Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The 16 Blue-Eyed Soul Paladins

R&B is “cred,” musically speaking. Next to rock music, the offspring of R&B, rhythm and blues is taken very seriously among its fans and performers. It's the aural-blood of blacks, passed down for its people, by its people. Skepticism runs amok when one who isn't black attempts to don the form of R&B. There are a select few of the Caucasian persuasion that have pulled off the major R&B coup.

Every singer listed here has either given homage to, or integrated, black music into their sound. These artists shine above the rest in executing this merger of sounds and cultures, transcending the messy color lines still present in popular music. The list is presented in chronological order as to when the artist, as they're known, entered the popular music sphere. It's not based on the importance or superiority of one over the other. This piece, in its entirety, is dedicated to the memories of Dusty Springfield, Teena Marie, Maurice & Robin Gibb.

#1. Dusty Springfield
First Album Released in 1964
Mary O'Brien, later Dusty Springfield, stepped out of the frilly family folk act of The Springfields to become the first of her kind, a blue-eyed soul singer. She sojourned to Memphis, Tennessee, the capitol of Stax, to record the legendary Dusty in Memphis (1969). That album cemented Springfield's legacy of importance in the movement of white singers authentically singing black music. Springfield burned brightest in the mid-'60's toward the early half of the '70's. With a voice that was gutsy or pensive, Springfield could sing anything. She recorded infrequently in the remainder of the '70's and '80's before returning with Reputation (1990) and A Very Fine Love (1995). While breast cancer claimed the vocalist in 1999, her music lives on.

"Bring Him Back" from Where Am I Going? (1967)

Recommended Listening: Where Am I Going? (1967)

#2. The Bee Gees
First Album Released in 1965
Brothers Maurice, Barry, and Robin Gibb emerged from Australia to become one of the biggest recording acts in popular music history. Before that, they had humble beginnings as a tasteful Beatles inspired vocal harmony group in the early '60's. After procuring several pop hits with "New York Mining Disaster 1941" and "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart," 1975 became a watermark year. It was then that the group charted new waters: R&B. From 1975 through 1979 The Bee Gees released Main Course (1975), Children of the World (1976), Spirits Having Flown (1979), and the soundtrack companion to the film Saturday Night Fever (1977). These records were crowned for their creamy, authentic grooves. Scoring many R&B hits, The Bee Gees became one of the groups to usher disco into mainstream music periphery. After the '70's wrapped, The Bee Gees continued to record hit records into the next three decades and became producers for others. With the recent passing of Robin Gibb in May and Maurice in 2003, Barry is all that remains of the Gibb empire. The Bee Gees reign has a multitude of treasures, their foray into R&B being a highlight.

"Fanny (Be Tender With My Love)" from Main Course (1975)

Recommended Listening: Spirits Having Flown (1979)

#3. Hall & Oates
First Album Released in 1972
Daryl Hall and John Oates hailed from another famous hotbed of black music, Philadelphia. Coming together as partners in writing, singing, and later producing, they followed behind the soft shift in R&B informed by The Delfonics and The Stylistics. What made their material powerful was its daredevil blends of other genres with the “Philly Sound.” When they took control by producing their own work, they continued to even more astounding victories. Later to be named "the most successful recording duo" by Billboard, Hall & Oates’ career has spanned four decades and counting.

"Wait For Me" from X-Static (1979)

Recommended Listening: Bigger than Both of Us (1976)

#4. Teena Marie
First Album Released in 1979
Mary Christine Brockert, later Teena Marie, subverted Dusty Springfield's iconic position by becoming the first white R&B artist. Under the tutelage of funk pioneer Rick James, Marie  graduated to arranging, producing, and composing all her own work in 1981. Marie enjoyed success with her literate works and an unmistakable voice until she passed away just a day after Christmas in 2010. Her last offering Congo Square (2009), showed her undiminished talent, one that is missed.

"Behind the Groove" from Lady T (1980)

Recommended Listening: Robbery (1983)

#5. Culture Club
First Album Released in 1981
Out of all the New Romantic groups that swarmed from England in the early '80's, Culture Club possessed an altogether organic ebb that set them apart. Boy George (vocals), Roy Hay (guitar), Jon Moss (drums), and Mikey Craig (bass) created the warm weight that defined the chart classics "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?" and "Karma Chameleon." Reggae was a prominent fixture alongside dance minerals on their saucy debut Kissing to be Clever (1981), but 1982's Colour By Numbers was tempered with jazz and soul. Visit the Motown shiner "Church of the Poison Mind" or the bleak "Black Money" for proof. With a second reunion rumor on the wind for Culture Club's 30th anniversary, one can be sure to hear the same commitment to soul-pop quality that characterized Culture Club's finest moments.

"Mistake No.3" from Waking Up with the House on Fire (1984)

Recommended Listening: Colour By Numbers (1982)

#6. Eurythmics
First Album Released in 1981
Another of the giants to emerge in the Second British Invasion of the early '80's, the Eurythmics (Dave Stewart, Annie Lennox) were glass sharp. Stewart's icy arrangements hung on Lennox's voice with perfection. Based on the work of their first four records, their eligibility for this list could be questioned. In a twitchy move of musical retooling, the Eurythmics completely transformed from an electro-synth duo into a rocking R&B duo on their fifth outing Be Yourself Tonight (1985). This album makes the Eurythmics inclusion to this list a must. Putting what many already suspected was a soulful Lennox into searing soul-pop like "Would I Lie to You?" was epic. Even the collaborations boasted gold with Stevie Wonder on "There Must Be An Angel (Playing with My Heart)" and Lennox doing a duet with the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin on "Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves." Such a dramatic transformation, not at all expected, was a wonder. The Eurythmics moved further into rock/soul with Revenge (1986) before returning to the computer cool of old on Savage (1987). Not direct users of blue-eyed soul in the obvious sense, Be Yourself Tonight refuted that for a moment.

"It's Alright (Baby's Coming Back) from Be Yourself Tonight (1985)

Recommended Listening: Be Yourself Tonight (1985)

#7. Simply Red
First Album Released in 1985
Like many of the acts here, Mick Hucknall's outfit was from the United Kingdom. Unlike any of the prior New Romantics talked about, Simply Red’s sound was completely based in jazz and adult pop. Gems from their debut record Picture Book (1985) included "Holding Back the Years" and Money'$ Too Tight to Mention." Simply Red went through several line-up changes before becoming a talented, if revolving door of session musicians to Hucknall's dynamo voice. In 1989, Simply Red turned in a hit cover of the Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes "If You Don't Know Me By Now" on A New Flame. In the '90's, Simply Red's successes were kept to European, British, and Asian shores for recordings like Stars (1991), Life (1995), and Blue (1998). Recently disbanding, they leave behind pop records washed in refined R&B.

"Home" from Home (2003)

Recommended Listening: Blue (1998)

#8. George Michael
First Album Released in 1987
Along with Andrew Ridgeley, George Michael had humble beginnings in the twee pop duo Wham! Hinting at a mature direction with "Careless Whisper," Michael began assembling his solo effort for a 1987 release. Faith, a global sensation evidenced Michael’s ear for writing, arranging, and producing his own work. Steeped in a fair amount of R&B aesthetic, Faith crossed chart borders with "Father Figure" and "Hard Day." Michael continued to use R&B within each album that followed, maintaining an iron hold on his native Britain when his U.S. audience waned in 1996. Michael's strength lies in his natural affinity to capture the ideas of rhythm and blues and keep them accessible to a pop audience. More than any other artist featured on this list, Michael blurs the line between pop and R&B music with an uncanny ease.

"Amazing" from Patience (2004)

Recommended Listening: Older (1996)

#9. Swing Out Sister
First Album Released in 1987
Partners in pop, Andy Connell and Corinne Drewery shared the sassy "Breakout" in '87. A beloved treasure from its period, most associate Swing Out Sister with one-hit wonderhood. In reality, Swing Out Sister have been creating the kind of pop many only hope to make in a lifetime. From their Jimmy Webb and John Barry inspired works, to the fusion of hip-hop with Brit-beatnik acid jazz, Swing Out Sister have always been experimental. Importantly, they segued into a period where they explored '70's funk. Their third offering Get In Touch With Yourself (1992), a loose and bass heavy affair, boasted a cover of the Young-Holt Unlimited/Barbara Acklin's hit "Am I the Same Girl." They took it further with 1994's The Living Return. Still active, their last record Beautiful Mess (2008/2009) showcased sticky R&B in spots, Swing Out Sister's retroactive soul-pop isn't slowing down


"Notgonnachange"* from Get In Touch With Yourself (1992)

*Denotes single version versus album edit featured in video.
Recommended Listening: Get In Touch With Yourself (1992)

#10. Lisa Stansfield
First Album Released in 1989
"The Rochdale Diva," Lisa Stansfield, is one of the leading ladies of the movement this list details. Blasting into existence with "All Around the World," Stansfield's forceful plea reverberated from radios the world over. Moving into a classic soul-pop vein with efforts Real Love (1991) and So Natural (1993), Stansfield remained a household name throughout Europe and England. Record label politicking caused So Natural to lose a Stateside release, so when her fourth (third in the U.S.) effort Lisa Stansfield (1997) dropped, its U.S. reception was lukewarm. Her last two releases Face Up (2001) and The Moment (2004) were contemporaneous, level crafts receiving a British release only. Stansfield has temporarily retired from singing, though it'd be advantageous for today's new crop of Brit-blue-eyed brats to see a master at work.

"Let's Just Call It Love" from Face Up (2001)

Recommended Listening: Real Love (1991)

#11. Texas
First Album Released in 1989
The center of this Scottish pop unit revolves around vocalist Sharleen Spiteri (center), bassist Johnny McElhone (far left), guitarist Ally McErlaine (between McElhone and Spiteri), and keyboardist Eddie Campbell (second to right) with varying musicians shifting in and out throughout their 20 year span. Additionally seen here, circa '97, is Richard Hynd (far right) who was Texas' drummer until departing in 1999. Texas' debut Southside (1989) was influenced by general rock (think Joshua Tree era U2). Later, a mix of alternative with blue-eyed soul seemed an unlikely victory, but that's just what happened as Texas enjoyed a second burst of popularity with White On Blonde (1997) and The Hush (1999). Two additional album releases in 2003 and 2006 followed. Texas paused as a group while Spiteri recorded and released two solo records. Texas' reformation seems to be on the horizon, but they've earned their spot here with Blonde and Hush.

"In Our Lifetime" from The Hush (1999)

Recommended Listening: White on Blonde (1997)

#12. Jamiroquai
First Album Released in 1993
In the mold of the previously mentioned Simply Red revolving door staff, Jason Kay (Jay Kay) does the same as Hucknall in his funk conglomerate Jamiroquai. Jamiroquai's socially conscious funk and jazz stormed the world charts. As they progressed, their work evolved into a sleeker, soulful disco form. In demand today, Jamiroquai is the best funk anyone has heard since, well the '70's.

"Runaway" from High Times: Singles 1992-2006 (2006)

Recommended Listening: Return of the Space Cowboy (1994)

#13. Nikka Costa
First Album Released in 2001
Daughter of Don Costa, a notable music producer, Costa had several "starter" records to her name before she officially entered the fray with Everybody Got Their Something (2001). Produced by Mark Ronson, who played a hand in the career of Amy Winehouse, Everybody was hot. It owed to an obvious blue-eyed sheen but with a tougher, black rock rooted grit indebted to Ike & Tina Turner. Her second outing Can'tneverdidnothin' (2005) received no push from her (then) label home Virgin Records and she moved to Stax to release the dusty, feel-good Pebble to a Pearl (2008). Although she has never achieved anything more than merely modest commercial returns, Costa shines not just as a singer, but a sensitive songsmith and visceral live performer. The digital EP PRO★WHOA! (2011), held her trademark blue-eyed rock, but included pop too.

"Like a Feather" from Everybody Got Their Something (2001)

Recommended Listening: Can'tneverdidnothin' (2005)

#14. Joss Stone
First Album Released in 2003
Leading the new wave of British blue-eyed female singers at the start of the last decade, Joss Stone outshone them all. Her debut The Soul Sessions (2003), a collection of R&B classics and one sexy White Stripes cover placed Stone in the veritable eye of a hurricane of attention. She followed that recording with the (over) mature Mind, Body, & Soul (2004) before settling into her youthful junior long player Introducing...Joss Stone (2007). On each effort, Stone’s voice platformed a rich and full spirit. After a nasty battle with Stone's label EMI Records, they released her. She dropped LP1 last year, her fifth album, produced by Dave Stewart (yes, of the previously mentioned Eurythmics fame). The record appeared on her own indie imprint label Stone'd Records.

"Tell Me 'Bout It" from Introducing...Joss Stone (2007)

Recommended Listening: Colour Me Free! (2009)

#15. Robin Thicke
First Album Released in 2003
Thicke began as an unassuming, if talented songwriter for various pop and R&B stars before his own debut Thicke (2003). Thicke's earthy atmosphere didn't clue to the leap he'd take with The Evolution of Robin Thicke (2006). Led by the single "Lost Without U," the record placed Thicke as the first to revolve around Teena Marie's throne of being a white artist with a legitimate black audience from the outset. Thicke's mixture of "old" and "new" school vibes have endeared Thicke to a variety of ears. Love After War (2011), Thicke's fifth recording was a marked return to his "classic" vibe, showcasing his milk and honey voice with all the trimmings.

"Magic" from Something Else (2008)

Recommended Listening: Something Else (2008)

#16. Sam Sparro
First Album Released in 2008
This Aussie, the son of a gospel minister was destined to become a vocalist. After darting back and forth between Sydney and Los Angeles for a few years, Sparro finally unleashed his eponymous LP in 2008 to rave reviews and decent commercial fanfare. An obvious student to Prince's sounds, Sparro's penmanship and acrobatic vocals kept him from being another Prince copycat. Return to Paradise, his anticipated second player, is due in the late spring or early summer of 2012.

"21st Century Life" from Sam Sparro (2008)

Recommended Listening: Sam Sparro (2008)

[Editor's Note: Originally posted April 9th, 2011. Amendments made on 3/20/12 & 5/28/12.-QH]


And. said...

Thank you for highlighting just how many of the great blue eyed soul singer are from the UK.

I think my list would of had to include Jon B. and Michael McDonald aswell.

Have you heard Donnie's tribute 'Blue Eyed Soul'.. Beautifully thanking those who embrace it.

(Welcome Back)

QH said...

Yes, I do know Donnie's record. And thank you for being a staunch friend & supporter A. ;)

Darrius said...

Very nice piece! It goes without saying that I enjoy a soulful voice, regardless of where it comes from. However, there is something special about a person who isn't affected by the fact they are non-black and they happen to sing soulfully. None of these people you listed could be accused of trying to be something they're not, and I think that's important.

Anonymous said...

Everything I want to say has basically been said by And. Who knew England could produce such soulful singers, not knocking the singers from the U.S. . My list would also include Michael McDonald but instead of John B., I would've included Journey's Steve Perry.