R&B’s Doo-Wop Revival

During the second installment of The New Edition Story mini-series, one of the characters makes a derisive comment about the group’s doo-wop misadventure, Under the Blue Moon. The album is so poorly regarded that the one-sentence dismissal is all the coverage it gets.

It’s easy to set aside New Edition’s misguided and overly saccharine attempt at reaching the same oldies-loving audience that turned Dirty Dancing into the biggest summer hit of 1986. But Under the Blue Moon was also part of a oft-forgotten movement that flourished throughout the 80s and into the 90s. While R&B never experienced a full-scale old-school doo-wop revival, it lasted as a minor trend, thanks to Force M.D.’s, Take 6, and New Edition’s greatest protégés, Boyz II Men.

Below is a short post and playlist on the subject I wrote for Rhapsody.com in 2013.

It was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment: The emergence of doo-wop in modern-day R&B. Actually, it wasn’t all that brief. The pioneering Staten Island group Force M.D.’s used doo-wop harmonies on their 1984 hit “Tears,” and New Edition nearly made it an official trend with their 1986 album Under the Blue Moon, a collection of doo-wop covers on which they generously invited Little Anthony of the Imperials to guest on “Tears on My Pillow.” And when Christian vocal jazz quintet Take 6 landed a surprise hit with their 1988 self-titled debut and “Spread Love,” it seemed like numerous groups absorbed their remarkable a cappella melodies, including Troop, who added a Take 6-like “Spread!” to “Spread My Wings.” Bobby McFerrin was a vocal jazz artist, too, but his Grammy-winning Simple Pleasures captured the mood as well.

So it was one of those inspirations that persisted for several years until around 1991 and the arrival of Jodeci, whose rough harmonies on Forever My Lady were decidedly more hip-hop than the angelic sounds of doo-wop. While doo-wop was easy to miss amidst other trends like New Jack, gospel, hip-house, and freestyle, the evidence is there, including After 7’s vocal interplay on “Can’t Stop,” Color Me Badd’s “la-la-la-la” bridge near the end of “I Wanna Sex You Up,” Boyz II Men’s cover of the Five Satins’ “In The Still Of the Night,” and finally, Shai’s 1992 a capella smash “If I Ever Fall In Love,” which closed the chapter on this wonderfully underrated period in soul music.

Recommended:

  • Take 6, “Spread Love”
  • Force M.D.’s, “Tears”
  • New Edition, “Earth Angel”
  • Force M.D.’s, “Tender Love”
  • New Edition, “Tears on My Pillow”
  • Troop, “Spread My Wings”
  • Special Generation, “Love Me Just For Me”
  • Troop, “All I Do is Think Of You”
  • Miles Davis, “The Doo Bop Song”
  • Bobby McFerrin, “Good Lovin'”
  • After 7, “Can’t Stop”
  • Special Generation, “Spark of Love”
  • After 7, “Ready or Not”
  • Color Me Badd, “I Wanna Sex You Up”
  • Take 6, “I L-O-V-E You”
  • Boyz II Men, “Motownphilly”
  • Force One Network, “Spirit (Does Anybody Care?)”
  • Boyz II Men, “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye To Yesterday”
  • Quincy Jones, “Septembro”
  • Boyz II Men, “In The Still of the Nite (I’ll Remember)”
  • Shai, “If I Ever Fall In Love”

(Rhapsody – May 8, 2013)

80s Black Pop Crossover

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As we continue to reflect over the death of Whitney Houston, it’s important to remember the time period when she emerged. The 1980s was not only a period when technology began to take over the music industry in the form of drum machines, synthesizers and sampling keyboards; but also a time of cultural conservatism. The baby-boomer generation of the 1950s and 1960s enjoyed broad yet waning influence in pop culture. We like to remember that electronic music, hip-hop and post-punk (which evolved into indie-rock) came of age back then. But we often forget that those new and exciting sounds were far removed from the corporate rock and adult contemporary mainstream.

The world of black music was no different. The charts were mostly dominated by artists who launched their careers during the 1960s. The music they produced was often incredible – indeed, this era is celebrated as the heyday of “boogie funk” and “post-disco,” a brief oasis for musicians increasingly threatened by the insurgent hip-hop horde. But it could also be very bland and safe. Much like their white counterparts, older black music fans were retreating to the safe comforts of the quiet storm, a programming term for classic soul, smooth jazz, and lots of ballads. (Nelson George writes lucidly about this period in his book The Death of Rhythm and Blues.)

Black artists trying to break their audience’s stupor had an additional problem; the music industry in the 1980s was extremely segregated. We’ve all heard the story of how Columbia Records forced MTV to play Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” because the channel rarely programmed black songs in heavy rotation. Between 1981 and 1985, only three black artists reached number one on the album charts: Jackson, Prince and Lionel Richie. In 1981 and 1982, there were none. Pop radio was even worse: Only four songs by black artists reached number one during those two years. This is why Jackson is viewed as a pioneer. After black artists were consigned to the margins following the demise of disco, the groundbreaking popularity of Thriller made the industry recognize them again. But don’t assume that Jackson, Houston, and others were underground or alternative. Inexplicably, and even with major labels supporting them with vast financial resources, they often had trouble gaining wide acceptance.

As a result, Jackson, Prince and others who managed to break through the glass ceiling were called “crossover” stars, because they managed to cross over to the mainstream (re: white) audience. (Of course, this assumes that white people usually didn’t listen to black music, which is another falsehood.) They appealed to fans of hard rock (Tina Turner, Prince), adult contemporary (Anita Baker) and/or that strange mix of synthesized dance music that typified 80s pop (the Pointer Sisters, Whitney Houston). This list covers black artists who earned platinum or better sales between 1981 and 1986. (The sole outlier is the electro-funk band Midnight Star, which earned double-platinum with No Parking on the Dance Floor despite no pop radio support.)

Luckily, this “crossover” nonsense began to end when a generation of younger artists finally took over the pop charts in the late 1980s. They were led by artists like Janet Jackson, perhaps the last of the era to be saddled with the condescending “crossover” label. Appropriately, her breakthrough album was called Control.

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British Jazz-Funk

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Unlike New Romantic, Goth, and so many other fast fashions that whipped through the UK in the early 80s, British jazz-funk is barely known in the U.S. Inspired by Stateside acts such as Roy Ayers Ubiquity and George Duke, who girded their jazz fusion exercises with disco and boogie soul arrangements, ensembles like Light of the World, Beggar & Co., and Hi-Tension crafted a sound aimed at the dance floor. The tracks first appeared via DJ-friendly white labels, and then on the UK singles chart: Shakatak’s “Easier Said Than Done” (which was later sampled by early Aughts dance-pop singer Annie), and Level 42’s “Love Games,” among others. But while Hi-Tension promised to “Bless the funk,” and Beggar and Co. chanted “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!” while bopping to “Somebody Help Me Out” on Top of the Pops, the scene failed to cross the Atlantic.

The style peaked between 1980-1982. Thereafter, Shakatak became a smooth jazz staple, while Level 42 evolved into a Big 80s arena pop band, and finally cracked the US charts with “Something About You.” Freeez, who had an early jazz-funk hit with “Southern Freeez,” teamed with producer Arthur Baker for the electro smash “IOU.” Incognito, led by former Light of the World drummer Jean-Paul “Bluey” Maunick, released Jazz Funk in 1981 before going on hiatus. Their re-emergence in 1991 with Inside Life catapulted them to the forefront of 90s acid jazz.

While much of British jazz-funk remains unavailable here, there are a handful of songs worth checking out, including Mirage’s “Summer Groove,” Central Line’s “Walking Into Sunshine” and Savanna’s “I Can’t Turn Away.” Not all of it qualifies as jazz, per se, and tracks like Imagination’s “Body Talk” fall squarely into the R&B idiom. But they’re necessary to evoking an era that’s worth deeper exploration.

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