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R&B: A LOVE STORY,
PART 5

A Sense of Wonder

Stevie Wonder on social media makes me ner-vous—me and millions of other Americans who’ve loved his music nonstop. Because when there are too many random Facebook posts about Stevie, or #StevieWonder trends on Twitter, we automatically fear the 71-year-old elder statesman of R&B has passed on to that eternal ribbon in the sky. Even after the deaths of James Brown, Michael Jackson, Prince, Aretha Franklin and so many other musical giants, his will be the one we absolutely won’t be able to deal with.

When it comes to R&B in the 1970s, the gold standard is undeniably, indisputably Stevie Wonder. Like Sammy Davis Jr. before him and Michael Jackson after him, Wonder entered the entertainment world as a child star. Motown signed him as an 11-year-old prodigy, getting their money’s worth when 1963’s “Fingertips” shot to the top of the pop chart two years later. More hits followed (Motown could do no wrong then), but something else altogether unfolded once Wonder turned 21 and outlined his creative autonomy in a new contract. As with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Berry Gordy had reservations. What resulted nonetheless turned out to be one of the greatest creative streaks in the history of pop music. Inspired by Gaye, Wonder—a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter as well as a singer —began to approach deeper themes and social issues with 1971’s Where I’m Coming From.

The covers of subsequent albums Music of My Mind (1972), Talking Book (1972), Innervisions (1973), Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974) and 1975’s grand opus, Songs in the Key of Life—the last three won Album of the Year Grammys—are permanently etched on the brain of any Black child of the ’70s schlepped around to the house parties of his parents’ 20-something friends. Lucking into an original copy of that double album at a Woodstock flea market last summer, I felt I’d stumbled upon a precious childhood toy. The sienna browns of the jacket prefigured those coloring the cover of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, released more than 20 years later, and the in-the-pocket, one-man-band musicianship of the aforementioned records anticipated Prince.

One of the greatest innovations of Wonder’s music was his exploration of electronics and the possibilities of the then-new technology of synthesizers and beat machines. From the joyous buoyancy of “Isn’t She Lovely” to the deep funk of “Superstition” to the melancholy of “Joy Inside My Tears” and the beauty of “You and I,” the blueprint for so much of the R&B to come sprang from the creativity of Wonder in his 20s. The influence of that work remains inescapable.

 Fine Lines

Remember rock ’n’ roll vs. R&B and the question of categorization? A remixed version of the same issue returns in 1970s Black popular music when it comes to sorting R&B, funk and disco. No one can argue that the funk made by bands like Parliament, Cameo, Kool & the Gang, The Ohio Players, Zapp, Slave and others of their ilk wasn’t R&B; nor can one say the same period’s nightclub-oriented, four-on-the-floor workouts generated by Donna Summer, Barry White, Chic and even The Bee Gees weren’t R&B.

Billboard never had a separate funk chart, though it did introduce a Disco Action chart in 1974 that lives on today as Dance Club Songs. But is it really as simple as deciding that whatever appears on the R&B chart is, in effect, R&B? For an example from the rap realm, fast forward to 1991, when Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” entered the Top 10 of the Hot R&B Singles chart. Was that R&B? Of course not.

Both funk and disco, with their own deep histories, hits and histrionics, deserve their own heavy evaluation outside of an R&B appreciation like this. For our immediate purposes, however, the fine line between R&B and disco is noteworthy for its connection to prolific songwriter/producer team Gamble & Huff’s Philadelphia International Records and another essential label house band.

By the 1970s, dance music had come a long way from Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.” Motown’s Funk Brothers and Stax’s Bar-Kays, too, belonged to another age. But in the City of Brotherly Love, MFSB (officially Mother Father Sister Brother but unofficially something less wholesome), unquestionably the fundament of an R&B label—cue Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones”—was laying down the driving rhythms beneath disco mainstays like the group’s own “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” aka the Soul Train theme, The O’Jays’ “Love Train” and “I Love Music,” McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ “Bad Luck” featuring Teddy Pendergrass, among others.

 Elemental R&B

Verzuz leapt generational bounds in April 2021 when Earth, Wind & Fire faced off against The Isley Brothers. Though he annoyed quite a few Instagram Live viewers with his commentary, comedian Steve Harvey was the perfect host, personifying the energy of a Black family reunion’s drunk uncle—it was easy to picture his wonder years spent fumbling with bra hooks to the strains of “Footsteps in the Dark,” “Devotion” or “That’s the Way of the World.” (BTW: Verzuz battles are nothing new; the monetized “who’s better than whom” idea of producers Swizz Beatz and Timbaland has existed at least as far back as Prohibition-era speakeasies, to say nothing of the heated debates of Black barbershops.)

The Isley Brothers (currently lead singer Ronald Isley and guitarist Ernie Isley) lay claim to one of the deepest music catalogs in R&B’s rich history. They inspired The Beatles by being the first to make a hit out of “Twist and Shout,” in 1959. Familiarity with the work of The Isley Brothers separates the discerning from the dilettante, a major reason hip-hop artists have mined so much from their music, many no doubt nostalgic for the days when all they aspired to, while indulging in “That Lady” (1973) “For the Love of You” (1975) and other linchpins of R&B radio, was adulthood. In addition to their stone soul bona fides, the Isleys were a living reminder that rock music was Black music, which their brilliant covers of Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” and even Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze” underscored; Ernie’s blistering guitar was their secret weapon.

Earth, Wind & Fire, a nearly uncategorizable group out of Chicago, generated R&B, soul, funk, disco and pop. Some of their songs even approached Afropop thanks to their persistent use of the kalimba. Singer-songwriter-producer Maurice White, bassist Verdine White and singer Philip Bailey made up the core of EW&F, putting on some of the grandest live displays R&B audiences of the ’70s had ever seen. Pyrotechnics, levitating pyramids and guitarists, laser lightning and an Afrocentric cosmology allowed EW&F concerts to eclipse even the most indulgent arena rock shows. Their biggest hits— “Shining Star,” “September,” “Boogie Wonderland,” “That’s the Way of the World,” “Sing a Song,” “After the Love Has Gone,” their virtuosic reworking of The Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life”—have never ceased to reverberate.

The Jackson Supremacy

As Earth, Wind & Fire’s stage shows would suggest, in the 1970s, R&B meant spectacle. This was not lost on The Jacksons and their long-beloved lead singer, Michael Jackson.

Jackie, Jermaine, Tito, Marlon and Michael had hosted their own TV variety shows. They’d been on the cover of Right On! magazine nearly every month of 1973. They’d mounted a Las Vegas revue with sisters Janet and La Toya. They’d wowed the world doing the Robot to “Dancing Machine” on Soul Train. They’d toured internationally. Even when their singles weren’t hitting the very top, they’d never completely lost the luster of their turn-of-the-decade Motown days as The Jackson 5. An album called The Jacksons—the first of two on Gamble & Huff’s Philadelphia International—was responsible for the disco-inflected “Enjoy Yourself.” It was 1978’s Destiny and 1980’s Triumph, however, that represented the adult Jacksons at their finest: in full creative control, mixing disco, funk and their well-known vocal harmonies into peak ’70s R&B.

“Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground),” “Blame It on the Boogie,” “Can You Feel It,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Lovely One”—the grown-up Jacksons released almost as many career bests in three years as they had in their entire tenure as The Jackson 5. Even Prince—MJ’s 1980s rival—would perform “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” regularly in concert after Michael’s death decades later. Amid all this came Michael’s stratospheric Off the Wall.

In 1978, while filming The Wiz in New York with Diana Ross, Michael Jackson was spotted at Studio 54. He was 20, the perfect age, with the perfect amount of experience, to personify the zeitgeist. This was the point at which he met Quincy Jones (who helmed the Wiz soundtrack) and decided that the 45-year-old producer, who’d blazed trails as a visionary jazz artist, film composer and record maker, was perfect to oversee his first solo album since 1975’s Forever, Michael. With 1979’s Off the Wall, his creative confidence and facility for self-expression reached new heights. Whe-ther he realized it or not, modern pop classics like “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” “Rock With You” and “Off the Wall” made it obvious to the general public that Michael no longer needed The Jacksons. Soon enough, Thriller—the top-selling album of all time—would prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt.

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