While soul music is an obvious product of America, its influence began spreading internationally ever since the first note was released in the 1950s. In England, the much beloved genre has inspired more than a few generations of singers, producers, and various scenes. The Brit fans loved every nuance of the music as they studied it closely, could tell you the b-side of obscure discs and interpreted those inspirations into their own brand of R&B. While the Brit soul genre has always been integrated since its inception, many of the Black bands added an extra layer of funk when they began adding elements of reggae, technology and a pop sensibility that pushed the sound in interesting directions. As a tribute to the genre’s pioneers, soulhead and I have put together an introduction to British Soul. Stay tuned for “Part 2” of this special feature soon.
Essential British Soul (Part 1):
Hot Chocolate’s first big hit “You Sexy Thing” introduced us to bald singer Errol Wilson, whose infectious vocals were as cool as whipped cream. Beginning his career singing a reggae cover of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance,” that got the band noticed by pop producer Mickie Most (Lulu, Jeff Beck), Wilson co-wrote the 1975 jam that made them a sensation. “To my mind Hot Chocolate offers the freshest sound in soul music today,” critic Harold Bronson wrote that same year. “It’s the wedding of diverse styles and influences that create the group’s winning sound.” Versatile in his vocal styles, Wilson was also a smooth balladeer and tragic storyteller on “Emma.”. Wilson died this past May from liver cancer.
While people have a tendency to make fun of one-hit wonders, there is no denying the brilliance of singer/songwriter Carl Douglas’ disco martial-arts hit “Kung Fu Fighting.” Released in 1974, when every boy in the hood had a Bruce Lee poster taped on his wall, donned an Afro like Jim Kelly and swung nunchucks while watching Soul Train, the track boogied down into our consciousness with a kung fu kick. Recorded in ten minutes when Douglas and producer Biddu Appaiah thought it was going to be a b-side, “Kung Fu Fighting” sold millions and was later remixed by dub master Adrian Sherwood and covered by CeeLo Green and Jack Black for the theme of Kung Fu Panda. “As proud as I am of ‘Kung Fu Fighting,’ it was a problem to follow it,” Douglas told a writer in 1977. Although Douglas didn’t have any more hits, the Brit bro left his mark with a single chop.
In 1982, when Junior Giscombe released his blistering debut dance single “Mama Used to Say,” he appeared on Soul Train and the crowd went crazy. One young woman standing in the audience couldn’t believe the enthusiastic greeting he received and told journalist Paolo Hewitt, “I’ve never seen anything like it. The kids are (usually) so blasé, but this reception they’re giving Junior, just to applaud him is a feat in itself.” While they might’ve giggled at his accent, the young Americans also recognized his abilities as both showman and songwriter. While his second single “Too Late” was just as cool, Junior’s 1984 collaboration with Thin Lizzy frontman Phil Lynott, who had abandoned the heavy metal for a more Princely-synth sound, never came to fruition, as Lynott died two years later. Another in a long line of underrated Black Brit musicians, Junior later worked with producer Nigel Martinez on the exquisite Michael Jackson homage “Look What You’ve Done to Me,” one of the greatest songs you’ve never heard.
Biting the vibe of the Jackson 5 in 1985, Five Star switched the program by placing the girls front and center. Put into the biz by their music-minded papa Buster Pearson, a singer and guitar player who’d once worked with Otis Redding, he assigned daughter Denise the lead, while her harmonic siblings held it down in the background. Early singles “Let Me Be the One” and “Can’t Wait Another Minute” were pop perfection with irresistible grooves that made them dance floor ready. Although the Brit press thought they were corny, daddy Buster replied to a reporter, “We’re not here to portray sex, violence and murder. Five Star are not here to portray evil to their fans. That’s the way we’re going to keep it.” With Five Star’s matching outfits and choreographed dance moves that were Cholly Adkins smooth, the group rarely gets their due next to their ‘80s pop contemporaries, but they were just as important.
From the moment Sade Adu appeared on the scene in 1984 with the ultra-cool “Your Love is King,” her quiet storm jazz made listeners transcend their musical tastes (rockers, b-boys, hair metalists) as they fell into her velvety groove. With one of the coolest bands in the land led by saxophonist/guitarist Stuart Matthewman, who later worked with Maxwell and formed the side-project Sweetback, the band has been delivering perfect pop for over thirty years. Unlike Madonna, who played the role of video vixen to the hilt back in the ‘80s, Sade never came across as a man-killer or publicity addict. More of a yesteryear crooner from the Peggy Lee/Dinah Washington school, Adu always seemed to be walking a high-wire between loving too much (“No Ordinary Love”) and rocking back and forth from romantic misery (“King of Sorrow”).
Forebears of a new generation of Brit soul, the trio Loose Ends came on the American scene in 1985 with their breakout hit “Hangin’ on a String (Contemplating)” and was immediately accepted. Group members Steve Nichol, a classically trained musician and former teen prodigy who founded Loose Ends, and guitarist Carl McIntosh joined forces with vocalist Jane Eugene in 1980 and began to put in work. First becoming popular on UK pirate radio stations before an album was even released, their work was introduced to the Brit public by those outlets a year before any official product was released.
In an era when Roland drum machines and synthesizers were steadily replacing traditional instruments, Loose Ends made chilled-out dance music throughout the ‘80s. Singer Eugene swung her powerful voice from sultry (“Stay a Little While, Child”) to funky (“Watching You”). Loose Ends inspired fellow Brits Soul II Soul as well as “Ghetto Heaven” dwellers Family Stand and Angie Stone’s first soul band Virtual Hold. Although Loose Ends broke up in 1988 after Eugene punched Nichol in the face and stormed out of the studio, she and Nichol performed together as Loose Ends at the 2006 Essence Music Festival in Houston and 2011 Essence Music Festival in New Orleans.
Soul II Soul
Unofficially one of the greatest honors that can be bestowed upon any single is to become the hot song of the summer. In America, the song of the summer is the blazing one you’ll hear blaring everywhere from the playground to the projects to a picnic with the family, that jam will be playing. In the summer of 1989, it was all about the self-proclaimed “Funki Dreads” calling themselves Soul II Soul. Having started as a reggae soundsystem that also doubled as a collective of fashion designers, Soul II Soul were sleek, stylish and had more swag than you. Fusing breakbeat samples with serious disco strings, be-boppish piano and a lovers rock groove that was steady, “Keep On Movin’” and “Back to Life” were both hypnotic. Dance friendly in every way, the sound was crazy. The cherry on top was former back-up singer Caron Wheeler, who had once been down with Elvis Costello and Phil Collins, stepping to the mic while dragging us into the future. Co-produced by Jazzie B. and Bristol boy Nellee Hooper, their debut disc Club Classics Vol. One laid the foundation for acid jazz, trip-hop and a few other musical subcultures. Fab Five Freddy, who flew to London on the Concorde to interview Jazzie B for the May 1990 issue of Spin, dubbed the collective “the utopian planet orchestra.” The following year, with Wheeler leaving the group and jetting to New York to record her solo album with the Jungle Brothers, Soul II Soul released Vol. II: 1990 – A New Decade. It was cool, but after you’ve already changed the world, everything else is just anti-climatic.
When Brit soul vocalist Diane Charlemagne died from cancer late last month at the age of 51, she left behind a legacy of enduring music that included the much-celebrated jungle groove of Goldie’s “Inner City Life” and his classic Timeless album in 1995. Charlemagne was also a member of the underrated Manchester soul band 52nd Street, an ‘80s group reminiscent of Chic and Change , as well as Urban Cookie Collective. Posting on Twitter, Goldie wrote, “What a gifted voice.” Moby, who Charlemagne also worked with, said, “She was one of the most remarkable singers on the planet.” According to Billboard, a statement issued by Blue Soap Music confirms that the release of her last record “It’s In Your Eyes” featuring Andy Rourke of The Smiths and remixed by Youth, will go ahead on November 20th as planned, with the proceeds going to Charlemagne’s family.
Arty without being pretentious, former child prodigy Omar bust onto the Brit soul scene in 1990 with the Gilles Peterson- founded label/collective Talkin’ Loud (Incognito, Young Disciples) on the mind-blowing single “There’s Nothing Like This.” Omar has had a long, rich career that has included duets with his soul guru Stevie Wonder (“Feeling You”), a cover of William DeVaughn’s “Be Thankful for What You Got” with Erykah Badu and a cameo appearance on Common’s brilliant Electric Circus album. Yet, from the beginning, Omar was determined to be more than a soul boy matinee idol. “All it seems to be now is record companies telling new acts to rip off the same beat that somebody’s just had a hit with. It doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. I want to re-introduce the big arrangement – brass, strings, everything. Having the budget to try it is the best thing about having this success.”
Imagination began as the brainchild of former backup singer Leee John. A fan of drama and glam who badly wanted to be a star, he’d put in work wailing with touring American soul groups The Delfonics and Chairmen of the Board, and was inspired to start his own groove thang trio along with fellow singer Ashley Graham (who also played bass) and drummer Errol Kennedy. Forming Imagination in 1981, the group was named in honor of John Lennon, who had been slain the previous year. That same year, Imagination released their debut album Body Talk, whose first single was the silky title track. However, it was piano-heavy third track “Burnin’ Up” that would later be all the rage on the dancefloors of the Chicago house scene. The following year Imagination, who for some reason dressed like Disney movie Egyptians, released their sophomore project In the Heat of the Night. “Just an Illusion,” a soulfully synthed-out dance track that became a club banger in night spots the Garage and Zanzibar, became their biggest hit in the states. Unafraid of fusing electro-funk, falsetto-voiced balladry and post-disco grooves into their sound, in 1982, John told The Face magazine, “Many black youngsters today think you should be ethnic and only into reggae, but Imagination are trying to make music with no cultural barriers.” Although Kennedy quit the band in 1987, Imagination didn’t officially disband until 1995, when John decided to go solo.
As the most tragic of the Black Brit soul posse, singer Ephraim Lewis only released one album in his lifetime. Luckily for his legacy, that disc was Skin, perhaps one the most brilliant recordings of the ‘90s even if most people have never heard it. Released in 1992, Skin was melodically seductive as Lewis’ gorgeous voice merged beautifully with the songwriting and production of his musical partners Kevin Bacon and Jonathan Quarmby. Signed to Elektra Records, the 22 year-old powerhouse had an obvious love for heartbreaking vocalists Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway that could be heard in the textures of his tone, as he sang over futuristic soundscapes that were cutting edge trip-hop a few years before Tricky, Portishead, and Lamb emerged.
Opening with the Kafkaesque title track that draws you into a strange world based on yesteryear rhythms while charging boldly towards tomorrow, one gets the immediate sense that they’re about to embark upon a sonic adventure. The first single “It Can’t Be Forever” had the drama of a golden era Bond (John Barry) theme while Lewis sang the surreal lyrics in a spacey soul voice that was otherworldly. The Afro-Futuristic video served as further evidence that the brother was from another planet altogether.
Although Lewis’ second single “Drowning in Your Eyes” was more grounded in that jazzy quiet storm style the sista Sade made popular a decade before, Lewis’ haunting voice still retained a trippy beauty even when the cheesy sax chirped in and almost blew the high the music had already lifted you too. In 1994, while Lewis was in Los Angeles recording a follow-up album with producer Glen Ballard, he died while having a confrontation with police. Officers claimed that Lewis jumped off the roof of the hotel where he was staying while they were trying to restrain him.
Although not British by birth, Neneh Cherry moved to London when she was 14 years-old to be a part of cool punk kids who roamed the streets, slept in squats and partied through the night while Margaret Thatcher plotted their demise. A decade later, many of those same punks had transformed into new wavers, sound clashers and young style rebels that were on a mission to change the world. While the second Brit invasion in the early ‘80s highlighted strange pop kids Culture Club, the Eurythmics and the Pet Shop Boys, the era was almost over when Cherry’s 1988 debut single “Buffalo Stance” blared onto the scene. The savvy singer/raptress was as much a style icon as she was a pop star, yet posing on cover of The Face magazine was only one part of her persona. No pop tart, she also took her music and lyrics seriously. Cherry’s clique included Wild Bunch and future Massive Attack members Mushroom (who was on the one and two’s in the video); on the album Raw Like Sushi, which came out the following year, the second single “Manchild” was co-produced by Robert Del Naja (3-D).
Combining her hip-hop vibe with her love of R&B and be-bop, Cherry was a pretty mama, but she also had substance and refused to be a seen as a novelty artist. With her husband Cameron McVey responsible for most of the production, Cherry’s follow-up Homebrew featured wonderful collaborations with Guru (“Sassy”), Michael Stipe (“Trout”) and future Portishead member Geoff Barrow, who co-produced the angst-ridden “Somedays.” Yet, it wasn’t until the curly-haired diva that one writer described as “part raggamuffin B-Girl, part designer Earth Mother,” released her 1994 Man that we got to hear Cherry at her most mature. Featuring the Grammy nominated “7 Seconds,” a duet with Youssou N’Dour as well as a dope cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man,” the frantic Tricky produced “Together Now,” which also appeared on his side-project Nearly God, and a moody title track that was used in the neo-noir classic Long Kiss Goodnight, Man proved to be her masterwork. However, for some reason, it was never officially released in America. These days, Cherry records and tours whenever she feels like it, having released her latest joint Blank Project in 2014.
Coming across as a Brit combo of a blaxploitation movie star, Cameo frontman Larry Blackmon and the baddest Brit soul man to ever grab a mic, Mark Morrison was a bad boy for true. If the brother could’ve stayed out of jail, he might’ve been larger, but just as his kick-ass single “Return of the Mack” began to rise on the U.S. charts in 1997, Morrison was sent to the slam for a three-month stint for trying to board an airplane with a gun. Although, of course, some music journalists compared Morrison with Seal, his mostly self-produced debut album Return of the Mack was more street. While Morrison might’ve been “misunderstood” as he later professed on the jailhouse ballad “Innocent Man” which features DMX, his music career suffered as a result. In 2014, the mack returned again and released the EP I Am What I Am.