Okay it was a phase, but it was one I remember with some warmth and — more — it’s neither a guilty pleasure nor one that the wash of tacky synths that accompanies many of these records can demolish. I’m talking about the era of the great electric-soul men.
Their stylistic godfather was Teddy Pendergrass, both with Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes and solo on the still blissfully timeless Philadephia International label — and I’ll get to that — but it was Luther (do a I need a surname? I still remember large groups of white sox and loafer-clad lads roaming London in the mid 1980s chanting ‘Loofa.. Loofa..’) who heralded the arrival of the classic 1980s styled big soul men, men whose producers melded together big, soaring male soul voices, post-disco funk and burgeoning studio electronica. It was Luther who made it acceptable for so-called hard men to break down to the huge emotional soul ballads and epic synth-filled anthems that defined a big part of the edge of the 1980s.
In Auckland at least, it brought together a generation of white kids rolling away from the tail of the post-punk era and a whole new generation of South Auckland Polynesian kids who both grabbed it as central their to soundtrack.
By the end of 1983 the hipper clubs were filled with men — of all skin tones — dressed in double breasted suits, some immaculate, some simply garish 1
It was both fun, and it offered a happy respite from the standard male club uniform of denim and (T) shirt. Looking onto a dancefloor around 1986 one saw a sea of style — even if we laugh at those suits and shoulders now.
And yes, many of the lyrics — romance, sex, fast cars, expensive anything and so on — made us all grimace as much then as we do now. But it was, to borrow, about the vibe.… and the voice. And nobody grimaced to Luther. Nobody.
We swooned to the music, and — more — Luther and the rest changed the way we sang and constructed vocal tracks in the much of the music we made thereafter, such being the nature of urban soundtracks, whether we knew it or not at the time. The stylised soul vocal had really made little impact in New Zealand before the 1980s — we hadn’t really bought large quantities of the deeper styled male soul in the years since the end of the 1960s and even then the experience was largely blues or pop-soul (Motown). I well remember Philly albums sitting unloved and unwanted in the 50c bins in the mid to late 1970s. Bobby Womack? Who?
Luther and the soul men played a big part in changing that.
And then Luther died — quite some years after the scene was gone — but, still, I had one message from an old friend who simply said, “He really was why, wasn’t he?” And he kinda was, and — more — the broad cultural reverberations that Luther and the soul men bought to the city I was a part of when they bought us all together still remain largely unrecognised. There’s more to this — much more — and it’s one of the crucial elements of Pasifika as it fused with Aotea that still remains unexplored. It was about the music.
This isn’t the time to pursue that, but for no other reason that I had a Luther an extended Luther YouTube flashback today and I thought I’d throw up a few videos for and of the eighties soul men.….
Tashan recorded a couple of albums for Def Jam in the middle part of the decade when Russell Simmons decided that if Rick could sign metal, he could sign soul.
The first album was the one, and this, the title track from it, Chasing a Dream, is a bonafide lost 80s classic.
From the same album, Got The Right Attitude.
There was a time when the name Lillo Thomas was almost whispered. He was the man — and true soulboys simply nodded in quiet agreement when records like I’m In Love were talked of. Never a big star, his records were hugely sought, but none more than:
Downtown. If you didn’t get this — or even know of this — you weren’t a true member of the clan. The 12″ was semi-sacred and awfully hard to get hold of. This, sadly, ain’t it, but it’s still a monster of the genre in any format.
Will Downing managed one listenable album before heading off into 90’s schlock but here, with a vocal reworking of Coltrane’s Love Supreme, he’s quite something.
This is obscure as hell and opens with a ridiculously tacky “Sweet and tender lady” line before moving into a vocal that owes a hefty debt to Al Green. Will King came out of the same stable as the mighty Gap Band and you can hear that too here.
I’m not sure if he really belongs in this post, given that I have no idea what or who he was beyond that, but it has the obligatory vocal swoops half way through and for that reason, it stays.
Eugene Wilde arrived with a couple of dancefloor hits (as Simplicious) before releasing this song, Gotta Get You Home Tonight — a tune that was almost inescapable around ’85. Lyrical references to Dom Perignon gave it extra soulboy credentials.
I love Alexander O’Neal. To quote one of the wonderfully ridiculous interludes from his second album ‘Alex, baby, Alex’ was second only to Luther in the pecking order.
A former member of the same band that produced Prince, his Jam & Lewis produced albums straddled Minneapolis funk and deep soul. This tune, from his debut — with Cherelle — is best heard in its fabulous eleven-minute 12″ mix. But this will have to do…
And another, from the first, self-titled, album. This Soul Train take of What’s Missing is pretty rough, but you get the suit effect — and it’s still a hell of a tune. Alex used a double bed as a stage prop. You can’t get much more soulboy than that.
Chuck Stanley was Russell Simmons’ second soul signing to Def Jam but large parts of his pretty decent debut album seem to be missing from the ‘net. This video, of a track off that longplayer, is worth it for the suit. Nice tune too.
Curtis Hairston jumped from label to label any never really managed any substantial commercial success — but in downtown Auckland, this song kinda hit briefly and The Morning After became yet another hugely sought after 12″ single.
I loved the first Keith Sweat album, produced by the still-in-his-teens Teddy Riley wunderkid. This remake of the old Dramatics tune In The Rain is still rather special.
To Luther. There are a million Loofa vids on the net so I chose a couple that reflect lessor known tracks first up. The radio (and 12″ mixes) of The Rush were remixed by David Morales in his classic organic Def Mix style and feature an uncredited pianist (maybe Eric Kupper or Peter Daou).
The 12″ mix of this rocks.
And Heaven Knows, perfectly re-produced by Morales’ legendary partner, Frankie Knuckles, with Terry Burrus on piano.
One more, just because I can: Never Too Much live
Finally, for a bit of fun, a mini-doco on the David Bowie and Luther Vandross connection:
As one of the talking heads points out, Young Americans actually sounds like a Luther Vandross record as much as a Bowie release, and you only have to listen to the Luther version of Bowie’s Fascination (from the Young Americans album), which Luther wrote and recorded as Funky Music, to get that connection even more precisely:
There were others of course: Freddy Jackson sold a lot of records but was just too lightweight and his producer Paul Laurence lacked substance.
Since I’m getting all watery around the eyes about retrospective old soul music that simply does it, I might offer a plug for the absolutely incredible Philadelphia International Re-Edits collection, wherein tracks that any reasonable ageing soul purist would insist were sacrilege and untouchable are successfully dissected, reworked and reassembled by a bunch of relative unknowns.
Try the reworking of the grossly overplayed — it’s become a desperation tool for countless struggling bar or party DJs — Ain’t No Stopping Us Now (reworked by Noodleman):
Or the the absolutely lovely stroll through Harold Melvin’s Wake Up Everybody as reconstructed by DJ Apt One:
And if that isn’t enough, at the time of writing I’m eagerly checking the mailbox daily for the just released 4 disc set of Tom Moulton remixes, expanding upon the perfectly named 1977 album, Philadelphia Classics, itself about as close to perfection as it’s possible to get on double vinyl.
There go the post-punk credentials…