, actress, director, and producer, is formidable across multiple mediums. Musically, Streisand is important for disrupting the polite, demure, and emotionally repressed female pop that immediately preceded her and simultaneously forcing cabaret music to grow up.  Most of the hits that singers like Patti Page, Doris Day, and Jo Stafford popularized in the 1950s were either agreeable romantic ballads or cheesy novelty songs that belied their age and intelligence. Coming out of the big band era, they did not begin their recording careers thinking in terms of albums, but rather in “sides” (singles) thus they are more famous for individual songs than albums.

Streisand, comparatively, debuted in 1963 and her album gained significant critical and commercial attention. Rather than wowing you with double tracked vocals, winning you over with perky optimism, or fading into the background Streisand stood out. The wounded lover performance she delivers in “Cry Me a River” (where she belts “Come on! Come on”!) obliterates Julie London’s placid original performance. Similarly, the way she transforms “Happy Days are Here Again” from a cheery anthem into a dramatic ironic ballad of yearning is genius. In these two songs, she turned mainstream female pop singing on its ear demonstrating that female pop singers could make music that was powerful, subtle, and ironic and still sell. Her debut was a hit and won her the Album of the Year Grammy, one of eight she eventually received.

Streisand’s recording career paralleled her successful run on Broadway, which led to innovative TV specials, and a successful film career. In the musical theatre Streisand’s approach in I Can Get it for You Wholesale and Funny Girl were triumphant performances that provided an alternative toning down the sometimes literal histrionics of Ethel Merman. Though Judy Garland certainly influenced Streisand, she also managed to add some bite to Garland’s stylized vulnerability. Streisand was tough and modern; she secured creative control of her music and her actions suggest that she realized that women could not adhere to the old entertainment scripts of the 1940s and 1950s. Looking back it is not surprising that she emerged in the era of Sex and the Single Girl and The Feminine Mystique because her professional instincts and expressive choices are of a piece with these paradigm shifters.  Streisand’s highly modern feminine expression sustained her through the late 1960s. Though she defied her generation by not singing rock material initially, her ability to push certain elements of pre-rock culture in new directions was innovative making her as radical and enduring as any of the women who gained fame singing soul and acid rock. Though some of her attempts to modernize her sound in the 1970s were clumsy, Streisand singing Laura Nyro, Stevie Wonder, Carole King, and Burt Bacharach-Hal David songs was more convincing than most of the attempts by pop, cabaret, and jazz singers trying to stay current. Further, Streisand originated several enduring standards from the 1970s including “The Way We Were” and “Evergreen,” something few interpretive singers accomplished at the time.

If the 1960s and 1970s were her most innovative and influential eras, she still managed to make impressive forays into post-disco pop (1980’s Guilty), modernize classic and contemporary Broadway songs, and bring a little class to the soft rock/adult contemporary field from the 1980s onward. She accomplished these while venturing into directing and producing films (Yentl, Prince of Tides, The Mirror Has Two Faces), staging acclaimed concerts, and producing successful TV concert specials.  Streisand’s individual ambitions have given her an enduring career, and inspired other artists including those of her generation, such as Diana Ross, and younger singers like Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Toni Braxton.  There are generations of aspiring actors, singers, and perhaps director/producers, who view Streisand as a model, and she seems poised to remain the kind of performer younger audiences will continue to discover and share.