As I sit here, waiting to go to the airport to see my family for Thanksgiving, fond childhood memories float through my mind. Some tales I have regaled to friends and co-workers, and, as with most of my stories, they are somehow tied to R&B music. Anyone who has met me for more than a few minutes soon realizes that I have a virtually one-track mind, pointing to the Soul and Soul Music — here, I will attempt to tell you how it all began.
It was an unlikely start, growing up as I did in a quiet suburban enclave in Northern Vermont. I have specific memories as a young child of looking at my parents’ record collection, of Billy Joel‘s The Stranger and the Eagles‘ One of These Nights covers frightening me, of looking at pictures of Gordon Lightfoot and thinking that he was my dad (same moustache). However, I also remember asking my folks to switch the radio station one day in the car, because I had decided that I had a strong aversion to Neil Diamond. That is not soul.
During this time there was a show that aired every Saturday night called “Solid Gold,” hosted first by Dionne Warwick (pre-psychic network, the Burt Bacharach songbook high priestess and still aunt to Whitney Houston), and later by Marilyn McCoo (of the 5th Dimension) and Andy Gibb (NOT a Bee Gee), later still with Rick Dees. “Solid Gold” was the kind of show that would make any American Apparel fashion victim hag wet her/himself. This was a shoddily conceived yet highly glamorous show where, at any given time, one could see, say, Kool and the Gang lip-synch their latest dance floor burner in metallic leather suits and matching headbands. One would always presume that these performers were straight, but with dance theater troupes dominating the fledgling music video industry, who could ever really tell? Those were simpler times.
This brings us to the Solid Gold Dancers, Darcel Wynne being the undisputed queen. With flying leaps off gilded set pieces, leotards cut up the leg practically to the armpits, jazz hands, and, of course, her incredible lengthy locks, Darcel made it look easy, and she did it in heels. I will never forget the October when, during my five-year stint of wearing my shiny red Halloween dress (princess, fairy princess, beauty queen, etc.), I got a pair of plastic gold heels for my ensemble. Typically, I had to wait for the 31st to don any costume duds, but this year there was no stopping me from sporting those strappy lamé drag queen hoofs from couch to carpet to coffee table. We may have anxiously chewed our nails during commercial breaks of “The Muppet Show” while Dad perused the ever-tiresome “60 Minutes,” but in a house of three girls, Saturday night belonged to us and the Solid Gold Dancers. Pure magic.
At this time, I also claimed my next door neighbor as my boyfriend, which meant that I gave him half of my Kit Kats and made him take off his clothes in the sandbox (or, as my sense of discretion matured, behind the shed). His brother had both of Lionel Richie‘s solo records on vinyl, and I would visit his house to catch some “Dancing On the Ceiling,” read Mad Magazine and torture a poor timid boy who probably now has no hope of ever engaging in a healthy sexual relationship. Don’t feel too bad, though — he got me back in middle school by telling everyone that we had had sex. No biggie. In a life dedicated to R&B, one must not expect one’s reputation to remain pure as the driven snow. Can anyone think of a song here where someone does you wrong…?
Then Thriller arrived. If you weren’t there, I am very sorry. It was absolutely unbelievable, and it is hard to imagine something like that happening again. I think we sufficiently relived all of it this past summer, right? Moving on…
At some point I realized that my parents had some Beatles records, and when Tiffany came up with a hit record riding on her dull cover of “Twist and Shout,” I became instantly disgusted with pop radio. A classmate was enamored with doo-wop, starting a 4th grade craze and an impetus for me to dig deeper into my mom’s 45 collection and a hightened interest in Motown. Feeding this fire were the popularity of the soundtracks for The Big Chill and Dirty Dancing. Hellooo, Phil Spector. Welcome to the table, Smokey Robinson.
In junior high, I was obsessed with Led Zeppelin, and consequently, Chicago blues. I bit into the Chess catalogue. Etc. etc.
By high school, we were smoking reefer and had realized that hip-hop was not a joke. I needed all the original versions of the songs that had been sampled on Paul’s Boutique. We also discovered that Parliament could get an apartment full of stoners booty-shaking and rather ribaldrous. Most of our peers had their heads very far up Seattle’s ass (hey, there was a lot of good stuff), and in reaction to the endless string of Nirvana rip-off bands at our school’s annual “Jam Session,” we staged a coup by presenting a Funkadelic rip-off band. I think I may have given the acid-eating sophomores the trip of their lives that night, which really should be on my resumé. At any rate, I rounded out those years by acquiring a sizable disco vinyl collection (based solely on the merit of the outrageous footwear appearing on their album covers) and an expanded first-hand understanding of what James Brown was talking about in “Hot Pants.”
I went to college in Georgia, a land where irony is not funny because irony is life. Soul music gestates and grows heartily in this environment. I had felt odd and out of place for some time, but now my enthusiasm for funk and beats would no longer be discouraged. I had random access to shimmering gospel, turgid drumlines of high school marching band armies, frantic transmissions from Friday-night hip-hop call-in radio shows, the thrumming of mighty subwoofers growling atop the chrome and carnival-ride paint jobs of slowly-crawling vintage Pontiacs and Lincolns. There was a man who, every Sunday afternoon, parked his red Cadillac, with red leather interior and red-wall tires, in front of the Kroger. He wore a red three-piece suit with a red shirt, tie, hat, and shoes. The next time I saw such a thing it was at a Solomon Burke concert, where the Bishop’s assistant wore a similar getup while fulfilling his duties of removing his patron’s cape and handing out roses to women in the audience. Tell me you don’t want that job and I will call you a liar.
That is what Soul music is all about: the pageantry, the splendor, the outrageousness of the human condition. We’re not just chunks of flesh trudging through our daily lives — we are beings who feel and deserve to express ourselves. We can all freak out on the dance floor together, or we can sit at home alone, mooning over some sad song of abject loneliness. But that song was a number one hit, so are we really alone in our woe?
Well, it’s time for me to get on that grueling subway ride to JFK, and I’m going to listen to the Gap Band‘s “Party Train” to get me through. But I will leave you with this: