You know what I mean. The stuff that bloody MTV cranks out all day, every day. Aaliyah. Brandy. Monica. Whatever. Sure, they look pretty enough but the singing! Oh have mercy on me Sweet Lord, what kind of singing is that!? It's just wailing and wailing and background dancers shaking their asses off till the cows come home. And that's not very suitable music for todays frail and impressionable youth, I think you'll agree.

And they're just kids! They don't know anything about life! What kind of friggin right have you got to sing about eternal love when you're what, fifteen? You'd have to be at least 21 to know anything about that. Now Aretha Franklin, she must be pushing 85 or something and she knows about life.

They ain't even got proper names. 'Aaliyah', what kind of name is that? Sounds like bloody Swahili to me.

We used to get proper soul music when I was a lad. Isaac Hayes. Otis Redding. Marvin Gaye (God bless him!). Even Dusty Springfield. Sigh. They just don't make 'em as they used to anymore.

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 sound.

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 convenient.

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."

"What?!"

"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 voice.

My deep appreciation to WaldemarExcul for pointing out that "sostenuto" is the correct word; I used "sustenuoso."

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