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 genres pioneers, soulhead and I have put together an introduction to British Soul. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this special feature soon.
Hot Chocolates 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 Lennons 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 didnt 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 couldnt 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 mightve 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, Juniors 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 Youve Done to Me, one of the greatest songs youve 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 whod 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 Cant 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 Stars 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 Stones 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.