Soul music is a forever changing concept. As long as our souls continue to grow and evolve, so will that particular genre of music and all of the sweetest fruits of its tributaries. Though soul was no more or less popular a medium in New England,where I am, than anywhere else in America you can still count on a vital appreciation and love for the music of Al Green. He turned 67 yesterday. Recording with Willie Mitchell on the Hi label in Memphis,his early/mid 70’s hits may have been recorded almost four decades ago. But sure as your life whenever “Let’s Stay Together”,”I’m Still In Love With You”,”Here I Am (Come And Take Me)”,”Tired Of Being Alone”,”Love And Happiness” and “Call Me” come on the radio dad,mom and the kid(s) in the car probably won’t all be singing and/or humming along. Al is the master of what I’ve heard called sweet as funk can be. The Hi studio band has a countrified soul/funk groove and Al’s mildly craggy but soft voice strikes up the perfect balance. Most importantly, his music and life even epitomize soul music’s balancing act between the tangible (secular) and the intangible (spiritual) aspects of life. Which is why I’ve made Al Green something of a key note figure to illustrate the subject of this article.
As I’ve already discussed many times,soul and funk music probably did me some serious good growing up. Along with attentive parenting,this music was an independently found source of inspiration for me to dream and create. It kept me away from the negative temptations of crime and substance abuse of others in my age group-almost like a non-dogmatic religion. To me,music saved. I later learned some things about the personal situations of some of the artists I admired that…really weren’t very nice. But I learned to resolve that easily enough with some objectivity. When I became an adult an element came along regarding musicians and their overall creative goals that still troubles me on a level far more difficult to resolve, however. I hear it in literature about musicians from the 60’s/70’s funk and soul era when discussing their musical recognition. Its also seen on television in documentaries about musicians past and present as well as on the numerous reality based talent contests that came along in the wake of American Idol. One of the best examples of this in my own life is Earth Wind & Fire.
This is a band whose music felt as if it was speaking directly to the listener. It wasn’t telling me to believe in Jesus, or Allah or any deity for help with my daily life. Maurice White and his band just sang of devotion,the way of the world and the shinning star. Upon viewing the otherwise enlightening documentary DVD on the band Shining Stars Verdine White,bass player for the band made a point that mildly disturbed me: that all a band was in the “business” for was to get famous,make a lot of bucks and get out. I figured it was a sardonic remark and thought little of it. Than on the 2006 Grammy Award ceremony’s the remains of the band at that time,led by Philip Bailey came out to perform their hit “September”-changing the lyrics of the song to hawk the sponsors for that night’s telecast of the ceremony. I shuttered angrily and left the room in tears. What had happened to Earth Wind & Fire? Had they gone to a place so far beyond selling out that it was almost a grim parody? Had they let people who heard a deeper meaning in their music down? Or was it all just my problem?
Those are the difficult to resolve questions that still preoccupy my mind in terms of music and the intent of the people who make it. From a cynics point of view,and it is still a very cynical era,a musician/singer working in the pop music world on any level is in fact there likely to do just that: make money. And if they can get a message across, it is probably contrived in the back of their minds to draw people to listen to their music and buy it. That all messages in music are carefully maneuvered marketing gimmicks. And that soul/funk/R&B music today,in the sometimes naval gazing world of corporate hip-hop, are the biggest practitioners of this ethic. That is in a nutshell the embodiment of many online and magazine articles I read during 2006-2008; a very cynical time when the music industry feared total economic collapse. During the 70’s funk era artists as diverse as George Clinton,Chaka Khan and Johnny Guitar Watson all found ways to comment on the cynical greed of the musical industry even in their time. Because singing and playing instruments was much more a poetic medium of expression than hip-hop was to me,perhaps that is why I became attracted to the funk era’s message with such vigor and enthusiasm in the first place.
All of this brings me back to Al Green. In the mid 70’s his girlfriend poured hot grits on him,scalding him and proceeded to commit suicide later on. Green was deeply affected by this incident, and it led him towards the more spiritual side of his nature. In his case to become a born again Christian preacher. While I do not in any shape and form embrace any of Al Green’s personal religious convictions, I do give him credit on one level for not sacrificing his own calling for fame and fortune. And the good part is he is again recording funky soul again-such as on his Questlove produced 2008 comeback album Lay It Down. While I realize that the corporate end of the music industry has its seductive influence on artists,I think its really their own responsibility to decide for themselves who they are going to be in the future. Whether its music that’s in their blood,selling out or just plan nipping around for their perceived share of the cut-as it were. As James Brown famously stated, money won’t change you. But perhaps any artist recording in the pop music idiom today needs to take a long,hard look at the changes money might make on their lives and future if they aren’t careful.