Each month I post an excerpt from my essay collection Learning to Listen: Reflections on 58 great singers to give readers a taste of the bigger project. Allow me to explain the roots of the collection. There are certain musical figures like Bessie Smith, Frank Sinatra, and Patsy Cline who are so obviously great as artists and influences that it’s almost redundant to declare their greatness. They have also received multiple biographical treatments and appraisals. Adding to the established conversations on these greats is a sizable task; one that can easily distract us from recognizing less heralded singers. America remains a young nation and culturally we are in love with the past, almost to a fault. We sometimes forget the complicated paths our most cherished idols have trod.
Though the “classic blues” style of Smith (and foremothers like Ma Rainey) is an important contribution to early 20th century music the blues was regional black “gutter” music for decades before it became “respectable.” When Sinatra transitioned from a big band singer with Tommy Dorsey to soloist at Columbia Records he was a model solo singer, but thanks to poor musical direction he was considered nearly washed up in the early ‘50s before he switched to Capitol Records and worked with new arrangers. Cline actually wanted to be a honky-tonker but she was a failure—too polished. Her producer Owen Bradley built the lush countrypolitan style around her voice and she found her place.
When we hear a classic song from the '50’s and '60s it’s pretty easy to find ourselves singing along, and even romanticizing its roots. There’s something very glamorous about the distant past, even when we were alive! But we have a harder time reconciling our sense of quality with contemporary singers. I was reminded of this recently when Anita Baker’s song “Rapture” came over the speakers at a local restaurant. The song is a suitably dreamy ballad with a fluid melody and a sumptuous arrangement with little passages where Baker does some light scatting. Baker’s vocal sound and phrasing are directly influenced by Sarah Vaughan’s rich patina, and on some of her other hits the influence of gospel is also clear. In her singing many strands of American music come together. Her music, especially 1986’s classic album Rapture, stood apart from other mid-1980s music. It was warmer, jazzier, more emotional, and managed to project tastefulness without sounding sterile. Though Regina Belle, Mikki Howard, and Sade occupied similar space stylistically, Baker’s approach has aged the best and represents the acme of the jazz inflected R&B sound. Since Rapture she has released five albums, so she’s not exactly prolific in the vein of peers like the late Luther Vandross, but what we have is certainly worth savoring. She has sold enough records and received enough industry attention (she has received eight Grammy Awards) that I don’t need to plead her case too strongly, she is clearly “great.”
As a child of “the ‘80s” I find it amusing, and sometimes frightening, when songs I heard growing up are accorded “classic” status. Popular programs and films (i.e. Glee, Bridesmaids) have, for example, made the case for Journey and Wilson Philips as “classic” groups among younger listeners. This amuses me because, subjectively speaking, most of their output is obviously cheesy, but more importantly it’s hard to look at the music you grew up with critical distance. I think we need to listen harder to distinguish nostalgia from the elusive notion of quality. The songs I heard growing up may strike a chord and take me back toa specific place when I hear them on the radio initially, but closer listening, like closer reading, always reveals more.
As a writer I struggle constantly to reconcile my general disdain for canons with my love of lists. Learning began as a casual writing project and as it grew into focus I realized the collection was my attempt to recognize notable singers: “neo-classics” I would nominate for the vocal pantheon. These are all vocalists who have recorded from the rock era through the present who have contributed to popular singing in a discernible fashion. My only caveat in selecting singers is that I rarely discuss singers whose careers are less than 15 years old since it takes time to really develop an identity and build an audience.
Since one volume can only contain so much have I have tried to practice some self-discipline and restrict the list to acts I believe are most overlooked or address aspects of performers’ careers commonly overlooked. For example, most people know the biggest hits from Gladys Knight & the Pips but may be far less aware of her multi-faceted solo recordings which transcend the generic R&B/soul tag typically applied to her style. Still, no matter what I choose to address in the collection, there are always more voices worth hearing than can ever be contained. In the book’s introduction I cite Wanda Jackson and Ella Mae Morse as classic performers warranting more critical attention and the promise of more recent singers such as Jennifer Hudson, Eileen Jewell, Sam Smith, and jazz singers like Dena DeRose, Jackie Ryan, and Cecile McLorin Salvant. Below are ruminations on some “neo-classic” singers who made an impact in the 1970-1990s, and select moments that triggered my interest, and may trigger yours. Perhaps they will figure in the next volume?
Paul Buchanan (lead singer of the Blue Nile)
The Blue Nile is a Scottish group originating for the mid-1980s that has only released four albums in 30 years. Their 1989 song “Downtown Lights” was covered faithfully by Annie Lennox on her 1995 cover album Medusa and the ballad “Let’s Go Out Tonight” has been sung by multiple interpreters including jazz singers Cheryl Bentyne and Curtis Stigers. They specialize in seven-nine song suites of “dream pop” ballads bathed in shimmering keyboards, a sound perfected on 1989’s Hats. Buchanan has a vulnerable crooning sound well suited to the group’s long-ish (5-7 minutes) meditative ballads. He is a masterful singer who hovers in a middle range teetering somewhere between hope and despair. After listening to the Blue Nile you inevitably want to hear more. Alas, they broke up and Buchanan and recorded the 2012 solo album Mid Air (Newsroom Records).
The rocking blues style Etta James, Koko Taylor, and Tina Turner pioneered in the ‘60s has certainly shaped the music of Shemekia Copland. Daughter of the late blues man Johnny Copeland, she has released seven albums since her 1998 debut and is arguably the finest blues singer of her generation. I saw her perform live in the early 2000s in Virginia and though she is modest in height I was rocked by her thundering vocal power and conviction especially on her original tune “Ghetto Child.” She has only grown with each record. Copeland is a blues rocker stylistically, but she is also a great seeker of songs with a wide range. She has found rich material for interpretation from the blues repertoire, including songs by her father, Albert King, Percy Mayfield, etc, post-60s singer songwriters (i.e. Dylan, Mitchell) and more recent socially conscious material. She also has a great ear for story songs about quirky characters and the happenings occurring in local highly specific scenes. You may think you know what “the blues” sounds like but she is one of its best modernizers.
If I were to compile a playlist of some of my favorite performances they would include the following: the title track of her debut (1998’s Turn the Heat Up); her character sketch on “Miss Hy Ciditty” and her hilarious lowdown duet with Ruth Brown on “If He Moves His Lips” (2000’s Wicked); “Sholanda’s” about women gathering at the local hairdresser (2002’s Talking to Strangers); the appropriately inquisitive ass-kicking “Who Stole My Radio?” (2005’s The Soul Truth); the entirety of 2009’s Never Going Back highlighted by her wistful version of Joni Mitchell’s “Black Crow,” amoving rendition of Percy Mayfield’s “River’s Invitation,” “Never Going Back to Memphis” and the moral themes of “Sounds like the Devil,” “Broken World,” and “Sounds Like the Devil”; her take on Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” her triumphant version of the blues standard “I Sing the Blues” and the social consciousness exhibited on the anti-abuse anthem “Ain’t Gonna Be Your Tattoo” and the class warfare on “Lemon Pie” (2013’s 33 1/3); the revenge story on “Crossbone Beach” and the plea “Lord, Help the Poor and Needy.”
Terence Trent D’Arby
Before the neo-soul singers like D’Angelo and Maxwell reached back into R&B’s past in the mid-1990s D’Arby had already looked back and recorded several masterpieces. Possessing a voice with the uncanny synthesis of James Brown’s funkiness, Sam Cooke’s grit, Smoky Robinson’s delicacy, and Otis Redding’s fervor, D’Arby was a fresh voice when he debuted on 1987’s Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby. Arriving when he did, at a time when dance pop and New Jack defined black pop, his sound was refreshingly organic and adult. D’Arby wrote, produced, and arranged his material and really stood apart. He was funky (“If You Let Me Stay”), sensual (“Sign Your Name”), buoyant (“Wishing Well”), and respectful of his elders (his fine version of Smokey Robinson’s “Who’s Lovin’ You”). He was also attractive and a decent performer. He won an R&B Grammy, had four radio hits, including “Wishing” which hit #1, and was the most promising new male voice in soul since Luther Vandross.
His only flaw? D’Arby was pompous, arrogant, and off-putting in his public statements insulting Dylan and The Beatles, and coming across as blowhard. This didn’t hurt his debut album sales wise, but probably didn’t help his second 1989’s Terence Trent D’Arby’s Neither Fish Nor Flesh which was so ambitious it was bound to be a harder sale. As the title indicates this is an amped up version of his soul inclinations featuring some lovely ballads (“To Know Someone Deeply is To Know Someone Softly”) alongside some great soul workouts, especially the James Brown-esque “Roly Poly” and the gospel inspired “I Don’t Want to Bring Your Gods Down.” Though it is a satisfying, often engrossing album, with the makings of a masterpiece, many thought it was pretentious. None of its songs made an impact at radio stations and the album peaked at 61. Four years later he re-emerged with the masterpiece Terence Trent D’Arby’s Symphony or Damn which continued to display his dazzling command of genres and textures. His debut with Des’ree (“Delicate”) is sublimely hypnotic; “Do You Love Me Like you Say?” is as funky as anything Prince has ever done; and there are a ton of oddball songs like the hilarious teenage sex plea “Penelope Please” (despite his pretenses he has a sense of humor) and the country ballad “I Still Love You.” Critics responded very positively but his audience had turned to hip-hop soul, modern rock, and hip-hop. 1995’s Vibrator was a less engaging attempt at eclecticism and something of a mess; his major label career ended and he was forgotten. Which is a shame because he remains a formidable talent. In 2003 he released Terence Trent D’Arby’s Wildcard! on his own label Sananda Records (so named for his new namesake Sananda Maitreya) and it is a 19 song eclectic masterpiece of originals as good as anything on the radio circa 2003. Despite his brief time in the commercial limelight artistically D’Arby was ahead of his time and then slightly out-of-sync.
I first heard the Oaxacan born singer of Mixtec and British-American heritage singing live at Virginia’s famous venue The Barns at Wolf Trap in Vienna. Her power, presence and poise as a vocalist and performer were a real master class in owning the stage. Her patter was humorous, informed and warmly delivered, and as a performer she was in total command vocally and physically. Downs is a progressive singer who has modernized traditional Mexican forms, including rancheras, mariachis, and son jarocho as well as Latin diasporic forms like flamenco and Cumbia by interpreting them in hip arrangements with a contemporary sensibility, often informed by politics. Downs studied music formally and is something of a folklorist in her approach to repertoire. From the beginning of her recording career (circa 1994) she has explored her own cultural identity through her music including commenting on colonization and immigration issues. Vocally, she brings an operatic bel canto sensibility to her interpretations. Her famous clever version of “La Cucaracha” (a song I played on a vibraphone as a sixth grader!) is a revelation. La Cantina (2006), Shake Away (2008), and Pecados y Milagros (2011) are excellent introductions to her vibrant, eclectic style.
Gray is not a household name but pop music fans of multiple generations are usually familiar with two of post-60s pop’s greatest songs 1965’s “The ‘In’ Crowd” and 1973’s “Drift Away.” Though one is a buoyant tune with a classic ‘60s beat and the other is a transcendent anthem about the power of music they only hint at Gray’s range. His biography is a bit murky in a few of its details, but the important thing is that this singer (and occasional actor) reached his peak in the 1970s when he perfected a kind of country-soul sound exemplified by “Drift Away” as well as lesser known but equally perfect performances on “Loving Arms” and “So High (Rock Me Baby and Roll Me Away).” On his three MCA LPs 1973’s Drift Away, 1974’s Loving Arms, and 1974’s Hey Dixie he and producer/songwriter Mentor Williams perfect a rich hybrid of soul, pop, and country that is musically satisfying but was difficult to market commercially. Genres are so racially codified that it’s rare for artists to gain full acceptance in new markets. Though his warm, soulful sound is couched in sparkling lush arrangements his albums were never big sellers.
Regardless the import record label BGO packed these together in 2015 on CD and they are a great glimpse of his artistry. Three albums does not a great career make, and Gray struggled to stay afloat as a recording artist. He made several obscure albums in the late 70s, a glossy country album in the mid-1980s and re-recorded his biggest hits on several independently released collections. The best overview of his career is The Ultimate Dobie Gray (2001, Hip-O Records). Hardcore fans may also enjoy the box set A Decade of Dobie covering his 1969-79 recordings.
Before Adele, Duffy, and the late Amy Winehouse, British powerhouse Moyet was the standard bearer for British soul singing. Inspired by Etta James and Dusty Springfield she possesses an unmistakable husky, smoky quality put to great use in the ‘80s as lead singer of the synth-and- soul band Yaz and as a solo singer. Moyet and musical partner Vince Clarke (who formed Erasure with Andy Bell) only made two albums as Yaz but they yielded such classics of yearning as “Don’t Go,” “Situation,” and “Only You” which are as thrilling today as they were in the early ‘80s. Moyet went solo and explored a range of styles that maximized her instrumental prowess. Highlights include the wrenching top 40 hit “Invisible,” and fan favorites like the raucous “It Won’t Be Long” and the similarly incendiary “Whispering Your Name.” The 1995 Singles (Columbia Records) album distills these hits alongside her luscious takes on the jazz standards “That Ole Devil Called Love” and “Love Letters.” Two great album length sets showcase Moyet most fully. The first, 1991’s Hoodoo is a rock and blues-inflected minor masterpiece, featuring brilliant pop-soul. The second is 2004’s Voice a beautiful standards album arranged by Ann Dudley. Moyet displays remarkable insight on a variety of classics most notably on post-60s tunes like “The Windmills of Your Mind,” “God Give Me Strength” and “Almost Blue.” She also tackles some more traditional fare including “The Man I Love” and even “The Wraggle Taggle Gypsies-O!” Moyet continues to record and perform.
Stuart Staples (lead singer of the Tindersticks)
The music of English band The Tindersticks came into my life circa 2008-09 through a friend who introduced me to their 2008 album The Hungry Saw. The band actually began in 1991 and has had a series of personnel changes and hiatuses though they remain together. Though they’ve never had a U.S. hit calling them an “indie” group is inaccurate because their style is an amalgam of genres including rock, soul, chamber pop, and…sounds not easily classifiable. Staples has a warm baritone and a soulful phrasing style bathed in a delightful feast of textures including organs, strings, and various percussion and wind instruments on this album. Among the album’s many highlights is the poignant, hypnotic ballad “All the Love” about the ways violence infects individuals and circulates in societies. The first time I heard it I cried.
Though she is best known as a preternaturally gifted teen singer of ‘70s Southern gothic tunes like “Delta Dawn” and “Would You Lay with Me (In a Field of Stone)” Tucker’s career extends into the present. Tucker was in the country mainstream from the early 1970-early 1980s, and soldiered on well into the 1990s even writing an autobiography and having her own reality show. My primary case for her gifts are the 1986 album Girls Like Me released after years of tabloid coverage and a commercial dry spell. On this loose concept set she sings about lust (“Daddy Long Legs”), promiscuity (“One Love at a Time”), revenge (“I’ll Come Back as Another Woman”) and genuine heartache (the title track). She can take a simple song like the waltz “Fool, Fool Heart” or Kim Carnes’s lament “Still Hold On” and personalize it. The result is an electrifying experience that transcends the “country” box. What impresses me most here is her timbral and emotional range. Tucker is a master of color—she can summon her voice to do just about anything and her approach almost disarmingly direct in emotion. Tucker has mostly released live albums on small labels over the last few years, but her gifts are intact on the 2009 studio set My Turn where she sings country classics popularized by male singers. A fuller view of her career is available on the imported double-disc The Upper 48 Hits 1972-1997 (Raven).
COPYRIGHT © 2015 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.