Thursday, December 30, 2010

Keeping the "soul" intact

A recent column by Lynn Varner of the Seattle Times, inspired by the recent death of soul singer Teena Marie, suggested that she wasn't better known in part due to her genre.

I'm not willing to say that.

For openers, according to many folks, Marie was the first white act to be signed by Motown Records. That's not exactly true -- the Detroit-based band Rare Earth, while on its own label, had its records distributed by Motown (best-known song: "I Just Want to Celebrate"). Besides, there have been white soul acts since the 1970s -- two of my all-time favorite bands are Tower of Power (which I will see tomorrow night) and the Average White Band. Heck, even Elvis borrowed heavily from African-American culture and never hid that fact, though by today's standards his act was fairly corny.

Rather, the musical separation has to do with radio formatting, which became more of a factor in the early 1980s and is a fact of life today. And let's not forget MTV, which was launched in 1981 as Music Television and where image became as important as, and in some cases more so than, musical skill. (Many folks believed that it didn't play black artists due to racism -- the reality, however, was that it was a rock-pop channel that leaned toward British new wave which was already focused on videos.) In the 1970s, when I came of age, any good song of any genre and performers of any race were likely to pop up on Top 40 radio, with ABC's "In Concert," NBC's "The Midnight Special" and "Don Kirschner's Rock Concert," broadcast here in Pittsburgh on the CBS affiliate, also showcasing talent across the musical spectrum.

But there's a cultural separation as well which, when and where I was growing up, also had political implications; to this day I still don't see African-Americans similarly crossing over to play rock (read: "white folks music"). When the Bus Boys, a new-wave band with only one non-black member that broke out in the early 1980s, hit the scene few noticed, and the hard-rock Living Colour never made much of a splash either. More to the point, I was about the only African-American kid I knew who listened primarily to progressive rock and Top 40, eschewing a steady diet of soul music, simply because I didn't want to be limited, whether musically or socially. However, as a result I did get the reputation of being an "Oreo cookie," and I guess I became one.

So I think it's not just a matter of "who's stealing from whom" -- after all, many white performers have embraced not only soul but the blues, jazz and even hip-hop. As far as I'm concerned, we need to learn to appreciate each other's music as well as the culture from which it comes. Perhaps it behooves us African-Americans to get into rock, classical or even country -- not that we have to stay there but simply to appreciate how they do it.

Back in 2003 I began working a lot with an all-white "oldies" vocal band that I had profiled for the Post-Gazette the year before, and on one gig the other two horn players also were African-American -- before we got started that night the trumpet player noted that irony because with such acts often the singers were black and the musicians were white. We all knew that it didn't matter because everyone was having a good time and we were being paid. And that's the way it should be.

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