Learning to Listen Bonus Cut: Bruno Mars loves the 80s! What’s next?...

Dear Riffs, Beats, & Codas reader: I wrote a review of Bruno Mars’s XXIVk Magic when it first came out in late 2016 but never published it. His recent victory at 2018's Grammys inspired me to dust if off and revisit my original sentiments, which remain the same. He was among the few nominees’ whose work I was familiar with so his wins validate my sense that he is an interesting musician. The wins also reiterate why he needs to try something new if he wants to become a great artist rather than a merely entertaining one.

After successfully channeling elements from Michael Jackson, Prince, James Brown and The Police on his albums Bruno Mars scored his biggest hit in 2014 on the throwback Minneapolis funk of the Mark Ronson produced “Uptown Funk.” Sultry, danceable and melodic it’s one of those inevitable hits that’s simply undeniable. It topped the pop charts for 14 weeks and won Mars and Ronson two Grammys, including the main platter Record of the Year. Several weeks ago Mars built on this winning streak by winning six more including Record (“24 K Magic”), Song (“That’s What I Like”), Album (XXVk Magic), R&B Song (“That’s What I Like”),  R&B Vocal (“That’s What I Like”), and R&B Album (XXVk Magic).

Mars celebrates his passion for 1980s and 1990s R&B on his 2016 chart topping, Grammy winning album  XXIVk Magi c.

Mars celebrates his passion for 1980s and 1990s R&B on his 2016 chart topping, Grammy winning album XXIVk Magic.

Mars is smart enough to know how pop music works, hence he returns to the 1980s R&B well in full force (coincidentally, the name of a successful production group in the ‘80s and 90s!) on XXIVk Magic. If you are connoisseur of R&B circa 1986-89 this will take you back in time. But can Mars bring you forward into the present? Maybe, but let’s survey some of the musical evidence: 

On the top 10 hit title track he dips into the Roger Troutman & Zapp playbook with a funky bottom borrowed from 1990s hip-hop. “Perm” is pure James Brown funk. I hear traces of Bobby Brown style New Jack swing in “Straight Up & Down.” The torchy soul ballad “Too Good to Say Goodbye” is the kind of large scale vocal and emotional workout Peabo Bryson, Jeffrey Osborne and Freddie Jackson built their careers on.

From one listen, its clearly state-of-the art 1980s pop-funk dressed up in post-millennial production. As an album for cruising or for throwing on at a party album it ebbs and flows perfectly. Mars’s melodic gifts also place him at the forefront of today’s pop songwriters. You will definitely hum these tunes after hearing them once or twice. 

A few challenges could disrupt the non-stop Mars party. In playing to past strengths Mars risks pandering to his established audience. His love for funk styles of the past is admirable, but he has shown a broader stylistic range on his two previous albums. In the digital era, albums are often grab bags of styles.  The downloadable buffet approach takes pressure off artists to make coherent suites. Still, he has traded the stylistic playground for an entertaining but overly familiar set of grooves. Further, songs like 2010’s “Just the Way You Are” demonstrated a sweet side but the sour element sometimes threatens this balance in his lyrics. By intentionally writing songs aimed at players and party people (ostensibly male) he tends to write about little beyond partying and seduction.

Mars receiving one of six Grammy Awards on February 28, 2018. The music industry  celebrated his well-crafted  melodic pop, but is his music growing stale?

Mars receiving one of six Grammy Awards on February 28, 2018. The music industry  celebrated his well-crafted  melodic pop, but is his music growing stale?

He sings to a female suitor that it’s good they like the same things in “That’s What I Like.” Meaning…she would be screwed if they didn’t? The melody of “Versace on the Floor” is enchanting and the crooning is expert. But, the song is almost parodic in its one-dimensional focus on literally getting a woman’s clothes off. Love songs are de rigeur in pop but there is a lot of effort here for very thin ideas.

XXIVk Magic solidifies Mars as a master of funk pastiche, and as a nine-song album, he is wise enough to not overstay his welcome. Still, I sense there are deeper and more interesting stories he could tell especially with his encyclopedic musical knowledge. I hope that as he plans his next album he tunes out the retro hits and trusts his own groove more.



Learning to Listen excerpt 12: From the shadows: Natalie Cole finds her soul

Riffs, Beats, & Codas celebrates the life of the accomplished singer Natalie Cole who sadly passed away on December 31, 2015 from congestive heart failure. Cole established herself as a fresh new voice in popular music in 1975. Her debut album Inseparable earned her two Grammy Awards as Best New Artist and Female R&B Vocal Performance.  She repeated a win in this category in 1976, and received two consecutive American Music Awards in 1977 and 1978 as Favorite Female Vocalist Soul/R&B. Cole remained a pop and R&B staple commercially through the late ‘70s-early ‘80s while navigating drug addiction. After a commercial downturn and time spent in rehabilitation she came back commercially in the late 1980s with hits like “Pink Cadillac,” “I Live for Your Love,” and “Miss You Like Crazy.” She redefined herself as a jazz-oriented interpreter on three Grammy winning sets 1991’s Unforgettable with Love, 1993’s Take a Look, and 1996’s Stardust. She continued exploring various songs in the pop, R&B, and jazz repertoire throughout the late 1990s and 2000s including 2002’s Ask a Woman Who Knows, 2006’s eclectic Leavin’  2008’s Still Unforgettable, which won the 2008 Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance, and her final album 2013's Natalie Cole en Espanol. In addition to her recording career Cole was an active concert performer, acted in numerous television series, and appeared as herself in reality programs and performing music specials. Please enjoy this essay on Cole's unique legacy excerpted from my essay collection Learning to Listen: Reflections on 58 great singers.


Source: www.allmusic.com.

Source: www.allmusic.com.

Natalie Cole (b. 1950) grew up in the shadows of two of popular music’s towering figures. Over time she has emerged as a distinctive vocal artist with a unique flair. Cole is of course the daughter of innovative pianist/bandleader and suave vocalist Nat “King” Cole who pioneered the jazz trio (piano-guitar-drum) format in the ‘40s, which became a staple of jazz, and transitioned into a stellar solo career. At Capitol he was a prolific recording artist whose LPs with arrangers like Gordon Jenkins, Billy May and Nelson Riddle parallel Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra’s innovative explorations of the album format during the 1950s.

In addition to his influence as a musician and popularity as a vocalist he was one of the first African-Americans to have a weekly television variety show, The Nat King Cole Show. Though the show ended because of objections by Southern television stations that he was too “controversial” (largely because he shared the stage with white singers) his musical and cultural prominence culminated in Cole’s immense iconicity as a representative of black cultural achievement. Musically gifted, eminently likable, and the embodiment of class and integrity, he was an icon whose death in 1965 from lung cancer devastated a public who embraced him as an icon. 

During her childhood Natalie was exposed to the music of her father and his peers, and developed her own musical talents. As she shares in the liner notes of 1991’s Unforgettable with Love she met many of popular music’s elite, including figures like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald whom she referred to as “uncle” and “aunt” respectively. In the liner notes there are also photos of her fronting a band of other teenage children from prominent California musicians’ families. She also occasionally made appearances as a singer with her father. Rather than presuming music was “in her blood” because of her lineage (her mother Maria sang with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and uncle Freddy Cole is a jazz pianist and vocalist) it is more accurate to note that she cultivated her musical talents at an early age. As Cole experienced her adolescence she witnessed the ascent of musicians of her generation reconfigure popular music’s past into styles reflecting their own musical influences and social perspectives.  Rock and soul music were central to this, and soul’s most prominent figure during the late ‘60s was Aretha Franklin.

Beginning as a blues and jazz flavored stylist Franklin had an uneven career at Columbia Records—which struggled to find the right settings for her talents—before recording for Atlantic Records from 1967-79. There she asserted a creative input into her recordings as an arranger and pianist (Franklin has noted her frustration at not being credited as a producer) injecting pop and R&B songs with a fusion of gospel singer’s sense of emotionalism, a jazz singer’s sense of swing,  and the interpretive perspective of the blues. She further propelled R&B into the mainstream building on the innovations of Ray Charles and Sam Cooke. Essentially she “gospelized” the secular song with a unique synthesis of influences, infused with a distinctly feminine outlook on sexuality and romance. There were many gifted female R&B singers who preceded Franklin including such notables as Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker, Etta James, Tina Turner, and Irma Thomas. But Franklin achieved an unheralded level of consistency in a genre often more notable for singles than great albums. She also achieved a stylistic balance; she could testify on “I Never Loved a Man,” coolly saunter through “Respect,” and tap into a vulnerable sensuality on “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Even these landmarks only hinted at the versatility and adaptability she evinced in her prime.

After college Cole chose to become a recording artist and her 1975 debut effort Inseparable was critically well received and commercially embraced. Many noticed the clear influence of Franklin on Cole’s singing. Like Franklin she sang with a buoyant gospel inspired spirit and was also a credible ballad and torch song singer. The key recording linking Franklin to Cole is her 1968 rendition of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” particularly toward the end of the song where Franklin ends by double tracking her voice and harmonizing, singing several bursts of the refrain “You send me” “You thrill me” “You kill me” “Yeah yeah yeah yeah” like improvised vocal horn flourishes. On Cole’s similarly upbeat hit “This Will Be” a big part of its allure is the staccato, double-tracked chorus “This will be” (pause) “You and me” (pause) “Eternally” and then the rapid fire succession of phrases “So long as I’m living/True live I’ll be giving…”

Cole duplicated this double tracked single-voiced choral approach on subsequent singles like “Mr. Melody” and “Sophisticated Lady.” The Franklin influence on Cole is significant in the context of ‘70s R&B since the late 1960s/early 1970s was a very transitional period in R&B and black pop, reflecting broad changes in the industry. Singers were increasingly focusing more on albums than singles which afforded more room to sing longer and more elaborately arranged songs. Among black artists this shift also coincided with music more focused on mood and languor than funk. Roberta Flack’s First Take (originally released in 1969 but commercially unsuccessful until 1972) and its lead single “The First Time ever I Saw Your Face,” Isaac Hayes’s success with Hot Buttered Soul, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Donny Hathaway’s Extension of a Man, and Smokey Robinson’s Quiet Storm are key hallmarks of this progression in black music toward an almost symphonic conception of albums as coherent suites with a sustained mood rather than collections of singles.

What distinguished Cole is that she was a “modern” ‘70s artist whose image was that of a sophisticated stylist in the vein of Diana Ross, but musically she maintained the funky gospel aspect of ‘60s R&B. In a sense she updated the soul sound for a new decade recording albums replete with electric keyboards and strings, and featuring seemingly conventional romantic ballads that built to gospel style climaxes such as “I’ve Got Love on My Mind” and “Our Love.” A peculiar feature of her mid-70s LPs are touches of jazz including the brief scat interlude on “Mr. Melody” and her interpretation of “Good Morning Heartache” both on Natalie (1976); the swinging original composition “Lovers” on Thankful (1977); and the scat-laden interpretation of “Stairway to the Stars” on Don’t Look Back (1980). Though “jazzy” elements are common on many recordings by black female singers of the ‘70s, including stylists like Randy Crawford and Phyllis Hyman (discussed in the “Lost in the Mix” section), the consistent presence of these on Cole’s initial recordings hinted at a conversancy with swing jazz she eventually realized. As one might expect Cole was very protective of her father’s music and was understandably reserved and anxious about recording material that might invoke comparisons.

The promising fusion of ‘60s R&B, ‘70s quiet storm soul, and light jazz she initially presented in 1975 became increasingly compromised as Cole succumbed to drug addiction; her late ‘70s-mid-80s recording output (1979-1985) is notoriously inconsistent and these recordings made it easy to write her off as another fading rock music casualty of hard living. Then in 1987 after a stint at rehab she returned with a new vigor on Everlasting,  recording material that was memorable enough to reinvigorate her career as a contemporary interpreter of pop, R&B and adult contemporary material, a pattern that continued on 1989 ‘s Good to Be Back. Both albums established the singer’s commercial acumen and that her voice was still in fine shape. Listening to these albums her personality is more muted, the material is predictable and conservative, and in light of the success of emergent voices in R&B like Anita Baker, her ability to innovate seems in the distant past.

Interestingly, instead of mining the same adult contemporary sound she confronted her fears of recording her father’s music on 1991’s Unforgettable with Love. Cole was rightfully lauded for her sophisticated uptown soul sound in the mid-1970s, but for some observers the Franklin influence sometimes overshadowed her individuality. Further, the declining quality of her music in the 1980s inhibited the typical maturation into a distinct personality vocalists usually experience. Beyond restoring her commercial standing the ’87 and ’89 albums never quite revealed new colors on her palette beyond professionalism and adaptability. In an unexpected move Cole nurtured the jazz leanings she had into a full-length album of standards associated with her father spanning from his Trio days to his solo career of the early 1960s.

Though Linda Ronstadt had commercial successes with her trilogy of standards albums from 1983-86, Barbra Streisand topped the album chart with The Broadway Album, and Harry Connick Jr. was one of the few jazz-influenced vocalists to gain commercial acceptance, a standards album by an R&B singer was hardly a commercial proposition in 1991. Though a number of “retronuevo” R&B crooners and balladeers  achieved commercial success in the late 80s/early 90s, the commercial rise of New Jack swing and hip-hop soul were rapidly changing the sound of black pop. A standards album could have easily seemed anachronistic and reactionary.

Despite the climate Elektra Records “greenlit” the album; this term is more frequently invoked in filmmaking but the metaphor makes sense for the album’s scale. For one thing the narrative—daughter of legendary musical icon interprets his music for modern audiences is Hollywood fare. And the album’s “hook”—her duetting with her father on the 1961 re- recording of 1953’s “Unforgettable”—is irresistibly sentimental.  Elektra also contributed to the spectacular aura employing expensive “adult pop” arrangers (Marty Paich) and producers (David Foster and Cole’s then husband Andre Fischer), financing musicians in orchestral, big band and trio formats, employing background singers, and developing a marketing strategy that would appeal to contemporary consumers increasingly opening their wallets to hip-hop, modern rock, and other emergent pop variations.

Source: www.allposters.com.

Source: www.allposters.com.

Cole was the core of this spectacle and if she faltered the album could have become either the musical equivalent of the Edsel, an ugly heavily hyped disaster, or a career novelty whose mediocrity ensured her confinement to rigid soft rock and R&B commercial formulas. Instead Cole delivered a well realized set of interpretations that reflected her father’s influence but also showcased her own spirit. Unlike many of her pop predecessors who had recorded “rock torch” sets Cole was both technically equipped and emotionally adept at interpreting pre-rock songs in lush orchestral settings and in the more demanding, emotionally naked settings of a big band and small group.

 Cole’s interpretive poise is remarkable in part because she sounds like a pro rather than a tourist. Though she sticks to the melodies and there is only minimal improvisation, she swings effortlessly and interprets lyrics with nuance which instantly aligns her with competent interpretive singers. Pop/rock singers are accustomed to recording over pre-recorded rhythm sections and singing in front of bands rather than as a voice in bands. Thus rock critics tend to cut them some slack in interpreting pre-rock pop. But Cole needs no excuses; in addition to singing with technical and emotional command, she and her arrangers take modern liberties like excising the goofy choir from “Orange Colored Sky,” creating a lovely medley of “For Sentimental Reasons/Tenderly/Autumn Leaves” and having the taste and restraint to avoid recording once popular Nat “King” Cole ephemera like “These Lazy-Crazy-Hazy Days of Summer.” By choosing a diverse array of tempos and arrangements Cole exposes her father’s (and her own) stylistic range and her ability to comfortably inhabit a variety of lyrical settings.

Unforgettable grew into a cultural phenomenon topping the album charts and winning Cole Grammys for Album, Record and Traditional Pop Vocal Performance, as well as awards for arranging, composing, engineering, and producing for others in the album’s cast of characters. The easiest way for Cole to follow-up on Unforgettable would have been recording another album of familiar pop standards. Or she could have built on its momentum and returned to radio-friendly adult contemporary pop-soul. Instead Cole chose to move beyond her homage to her father to salute other singers who impacted her career on 1993’s Take a Look and also revealed deeper jazz roots than Unforgettable suggested.

There are solid nods to obvious jazz goddesses including Billie Holiday (“Crazy He Calls Me,” “Don’t Explain”) and Ella Fitzgerald (“Swingin’ Shepherd Blues,” “Undecided”). But the most interesting reveals include her apparent passion for vocalese, on one woman multi-tracked versions of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross’s “It’s a Sand Man,” “Fiesta in Blue,” a reprise of her own composition “Lovers” and a gem from 1958 “All About Love.” Though a little bit of vocalese can go a long way she wisely sequences them to balance out torchy ballads. Gloria Lynne’s signature “I Wish You Love” and Carmen McRae’s rendition of “This Will Make You Laugh” inspire some of her more ironic, bittersweet ballad performances. She also initiates a trend that she continues to explore in excavating Nat “King” Cole obscurities. A hardcore Cole fan knows “Let There Be Love” from his lovely 1962 collaboration with jazz pianist George Shearing. The goofy “Calypso Blues,” which mocks “Yankee” ways (i.e. hot dogs, blond dye jobs) in mock Trinidadian patois is a Cole novelty from 1950 that she milks pretty expertly in its laidback island setting. Larry Bunker’s vibes and marimba really paint a lovely picture. Elsewhere Cole swings effortlessly, including “I’m Beginning to See the Light” and “Too Close for Comfort,” and is entirely comfortable working in a jazz setting with vets like Herbie Hancock (piano) and John Clayton (bass). Some critics viewed Take a Look as a commercial letdown compared to Unforgettable, but the comparison is nonsense.   From a purely commercial perspective she could have sold a lot more albums if she had chosen garden-variety standards and packaged the album as orchestral nostalgic bliss. Instead she chose to record songs she clearly loves, many of which are obscure, in more jazz-oriented settings. Not the most commercial move circa 1993. That it hit the top 30 and sold half a million copies (and won her a Grammy for Jazz Vocal Performance) is fairly miraculous given the usual gap between pop and jazz. Take a Look revealed a new phase for Cole that went beyond formula.

1996’s Stardust probably appears to be a direct descendant of Unforgettable; she sings with Nat on a reprise of “When I Fall in Love,” there’s more orchestral material, and more producers than on Take a Look.  The songs are also generally more recognizable for pop ears (i.e. “Stardust,” “What a Difference a Day Made”). But Cole continues to surprise you. The underperformed “To Whom it May Concern,”  “Where Can I Go Without You” and “This Morning it Was Summer” are more nods to her father’s vast repertoire. Jazz heads will delight in her take on the lyricized version of Ahmad Jamal’s “Ahmad’s Blue” and bop composer Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now” (first performed by Sarah Vaughan). She and Janis Siegel perform a tight, perfectly harmonized interpretation of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross’s spritely “Two for the Blues.” There is enough of a balance here between lush traditional pop, jazz material, and family heirlooms to legitimate Cole as a vocal artist with a genuine balance between pop accessibility and jazz chops.

In the course of five years Cole blossomed from a reliable pop singer with soul to an excellent interpreter of pre-rock pop and jazz.  Snowfall on the Sahara is her first run at a genre-less album that showcases lessons learned in the pop, jazz, and R&B spheres. Cole dabbles successfully in a spectrum of popular styles. There’s the sleek adult pop on the title tune (co-written by Cole), classic R&B ballads (i.e.  DJ Rogers’s “Say You Love Me,” Jerry Ragovoy’s “Stay With Me” and the Roberta Flack signature “Reverend Lee”), more L, H, & R jazz (“Every Day I Have the Blues”), lush balladry, most notably Judy Collins’ “Since You Asked,” and traditional ballads ranging from Patti Page’s “With My Eyes Wide Open, I’m Dreaming” to Leon Russell’s “Song for You.” Most surprising among this grab bag is her delightfully coy rendition of Taj Mahal’s “Corrinna” and a rollicking version of Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody.” Just when she seems to have taken a permanent turn Cole expands her vision to include a seamless juxtaposition of material across era and genre.

Three years passed between Snowfall and her luscious standards set Ask a Woman Who Knows. Though several of the songs are associated with other pop divas, such as the title track (a Dinah Washington obscurity) and “My Baby Just Cares for Me” (Nina Simone), Cole approaches these tunes with little in the way of overt homage or concept. It’s just a lovely, luscious album. She swoons on a lush “You’re Mine You”; “Tell Me All About It” has a gentle Brazilian lilt that makes it sound like the best song Jobim never wrote (Michael Franks wrote it); and on Bob Telson’s “Calling You” she illuminates the song’s haunted contours, proof that her gifts are not confined to pre-rock standards. She and Diana Krall have fun on “Better Than Anything” with its litany of guilty pleasures, and she excels in the company of some of jazz’s most esteemed players, a benefit of recording for Verve.

Cole closed out the decade with the soulful Leavin’ and the swing set Still Unforgettable. Whereas Snowfall was a panorama of Cole’s eclectic interests she approaches the pop/rock/R&B songs of Sting, Des’ree, Kate Bush and Aretha Franklin on Leavin’ with more focus adding thundering drums, emphatic vocal arrangements and R&B grit.  She transforms Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” from sultry rock to a popping R&B strut. “Love Letter,” best known to Bonnie Raitt’s fans as a mid-tempo slow burning tune, is a revved up, high octane number with more prominent percussion and gospel style background vocals. Elsewhere she bathes “Lovin’ Arms” in layers of dewy, sizzling regret. The best performance is an original soft-soul ballad “5 Minutes Away” with a hopeful lyric about finding love and gentle harmonies.  The closet rock-folk interpreter in Cole also comes out on her version of Neil Young’s “Old Man” and Shelby Lynne’s “Leavin.’”

2008’s Still Unforgettable continues the swinging, jazz influenced sound she began on Unforgettable. By now, she has forged enough of an identity that singing “virtually” with her father, as she does on his 1952 hit “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home,” seems superfluous. Otherwise she delivers consistently on winning renditions of classic tunes like “The Best is Yet to Come,” “Here’s that Rainy Day” and “Something’s Gotta Give.” After the set was released Cole took a hiatus from performing for health issues, suggesting the album was recorded under some duress. As solid as it is the most interesting performances are actually on the “Deluxe Edition” featuring the delightful Latin-flavored tune “Summer Sun” which has an effervescent vocal bathed in percolating strings, and a wryly funny big band version of “Busted.” Cole won her ninth Grammy for the set, her second in the Traditional Pop category. Her victory reinforces her stature as a one of the best interpretive singers in contemporary popular music. In 2013 her interpretive interests extended to an album of Spanish language pop on Natalie Cole En Español.

Cole’s ability to flow between eras is impressive by virtue of her range and a deft understanding of how to balance the essence of a song with her own musical identity. Cole’s journey through her family’s musical heritage has helped her gain greater access to her artistry. 

The only thing missing from her discography is a single recording that captures her gospel inspired R&B and pre-rock swing/pop personae fully in concert with each other.

“Blue Jazz,” my shorthand for the blues and R&B-soaked swing that singers like Dinah Washington, Joe Williams, Dakota Staton and Lorez Alexandria perfected, fell out of vogue at some point in mainstream vocal jazz. Many singers in this vein persisted in this style, including Ernestine Anderson, Etta Jones, and Ernie Andrews. Newer generations of jazz singers more commonly drift toward Betty Carter’s improvisational style, Peggy Lee’s hushed sensuality or arid folk-jazz than blues. Among the current generation Natalie Cole has the pedigree and experience to record some brilliant blue jazz suites.

Cole summons up all kinds of soul, humor and musicianship on the Ray Charles associated waltz “Busted” recorded on Still Unforgettable with a big band.  From her ad-libs (“I’m broke y’all!”) to the tone of her voice between crooning and soul shouting she sounds full-bodied and totally in her element. Though it’s easy to cite Aretha Franklin’s most popular music as influencing Cole, Franklin’s early efforts to build a jazz career were never realized as fully as Cole’s success in this area.

As is well known, Franklin struggled to apply her powerful style to standard material at Columbia. In listening to albums like Laughing on the Outside (1963) Franklin’s power and technique sounds impressive, but she sometimes fights the songs. Pedestrian string arrangements do not help these matters. Comparatively the much looser Yeah!!! a “live” set recorded with the Ray Bryant Trio, crackles. It is easily her best work at Columbia and her most convincing jazz statement. Her other successful jazz foray is Soul ’69 a big band swing jazz album recorded at Atlantic Records that showcased Franklin’s finely honed chops in a brass-laden setting.  Though her talents exceed the confines of the R&B tag she was such an iconic soul singer that this album never got its commercial due; no hit single. 1973’s Hey Now Hey was her last attempt at a jazz-oriented album. Though she does an impressive “Moody’s Mood” and soars on “Somewhere” the set is too muddled and laden with stylistically ambiguous material to gel. Cole’s success with big band swing, orchestral ballads and vocalese, combined with her R&B roots indicate that she has the tools to record the kind of blue jazz recordings Franklin long abandoned for more conventional R&B fare.

In many ways she could look to Franklin’s direct idol Dinah Washington. It’s important to remember that Washington is also a clear presence for Cole.  She recorded “What a Difference a Day Made” on Stardust and “Ask a Woman Who Knows” on the album of the same title.  Like Washington she knows how to inflect a lyric with a blue tone and Washington’s crisp enunciation, sultry tone, strong melodic sensibility, and laidback phrasing are all present in Cole’s recordings to various degrees. No one will ever match Washington’s tartness, but she is a good place to start for understanding Cole’s potential. Lorez Alexandria is another potential inspiration. She, more than Washington, has the combination of a gamine, silken tonality and blues grit similar to Cole’s versatile sound. I would love to hear Cole singsongs in the blue jazz canon like “Ain’t Got Nothing But the Blues,” “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” “Muddy Water,” and “Save Your Love for Me” among others. These tunes would symbolize the bridge between her classic predecessors and her contemporary interpretive style. I also suspect that such recordings would complete the portrait of her career fusing her strengths and cementing her unique contributions in an era where two key outgrowths of the blues tradition, jazz and R&B have been severed.  




Learning to Listen (LTL) Excerpt 11: Roy Hamilton: Star, pioneer, and misfit

As I write this there is an online petition for those who support the induction of black baritone Roy Hamilton (1929-69) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Given his influence on Elvis Presley, Jackie Wilson, and the Righteous Brothers this only seems fair. Hamilton’s classic versions of “Hurt” and “Unchained Melody” were popular hits for him and became, arguably, the definitive versions. If the purpose of institutions like the Hall is to recognize talented and influential performers Hamilton easily earns this distinction.

Source: http://www.waybackattack.com/hamiltonroy.html

Source: http://www.waybackattack.com/hamiltonroy.html

Pop music is filled with classically trained male singers who have translated operatic technique into pop. These include Italianate balladeers like Mario Lanza, singing actors including Robert Goulet, Gordon MacRae, John Raitt and Paul Robeson, jazz-oriented singers like Johnny Hartman, and actual Italian crossover-pop acts like Andrea Bocelli. Though R&B music has its share of robust vocalists it is rarely associated with the refinement and technique native to the operatic tradition. Roy Hamilton was among the first commercially significant singers to challenge such a dichotomy. Hamilton began recording in 1954 when he scored an R&B and pop hit with his interpretation of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” which gained a new life when it went from being a show tune to a civil rights anthem during the early 1960s.

Hamilton, as I discuss in other chapters, represents the liminal position many black singers found themselves in during the mid-1950s-mid-1960s. Music was already racially segregated in the industry in the early 1950s when Hamilton began recording, and as rock ‘n’ roll grew more prominent music grew more socially divided into markets. R&B was for blacks, rock was for teenagers, and LPs were for adult buyers of classical, jazz, and Broadway music. Among the victims of these formulas were black singers who straddled the boundaries between pop, R&B, and jazz, which seem much clearer today than they did in the 1950s.

 Dinah Washington is commonly referred to as a jazz singer today, but she was actually the most prominent female vocalist in commercial R&B from late 1940s-early 1960s, as well as a respected jazz-oriented singer, and an accomplished interpreter of the classic blues.  Similarly performers like Gloria Lynne, Nancy Wilson, Ernestine Anderson, and Dakota Staton all began singing between the late 1950s and early 1960s and have all blurred (artificial) genre boundaries which limited their careers, with the exception of Wilson.  It may sound essentialist to say this, but my impression is that, at the time, black singers working in R&B, jazz and blues were viewed by black audiences as simply making black music—i.e. music made by black musicians which was important since in the era of segregation (and post-segregation) black culture was primarily marketed to black audiences through radio stations, stores, and performance venues aimed at blacks.

Hamilton is broadly considered an R&B singer since he was a black man, with a background in gospel music, whose greatest commercial successes appeared on the R&B singles chart. But in reality this tells little of his complicated story. Collectables Records has reissued his Epic recordings spanning from 1954-62 and they demand some serious questioning of what R&B and black pop can mean. The bulk of his Epic LPs are standards albums comprised of the kinds of songs Sinatra, Como, Eckstine, and Cole sang including Roy Hamilton, With All My Love, Come Out Swingin,’ Why Fight the Feeling?, and Soft ‘N’ Warm. The first is a mix of ballads and mid-tempo arrangements; the second is primarily lushly arranged ballads; Come and Why are big band swing sets, and Soft is a ballad set. As a vocalist Hamilton is interesting because he is too gospel to sound like a straight crooner, too polished to adhere to conventions of R&B voices of the time, more rhythmically conservative than a traditional jazz singer, and yet too mature to fit into the sound of rock ‘n’ roll and teen pop.  His focus on standard material was such that his two ventures outside of this are the overt genre sets Spirituals and the rock and R&B-oriented Mr. Rock ‘N’ Soul which still includes a fair share of standards. Hamilton’s confidence with some of popular music’s most harmonically complex pop ballads (“All the Thing You Are”) and swingers, and his comfort with gospel reflect his formal classical vocal training and his pre-fame gospel roots. Given this it’s not surprising that Rock ‘N’ Soul is his least convincing set. Hamilton is always professional and the set has some entertaining performances, but as a whole it feels overtly trendy.

The bonus tracks featured on some of his reissued LPs and the two singles collections You’ll Never Walk Alone and Golden Boy reveal the dual personality Epic was trying to create for him. Walk mixes classy ballad fare like “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “Ebb Tide,” “Unchained Melody,” and “If I Loved You” that reiterates the commercial relevance of this material even as rock ‘n’ roll was making commercial inroads. Golden Boy leans toward R&B material like “Hurt” (a hit for Timi Yuro in 1961), MOR (“Love is a Many Splendored Thing”), and forgettable pop songs. The bonus tracks on his albums also tend toward trendy ephemeral material.

Source: amazon.com.

Source: amazon.com.

As a musical figure Hamilton has a strange place in pop historical lore. Though his robust vocal style and creamy timbre is evident in Presley, Wilson, and others he is not commonly referenced as his talent and influence would merit. He is referenced in Soul in the City, Brian Ward’s Just My Soul Responding, and Peter Guralnick’s biography Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke. He was featured in the second edition of the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia, but was deleted from its most recent edition published in 2001. The recent reissues of his material explain his absence from the 1992 Rolling Stone Album Guide (updated in 2003 but with no Hamilton entry) and the Musichound R&B Guide (published 1998). His refined enunciation and phrasing, romantic sensibility, and penchant for smooth balladry and light swing is quite different from the kind of visceral R&B that has made R. Kelly, Usher, and other more recent figures popular.

Listening to his recordings it’s clear that he was talented, versatile, and influential but he’s a hard figure to place. His fate is similar to that of Ed Townsend. Townsend, who is best known for the 1959 pop and R&B hit “For Your Love,” was a smooth crooner with a big voice who loved singing with an orchestra. Though he is remembered as an R&B singer, the handful of albums he recorded for Capitol Records were not jukebox fare.  Rather they were lushly arranged orchestral renditions of popular standards. Townsend’s Capitol period was short and he never rebounded as a singer, though he became a successful songwriter.

It’s hard not to empathize with them since their respective legacies are endangered by the rigid generational, racial, and genre boundaries popular music has been adhering to since the beginning of commercial pop music, but that grew especially prominent during the 1950s. The rise of R&B made a space for gospel-influenced black performers to enter into the commercial mainstream. But pressures for black performers to either perform exclusively in this mode, or to tone down these elements to make them more marketable to white audiences is one of the great compromises in pop music that marginalizes less malleable talents. The brand of gentlemanly pop Hamilton and Townsend performed placed them out of vogue with rock ‘n’ roll and mainstream R&B which was unusual, especially for black performers from the mid-1960s onward [....]


For more information on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame petition visit: http://royhamilton.net/

Check out this essay on Hamilton’s influence on Elvis Presley: http://www.elvisinfonet.com/presley_hamilton_spotlight.html



LTL 9: Love personified: The voice of Luther Vandross

In 1964 Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote “A House is Not a Home” for the film of the same name. “House” was a radio hit for their muse Dionne Warwick and has been recorded continually since its debut. Yet to Luther Vandross’s (1951-2005) fans his 1981 rendition is the definitive version. His 7:08 minute performance is worth discussing because it outlines many elements of the Vandross aesthetic.  In the first 22 seconds listeners hear an instrumental introduction followed by 34 seconds of wordless vocalizing (“Dun dun dun dun dun”). In these opening bars he massages the song wordlessly; it’s such a personal approach to the song that you know something special is unfolding…

At 57 seconds he sings, “A chair is still a chair…” and one is struck by the fullness, passion and control he conveys. Structurally he sings verse-chorus-verse-chorus from 57 seconds to 2:41. At the bridge (2:41) he builds toward the 4:31 mark where he sings a coda/tag with his own original lyrics from 4:31-6:49 followed by 19 seconds of an instrumental outro.

This description merely approximates the shape of his ambitious arrangement. In many ways his “House” is as close to an aria as pop music gets. He essentially arranges it as a suite. The 22 second instrumental and 34 second vocals serve as a kind of prelude, almost setting a theme. He sings the verses very intentionally, controlling their momentum like a man with a string. The verses begin quietly, climax, and then descend dramatically. At 3:38 he erupts singing the lyric (“I’m Not MEANT To Live Alone…”) explosively. Just when you think he is done he begins the tag/coda. I would hesitate to call a 2:37 improvisation a tag; it’s really a thoughtful deeply personal interpretation of bittersweet love.

 The Vandross lyrics, and the carefully placed pauses, are worth quoting:

4:31: Still…in…love

4:41-4:54: I said…Still…In…Looove Looove

4:57: Still in Looove…

5:08: With…meee… yea yeah

5:19: Are you gonna be/In love with me/I want you/I need you/To be yea yeah

5:29: Still in love with me

5:37: Say you’re gonna be in love with me

Its driving me crazy/To think that my baby/Wouldn’t be/Still in love with me

5:57: Are you gonna be/Say you’re gonna be/Are you gonna be/ Say you’re gonna be/Are you gonna be/Well well/Well well/Still in love/So in love/Still in love with me

6:16: Are you gonna be/Say that you’re gonna be

6:27: Still…In…Love…WITH…Me…yea yeah with mee/ooh ooh ooh

6:49: Still in love with me yea yeah

 Through deliberate rhythmically parallel pauses, gospel embellishments (i.e. elongated vowels), structured repetition, and vernacular lyrics he builds to a stirring climax. You could get whiplash from listening to the way he skillfully weaves together, “Are you gonna be/Say you’re gonna be.”

Just when you think he’s done he extends the song again. At 6:27 he returns to the dramatic pause, milking it for everything he can. Then from 6:49-7:08, ~19 seconds, the song ends with the hushed wordless sound parallel to the prelude…


Vandross was born in New York City and became a staple of New York’s black music scene. He grew up adoring female singers of the ‘60s including Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells, Diana Ross, and Dionne Warwick. He even established a fan club for LaBelle. Unlike most fans he developed his musical chops and worked hard to break into the biz. In high school he sang in a group called Shades of Jade; as a young adult he enrolled in the Listen My Brother workshop and appeared on an episode of Sesame Street in November 1969. But around 1972 he really set off a very successful career as a background vocalist and singer of commercial jingles. These experiences introduced him to industry heavyweights like David Bowie, Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand and opened the door for him to become a solo performer and composer. His group Luther failed to make a splash commercially with their two albums 1976’s Luther and 1977’s This Close to You. In between these efforts and his solo career he wrote a song for The Wiz, arranged vocals on hits like Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer’s 1979 #1 hit “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)” and sang lead on Change’s dance hits “Searching” and “The Glow of Love.”

The 1970s was experimental as it gave him room to develop his voice, to balance funk with romanticism, to understand vocal harmonies, and cultivate his taste in material. By the time he debuted in 1981 with the fabulously propulsive “Never too Much” he already had an aesthetic blueprint for his sound. Unlike most dance songs “Never” has a clear melody, an engaging lyric and Vandross maintains great diction throughout. “Never” was a #1 R&B hit surrounded by the hit “Don’t You Know That” and the epic “House” on the LP Never Too Much.  This auspicious debut was commercially popular, critically acclaimed, and earned him several Grammy nominations—a pattern he maintained throughout his career. From 1981-88 he amassed six albums and 20 singles on Epic Record that sold well and established him as the premiere romantic balladeer of ‘80s R&B. He was adored especially by female listeners. And like Johnny Mathis before him a chaste romanticism was key to his appeal. Unlike Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass, and other predecessors his songs were more pure romantic fantasies of yearning songs rather than explicit, carnal songs.

Vandross also succeeded as both an interpreter and composer. In addition to “House,” “Since I Lost,” “Superstar,”  he soared on interpretations of Stevie Wonder’s “Creepin’” andBrenda Russell’s “If Only for One Night.” His original classics of the decade included “Never,” “Bad Boy,” “Wait for Love,” “Give me the Reason,” “Stop to Love,” “So Amazing,” and “Any Love.” He was something of a superman during this era. In addition to singing, arranging and producing, often with a team of jazz oriented collaborators like Marcus Miller and Nat Adderley Jr., his talents made him an in-demand producer. His productions on 1982’s “Jump to It,” and 1983’s “Get it Right” got Aretha Franklin back on radio. Dionne Warwick scored a hit with her 1983 Vandross duet “How Many Time Can We Say Goodbye,” and he also worked with Diana Ross and Cheryl Lynn.

 In less than a decade Luther Vandross established himself as a defining voice of contemporary R&B and an architect of ‘80s-early 90s R&B. His impact can be heard in numerous vocalists who followed him including Freddie Jackson, Gregory Abbott, and Keith Washington, among others.   Though each of these singers has his own sound their careers are less possible and comprehensible without Luther Vandross…



LTL Excerpt 4: Future voices in the present: Alice Smith

R&B and its offshoots have continued to redefine the shape of mainstream pop from rock ‘n’ roll to New Jack to neo-soul.  Alice Smith (b. 1978) infuses contemporary R&B writing, arranging and singing with a broad yet selective palette of colors and textures that moves beyond the neo-soul paradigm into a more eclectic and creative approach to black pop. Smith is a progressive rock and soul singer with a thick, sumptuous voice and a seductive style. Her 2007 debut For Lovers, Dreamers & Me is a fine showcase of her formidable vocal and composition talents that garnered limited commercial attention, but is an accomplished and promising debut. Vocally reminiscent of Me’shell N’degeocello, India.Arie, and Lizz Wright she has a more sensual sound and a wider emotional range than any of them though a less clearly defined commercial niche. She rocks on the guitar-centered “Gary Song” and “New Religion.” Elsewhere she simmers on the opening “Dream” which is comparable to the best neo-soul balladry to emerge in the last decade. The blues piano and insistent, pulsating rhythm of “Desert Song” is equally enthralling in expanding the sound of neo-soul without sounding retro or trendy. “Fake is the New Real” is a brilliant and incisive set of modern observations set to an infectious groove. The concluding “Love Endeavor” is the pièce de résistance, a vulnerable, sexy plea for intimacy with a stirring arrangement and galloping beat that makes you wish for more…

The magnetic Alice Smith in concert. Copyright  ©   2014 alicesmith.com.

The magnetic Alice Smith in concert. Copyright© 2014 alicesmith.com.

She, Smith’s brilliant 2013 follow-up, builds from the strengths of her debut album: it is a genuine fusion of hip-hop soul with modern rock anchored by her full, soulful wail. Thematically it is more tightly focused (mostly on love gone sour) and sonically it has an expansive array of textures ranging from harpsichord to strings to epic, almost neo-gothic background harmonies. It’s an adventurous set beyond the ephemeral dance pop dominating contemporary radio; this probably explains why it was recorded independently.

Whereas many of Smith’s neo-soul contemporaries revere ‘70s soul to a fault she dips into a more exotic and offbeat well for her sound. She begins with a 44 second acapella “Cabaret Prelude” previewing the song’s melody before delving into the fuller version—a galloping anthemic about romantic possibilities. She sings over a stark drum beat punctuated by keyboard and synthesizer riffs over subtle soaring background vocals. This establishes a pattern on the album; in most of She’s songs either her voice or a central riff opens the song then after about a minute a strong percussive element kicks in to propel the song forward rhythmically. Because she covers a range of moods this pattern never feels formulaic. She has a strong torchy element: “The One” is a moody ballad built around a central lyric of admonition “I’m not the one/Don’t play me son.” It begins with a dreamy synthesizer riff followed by Smith’s sweet croon. At 58 seconds drums kick in and the song sways gently. “With You” is another mood piece. She kicks it off with the starkly honest, “None of my friends are cool/ I ain’t got nothing to do/Without you” sung over a synthesized keyboard with fuzzy, dissonant harmonies. About 40 seconds in Fleetwood Mac-ish drums kick in and a bed of soaring vocals builds to the chorus before it settles into a mellow rhythm and returns to the pulsating drums. The piano driven semi-waltz “Loyalty” is probably the most traditional soul ballad. She castigates a “shady” lover over triplets. Though she avoids vocal pyrotechnics Smith knows how to build the song’s inherent drama vocally. She uses her rich, creamy voice sparingly as a feature within arrangements.

The power of this approach is most evident in the most anthemic songs: Her interpretation of Cee Lo Green’s “Fool for You” is a powerful strut of emotional and carnal assurances with an ascending melodic line driven by a sultry beat.  “Shot” is a throbbing portrait of two people discovering love with a clever, irresistible hook buffeted by dense harmonies over a sleek electronic drum beat that never lets up. The set ends with “She” a soulful power ballad. A dancing, rumbling piano riff, with gospel chords plays as Smith wails over it; at 59 seconds drums and thick harmonies kick in before it cools back into the piano riff with surges of what sounds like a snippet of a harpsichord. The beat intensifies once more and Smith and the choral harmonies soar together to its potent conclusion. Smith’s gift for crafting intricate melodies, incorporating a mosaic of textures, and using her voice purposefully is a blueprint for how postmodern concepts of music can transcend the generic and congeal into a personal sound.