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Why Does It Hurt So Bad: Whitney Houston (1963 – 2012)

February 15, 2012 2 comments

Whitney Houston, the face of innocence and the voice of an angel, dominated pop music for a 15 year run

On Saturday, February 11, 2012, singer Whitney Houston passed away in Beverly Hills, California.  The cause of death was unknown at the time this article was published.  She was 48 years old.  Whitney Houston emerged from New Jersey, seemingly preordained to sing.  Her mother Cissy was a successful and well-respected gospel singer, her cousin is hit-making vocalist Dionne Warrick and she is a God-daughter to Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.  She achieved unprecedented success as a female recording artist, released 22 top 10 pop hits, including 11 number ones.  The only female artist with more is Mariah Carey (18), and The Beatles (20), Elvis (18) and Michael Jackson (13) are the only male artists with more.  Whitney Houston’s voice was one of nearly incomparable power and sweeping emotional range.  Her voice is the reason that women like Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and Christina Aguilera among a host of others decided that they wanted to be professional singers.  Having said that, her voice is also the reason that we forget that there was a time were some believed that she represented everything that was wrong about Black Music.

Whitney Houston’s was the face of, what writer Nelson George dubbed, the “post-soul era.”  In the 1980’s, after Civil Rights banter had calmed down and been replaced with the sound of Black assimilation, singers like Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson and Anita Baker represented a new kind of Black music, no longer dripping with sweat-drenched bass lines, and gutterial, raspy “sangers,” singing about lost love and hard times.  The era of the “buppies” were eager to hear music that reflected their integration to higher society; music more about fun, but in a safe, wine and cheese type of environment.   And although Richie, Jackson and Baker were, indeed, huge crossover draws, they still descended from more funky, soulful beginnings and controlled their destiny by writing and producing their own work.

Whitney with friend and superstar singer/songwriter Michael Jackson. To many, these two artist defined the music generation of the 1980s and 1990s.

Whitney Houston’s arrival to the music world at large was a changing of the guard, both on a large and singular scale.  Arista Records’ then president Clive Davis signed Houston in 1984, which prompted him to almost immediately jettison his previous chanteuse, Phyllis Hyman.  Hyman, one of the most dynamic singers of her generation, struggled to cross over the way Davis would have wanted and her own ideas about how to best harness and use her voice clashed with Davis.  With Houston, the stage was set.  She was an interpreter, majestically performing compositions from pop songwriting heavyweights like Michael Masser (“The Greatest Love of All,” “Didn’t We Almost Have It All”), David Foster (“I Have Nothing”), Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds (“I’m Your Baby Tonight,” “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)”), and Diane Warren (“Run To You,” “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength”).   The combination of Whitney’s voice, her elegant evening gowns, and seemingly scientific song craft, her first two albums, Whitney Houston (1985) and Whitney (1987) sold over 22 million copies combined in the U.S. alone.  Some members of the Black record buying community, however, believed that such a landmark voice should not be relegated to singing pop music, but instead lend her pipes to songs with more emotional and socio-political depth.  That same community communicated this sentiment at the 1989 Soul Train Awards when she was booed as she took the stage.

For her third album, Davis recruited Babyface and partner L.A. Reid to inject some urban credibility to her already prestine brand.  1990’s I Your Baby Tonight included a well-construction blend of her winning pop formula with Babyface’s sophisticated, yet hip R&B.  As a result, songs like “All the Man I Need,” “My Name is Not Susan” and the title track kept Whitney on the platinum road.  But 3 million copies was a far cry from her two huge selling efforts, perhaps due to her losing touch with her massive white audience.  She forever destroyed her conflicting professional issues with the release of The Bodyguard Soundtrack.  A joint movie/album juggernaught project, the music, in particularly her version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” catapaulted Houston into heights not seen by a female artist since, selling 17 million copies and securing Houston’s place as one of the most talented and successful singers in American History.

Whitney's fifth studio album, "My Love Is Your Love," continued her incomparable success with 7 Grammy Nominations.

For her next three projects, soundtracks to Waiting to Exhale (1995) and The Preachers Wife (1996) , and studio album My Love is You Love  (1998), Whitney re-embraced the contemporary soul music that was incorporated back in 1990.  Continuing her work with Babyface, and up-and-comers like Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins (“It’s Not Right But It’s Okay”) and Wyclef Jean (“My Love Is Your Love”), Houston only extended the gap between herself and all other big voiced female artists.  By this time, R&B and Hip-Hop was at the forefront of mainstream music and Whitney’s power ballads were now old hat.  It seems that Houston made a smooth transition with the smash single “Heartbreak Hotel” which featured R&B newcomers Faith Evans and Kelly Price.  This was quietly another changing of the guard, as Evans and Price represented Houston’s dual sides, the polished professional vocal technician in Evans while Price represented Whitney’s gospel roots from her childhood days in Newark.  Not only that, but Whitney had internalized her quiet anger with husband Bobby Brown for his infidelities into they lyrics of “It’s Not Right,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” and Diane Warren ballad, “I Learned From the Best.”  She had finally used her voice to express her own demons, making the songs all the more compelling to listeners, fulfilling the promise that past critics saw in her from the start.

Unfortunately, My Love Is Your Love signaled Houston’s inevitable decline.  After selling four million copies and winning her sixth Grammy Award for “It’s Not Right But It’s Ok,” Whitney’s best days as a recording artist were now behind her. However, she did remain in the collective minds of the public, for all the wrong reasons.  Due to her increasing drug habit and questionable public behavior, Houston became tabloid fodder not unlike her friend and peer, the late Michael Jackson.  She experienced the time-tested practice of the media knocking you off your perch for the sake of a story.  Many believe her 15 year marriage with New Edition singer Bobby Brown, who once flourished as R&B’s bad boy, was the blame for her demise, pushing his own addictions onto her.  While this may be the popular opinion, it cannot be ignored that following their 2007 divorce, Brown was able to kick his habits and continue his performing career without incident, while Houston’s once stain-glass voice was unequivically affected.  Although her final album, 2009’s I Look To You went platinum, her ability to match her studio vocals in front of a live audience had definitively diminished.  You see, Bobby Brown, although enjoying success both in New Edition and as a solo artist, never had to contend with the unsurmontable expectations and demands that Whitney did.  At the end of the day, as a member of a group, Bobby had five friend – friends since childhood – to lean on in one way or another.  Whitney was a solo artist in a very real way: when it goes right, it’s because of you, and when it goes wrong, it’s because of you.  We can never know the weight Houston had to carry on her shoulders even as her career significantly waned.

When it’s all said and done, when an artist like Whitney Houston dies, the true nature of her fans are revealed.  Like many others that have passed on, fans of Houston showed that we hold on to hope as long as the artist is still with us.  All joking about crack pipes, and “Being Bobby Brown” episode outbreaks aside, many thought Houston had just one more in her. One more great statement on stage that she was still the best many had ever seen.  We hold on to that faith because of “I Will Always Love You;” we hold onto that faith because of “Count on Me;” we hold onto that faith because of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  Perhaps it was fate that on the night that she passed, she was set to attend the annual Clive Davis Pre-Grammy Awards Party.  It was 28 years before at that the very event that Davis unveiled her before the world, as then 20 year old Whitney dazzled the crowd of industry movers and artistic giants.  Reading renditions of songs like Michael Jackson’s “I Wanna Be Where You Are,” she projected that rare combination of youth and experience; innocence and wisdom.  Such a pairing is reserved only for legends, and Whitney Houston is, if nothing else, a legend, therefore, she will live forever.

Thank you listening, and remember: Black Americans may only be one tenth of the country’s population, but that tenth is talented.

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Categories: Obits

Swing Low, Sweet Soul Train: Don Cornelius (1936 – 2012)

February 2, 2012 1 comment

Don Cornelius, creator/producer/host of Soul Train, has died. He was 75.

It was 1992.  Don Cornelius, the host and visionary of Soul Train, the long running syndicated dance show in television history (36 funky seasons), was walking up the stairs onto the stage to greet his guest artist of the day: Stevie Wonder.  For those of us who watched Soul Train on the regular, Cornelius was a stoic force, engaging and interviewing the show’s performers with stark seriousness, and sometimes, depending on the guest, downright curtness.  The latter was visible more often than not by this time, as he witnessed the familiar sounds of powerful singers and exploding musicians give way to young rappers and flashy DJs.  So, Stevie’s presence was more than welcome for the 56 year old host.  He strolled up to Wonder as he sat at his keyboard, who was flashing his signature smile.  Cornelius put his hand on Stevie’s shoulder, bent down and kissed him on the forehead, prompting Stevie’s already blinding grin to widen more so.  Out of the tens of thousands of episodes of Soul Train up to that point, and the dozens after that, before his retirement the following year, that moment summed up every aspect of Cornelius’ personality: strong willed, uncompromising, under control and genuinely sincere.

On February 1, 2012, we lost our conductor, our engineer.  Right now, the world scrambles to find the true circumstances of Don Cornelius’ apparent suicide at age 75, but unlike the Soul Train Scramble Board, the answer is not so obvious.  But the Well-Dressed Headphone Addict will choose not to speculate why it happened, but we will choose to expound on the true importance:

Don Cornelius was a shepherd for Black American culture; a true leader of the highest order, the same way that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were leaders.  Why, because he provoked change, took ownership and refused to settle, all while celebrating the celestial glory of his culture and heritage.  He found a way to showcase the talents and gifts of his people to earn a substantial profit without exploiting or demeaning them; a razor thin line that few – maybe no one – can walk.  Cornelius was the embodiment of what all Black leaders have stressed for decades: ownership of property.  Don owned, produced, hosted and financed the intellectual property of Soul Train, turning it into physical property for himself, and historical property for millions of viewers and fans.  He gave birth to once-in-a-lifetime moments in music history – Aretha and Smokey singing “Ooo Baby Baby,” Michael Jackson doing the Robot during “Dancing Machine,” Al Green tearing down the house with “Here I Am” with a broken arm, and the gift that keeps on giving…the Soul Train line.

With Don’s leadership, Soul Train became the longest running syndicated show in television history at 36 seasons.

Don understood what it meant to maintain ownership of his product, and opted not to relinquish his control for the benefit of his own personal fiscal ascension, at the expense of downgrading the stature and perception of Black Americans, unlike others who shall remain nameless at this time.  And when he was challenged, he met his competitors head on with unwavering conviction.  When American Bandstand impresario Dick Clark launched Soul Unlimited, Cornelius said, “I’ll be DAMNED if I’m going to let Clark take this.”  Clark relented.  Don knew the history of white America’s exploitation of black culture.  There was nothing Little Richard could do when Pat Boone covered “Tutti Fruitti;” there was nothing Big Mama Thorton could do when Elvis Presley covered “Hound Dog;” Don succeeded where so many great men and women of color fell short, through no fault of their own.

Soul Train sprouted a great many offspring: BET Video Soul, 106 & Park, Yo! MTV Raps, to name a few.  Each program follows the shows template of exposing the best and most innovative of Black American music, fashion and dance.  Through all the fads, trends, changes, births and deaths, Don Cornelius was the one constant image.  He was a shepherd, a maverick, an owner, a warrior, a quietly dynamic force of nature that left a permanent impression on our lives.  The Soul Train line in the great beyond can now official commence now that its architect has arrived, and with past guests like Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, Luther Vandross, Minnie Riperton all making their way down that line, you can beat your last money, Heaven’s gonna be a stone gas, honey.



Categories: Obits

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough: Nicholas Ashford (1942 – 2011)

August 23, 2011 1 comment

Singer/songwriter Nick Ashford has passed away at age 69.

Nicholas Ashford passed away on Monday, August 22, 2011.  Ashford died of throat cancer, he was 69 years old.  It is impossible to separate Ashford from his songwriting partner, singing partner and beloved wife, Valerie Simpson.  The term Ashford & Simpson has been synomonous with classic American music for over 50 years.  Together, they’ve written hits for many big stars like Diana Ross (“Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand,” “The Boss”) Chaka Khan (“I’m Every Woman”) and Ray Charles (“Let’s Go Get Stoned”).  As recording artists, Ashford unique tenor was a inticing counterbalance to Simpson’s warm alto.  Despite not fairing as well commercial as performers as they did as producers and songwriters, they were incredibly prolific, releasing 16 albums between 1973 and 1996.

It’s impossible to think of Nick Ashford without thinking of Valerie Simpson.  The two have forged a groove in the minds of millions as duo in many forms: songwriting partners for over 50 years, performing duet for over 40 years, and husband and wife for 38 years.  Nick was seldom seen on his own.  In fact, Valerie recorded three solo albums and was a featured lead vocalist on many Quincy Jones recordings in the 1960s and 1970s (“Killer Joe,” “Summer in the City,” etc.).  Still, Ashford’s individuality was never compromised.  He wrote some the most enduring lyrics in 20th century music, black or white.  He went from living in a church homeless shelter in New York City to writing songs for Ray Charles.  Ashford has been and will go down in history among the group of immortal writers and producers in the incredibly talented and competitive Motown Records:  Ashford and Simpson, Whitfield and Barrett, Holland-Dozier-Holland, The Corporation (RIP Fonce Mizell).   His words are forever embedded into the bosom of American music: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” alone is song that was destined to outlive him and all those who have recorded it.  Many of their hits have been made over in various fashions, both at Motown and in a new generation, thanks to sampling.  Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s undeniable chemistry was enhanced by the songwriting of Ashford and Simpson, as they recognized the musical, physical and personal dynamics between the two singers, making songs like “Your Precious Love” into an sensuous soul song without being overtly erotic.

Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson forged a partnership as both songwriters and husband & wife, that's produced hits like "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," and "I'm Every Woman."

Secondly, the love affair between he and Valerie Simpson goes far beyond any hit record.  Ashford and Simpson were able to maintain their professional status as songwriting and singing partners for far longer than they’ve been man and wife, but it’s because of that love for each other that they were able to continue on to make successful and inspiring music.  Songwriting partnerships, for one reason or another, don’t seem to last long: Bacarah & David, Lennon & McCartney, Hayes and Porter, King & Goffin, all of them contributed classic compositions to the world, but were unable to maintain their partnerships.  Ashford and Simpson’s partnership was more than that.  They were unaffected by fame, by who got more attention, etc.  Valerie didn’t just lose her partner, she lost her husband, the father to their two daughters, her confidant and friend.

Once again, it cannot be stated enough how much we need to embrace and cherish our beloved songwriters, the architects of rhythm, melody and lyric.  They are the purest of all music makers and the most unsung.  Luckily Nick Ashford’s reputation helped his fans remember how talented he was, but we should be all the more appreciative that he gave us what he did while he was here.

Nick Ashford, you were loved, and thanks to the love you gave the world through your words, “Reach out and touch somebody’s hand,” you will now live forever.






Categories: Obits

Amy Winehouse: Hyperbolic Prophecy (1983 – 2011)

July 24, 2011 3 comments

Amy Winehouse, Grammy Award winner singer, has died at age 27.

On Saturday, July 23, 2011, singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse passed away at the age of 27.   Her body was found in her London home by police.  A drug overdose was suspected to be the cause of death, but was not confirmed at the time this article was published.  The British songstress came to fame with the 2006 release of her breakthrough sophomore LP Back to Black, building her audience with her arresting, cynical wordplay, depicting the relatable issues of sex, failed relationships and owning up to one’s dark nature.

There are those who will compare her death to that of other famed artists who died at 27: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, all also met their fates due to drug abuse.  The circumstances following her death are eerily similar to the aforementioned artists, but unlike them, (NOT TO DEVALUE WINEHOUSE’S TALENT IN ANY WAY) Winehouse had yet to reach the status of socially transcending her music.  That sort of hyperbolic idol-appointment may, indeed, have compelled the English-born singer to use drugs and alcohol to deal with such pressure.  Musicians like Cobain and Hendrix were revolutionary forces who brought permanent changes to music after their arrivals.  Winehouse was not an innovator as much as she was a revivalist (a great one, at that).   Her 2003 debut, Frank,  brilliantly melded sophisticated vocal jazz, a la Nancy Wilson, with slick 1990’s R&B production.  Her double platinum follow-up, Back to Black, merged the simplistic and infectious rhythm arrangements of Motown with a staccato-inflected voice that exquisitely teetered on feisty and despondent.  So, while she won’t necessarily take her place alongside the other tragic heroes of rock, she does, however, deserve much credit for both jump-starting the throwback recording trend of artists like R. Kelly, Cee-Lo Green and Raphael Saadiq, and garnering some much deserved attention to fellow English female vocalists like Adele, Joss Stone and Lily Allen.

Decked out in a beehive hairdo & various tattoos, Winehouse's music combined throwback instrumentation with the mentality of the 21st century woman.

It is also worth mentioning that, because of the ubiquitous juggernaut that is social media and 24 hour news coverage, her drug-induced escapades were given as much attention as her 15 million plus records sold worldwide, whereas  in the 1960’s, for artists like Joplin and Hendrix, substance abuse was just an inevitable, if not tolerable, aspect to their legend, ultimately not as noteworthy as the music during their lifetimes.  With reality shows, TMZ and VeVo, drugs such as cocaine and heroin have been replaced with camera lenses and twitter followers.  We no longer live in a time in which drugs are seen as an assist to the creative process the same way marijuana helped Bob Dylan write “Like a Rolling Stone,” the way The Beatles’ acid trips inspired them to record Revolver, or even how massive cocaine use drove Sly Stone to create There’s a Riot Goin’ On, hailed as an ominous masterpiece.  Sure, her Grammy winning single “Rehab” was given more authenticity because of the public’s knowledge of her addictions, but Winehouse’s drug problems were not helped by the all the media’s attention to her trials and tribulations, climaxing with the viral nature of her final taped performance in Serbia last month, where she was booed offstage for being drunk, unprepared, or both.  All things considered, the constant flashes of paparazzi cameras and E! Channel reporters probably had almost as much to do with her death as the drugs did.

Lastly, there’s the obligatory statements of what a waste it was for Amy Winehouse to die at such a young age.  Yes, 27 years old is certainly young, but who are we to say that she had more to give?  Regardless of whatever you do or don’t believe, there are events in life that happen for unexplainable reasons and they are not meant to be explained.  Not every artist is supposed – or capable enough –  to make a Thriller or a Sgt. Pepper album.  Whatever great music they were blessed enough to create for us should stand on its own merit without always being burdened with what it could, would or should be.  Back To Black  meant just as much to some as a Thriller or a Sgt. Pepper means to another, which is exactly what music should be; inspirational.  If Winehouse does belong in a category of fallen singers, it’s those whose music helped the listeners more than the artist who created it.  It was not meant for Amy Winehouse to reach old age, but thanks to songs like “You Know I’m No Good,” “I Heard Love is Blind” and “Valerie,” somebody else will, for that, you’ll live forever.

Categories: Obits

“Fonce” Mizell: The Funky Fourth of the Corporation (1943 – 2011)

Alphonso "Fonce" Mizell was a pillar of California-based music in the 1970's, crafting classics for artists like The Jackson 5 and Donald Byrd.

On Monday, July 11, 2011, songwriter/producer/musician Alphonso “Fonce” Mizell passed away at the age of 68.  Mizell achieved much success throughout his career, and worked with a great many talented musicians.  However, once word of his passing reached the Well-Dressed Headphone Addict, the first thing to come to mind was The Corporation; not the record label, Hog Records, he established with his brother Larry in the 1960’s; not the Sky High production company that he and Larry created to mold some of the best soul and contemporary jazz of the 1970’s.  For our liner note fanatics and crate-digging followers, The Corporation is the group of songwriters who crafted the first – and biggest – hit records for a family quintet from Gary, Indiana.

 Adept in multiple instruments, Fonce, along with his childhood friend Freddie Perren, sharpened his chops under the watchful eye of his Howard University instructor, jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd.  Once arriving in California in the late 1960’s, fellow friend Deke Richards got him employed at Motown Records.  In a pairing that can only be described as divine intervention, the three musicians were assigned with writing songs exclusively for the legendary label’s newest would-be stars, The Jackson 5.  With Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr., making the group of writers into a quartet; three of the songs they’d write would become part of American music lore for over 40 years: “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” and “The Love You Save.”  In addition to composing and arranging portions of each track, Fonce also played the infamous piano melody on “I Want You Back” and bass on the demo for “The Love You Save.”  The four members called themselves “The Corporation,” and thus that’s who’s credited as the songwriters and producers of those records.  Featuring infectious rhythms, flourishing strings, and lyrics that were equally youthful and wise, the three singles became instant smashes, all going number 1 in 1969 and 1970.  By 1972, Fonce and the Corporation penned and produced arguably the most memorable songs in the Jackson 5’s Motown catalog: “Goin’ Back to Indiana,” “Mama’s Pearl,” “I Found That Girl,”  “Maybe Tomorrow,” “It’s Great to Be Here,” and “Sugar Daddy.”

"I Want You Back" and "Nobody" were the lone original songs on the Jackson 5's debut LP, both written by Mizell and The Corporation.

Has Fonce Mizell made other contributions to music outside of The Jackson 5?  Absolutely.  In remembrance, many have, and will mention, his 1970s’ productions, like Byrd’s “Think Twice,” L.T.D.’s “Love Ballad,” Edwin Starr’s Hell Up in Harlem soundtrack, Bobby Humphrey’s Satin Doll and Fancy Dancer LPs, and A Taste of Honey’s “Boogie Oogie Oogie,” all of them successful both in their own time and resurrected by a grateful generation of Hip Hop artists, DJ’s and producers.  Yes, all this has contributed to his legacy, giving him legendary status in his own right.  However, when I think of Fonce Mizell, I’ll remember him as a board member of The Corporation, and a proud parent to all those miracles sung by the Jackson 5.  In fact, it’s only after hearing those projects from the likes of Byrd and Humphrey in retrospect that you begin to recognize Fonce’s contribution to The Corporation: understated, yet memorable percussion and colorful, exciting key changes.  And while those J5 tracks all possessed a similar – for lack of a better term – formula, each one had its own unique personality, all catering to the harmonies of Michael, Jermaine, Jackie, Tito and Marlon so perfectly, that when the songs are played today, they sound as if the five brothers just walked out of the recording booth, with smoke still rising from James Jamerson’s bass and David T. Walker’s guitar.  Not only will the aforementioned hits live on, but so will other superb album tracks like “Nobody,” “You Made Me What I Am Today,” “I Will Find a Way,” “If I Have to Move a Mountain,” and “I’m So Happy,” which were all just as full of funk, heart and prodigious power as the biggest hits Motown ever had.  He’ll be in my heart whenever I think back to one special Christmas morning when I received the first four J5 albums on cassette tapes and experienced those songs for the first time, allowing them to absorb themselves into the pores of my subconscious and soul, where they’ll remain beyond the existence of me and all others who have gone through the same.  

 To Alphonso “Fonce” Mizell: May you rest in peace.  Every time your opening piano glissando of “I Want You Back” jumps out of the stereo, we’ll be reminded that you will now live forever.


Categories: Obits

Teena Marie: Architect of the Ghetto-Pass (1956 – 2010)

December 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Teena Marie, former Motown singer/songwriter/musician has passed away at the young age of 54. "Lady T" contributed enduring R&B classics like "I'm A Sucker For Love," "Square Biz" and "Ooo La La La."

On Sunday, December 26, 2010, singer/songwriter/musician Teena Marie passed away at the young age of 54.  When I first heard of her death, I was immediately shocked, having just seen her in concert only a year ago in Brooklyn, looking as fiesty and active on stage as ever.  Right away, I thought to myself, “Man, there’s another black artist passing away in their 50s. ”  This is an utterly startling thought, considering that Teean Marie a white woman.  But let’s be frank:  It’s safe to say that Teena Marie’s passing hasn’t exactly shaken the white record buying community as hard as it has with the Black community.  In printed and web-based obituaries, it’s stated Teena was best known for her hit single “Lovergirl.”  “Lovergirl” went to number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in 1984 and was her biggest crossover hit.  Despite its success, if you ask any of her fans what song they first thought of when they heard she passed away, very few will say “Lovergirl.”  Because of her soulful, heartwrenching voice – a voice she used to interpret masterfully funky, passionate and emotional music – she’s considered an R&B artist above all else.  Teena Marie may have been the first white artist to get a “Ghetto-Pass:” a general level of acceptance from the Black community.

Back in 1979, her debut album, Wild & Peaceful, was released without her face on the cover.  As an artist with Motown Records and a protoge of Punk Funk pioneer Rick James, Teena was targeted to a Black audience, and they accepted her because of the voice alone.  Once she appeared on Soul Train with Rick and it was discovered she was white, nothing changed.  She was embraced by African American the nation over, and she embraced them back.  “I’m a black artist with white skin,” Teena once said.  Not once was her sincerity or authenticy ever questioned, which is something quite important when it comes to an artist.  Far too long and often have white artists exploited black artistry for fame and profit, all the while attempting to claim their respect for the black artists who’s backs they stepped on.  Teena stepped on no one’s back to get where she did and we recognized it in her voice, her demeanor and her ability.  After Rick James wrote her first album all himself, she began writing on her own, including classic funk and quiet storm tracks as “Behind The Groove,” “I Need Your Lovin’,” Porteguese Love,” “Ooo La La La,” and “Square Biz.”  Once you heard that throbbing bass, her funky guitar swirls and sweeping blasts of brass, you didn’t have to ask whether or not it was all Teena.  She showed her fellow “light skinned” artists how to get that “ghetto-pass” notarized: with truth, and heart.  Game recognizes game, and that’s why it’s easy to see why the Ivory Queen of Soul stood the test of time while her other caucazoid counterparts faded into obscurity and novelty.  For every Teena Marie, there’s five Marky Marks and the Funky Bunch.  For every “I’m a Sucker For Your Love,” there’s 10 “Ice Ice Baby’s.”  For every “Behind the Groove,” there’s countless “Informers.”  She wasn’t just good, she was rare. 

Teena Marie, in the end, was a woman with an instantly recognizable voice that touch the lives of millions of people for over 30 years.  The world at large called you Teena Marie, but to those who loved you most, you were Lady T.  Don’t worry, folks.  Thanks to timeless music like “Fire and Desire,” and “Deja Vu,” you will now live forever.

Categories: Obits

Harvey Fuqua (1929-2010): The Epitome of Success without Fame

The Late Harvey Fuqua provided a blueprint of being successful despite the trappings of fame and celebrity.

Yesterday, Harvey Fuqua, 2000 inductee of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, passed away at age 80. In the midst of a day and age when many prominent members of the black music community are dying young (Guru, 47; MJ, 50; Marvin Isley, 56; Teddy Pendergrass, 59, etc.) for someone as accomplished as was Fuqua to achieve this kind of longevity is getting rarer as the years go by. However living to old age doesn’t prevent Fuqua to suffer the same poor perspective that the rest of our artists receive in the media following their passing. This is due to a myriad of reasons, one of them being his skin color and the other his lack of infamy or “celebrity” appeal; the latter I’m sure helped to extend his life considerably.

Just this morning, an AOL link to an obituary mentioned him primarily as a former mentor of Marvin Gaye. The media has a familiar way of only capturing aspects of a departed musician’s life as it directly deals with the mainstream, therefore his connection with Gaye is mostly highlighted. I’m sure later in the day his affiliation with his group The Moonglows will also be covered but little else. Fuqua fulfilled a long list of achievements in his life that most in the music industry never reach. Aside from founding the Moonglows and recording hits like “Ten Commandments of Love,” Fuqua was on the ground floor of Anna Records, which distributed the Berry Gordy penned hit, “Money (That’s What I Want).” Anna Records was acquired by Gordy and later become the foundation for Motown Records. At Motown, he was a director of Artist Development and a songwriter. He’s responsible for recruiting acts like The Spinners, Jr. Walker & the All-Stars and Tammi Terrell.

In the 1970’s, Fuqua’s good touch with artists continued, acting the primary producer of the band The New Birth, whom he had hits with “Dream Merchant,” “Wildflower” and others. He also discovered and produced disco maven Sylvester, being responsible for guiding classics like “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” In 1982, after his bitter departure with Motown, Marvin Gaye reached out to his old mentor Fuqua to produce his first album for CBS Records. That album was Midnight Love, which not only included the smash “Sexual Healing,” but also one of the first to utilize the Roland-808 drum machine that would become a cornerstone for hip-hop production for 20 years.

Because Fuqua was largely in the background, he is not as highly regarded in the mainstream annals of fame with his contemporaries like Gaye, Gordy, Leonard Chess or others. I believe this is, in a way, a wonderful example of something that gets lost in artists and would-be moguls today: You don’t have to be famous to be successful, especially in the music business. Many think that you have to have your name on the marquee of Madison Square Garden, your song has to be number 1 on the Billboard 100, or worse, be “martyred” in prison (Lil Wayne, T.I., etc.) to be considered “making it.” Well, Fuqua didn’t need to sing on massive pop singles, be seen with numerous, disposable females, or got caught up in drugs from cocaine to “purple drank,” and he still made it, and “it” is a legacy. A legacy of timeless music and innovative artist scouting and nurturing that’s missing in today’s popular music landscape. As we’re evolving in a time when indie singers and bands are gaining momentum as the chief creators of relevant music, Fuqua’s influence is not as detached as it may seem. Rest in Peace, Harvey Fuqua. I’ll pray for you and your family.

Categories: Obits