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Where Are the Great R&B; Singers of Today? : As tastes, tempo and technology change the genre, gone are solid vocalists who could dazzle without flash

Where are all the great R&B; singers of today?

Where are the successors to Jackie Wilson, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Little Richard, Wilson Pickett and Sam Cooke?

At their primes in the ‘50s and ‘60s, those figures were electrifying vocalists.

Blessed with incredible ranges, they could seemingly hold notes forever. They sang with incredible passion and fire, reflecting the gospel background that’s the common denominator among the R&B; marvels.

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Just listen to Otis Redding wailing on “Dock of the Bay” or Little Richard shrieking “Long Tall Sally” or Jackie Wilson putting those semi-operatic vocal touches on “To Be Loved.”

A few singers--notably Al Green, Teddy Pendergrass, Patti LaBelle and Chaka Khan--emerged in the ‘70s and carried the torch for a while, but even fewer have surfaced in the ‘80s?

The fire has gone out of R&B; singing. Few contemporary artists possess--or at least display--that old gutsy, robust passion.

Why?

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“Styles change,” explained Jerry Wexler, the veteran producer who worked at Atlantic Records with such artists as Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles during the golden age of R&B; singing. “Things in the music business go in cycles. In R&B;, this isn’t the time for good singing.”

R&B--short; for rhythm and blues--was the name commonly given to black pop music in the ‘40s and ‘50s, because it originally combined the rhythms of swing/jazz and vocals rooted in traditional gospel and blues. R&B;, in turn, was replaced in the ‘60s by “soul” music, which by the early ‘80s had simply evolved into an even broader term, “black music"--roughly meaning R&B; diluted by pop, rock and technology.

One reason hard-core R&B; singing died in the ‘80s is because this decade has been dominated by artists who specialize in blends. They water down R&B; to satisfy the mania for crossovers--black artists settling in the pop mainstream.

Prince, who’s more skilled as a composer, musician and producer than a singer, mixes R&B; with rock. Michael Jackson is primarily a pop/dance-music performer whose music has R&B; influences. There are R&B; echoes in Whitney Houston’s music, but it’s mainly smothered beneath pop textures. And the success of these artists has encouraged the record industry to move away from traditional R&B.;

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Another major point in the decline of R&B; singing is that today’s vocalists don’t seem to have backgrounds as deeply rooted in gospel music.

“All those great R&B; singers learned to sing in church,” Wexler recalls. “Singing gospel was an incredible training ground for singers. Kids don’t go to church and sing in church like they used to in the old days. They’re too busy rapping on the street corners. So R&B; goes in that direction.”

The real R&B; star today, Wexler and other industry observers maintain, is technology.

The rise of the disco era in the mid-'70s placed the spotlight in the recording process on synthesizers and drum machines. In those days the singer was secondary. Though image and vocal personality are important again--pure singing hasn’t returned to the fore.

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In today’s R&B; world, producers like L.A. Reid & Babyface and Teddy Riley, as well as arrangers and songwriters, set the tone. That’s why a record such as “My Prerogative” can be excellent, even though Bobby Brown is a mediocre singer. Where Redding’s voice, was, say 80% of the lure of a record like “Dock of the Bay,” Brown’s vocal is clearly less important than the lyrics, the arrangement and the rhythm.

If there is anything more important than technology in shaping today’s stars, it’s image.

Jheryl Busby, president/CEO of Motown Records noted, “We’re in the image business. Being able to sing well is not necessarily a criterion for signing artists. We are not just in the music and record business, we’re in the entertainment business.

“Image is so important. Being a good singer isn’t necessarily part of having the right image or being a good entertainer. Look at rappers. They can’t sing. Yet we sign rappers. Singing is just one thing you look for.”

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So weak-voiced R&B; singers abound these days. If you’re flashy, cute, lean, limber and a nimble dancer, you can get a record deal--even if you can’t sing.

Why do today’s fans accept less?

Quite simply, tastes and expectations have changed. The reason R&B; has become so technology-conscious is that dance-floor energy and sound--so easily re-created in the recording studio--dominate today’s records. Kids like to dance to high-tech music and have a low tolerance for those slow, old-fashioned R&B; ballads.

The R&B; greats, though, were all first-rate ballad singers. Most would rather show off their vocal prowess on a ballad than sing some danceable tune. On their up-tempo songs the beats were not nearly sleek enough to be considered hip by today’s standards.

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Graham Armstrong, co-publisher of the trade journal R&B; Report and an astute observer of the R&B; scene, traces the demise of great singers to the death of Otis Redding in a 1967 plane crash--the same signpost cited by Wexler.

“It wasn’t the same after that, particularly in the ‘70s,” Armstrong said. “Al Green was in the ‘70s, but in the ‘70s Motown wasn’t what it used to be. Then we had Teddy Pendergrass in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. When Marvin Gaye died (in 1984) that was the final nail in the coffin.”

When R&B; aficionados get together and lament the lack of good vocalists in the ‘80s, you’ll often hear someone insist that the last great R&B; song of the decade was Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” in 1982.

Since the ‘60s, R&B; vocalizing has been victimized by trend after trend. Teen-agers buy a high percentage of the R&B; records, and right now they like rap, the rapid-fire, talking style of lyric delivery. Rapping may take talent, but it doesn’t take singing talent.

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Conventional singers are still big on the charts too, but most are ordinary, without remarkable range, vocal strength or any sense of drama. These aren’t song-belters. Vocally, they’re wimps. Even years of seasoning wouldn’t put the likes of Bobby Brown, Al B. Sure! and Jody Watley in a league with the R&B; greats.

This doesn’t mean singers like Brown and Sure! don’t cause a sensation in concert. With all the exceptional instrumental and vocal accompaniment, sex appeal and visual hoopla, the audience doesn’t realize--or care--that these artists are inferior singers.

In the golden age of R&B--the; mid-'50s through the late ‘70s--live performances were crucial too. But the emphasis was on solid vocalizing, not flash.

In person, Gaye, Cooke and Redding demonstrated excellence in all phases of singing. They moved you with their singing. They didn’t need razzle-dazzle. Wexler recalled performances from those glory years:

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“Those singers could generate excitement by just singing--with their voices,” he said. “Jackie Wilson was incredible. So was Wilson Pickett. The singing was strong and powerful. It came from way down deep inside. Back then there were a lot of people, like Solomon Burke, who weren’t big stars but who could sing rings around the singers of today.”

The best R&B; singers of the ‘80s are also two of the decade’s most popular--Luther Vandross and Anita Baker. Basically a balladeer, Vandross sings in what Wexler calls “that sweet soul style"--high, intense, gospel-inflected. With pop modifications, his style is in the classic vein. He’s more of an R&B; traditionalist than Baker, who, more than any artist since Stevie Wonder in his ‘70s heyday, effectively fuses old-fashioned R&B; with contemporary pop. Listening to these two is as close as you can get to the good old days.

Not far behind is Alexander O’Neal. Though he hasn’t had the commercial success of Vandross and Baker, he often sings with the power, unrestrained emotion and sensuality that marked some of the classic songs of R&B;'s golden era.

Though she’s white, Teena Marie, obviously influenced by artists in the golden era, sings in that raw, rip-roaring, passionate style. She deserves to be ranked with the best R&B; singers of the ‘80s.

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So does Chaka Khan, whose style is rooted in both gospel and jazz. Actually, she was one of the R&B; queens of the ‘70s and, though not the commercial force she used to be, has survived numerous shifts in musical trends.

In the ‘80s women singers have been more effective in keeping that grand ol’ R&B; tradition alive. Most male singers, like Freddie Jackson for instance, haven’t been much help. Jackson is just a sort of a minor-league Vandross. Jeffrey Osborne and James Ingram don’t really belong in a discussion of R&B; traditionalists. They’re basically straight pop/soul crooners who share the same weakness--an overemphasis on schmaltz.

Speaking of schmaltz, Whitney Houston is the female version of Osborne and Ingram. In a few concerts, though, she’s demonstrated that she’s a formidable gospel singer with vocal talents that transcend those homogenized pop ballads she’s famous for. But the masses don’t want a fiery Houston. They prefer her singing the musical equivalent of pabulum.

A singer who had the potential to earn a niche with the R&B; greats is Jennifer Holliday, who mesmerized everyone a few years ago with her dramatic rendition of the song from the play “Dreamgirls,"--"And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” But no producer could figure out how to harness Holliday’s volcanic voice and make it marketable in the ‘80s.

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Patti LaBelle’s style--all-out, gospel-influenced, frenzied--is much like Holliday’s. LaBelle, though, a veteran who’s been enjoying a resurgence in recent years, is prone to overkill--doing show-off singing that focuses more on her talents than the song. That annoying habit has always stood between her and greatness.

Of today’s newcomers, Regina Belle and Karyn White have demonstrated a solid grasp of basic R&B; principles. White, though, has the image, performing ability, material and producer-arrangers necessary to make her a star.

These days, you can’t even count on the veteran R&B; greats for good old-fashioned R&B; singing. Many from the golden era are still around, but they’re either victims of age or changing styles. Look at Al Green, who’s probably the last great R&B; singer. He was the R&B; singer of the ‘70s. As a sexy soul singer Green had no real peer back then. Now, though, he’s basically a gospel singer who doesn’t sing about romance much anymore.

Some of the greats have gone high-tech just to survive. To fit into today’s scene, artists like Franklin, Ray Charles, Gladys Knight, Smokey Robinson, Valerie Simpson (of Ashford & Simpson) and Stevie Wonder have to tone down their vocals and modify their styles. To most kids, though, they’re still old-timers who appeal mostly to the older fans.

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What’s the prognosis for hard-core R&B; vocalizing?

It’s not good.

In the words of producer Wexler, “It’s not what the kids want now. It’s not what the people are buying. If Otis Redding came along today, he might not even get a contract. Some record company executive might tell him: ‘You sing too strong, kid. You sing too good. You’ll never make it.’ ”


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