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R&B: A LOVE STORY, PART 4

The next installment from Miles Marshall Lewis' in-depth R&B history tells of Aretha, James, Marvin, Stevie, Nina, Curtis and other giants.

The Queen & the Godfather

In the 2019 documentary Devil’s Pie: D’Angelo, drummer Questlove called the titular artist the last pure R&B singer on earth, the end of a continuum. I imagine one of the reasons he feels that way is because D’Angelo (unlike, say, Jorja Smith, The Weeknd or other 21st-century singers) came out of the church, and we’ve seen how heavily gospel factors into the DNA of R&B. No one proves that connection quite like Aretha Franklin.

The Jenga-block tower of rhythm and blues wouldn’t stand today without the contributions of the Queen of Soul. Born in Memphis the third child of celebrated minister C.L. Franklin and pianist-vocalist Barbara Franklin, Aretha grew up singing solos at her father’s New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. Reverend Franklin’s celebrity attracted the likes of Sam Cooke, Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland, Jackie Wilson and Clara Ward, all visitors to the Franklin home.

Aretha Franklin’s initial body of work—from 1956’s “Never Grow Old” to the 1967 album Take It Like You Give It—didn’t spur much chart action; Columbia hoped to make her into a chanteuse in the model of Sarah Vaughan. But when she migrated to Atlantic Records at the urging of label head Jerry Wexler, history happened immediately. The one-two punch of “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” backed with “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” ushered in an age of Aretha that would not subside for decades. Landmark singles like “Chain of Fools,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and her cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect” combined her gospel-drenched delivery and holy piano skills to give her a lock on R&B in the late ’60s. The latter song, a #1 pop hit, became not only Franklin’s signature song but a rallying cry for social change. She’d score 17 Top 10 pop hits and 20 #1 R&B hits. Franklin, still in her mid-20s, was literally crowned the Queen of Soul in a Time magazine cover headline, after a performance, aptly enough, at Chicago’s Regal Theater.

Who would these illustrious singers be in the annals of this history without those honorific nicknames? Fans gave James Brown several of them. Call him the Godfather of Soul, Mr. Dynamite or Soul Brother Number One but recognize that the Hardest Working Man in Show Business exponentially raised the funk quotient in R&B forever.

James Brown was born in a wooden shack in Barnwell, S.C. As a teen, inspired by Louis Jordan’s “Caldonia,” he started singing gospel after briefly living in a brothel owned by an aunt. He formed a short-lived quartet but was later locked up in a youth prison facility for stealing clothes. The relationship he formed around this time with Bobby Byrd, lead singer of The Gospel Starlighters, would change his life. Quickly joining the group, Brown was its frontman by the time they crossed paths on the road with Little Richard, who connected them with his manager. The transition from gospel to James Brown and The Famous Flames happened with the pleading 1956 ballad “Please, Please, Please,” a Top 10 R&B hit, followed by 1958’s “Try Me” (#1), 1960’s “Think” (#7) 1962’s “Night Train” (#5)… Brown would ultimately post 17 #1 R&B singles.

And, somewhere along the line, James Brown landed on the one.

He was already known for firecracker footwork, orgasmic shrieking and microphone-stand gymnastics that outpaced even Jackie Wilson and Little Richard. His explosive energy spellbound anyone who saw him live—indeed, anyone who dropped a needle on 1963’s Live at the Apollo. He’d wound the James Brown Orchestra into the tightest R&B backing band in existence (they were infamously fined in rehearsal for mistakes). Then, in 1967, Brown’s “Cold Sweat” charted a new trajectory in music.

Simply put, “Cold Sweat” was the first funk song. Plenty of funky songs existed before the summer of ’67—funk is in the ear of the beholder, and gutbucket beats had been sending partiers to the dance floor for decades. But “Cold Sweat” de-emphasized melody, abandoned the 12-bar blues progression J.B. had been using on songs like the 1965 R&B #1 “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” contained only a single definite chord change and landed squarely on the first beat of the measure—the almighty “one.” Stressing the downbeat with an almost exaggerated accent on the first beat of every measure, “Cold Sweat” birthed a new incarnation of rhythm and blues forevermore known as funk. Brown’s output from that point forward would have an even more profound impact on the music of the 1970s.

A mass of other R&B singers had their moments in the sun during the ’60s, of course, and their profiles and hit records could be surveyed here as well: Dionne Warwick, Ike & Tina Turner, etc. But few, if any, artists moved the form forward in quite the same way the Queen and the Godfather did.

New Pathways

The Apple TV+ docuseries 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything had me at hello. Born in late December of 1970, I only lived through two weeks of it; 1971 was my first full year of perception, as I absorbed the world my parents ushered me into: post-Beatles, President Nixon, Vietnam, women’s liberation, gay liberation, Black Power and music, sweet music.

Consider the 1970s the birth of contemporary R&B. The music of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder no longer reflected the Motown Sound (which had splintered and dissolved). They’d become aural auteurs—artists—whose work was establishing new standards for music. Motown and Stax took a back seat to Philadelphia International Records, the brainchild of songwriter/producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, which popularized the booming bass, orchestral strings and hi-hat rhythms that soon morphed into disco. Sly Stone and George Clinton carved out new pathways for funk, even as James Brown selected younger players for his band and kept innovating. Bob Marley brought reggae to the world through R&B, touring with The Commodores.

1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything presents the new decade as if American culture neatly turned a page from the more optimistic days of the 1960s to a year when pop culture reflected the changing tides of history. That may be an exaggeration. Nevertheless, in ’71 Soul Train became national programming, weekly placing soul singers—and dancing Black teenagers—in American living rooms. The Temptations called the times a “ball of confusion.” The ’70s were all that and more.

Makes Me Wanna Holler, Goddam

The son of a church minister, Marvin Gaye was used to sermonizing and prophecy. Once just another voice in an aspiring R&B outfit called The Moonglows, Gaye went solo after they disbanded, trying on a Black Frank Sinatra persona in his earliest days at Motown. But the jazz standards didn’t stick. Embracing the kind of straight-ahead R&B Motown was becoming famous for, Gaye hit with “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” in 1962, going pop soon thereafter with “Hitch Hike” and “Pride and Joy.” He ascended as Motown’s most prominently successful solo act in the ’60s, but this was an era when most R&B albums consisted of hits coupled with filler. As the ’70s approached, the practice of concept albums and using all of an album’s songs to serve greater artistic statements gained in popularity. At 32, with a younger brother serving in Vietnam, Gaye was more than ready.

Motown head Berry Gordy, famously, was not, and he would spend the subsequent 50 years explaining why he was against 1971’s What’s Going On; Gordy wanted to stay away from politics and continue serving up escapist entertainment. Gaye knew better. He unleashed The Funk Brothers to explore their jazz capabilities, multitracked his own voice to harmonize with himself and dug deeper than ever lyrically to express the social frustrations of urban communities all around the country. As the song titles—“Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler),” “Save the Children,” “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”—suggest, this was a questing, activist album. R&B had grown all the way up, inspiring the inner artiste in African-American singer-songwriters. After decades of clinging to The Beatles, Rolling Stone nowadays considers What’s Going On the greatest album of all time.

Nina Simone categorically distanced herself from R&B from the beginning of her career, despite scoring hits on that chart with “I Loves You, Porgy” and “I Put a Spell on You” when Gaye was still suited up and clean cut. “I play black classical music,” she once said. Regardless of what it was called, Simone’s work earned her the protest-music crown even prior to What’s Going On.

Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, N.C., she studied classical piano at Juilliard for a year in preparation for applying to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Her “dream school” denied her admission, however, a slight she attributed to racial discrimination. Simone debuted on record in 1959 with Little Girl Blue at the age of 26. She went on to marry pop and gospel vocals to classical music, developing a jazzy sound she took to a European distributor, the Netherlands-based Philips Records, which released a series of albums from 1964 to 1967 that reflected a profound evolution of her musical output. Despite the admixture of gospel, blues and jazz, their classification on radio and the Billboard charts was, unsurprisingly, R&B.

Nina Simone in Concert, issued in 1964, featured “Mississippi Goddam,” a straightforward condemnation of the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the church bombing that killed four Black girls in Alabama, both of which had occurred in ’63. Simone called it her “first civil rights song.” It was boycotted in some Southern states; one radio station smashed the vinyl and returned the shards to Philips.

An unabashed Black nationalist, Simone was soon revered in the Black community and around the world for songs like “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” (inspired by Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry), “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)” (mourning Martin Luther King Jr.), “Backlash Blues” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.”

In fact, by the height of the Civil Rights Movement, speaking truth to power through song had already been bubbling in rhythm and blues. 2020’s Oscar-nominated One Night in Miami made it common knowledge that crooner Sam Cooke’s 1964 social justice anthem, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” was inspired in part by Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” released in 1962.

Amid this turbulent landscape came the gentle falsetto of Curtis Mayfield, lead singer of The Impressions.

Born in Chicago, Mayfield grew up in the 1950s in the Cabrini-Green housing projects made famous decades later as the setting of Good Times. He sang in church, learned guitar and piano and formed The Roosters with choir buddy Jerry Butler. Performing a repertoire of doo-wop, gospel and R&B, the group signed to Vee-Jay in 1958 as Jerry Butler & The Impressions. Butler soon left to pursue a fruitful solo career of his own, and The Impressions crossed over to pop radio without him. “It’s All Right” (1963) established the group, but Mayfield’s penchant for social and political commentary quickly dominated the outfit’s output in songs like “Keep On Pushing,” “People Get Ready” and “We’re a Winner.”

As a solo artist in the ’70s, he took his sublime melodies, fluttery guitar hooks and fat funk—all in support of thoughtful, socially conscious lyrics—to new heights. Like Isaac Hayes, Mayfield saw mega-success with a Blaxploitation soundtrack, the crackling 1972 set Superfly. But on such powerhouse solo recordings as “(Don’t Worry) If There’s Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go,” “Future Shock” and “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue,” he amplified the political possibilities of R&B.

Among those who marched in after What’s Going On, Nina Simone and Curtis Mayfield kicked down the door was Gil Scott-Heron. He was more poet than singer, however, more of a Black Bob Dylan than a male Nina Simone. Born in Chicago in 1949, he is a forefather of both hip-hop and spoken-word.

In the liner notes to his debut album, 1970’s Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, Scott-Heron recognizes not only Simone but Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Malcolm X and Black Panthers co-founder Huey Newton. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” stands as his greatest protest, its title becoming a cultural touchstone. His trenchant political commentary took on Ronald Reagan twice (“B Movie,” “Re-Ron”), assayed apartheid (the boisterous “Johannesburg”), mulled the dangers of nuclear power (“We Almost Lost Detroit”) and, in “Winter in America,” captured the weight of despair under right-wing rule.

 LISTEN

These playlists are intended as the soundtrack to the above narrative. 

Playlist #4 is a royal melange of James Brown, Aretha, Nina Simone, Solomon Burke and other regal heavyweights.

 

Playlist #5 showcases the genius of Sly Stone, George Clinton, Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield, among other greats.

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