Etta James, Aretha Franklin, and even Ella Fitzgerald come to mind when
discussing incredibly soulful female vocalists. Masters of R&B, soul and blues on the male side include, of course, Marvin Gaye,
Barry White, Eddie Kendricks and Arthur Prysock. All of these names are
just top-of-mind recall. There are many, many more. Vocal groups that have
mastered soulful music range from Blue Magic to The Temptations.
One Man's Experience
When producing a demo disc about four years ago, it was pleasing to be able
to direct a young R&B/Jazz performer who was eager to learn
and quite willing to take constructive criticism. The first few takes of two
songs were pleasant enough, but something was troubling about this fellow's
Much to the dismay of the rest of the talent and engineer, we started over. This time the direction was given to
"use your own voice; don't try to sound like someone else." The young man
meditated for awhile. It was take seven of the whole session and only two songs
had been addressed, out of the five intended for the demo. Sure enough, the same
awful, nasal, whining came out on a cover of "You've Changed." It was worse than eating
Cheese Whiz on a stale saltine cracker.
The answer came from an old trick taught to the producer by the inimitable
jazz icon Carmen McRae. The vocalist was handed a snifter of Cognac with
lemon (no ice) and told to down it. Everyone waited for about ten minutes, the
musicians riffing around and the producer, engineer and relatives,
friends, etc. who were there merely tapped their fingers on whatever was
No, the Cognac was not for this guy's voice. It was to enable him to
take the words about to come from the producer's mouth:
The Hard-Stool School of Singing
"I know that the sound you're giving us sells millions of records for quite a
few of your more successful peers. But in my humble opinion, it sounds like
you're constipated and trying really hard to void your bowels."
"It sounds like you've gotta take a dump and you're straining to do it. Enjoy
the rest of the brandy, take a few deep breaths, and think Billy Eckstine, or
even Michael Jackson crooning. But no more of this pop pablum."
By way of example, a cut from the '70s called "Girl, You Need A Change of
Mind" first made popular by Eddie Kendricks was played in the studio. It wasn't
Kendricks's version; it was the Paul Lewis single that had made its way onto the
lower ends of the Billboard R&B charts in the late '70s.
"You've Changed" was aced on the next take. "Sexual Healing" was next;
finished in just two takes. "At Last" took a bit longer, 'cause the critical
advice had fallen by the wayside. A kind word and more brandy brought back the
incredibly sensual, nicely-timbred crooning voice of this talented young man.
"Victim," a Candi Staton disco hit, was given a fresh new feel, heavily funky,
and was aced by the singer in the first take. The musicians needed to do it
three more times merely because they'd never done the tune before. They'd also
not rehearsed for this set.
It was four o'clock in the morning by the time the drinks had been finished,
a joint passed around, and the raw tapes completely examined. All agreed that
evening (and later, after the post-production was completed and all involved
listened with minds unaltered) that the demo would open doors for this singer.
A Lesson Un-Learned
Now, four years later, when this young man sings, the "bathroom-urgency" and
long, sustained travels up and down the scales on the extended final sostenuto
have returned. Too bad. The producer is pretty certain that at the very least,
this now twenty-eight-year-old boy will make it to the semi-finals of "American
Idol." But what gets him there will be vocal plagiarism, not his own
My deep appreciation to WaldemarExcul for pointing out that "sostenuto" is the correct word; I used "sustenuoso."