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Archive for the ‘Soul Music’ Category

I got a text from a friend yesterday morning. She’s young, beautiful and talented, so young that she was really a baby when George Michael rose to prominence. She wanted me to know that she thought he was corny in a New Kids On The Block kinda way. She had no idea how hurtful she was being. When a true Soul Man dies all of us in the community feel the loss. She knows a lot about music so her opinions are usually informed, but in this case, she just hasn’t been around long enough to know that George Michael was one of the most special artists who broke through during the MTV era. Michael benefitted from the star making power of MTV and along with Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, Duran Duran, Culture Club and a few others, he became a poster boy for the music channel’s ability to make household names out of pop stars.

My friends Nile Rodgers, Mark Ronson and Q-Tip all shared their condolences and shock over the superstar’s loss through social media. My old collaborators from the New Jack Swing days, Al B.Sure! and Keith Sweat paid tribute on their Facebook and Instagram accounts as well. Because you see, George Michael was a Black Thing.

I first heard George Michael’s music in 1984. Well, truthfully, I’d heard him just a bit before, but I started to pay attention in 1984 when Michael was fronting kiddie pop duo Wham. At that time, his appearance was more important than his sound, but Wham’s second album featured an anthemic slice of slick working class pop funk called “Everything She Wants”. Michael’s gruff pleading with a girlfriend who wanted more than the narrator could give had an appeal to a twenty something kid on the hustle with, two jobs, a demanding girlfriend, and an ambition to rise to the heights of the music industry. I loved that track.

Soul Music had taken a hit that year. In the spring, Marvin Gaye had been shot and killed, and I was walking around in a daze, but I kept pushing on. I was working in a small but important independent record shop in New York’s Greenwich Village. Vinyl Mania was the name of the store, and it did a brisk business in imported, independent and domestic major label dance music that was driven, mostly, by what underground overlord Larry Levan was spinning at The Garage, the Village hotspot that influenced two subsequent generations of dance club culture around the world. That was my part time job. For a day job, I worked at ASCAP identifying songs and their uses. The import 12″ single on “Everything She Wants” was a hot seller for us. On WBLS, the heritage Black FM outlet owned and controlled by the Inner City Broadcasting Group, “The Chief Rocker” Frankie Crocker had a grip on progressive Black listeners, but a threat arose to his dominance as 98.7 Kiss FM began to reach out for Frankie’s younger listeners by playing early hits from the fledgling Hip Hop industry. Frankie rocked “Everything She Wants”.

Ed Koch was the mayor of NYC, and he’d let the police run amok; they’d killed an unarmed Black graffiti artist named Michael Stewart, and a Black grandmother named Elanor Bumpers was shotgunned to death in her own apartment. Ronald Regan was in the White House, and he oversaw sinful deregulation of the financial and banking sectors that resulted in the Savings and Loan industry being gutted, and he ignored the rising body count from AIDS until it was almost too late. Funding for programs to help the poor, the vulnerable and the victims of AIDS was slowing to a trickle that never quite made it as far down as it had been advertised to reach.

It was with all of this as a backdrop that young George Michael – a working class kid from Margaret Thatcher’s England and a proud son of disco – began his assent in the game. Yes, disco: the derivative of funk and soul that sprouted up out of New York’s Black, Latin and Gay underground and became the music of the outsider looking for a way in. This often derided music was perfect for Michael’s worldview, because he was an unabashed celebrant of Black Music and his funkiness was obscured by his looks, his glibness and a uniquely potent gift for pop song craft.

While Michael was experiencing the peak of his success he was never fully appreciated. Much like the early Beatles – Wham/Michael was dismissed as a disposable pop group for young girls, but “Everything She Wants” sent a signal to the R&B and Black Pop markets that this kid was coming to get his and that he would be disruptive while doing it. Later, when his song writing became more introspective, he ran afoul of corporate politics, and he rebelled against the big money string pullers who would have had him release the same formulaic ditties that made him a phenomenon. Michael was thought to be too pretty and too slick with his writing to be taken seriously and his deep connection to the Black Music tradition was overlooked.

Before the tabloid headlines, the police entrapment, the forced outing, the near death accidents and trials with addiction, George Michael suffered the burden of the beautiful when he split with Andrew Ridgeley, his Wham bandmate, and embarked on an historic run as a solo artist with the release of the title track from “Faith” a rockabilly workout that smashed around the globe. If you only saw the video or didn’t get the album you may have missed “Monkey” or “Hard Day” the two funk joints on the album, or the subtle and soulful begging on “Father Figure”.

But I was in the Black Music business that George Michael was a factor in, and I witnessed this: Grandmaster Flash destroying a dance floor at the original location for The China Club – when it was a hangout for the best session players in The City – by cutting up the bass line from “Freedom 90” back and forth. Regional representatives from two major labels (one of whom had gotten Madonna’s “Material Girl” added to rotation) arguing with the PD from Kiss FM on the merits of adding Jam and Lewis’ remix of Michael’s “Monkey” to the station’s playlist, and the PD ignoring their objections to put the fifth or sixth single from “Faith” on the Urban powerhouse’s airwaves. The dance floor of The Garage packed and getting busy to Wham’s “Everything She Wants”. Stevie Wonder crooning a duet with Michael from the stage of the “World Famous” Apollo Theater. George Michael performing all covers including McFadden and Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” and Rufus and Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody” backed by The Sounds of Blackness at Madison Square Garden.

Yes, George Michael with the Patrice Rushen loops, the Gap Band interpolations, the James Brown samples, the Aretha Franklin duet, the Mary J. Bilge duet, the Stevie Wonder covers and big churchy choruses that screamed freedom out of radios and televisions was a Black Thing. The older he got the blacker he sounded. He became an avatar for Gay Pride and a vessel for those who remembered when Soul Music was a means for protest. He used the fashion business to promote his sound by casting Christy Turlington, Eva Herzigova, Tatijana Patitz, Linda Evangelista, Beverly Peele, and Hip Hop’s favorite dinner date, Naomi Campbell in his videos. He shone a bright light on the AIDS crisis and gave away tons of money to charitable causes. He kept it funky while doing it all and reminded us to listen without prejudice. I loved his music. I do not think that his dying exactly ten years to the day that we lost James Brown was coincidental. He’s probably somewhere trying to show James how to rock one of those slick Italian suits that he used to wear. He made a mighty contribution to this thing of ours. For this I am grateful.

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Jan and Marvin Gaye

After The Dance: My Life With Marvin Gaye by Jan Gaye, Marvin Gaye’s second wife, and David Ritz is a deeply moving account of a love gone wrong, and a reminder that love is seldom enough on its own. At the age of sixteen, Jan met the then thirty-three year old genius, Marvin during the early stages of his recording of the classic “Let’s Get It On” album. Her beauty, youth and presence ignited Marvin’s creativity and secured Jan’s historic role as soul music’s greatest muse. She has written a page turner that I could not put down.

Throughout the book, Jan takes great care to describe Marvin as a loving but confused patriarch who tried to provide for his wife, his children and his extended family. There are passages where Marvin’s love for his children and for Jan is apparent, and her love for him as well. She also depicts the great artist as vain, shallow, manipulative, cruel and indifferent to the wishes of loved ones – you know; a rock star. According to Jan, Marvin’s insecure doubting of her affection for him and his constant taunting drove her into affairs with both Frankie Beverly and the great Teddy Pendergrass. She also gives honest accounts of real and suspected dalliances that Marvin had with both well known and obscure women.

“After The Dance: My Life With Marvin Gaye is not a sensationalized tell all, instead it is a cautionary tale of how insecurity, dysfunction and cruelty can end the greatest of loves while that love can inspire world class art. Her uncertainty and insecurity made the then young girl submit to sexual fantasies of Marvin’s that she now regrets. Her inexperience led her to forego her education, move in with Marvin and in the name of love, abandon any pursuit of marketable skills while becoming financially dependent on a free spending addict. Jan also reveals how she and her late husband shared a deep spirituality as well as a mutual love of top shelf quality drugs. In the book, she has shared as much about her personal struggle with, and triumph over substances as she has shared about anyone else’s.

Her heartbreaking tale describes how the ill matched couple had very little chance of succeeding from the start; she had been raised in an uncertified foster care home where she’d been dumped by her loving but drug addicted mother and became the victim of sexual abuse. He had been the son of a deeply religious, evangelical cross dressing father who’d beaten Marvin mercilessly for questioning the elder’s fashion sense, and daring to raise the possibility that his gender bending attire may have brought dishonor to the family name. Marvin was also a superstar depressive who had lost his way and was using copious amounts of drugs to numb the pain from the break-up of his first marriage. Jan and Marvin never had a chance.

I spoke with Jan, earlier this year, via telephone. She called for the purpose of nervously reading the book’s first chapter to me, and getting my opinion. She hadn’t turned in her manuscript to her publisher yet, so I felt flattered by the sneak preview. I assured her that what she’d written was great, and it was, but in no way had her excerpt prepared me for the exceptionally intimate, personal and poetic work of depth and beauty that she and Ritz have delivered.

Jan describe how life at the side of a glamorous ’70s sex symbol was like living in the eye of a hurricane. She writes of the unscrupulous promoters, Marvin’s ambivalence about performing, and his stage fright. She writes of Motown pressuring the superstar for bigger and more frequent hits. She writes of Marvin’s loyalty to Motown chieftain, Berry Gordy, and Marvin’s bitter resentment of Gordy’s lack of appreciation for his artistic ambitions. The book insightfully examines the complications caused by Marvin’s marriage to, and ultimate divorce from Gordy’s sister Anna. There are also recollections of delusional managers who could not manage the great but unmanageable talent, and vignettes about accountants and business managers who could not convince Marvin to spend less frequently, save more often or pay his taxes. She has written beautifully about the gorgeous messiness of love in the shadows of stardom while it’s shrouded in the fog addiction.

Recently Jan and her children have been in the news as a result of having won a seven figure judgement against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke, in a copyright infringement lawsuit, over the contention that their “Blurred Lines” record of two summer’s back too closely resembled Marvin Gaye’s dance floor classic “Got To Give It Up”. It has been said that the landmark decision will put a chill on musical creativity, and that a business built on sampling the work of others has been rocked at its core. Time will tell.

Of course, for me, the most interesting portions of the book are the ones where Jan describes the creative process that Marvin, the hit maker, went through to come up with the albums; “Here My Dear”; “I Want You”; Let’s Get It On” and the smash single “Got To Give It Up”, and the subtle way that she inspired and guided Marvin to the expression of his best and higher artistic potential.

This book is her love letter to her mentor, partner and former husband who was tragically murdered by the hand of the cross dressing father who vied for control of the Gaye clan with his strong willed son. It is her deeply personal confession of the adoration, confusion and regret that she felt as a result of falling up to her eyeballs in love with one of the most creative figures of the twentieth century. It proves that Marvin’s spirit still speaks to all of us through his music and through this tremendously written work. For soul music fans and those who are interested in black creativity and pop culture it is a must read. Jan Gaye hit this one out of the park.

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El Toro Negro

El Toro Negro

The genius Stevie Wonder turned 65 years old yesterday. It is hard to believe that he has reached the official point of senior citizenship. It seems like just yesterday when I first heard his records. He was a kid like I was. A Taurus like me too, he called himself “El Toro Negro” (The Balck Bull). A decade older maybe, but still a kid. A big fun loving kid who dressed like Ray Charles played the piano and caused trouble when he picked up that harmonica to play it. His youthful exuberance made the occasion of my Uncle Dave’s funeral truly memorable because my older cousins Joan, Jimmy and Carl (Uncle Dave’s niece and nephews) were all closer to Stevie’s age and had been hip to the Wonder get down before me. They, fortunately, wanted to share the gift of Stevie’s genius with their little cousin, and the gift has kept on giving ever since.

There aren’t many artists or records that you can recall exactly where and when you first heard them, but for me, Stevie Wonder is one of them. I was six or seven and I’d traveled from Soul City with my mother and grandmother to Springfield, Massachusetts for was supposed to be a sober and somber event when I “got it”, for real, after hearing my older cousins playing “Uptight”, the slangy, up-tempo, Soul Music romp by the then sixteen-year-old Stevie, the night before Uncle Dave’s home going – funky bunch of kids we were.

Like most African-Americans of, or near my generation, I have felt a deep connection to Stevie Wonder’s music for the past fifty years. He is the most important musical reason that I chose to pursue a career as a record man. Earlier today, I did what I normally do on the great man’s birthday, I listened to his music, and I posted some of it on my Facebook timeline.

A noted author who wrote, an important non-fiction book about a particularly messy, and corrupt period in the career of a key record business figure who I’d worked with about 25 years ago, made what appeared to be a sarcastic remark about how much I love Stevie Wonder. Though he is a celebrated author with a national reputation, his comment revealed a lack of consciousness. Because if he understood what it meant to be young and Black in an America that was finding its way after King was assassinated, and during the rise of Black militancy as exhibited by; the Panthers, Stokley Carmichael’s SNCC, and Angela Davis; during and after Vietnam and Watergate. If he understood how closely intertwined Wonder’s music was with the struggle and rise of a people, and how that music, which was as potent as King’s message of non-violence. or James Brown’s message of self-determination, and how that music provided a platform that Wonder used to get the King Holiday through the US Congress, and how many house parties that music jumped off, then yes, he’d understand how much I love Stevie Wonder. I loved him because he was a potent voice of my America when we didn’t have many. Happy birthday El Toro Negro, nobody ever did it like you. Thank you.

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