America’s soundtrack isn’t complete without mentioning newer acts that are putting their stamp on the R&B/Soul genre. Leon Bridges looks and sounds like a throwback to the 60s era with his permed wavy hair, and a voice that has prompted comparisons to legends like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding. The Texas native told GQ in an interview earlier this year that he doesn’t want to be compared to Cooke because his style is different. “”I wanna shine,” he told GQ. “Of course, the inspiration’s there, but you know, my music, my writing is nothing like Sam Cooke.” His first album, Coming Home in 2015, had a 60s musical vibe to it, but Bridges told GQ the structures and compositions weren’t something you would have heard in that decade.
The R&B star, born as Todd Michael Bridges, honed his musical talent performing in and around his native Fort Worth, Texas. He gained industry interest with his SoundCloud uploads of multiple recordings. He eventually signed to Columbia Records, where he released his debut album. Coming Home debuted at number six on the Billboard 200 and was nominated for a GRAMMY for Best R&B Album.
The video for one of the album’s singles “River” was also nominated.
“Better Man” was also featured in the 2018 film Pacific Rim Uprising.
In 2016, Bridges took on a role as a collaborator by co-writing and being featured on Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Kevin,” and Kacey Musgraves’, “Present Without a Bow.” He also recorded “On My Own” with Lecrae for Birth of a Nation: The Inspired by Album and recorded twice with Gary Clark Jr., on a collaborative cover of Neil Young’s “Ohio.”
In 2018, Bridges released “Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand,” “Bad Bad News,” and then “Beyond” as the first singles off his second album, Good Thing which hit the Top Ten.
His new album Good Thing is a newer more contemporary sound that remixes Bridges soulful signature with the R&B of today. In an interview with NPR, Bridges assures his fans that he hasn’t departed from his sound, “I came into the whole music industry with this retro sound. That’s still a part of me,” Bridges says. “But that doesn’t totally define who I am as an artist.”
Whatever direction Bridges goes in from here, he’s still weaving his soulful contribution into America’s soundtrack.
This week marks the untimely death of Aaliyah. America’s soundtrack wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the late rising star’s musical impact on R&B. Aaliyah Haughton was born on January 16, 1979 in Brooklyn, New York, but was raised in Detroit, Michigan. At the age of 11, the young singer competed on the television show Star Search, but didn’t walk away with a win.
However, later that year, she performed with the legendary Gladys Knight who was the former wife of her uncle and manager, Barry Hankerson, at a stint in Las Vegas.
At 15 years old, Aaliyah took the industry by storm with her 1994 debut album Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, produced by R. Kelly.
The album sold over a million copies and earned platinum status based on the success of two hit singles form the record, “Back and Forth,” and her rendition of the Isley Brothers’ hit, “At Your Best (You Are Love).”
While still in high school, Aaliyah released her sophomore album, One in a Million in 1996, produced by dynamic duo Timbaland and Missy Elliott. The album showcased her maturity along with a seductive edge with laid back hip hop beats.
The album sold two million copies. The first single, “If Your Girl Only Knew,” went double platinum and contains Timbaland’s signature syncopated beats and Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott’s lyrics. “4 Page Letter” and “Hot Like Fire” were also hits.
Aaliyah landed in the spotlight in 1997 when she recorded “Journey to the Past,” the Academy Award nominated theme song for the film Anastasia. She performed the song during the 1998 Oscars.
On her next soundtrack effort, “Are You That Somebody?” for the 1998 film Dr. Dolittle, starring Eddie Murphy, went to number one on the R&B charts and earned Aaliyah her first GRAMMY nomination.
In 2000, the singer made her acting debut in the film Romeo Must Die, opposite martial arts star Jet Li in a Romeo and Juliet inspired story. She was the executive producer of the movie’s soundtrack and performed the hit, “Try Again,” which landed her another GRAMMY nomination as well as two MTV Music Awards for Best Female Video and Best Video from a Film.
In July 2001, her third album Aaliyah was released and reached number 2 on the Billboard album chart. It sold 2.4 million copies worldwide. Aaliyah featured the smash singles “We Need a Resolution,” “More Than A Woman,” and “Rock the Boat”. The same year, she was working on the film Queen of the Damned, and signed on to appear in two upcoming sequels of the blockbuster thriller, The Matrix.
Then tragedy struck. August 25, 2001, 22-year-old Aaliyah was killed when a small Cessna passenger plane carrying the star and her video crew crashed and burst into flames shortly after takeoff in the Bahamas. They had just finished working on her video “Rock the Boat.” Aaliyah and seven others, including the pilot are believed to have died instantly, and a ninth passenger passed away later at a hospital.
At the end of 2002, the posthumous album, I Care 4 U, hit the charts at number three; it mixed some of the singer’s biggest hits with a selection of unreleased material. The title track was a Top 20 pop hit, and “Miss You” topped the R&B charts early the next year.
Even 17 years later, Aaliyah’s musical impact is still being felt from her cutting-edge style to being ahead of her contemporaries by not being afraid of taking chances on a new sound. Her music has been sampled by Drake, Jennifer Lopez, Kendrick Lamar, Jay Z, The Weeknd and many more over the years. While it’s impossible to know whether the nicknamed, “Baby Girl” would have ended up following the trends that surfaced in the industry after her death, but one thing is for certain, her music is timeless and still lives on.
The world has lost an icon that shaped the genre known as soul. Aretha Franklin passed away August 16 at the age of 76. America’s soundtrack wouldn’t be complete without the soulful vocal stylings of Aretha Franklin. The Queen of Soul broke barriers and paved the way for those following in her footsteps. Her voice was the epitome of gospel, soul, and the blues all rolled into one making her one of the greatest singers of all time.
Aretha Franklin was born on March 25, 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee and grew up in Detroit to Baptist preacher, Reverend Clarence LaVaughn “C.L.” Franklin and gospel singer Barbara Siggers Franklin. By the time she was 10, her mother passed away and the family relocated to Detroit, Michigan where C.L. began preaching at New Bethel Baptist Church where he gained national recognition. His services were broadcast locally and in other urban markets around the country, and 60 of his sermons, including the legendary “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest,” were released in album form. Aretha got the best musical education with some of the greatest vocalists of the gospel genre that were frequent guests at the Franklin household. Aretha and her siblings great up listening to Clara Ward, Mahalia Jackson, and James Cleveland.
Starting at an early age, Aretha began singing at her father’s church and by the age of 14, her first recordings turned up on an album called Spirituals. Spirituals was released locally on the J.V.B. label in 1956 and re-released on the Battle label in 1962. Aretha’s five tracks formed the basis of the 1964 album Songs of Faith: The Gospel Sound of Aretha Franklin, issued on Checker Records, with additional material recorded by Franklin at services in other locations. She performed with C.L’s traveling revival show and became friends with Sam Cooke. Although gospel music was her foundation, Franklin also drew her musical prowess from blues and jazz legends such as Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Sarah Vaughn to help develop her own vocal stylings. She was also inspired by Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, and Nat King Cole, Lavern Baker, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. With a diverse range of influences, Franklin was able to fuse them all together to speak to the world in her own voice that defined soul music. Before she signed with Atlantic, she spent six years at Columbia Records. She was signed to the label in 1960 by John Hammond, the label’s legendary producer and talent scout, who’d heard a demo she cut in New York.
In an interview with SoulTracks, Sam Cooke’s younger brother L.C. Cooke talked about writing Aretha Franklin’s song “Once in a While (Please Answer Me). “I was on my way to record in Atlanta, Georgia. So, I had just gotten out the shower, and had a towel wrapped around me. Aretha Franklin had stopped by, so I came out singing that song, she asked me what it was and I told her it was something I wrote. Aretha sat on my bed and cried until I gave her that song. That girl sat there and literally cried until I said I’ll let you record it. She said, “you can write another song, I just love that song. So, I said okay, you can have it,” said L.C.
Meanwhile Franklin’s tenure at Columbia yielded nine R&B hits including “Today I Sing the Blues” and “Runnin’ Out of Fools.” She also scored some pop crossover hits including “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody” and “Won’t Be Long.” The songs were were far removed from the fiery, gospel-tinged soul for which she would become known.
Jerry Wexler signed Franklin when her contract with Columbia expired. With her switch to Atlantic in 1966, Aretha proceeded to revolutionize soul music with some of the genre’s greatest recordings. Her reign began with her first Atlantic single, “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Loved You),” a performance that unleashed the full force of Franklin’s mezzo-soprano.
Offering call-and-response background vocals on this and other tracks were Aretha’s sisters, Carolyn and Erma. The Sweet Inspirations, a Memphis-based vocal quartet that included Cissy Houston, also contributed background vocals to Franklin’s work in the studio and onstage. Franklin’s greatest contribution to America’s soundtrack landed in the form of “Respect,” which was her soulful take on the Otis Redding penned song.
The song reached number one on both the R&B and Pop charts, earning Franklin her first two GRAMMYS. It was the opening song on 1967’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You. Other songs from the album included “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” “Dr. Feelgood” and her cover of “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke’s civil rights-era anthem.
Her next three albums; Aretha Arrives (1967), Lady Soul (1968) and Aretha Now (1968)—included “Chain of Fools,” “Think,” “Baby, I Love You,” “Since You’ve Been Gone (Sweet Sweet Baby)” and a soulful rendering of Carole King’s “A Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel Like).”
Her fifth Atlantic album, Aretha in Paris (1968) was recorded live in Europe. In 1968, she was hailed the Queen of Soul when legendary deejay Pervis Spann, the Blues Man, placed a crown on her head during a performance in Chicago. In 1968, Franklin performed at the funeral of her father’s friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., where she paid tribute to him with a stirring rendition of “Precious Lord.”
In the 1970s, Franklin saw even more success as she released albums Spirit in the Dark (1970), Aretha Live at Fillmore West (1971), Young, Gifted and Black (1972) and Amazing Grace (1972). Spirit in the Dark featured five songs written by Franklin, which was more than on any album she released. Her 14th album You was released in 1975 and her tenure with Atlantic Records came to an end in 1979 after 19 albums. Franklin won eight consecutive GRAMMY Awards for Best R&B Female Vocal Performance, the last one for her 1974 single, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”
That same year her father was shot during a home robbery and went into a coma and never recovered. Aretha’s next home was Arista Records. In 1982, she released Jump to It, produced by Luther Vandross, earning another GRAMMY nomination.
In 1985 Franklin returned to the top of the charts with another hit album: the pop record Who’s Zoomin’ Who? Featuring the single “Freeway of Love,” as well as a collaboration with the band The Eurythmics, making that record one of Aretha’s biggest-selling albums. In 1987, Franklin became the first female artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
That same year, she released the album One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, which won the GRAMMY for Best Soul Gospel Performance. Franklin scored the second number one pop hit of her career, “I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me),” a duet with George Michael.
In 1993, she was invited to sing at former President Bill Clinton’s inauguration and the following year she received both a GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award and Kennedy Center Honors. She also later stood in for Luciano Pavarotti, who was too ill to accept his Lifetime Achievement Award, with her rendition of “Nessun Dorma.”
In 1998, Franklin was back on the charts with A Rose Is Still a Rose which was written and produced by Lauryn Hill.
In 2003, Franklin released her final studio album on Arista, So Damn Happy, and left the label to found Aretha Records. Two years later, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and became the second woman ever to be inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame. In 2008 she received her 18th GRAMMY Award for “Never Gonna Break My Faith,” a collaboration with Mary J. Blige.
She was also invited to sing at the 2009 inauguration of former President Barack Obama.
In 2011 Franklin released her first album on her own label, A Woman Falling Out of Love. In 2014, Franklin released Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics which reached number three on the R&B charts.
Franklin was able to stay relevant and have hits over the course of her six-decade career crafting a sound and foundation that music in the future will follow forever. Over the course of her career, she earned 44 GRAMMY nominations, 18 GRAMMY Awards, and many more accolades. While her music lives on, the spirit and soul of Aretha Franklin will continue to be celebrated for years to come. Rest in peace Queen of Soul. We thank you for the music Aretha Franklin!
Multi-platinum GRAMMY Award winning R&B singer Faith Evans has contributed to America’s soundtrack for over two decades. With eight studio albums, over 18 million albums sold, and over 30 singles released, it’s evident why Faith Evans is being honored at this year’s Black Music Honors with the Urban Music Icon Award.
With her powerful soulful vocals and talent for songwriting and record production, Faith is known as the ‘First Lady of Bad Boy’ after Sean “Puffy” Combs signed her to his influential Bad Boy Records label in 1994. That same year, she married Christopher Wallace, the Notorious B.I.G.
Faith was three years old when she first sang in public, she belted out “Let the Sunshine In” from the musical “Hair” to her church congregation. When she was 14, she sang in a touring gospel group, The Spiritual Uplifters, that performed in New York, Philadelphia, and Connecticut. After graduating from high school in the early 90s, Faith found regular session work, singing background vocals on demo tapes for artists like Al B. Sure! And Christopher Williams, which eventually caught the eye of Sean Combs. That led her to co-write lyrics for Mary J. Blige, and songs for Usher’s self-titled debut album in 1994.
Evans released her debut album Faith in 1995. It was an album she had written or co-written on almost every song yielding four singles including “You Used to Love Me” and “Soon as I Get Home.”
Her second album, Keep the Faith was released in 1998 and garnered two Top 10 hits “Love Like This” and “All Night Long.”
Her third album Faithfully was released in 2001, her last for Bad Boy, and she collaborated with the Neptunes, Mario Winans, Havoc, and Battlecat.
After parting ways with Bad Boy, she signed with Capitol Records to release her fourth album, The First Lady in 2005. Faith has three Platinum certified albums including Faith, Keep the Faith, and Faithfully.
She also released her holiday album, A Faithful Christmas. In 2008, Faith added New York Times Best Selling author to her resume with her book Keep the Faith: A Memoir with Aliya King.
Evans took a hiatus before returning to the industry in 2010 with her own music label, Prolific Music Group. She released her fifth album Something About Faith that same year.
In 2012, Faith co-created, executive produced, and starred in TV One’s reality show, “R&B Divas.” In 2014, Faith released her another studio album Incomparable on her label.
In 2016, Faith hit the road with the acclaimed “Bad Boy Family Reunion Tour” playing to thousands of fans across the country. In 2017, Faith released a duets album with the Notorious B.I.G. called The King & I.
Faith Evans continues to make an impact on the music industry both with her singing and songwriting inspiring and paving the way for artists to follow in her footsteps.
When you think of R&B group New Edition and New Jack Swing, the name Bobby Brown is synonymous with both. With a receipt of hits, and a career that paved the way for many artists and entertainers today, it’s evident why the singer/songwriter dubbed the “King of R&B” will be honored at this year’s Black Music Honors as the R&B Soul Music Icon Award recipient.
Brown got his start singing in the church choir, and at the age of 12, he formed a group with his friends Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, Ralph Tresvant, and Ronnie DeVoe. Under the name New Edition, they won several talent shows and was eventually discovered by talent scout Maurice Starr who landed them a recording contract. In 1983, the group released their debut album, Candy Girl, which was a collection of songs that made the boy group the next coming of the Jackson 5.
The group went on to release hits like “Candy Girl,” “Mr. Telephone Man,” and “Cool it Now.”
Brown left the group in 1986 to pursue what would become an iconic solo career. In December 1986, Brown released his first solo album, King of Stage, with the ballad, “Girlfriend,” but it failed to push him into the spotlight he craved.
With a reinvention as an adult artist, and he turned to acclaimed songwriters/producers Teddy Riley, L.A. Reid, and Babyface to help craft his new sound. The result was a project that shed his “bubblegum” image. It was released in 1988, a new R&B album called Don’t Be Cruel, that sold over eight million copies and had five top charted songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 Singles including the single, “My Prerogative.”
The bestselling album made Brown a leader of the new jack swing genre. Brown also won his first GRAMMY in 1990 for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for “Every Little Step.” His energetic high-powered performances became part of his signature.
Don’t Be Cruel also garnered Brown two American Music Awards, a Soul Train Music Award, and a People’s Choice Award.
The album’s success landed him two spots on the Ghostbusters II soundtrack, including the hit “On Our Own,” and a cameo in the 1989 film.
In 1992, the proclaimed ‘bad boy’ married Pop princess Whitney Houston, and together they had a daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown. His album Bobby was released in 1992, selling more than three million copies, spawning several hits including “Humpin’ Around,” “Get Away,” and “Good Enough.”
He won his second GRAMMY for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for “Humpin’ Around.” He and Whitney recorded a song “Something in Common” that was released as a single from the Bobby album. Brown released his fourth solo album Forever in 1997.
In 1996, Brown rejoined the group New Edition for their reunion album, Home Again.
In 2012, Brown released his fifth album The Masterpiece and married his manager Alicia Etheredge-Brown and together they formed their production company Brown Ribbon Entertainment. The couple is currently working with BET and Jesse Collins Entertainment for his self-titled mini-series, “The Bobby Brown Story” to be released in September.
Brown’s musical impact on the stage with his intense choreography, energetic moves, and the art of music seduction can be seen in many of the artists that followed in his footsteps.
African Americans have contributed to many facets of America’s soundtrack. One area that isn’t discussed as much is the contributions to the country genre. It’s a widely known fact that country legend Charley Pride came on the scene in 1966 and became the first black country artist to experience country music success. Pride was the first black country singer to perform on the Grand Ole Opry. What seems to have gotten lost in the history books is who the first Black woman was to perform on the show. Linda Martell, was the first black woman to appear on the Grand Ole Opry in 1969.
Martell was born in South Carolina in 1941 where she developed an appreciation for country, blues, jazz, and R&B music. At the age of 5 she began singing in the church choir and performing R&B songs with a small group around Columbia, South Carolina that included shows at the Charleston Air Force Base.
Martell’s first recorded work was with R&B group Linda Martell & the Anglos with a single in 1962. The group recorded another single in 1964.
During one of her performances at the Air Force Base, Martell was harassed by officers who insisted she sing a country song. She finally gave in to their requests, blowing them away, changing the course of her career. Martell caught her big break in 1969 after that performance landed her a trip to Nashville, Tennessee for a demo recording session. The tape landed in the hands of producer Shelby Singleton who signed Martell to his Plantation Records label.
The summer of 1969 was a busy one for Martell. Her song “Color Him Father” from her debut album, Color Me Country made the Top 25 on the Billboard Hot Country Charts.
Linda Martell made history as the first African American woman to appear on the Grand Ole Opry sharing the stage with musician Roy Acuff for her debut performance. She would go to make almost a dozen more appearances on the legendary show.
Her debut and only album was released by Plantation Records in 1970. She released two more singles “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” and “Bad Case of the Blues” which both landed on the Top 60 charts.
She appeared on shows like Country Carnival, 16th Avenue South, Midwestern Hayride, the Bill Anderson Show, and Hee Haw.
Linda Martell retired in 1974 to care for her children.
In 2014, she appeared on the Swedish television show Jill’s Veranda where she sang along with the host of the show and explained why she left the music business behind. The show also revealed she became an educator, but the video proves her voice has just gotten better with age like a fine wine.
The infectious catchy dance song “The Loco-Motion” is a part of America’s musical soundtrack. The story of Little Eva and her hit song is one of being in the right places at the right time.
Eva Narcissus Boyd was born in Belhaven, North Carolina in 1945. Named after her aunt, Little Eva first started singing in the church. She moved to New York in 1960 hoping to break into the music industry, and she soon landed a gig singing with The Cookies, and found some work doing backup vocals during studio sessions. However, Little Eva’s big break didn’t come from working in the industry; it came from a babysitting job.
The husband and wife songwriting team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King hired 17-year-old Little Eva as a babysitter. After they wrote the song “The Loco-Motion,” that may or may not have been inspired by Chubby Checker’s “The Twist,” Goffin and King asked Little Eva to sing the demo so it could be pitched to Dee Dee Sharp on Cameo Parkway. It turned out so well, it was eventually released as a single.
The song reached number one on the pop and R&B charts in 1962 cementing Little Eva’s spot in music history. She appeared on popular dance shows like Shindig and American Bandstand and traveled around the world performing the song.
Her follow up single, “Keep Your Hands off My Baby” reached number twelve on the pop chart and number six on the R&B chart.
Her third single, “Let’s Turkey Trot” was a top 20 single on both charts.
In 1971, Little Eva retired from the music business to focus on her three children, but it didn’t stop the loco-motion from chugging along. In 1974, Grand Funk Railroad remade the song into another number one hit, and in 1988 Kylie Minogue had a top five hit with her remake of “The Loco-Motion.” The renewed interest in the song, led to Little Eva getting gigs on the cabaret and oldies circuit. She recorded “Back on Track” in 1989 and toured with a show that featured acts such as Little Richard.
In 2001, Little Eva was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She died on April 10, 2003 at the age of 50. In 2009, Little Eva was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame.
It’s been a long time coming and as an interpreter of song, Bettye LaVette has started a new chapter of her career with her tenth album, Things Have Changed.
It’s the first album for the soul singer on a major label in nearly thirty years. On the album, she takes on the songs of Bob Dylan with a mixture of grit, soul, and blues to spin it into an interpretive masterpiece of her own. To pull off the transformation of the original songs, LaVette worked with producer Steve Jordan, and musicians such as Dylan’s long-time guitarist Larry Campbell, bass virtuoso Pino Palladino, and keyboardist Leon Pendarvis. Keith Richards and Trombone Shorty were added to the mix to create a recipe of rock ‘n’ soul. The album will be released on Verve Records on March 30.
Bettye LaVette has had a highlight worthy career that spans nearly six decades; from bringing down the house with her rendition of “Love Reign O’er Me” during the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors to President Obama’s 2009 Inauguration concert when she joined the stage with Jon Bon Jovi to sing “A Change is Gonna Come,” a song fitting for a woman whose change has finally come with recognition.
NMAAM caught up with Bettye LaVette to discuss her new album.
This is completely different for you to devote an entire album to one songwriter. What made you do that for your new album, Things Have Changed, and why Bob Dylan?
Bettye LaVette: I don’t know that I went in thinking I just wanted to do one songwriter. I certainly would not have decided this on my own. A friend of mine, and photographer Carol Friedman, who has done most of the photographs of me recently, especially the ones that make me look like I have long legs (laughs). She is a good friend and a life -long Bob Dylan fan and it’s always been her dream to hear me do Bob Dylan songs. I’m sure she knew unless that unless something big happened, it would not be forthcoming. Here again, as an artist, I would never hone in on one artist at this point. But when the biggest record company in the world says they think it’s a great idea, I said, ‘so do I!’ (laughs) So, that’s how it came about. The man just won a Nobel Peace Prize for lyrics. I recorded a few of his songs previously. One was called “Most of the Time” and it appealed to me and the way I felt at the time, then another one called “Everything is Broken,” and one called “Unbelievable” on the Worthy album. I did those because they were funny to me. They actually tickled me, because the lyrics were funny to me. I enjoyed those. I never would have chosen twelve of his songs, but with that task before me, I’m not a cover artist and I wasn’t trying to cover him and I wasn’t going to do a tribute to him.
That took a long time, longer than I have ever taken on any one piece of music. These, I had to rewrite some of them, like the verses and lines and put them in my mouth. He’s a very weird writer because he writes vignettes, not songs and they have chapters. Then it took weeks to learn however many of these songs. But I took verses out and lines out and freshened up some lines and some things that only 80 percent of the country knows who Belle Star and Clark Gable are, so I had to change those to Bruno Mars and Otis Redding. I had to find something that captured me emotionally. The song “Emotionally Yours” was one of those. I liked the words. I knew that I wasn’t going to cover them or tribute them, and that was one of the things I expressed to my producer Steve Jordan. He is now known as the ‘Bettye Whisperer,’ because I can’t play anything so I had to act out and sing out everything that I wanted. This is the first time I’ve had a Black producer in many years. It was interesting.
Once you got that part down, it only took you a few days to knock out the album in the studio.
Bettye LaVette: It only took 3 days. I don’t go in the studio with questions. I’ve already thought of what we are going to do. I have the attention span of a child, so doing things over and over I just can’t do it (laughs). Steve Jordan was on a very tight schedule so we were very fortunate to have him, and many of the others as well. Larry Campbell had been with Bob Dylan for many years. These guys work 24/7. It was going to be tight anyway, but I don’t think they knew how tight I can hang. I was like I’m from Detroit (laughs).
Why did you name the album Things Have Changed?
Bettye LaVette: So many things have changed. I have a new manager, a new booking agency, this new brilliant record company, this new producer, and I’m going to be blonde most of the time. I don’t want to call it a last- ditch effort, but I want this to work.
I had to find songs that could be turned around that could naturally fit. I chose those because Bob Dylan will occasionally lean [toward] gospel every once in a while, and those lent themselves to that. I wanted to do something that hadn’t been heard on Black radio and we could completely turn it around. That’s why I wanted to do “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” I wanted to go completely different and Steve understood that. I sung with my keyboard player and made a tape with him, and I had to show them how to make rhythm with the way that I was singing it. The keyboard player just played the changes to the song and I put the rhythm in my voice so that gave Steve the indication on where to put things. He is such an intelligent musician and producer.
The way that you sang those Bob Dylan songs on your new album, Things Have Changed, are so soulful.
Bettye LaVette: Thank you very much. I’m very interested to know what Bob Dylan fans think. His fans are like worshippers and Blacks don’t know anything about him at all. I’m interested to know what Blacks think about the album and Bob Dylan worshippers.
The lyrics of the songs really stand out because you made them your own.
Bettye LaVette: A lot of Bob Dylan fans say they absolutely love him, but they never knew what he was saying (laughs).
Let’s discuss a few of the songs on the album. Talk about “What Was It You Wanted.”
Bettye LaVette: For that one and everyone looked at me like I was crazy, but I said let’s put trombones on it. I wanted a New Orleans feel and they went right to Trombone Shorty, and I said ‘I didn’t mean New Orleans itself!’ (laughs) But, it was exactly what I wanted. Bob Dylan will lead you to the ledge, but he won’t push you, see I will. I had to push to get this sound.
How about “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight?”
Bettye LaVette: Yes! That one and “Emotionally Yours” made me say ‘wow he will cry!’ (laughs) When I drank a bottle of champagne and sang both of those, and I said listen at this song. I found out a tremendous amount about Bob Dylan and these songs. The only way I could put them in my mouth, I had to get all the way into them. I had to sing them not because I liked them, but because I wanted to say it. It had to be something I wanted to say.
What about the song “It Ain’t Me Babe?”
Bettye LaVette: I wanted it to be so different from what he did on the song, I wanted it to be more blues. I wanted it to be more like a drunk Jimmy Reed song. Singing it like they did is like trying copy someone’s art, but how do you feel about it? How mad are you? (laughs)
In your book A Woman Like Me, you mentioned having “buzzard’s luck,” looking back at that and your journey to now, what kind of advice would you give to someone to not give up and keep going?
Bettye LaVette: I would say people have to use logic, it’s the most important thing. If you are following some stuff that you know you can’t do, try to get some logical opinions and try to weigh it good. If people hadn’t been pouring their money into my career, I would have long since quit and not just kept going because I want to sing. People kept calling me, maybe it was the wrong people, maybe the deals fell apart, but they kept calling. If I had joined the church and they didn’t call or if I ran off with some man that beat me every day and they didn’t call, then I probably chose the wrong thing, but they kept calling. When they called, they said, “I have your last record, and wanted to know if you want to do another one.”
I have an album that was recorded in 1972 that was not released, and I talk about it in the book. I got under the dining room table and wanted to stay there. That was the most heartbreaking thing that ever happened to me, and someone else called and I came out from under that table.
It’s like if you have some kind of logical indication that the road you are on is correct, stay on that joker and don’t do nothing that will impair it. Don’t stay up all night and do all that cocaine if you want to sing, don’t go out with some dude that’s going to hit you and mess up your face if you want to be a model. Make logical conclusions. When I left Detroit and left Atlantic and got released from my contract, there was no logical reason for me to do that, and I’ve thought about that for over 50 years. No logical reason for me to do that and it cost me 20 years. All you ask for on your deathbed is more time. Don’t give your time away. That would be my only regret. Once I embraced logic, it has helped me. Plain old logic.
Why do you think having a place like the NMAAM is so important?
Bettye LaVette: It’s strange that there hasn’t been something like this already. They can use it to show the connection from this to that, from the field to this and that. I’d love to see it.
The Rock ‘n’ Roll genre was born somewhere between a church and a nightclub in the heart and soul of a woman named Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Imagine a Black woman singing gospel music accompanied by an electric guitar, growling and stomping; that’s what you hear when you listen to the songs of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
This year’s class of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees include Sister Rosetta Tharpe, also known as the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll, although she was a gospel superstar. She could shred on the electric guitar and shout praises to God one minute and secular pleasures in the next breath. She crossed color lines by touring with white artists.
Tharpe is credited with introducing the spirituality of gospel into the secular world of rock ‘n’ roll, inspiring the likes of Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Little Richard. Little Richard called her his greatest influence and Chuck Berry said that his entire career was just “one long Rosetta Tharpe impersonation.” It is befitting that Sister Rosetta Tharpe is finally getting the recognition she deserves for her contributions to America’s soundtrack.
Rosetta Nubin was born in 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. At the age of six, she moved to Chicago and joined the Church of God in Christ where she developed her distinctive performing style. In her teens she married a preacher named Thomas Tharpe, but divorced him a few years later, keeping the surname as her stage moniker before heading to New York.
At the age of 23, in 1938, she caused an uproar by leaving the church for show business to perform sexually laced songs in New York City, where she impressed the likes of Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. She soon began playing alongside Ellington and other top musicians.
The idea of a woman playing a guitar was almost non-existent at the time, but Rosetta Tharpe squashed that notion by mastering the art associated with masculinity. She managed to create her own sound by fusing gospel with rock ‘n’ roll. She recorded Decca Record’s first gospel songs in 1938 including her hit song, “Rock Me.” The song showcased Tharpe’s guitar shredding skills mixed with blues and gospel music that revealed she could transcend faith-based music and push boundaries in her own musical style.
She also recorded “That’s All,” “The Man and I,” and “The Lonesome Road” for Decca Records. All of these recordings became instant hits, establishing Tharpe as one of the nation’s first commercially successful gospel singer.
After years of working up north with swing bandleader Lucky Millinder, Tharpe toured the south with gospel legends the Dixie Hummingbirds. In 1945, her single, “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” on Decca Records, featured a guitar solo and was the first gospel single to cross over to what was called the “race” (later known as R&B) Billboard charts, paving the way for rock ‘n’ roll. In 1947, Sister Rosetta was the first person to put a 14-year-old Little Richard on stage, and it changed his life and the course of music from that moment on.
She then met singer Marie Knight and the pair recorded “Up Above My Head” and toured as a team. Knight sang and played piano, and Tharpe sang and played both guitar and piano. In 1951, after an affair with Knight, Tharpe married her third husband in Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. in front of 25,000 fans.
In 1964, during one of her most iconic performances, Tharpe played a gig in an abandoned railroad station that was broadcast nationwide. It was raining, but Tharpe got out of a horse drawn carriage, picked up her electric guitar, plugged in, and played “Didn’t it Rain” and sang with such conviction and praise
People often commented that she “played like a man,” to which Tharpe often replied: “Can’t no man play like me. I play better than a man.”
Tharpe’s career didn’t get the same hype as her male counterparts did in the late 60s and 70s, and that could have been in part due to her religious material. In 1969, she was nominated for a Grammy for Best Gospel Performance for the album Precious Memories. Her last known recording was in 1970 for Danish TV singing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” She passed away in 1973 in Philadelphia.
While Tharpe’s name has been swept under the rug despite her influence, she has received a couple of honors posthumously. She was honored by the U.S. Postal Service in 1998 with a commemorative stamp. Her version of “Down by the Riverside” in 1944 was entered into the National Recording Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress in 2004.
Through her distinctive voice and gospel blues crossover style, Tharpe’s influence can be heard in artists of the past and present. A pioneer worthy of recognition.
With a multi-platinum selling vast genre discography that spans decades, the legendary Jody Watley is still a musical force to be reckoned with today.
Jody Watley was destined for the stars the minute she stepped out on stage for the first time with her godfather, the legendary Jackie Wilson. She started setting trends as a dancer on the show Soul Train. As an original member of the group Shalamar, Watley’s distinct tones can be heard on classics like “A Night to Remember,” “(This Is) For the Lover in You,” and “Second Time Around.” In 1983, Watley left the group and a few short years later launched her solo career that further cemented her role on America’s soundtrack. Watley’s debut album skyrocketed up the charts with hits like “Real Love,” “Looking for a New Love,” “Don’t You Want Me,” and “Still a Thrill.” The album garnered her a Grammy for Best New Artist and catapulted her into style icon status.
Watley’s musical journey continues today with her new group Jody Watley featuring SRL. Watley, along with Nate Allen Smith and Rosero McCoy, are a vocal dance trio that has already made a musical mark with their newest single, “The Mood” as it is has claimed the number two spot on the U.K. Soul chart and number one in the Netherlands. Watley’s solo jazz single, “Waiting in Vain,” landed in the Top 20 Smooth Jazz Network.
I spoke with Jody Watley about her career highlights, her new music, and inspiring a new generation of artists in music and fashion.
You have a long list of accolades, but what would you say are the top three highlights of your career?
Jody Watley: The Black Music Honors of course, where I received the Crossover Music Icon award. It was just awesome, especially since I’ve been in this for a couple of months or so as an artist (laughs). To be doing it this long and to have the influence that I’ve had and to actually have it acknowledged, that actually meant a lot. Winning the Grammy for “Best New Artist” and “Looking for a New Love” was released in 1987. Obviously, the whole album changed my life in so many ways. Winning the Best New Artist that year is always going to be super special and again during that particular time in my life.
I had performed with Stevie Wonder, who is one of my childhood heroes, and I still love him today. He had a television special on MTV back in the late 80s when his song “Skeletons” came out. I performed “Superstition” with him on his special. The ironic thing is I had done that song in a talent show when I was in 7th grade with the group that I had called Black Fuzz (laughs). We were called Black Fuzz because we all had these big afros and I was so nervous. Even though by that time I had been an artist for a while, there is nothing more nerve wracking to me then performing with someone that you admired growing up. Those are the three that really stand out.
Another highlight is I remember when I got the call that I was going to be in People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People issue. It meant a lot because at that time, they weren’t covering really any black artists except Whitney Houston for something like that. I shaved all my hair off and people wondered why I did it. I didn’t want it to be about the hair, I just wanted to clean faced, with my crooked teeth, and just do it like that.
Speaking of crossing over, going into your debut album Jody Watley, did you go in with the mindset that you wanted to crossover to other genres?
Jody Watley: One thing I know for sure is that I didn’t want to be like anybody else that was out at the time. Michael and Janet [Jackson] were doing the choreography and they were very great at it and no one does it better. I wanted to be different and make the statement that you can be different. I wanted it to be funky and have my spirit come through in it. It was never about the crossover, it just came. Maybe for some it’s a goal, but I just wanted to make the statement that I’m Jody Watley, this is my debut album and I’m not trying to be like anybody else, just being me and I want to make it cool for other girls that feel like they don’t fit in, that it’s cool to be them and be different. I really just wanted to make that statement, the style that black girls could be rockers too, with the heavy metal chain belts and all that. I wanted them to see we can do whatever we want to do. That was most important to me.
It has been a little over 30 years since Jody Watley was released. If you could hop into a time machine and go back to 1987, is there anything you would have changed at that time?
Jody Watley: In thinking about it, I would have had a different manager. For my first manager, I looked to see who managed Michael Jackson and Madonna, because they were really successful and I wanted them to be my manager. Freddy DeMann managed both of them. I went to them for management and when all was said and done, Freddy was going to manage me, but Madonna said he couldn’t manage me and manage her too, so they ended up shifting me to a junior manager in the company named Bennett Freed and he was really inexperienced. He was in over his head. He also managed the group ABC from London. He said you will probably sell 50,000 and they will probably sell platinum and it ended up being the other way around. I sold double platinum and they sold 50,000 (laughs). He made a lot of mistakes. I succeeded anyway. I think anytime you have someone in your circle, and that’s me speaking to myself even now, that it’s usually a red flag if they don’t really believe in you, get rid of them. If I had to change one thing, I would have gotten a different manager since it wasn’t going to be who I really wanted to manage me anyway. That experience and really pushing your vision through, that’s really the only thing I could think of from my debut album. It succeeded despite of him, it was God and the universe and destiny. He was the weakest link.
You are a style icon and you can see your influence even in artists today. When you look at them and see what they are doing, do you see that influence as they are creating their own lanes with fashion?
Jody Watley: I think it’s awesome, in particular with Rihanna. She’s my favorite. I’m so proud, I love it. I have a lot of Fenty and I pretty much have supported everything that she’s done from Puma, to the clothing line, to Fenty. I really love that she has been able to capitalize off the fact that she’s stylish.
One of the things that I wanted to do was to have a clothing line since people wanted to dress like me, but I couldn’t get anyone to take it seriously. That again goes back to having the right manager. I did convince MCA to give away tiny Jody Watley perfume for promotion for the third album. So again, it was ahead of all the record companies and marketing companies, and they just didn’t get it. I couldn’t get the right person to see why it made so much sense, but to see it come to fruition for those artists, I think it’s wonderful and I feel a part of that.
You have been cited as an inspiration for many artists, but who inspires you these days?
Jody Watley: I’m inspired by Rihanna, I love what she’s doing. Even with everything that I’m doing, you know the consistency with branding along the way when people think of me whether it’s past or present style; there’s always an unpredictability. What’s she going to do next? Or what is she going to do now?
Like right now I have a jazz single out and I have an R&B group out and we have the number two R&B single in the U.K. and those are unexpected things. I am always inspired by people who are continuing to evolve and keep it moving. Oprah and people who are very business minded and creative. People who make other people feel inspired by the things that they do whether it’s through their social media, or out of the spotlight, and they are doing something good and it’s not stagnant. Oprah and Rihanna are up there. Richard Branson is another one. I read a lot about business people from John Johnson and how he built the whole Ebony and Jet to Berry Gordy and Motown.
My biggest inspiration coming up was my dad, because he was a very forward thinker. I am an Aquarian like him, he passed away a long time ago. He would do things like have Christmas in August and would say live in the now don’t wait to use these special dishes, if you want to dress up, do it. My dad was very influential in how I viewed life early on. Life is so precious.
Talk about your jazz single “Waiting in Vain.” People may not realize that you are such a versatile singer.
Jody Watley: My parents loved jazz when I was growing up. The many artists that came out of Motown were also very influential with me as a little girl. Jazz music was too. Nancy Wilson is one of my favorite singers of all time. I just love the genre. The first jazz single that I did was in 1990 for a project called Red, Hot, and Blue. It was the first project that created HIV and AIDS awareness and it was a charitable record. All of the proceeds went to create HIV/AIDS Awareness. We got to do Cole Porter songs any way we wanted. I chose jazz since it wasn’t a Jody Watley album, it gave me the freedom to do something different and show that side. I’m comfortable singing it and my tone suits it. So since then I’ve been wanting to do something and so I did a jazz version of Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain.” It’s so beautiful it’s got a Bossa Nova feel to it, I just love it. Even though I’m a dance girl at heart I’m a jazz girl too. It’s taken off so great.
It just shows a different side. Jazz is a big part of soul music and our culture. It’s my way of showing love to an art form that in many ways is overlooked. That was part of the inspiration also for releasing it. I’m really happy whether it is R&B, pop, electronica, dance, jazz; it’s all good.
You mentioned your new group, Jody Watley featuring SRL. The single “The Mood” has a different vibe. Is there an album in the works?
Jody Watley: Our target date for the album Bridges is June. Bridges is such a metaphor for life and is about evolving and leaving things in the past and moving onto other things. It represents so many things. I’m so glad our music is being well received. Our show is fantastic.
How would you describe the group’s sound?
Jody Watley: It’s a whole different vibe. It’s contemporary R&B and it’s got the pop flair to it. The album Bridges is pretty eclectic. There’s a mixture of hip hop, dance, and contemporary R&B. I call it a gumbo of styles but rooted in soul music. So, I think Jody Watley featuring SRL is a sonic revolution of love and it’s rooted in the love that we all have for quality music. It’s a mixture. It’s all fresh, we aren’t trying to be anything. We are the next great music trio for the now and moving forward. I’m proud of this album.
How do you stay relevant and the key to your longevity? Is the key really being able to be versatile enough to do all of it?
Jody Watley: It’s true, my fan base is so diverse. It is because I’ve never gotten stuck. I always make new goals for myself and it keeps people guessing and excited. New fans are coming on board, and people are often shocked I’m still doing it and that’s nice too to be able to surprise people. I think that’s how you do stay relevant and current; you don’t get stuck in the past and resting upon your laurels. The easiest thing is to go do a greatest hits tour and there’s nothing wrong with that, I do my greatest hits too but as an artist and just being alive, I’m always saying how can I be fabulous today? (laughs) I think that’s important and I like to remind people of that.
Why is having a place like the NMAAM so important?
Jody Watley: It’s so necessary and so important, rhythm and blues and soul music is the foundation for so many music genres in America. It is American music and influenced generations of people. To have that history which is often lost in our country, because it’s not just for us, it’s for the world. To have a place that is honoring the rich and profound richness of the legacy of our music, which is music for the world to me. If I’m in U.K. or Germany, American soul music is everywhere. There should be a place for all time where it is preserving African American music. It’s crazy that we haven’t had this before, but it’s better late than never and it’s very necessary and if we don’t do it then it won’t be done.
Fill in the blank: My music matters because…
Jody Watley: My music matters because it’s strong and joyful.
For more information on Jody Watley check out her website.
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