The Definition of Soul: Six Great Undersung R&B Stars
The other day, I was watching a first-season episode of “Glee” (which I finally have begun to warm up to) when something truly stunning caught my ear. It was Mercedes (Amber Riley) tearing up “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” from the 1981 Broadway musical “Dreamgirls.” Even Rachel was floored. Though nobody could touch Tony winner Jennifer Holliday’s Broadway cast album original, Mercedes at least matched the 2006 big-screen remake that helped Jennifer Hudson win an Oscar. That’s why I was so surprised when later in the same episode, Mercedes more or less conceded that Rachel was the best singer in the Glee club. Whoa! Maybe the most likely to score pop hits, kick butt on a Barbra Streisand classic, or land Lea Michele, the actress who plays Rachel, a Rolling Stone and GQ cover. But the best?
It figures, though. True soul singers have a long history of being underappreciated in the pop realm. Long ago, on a pop chart far away, before Michael Jackson forced MTV to acknowledge musicians of color, most of them spent the majority of their careers on the lower rungs of Billboard’s Hot 100 — if they managed to climb onto it at all. Motown created several key crossover stars in the ’60s, as did disco and Philly soul in the ’70s, but not nearly enough of them. Even in the ’80s, black singers who weren’t Prince, Lionel Richie, Whitney Houston, Billy Ocean or a Jackson didn’t score No. 1 pop hits with any consistency. It wasn’t until rap and hip hop went mainstream in the ’90s that R&B began to become the major, some might even say dominant, force on the Hot 100 that it is today.
Even Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, for all her legendary awesomeness, only topped the Hot 100 once solo, with 1967′s “Respect.” Still, although, like James Brown, she made it to the pop Top 10 less frequently than her legend might suggest, no other female singer has made more appearances on the hit list. (Dionne Warwick, also black, also with fewer Top 10 pop hits than you’d think, is second.) Unfortunately, as the recent death of Teena Marie, the white Queen of Ivory Soul, reminded me, there have been many great soul singers who never got their full due. Here are of six them.
Teena Marie She was so unfairly unheralded in the mainstream that when she died at age 54 on December 26, many new sources erroneously reported the death of Aretha Franklin because the moniker by which Marie was known — The Queen of Ivory Soul — confused them. Throughout her three-decade career, Marie scraped together a handful of gold albums, and she did score one massive Top 10 pop hit with 1984′s “Lovergirl,” but she had to take a rare detour into rock & roll to do it. “Lovergirl” was a great single, but anyone lucky enough to be familiar with “Fire and Desire,” her 1981 duet with Rick James, or “Ooo La La La,” her lone R&B No. 1, from 1988, knows that Marie was capable of doing so much more. I’m still not totally convinced that she was a white girl.
Rick James Speaking of Marie’s sometime duet partner, one of the great travesties in the history of music is that James never managed to make it to the pop Top 10 on his own and only got there via sampling in 1999, when MC Hammer shamelessly ripped off his signature hit, “Super Freak,” for “U Can’t Touch This.”
Stephanie Mills Recently, I watched another first-season “Glee” in which guest star Kristin Chenoweth, playing a former “Glee”-clubber and classmate of Mr. Schuester, announced she was staging an all-white Broadway production of “The Wiz,” before launching into a rendition of “Home.” Bored, I had to stop her halfway through, and head to YouTube to hear Mills, who played Dorothy in “The Wiz” on Broadway in the ’70s, do the great song justice. In 1989, “Home” became Mills’ fifth and final No. 1 single on Billboard’s R&B chart, and like three of her other R&B No.1′s, it missed the Hot 100 completely. In fact, after 1980′s “I Never Knew Love Like This Before,” far from a creative highlight of her career, went to No. 6 on the Hot 100, Mills never again made it higher than No. 40. White folks don’t know what they missed out on!
Angela Winbush It’s hard to fathom that the woman who wrote and produced songs for Stephanie Mills, Sheena Easton and the Isley Brothers never made it to the Hot 100 as a solo performer, not even with “Angel,” her 1987 No. 1 R&B single. This, to me, is one of the great mysteries of the ’80s and early ’90s. Here was a beautiful woman, who wrote gorgeous songs, sang the hell out of them, and produced them, too, and few people outside of the black community even noticed. As a member of Rene & Angela, she recorded 1985′s “Street Called Desire” LP, one of the highlights of mid-’80s R&B, which went gold and produced three minor crossover singles, none of which got higher than No. 47 on the Hot 100. She’s still one of the few women who has achieved any significant success producing songs for other artists — unluckily for her, most of them were as underrated as she was (see Mills above). Although she once was married to Ronald Isley of the Isley Brothers, she’s probably the least known singer on this list.
Gerald Levert If you know him at all, it’s probably because of “Casanova,” his single with the trio Levert that went to No. 5 on the Hot 100 in 1987, and was the only one of their 12 Top 10 R&B hits to even touch the Hot 100. As a solo artist, he had several gold albums and crossed over sporadically with his singles, but when he died in 2006 of acute intoxication, most mainstream pop fans probably didn’t even know he’d been alive. Sad.
Regina Belle She’s the only artist here who managed to hit No. 1 on the pop chart, which Belle did in 1992, duetting with Peabo Bryson on “A Whole New World” (Aladdin’s Theme). Of course, It came along at a time when Disney songs had Top 10 potential built into their DNA. Ironically, “A Whole New World isn’t among Belle’s eight Top 10 R&B hits, none of which made it past No. 43 on the Hot 100. No surprise there. “It’s a Small World After All” aside, Disney’s tunes were never known for their multi-cultural aesthetic, and soul was never on the musical agenda.
Mtume Biggest Pop Hit: “Juicy Fruit,” 1983, No. 45
Shirley Murdock Biggest Pop Hit: “As We Lay,” 1986, No. 23
Miki Howard Biggest Pop Hit: “Ain’t Nobody Like You,” 1992, No. 84
Phyllis Hyman Biggest Pop Hit: “Don’t Wanna Change the World,” 1991, No. 68
Melba Moore Biggest Pop Hit: “You Stepped Into My Life,” 1978, No. 47
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