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Classic Soul Rekindles Music That Never Went Away

Jan 2, 2015


by John Schacht
In a week's time (Jan. 9-10), two of Broadway's finest vocalists -- Capathia Jenkins and Darius de Haas -- will join conductor Albert-George Schram and the Charlotte Symphony for a pair of Pops concerts featuring classics from soul music's 1960s and early '70s heyday. Consider them an appetizer, if you like, for later this year in August when the Broadway show Motown the Musical will appear on the same stage at Blumenthal.

Both shows are unapologetic exercises in nostalgia, and at least from that standpoint not much different than the tribute bands recreating other bygone eras that you can find down the street at Amos' Southend every week. But as even the most casual glance at today's popular musical landscape will show, revivalism is in full flower -- from rough-and-tumble garage rockers and psychedelic hipsters to '80s synthpop and punk rock wannabes, what's old is often all that's new again.

In his 2011 book, Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past, the music critic Simon Reynolds writes that where pop nostalgia gets really interesting "is in that peculiar nostalgia you can feel for the glory days of 'living in the now' that you didn' through."
Reynolds cites '50s rock 'n' roll and '70s punk as two eras that stir feelings of this kind, but concedes that the "Swinging Sixties" tops the charts when it comes to triggering vicarious nostalgia. Ironically, it's that era's originality -- the absence of "revivalism and nostalgia," Reynolds notes -- that's the source of so much backwards-looking admiration: "Part of the period's attraction is its spirit of total immersion in the present. This was the decade that coined the slogan 'be here now,' after all."

With the exception of Beatlemania (subject of countless stage and film revivals itself), there's probably no subset of '60s music that conjures the spirit of that era more than soul music. Having emerged in the mid-50s from the confluence of gospel and rhythm & blues, soul music was, like its naughty cousin rock 'n' roll, initially seen as a kind of "alternative to assimilation," writes Peter Guralnick in his superb history, Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom.

Just as the first rock 'n' rollers were viewed with suspicion and outright hostility by older generations, soul music, too, was critiqued by elders in the black community for its secularization of gospel music. Guralnick says soul music's "brief flowering" -- it came into its own by 1960, had crossed over by 1965, and was gone as a controlling force in music by the early 70s -- is inextricably linked to the Civil Rights Movement, stylistically as well as chronologically. It emerged "with stealth at first, slowly gathering strength, then learning to assert itself without apology or fear, until forced to retrench in the face of a series of traumatic events and jarring disappointments," he writes. "It is the story of blacks and whites together. It is the story of the complicated intertwining of dirt-poor roots and middle-class dreams, aesthetic ambitions and social strivings, the anarchic impulse and the business ethic."

It was, in other words, a play-by-play of its times, looking neither forward nor back for inspiration but rooted solidly in its present status. It's that immediacy that draws in Jenkins, who'll partner with de Haas in the Classic Soul Pops dates at Blumenthal. The Brooklyn-born and bred singer was classically trained, attended college for jazz vocals, but grew up with older siblings and their extensive record collections. In her borough, she says, the radio was always on and DJ-hosted block parties were common events. All of it contributed to her love for soul music.

"There's something about the sounds of those records that feels risky to me," Jenkins says, comparing the soul era to today's sterile, digital-based recording sessions. "Back in the day, everybody was in that room and the magic was happening together. There was a collaborative, risky, on-the-edge, press-the-record-button, see-you-at-the-end' vibe."

Jenkins began singing with orchestras around 2008, and it was a meeting with Principal Pops Conductor for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Michael Krajewski, that convinced her to create a program of classic soul hits. She'd already appeared inBroadway Rox delivering the Tina Turner goods on Creedence Clearwater Revival's"Proud Mary," so it wasn't a stretch to imagine a full orchestra and electric rhythm section to sing soul songs over.   

"For me, playing this music with a symphony, live, this little black girl from Brooklyn, and I get to have this orchestra start an intro, it's all I can do, standing up there in my makeup and my gown, to keep from going 'Oh, my god! Oh, my god!'" Jenkins enthuses. "There's just something about it that feels so organic and fun."
The set list for the two-hour program will likely be familiar to anyone who's been sentient as an adult, and is heavy on the Motown. And no wonder: the Berry Gordy-led Detroit label was so proficient at knocking out chart-toppers --27 No. 1s between 1961 and 1970 -- it earned the nickname "Hitsville, USA." Additionally, Jenkins and de Haas wanted duets to sing, and the Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell catalog was a natural starting point.

As human as it is to look back in awe, the problem with nostalgia -- and why revolutionary movements so often try to banish the past -- is that it keeps you focused on something other than the present. And in the present there's been a mini-revival of Southern soul music, some of which can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with its inspirations. And it started right around the corner from Jenkins' home, in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn.
Building on hip-hop's funk-and-soul sampling craze of the early '90s and the crate-digging Northern Soul revival in the British Isles, the Brooklyn-based Desco label started releasing new material in 1996 done in the gritty, analog tape-friendly old school soul and funk traditions. The label eventually shuttered, but not before giving birth to Daptone Records and another label offshoot, Truth & Soul, where artists like Naomi Shelton, Sharon Jones, Lee Fields and Charles Bradley have rekindled their singing careers.
Like Motown, Stax and Muscle Shoals' Fame studios, where soul recordings took on distinct flavors, Daptone has developed a sonic brand built around its superb house band (Amy Winehouse recorded her 2006 smash Back to Black with the Dap-Kings, as they're known). When Jenkins has encountered this new old soul -- she saw Sharon Jones open for Prince at Madison Square Garden and was recently awed by the Charles Bradley documentary, Soul of America -- she's been duly impressed. And while audiences may clamor for the old familiars, soul music's inherent 'be here now' draw holds true to this day.

"The first word that comes to mind for me is 'raw,'" Jenkins says. "Honest, gut-wrenching, pure storytelling. It's a combination of all of that that resonates with people -- and I don't know if people can even articulate what it is. But it gets into your bones."

This story was produced as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, with support from the Wells Fargo Foundation