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Music Last Updated: Aug 3rd, 2012 - 12:00:09


Songstresses..Innovators
By Members of Black Alumni Network--Columbia Graduate School of Journalism
Jun 7, 2012, 12:37

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Black Music Month Special: Eternal impact of showmen, songstresses and innovators

Winter and spring were seasons to pay tribute to musical showmen, songstresses and innovators.
Dick Clark, 82, who made rock ‘n roll safe enough to broadcast into parents’ living rooms, died in April. Clark’s “American Bandstand” was the iconic televised teen dance show of the late 1950s, 1960s and ’70s.


In the early ’70s, Don Cornelius audaciously launched “Soul Train,” a syndicated teen dance show that celebrated R&B, funk, fashion and dance moves. Cornelius’ show was a force of nature that shook American culture. A number of my black peers expressed bitterness during the Clark media appreciations because in the early years of “Bandstand,” cameras would not linger on Black dance couples.


However, when “Soul Train” pulled into the station, Clark acknowledged that hostile white grownups were going to have to adjust their attitudes; the boyish looking host was not going to lose market share to formidable showman Cornelius, 75, who died in February. “Bandstand” integrated and “Soul Train” set records as one of TV’s long-running syndicated show.


The first songstress who is gone but never forgotten is Whitney Houston, the child of musical royalty in New Jersey [Dionne Warwick, Cissy Houston]. Houston, 48, died tragically in Los Angeles on the eve of the Grammy Awards in February.


Houston’s music was cooked in the black church, simmered in soul and topped off with pretty pop. Evelyn White, J-’84, shows us in a 1992 tribute.


As we were going to press with this fifth annual music edition, Donna Summer, 63, died at home in Florida after a battle with cancer. Summer was lauded in media tributes as the queen of disco in the ‘70s. I commend the precision reporting of the BBC; it counted 23 audible orgasms in Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby,” the 1975 tune that was banned from some radio stations.


As a college student, I was hypnotized by the 1977 “Four Seasons of Love” LP in which Summer curled suggestively on a crescent moon. To a futurist rhythm section beat, Summer wailed “I feel loooooove.” Bodies were compelled to move on dance floors everywhere. IMAGE: music.yahoo.com
Fortunately, Carole King is still with us and the amazing songwriter turned troubadour chronicled her enormous contribution to pop music in a memoir published this spring.


Eight colleagues and yours truly shared soundtracks playing in their heads over the past 50 years, ending in two and seven. What was the song that was your theme music?
--Wayne Dawkins, J-’80


1962: Motown’s spokeswoman for teen angst
Mary Wells was my all-time favorite Motown girl in the 1960s. She was cute and her bouffant wigs were to die for. Mary Wells’ greatest hits, though written by men, spoke to angst of teenagers like me who always had a crush on one boy or another.


I played “Two Lovers,” Mary Wells’ monster 1962 hit over and over and very loud, lip syncing every line. The “trick” of the song is that instead of two lovers, Wells’ is singing about one man with a split personality. In ’62, my crush Stanley Jones, wore white pants year-round. I’m sure they were the same pair of white pants, but no matter, Stanley looked good to me.


Moreover, Stanley was exotic because he didn’t live in East Harlem. He lived a long train ride away in Brooklyn’s Marcy projects, the same public housing complex where rapper Jay-Z grew up.


I played my Mary Wells records on my own record player, purchased with money earned from a summer job. Unlike my parents’ floor model hi-fi in the living room, my record player came in a suitcase. Pop the top latch and the turntable dropped down. The speakers were attached to the carrying case by hinges. The contraption was portable, but it was heavy as hell.


Many early Motown songs are still in heavy rotation on urban radio. Sadly, Mary Wells’ songs are not among them. I do believe that Mary Wells would smile down from heaven if this generation’s hit makers Cee Lo Green or John Legend resurrected some of the sweetest soul music of my youth.
-- Betty Winston Baye, J-‘80


1967 – So much sweet soul music
“I Heard it Through the Grapevine” that it took “A Little Bit O' Soul,” not to mention “Respect,” to “Tell It Like It Is.”

“The Happening” made us want to “Boogaloo Down Broadway” – “Funky Broadway” -- to that “Get on the Good Foot” in 1972, he catapulted himself and his group through the roof of American popular music. Brown’s music, its throbbing rhythm and deep bass lines, moved audiences beyond what white America had ever seen, or heard. And in some ways even felt.


In his book “Hit Me,” Brown's one-time tenor saxophonist Fred Wesley recounts his years with Brown and how he finally left the band. Armed with muscles, moves and a throaty voice that would forever, even during his final years, characterize his recordings and performances. Brown employed those same muscles as he penned and sang themes of the civil rights movement including “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” tunes for which Wesley has a special fondness and who recounts that were recorded in one uncanny take by Brown.


In the true tradition of the call- and- response pattern of African-American church music and blues, Brown's bands of the 1960s and 1970s revealed both the rhythmic complexity of black music but also the urban energy that had swelled up in the nation's cities following the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


It’s an undeniable fact that that James Brown set forth to sail and charted the course of black music in America. Countless entertainers, politicians, lay folk and even presidents all heralded and recognized Brown as the “Godfather of Soul.” Brown's fans included black people, African immigrants and others from across the globe.


Brown taught America and the world how to make things funky. Shortly after Brown's “Live at the Apollo” was released in 1963, it raced to No. 2 on the pop charts. It is still regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time.
-- Kip Branch, J-’79


1977: ‘Look to the Rainbow’ after ‘Old Glory’ attack
He sang as if out-of-body, releasing ephemeral waves layered with emotion into the universe. His crystal lyrics laced with nasal moans, clucks and hyperventilated breaths replicating a plucked bass, muffled vibraphone or strikes of the conga. Al Jarreau live is surreal; his 1977 “Look to the Rainbow” a sonic hologram.


Recorded in Europe, the double album is an aural array of stage banter, fervent applause, classic “We Got By,” “Take Five” and 10 other songs about love, faith and tolerance.


Among the cuts is “You Don’t See Me”, which Jarreau performed live in studio for Boston‘s “Say Brother” program a year earlier. I was a college intern at the PBS television station where after graduation employment seemed plausible. Jarreau delivered an otherworldly performance.
Boston, one month later – netherworld-- as Ted Landsmark, a local lawyer, barely escaped impalement with an American flag while crossing City Hall Plaza. My professional expectations muddied once again by political storms over school busing.


“Look to the Rainbow” captured the second “Best Jazz Vocal Performance” Grammy a year after its debut. Jarreau succeeded Ella Fitzgerald, the first recipient in 1977. Somehow, that year, I missed episodes of the January broadcast of “Roots”. By year’s end: I was a Boston transplant, settled in the South End, A Pulitzer went to the book, “Roots” and the “Soiling of Old Glory” photograph. A Tony in tow, off to On Broadway danced the choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf”.
--Kissette Bundy, J ’87


1982: Most gorgeous fish in ‘musiquarium’
Nineteen Eighty Two was a spectacular performing arts year for African-Americans: Charles Fuller won the Pulitzer Prize for drama for “A Soldier’s Play.” Lou Gossett Jr. won the best Supporting Actor Oscar for “An Officer and a Gentleman.” Jennifer Holiday won the Best Actress Tony Award for “Dream Girls” [Ben Harvey was recognized as best actor for the same musical].


That year Stevie Wonder, one of Motown’s perennial stars, released “That Girl,” the song that was the soundtrack in my head.


“That Girl” was the child prodigy’s grown-up version of his 1969 hit ballad, “My Cherie Amour.” Both songs were ballads about a man who loved a woman from afar. The difference between 13 years was maturity: Little Stevie Wonder ached from futility in 1969 [“I’ve been near her, but she never noticed me”], however in 1982, 30-something Stevie Wonder mustered the courage to win the heart of that amazing woman who “doesn’t use her love to make him weak, she uses love to keep him strong,” because his “mind and soul and body,” needs her.


“That Girl” opened with a bouncy beat. Wonder’s battery of keyboards complemented the drummer. Midway through the 5-minute anthem, Wonder turned to his handheld device – a harmonica – and performed his trademark solo.


“That Girl,” a track from “Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I” LP, was a No. 1 R&B, No. 4 Pop and No. 10 Adult Contemporary tune of 1982, according to liner notes from “Stevie Wonder: The Definitive Collection” CD.


No doubt, “That Girl” was the exotic, pouty lipped tropical fish of the musiquarium. -- Wayne Dawkins, J-’80


1987: Cool delivery, hard beats, complex rhymes
Remember LPs? The cover grabbed me: “Paid in Full.”
Dapper Dan leather and crazy gold, cornrows and cash money, with a dollar bill backdrop. Eric B. and Rakim. I “profiled” them like a state trooper on the Jersey turnpike: Fast money. Armed and dangerous. Endangered species.


Then the needle dropped. “I Ain’t No Joke.” Not even! More like cool delivery mixed with hard beats, complex rhymes, five-percenter science and street-corner swagger.


“I start to think/ and then I sink/Into the paper/ like I was ink/When I'm writing I'm trapped in between the lines/I escape/ when I finish the rhyme/I got soul”


Soul indeed. Rocking parties shouting “yes, yes, y’all,” would still have its place, and “off the dome” improvisation will always catch recognition, but this was the written word of a true poet – game-changing shit. Plus, it was 1987. Affirmative action was under attack, and Willie Horton had replaced Martin as the definitive black face in America’s psychic dictionary. The “War on Drugs” was on (read Michelle Alexander’s brilliant “The New Jim Crow”") and social programs were out.


But Rakim stepped up to the mic as if to say, judge us if you must, profile us like we know you will, but don’t play us cheap, ‘cause I got what Charlie Parker had, and Muhammad Ali and Harriet Tubman, too.


So, I’m good, yo, “Cause all you need is soul, self-esteem will release/ The rest is up to you/ Rakim'll say peace.”
--Fred Johnson, J-’80


1992: Whitney’s shout out to Chaka
All praises to Ashford and Simpson for writing “I’m Every Woman,” which Chaka Khan (born Yvette Stevens) rocked to the top of the charts with her signature soul wail, in 1978. Whitney Houston added a gospel-tinged intro (“Whatever you want, whatever you need …”) when she covered the song and propelled it to now immortal heights on the soundtrack for her 1992 film The Bodyguard.


I was in the last throes of J-school when Houston achieved stardom with her 1985 debut release Whitney Houston. One night found me at a club in the Village where I met the singer’s father, John Houston. The particulars of the encounter are now fuzzy, but I’m sure that pioneering professor (and music critic) Phyl Garland was in the mix.


Mindful of Houston’s meteoric ascent, I scribbled my digits on a piece of paper and told Mr. Houston that I’d love to interview his daughter.


Call it “one moment in time.” My phone didn’t ring. Still, I followed Houston’s career and thought she threw down (in the Diana Ross/Lady Sings The Blues tradition) in The Bodyguard. That she paid tribute to Chaka Khan in the funk-filled closing riff of “I’m Every Woman” struck me as a class act and the epitome of sisterhood.


I like to think that Whitney’s shout out to Chaka was inspired by The Emotions, who sang back-up on Nancy Wilson’s sublime 1989 cover of their classic hit “Don’t Ask My Neighbors.” May Nippy rest in peace.
--Evelyn C. White J-’85


1997: I like the way you work it (no diggity)
If there ever was a song that should be included in the “soundtrack of life,” it is “No Diggity,” a hip-hop/funk grind recorded by BlackStreet, a group co-founded in the early 1990s by New Jack Swing architect Teddy Riley.


Released in July, 1996, the song reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 that November —overcoming “Macarena.” It won the 1998 Grammy for Best R&B performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals and came in at No. 32 in VH1’s 100 Greatest Songs of the ’90s.


A video of the song directed by filmmaker Hype Williams received nominations for Best R&B video and Best Rap Video on 1997’s MTV Video Music Awards. The song is also heard on an episode of the 1994-98 Fox police drama New York Undercover.


“No Diggity” begins with an altered sample of Bill Withers’ 1971 song “Grandma’s Hands.” A distinctive piano flourish moves the groove along. Mixed in with the vocals are raps from Riley, Dr. Dre, and rapper and Teddy Riley protégé Queen Pen. It was one of those songs that made you smile and turn up the volume, whether you were driving, hanging out at the beach, or cleaning your kitchen. IMAGE: metrojolt.com


It was guaranteed to light up a club. I remember being in a club that started the evening with a lackadaisical crowd standing around talking and drinking. When the D.J. played “No Diggity,” they hit the dance floor. Immediately.


In 2010, a BlackStreet that included new members recorded an instrumental version.

They didn’t need to. Why remake something that was already made so well?
--Kirk Jackson, J-’82


2002: Musical talent, not bravado, ruled the day
Less was more that year. The following February at the Grammy Awards, a pretty, young woman sat at the piano, played and sang ballads. She was not overproduced; you could really hear her sing and play an instrument, unlike too many recordings by artists of questionable skill.


There was little need to question the musical chops of Norah Jones, 24, daughter of Ravi Shankar, who in the 1960s turned rock and jazz stars on to Eastern music.


At the Grammy’s Norah Jones swept away with five awards for Record of the year [“Don’t Know Why”], Album of the Year [“Come Away with Me”]; Best New Artist [Jones bested Ashanti, Michelle Branch, Avril Lavigne and John Mayer], Best Female Pop Vocal Performance [“Don’t
Know Why”], and best Pop Vocal Album [“Come Away with Me”].


Just weeks before the “shock and awe” bravado of the misguided second Gulf War, Norah Jones’ subtle, minimalist music were reminders that great art did not have appear in ostentatious packages.
--Wayne Dawkins, J-’80


Last year’s playlist: “Wait a Minute Mr. Postman,” Marvelettes [1961, photo left]; “The Sidewinder,” Lee Morgan [1966]; “What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye [1971] “Disco Lady,”
Johnnie Taylor [1976]; “Just the two of us,” Bill Withers & Grover Washington Jr. [1981] “That’s what friends are for,” Dionne Warwick & friends [1986]; “Unforgetable…with love,” Natalie Cole [1991]; “Doin’ it,” LL Cool J/”Waiting to Exhale” soundtrack [1996]; “Independent women,” Destiny’s Child [2001]; “Hips don’t lie,” Wyclef Jean & Shakira/”Temperature,” Sean Paul [2006]


2007: When a good girl went bad
“Umbrella” wasn't Rihanna's first single. That song, the reggae-infused hit “Pon de Replay,” was released two years earlier in 2005. The Barbadian singer was already a fixture on BET's 106 & Park and MTV's Total Request Live when "Umbrella" was released, but the song completely transformed her career.

The name of the new album was “Good Girl Gone Bad,” which also appeared to be the direction given to Rihanna’s stylists. In the video for "Umbrella" her cropped asymmetrical and darkened hair, and revealing black leather ensembles were a departure from the easy breezy, youthful, Rihanna the public knew.

The track featured her mentor, rapper Jay-Z, who signed her to Def Jam when he was president of the historic label. In the song, written by
singer/songwriter the Dream, Rihanna assures her lover she's no fair weather friend.

Now that it's raining more than ever
Know that we'll still have each other
You can stand under my umbrella
You can stand under my umbrella


The song’s production overshadowed Rihanna's vocals and critics took note, but the song was a hit, landing in the No. 1 spot and staying there for seven weeks. She'll never be able to sing as well as Beyonce or dance as well as Britney, but at 24 Rihanna already has more No. 1 singles than the former and is a more consistent performer than the latter.

“Umbrella” is the song that made Rihanna a superstar.
--Sabrina Ford, J-’07

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