Soulful gifts leave lasting impressions during this season

December 19, 1991|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Evening Sun Staff

At a time when most merchants are in panic over the Christmas season, your friendly record shop manager is grinning from ear to ear.

Why, you ask? First, records, cassette tapes and compact discs, with their relatively moderate price, are usually the perfect stocking-stuffer for virtually everybody.

Think about it: What will Uncle Fred want more for the $11.98 that you're likely to spend on him? That spotted leopard tie or the latest Anthrax disc?

Thought so.

Also, this Christmas season gives even the casual buyer reason TC to wander into the record store, what with high-profile releases by Michael Jackson, Genesis, Hammer, U2 and Public Enemy dotting the landscape.

But those are easy buys. The challenge, as a giver of music, is to find those albums that might get lost in the holiday shuffle and buried in the avalanche left by the big names, albums that will outlast the season.

As the clock ticks down toward Christmas, one gift idea is soul music, a nearly forgotten cornerstone of the rock era.

Thanks to the odious trend of sampling, small swatches of the soul that powered the '60s and spread its influence through all other forms of pop can be heard today, primarily through rap.

But no one sings it from the gut the way Rufus and Carla Thomas or Clarence Carter did, or delivers it in the packaged, yet palatable form that Berry Gordy's Motown hits factory cranked it out.

Thankfully, some new releases, in very different ways, recall the time when real from-the-heart, tearin'-it-all-apart soul was king and a great voice was the dominant instrument.

Not so coincidentally, they'll make any musical Santa, look like a genius:

* "The New York Rock and Soul Revue: Live at the Beacon(Giant release distributed by Warner Bros.) is a survey of the soul form as offered by an all-star collection of blues and pop performers during a two-day concert at New York's Beacon Theatre in early March.

The concert is led by Steely Dan co-founder Donald Fagen, but the real star is Michael McDonald, who was a session player with Steely Dan before joining the Doobie Brothers.

McDonald, one of the masters of "blue-eyed soul," is simply brilliant on a reading of Jackie Wilson's "Lonely Teardrops," and with Phoebe Snow on Sam and Dave's classic "Knock on Wood," as well as his own "Minute By Minute." Also, listen for blues legend Charles Brown, who gets a fine turn on "Driftin' Blues."

* One of the truths that becomes evident in "The Spinners: A One of a Kind Love Affair" (Atlantic), a two-disc anthology, is how under appreciated this Detroit-based group was in its heyday.

Originally signed to Motown, the Spinners were destined to languish behind the Temptations, the Four Tops and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, until they left the label in the early '70s for Atlantic.

There, they were paired with Philadelphia-based producer Thom Bell, who matched their seamless harmonies with tasteful melodies, lovingly tailored with lush strings and unobtrusive horns.

But the catalyst that made it all work was lead singer Phillipe Wynne, whose improvisational style, especially on "Mighty Love" and "Could It Be I'm Falling in Love," made Bell's melodies and the supporting cast sound so wonderful.

* Fifteen-year-old Tevin Campbell's debut album (Qwest/Warner Bros.) shows early sparks of genius, thanks partly due to an all-star string of producers, including Quincy Jones, Prince and Narada Michael Walden, but also because of a voice that is gossamer when it needs to be and ferocious when appropriate.

* Last, but certainly not least, Patti Austin's voice isn't one that immediately makes you sit up and take notice, a la Aretha Franklin or Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey.

Rather, she wins you over with clarity, precision, versatility and a quiet brilliance. She display all those traits on "Carry On" (GRP), which combines a retro-sensibility, evident in updates of Stephen Stills' "Carry On," and "Monday, Monday," with her trademark sense of humor, shown on "Why Did She Come in With You," with Arsenio Hall playing the role of a philanderer.

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