Blue-eyed soul: the co-opting of black music

October 18, 2012

Tony Sarabia and Richard Steele

We have Philly DJ Georgie Woods to thank for the term "blue-eyed soul," which he used to describe white artists played on R&B radio stations like WDAS in Philadelphia. Of course, white musicians had been co-opting black music for many years before blue-eyed soul emerged as a distinct genre. Who can forget the Crew Cuts taking on The Chords R&B hit "Sh-Boom"?  Here, you judge which version wins the day:

As R&B began to give way to soul music in the early 1960’s white artists who could nearly match the "soul" of their African American counterparts, began to emerge. It could be argued that unlike the Crew Cuts, Pat Boone and others of their ilk, this new crop of white artists were expressing something other than cultural appropriation; they seemed to be genuinely moved and influenced by black American soul and R&B.

Still, there were many black artists who didn’t appreciate the growing practice. But you could probably also find artists who saw the spread of their music as a food thing, no matter who was doing the singing.

Some of the more familiar names of the genre include Dusty Springfield, Adele, Hall & Oates and Robin Thicke, but did you know that Tom Jones is also considered a blue-eyed soulster -- and why not?

Mick Jagger singing has been heavily influenced by American blues and R&B, but when an unknown black musician heard Jagger signing soul music back in the 1960’s he referred to it as plastic soul; a pejorative term.

Well, you've got to give Mick credit for trying. This week on the Morning Shift, a look at some blue-eyed soul artists who could be considered white soul artists as we remember Laura Nyro, who would have been 65 years old today. Happy Birthday Laura!

Here are my blue-eyed soul picks:

If you didn’t know it; this could be Dinah Washington singing the song "Hurt." But this 1961 hit belongs to a petit Italian American whose parents owned a little restaurant in Los Angeles. When people first heard Timi Yuro sing, they thought she was black. Despite her initial success, Timi began to lose momentum by the end of the 1960’s and a big part of that slide was health related. She developed throat cancer and eventually had her larynx removed. She counted Elvis and Morrissey among her fans. The women considered the first female blue-eyed soul singer died in 2004.

In the mid 1970’s David Bowie began to shake off the glam rock of Ziggy for the swagger of Philly soul and his Young Americans album was the result. He referred to the sound as plastic soul describing the album as "the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey." Bowie’s soul landed him on Soul Train; one of the first white performers to appear on the show. He sang "Fame" and "Golden Years," the latter from his Young Americans follow-up, Station to Station"Fascination" is a reworking of a song called "Funky Music," which was written by a then unknown Luther Vandross. Vandross not only provided backing vocals on the album; he was in charge of the vocal arrangements.

Sistars is a sister duo from Poland. They at times sound a bit like Lauryn Hill with a little Joss Stone thrown in for good measure. "Sutra" is one of their big hits in their homeland.

Although Janis Joplin doesn’t immediately come to mind when one considers blue –eyed soul, she was at the height of her too brief career dubbed the Queen of Psychedelic Soul. Her voiced dripped soul effortlessly and nowhere is that more apparent than on the song "Maybe" from her 1969 I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! release. The song is blues, gospel, soul and rock all wrapped into one and is in no way plastic.

Put aside for a moment Salt n Pepa’s killer version of "Whatta Man" with help from En Vogue and go back to 1968 for the original version of "What a Man." This one was recorded by Linda Lyndell who grew up singing in both white and black churches. She also shared the stage with James Brown and Ike and Tina Turner. Her soulful singing led to a deal with Stax Records and death threats from the Ku Klux Klan after "What a Man" became a hit. She was so terrified that soon afterwards, she pulled back and quit the music business. Lyndell finally came out of exile after the 1993 release of "Whatta Man," performing her original hit live for the first time at the 2003 opening of the Stax Museum; fortunately no threats were unleashed.

If this song by Chris Clark sounds like something out of Hitsville that’s because Chris Clark recorded for the Motown imprint V.I.P. Many considered Clark the American answer to Brit blue-eyed soul sister Dusty Springfield. British fans dubbed her the white Negress because she toured with the mostly black Motown roster. She dated Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. and recorded his song "Do Right Baby Do Right" in 1966. The song didn’t chart and she had only one minor hit and released two albums along with a number of singles. In later years, Clark worked as an executive for Motown Productions' film and television division in L.A. She also co-wrote the screenplay for the 1972 movie Lady Sings the Blues; she was nominated for an Academy Award. Today her songs are played mostly by Northern Soul fans in Britain.

Richard Steele:

Robin Thicke is a singer/songwriter who is also a self-taught piano player. By the age of 16, he was writing and producing songs for several popular recording artists. He also wrote and produced songs on over 20 gold and platinum records done by Christina Aguilera, Marc Anthony and Michael Jackson,  all which he had done before he turned 21. It’s not surprising if you consider his pedigree: His dad is Canadian born actor Alan Thicke, who starred in the mid 80’s hit T.V. series, Growing Pains.

Apparently songwriting was a talent passed down from father to son; the elder Thicke co-wrote themes for the T.V. shows The Facts Of Life and Different Strokes. Robin was really into the black music scene and signed with a Hip-Hop label Interscope. While he pursued his goal of advancing his singing career, he continued to produce hit songs for artists like Usher and Mary J. Blige. After his second album release, The Revolution of Robin Thicke in 2006, this young Caucasian crooner got full credit as a masterful R&B soul singer. The single "Lost Without U" went to #1 one on four different soul charts, and it became a favorite wherever black Chicagoans enjoyed a favorite dance style called “steppin”.          

The late Teena Marie might be the only white female to achieve superstar status in R&B music circles and with black audiences.  This vocalist, who also had a talent for songwriting, grew up in West L.A. and was attracted to show business early on. As a child, she had an acting role on The Beverly Hillbillies T.V. series and also sang at the wedding of comedian Jerry Lewis’ son when she was ten. A few years after singing in several high school productions, and doing local gigs, she signed with Motown in 1976. They knew she had an incredible talent, but had difficulty pairing her with the right producers and the right songs.

Then one day, as luck would have it, she met a Motown producer/performer named Rick James. The rest is soul music history. They went on to turn out a number of hit recordings, including her first gold album. Marie had a fiery personal relationship with James, which got worse as the years went on. She also had a falling out with Motown and left the label in 1982. A year later, she signed with Epic. Teena had a mixed record of success with the label. Her biggest recording, and the only one to hit #1 on the singles charts, was "Ooo La La La," which she wrote and produced in 1988.     

R&B vocalist Mitch Ryder was born William Levise Jr. in 1945 and is pure Detroit. As a teenager, he was the only white kid singing with a black du-wop group. He claims he was on the receiving end of a lot of racial harassment, so he left and formed his own group, Lee & the Rivieras. They had a gig opening for the Dave Clark Five around 1965 when they got noticed by legendary music producer Bob Crewe. He signed them immediately and they went from being Lee & the Rivieras to Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. The next year they had a top ten record called "Jenny Take a Ride." You might say it was a frantic combination of Little Richard’s "Jenny Jenny" and the Chuck Willis record "C.C. Rider." This Mitch Ryder recording is considered by many to be the epitome of blue-eyed soul.