Singing hairdos? Not any longer. Britain’s new breed of single black females are feisty, independent and take no prisoners
WHITNEY HOUSTON’S single ‘I Will Always Love You’, which has pushed worldwide sales of The Bodyguard soundtrack to 25 million, showed just how successful a “pretty black girl” singing “pretty ballads” could be. Last year, Dina Carroll was able to emulate that success in Britain, but she couldn’t sell the formula back to the States.
The truth is, America is saturated with Whitney soundalikes. What people are searching for is something different, and they can find it in the more relaxed environment of the UK’s soul scene, where rock, Acid jazz and other musical forms are added to the soul blender. The new breed of soul stars developing here are hipper than the saccharine soul of Whitney and the commercial pop of Janet Jackson and En Vogue. American singers wanting to cut free from the sugary charts are coming to the UK to do it, while British vocalists desperate to escape the backing-singer trap are going it alone.
VOX gathered the country’s leading soul singers, past and present, to shed some light on the new soul revolution.
Denise Johnson, the singer who put the soul into Primal Scream’s Screamadelica — and whose credits include Electronic, Pet Shop Boys and A Certain Ratio — has just returned from recording the fourth Primal Scream album in Memphis. Her ambitions, however, extend beyond providing vocals for Bobby Gillespie’s line-up. Her debut solo album, a raw-edged combination of Manchester rave, Southern soul and indie irreverence, featuring Johnny Marr on guitar and Andy Weatherall at the mixing desk, is released this spring.
“I’m not a bit of fluff upfront. I hate that,” she says in a broad Mancunian accent. “I used to be a disco queen, like the girl on roller skates in Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ video, all sequin boob-tubes and satin bow ties. I sang with a slick, glam soul band called Fifth Of Heaven. After I left them, I purposely went for something different. I was getting disillusioned with soul — it sounded so complacent and subdued, and it had no fire. I need fire.”
Johnson is part of a vanguard of UK-based songwriter/vocalists who are reinventing soul for the ’90s. They are experimenting with a range of sounds and sub-cultures rather than emerging from the traditional soul/House diva circuit — a unit-shifting cliché that means (particularly in the States) that if you’re female and a vocalist, all you’re fit for is Whitney-type warbling or New Jill Swing.
N’Dea Davenport is one who escaped the American straitjacket. She left LA for the UK in 1991 to sing with the Brand New Heavies, whose new album, Brother Sister, is released next month. She is also working on her own project.
“In Britain, you have more freedom to express yourself,” she says. “Young people are into jazz, into the history of American music. There’s greater appreciation. In the States, big dollars and marketing schemes block things; there might be room but people are not so open to it.”
CARLEEN ANDERSON, former Young Disciples frontwoman and writer of their hit ‘Apparently Nothin”, also found that things were not working out in her home country: her startling voice counted for nothing there and her illustrious parentage failed to impress people.
“In America, they don’t care about Bobby Byrd or Vicki Anderson, my parents. It’s not news. It’s like, they haven’t had a hit for 20 years, didn’t they die? Take my uncle, James Brown. He has introduced a lot of cabaret into his shows and recordings lately — he probably feels there’s no other way to do it now.
“America makes you uncomfortable with who you are. No matter how talented black women are, they are all marketed in the same way. You have to fit into this mould of the sexy black chick. It would be so difficult for me, because I could never get rid of my dreads!”
British pop has a history of female American singers relocating here to launch themselves. Madeline Bell, who came over with a gospel musical, Black Nativity, in 1962 and never went back, likes to think she was the first.
“After me came Marsha Hunt, Doris Troy, PP Arnold. To my knowledge, there were very few black singers here at that time.”
Bell became the studio singer of the ’60s, backing everyone from Dusty Springfield to Elton John and The Beatles, before joining ’70s soul groovers Blue Mink on lead vocals.
“People would tell me what a great singer I was, but I’d say: ‘You can find ten singers like me on every street comer where I come from. Every church has a choir, and every choir has at least ten girl singers who could sing me off stage.’ Now it’s different — there’s a lot of competition from British girls. If someone’s coming here to strike it rich, they will have their work cut out.”
Marsha Hunt left America because she felt limited by the R&B/Motown girl-group ghetto, and became a star in the ’60s musical Hair, almost by accident. “It was the day before the show opened and they desperately wanted a black singer,” she says.
From there she went on to have several hits, notably the Tony Visconti-produced ‘Walk On Gilded Splinters’. “At the time, I was the only black rock singer apart from Jimi Hendrix,” she says. “The American music scene was still severely segregated, so I had to come to London to do it.”
By the early 70s, she had moved into acting and broadcasting, perhaps finding the strain of being such a groundbreaking figure too much.
Twenty five years later, British vocalist Juliet Roberts is looking at the British soul scene from a home-grown perspective, and disagrees that the UK is necessarily better. The former Working Week singer who now regularly collaborates with artists such as Courtney Pine and Paul Johnson, and releases her first solo album, Natural Thing this month, feels it’s a case of the grass always being greener, especially when it comes to session singing.
“In England, if you say you do sessions, you’re considered second-rate. In America, session singing is an art form. It is a skill. On Donna Summer’s ‘State Of Independence’, Lionel Richie, Patti Austin, Luther Vandross and Dionne Warwick all sang backing vocals. No one would call them just session singers; they command more respect.”
Carleen Anderson, whose debut solo album is due out in May, has a view of backing vocalists that has been gained from her own experiences.
“There is an elite group of session singers in America who are truly special. But only a few — everyone uses them, so no one else gets a chance. I came over here and did session work to pay the rent. I couldn’t get session work in America. I couldn’t afford to send my boy to school.”
POP HISTORY is littered with lead women who have tried the solo route and failed, but how much of that has been due to a reluctance in the music industry to market a soul vocalist as a long-term artist? Now reassured by the success of black women in other spheres — Tasmin Archer and Tracy Chapman, for instance — record labels are more willing to get behind a vocalist who writes her own material. Witness Gabrielle. “I can only write about what I know and feel inside, then sing it,” she says. “Someone like Whitney has such a brilliant voice that it doesn’t matter if she doesn’t write.”
Anderson is further proof that things are changing. Her label, Circa, has backed her single ‘Nervous Breakdown’ — vocal pyrotechnics in a song about a “real” woman’s life.
Until as recently as last year, though, there was not the same confidence. Dee C Lee, for instance, formerly with Wham! and The Style Council, floundered during her late ’80s solo deal with MCA, when the company constantly tried to direct her material. Architect of the acclaimed outfit Slam Slam, she had two underground club hits that were hardly promoted. This, coupled with bringing up two children with her husband Paul Weller and devoting time to writing songs, has meant that she’s spent the past few years out of the public eye.
“Because I was in The Style Council with Paul, and he was so massive, I found myself overshadowed,” she says. “Not by him personally, but by other people. We’re married, we’ve got kids, but we’re not joined at the hip. I was reading an article the other day about Dina Carroll that said something like: ‘The corpses are everywhere.’ It mentioned Carol Kenyon, Ruby Turner, a few other singers and myself. I thought that was charming!”
Guesting on Gang Starr’s Jazzamatazz album last year, and having a hit with ‘No Time To Play’, has kick-started her career again. Her debut solo album, Things’ll Be Sweeter, is due out this month on her own label, via Pony Canyon, the label to which her husband is signed.
“Some people would say: ‘She only got a squeeze ‘cos it was her old man.’ They don’t know me, they don’t know shit. Before I had kids, I got broody. Women who are maternal just have to go through it. I took time off because I was having children — now I’m coming back. At one time I got really depressed, thinking maybe it was all over and that I should just be Mrs Paul Weller. But now I’ve found my way again. The Jazzamatazz tour fuelled my confidence so much.”
Another vocalist who feels the time is right is Rhoda Dakar, who fronted the early ’80s 2-Tone band The Bodysnatchers, sang with The Specials and had a hit with ‘The Boiler’. She is now back in the studio working on her own album with Dr. Robert from the Blow Monkeys and The Woodentops’ Benny Staples.
“At a gig I did recently, the sound engineer reminded me to keep the mike near my mouth,” she says. “I thought it was funny, but I had forgotten about the patronising element. A few years ago, someone at EMI said I should concentrate on soul music. I’ve never sung soul but that’s what good-looking black women are supposed to do! It’s not what I grew up listening to. I’m far more influenced by punk, rock and off-the-wall reggae.”
WHATEVER SIDE of the pond you come from, competition is fierce. Artists in any area need an edge to get ahead, but for black vocalists, the odds are stacked against them because of the dance factory production-line effect. This typecasting is the main obstacle to working in your own right, so like the proverbial Hollywood waiter, every session singer is working on her own project, desperate to escape the bit-part of the anonymous voice.
Pauline Henry, former lead vocalist with The Chimes, who had a solo hit with the raunchy, tongue-in-cheek ‘Feel Like Makin’ Love’ last year, is more of a stylist than a songwriter, but she still has her own distinctive sound, which came from deliberately avoiding session work.
“I remember touring with a band in Morocco. At a certain point in the set, the musical director would say: ‘OK girls, here’s where I want you to take off’. When given the floor, the other girls froze — I was the only one to ad lib. They were all brilliant singers, but it proved to me that sessions can stunt you; you get used to being in the background. Upfront, I’m expected to push and project. There’s a frontline and a backing vocal mentality.”
Being a soul rebel means taking the initiative. Although The Chimes were successful, with a critically acclaimed debut album and their version of U2’s ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ one of 1990’s biggest sellers, Henry felt she had to leave to breathe.
“The Chimes were signed and perceived as a soul band,” she explains. “They were expected to do soul all the time. I wanted to venture into other areas like rock, but James Locke and Mike Peden felt they’d found a successful formula and wanted to stick to it. That’s when the split started. Safe or not, I wanted to try something new. I felt like a soloist within The Chimes. Not to take anything away from the guys, but I knew people were listening to my interpretation and my voice.”
HENRY’S EXPERIENCE is a common one. All-male bands who take on a black female vocalist for that strong stamp of soul cred are taking a risk. A woman with a mind and voice of her own is an asset, but there is also the possibility that after three hits and an album, she will fly the nest. The band then feel betrayed. They feel they showcased “the voice”, while the singer feels that it was her voice that made the band. There is also an assumption that the girl singer has risen above her station. The irony is that many vocalists would stay if they were treated as full members of the band.
Becoming a featured vocalist may be a way out of the session singing trap, but the boys in the band can still treat you as just “a hairdo”, merely a vehicle for their songs and their arrangements.
“It ain’t easy, let me tell you,” says N’Dea Davenport. “I don’t think people understood that although I was starting afresh with the Brand New Heavies, I had a history. For instance, engineers assume I’ll just want the vocal polished and are shocked when I say something like: ‘No, I want it flat, dry and analogue.'”
Having already worked with George Clinton, Fishbone and Dave Stewart, and having turned down Madonna’s Blond Ambition tour to work on her own album, she was dismayed by the band’s indifference.
“My attitude was a bit of a shock to them. When I got into the studio, I don’t think they were used to a girl being strong enough to say: ‘If I were a guitar player, you wouldn’t tell me how to do a riff. This is the way I sing, this is my personality coming across.’ I was pretty feisty.”
Having now completed a second album with the Heavies, Davenport is confident that she has finally achieved an equal creative input. Denise Johnson has reached a similar stage with Primal Scream, but Massive Attack frontwoman Shara Nelson felt she was hitting her head against a brick wall.
“If you want to do more than be a guest vocalist, you should be given an equal chance. I couldn’t grow with Massive, I felt stifled,” she says. Having worked with the Sugarhill Gang at 14, and written songs for as long as she could remember, she decided to go it alone with her own material.
“I didn’t have a sudden attack of ego; I was quite prepared to stay. But I wasn’t getting a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, or any recognition. My name was always at the end of the list on the sleeve.”
The risk paid off. Her solo debut, What Silence Knows, was one of the biggest crossover albums last year and things look equally rosy for her forthcoming single, ‘Nobody’, due for release next month.
“I was an honorary member of Massive Attack, another cardboard cut-out at the front. It was done well, but if you’re black and a soul singer you’re perceived as having nothing to do with what makes the whole thing. Once you branch out and say you write songs and have a bit of a brain, it is questioned. You become a ‘stroppy singer’.”
Rhoda Dakar speaks for all the new soul girls when she says they are stronger for their experiences.
“We’ve all been doing it a long time. We have a belief in ourselves. You do it because you believe it, not because you think an A&R man will like it.” •
Born Houston, Texas
CV JB All Stars, The Young Disciples, Omar, Pop Staples, Gang Starr
Musical highlights Road To Freedom (Young Disciples LP, 1991); wrote ‘Apparently Nothin” for The Young Disciples (No. 13,1991); Dusky Sappho (debut solo EP, Nov 1993); True Spirit (debut LP due May 9); current single ‘Nervous Breakdown’ (Top 20)
Influences Chaka Khan, Donny Hathaway
Connections Mother Vicki Anderson (James Brown Revue); step-father Bobby Byrd (Famous Flames, James Brown’s pianist)
Born Atlanta, Georgia
CV Brand New Heavies, George Clinton, Fishbone, Dave Stewart, Guru, Roger Waters, Al Jarreau, Bootsy Collins, Malcolm McLaren
Musical highlights Brand New Heavies’ Ultimate Trunk Funk EP (No. 19, 1992); ‘Never Stop’ (US Top 3 R&B hit); Brand New Heavies’ Brother Sister (due out April 25)
Influences Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Minnie Riperton, Donny Hathaway
CV Fifth Of Heaven, Electronic, Pet Shop Boys, A Certain Ratio, Primal Scream, Dream Frequency, Eskimos & Egypt
Musical highlights Primal Scream’s ‘Don’t Fight It Feel It’ (No. 41, 1991); Screamadelica (No. 8, 1991 — won the first Mercury Prize). Solo album due out this spring
DEE C LEE
CV Wham!, The Style Council, Slam Slam, Gang Starr
Musical highlights Wham!’s ‘Young Guns’; Solo hit ‘See The Day’ (No. 3, 1985); co-wrote ‘No Time To Play’ for Guru. Things’ll Be Sweeter (LP due out this month)
Connections Married to Paul Weller
CV Hairdresser; beautician; touted by a stranger at Oxford Circus tube station to sing with Bite Your Lips;The Chimes
Musical highlights The Chimes’ ‘Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ (No. 6, 1990); Solo ‘Feel Like Makin’ Love’ (No. 10,1993)
CV Massive Attack, Tackhead, PM Dawn
Musical highlights Massive’s ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ (No.13, 1991). Solo debut album What Silence Knows (No.21, 1993); Current single ‘Uptight’ (Top 20)
Influences 60s soul, Motown, Stax, early soul
© Lucy O’Brien, Vox, April 1994