Flash back, if you will. It’s the summer of 1988. I’m right at the cusp of teenage-hood. My musical tastes lean toward hip-hop and dance/pop by the likes of Michael Jackson and New Edition. Sitting in the living room of my mid-20s age aunt and her husband, I’m assaulted by the mellow vocals and smooth sax of Freddie Jackson’s “Nice & Slow”. I’m immediately disgusted. “How can you guys listen to this stuff? I remember asking. “It’s so boring!” I shrugged off the answer then, but it would stick with me for years to come: “Wait till you get older. You’ll understand.”
If you were listening to R&B in the mid- or late ‘80s and you were looking for a male singer that would deliver smooth soul jams, you had one of two options: Luther Vandross or Freddie Jackson. The two men shared a lot more than a sizable female audience. Both were high tenors (with Freddie’s supple voice just a shade higher). Both were children of Manhattan—Luther hailed from Lower Manhattan while Freddie was from Harlem. Both dealt with fluctuating weight sizes, whispers about their sexuality, and with lyrics that spoke to women’s inner feelings while also causing stirrings in… other places… let’s just say there were more than a few men appreciative of both singers for making their romantic conquests a little less work intensive.
While Vandross went on to enjoy the more long-lasting career, Freddie was actually the hotter of the two performers for a few years. On this “Greatest Hits” compilation (the latest in a long line… I know for a fact there have been at least three others), it’s startling to realize that all 18 tracks included here were Top 10 R&B singles. Ten of them made it all the way to the top spot. Forget comparing him to Luther, for a time in the mid-80s, at least on the R&B charts, Freddie was the hottest performer with the last name Jackson, scoring more #1 hits on the soul singles chart than either Michael or Janet (and for the record, no they aren’t related).
While the sound of the tracks on this album are a bit dated (apparently our man Freddie never met a drum machine he didn’t like), these songs still retain a casual air of sensuality. Although he made his lyrics a little more randy as the years went by (“Do Me Again”), he’s lyrically tasteful. His earliest hits, “Rock Me Tonight” and “You Are My Lady” (his only entrance into the Pop Top 15) nod towards the bedroom, but do so in a classy way. They’re perfect for slow dancing vertically as well as horizontally.
You won’t get much in the way of musical innovation here, but you will get some of the smoothest soul music to come out of the ‘80s. Almost every track on this album is a score, whether Freddie’s begging for some action (the “Sexual Healing”-esque “Tasty Love”) or celebrating true love (the atmospheric “Have You Ever Loved Somebody”). He was a more than capable duet partner, teaming with Natalie Cole on the delicate ballad “Over You” and warbling against label mate/benefactor Melba Moore on the dramatic “A Little Bit More”. Like most singers who live and die by the slow jam, Freddie was not as enjoyable when the tempo picked up, but he could catch a little bit of groove, as evidenced by the gently swinging “Jam Tonight” and the lilting tropical flavor of “All Over You”, a late ‘80s hit which was easily the best thing to come out of the best-forgotten black horror spoof Def By Temptation.
This hits package does a fantastic job of gathering all of Freddie’s big tunes. Most of his albums are out of print anyway, but with this “Greatest Hits” in hand, you won’t need any of his studio albums anyway. Just dim the lights, chill the bottle of wine, and let Freddie rock you tonight-for old times’ sake.
So I’m home with my folks over Christmas break. The daughter of the couple I mentioned in the first paragraph of this review is sitting next to me as I go through a book of CDs, trying to figure out what to listen to. At 13, she’s a year older than I was in 1988. Looking at my collection, which contains the likes of Luther and Anita Baker in addition to Freddie Jackson. “Slow music is boring”, she sighs. “Do you have any hip-hop?”
I could only smile. Someday, she’ll understand.