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Chicago Commodification Entrepreneurship Los Angeles Migrations Music industry Musician Songwriting Soul Music Urban cultures

Solar: How the Chicago RnB was Brought to L.A.

As I was searching for musical information concerning the growth of the Boogie Funk subgenre in the late 1970, I spent some time focusing on Leon Sylvers III. Sylvers, one of a large musical family (hence the band he founded with his siblings, The Sylvers) had a large influence on today’s music, most noticeably by way of New Jack Swing in the 1990s and later on every post-Soul subgenres.

There are multiple proofs that Chicago music played a role in the creation of Solar Records in L.A. in 1977 by Dick Griffey. In reality, it already existed as of 1975 as “Soul Train Records”, co-founded by Chicago native and Soul Train TV show Don Cornelius (1936-2012) and Griffey himself. Also, one has to remember that most of the independent labels declined in that era. What’s more, 1977 was the cornerstone for the Disco era: Solar provided a dancefloor alternative to the Disco wave, emphasizing on the second and fourth beat, known as Boogie Funk.

For the record, UCLA scholar Scot Brown drew a clear picture of the “Solar system”: a musical stable, with deep links with other US Black Music meccas. But his analysis also emphasizes on how quick was the venture’s decline. Indeed, Solar only survived a decade, mostly between 1977 and 1987, even if the last album released was in 1991.

Chicago artists that migrated to LA are legion: Maurice White and EWF, Jerry Butler, Jody Watley… just to name a few. As mentioned above, television host Don Cornelius, a key figure in the spread of black American soul, RnB and funk music, emigrated from Chicago to California.

L.A. based musician and producer Leon Sylvers III (a native of Memphis, Tennessee), who was a real sidekick at Solar, recorded himself his one and only LP in 1989 on Motown Records. To make a long story short, if it is what it takes (be it artistry or/and economy), a musician and entrepreneur will cross the United States of America. Consequently, the process of cross-fertilization between the various Black Music cradles was still at work, and we guess it is still the case today. We can assume that the Chicagoan musical entrepreneurship nurtured the L.A. Boogie scene (although it could be argued that feeding each other is a broader issue). Pressurized by a tough economic context of globalization, Black Entrupreneurs were seeking a path for renewed empowerment. Most of them, hungry and capable, offered their talents to big companies at the time of their full development. To quote Scot Brown (Brown, 2011), major companies had established “black music divisions” to conquer African American music consumer markets: Larkin Arnold (Capitol), LaBaron Taylor (CBS), and Tom Draper (Warner Bros.).

Also, it does not come as a surprise that Jerry Butler was behind the success of The Sylvers band, even before they were signed on Solar Records: as of 1972, Jerry Butler was their producer on MGM Records subsidiary Pride Records. In fact, Butler had collaborated with both Detroit based Motown Records and Philadephia fame Gamble & Huff.

To come back to the topic, Solar Records, we have to discuss how Leon Sylvers, which one can think about being the mastermind of siblings, he made up his mind at the end of the 1970s. In fact, he completely re-shaped his way to play and produce music. Modern funk acts such as The Brothers Johnson and the rising star Prince (born Prince Rogers Nelson) made a huge impression on him. He felt an emergency to stick to a more global musical concept, thus developed his producer skills. Even though he kept practicing his main instrument, the electric bass, he was searching for musical concepts and working out studio efforts. He is also known for his homemade drumkits. Escaping the old Sylvers’ heavily Detroit and Chicago influecend RnB, he developed what was to become the L.A. Boogie sound: driven by a mix of acoustic and electronic instruments, adding claps on the 2nd and 4th beats to give birth to many dancefloor anthems. Acts like Dynasty (which he led) and Shalamar (the most successful band, driven by a gifted vocal trio comprised of Jody Watley, Howard Hewitt and Jeffrey Daniel) remain symbolic of Leon Sylvers’ savoir-faire at the beginning of the 1980s. Not only he produced dancefloor hits at a large scale, but he also developed the template for New Jack Swing and contemporary RnB and Soul music.

In conclusion, without a doubt, Leon Sylvers took the best of Chicago classic Soul and incroparated it in a modern producing process. One of his most successful song, written with William Shelby and Stephen Shockley, is symbolic of the hi-fi boogie sound: And the Beat Goes On, performed by the male vocal ensemble The Whispers. Extremely compressed chicken-picking guitar style, refined rhythm guitars, keyboards (the Prophet 5 analog synthetizers were a trademark of Solar hits) were mixed with a mixture of acoustic and electric drums, while the bass sounded fat and muffled (and actually a bit old-fashioned compared to the rest – even though it really did work, as Sylvers’ instrumental approach was quite unique). And, like icing on a cake, claps where ubiquitous.

In short, Sylvers has succeeded in combining the expressiveness of Chicago blues with a singular quest for sophisticated rhythm and blues (but not included in the Californian AOR wave).

So sophisticated and singular that you can recognize Leon Sylvers’ signature on a single track, like a hallmark.

Categories
Commodification Lectures Music industry Songwriting Soul Music Urban cultures

A Framework for a Daily Press Corpus Analysis

By chance, times are doing us a favor: the Sorbonne Nouvelle University library has just subscribed to the Chicago Defender archive, provided by ProQuest.

To summarize, here are the titles with granted access:

Historical Newspapers: The Chicago Defender 1909-1975
Chicago Daily Defender (Big Weekend Edition) (1966-1973)
Chicago Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1960-1973)
The Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition) (1905-1966)
Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition) (1973-1975)
Chicago Defender (Daily Edition) (1973-1975)
The Chicago Defender (National edition) (1921-1967)
Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1956-1960)

Indeed, this is likely to be helpful to bring some useful primary sources to highlight trends in Black Music venues and in a broader sense, musical activity (mainly related to the nightlife) in Chicago.

It is now possible to build up a newspaper corpus, based on criteria such as place, name of a person. In this respect, club names appeared meaningful to find knowledgeable articles. A selection of Chicago 1960-1990 era witnesses’ interviews brought us several club names to dig in for more information.

Our first statement is that there was a concomitant moving scene (Motown pop acts from Detroit, MI), which was taking place alongside the traditional inner Chicago blues scene. This might be another question that we did not really think about. Though this has not been measured concretely, the first impression is that the amount of live venues coming from other states is noteworthy. The hypothesis of Detroit “pop acts” influencing or (maybe) softening the Chicago Soul music could be as a consequence considered.

Now is the time to adopt a framework analysis, so that the corpus will bring real value and materiality to our hypothesis. To begin with, Charaudeau’s guidelines for corpus analysis (in a discourse perspective) should be helpful.

 

Categories
Interview Music industry Songwriting Soul Music

A Thirty Minutes Live Webcast with Ric Powell and Host Robert J. Carmack

This web show was hosted in 2020 by Jazz and Blues passionate Robert J. Carmack. This show gives a lot of room to a major actor of the Chicago scene, in the name of Ric Powell. We already addressed the importance of Ric Powell/Donny Hathaway concerning the release of the Everything is Everything 1970 album.

More noticeably, Ric Powell reveals the genesis of the song This Christmas (this sounds very apropos!), but also his relationship with master King Curtis Jr and the arrival of Curtis Mayfield in Washington DC (at the time they were students at Howard University), who noticed Donny Hathaway. He also discusses the importance of guitar and bass legend Phil Upchurch and Richard Evans. Curtis Mayfield, from the R&B group The Impressions, then hired Donny Hathaway to do sessions with him in Chicago for his upcoming Curtom label. Ric Powell assumes he got the job as a drummer thanks to his good sight-reading skills, a key fact to working as a session musician in the studios. Indeed, the music industry expects the musicians to read and learn quickly their respective parts of the musical sheet because time was money.

To make this thirty-minute show short, Ric Powell draws the lineage behind these exclusive Donny Hathaway solo records (Everything is Everything, Extension of a Man, and so on…).

Categories
Lectures Songwriting Text analysis Translation

Strange Fruit

The 1954 song seemingly celebrates grapes and harvests, the wild nature and the warm wind. Actually, none of these. Indeed, this quite naturalist painting, disturbing, denounces racial crimes. A sort of pastiche of the American naturalist poem, Strange Fruit, written by Abel Meeropol (and not Billie Holiday herself) uses the naturalist allegory, objectifying the obscene, in an attempt to denounce atrocities.

The corpses hanging from the poplar trees and swinging are the fruits. They crowd this sad lullaby, a poem composed in three quatrains, each verse rhyming following a AABB scheme. The verse metric is rather free, in spite of a eneasyllable dominant. Yet the effect is less terrifying than melancholic. And if the suggestion is rather obvious, the message gets through.

Holiday is the voice that exposes the unbearable and customary lynchings of African-Americans. This kind of song was mostly never heard at he time. At least, some of the yiddish repertoire songs offered cristal clear metaphores built as fables, such as the infamous Dona Dona written by  Sholom Secunda and Aaron Zeitlin (1941), where a calf is promised to the slaughter – an evocation of death camps where Jews where murdered.


Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees


Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh


Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

CreativeCommons BY-NC-SA Title: Mural painting – Billie Holiday
Originator: ClixYouClixYou

Strange Fruit is a perfect a example of a Jewish-African American partnership, drawing from an experience of persecution (Meeropol was a Bronx native, born from Jewish Russian parents who fled USSR, while Eleanora Fagan, aka Billie Holiday, was still suffering segragation).

The suave singing tone contrasts entirely with the cruelty of the scene and turns the dreadful piece into a major anti-racism anthem.

This song is the base on which the evolution of the lexicon and the interpretations of the performers are discussed, in the turn of the Civil Rights, in 1964. Consequently, it can be considered as the first song advocating Civil Rights, whereas Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come (1964) embodies the outcome, the dawn of a new era. Such a masterpiece of grim truth within the American Dream will undoubtedly influence the various branches of Black American music and set the scene for them, from classic rhythm & blues to Soul music and to hip hop.

For the French reader, the song was translated by Michèle Valencia (Allia, 2009), inside the book by David Margolick, Strange Fruit.

(David Margolick (pref. Hilton Als), Strange Fruit : Billie Holiday, Café Society and an Early Cry for Civil Rights, Philadelphie, Running Press, 2000, 160 p. (ISBN 0-7624-0677-1)



DES ARBRES DU SUD

Des arbres du Sud portent un fruit étrange,
Du sang sur les feuilles et du sang aux racines,
Un corps noir oscillant à la brise du Sud,
Fruit étrange pendu dans les peupliers.

Scène pastorale du valeureux Sud,
Yeux exorbités, bouche tordue,
Parfum de magnolia doux et frais,
Et une odeur soudaine de chair brûlée !

Ce fruit sera cueilli par les corbeaux,
Ramassé par la pluie, aspiré par le vent,
Pourri par le soleil, lâché par un arbre,
C’est là une étrange et amère récolte.

Categories
Commodification Music industry Songwriting Soul Music Text analysis

The Wonderful Insights of Oliver Wang on Donny Hathaway’s Everything is Everything

This article by scholar and DJ Oliver Wang (actually an excerpt from a special VMP 2020 pressing liner’s note) is seminal in several ways1. Retracing the whole genesis of what is in fact only the very first solo album ever recorded by Donny Hathaway, it highlights the Chicago encounters, most noticeably the one with musicians Curtis Mayfield and drummer Ric Powell. Moreover, it deciphers the importance of setting the scene for Black culture, sharing a universal message of love and joy, helped by the consistancy of the perfomances. However, the record is mainly composed of only three original songs penned by Hathaway. Nevertheless, Hathaway kept his promise by completly rewriting and rearranging covers.

Cutting ties with Curtis Mayfield and Curtom

The counsciousness of his own musical abilities and genius seemingly played a considerable role in the break-up with Curtom (Mayfield’s label and trademark). Incidently, through Mayfield, Hathaway had connected with Chicago native guitarist/bassist Phil Upchurch, who had to become his teaming partner throughout his short career.

Never to be done again… that is genius

Coming straight from Howard University, Mayfield’s musical skills were so advanced that he taught music at an early age. Wang shares his hypothesis that wouldn’t he had taken back his freedom, he could have achieved a Motown-like success with Curtom, turning it into a musical industry capable of producing massive hits. But was he too reluctant to become a Holland/Dozier kind or an Isaac Hayes type of writer/composer ? No doubt he minded being a piece – even the brightest – in a record company’s assembly line. Maybe the voices inside were telling him to do so.

Social views : joy and love as weapons in the troubled nixonian era

It is nearly impossible not to underline the impressive soulfulness and joy spreading in this record. This is almost an alternative to Marvin Gaye’s introspective and somewhat melancholic What’s Going On. It surely contains its own somaesthetics (or holistic somatics)1, and while there is soul, the body is in an emergency to express itself without ties, it carries its own expression and esthetic energy (Rudinow, 2010)2. As Wang puts it, there is a certain religiosity, a unique relationship between Hathaway and God, on the other hand, tracks such as The Ghetto and Sugar Lee sound as high times of celebration, embodied in a joyful jam session (in which one could hear claps, shoutings, spanish words, laughs, a baby crying – Hathaway’s own daughter…).

And the Voices Inside song keeps resonating as a timeless anthem. The voices of young, gifted and black people, shouting, clapping their hands, living in the city, enjoying themselves. The cover photograph is kind of a fantasy : Donny is smiling, hand in hand with black children in a round in front of a ghetto brick wall. What a contrast ! We have to value the exquisite sociological and musicological work, as well as the memory traces left by this studio work. Definitely an audacious bet for this first record at ATCO.

Everything is Everything : a popular culture motto

Last but not least, Oliver Wang reveals the origin of the motto Everything is Everything : chicagoan radio DJ Herb Kent used this expression throughout his 7:30/11 pm aired program on the AM 1450 WVON station. None other than Leonard and Phil Chess, founders of Chess Record, acquired the station in 1963. Since, “the voice of the negro” is no more used, for the more politically-correct “the voice of the nation”. The radio broadcasted from the Chicago tower.

1 “One Transcendent Performance That Illustrates Donny Hathaway’s Musical Genius.” NPR.Org, https://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2016/10/17/498265985/one-transcendent-performance-that-illustrates-donny-hathaways-musical-genius. Accessed 23 Apr. 2021.

2 Formis, Barbara. « Richard Shusterman, Conscience du corps. Pour une soma-esthétique [1] », Mouvements, vol. 57, no. 1, 2009, pp. 155-157.

3 Rudinow, Joel. Soul Music: Tracking the Spiritual Roots of Pop from Plato to Motown. University of Michigan Press, 2010, pp. 110-111.

Categories
Lectures Songwriting Soul Music Text analysis Translation

Are Negro Spirituals Translatable ? Yourcenar’s Case

This is a serious matter raised by a recent discovery, as I was looking for critical examples of how to communicate the epitome of gospel songs to a French-speaking audience. It might seem quite a naive question, but yet I was expecting answers. Knowing MargueriteYourcenar for her famous writings, such as Alexis, L’Oeuvre au Noir or Les Mémoires d’Hadrien, and being aware she was acknowledged as a Virginia Woolf’s translator, I was nevertheless surprized, if not shocked, to learn that she intended to translate Negro Spirituals and provided a cultural and historical prologue. Let us first put it this way : Yourcenar at that time had a solid reputation as an author and as a translator. I am not going to patronize both a belgian and french academician, whose writings – I must confess – I tend to ignore. Much has been said since the mid 1990s, needless to reinvent the wheel : in a 2003 paper, taking the opposite side of 1965 global reception, Pr Isabelle Collombat analyzed the conditions of production of such a translation (Collombat, 2003), pointing at how improper was the process1.

First I began to shrug at the sight of the complete rewriting of a susbstance that one will not imagine sung in french. Then I began to feel really embarassed, at what felt like an abusive foreignizing, leading Yourcenar to see the black people in an european condescending way, escalating to a kind of excessive and earthy text adaptation, that ends sounding as Negro Spirituals sung by Edith Piaf. Alas !

The fact that it was undoubtedly acclaimed by the whole critic at the time it was published tells even more about the european ethnocentric failure. As aforementioned, the translation expresses radical stylistic choices, carried by an oversized romanticism. Yourcenar must have believed it was only a matter of transposing the negro condition to the oppressed French masses during La Commune tragic events (1871). Indeed, french popular songs, known as “chanteur de rue”2 genre, are noticeably influenced by the depressing atmosphere that followed La Commune, eventually pounded by WWI. This very musical genre is characterized by an exaggerated emphasis and vocal tremolos, suggesting the sadness of parisians walkways between the two world wars.

That emphasis appears to be heretic when it comes to translate the oral form incarnated by Negro Spirituals. Singing religious themes in cotton fields doesn’t equal singing la vie dans la rue.

In brackets, there is a major difference between singing to keep the fire of hope burning when you are a slave and singing as a chanteur des rue (street singer) just to make a living. The latter, though miserable, is a profession.

To achieve her goal, Yourcenar spent 20 years or so, to gather sources, Roland Hayes’ recordings being the cornerstone. Still, it is such a pity that she did not write the origin of each single song. The reader will have to go back to the introduction to understand Yourcenar’s position, her tone being mostly assertive :

« Pour trop de Français, encore aujourd’hui, la musique noire signifie l’excitation, le bruit, la chaleur ou l’exubérance, voire les trépignements et les cris, un succédané, en somme, d’un folklore primitif, ce qu’elle est en effet en grande partie, mais non pas ce trésor de ferveur, de douleur, de gaieté et d’humble tendresse humaine qu’elle est aussi. Par manque de connaissance de ce qui se cache sous la splendeur et l’intensité du son, cette grande poésie contemporaine chantée intéresse, étonne ou excite, plutôt qu’elle ne bouleverse en France l’auditoire »

(For most of the French people, black music means excitement, noise, heat or exuberance, even stomping and shouts, a subsitute in a nutshell, of primitive folklore – from which she originated, but not a fervor gem of pain, joy and humble human tenderness, for she is too. By lack of knowledge of what is hiding underneath the majesty and the intensity, this great contemporary sung poetry amazes or turns on more than it moves deeply the French audience).

One can assume the intention was fairly good. But, stuck between the end of colonialism and an occidental-shaped mind, Yourcenar delivers the typical exotic vision of the Negro culture, with a tremendous amount of stereotypes. It appears mandatory to put it into context, but historicism (which makes us consider this translation as a moment of french literature in a pre-decolonization context) makes such an attempt quite clumsy.

Now, let’s take an example of Yourcenar attempt to translate a variation on Deep River (Fleuve profond, sombre rivière) : we can see Yourcenar preferred the classic poem form, by favoring rhymes and symetric construction, in verses. Abusive word contractions, unappropriated foul language and the use of Mon Dieu (“My God”) reflects a biased reading of a Negro Spiritual. Whatever the fervor is, it never allows the appopriation of God within the discourse.

J’connais une grande rivière,

C’est pas l’Mississippi,

Et c’est pas l’Muskegee,

C’est pas un trou boueux entre moi et mon Dieu !

La promesse qui m’console,

C’est pas une vaine Parole,

C’est pas l’prêcheur qui gueule,

C’est l’espoir du salut qu’est fondé sur Dieu seul !

Fleuve profond, sombre rivière,

Jourdain, Jourdain entre mi et mon Dieu,

Bâtissez-moi un pont d’prières,

Et qu’j’arrive à l’aut’bord, au camp’ment, au saint lieu !

As a conclusion, I read Fleuve Profond, Sombre Rivière with curiosity and to quench a need to identify French regards on Negro Spirituals. I was not expecting such an exotic and ethnocentric vision, depicting Negros with an exaggerated debilitating language (for the record, this latter language abuse has been turned into mockery by french songwriter Serge Gainsbourg in the song Toi Mourir in 1981).

Petit Nègre3, 4 does not equal to Negro Speech.

It underpins the translator choices : in this precise case, radical choices were made (and I suppose Yourcenar was aware she was taking responsibility for it).

But it the end, the songs are turned into vaudevillesque contraptions.

Because stereotypes were part of the culture.


1 Collombat, Isabelle (2003). « Traduire ou ne pas traduire : Fleuve profond, sombre rivière de Marguerite Yourcenar », in GRAI, n° 6. (4/2003), pp. 60-76.

2 « Chanteur des rues ». Wikipédia, 10 août 2020. Wikipedia, https://fr.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Chanteur_des_rues&oldid=173700176.

3 Petit-nègre is a somewhat pejorative french expression to characterize one’s poor language ability. In spite of decolonialization, it is still in use in a large part of the population.

4 « Le français “petit-nègre”, une construction de l’armée coloniale française ». France Culture, 21 février 2018, https://www.franceculture.fr/sciences-du-langage/le-francais-petit-negre-une-construction-de-larmee-coloniale.

Categories
Commodification Music industry Songwriting

The Commodification of Music

It has been a very discussed issue, especially since the vinyl era revival, starting in the mid 2000s. This video proposes a synthetic outline of records (be it material or digital) as a medium to replicate music copies.

How come so many people believe in vinyl acetate superiority ? Is fetishism built only against “soulless digital” ? As Walter Benjamin would say, does illimited reproductibility makes the music lose its soul ? (Walter Benjamin. (2008). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction / Walter Benjamin ; translated by J.A. Underwood. Penguin.)

Can one lose the sense of listening while focusing on the ultimate and best technology ? How come purists want to go back to the master tapes ?

Let’s go for a quick insight !

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