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During the mid 1990’s when I was seriously getting interested in funk, the only way that was really practical to hear the music that was interesting to me was via the Mercury Funk Essentials series. The ones that I purchased were through the now defunct BMG Record Club and the artists involved were The Bar Kays,Cameo and Con Funk Shun (all of whom had two volumes) as well as a double Ohio Players anthology in the same series called Funk On Fire. The interesting part is these compilations contained a good share of slow ballad numbers. And I’d always skip over them to the funk oriented material. Searching on Amazon.com today there was a comment on a music review about how slow songs in soul/funk was “grown up music”. Probably a comment with the tongue planted a little bit in their cheek. At the same time it reminded me of my own approach to funk and soul. Even today only a handful of slow songs (mainly by Ohio Players,Heatwave,Earth Wind & Fire,The Isley Brothers and Con Funk Shun) have truly impacted on me. So for reasons I’ll discuss a bit later in this article, the subject of slow funk and soul seemed a good subject to go into.
Seems that a few years ago Beyonce’ herself suggested that,vocally fast and slower songs were the biggest challenge while mid tempo songs were the most simple-since apparently the natural human rhythmic cadence is itself in the mid tempo area. With the majority of commercial soul/R&B songs never veering outside the mid tempo today,there is also an enormous proportion of female singers as opposed to musicians of either gender. One thing that has changed enormously is a sexual reversal in the music. Female singers have come to be more aggressive lyrically and musically-and have tended more and more towards dance oriented material and the “oversouling” vocal method. Younger male singers have generally adopted a far less aggressive vocal posture. And most of the soul/funk slow jams recorded today are done not by Whitney Houston,Diana Ross or Gladys Knight but rather people such as Joe and Tyrese-who are more in mold of Luther Vandross and Babyface who really innovated the softer voiced slow jam type singer. Many 70’s and 80’s uptempo funk singers have also gotten involved in this.
One prime example is Charlie Wilson. He was the lead singer and keyboard player of The Gap Band from 1974 up until roughly 1994-including a massively successful string of uptempo funk hits in the late 70’s/early 80’s. Today Charlie is given many lifetime achievement awards for his work outside the Gap Band,again primarily slow ballad oriented. While in political terms this might have to due with Charlie’s involvement in troop support during the decade long “war on terror”, its also important to note that even on his newest album Love Charlie there are always strong funk songs on his album, but they are presented as album tracks at best: at worst,as filler. This was also the scenario for Lionel Richie in The Commodores. The band consisted of very strong musicianship from a group of Tuskegee graduates who actually helped innovate a number of southern funk sub-genres,with the very rare presence of black management as well.. By the late 70’s the slow ballad songs Lionel had written for other artists such as “Still” and “Three Times A Lady”, as suggested by their co-producer James Anthony Carmichael,were the songs they were becoming known for as opposed to “Brick House” or “Slippery When Wet”.
In the end it would seem that even fifteen years ago my reasons for skipping past the slow jams on funk albums or collections has more to do with music politics than personal taste. On the other hand,often funk bands best songs can be their slower ones. Kool & The Gangs’ “Summer Madness”,Ohio Players “Good Luck Charm”, the aforementioned Gap Band’s “You Light Up My Life” (NOT the Debbie Boon song by the way),”Bootsy Collins “Vanish In Our Sleep” as well as slow jam Isley Brothers masterpieces such as “Sensuality” and “Voyage To Atlantis”-not to mention Earth Wind & Fire’s “Reasons”,”Love’s Holiday”,”Devotion” and “Keep Your Head To The Sky”. These songs had enormous lyrical heart,spirited song craft and intense instrumental vitality. And are much needed examples of why a slow soul/funk ballad can really do a lot for a band/soloist in the right hands. On that note I bid you adieu for a few weeks for two interrelated reasons. Do to a lot of good and not so good things happening in my life at the moment, I am dealing with a bad case of writers block in terms of totally original ideas. So time to enjoy a bit of the brief Maine summer while recharging my creative batteries. Enjoy your July and your music!
Christina Aguilera’s photograph is shown here because she perfectly exemplifies the entire topic of this article. Recently I wrote an article here about singing hinting at what I am about to say tonight. But I wanted to expand on that more. All of my adult life, soul music has always been a passion of mine. In fact its come to a point where I flat out tell everyone that, rather than focusing in on the dreary instrumentation and dry singing that permeates a lot of alternative rock type music its that quality of soul, in whatever genre I find it in, that peaks my aural interest more and more. Basically soul singing could be easiest described as a quality of singing directly from your heart but,most importantly carefully controlling the way in which your voice projects these emotions. Its basically a matter of tension and release. Aguilera has an enormous performance charisma and the image of a classic Hollywood movie starlette, which is ideal for the image conscious music world of today. In terms of depth and richness, her vocal instrument is actually quite a powerful one too. It is the way in which she, and many others present that voice of which I am about to speak of.
Whenever I’d travel with my father during the beginning of my rising adulthood, we would often play music on the car CD player for each other and talk about it among ourselves. One thing we often discussed was the phenomenon of oversinging. It is a term that means what it says, and a very common one too. Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson have all oversung at one time or another. And sometimes, it does actually enhance a song. But you have to know when to use this technique. Yet especially in the modern R&B genre, oversinging has gone to a whole new level since the ringing in of the new millennium. At the root is singers making themselves the center of attention-pushing themselves and their voices out front and center and generally over emoting. I had no particular name for this modern variation of so called “soul” singing. So I am about to do something very out of character for me: quote another writer because John Eskow of the Huffington Post defined this vocal phenomenon so wonderfully in an article he wrote on February 8th,2011. The word he coined was oversoaling, a term originally conceived by Atlantic Records Jerry Wexler . Here is what he said about that way of singing:
“To me, the horrific part of Christina Aguilera’s rendition of the National Anthem — and “rendition” is an apt term for it, because she kidnapped the song and shipped it out to be tortured — was not her mangling of the words, but her mangling of the tune itself: to paraphrase the great Chuck Berry, she “lost the beauty (such as it is) of the melody until it sounds just like a (godawful) symphony.
This is the same grotesque style — 17 different notes for every vocal syllable — that has so dominated the pop and R&B charts for years. Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston are relatively minor offenders, but singers like Aguilera — who admittedly possesses a great instrument — just don’t seem to know when to stop, turning each song into an Olympic sport as they drain it of its implicit soul, as if running through the entire scale on every single word was somehow a token of sincerity.
It’s called melisma — the bending of syllables for bluesy or soulful effect — and what’s creepy about the way it’s used now is that it perverts America’s true genius for song, as evinced by its creators in the world of gospel and R&B, like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. You will hear more of this tonsil-twisting insincerity — to your eternal sorrow — if you watch any episode of American Idol. The great Jerry Wexler — who produced both Ray and Aretha — coined a great term for it: “oversouling.” He described it as “the gratuitous and confected melisma” that hollows out a song and drains it of meaning. “
Jerry’s words as translated by Mr. Escow rang extremely true to me. Again it speaks of someone who has the basic elements of a soul singer, yet they allow themselves to lose control over their vocal emoting to an near piercingly theatrical degree. The result is the quality of Olympic singing Escow speaks of in his article. In all honesty, this phenomenon did not originate in the 1980’s: a decade that tends to be a pop culture whipping post for critics to this very day. Even pop artists who practiced soul singing of the time such as George Michael and Rick Astley had very careful control of their vocal projection and presentation. It seemed to start in the early 1990’s during a time when every R&B/soul artist looking to release uptempo music seemed to have to do so using the new jack swing hip-hop/funk hybrid started by people such as Teddy Riley in the late 80’s. Dancing frenetically in colorful parachute pants under heavy lights and sweating a lot, these newer singers had to find a way vocally keep pace with the faster music and dances. The result was a phenomenon of “oversouling” vocals, in particular with gospel influenced male vocal groups-many of whom sang through their noses in a therefore nasal fashion that only heightened that quality.
During the time with Christina Aguilera was ascendant in the music world, the patter was reversed. Male singers influenced by neo/retro soul tended to be influenced back in the direction of controlled vocal expression. Whereas female soul oriented singers began to take the oversouling style to new heights. Now just to be aware of my own writing, you probably noticed my constant repetition of the word “control” in this writing. That’s because that seems the most appropriate word for the most vital element in genuinely soulful singing. How to keep vocal qualities such as melisma from completely overwhelming one’s dynamic as a singer. There’s no question about it-it is still very much a singers world in music today. They are the most celebrated in the media. And people such as myself might bemoan that. But if it is to be this way for now a degree of shading,insinuation and nuance to ones vocal expression will likely have the affect of making said vocalist more likable. And their voices will be more appreciate if they are just themselves rather than forcing their singing in desperation for attention. After all those who cannot hear an angry shout may strain to hear a whisper.