Perusing the current spate of male R&B singers, it’s very difficult not to get nostalgic. While artists like Rahsann Patterson, Maxwell, D’Angelo, Kevon Edmonds (formerly of After 7 and of course Babyface’s younger brother) Joe, and even David Hollister have fit comfortably in a universe recently dominated by the likes of the aforementioned Babyface, Luther Vandross, Gerald Levert, R. Kelly (arguably both the most overrated and underrated of the bunch) and the somnolent Brian McKnight, one is hard press to get excited or even pay attention to “rent-a-singer for the month” candidates like Usher Raymond, J-Shinn, Avant, and even Donell Jones, despite his #1 hit with the infectious “U Know What’s Up.”
Twenty five years ago, the field was dominated by veteran and “new-jack” voices, who all distinguished themselves as singular voices. The quality releases from R&B giants like Curtis Mayfield, Al (the good reverend) Green, Marvin Gaye, Isaac “Black Moses” Hayes and Donny Hathaway, didn’t obscure the equally important work of so called “lesser lights” like the woefully under-appreciated Bill Withers, Luther Ingram, Joe Simon, Johnny Taylor, DJ Rogers (“Say You Love Me” and “Bula Jean” are a must for any real R&B collection) and my favorite, Chicago’s own Walter Jackson. There were also distinct lead vocalists like Russell Thompkins, Jr. of the Stylistics, The Main Ingredient’s Cuba Gooding, Sr. (father of the “dance a jig and win an Oscar” actor), Eugene Record of the Chi-lites, Delfonics lead Major Harris, Teddy Pendergrass of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Walter Williams and “big-daddy” Eddie Levert of the O’Jays and Jasper “Jabbo” Phillips of the Temprees (One of the real secrets of the era).
This attention to quality vocals was also shared by self-described funk bands, where the emphasis was clearly on the groove. While Stokley, arguably the best voice of his generation, has distinguished himself as the lead voice of Mint Condition (the only major self-contained R&B band today), the 1970s featured legendary voices like the “smooth-as-he-wanna-be” Frankie Beverly of Maze, Con Funkshun’s Michael T. Cooper, and Maurice White and Phillip Bailey (one of the classic falsettos in all of pop music) of Earth, Wind and Fire. Included among this lot was a former session drummer, who like former session drummers Gaye and Pendergrass before him, emerged as one of the most capable voices of his generation.
As lead vocalist of L.T.D. (Love, Tenderness, and Devotion) Jeffrey Osborne was equally capable on classic ballads like the original 1976 recording of Skip Scarborough’s “Love Ballad” (George Benson hit with a faster version in 1978) and “Stranger,” which R. Kelly played tribute to on his own “Half on a Baby,” as he was on the Disco era staple “(Everytime I Turn Around) Back in Love.” His performances on “(Won’t Cha) Stay With Me,” from Something to Love (1977) and “We Both Deserve Each Other’s Love” and “Concentrate on You,” both from the 1978 release Togetherness, are among the best R&B performances of the era.
Following a trend successfully charted by peers Pendergrass and Lionel Ritchie, Osborne embarked on solo career, which over a five year period that including solid releases like his self-titled debut in 1982 which spawned the lite-radio classic “On the Wings of Love,” and Stay with Me Tonight (1983). Though overshadowed by the larger cross-over successes of Michael Jackson and in particular, Lionel Ritchie, those recordings distinguished Osborne as a major pop voice, prompting then reigning R&B king Luther Vandross to suggest that Osborne was his favorite male singer. After a 10 year hiatus as a solo artists—his last hit “I’m Only Human” was released in 1990—Osborne has returned with a new recording, That’s for Sure.
Largely self-produced, That’s for Sure attempts to balance Osborne’s desire to be relevant to contemporary urban radio (simply code for black), while maintaining his own now classic vocal sensibilities. Osborne’s attempts to placate urban programmers falls short on tracks like “2nd Time Around” and “Kreppin’.” While That’s for Sure is devoid of some of the pop fodder (“You Should Be Mine (The Woo Woo Song)”) that his music was reduced to toward the end of the 1980s, some of Osborne’s mid-tempo tracks are bogged by the synthesized “noise” that dominated ‘80s-era R&B, most notably “I’ll Do It All for Love,” “Call My Name.” and “All the Money” which sounds like a Teddy Riley reject from his initial GUY days. Only “Come with Me,” the soaring “Was it Something I Said,” and the enticing lead single and title track “That’s for Sure” represent Osborne at his best. The real treat on the recording is Osborne’s seven minute live rendition of “Love Ballad,” which closes out the record. Like his label mates Barry White, Peobo Bryson, and Phil Perry who have been given new commercial life via their Private Music/Windham Hill releases, Osborne’s return is a welcome addition to a genre dominated by “baby-mama-dramas,” ghetto fab psychotics (DMX or Kelis…take your pick), and RBCs (R&B Clones).
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