The Early Years
By Frank Youngwerth
The relationship between rhythm and blues, whose performers have by and large been black, and rock ‘n’ roll, which has by and large been white guys appropriating R & B, has never been a particularly advantageous one for the former. Though some of R & B’s recent dynamic fusions, hip-hop and dance music, have enjoyed considerable popularity with segments of the mostly white rock audience, straightforward R & B stars like R. Kelly, Mary J. Blige, and Blackstreet remain largely unfamiliar to that consumer group.
Many of the reasons for this are indistinguishable from the reasons for other race-based segregations in the United States, but it’s also true that within the music industry a number of complicating factors have arisen–most significantly, the revived interest among rock fans in the concept of “credibility.” R & B is a tradition in which interpretation can be seen as a form of creativity; rock, especially in the post-Nirvana era, has come to be as much about artistic integrity and originality as technical musical ability. Lacking a supportive network of specialized venues, college radio stations, and fanzines, black pop acts must rely on the most mainstream commercial outlets for exposure. This has encouraged the perception among rock fans that what R & B artists have to offer is little more than a prefabricated commodity without substance or soul. In some cases, of course, it’s true–though whether it’s truer of Toni Braxton than it is of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion is another question entirely.
In the early days of both R & B and rock, authorship definitely took second place to interpretation. As Fred Goodman sets forth in his new music-business expose, The Mansion on the Hill, the notion of artistic integrity came later, with the folk-rock movement–the first of many fusions that would distinguish rock from R & B. Since then, many of the top R & B acts have still managed to cross over, not by incorporating elements of rock into their sound but by emphasizing originality of style and primary authorship of their recorded output. Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, and Prince have all pulled this off; Erykah Badu looks like the brightest new candidate–and the only female one since Aretha Franklin, who, we tend to forget, was the first R & B artist to earn real rock-star status.
When Franklin’s dad, a well-known Baptist minister, paid for her first demos to be cut, circa 1960, changing the course of popular music was probably the last thing on his mind or hers. Those tapes eventually won her a contract with Columbia, the archconservative among record labels during the period she spent there (1961-’66). (Bob Dylan, signed the same year as Franklin, was still considered strictly a folkie.) The person responsible for bringing her (and Dylan) to Columbia was legendary talent scout John Hammond, who three decades earlier had found 17-year-old Billie Holiday singing in a speakeasy.
Hammond called Franklin’s voice the greatest since Holiday’s; its wondrous power certainly stands out against the ordinary treatment it gets throughout The Early Years, a new collection that liner essayist Michele Wallace proclaims “the best of best” from Franklin’s largely hitless tenure at Columbia. That’s not to say the company kept her away from hit-worthy material: her sole Top 40 pop entry while there (she had a few on the R & B chart) came from a remake of “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody,” one of the biggest songs of 1918, recorded then by Columbia artist and noted blackface entertainer Al Jolson. For something a little more contemporary, the label had her cover Dionne Warwick’s top-ten smash “Walk On By,” with not only an obvious carbon copy of the original arrangement (by Warwick’s regular writer and producer Burt Bacharach) but even some of the same studio musicians who played on Warwick’s version. Between such choices in repertoire and theme albums like 1964’s Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington, it’s painfully clear that Columbia’s staff didn’t trust Franklin to develop her own style.
She went over to Atlantic in 1967, where she got all the green lights she needed. Franklin responded with a series of brilliant singles and albums that kept her in pop’s top 20 for two years straight. Her timing couldn’t have been better: this happened exactly when (thanks in large part to Dylan) the popular media started perceiving rock musicians as genuine artists with serious messages to convey. In June 1967, the month the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the Monterey Pop Festival was held, Franklin went to number one on the pop chart for the first time with a custom overhaul of Otis Redding’s soul shouter “Respect” that rightfully won her tons of just that in all circles; a year later she made the cover of Time.
“Respect,” whose lyrics in Franklin’s hands demand just treatment for women, marked the first time a black female artist had topped the pop chart on anything resembling her own terms. As with most of her recordings of that time, Franklin’s own piano work contributes mightily to the instrumental feel of “Respect,” while the gospel-based call-and-response vocal arrangement was thought up, worked out, and executed all by Aretha and her sisters Carolyn and Erma. This rootsy, organic, personalized approach to working in the studio represented a 180-degree departure from that employed by the dominant hit factory of the period, Berry Gordy’s Motown. Gordy regularly encouraged competition within his stable of professional writers and producers, pitting them (individually or in teams) against one another to develop potential hit material and cut backing tracks, all prior to the involvement of an actual “artist”; many times the same song and track would be tried out behind several different Motown singers or groups.
When Franklin’s fellow Detroiters Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder followed her lead and demanded from Motown the same artistic freedom she was enjoying at Atlantic, a black pop revolution kicked into full swing, yielding theretofore unimaginably bold and indignant albums like Gaye’s What’s Going On, Wonder’s Innervisions, Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, and Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. These records in turn cleared the way for a generation of articulate hip-hop artists.
Thirty years later, “Respect” remains well-known, but more as the butt-wiggling anthem for the aging boomers of the 1983 film The Big Chill than for its original cultural significance. Likewise, over the years Franklin’s artistic brilliance diminished as her autonomy got lost in the shuffle, due in part to the need for commercial survival. So when TV chat host Rolanda asked Franklin, “Is there another Aretha out there waiting to be born?” a few weeks ago, probably not too many viewers paused to consider the question’s formidable dimensions.
In fact, Franklin herself didn’t take her own role in pop history into account when she answered. She mentioned a couple of current favorites, Oleta Adams (a former lounge singer and, like Franklin, a minister’s daughter) and Nnenna Freelon (a young jazz songstress), noting in conclusion that “Brandy’s cute.” Later on in the show Franklin boasted without irony that her tour bus rolls to music playing from “both cassettes and eight-tracks,” so she’s obviously not keeping up with the times.
Franklin’s quite possibly not yet heard of Erykah Badu, her likeliest heir, but then, four months ago neither had anybody else. By late February, though, Badu’s first single, “On & On,” had built up enough anticipation among record buyers to send her debut album, Baduizm, zooming up Billboard’s pop album chart to number two in its first week. Close watchers of the R & B fringe are comparing the idiosyncratic Badu to cult and critical favorites like Caron Wheeler (ex-Soul II Soul), Dionne Farris (who sang on Arrested Development’s “Tennessee”), and Me’Shell NdegeOcello, all of whom have released interesting albums that to some extent straddle the boundary between rock and R & B. But unlike these others, Badu has already ascended into the rarefied realm of major chart success typically reserved for smooth Babyface ballads emoted by the likes of Whitney Houston and Toni Braxton. Likewise, in the 60s Franklin’s uninhibited wail signified her individuality even as it kept company with sleek surefire Motown smashes.
Mainstream listeners and reviewers often bring up the similarity between Badu’s voice and Billie Holiday’s, as if in some way this helps explain what’s distinctive about the newcomer. But Holiday, like Houston, Braxton, and Diana Ross, depended on the best songwriters of her day for material, while Baduizm was largely composed by Badu, at times even sounding improvised. Lopsidedly edited like one of Charlie Parker’s alternate-takes collections (half of the 14 tracks are songs that either appear twice or get paraphrased elsewhere), the album works because, as with young Franklin, once Badu gets rolling in the right setting, she can do no wrong. Recalling Franklin’s classic celebration of the groove, “Rock Steady,” which she wrote herself, Badu offers “Rimshot,” a jazzy vamp that serves as the album’s opener and closer. She specifies the beat she wants (“boom-clack, boom-clack”) right down to the details of execution (“Hit your stick against that drum / Don’t wanna hear no snare”).
Ironically, though Badu’s lyrics here celebrate a pattern laid down by a live drummer, the album’s drum tracks often sound programmed–a canny compromise that undoubtedly enabled the quick acceptance of Badu’s music on black radio. While she freely waxes philosophical (“The man who knows something / Knows that he knows nothing at all”) or teases with enigmas (“Does it seem colder in your summertime / And hotter in your fall?”), the minimalistic backing rhythm ticks with mechanical precision to match the more conventional records R & B stations typically play. The album also features guest live musicians (including veteran jazz bassist Ron Carter and members of Philadelphia hip-hop group the Roots) on several tracks, including “Afro (Freestyle Skit),” a fun impromptu blues on which Badu name-checks the Wu-Tang Clan, and “Otherside of the Game,” a true gem whose length and somber, clear-eyed lyrics about trying to raise a family with a drug-selling partner will probably preclude it from prime-time radio exposure.
As much as her character and musicianship shine through on disc, though, Badu’s live performance reveals a power and depth of presence that the album’s laid-back, after-hours aura virtually conceals. While it’s improbable that anyone will match the profound impact of Aretha Franklin’s early Atlantic work, with her debut shot Badu has bettered, artistically and commercially, what Franklin achieved during her six-year stint at Columbia.
But Baduizm’s impressive breakthrough is a little misleading. Before 1991, when Billboard began using SoundScan sales data to determine its charts, an album would have to be selling well uniformly throughout the country to reach number two. Now it needs only to be moving enough units in certain places (in this case probably in the most concentrated R & B markets, like Chicago) to get that high. The still-segregated nature of the current music scene sets some serious odds against Badu’s music getting the widespread respect it deserves.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album covers.