The reaction to the 22 August passing of Nikolas Ashford points out a strange anomaly about black music’s place in the overall pop spectrum: black music that’s about love isn’t really sexy.
Not in the carnal sense, mind you, but in the attention-economy, marketing sense. There have been gorgeous, heavenly and luminous love ballads at every turn of black pop music’s post-WWII timeline, but virtually all of them seem to exist in some kind of hidden sub-universe, far from common recognition.Those who know that sub-universe, know it well. The rest won’t ever discover it on their own, unless by absolute accident.
That sub-universe is broader than most might fathom. Even the minor entries into the field have their charm, and the classics signify special moments in time for millions of folks, whether or not they’re still with whomever the significant other was at that time. If you don’t believe me, go to any radio market with a significant black population, find the black station that skews to an older demographic (here’s a clue: it never plays hip-hop), tune in after sundown, and hear just about all of them all over again, night after night after night, during the “Quiet Storm” block of late-night program (its name taken from a mid-‘70s Smokey Robinson ballad).
It seems that just about every era and offshoot of R&B since the Kennedy administration has its champions—except, that is, for the love song. Over in England, the Northern Soul crowd is in its fourth decade of dancing the weekend away to the most obscure ‘60s American R&B it can find. A similar impulse for cratedigging and re-discovering lost jams has resurrected more ‘60s and ‘70s funk than you can shake a stick at, thanks to sampling DJs and producers. There are online communities devoted to doing the same for classic disco, even going as far as to dig up mixes from influential club DJs. And now that the first generation of rap fans is approaching middle age, you can expect to see nostalgia for the glory days of Spoonie Gee, Whistle, and other long-forgotten names from hip-hop’s formative years.
Music writers, black and white alike, have spewed out terabyte after terabyte about songs of these genres over the years. They’ve sliced them seven ways ‘till Sunday, analyzed them within an inch of their lives, championed their lost causes and pet faves, and have done much to assert the serious artistry within black pop, when most folks were content to merely groove to it. But rare has been the think piece, blog post or tweet celebrating the R&B love ballad, the one constant element of the black pop music world throughout all its permutations over the years.
See how hard you have to hunt for something that acknowledges the eternal sturdiness of the black pop love song. James Brown as didactic bandleader? Check. George Clinton as Afro-futurist? Check. Rap lyrics about gangbanging as sociological barometer? Check. Prince as…Prince? Check and double-check. But 3,000 words in praise of music that makes you want to get close with the one you love, or are trying to love, or have been eyeing from a distance for the longest time? Good luck with that.
This sub-genre hasn’t gotten a whole lot of reissue love, either. While there’s no shortage of R&B and funk boxed sets, label compilations and particular labours of love – like the Numero Group’s approach to resurrecting long-forgotten local projects – the evolution of the love ballad has been far less thoroughly documented. The most prominent effort has been Rhino’s Smooth Grooves series, launched in 1996. It now encompasses 11 volumes of R&B love songs from the ‘70s through the ‘90s, plus subsets for ‘60s chestnuts, new jack slow jams, and jazz-flavoured moodsetters. While many of the most famous black love songs aren’t part of the series, it rescues many a tune that only true love song aficionados will remember.
One thing the series reveals is that those songs are, in fact, timeless. Folks don’t dance to an old Jr. Walker burner the same way they danced to Cameo then or Lil Wayne now, but a slow dance is, always has been, and always will be a slow dance. Production styles may come and go, but two people embracing each other, moving slowly to the song, perhaps sharing a private joke or some other exchange of fondness… that hasn’t changed much.
The slow jams still have value because they speak to something more than this month’s meme or fad. Love is, after all, a central concern in just about everyone’s life, and has been for quite some time now. The mores and habits of romance have changed, but not its essence: when it’s there it can still feel glorious, and when it’s gone it can still break hearts.
Not for nothing did the Obamas choose an R&B chestnut, the ballad “At Last” as popularized by Etta James (made in 1960, before they were born), for their first dance at each of their inaugural balls. And because of its timelessness, female R&B singers like Beyonce, who performed the song at one of those balls, need to have it in their repertoires like tenor sax players need to be able to navigate a standard like “Giant Steps” or “Body and Soul”; there’s no similar urgency for singers to be able to belt out, say, Koko Taylor’s “Wang Dang Doodle” or Klymaxx’ “The Men All Pause”.
Musical expressions of black anger, black sass and black style have always found their way like water to the pop mainstream, as individual works and as a category. But while there are many love songs among the building blocks of black pop, the notion that there might be artistic merit within this category worth unpacking and appreciating is anything but widespread.
The main exception is if the artist in question is some sort of tortured soul, like Marvin Gaye, Al Green or Teddy Pendergrass, someone whose bio easily lends itself to a Behind the Music storyline. But even then, it’s more likely to be about the drama in their lives than in their music. Without a sensational personal backstory, the professional savvy and skill of Barry White, a Los Angeles studio rat who paid plenty of dues before conquering the world with his orchestrated confections of love in the ‘70s, was apparently not fascinating enough of a tale to tell. The same goes for Luther Vandross, the consummate black pop ballad stylist of the ‘80s and ‘90s: his work stretches all the way back to the best moments of David Bowie’s Young Americans (1974), but it must have been more fun to speculate about his dieting yo-yos and sexuality than wonder how he approached his craft.
And so it appears to be the case with Ashford, or more specifically Ashford and Simpson, the life, art and business partnership he shared with his wife, Valerie Simpson. Virtually all of the obits dutifully recalled their greatest hits as a songwriting team (“Let’s Go Get Stoned”, “California Soul”, et al), the luminous duets they wrote from Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell at Motown in the late ‘60s, and Diana Ross’ early solo work. But there was far less attention given to the body of work they amassed as performers during the ‘70s and early ‘80s.