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Music Last Updated: Oct 12th, 2011 - 14:12:57

A Soundtrack of Life
By The Black Alumni Network Newsletter, Columbia Graduate School of Journalism
Aug 29, 2011, 12:49

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So far, eclectic musical delights have dotted 2011. In February, Esperanza Spalding, the bohemian acoustic bassist, won the Best New Artist of the Year Grammy for Chamber Music Society," a collection of jazz tunes and poems set to small group or solo instrumentals.

Then in March NPR reported that the South by Southwestmusic festival in Austin was much more than country and rock music. For example, an emerging New York based hip-hop/r&b artist traveled west to court fans. Sad news arrived on April 26: Phoebe Snow, 60, died, yet the news of her passing stoked fond memories of her bluesy 1974 hit Poetry Man."

Winter-spring mileposts like Spalding, South by Southwest, and Snow guide us to our fourth annual special music edition. Three decades ago, Kenny Gamble of Philadelphia International Records established June as Black Music Month to showcase the artistry, legacy and economic impact of popular music.

In June, before the recent transition of Nick Ashford, a handful of Black journalists, alumni from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, revealed soundtracks playing in their heads for the past 50 years ending in one or six. Their choices included The Marvelettes “Mr. Postman” from 1961; Johnnie Taylor’s “Disco Lady” from 1976; or the Destiny’s Child anthem “Independent Women” from 2001. Read, listen [to audio links] and enjoy.

What’s your soundtrack of life in 2011? – Wayne Dawkins

1961: Going postal, in the name of love
The year delivered some of the most indelible tunes on what we now call the oldies charts: “He Don’t Love You [Like I Love You]” by Jerry “the Iceman” Butler … Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road, Jack”… “Shop Around” from The Miracles … Ben E. King’s iconic “Stand by Me.” Bobby Lewis’ “Tossin’ and Turnin’” dominated the R&B charts for 10 weeks through the summer of 1961, and Ernie K-Doe’s rhythmic lament “Mother-in-Law” firmly occupied the top spot in the weeks before and after Mother’s Day.

But the most memorable riff between that Thanksgiving and Christmas – recognizable from the get-go with its assertive backbeat, handclaps and girl-group gloriousness – is also the most likely to lose something in translation to the present day.

“Hey-ey, wait a minute, Mr. Postman … Wai-ay-ay-ait, Mr. Postman …” Gladys Horton of the Marvelettes wailed, as if she were running down the block in pedal pushers, a white cotton blouse with a Peter Pan collar and pink foam curlers to catch that courier on his appointed rounds. At least, that’s the image that pops to mind if, like me, you’re of a certain age. To anyone born…oh, after 1985 … what may surface instead might just sound like, “Huh?”

After all, does any woman wait around these days for a lovingly written communication from “that boyfriend of mine”? Does any boyfriend these days bother sending his main squeeze a card or a letter to make her feel better?
Paper? Stamps? Cursive writing? You’re kiddin,’ right?
It’s all too old school. Too literate. Too sentimental. Too slow in the age of texting [not to mention sexting], Facebook and smart phones that nobody uses to talk on, anyway.

In my mind, all of those arguments against materialize into a very persuasive position for the first-class letter’s return to romantic prominence. For those of us who haven’t mastered the craft of a durable pop lyric, it offers a worthwhile exercise in emotional expression.

A letter is as portable as a tablet, laptop or phone – no battery or charger required. It’s easier to scent, and much easier to slip under a pillow or into a keepsake box. It’s as private as the sender and the recipient want it to be. And it’s a cheap thrill; even with the rise in postal rates, it still costs less than the dollar the average 45 rpm record cost in 1961. “Hey-ey, wait a minute, Mr. Postman!” – Cheryl Devall

1966: Lee Morgan, swashbuckler with a horn
Never again will the jazz world witness the kind of ascension that occurred when trumpeter Lee Morgan emerged into the national musical spotlight from his native Philadelphia to snatch and officially claim the title of up- and- coming jazz trumpeter from his idol Clifford Brown, who died in a car accident in 1956.

During his time hard-bopping Brown was a crowd favorite but when Morgan arrived, cocky and confident, the jazz world was served notice.

Until his untimely death, Morgan’s emergence and ascension to the pinnacle of the jazz hierarchy fit almost too neatly into the script of his life which included heroin addiction and the other life complications that jazz musicians seem bound to endure.

In 1972, Morgan was gunned down on a cold February night in New York by his common-law wife Helen following an argument after a set a Slugs, the legendary Greenwich Village jazz café.

This writer told trumpeter Miles Davis of Morgan’s death during a conversation outside of his Manhattan brownstone the morning after Morgan’s death. What the famously terse Davis said was not printable. Davis, too, felt the enormity of Morgan’s passing.

From his first notes on the trumpet there was no mistaking by anyone within earshot that Morgan was destined for greatness even when he was studying with a private instructor at Philadelphia’s Mastbaum High School for the Arts.

Morgan’s trumpet had the air and bite and sassiness of a young man who had paid his dues by listening to any and everyone who played his instrument: from Louis Armstrong to Clifford Brown and great classical trumpet players.
Morgan’s trumpet sound was biting and catchy. So were his compositions, especially The Sidewinder, the exuberant title tune of the album which the Chrysler Company used behind an automobile commercial ad signature during the 1965 World Series.
Jazz enthusiasts regale themselves remembering the night that a skinny Lee Morgan rose for his solo following the trumpet break on Dizzy Gillespie’s "Night in Tunisia" that was so vivid and brilliant and powerful that it floored the jazz writer Nat Hentoff.

There was always freshness, danger and daring about Morgan that seemed to attract, dare and repel.

Like his predecessor Clifford Brown, Morgan was comfortable playing his horn wide open or muted, like his sound on the classic recording Cornbread, which featured Morgan’s much-recorded ballad Ceora."

With his three-horn front line of trumpet, tenor saxophone and sometimes trombone, Morgan found a home on the front line of drummer Art Blakey’s bands of the late 1950s and ‘60s. Morgan was followed into the Blakey aggregation by trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, who went on to distinguish himself just as Brown and Morgan had done before them. – Kip Branch

1971: Marvin asked, ‘What’s Going On?’
The album was What’s Going On, the artist, Marvin Gaye, the year 1971.

It was the end of my freshman year, only college had not been what I expected. See, my expectations were born in the ‘60s and nursed by images of sit-ins, smoke-ins, love-ins, and a rising tide of youthful righteousness that promised to wash away war-mongering, colonialism and white supremacy.

That rising tide that lifted the 1960s had begun to ebb by the time I hit Stanford in the Fall of 1970. By Spring I felt like the only dreamer at a pragmatists’ convention. Worse, their pragmatism was rubbing off on me, and the product of that alchemy was doubt.

This was the time in my life when I was supposed to be connecting with my future, but I was being pulled from three directions. The political side dictated I serve the struggle, the practical reminded me I had to make a living, but writing aroused the passion. Which path should I follow?

“What’s Going On” revealed that by choosing one - writing - I need not exclude the others. Art, progressive politics and commerce could coexist. By stubbornly rejecting the Motown formula and delivering passionate, truthful music, Marvin Gaye showed that a political statement could be both an artistic landmark and a commercial success.

Bravo, Marvin, wherever you are. I can only hope that one day I might achieve a level of craft that gives voice to passion and belief with an eloquence that approaches what you gave the world with “What’s Going On.” – Fred Johnson

1976: You dance so fine, ‘Disco Lady’
Whenever asked about my goals as a writer, I have a ready reply: I aim to throw down a signature groove like the best of black musicians. On that note, Aretha, Nancy Wilson, and Ella Fitzgerald have all been instrumental in the development of my career. But I pray that my byline will one day grace a piece of writing that rocks readers the way Johnnie Taylor rocked me when I first heard his 1976 soul classic, "Disco Lady."

From the celestial opening riff of the electric piano, I was hooked. This was a collard greens, fried chicken and sweet potato pie-style of disco devoid of the frenetic “thump, thump, thump” of tunes like Vickie Sue Robinson’s “Turn the Beat Around,” which was also released in 1976.

On the real side, “Disco Lady” wasn’t really a disco song. It was instead a sensual, funk-drenched commentary on the dance craze that swept the nation from the mid- to- late 1970s. Unlike other hits of the era “Disco Lady” exuded a raw [“move it in, move it out”] eroticism. Indeed, Taylor, who’d previously recorded the gritty, signifying soul tune “Cheaper to Keep Her,” released the song as the first cut on his album, Eargasm.

As for all the children purportedly conceived to the sultry licks of Luther Vandross, Teddy Pendergrass and Barry White, I’d bet there are plenty Johnny Taylor-inspired babies in our midst.

And the throbbing bass line on “Disco Lady?” That’s Bootsy Collins. I rest my case. – Evelyn C. White

1981: Still Bill, Mr. Magic, ‘Just the Two of Us’
Nineteen eighty one opened with the Ronald Reagan presidency and a conservative political revolution. Crack cocaine and AIDS-HIV epidemics were gestating. Those plagues were a few years away.

Media wise, USA Today was more than a year away from launching. There was no Internet yet for the public, but PCs began to take and typewriters were fading. Network cable TV was taking its baby steps and skeptics mused whether CNN, MTV, BET and ESPN could make it.

The song in my head that winter was “Just the Two of Us,” from saxophonist Grover Washington Jr.'s Winelight" LP. Accompanying Washington was vocalist Bill Withers, who lifted fans with “Lovely Day,” or grounded them with “Grandma’s Hands.” “Just the Two of Us” was Withers' romantic middle ground.

At that time I began dating the woman who I would marry a year later. The Washington/Withers love ballad was our soundtrack during that blissful beginning. Withers’ words were warm, robust and assured, wrapped lovingly in Washington’s tenor saxophone interludes.

Richard Tee’s keyboards drizzled the song like gentle rain. Three female backup singers whispered seductive reminders in our ears [“Just the two of us, we can make it, just the two us”]. They were accompanied by steel drumming that imagined a tropical island.

If I hear the song I’m transported with my late and former sweetheart to a restaurant in Westchester, N.Y., or the dining table in our apartment. We’re sipping glasses of wine – blush – and certainly basking in the winelight. – Wayne Dawkins

1986: A desperate epidemic and true friends
The No. 1 hit for 1986 was "That’s What Friends Are For," the song that top performers collaborated on as a benefit for people living with AIDS. The song was recorded by Dionne Warwick, Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer-Sager, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder and Elton John.

The song evokes an earlier era, when American attitudes about AIDS were different. Everyone was a lot more concerned about the disease, even though back then AIDS was largely confined to gay men. Now the virus has moved far beyond the population where it started, yet surveys show that Americans are a lot less concerned about AIDS. It’s hard to imagine top stars even getting together for AIDS, let alone the recording being a No. 1 hit.

It makes sense on a highly simplistic level because we see stars like Magic Johnson living for years with the HIV infection, but there is still no cure for AIDS. It still is a death sentence.

It has taken so many talented people from us before their time, especially African-Americans, such as tennis great Arthur Ashe, Max Robinson, the first black network news anchor; Easy E, the highly original rapper, and prolific choreographer Alvin Ailey.

The disease is devastating Black America; it is raging at epidemic levels in poor communities. A study commissioned by the Elton John Foundation in 2008 found that, if Black America were a country, it would have higher AIDS rates than many of the African countries the United States targets for special AIDS assistance.

Even though African-Americans represent about 12 percent of the U.S. population, they account for about half of those with HIV/AIDS, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. HIV is the leading cause of death for Black women aged 25-34 years and they are 23 times more likely to be living with AIDS than White women.

The District of Columbia has the highest rate of AIDS among African-Americans of any major U.S. city – 277.5 for every 100,000 one report showed. The District’s HIV infection rate is higher even than Port-au-Prince, the capital of the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

You could go on and on with such statistics, which makes the following statistic even more startling: In 2009, a survey by the highly respected Kaiser Family Foundation found that the share of Americans naming HIV/AIDS as the most urgent health problem facing the nation had dropped from 44 percent in 1995 to 6 percent.

The compassionate hit song “That’s What Friends Are For,” served as an influential, attitude-adjusting call to action.

It is needed more than ever today. – Dan Holly

1991: Images revive rooted pleasures and pain
During childhood, her father’s music floated throughout our house from the stereo TV console that played my dad‘s 78 LPs. Traditions unbroken, a CD of her father’s signature “The Christmas Song” is my December ritual.

The answers to our future, perhaps, rest with ancestry.

It appeared so when a May 1991 discovery of human remains halted construction of a new federal building in downtown Manhattan.

I was relieved. All the fiendish rumors of commercial pandering and technical trickery haunting Natalie Cole’s album ‘Unforgettable … with Love’ seem to fade into the ether as sacred clues to New York colonial black life stirred.

Within weeks of its June release, Cole’s comeback album of standards from the ’40s and ’50s memorialized by her father, Nat King Cole, hovered at the top of the Billboard charts with more than a million copies sold. Sales of the video with daughter and dad in a virtual duet of the title track astonished industry insiders and dismissive fans. Engineered in a call- and-response motif, Cole’s colorized image wistfully croons while superimposed over black- and-white film of her father’s affirmative echo.

Nostalgic baby-boomers, including me, splurged on the CD or video. It was an ephemeral respite from the rock, rap and pop rotating on music television. A balm, also, for videos of the real tagged – Bystander captures King beating … Specter of AIDS ends a “magical” career … High court heir cries “electronic lynching” and Brooklyn neighbors “just [can’t] get along.”

Cole’s career revived, “Unforgettable” would win six Grammy statuettes. The African Burial Ground commemorated a national monument two years later. – Kissette Bundy

1996: Creating a hip-hop and r&b playlist
I was on top of the world. I was a senior at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis. I had been accepted to the college of my choice, Indiana University. I was pretty much on autopilot, cruising through the year with no major worries.

My biggest concerns were my 18th birthday, prom, senior class trip and high school graduation in that order. Music would be a major part of those milestones.

I was on the student council and we were charged with picking a class song and hiring DJs for school events. As the only African-American member, I had to represent and make sure r & b and hip-hop made the cut. The handful of black students at my Catholic school was depending on me.

So with Alanis Morrisette's “You Oughta Know,” Eric Clapton's “Change The World” and Hootie and the Blowfish's “Time,” we needed to hear some of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony's "Crossroads" and D’Angelo's “Lady.”

Fortunately, my classmates were open. For our class song, we agreed on Mariah Carey & Boys II Men's “One Sweet Day.”

Later that spring, we jammed to 2 Pac & Dr. Dre's “How Do You Want It/California Love,”and LL Cool J’s "Doin’ It" at our senior prom.

The next day we hit the road for our senior class trip with Coolio's “Gangsta's Paradise” blasting out of our car windows.

And as we ended the year and relationships with our high-school sweethearts, we soothed our souls with the sounds of Whitney Houston’s "Exhale" [Shoop Shoop] and Mary J. Blige’s “Not Gon Cry.”

We soon graduated and dedicated Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me” to our parents as we turned our tassels, starting new chapters in our lives: College. – Sia Nyorkor

2001: ‘Independent Women,’ Destiny’s Child
In January of 2001, “Beyonce” was still “Beyonce Knowles” and Destiny’s Child, clad in mom Tina Knowles’s questionable designs, were fresh off their third line-up change.

The group could’ve become a joke.
Fortunately for Beyonce, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams, their single “Independent Women” was the No. 1 song in the United States and the music had overshadowed the madness.

Released in late 2000 as the lead single from the “Charlie’s Angels” soundtrack [See! Something good did come out of those films], "Independent Women" was infectious and empowering.

The lyrics demanded, “All the women, who [sic] independent – throw your hands up at me!” Even years before “Single Ladies,” when Beyonce instructed women to do something with their hands, we obliged.

When the song and video were released, I was putting myself through San Francisco State University by working in Brass Plum, the juniors department at Nordstrom. “Independent Women” was one of the music videos played on the TV screens that decorated the sales floor. My co-worker – who has become a great friend – and I would stop and dance each time it was played.

We were both working hard and felt the song wasn’t just celebrating the diamonds and cars mentioned in the lyrics, it was celebrating us, two broke college students paying their own tuition and buying their own clothes [with an employee discount]. – Sabrina Ford

2006: ‘Crazy’ summer of sensual jams
The music of 2006 can best be defined by summer jams.
As the war in Iraq, conflicts in the Middle East and growing fears of the Taliban grew, most people were just looking to kick back and relax from the stresses of the world.

Gas was nearing $3 a gallon. Many families were doing “staycations” instead of traveling across the country. Good music was needed. And while the year started out with a few hits like Jamie Foxx’s “Unpredictable” and Mary J. Blige’s “Be Without You,” most people waited for a summer jam.

Sean Paul’s "Temperature" climbed the charts, getting people from here to Jamaica doing the “dutty wind.”
Beyonce tried out “Check On It.” The song left much to be desired, but the video of Ms. Bootylicious hula-hooping was promising. Later her song “Déjà vu” with her then boyfriend Jay-Z became a contender. Jay-Z’s protege, Rhianna also gave it her best shot with “SOS.”

Also, Cassie paved her way via the social network MySpace. She pumped things up with “Me & U” and stacked a ton of downloads.

Wyclef Jean & Shakira had us grinding to "Hips Don't Lie."

But perhaps one of the most addictive songs was Justin Timberlake's “Sexy Back.” It too had a beat that made people want to sweat it out on the dance floor.

But moods weren’t all so sensual. Gnarls Barkley inspired us with their hit, “Crazy” and got us to ponder our emotions and ask some hard questions. At a time when our country was involved in two wars and many of our soldiers were fighting to keep their sanity, the question the song posed was all too real. – Sia Nyorkor

Last year’s playlist: “Finger Poppin‟ Time,” Hank Ballard and the Midnighters [1960]; “Yes, I‟m Ready,” Barbara Mason [1965]; “Eleanor Rigby,” Aretha Franklin [1970]; “Shining Star,” Earth, Wind & Fire [1975]; “Searching,” Change, featuring Luther Vandross [1980]; “I‟m Missing You,” Diana Ross; “Get Here,” Oleta Adams [1990]; “Kiss from a Rose,” Seal [1995]; “Cousin DuPree,” Steely Dan [2000], “It‟s Like That,” Mariah Carey [2005]

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