Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Soul of the '70s: Black Was Particularly Beautiful Back Then

For a moment, forget what I've already written about R&B in the '80s and the '90s. I still stand by every word of it, but these days, for me, retro-retro is the new black, at least when it comes to American music created by and for black people (and anyone else who gets it, for despite its general Afrocentric-ness, soul is color blind). My point? Well, this: The golden age of soul was the 1970s, especially the years including 1971 to 1974.

There was such diversity then, so much color, so many pop hits. Yes, pop hits. "Crossing over" wasn't yet the black commercial aspiration it would become in the '80s and '90s because most soul hits became pop hits, too, almost seemingly by default. (Indeed, Joe Simon's 1975 single "Turning Point" was the first soul No. 1 since 1955 not to even graze Billboard's Hot 100.) And unlike the latter part of the decade, or the '80s, or today, it wasn't all (or mostly) about disco, or Michael Jackson, or rap/hip hop, respectively.

Sadly, since my focus growing up was mostly on country and radio pop, '70s soul doesn't have the same nostalgia value for me. It's not tied to my childhood the way country music and '70s lite-rock are. I discovered many a '70s soul classic years later, with a new old wave of modest Hot 100 soul hits recently making it into my mp3 collection after I heard them for the first time on vintage episodes of Casey Kasem's American Top 40. Considering how much attention and affection Casey offered R&B artists while counting down the hits, I have a feeling he had as soft a spot for '70s soul then as I do now.

Here are 8 things I've learned from listening to Casey's countdowns while consulting Wikipedia for background information on various black acts who made the Top 40 in the '70s.

1.) High-profile ladies of '70s soul were fewer and farther between than high-profile soul men, and with only a handful of exceptions (see "The Superstars" below), they rarely enjoyed sustained chart success.

2.) Girl groups, so dominant in the '60s, were basically a dying breed in the '70s (The Supremes was the only girl group from the '60s to enjoy any significant chart success in the next decade) and with a few exceptions (Bananarama and Klymaxx being two notable '80s additions to the ones listed below) would remain so until the late '80s when the female girl group was resurrected with the emergence of the Latin freestyle movement that spawned, among others, Expose, The Cover Girls, Sweet Sensation and Seduction. With the exception of The Pointer Sisters, the ones who did hit the Top 40 on Billboard's Hot 100 during the '70s didn't do so often, and by the early '80s, continuing and building on a mid-to-late-'70s trend begun by A Taste of Honey, Chic, Odyssey, Rufus, Rose Royce, The Sylvers and Peaches & Herb, gender-non-specific duos and groups like Yarbrough and Peoples, René & Angela, Debarge, Midnight Star, One Way, Skyy, The S.O.S. Band and Starpoint had become the R&B norm.

3.) Meanwhile, male groups were fruitful and multiplied. Unlike their distaff counterparts, they often produced multiple big hits and sometimes functioned as traditional bands, writing their own material and playing their own instruments. There wouldn't be a similarly self-contained black girl group until Klymaxx in the '80s.

4.) The ladies of '70s soul are more likely to still be alive than '70s soul men. RIP, Al Wilson, Barry White, Billy Preston, Bobby Womack, Curtis Mayfield, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Isaac Hayes, James Brown, Joe Tex, Johnnie Taylor, Lou Rawls, Luther Ingram, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Teddy Pendergrass, Tyrone Davis, etc.

5.) Black acts dominated Billboard's Hot 100 far more in the early '70s than they did as the decade progressed, which would continue to be the case until the rise of Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie and Prince in the early '80s and later Billy Ocean. By then, though, crossover status would be relegated mostly to the biggest stars (which included Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson by decade's end) singing the glossiest pop-inflected material, with a number of No. 1 R&B hits not even bothering to hit Billboard's Hot 100. Black artists wouldn't re-emerge as consistent Top 40 mainstays until the mass mainstreaming of rap in the '00s.

6.) Had it not been for the rise and rise of disco in the mid to late'70s, black artists would have been virtually non-existent in the upper echelons of Billboard's Hot 100 after the apex of the golden age of soul.

7.) In the last few years of the '70s, after many of the big stars of the early '70s had cooled (including Al Green, Roberta Flack, Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin), black acts in the Top 40 were mostly riding the disco wave, with several male comeback kids from earlier in the decade and from the previous one (Marvin Gaye, Johnnie Taylor and Joe Tex) scoring exactly one disco smash. Stevie Wonder may have been the '70s' only soul superstar who never succumbed to the urge to get down, boogie oogie oogie.

8.) The battle of the sexes in R&B is a far more even match today than it was in the '70s. In fact, I'd give women the edge now. The only black male chart superstars who don't rap who have emerged since the end of the '80s are Usher and R. Kelly. Meanwhile, on the distaff side, we've had Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys, Beyoncé, Rihanna and, for shorter stints, Brandy, Monica and Ashanti. It doesn't quite make up for the gender inequality of the '70s (see the list below), but it's a start.

Soul Men of the '70s

The Superstars:

  • Al Green
  • Barry White
  • Marvin Gaye
  • Stevie Wonder

Legends and Semi-Legends with a String of Modest Chart Hits Punctuated by One to Several Smashes:

  • Bill Withers
  • Billy Preston
  • Bobby Womack
  • Curtis Mayfield
  • Isaac Hayes
  • Lou Rawls
  • Joe Tex
  • Joe Simon
  • Johnnie Taylor
  • Lou Rawls
  • Tyrone Davis

In and Out -- The One-Big-Hit Wonders:

  • Al Wilson
  • Carl Douglas
  • Billy Paul
  • Luther Ingram

Boy Bands:

  • The Brothers Johnson
  • The Chi-Lites
  • The Commodores
  • The Dramatics
  • Earth, Wind & Fire
  • Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes
  • The Isley Brothers
  • The Jackson 5
  • Kool & The Gang
  • LTD
  • The Manhattans
  • The Moments
  • The O'Jays
  • Parliament-Funkadelic
  • Raydio
  • Rufus (minus Chaka Khan)
  • Tavares
  • The Spinners
  • The Stylistics
  • Tower of Power
  • The Trammps
  • War
  • The Whispers

'60s Survivors:

  • The Four Tops
  • James Brown
  • Johnny Mathis
  • The Miracles/Smokey Robinson
  • Sly Stone
  • The Temptations (and David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks)

The Next Generation:

  • Jeffrey Osborne
  • Michael Jackson
  • Prince
  • Rick James
  • Teddy Pendergrass

The Ladies of '70s Soul

The Superstars:

  • Aretha Franklin
  • Chaka Khan
  • Diana Ross
  • Gladys Knight
  • Roberta Flack

One- and Two-Pop-Hit Wonders:

  • Betty Wright
  • Candi Staton
  • Dorothy Moore
  • Freda Payne
  • Gloria Gaynor
  • Jean Knight
  • Maxine Nightingale
  • Millie Jackson
  • Minnie Ripperton
  • Shirley Brown
  • Thelma Houston

Girl Groups:

  • The Emotions
  • Honey Cone
  • LaBelle
  • Love Unlimited
  • The Pointer Sisters
  • Sister Sledge
  • The Supremes
  • The Three Degrees

In a League of Her Own

  • Mavis Staples of The Staple Singers

'60s Survivor

  • Dionne Warwick

The Next Generation

  • Deniece Williams
  • Natalie Cole

10 Undersung '70s Hits By Black Acts That Everyone Should Know

The Supremes "Nathan Jones" (1971) That I spent so long knowing only Bananarama's 1988 cover, despite the Top 20 Hot 100 status of The Supremes' original rendition, is proof of how underrated The Supremes' first couple of post-Diana Ross years were.

Joe Tex "I Gotcha" (1972) It's a testament to the mainstream acceptance of black artists during the early '70s that a song this "black," with nary a hint of obvious pop appeal, would make it all the way to No. 2 on the Hot 100.

Love Unlimited "Walkin' in the Rain with the One I Love" (1972) Doesn't Barry White sound like he sort of couldn't care less when Glodean says, "I've got something to tell you," and he answers "What?" during the spoken interlude? Where was the profundo basso passion that he'd bring to "I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby" and his ensuing string of solo hits, beginning the following year?

Luther Ingram "I'll Be Your Shelter (In Time of Storm)" (1972) A common pop sentiment (Taylor Dayne took it all the way to No. 4 in 1990) that never gets old.

The Chi-Lites "Stoned Out of My Mind" (1973) Another natural high (despite its relatively lowly No. 30 Hot 100 peak) from the soul genre that gave us Ray Charles's 1966 No. 1 R&B hit "Let's Go Get Stoned" and The Stylistics' 1972 No. 10 pop single "I'm Stone in Love with You."

Tyrone Davis "There It Is" (1973) While his contemporaries were shouting from the rooftops in that declarative soul style that's cultivated over the course of years of Sunday morning church services, Davis took a distinctively more laid-back Saturday-love approach. I wouldn't be surprised if he recorded his best material while soaking in a bathtub in the recording studio at the end of the week.

The Stylistics "Rockin' Roll Baby" (1973) Like the aforementioned Chi-Lites single, a radical departure, um, stylistically, and a modest hit that in terms of greatness, still ranks right up there with the group's classics.

The Moments "Look at Me (I'm in Love)" (1975) As lush and classy as anything in the Great American Songbook, it almost sounds like Nat King Cole risen from the grave.

Joe Simon "Get Down, Get Down (Get on the Floor)" (1975) Just as funk and Philly soul were giving way to the new sound of black (and gay and young and, well, white) America, Simon had the nerve to score his only pop Top 10 with a dance song that had absolutely nothing to do with disco.

Gloria Gaynor, "Reach Out I'll Be There" (1975) It's a shame about the beyond dreadful "I Will Survive." Although the song has certainly lived up to its title, it unfortunately overshadowed the best of Gloria Gaynor, namely her back-to-back 1974/1975 singles, "Never Can Say Goodbye," which hit No. 9 in the U.S. and No. 2 in the UK, and this Four Tops cover, which the Brits wisely sent to No. 14. (Once again displaying inferior taste in music, the Yanks lifted it only as high as No. 60.)

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