…a few days late, due to a relaxing few days in Spain and not too late to wish one and all a happy and ever-soulful new year! Just before I left the cold and damp of London for the sunshine (all those years in L.A. definitely spoiled me!), one of my good friends invited me to celebrate his birthday in part by going to an ‘80s-themed dance night! Initially, I was a little ‘concerned’ that I wouldn’t enjoy… “The ‘80s?” I thought, “boring!” Wow, what a revelation and how wrong could I be! It only took a few spins of some of the best tracks of that era to remind me that it was an amazing decade musically and on a professionally as a working music journalist (initially with “Blues & Soul” and then as a freelancer for publications like “Billboard” and “Black Radio Exclusive” among many others… First, the music on that Saturday night a few weeks ago : it didn’t take much to have the entire dance floor to be full as THE POINTER SISTERS prompted us to “Jump” and then there was WHITNEY HOUSTON with “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and JANET JACKSON with “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” while clips from the famed ‘80s U.S. soap opera Dynasty (which I was definitely addicted to…along with ‘The Colbys’!) appeared on the video screen at the club while we were jamming to PRINCE’s “1999”….
….Listening to Ms. Jackson (as in Janet), I remember vividly our first interview just a week or so before the release of the groundbreaking “Control” album in 1986. She was sitting in a conference room at A&M Records and to say she was shy would be an understatement. No sign of the bold soul sister that would emerge in the wake of the success of the Jam & Lewis-produced multi-million-selling album, more a young woman finding her way, so to speak. She was cordial, somewhat reserved and open to talking about the clear difference between the music she had been doing on her previous two albums and the more radical approach she had taken with Jam & Lewis on “Control”. She did touch upon her then-recent recent divorce from James DeBarge (of the family group of the same name) and as I recall, she did say that the songs on “Control” very much reflected where she was in terms of stepping out from under the influence of her famous family. Certainly, no dance club or radio station could avoid playing the compelling tracks from “Control” and subsequent albums like “Rhythm Nation 1814” (released in 1989) and 1993’s ‘janet’.
One of my cherished memories in the wake of the release of that album was doing a lengthy interview with Janet at her Malibu home, very different from our previous conversation seven years earlier. We talked about the record (which included one of my all-time favourite Janet songs, “That’s The Way Love Goes”) and its’ themes and as I recall, we expanded our conversation to talk about social issues and more personal matters. What was supposed to be an hour-long session turned into two hours-plus at which point, I asked if I could use the phone (1993…before we ALL had mobiles!) to call a taxi (since I was unusually, a non-driver in L.A.). To my delight and surprise, Janet turned to her then-husband Rene and asked which direction they were heading when they left the house…and subsequently offered me a ride back to my humble abode in the Wilshire/La Brea area of Los Angeles! The memory of Janet, Rene and one of her dancers in a jeep singing along with (yes, it’s true!) her brother Michael’s “Thriller” album is as strong now as it was then and as I got out on a quiet Dunsmuir Avenue, I wanted so badly to stand in the street and yell, ‘guess who just gave me a ride and dropped me off?!’ The subsequent interview which appeared in “Blues & Soul” prompted Janet to send me a bouquet of flowers (I kid you not!) to thank me for quoting her accurately! When I reflect on Janet, I also think of the other major artists who first emerged in the ‘80s – like Whitney, Anita Baker, Sade, Luther Vandross, Kenny ‘Babyface’ Edmonds and so many key players that are still so much a part of the rich tapestry of soul music – that I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to interview… I guess there must be a book in there somewhere!
…and speaking of books… during my little sojourn in Spain, I did manage to accomplish an unusual feat! I actually read two whole books, back-to-back! Shockingly, I don’t read books anywhere near as often as I used to. I’ve started quite a few and they’re still sitting on my shelf waiting for me to finish reading them. That was not the case for the 2nd and 3rd books which are part of a trilogy by UK author STUART COSGROVE which are well-crafted histories of three specific and important years in soul music – 1967, 1968 and 1969. Stuart’s first tome on the subject, “Detroit ’67: The Year That Changed Soul” is a compelling assessment of how soul music (in its varied and different forms) was emerging with the success of mainstream artists from the Motown stable as well as the undisputed ‘Queen Of Soul,’ ARETHA FRANKLIN whose global impact was literally just beginning to take hold after half-a-dozen years of (if The Four Tops will forgive my reference!) ‘standing in the shadows’ while her Motown peers and neighbours were storming the music charts on both sides of the Atlantic. But the book, like the other two parts of the trilogy, views the music against the backdrop of America’s turbulent years dealing with civil rights, the Vietnam war, the vast economic disparity based on race, the emergent counter-culture’s quest for freedom and self-expression and the introduction of drugs on a large scale within America’s inner cities.
The second book, “Memphis ’68: The Tragedy Of Southern Soul” covers the re-emergence of Stax Records in the wake of the December 1967 death of OTIS REDDING and the April 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the devastating effect of his murder on the city and indeed, America and the world. It is well written and illustrates clearly that the development of soul music paralleled the social and political changes in the (sad to say still relevant) struggle for justice and freedom. Needless to say, I would recommend reading all three parts of the trilogy (the third, “Harlem ’69: The Future Of Soul” suggests – as the back cover description references – that DONNY HATHAWAY (who tragically left us on January 13, some 41 years ago), KING CURTIS, MILES DAVIS with his then-wife BETTY MABRY – are, in 1969, reinventing black music, which should give readers of this blog sufficient incentive to check it out!).
…Before moving on, mention of Cosgrove’s second book is a prompt and reminder of the key role that Memphis and indeed Stax Records and its array of pioneering musicians, songwriters, producers and artists have played in modern culture. Thankfully, some of those visionaries are continuing to be honoured: one of the mainstays at Stax, musical icon ISAAC HAYES is being awarded a posthumous GRAMMY© Lifetime Achievement Award in a special ceremony at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on April 18, 2020; while MAVIS STAPLES is one of the nominees for The Blues Music Awards to be presented May 7, 2020 at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts in Memphis.
Later this month, to help kick off its 20th anniversary in 2020, the Stax Music Academy will open for the legendary BOOKER T. JONES of Booker T. & the MGs at Crosstown Theater in Memphis on January 18.
…Finally…and by no means last but not least, while Memphis has in many ways rightfully been considered a very key focus for some of the finest soul music to have ever been created, there are literally dozens of wonderful artists who hail from other parts of the South. The term ‘Southern Soul’ may not be as commonly used in musical vernacular but nonetheless the men and women who are mainstays in soul music from Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, The Carolinas and Texas (and I’m no doubt missing a few states!) have made a massive contribution to the genre’s timelessness.
One unheralded pioneer is fortunately the focus of a brand new180g vinyl release from Run Out Groove who are releasing a limited edition (and limited edition means limited edition!) collection of (16) tracks by singer/songwriter and left-handed guitarist BARBARA LYNN, whose music I have personally been listening to since 1964! ‘The Atlantic Years: 1968-1973’ is a wonderful collection of some of the very best music Beaumont, Texas-based Barbara ever recorded during a career that has spanned almost sixty years, kickstarted with her classic “You’ll Lose A Good Thing,” a new recording of which was included on her 1967 Atlantic LP, “Here Is Barbara Lynn” and is one of the key cuts on this new vinyl release. I had the privilege of interviewing Barbara on a couple of occasions, mostly notably for a compilation of her music a few years back and shared with her how much she had been a part of my own history as a soul music lover. There are some gems on this vinyl release including a bonus track, “Soul Deep” (which I am proud to say I uncovered during my tape vault research back in 2002) and standouts such as “This Is The Thanks I Get.” If you’re a soul music vinyl collector, you won’t want to miss this one!
And as a PS….do check out the latest SoulMusic Records/X5 Music release… first time available digitally, a great album by legendary vocalist LENNY WILLIAMS entitled “Chill,” with executive production by PRESTON GLASS. True highlight is Lenny’s version of the Hall & Oates’ classic “Sara(h) Smile” which you can hear on my Spotify playlist associated with this blog!
As always, stay soulful …
With respect and appreciation….
The British Ambassador Of Soul