Black Music gets much love from across the pond year round
Words by James Walsh & Joseph ‘JP’ Patterson.
Photo: On January 24 1974, Soul singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder at London Airport with friend Yvonne Wright, who is using a new portable stereo. Wonder is in London to perform at the Rainbow Theatre. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images).
At the time of writing, Adele’s 21 album is currently the fourth biggest selling album of all time in the UK. It has won both a BRIT Award and Grammy Award for Album Of The Year but, perhaps, most impressive of all is that it sat atop the US Billboard charts for a whopping 24 weeks – becoming the biggest selling album in America in 2011 and 2012. Topping the chart in more than 30 countries and selling in excess of 25 million copies, Adele is now a global superstar. But it would be quite faulty on our parts not to mention that the former BRIT School student whose songs now have worldwide mass appeal is a singer inspired by black soul music. But what was it that made the British public so receptive to Adele, and why was it that the musical genre that has leant itself so well to her vocals struck a chord with her? Before understanding the UK’s fascination with black soul music and how the recent succession of female singers have crossed over so effortlessly, it’s important to first be aware of its own trajectory within music.
Having initially arose in the 1950s from a combination of gospel, jazz and blues, soul music was perpetuated by the most influential artists of that generation. Timeless musicians in the form of Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson helped the sound to materialize with popular hits including “I Got A Woman”, “Wonderful World” and “Lonely Teardrops”, respectively. The aforementioned pioneers of soul music helped see the rise of Motown artists – including Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, among many others – and popularised the likes of Otis Redding and James Brown. It was Brown who Michael Jackson always referred to as his own music inspiration and it is when understanding the sheer volume of artists today who credit Jackson as their own greatest influence that we get a full appreciation for just how much black soul has inspired.
Motown can largely be credited with taking soul music global on a consistently large scale. Their roster of artists, which included everyone from Wonder and Gaye to The Temptations and Diana Ross and The Supremes – were well-received in the UK, with twelve compilations known as Motown Chartbusters being released between 1967 and 1982, to much success. Northern soul was abound in 1970s England and, while it consisted of the Motown influence in sound, it tended to shy away from championing the more mainstream hits – with fans of the sub-genre tending to favour the lesser-known artists and the recordings that were in limited supply.
Sade, the UK’s first lady of soul, released the classic “Smooth Operator” from her Diamond Life debut album in 1984. The first mainstream crossover UK soul act wasn’t really until the success of Soul II Soul in 1989, with first their “Keep On Movin’” single reaching No. 5 – before following it up with their chart-topping track, “Back to Life (However Do You Want Me)”. From this point, the’ 90s saw some fairly successful crossover pop/soul acts. Back then, it was mainly women who were representing the most, and things haven’t changed much in that respect. Gabrielle, Mica Paris and Beverley Knight were all able to carve out long-standing careers as the first wave of UK soul singers to have popular mainstream hits on a regular basis.
However, the turning point for the UK’s real success within black soul music can be pinpointed at October 20, 2003. The release date of 20-year-old Amy Winehouse’s debut, Frank. While 2006′s Back To Black was undoubtedly the more successful of the two and brought about five Grammy wins, including Best New Artist, Record Of The Year and Song Of The Year, Frank marked the moment that UK soul music “became a legitimate thing” (Jamie Lidell, MTV IGGY, Feb 2013). As the torchbearers of soul music for so long, the US took to Amy Winehouse in a way that was, perhaps, unseen before – with, maybe, the exception of the quintessentially beautiful soul singer, Sade. The success Winehouse’s albums enjoyed confirmed that the American audience was approving the sound coming from UK soul artists, and this ultimately paved the way for Adele’s transition to be, as she refers to it herself, “a bit smoother” (People Magazine, 2012).
Indeed, this path was not smoother just for Adele, but a whole host of UK female singers who have emitted tracks of such soulful sympathies they’ve gone on to be embraced by an American audience. Joss Stone, Duffy, Paloma Faith, Marsha Ambrosius and Estelle have all achieved chart success first in the UK and then on a wider scale across the pond. Jay-Z credited Winehouse with revitalizing British soul music, saying “this resurgence was ushered in by Amy” (BBC, 2011), while SPIN’s Music Editor, Charles Aaron, has been on record as saying “Amy Winehouse was the Nirvana moment for all these women.” However, it is Keith Caulfield, Billboard’s Chart Manager, who sums it up best: “Because of Amy, or lack thereof, the marketplace was able to get singers like Adele and Duffy” (Daily News, 2011).
The beautiful thing about black soul music, and indeed all music——Black History Month in the US or not— is that it can be enjoyed by anyone and everyone, regardless of class, race, age and gender. It’s a song’s power to be emotive and resonate deeply, but no form of music does this more so than that which comes from the soul. The common thread running through the music of these artists is the winning combination of voice, lyrics, songs and that tangible quality of soul, as it’s that what makes a song real to its listener. In an era where pop, though not quite as bubblegum as ten years ago, still sells and holds a grip on the market, soul music has an authenticity to it that means so much to so many.
While 21 continues to sell and sell, the UK takeover is not finished there. Laura Mvula, Lianne La Havas, Syron, Delilah, Katy B, Purple Ferdinand and Jessie Ware are the batch of soul singers next in line. Ware is the first to take the initial steps with the Stateside release of “If You’re Never Gonna Move” with shows in LA and New York. Perhaps the good news is there’s also, for the first time, an influx of UK male soul singers ready to see if they’re to be embraced by our Trans-Atlantic cousins in the same way the fairer sex have.
Josh Osho has already recorded with the legendary Ghostface Killah, while Michael Kiwanuka echoes the originators of soul music in his calm, measured, powerful tones and heartfelt lyrics. Shakka, who recently released “Sooner Or Later”, is also one to watch on the UK soul front, while Manchester-born Daley’s startlingly pure falsetto has seen him travel to America to regularly perform – having seen his track with Marsha Ambrosius, “Alone Together”, build a welcoming fanbase. The abundance of new UK artists, who are vocally engaging and lyrically compelling, is refreshing to see and it’s only a matter of time before they’re sitting pretty in the global charts alongside the likes of Anthony Hamilton, Musiq Soulchild and Mary J Blige.
Want more music from the UK? Take a deep dive with MTV Iggy here.