New era of soul

July 31, 2008|By Mario Tarradell | Mario Tarradell,McClatchy-Tribune

Welsh singer Duffy - nee Aimee Anne Duffy - celebrated the stateside release of her debut CD, Rockferry, with a performance in May at New York's famed Apollo Theater, the legendary venue dedicated to the preservation of R&B music.

In February, the troubled but talented Amy Winehouse swept the Grammy Awards, thanks to the success of her second disc, Back to Black, her arresting merger of '60s girl-group pop, R&B and hip-hop.

England's Joss Stone counts three CDs in her repertoire, including 2007's Introducing Joss Stone, two of them gold sellers and one of them platinum. She has performed with R&B-jazzman Herbie Hancock, soulsters Stevie Wonder and India.Arie, and the late godfather of the genre, James Brown.

Welcome to the new era of soul-singing white women. In today's world, where hip-hop is the new pop and contemporary R&B rules almighty, color barriers as artistic parameters are all but erased. The music-buying youth of the moment have grown up in a mainstream sonic climate of rhythms and beats, raps and wails. Suburban kids embraced rap and hip-hop with no regard for skin color.

No longer must you break big on the R&B charts before you cross over into pop, or vice versa. Because pop radio is now so eager to spin songs from artists such as Lil Wayne, Alicia Keys, Kanye West, Mariah Carey and Keyshia Cole with the same fervor as programmers on the R&B dials, there seem to be no restrictions. Soul is now all about the sound, not the look.

But origins do exist. The doors didn't suddenly fling open.

The acceptance of Duffy, Winehouse and Stone, not to mention that of still-emerging soul and jazz singer Adele, can be traced to the pioneering work of women from Dusty Springfield to Lisa Stansfield and many in between.

Springfield's soulful 1969 hit "Son of a Preacher Man" helped open the doors. Her landmark Dusty in Memphis album continues to be a signpost for fair-skinned female vocalists who feel the rhythm and the blues. In the late '70s, California's Teena Marie arrived on the R&B scene with a funked-up bang. Discovered by the late Rick James, her mentor and one-time lover, Ms. Marie charted classics such as "I'm a Sucker for Your Love," "Square Biz" and "Lovergirl." Deborah Harry, the iconic lead singer of Blondie, was one of the first white women to rap on the stylistic 1980 hit "Rapture."

Annie Lennox, the cool Brit mouthpiece of '80s pop-synth duo Eurythmics, was always a soul diva underneath the hot orange hair. In the latter Eurythmics years, she sang a duet with soul queen Aretha Franklin on the irresistible anthem "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves." As a solo artist, Ms. Lennox remained R&B-drenched on 1992's Diva, 1995's Medusa, 2003's Bare and 2007's Songs of Mass Destruction.

Fellow English songstress Stansfield blatantly courted R&B from the onset of her solo tenure. The former member of British pop-soul trio Blue Zone UK enjoyed three R&B No. 1 smashes, 1990's "All Around the World" and "You Can't Deny It," as well as 1992's sultry ballad "All Woman." Later, in 1997, she ably covered the late soul master Barry White on her rendition of "Never, Never Gonna Give You Up."

There are many other examples of soul-singing white women in the pantheon of pop and R&B music, such as the always R&B-tinged Alison Moyet, first of electronic dance duo Yaz and then as a solo artist. Ultimately, they all prove that skin color doesn't matter one bit. It's all about the artistic essence.

No pop music column

Rashod Ollison is on assignment. His pop music column does not appear today.

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