[19 December 2002]
The late Melvin Lindsey was an intern at Howard University’s WHUR in 1976, when the station’s programming director gave him the go ahead to host a late night show that featured soul ballads and lite jazz. He began the show by playing Smokey Robinson’s seven-minute-long “Quiet Storm” and the song has been synonymous with the format, now a staple of most urban radio formats across the nation, since Lindsey’s innovation more than 25 years ago. Some jocks like WBLS’s Vaughn Harper or the late Jerry Bledsoe often used the format to counter the pabulum of daytime programming by offering three-hour soul-teach-ins, where the standard fare of quiet storm (Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On” is likely played a hundred time a night) is juxtaposed to classic “blue light in the basement” songs like Nancy Wilson’s “Guess Who I Saw Today”, Ray Charles and Betty Carter’s “Baby It’s Cold Outside”, or anything from Jimmy Scott’s The Source (1969). In the sprit of their previous compilation collections, Pure Funk (volumes 1-2) and Pure Disco (with three volumes), UTV records has just released Pure Slow Jams.
There’s likely not a serious or even casual collector of so-called classic soul that doesn’t have numerous versions—both on vinyl and disc—of the 18 tracks that comprise Pure Slow Jams, but those folks are not the intended audience. While Justin Timberlake gets some dap for admitting to the fact that he listens to Donny Hathaway, he is of course an anomaly in that regard (won’t touch the other areas where he is also). We are at a moment when singing groups specifically created for consumption on the Disney channel and Radio Disney (Play featuring Chris of Dream Street) are recording versions of “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”, without even a passing knowledge of the Temptations and the Supremes, who recorded the track in a “supergroup” collaboration more than 30 years ago. And these are the folks who for the most part consume Pure compilations, as if they were starter kits for a cultural history of the past three decades.
Musically, Pure Slow Jams is a solid collection, mixing tracks from the standard bearers of soul and those from a few artists, who while not obscure, rarely get top-billing on so-called “classic soul” radio (which at times seems a day long mix of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”, the Isley’s “For the Love of You” and of course Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”). Notably, Pure Soul collects the best known “slow jams” of these “classic” soul performers. Thus artists like Bill Withers and Billy Paul, who have been mistakenly misnomered by a host of folk as “one-hit wonders”, are represented by those “one hits”. Withers was much more than his signature track “Lean on Me” (later recorded by the Club Nuveau), recording a body of folk-soul classics, like “Cold Baloney”, “Use Me”, and “Ain’t No Sunshine” which did not have the commercial impact of “Lean on Me” (1972). If fact some of Withers most exquisite material—songs like the beautiful “Tender Things” and “Let Me Be the One You Need”—was contained on Menagerie (1977), which will be re-issued by Sony/Legacy in January of 2003. Like Withers, Billy Paul has been reduced to his only number-one hit “Me and Mrs. Jones” (1972), though he too recorded a body of brilliant recording for Gamble and Huff in the 1970s, including the brilliant From the East (1972), which included a version of Jimmy Webb’s “This is Your Life” and the “playa’s playa” slow jam “Love Buddies”.
Virtually all of the songs on Pure Slow Jams were drawn from the ‘70s, including some that have become staples of “lite” radio like Peaches and Herb’s “Reunited” (which after 500 hundred listens, is more nauseating than sentimental), the Chi-Lites “Have You Seen Her”, Reverend Al’s (the original) “Let’s Stay Together” and “Neither One of Us”, which thirty years after it was recorded by Gladys Knight and the Pips, still tugs hard at the heart. Motown, with their ready-made catalogue of user-friendly nostalgia, is represented by tracks from the Jackson Five (“I’ll Be There”), the Temptations (“Just My Imagination”), the Commodores (with the countrified soul of “Easy”) and the somewhat risqué choice of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You”. Fellow Detroit icon Aretha Franklin is represented with “Until You Come Back to Me”, originally co-written and recorded by Stevie Wonder in 1967, though “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” (1976), later recorded by En Vogue, is arguably the best “Slow Jam” that she recorded during that period.
The best moments on Pure Slow Jam are those tracks off-the-beaten-path of old-school programming. “Love Ballad”, which topped the charts in 1976, remains one of LTD’s most memorable performances and one of lead vocalist Jeffrey Osborne’s most inspired performances. Al Wilson, is one of two legitimate “one-hit wonders” on the collection (the other is the Floaters, who contribute “Float On”). Wilson’s “Show and Tell” (1974) remains one of the great pure pop tunes recorded in the early ‘70s, ironically having more of a foothold of pop-Top-40 formats in 1974, than on traditional “soul” stations. Though Lenny Williams’s signature “oh, oh, oh, oh . . . ” riff has been referenced in a litany of R Kelly recordings (most notably on “Half on a Baby”), few outside of hardcore soul fan are familiar with the vocalist, who also sang lead for a time for the seminal Bay area “horn and funk” band Tower of Power (a more powerful and soulful version of Chicago). “Cause I Love You”, the track where his “oh, oh, oh, oh . . . ” riff appears combines all of the elements of a great “Slow Jam” including a moving spoken word break down (“You know sometimes, you get lonely, you get lonely, you get lonely, oh, oh . . . oh, oh, oh, oh, and I cried, I cried . . . and then it got so bad, it got so bad, ‘till one time I thought I’d roll myself up in a big old ball and die, and then I met you darlin’ and you smiled at me . . . “), which rivals some of the best work of Isaac Hayes. Finally, the Mighty Mighty Dells (WHO DESERVED TO BE IN THE ROCK HALL BEFORE THE DAMN RIGHETEOUS BROTHERS) contribute their classic “Give Your Baby a Standing Ovation”, which remains the highlight of their live performances.
At best Pure Slow Jam is a great introduction to the “quiet storm” aesthetic—the kind of thing you’d pack on a five or six hour drive with the kids in the car. At worst, it is a reminder of the lack of cultural literacy possessed by most folks under the age of 35, folk who have consumed the cultural history of the past 30 years via television series like American Dream, films like Forrest Gump, and compilations like Pure Slow Jams.