Bring the church singers back to R&B.
Where are the real vocalists who grew up shoutin for Jesus?
I joke about this all the time, that we don’t have superstar R&B girls really doing any heavy lifting in the vocal department these days because nobody goes to church anymore, so there aren’t any real singers out here who grew up hollering for Jesus in a pew.
(For anybody thinking this will be a Christian propaganda piece — I’m an atheist. I just appreciate a strong vocalist and I love gospel music rooted in the Black church.)
Anyway…today, I really got to thinking about church singers because I was randomly wondering how old Gladys Knight is and that made me wonder how old Patti Labelle is.
I cannot tell you why either of those things popped into my head, but they did, and since we all have a computer in our pocket, I looked it up. Turns out, Patti Labelle is exactly 4 days older than Gladys Knight, so the last week of May in 1944 deserves some kind of federal recognition for its service to R&B music in general.
Knowing what I know about soul music from back in the day, it struck me once again how young those singers were and how it doesn’t feel like we have any vocal equivalents in the music industry really making any waves. There are no 20somethings putting out hits who could stand next to a 20 year old Patti or Gladys, so I wanted to dig up some clips of early performances by some of the greats over the years.
Tina Turner, 21 years old
In 1960, Ike & Tina Turner got their first big hit with “Fool in Love” and the band made the rounds performing on the popular television shows of the day. The sound quality isn’t the best so some of her vocals are drowned out by the backing instrumentation, but the power and stage presence are evident.
Aretha Franklin, 21 years old
Aretha was the daughter of a pastor, so to say she grew up singing in the church is an understatement. When she turned 18, she left gospel music to try her luck in the secular arena, and it was a few years before she really hit her stride. Here she is in 1963 singing “Skylark,” an old jazz standard from the 40s. It’s not the soul music she would become famous for, but the vocal talent is undeniable.
Patti LaBelle, 22 years old
This video of Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles is from 1966, which means Patti has been singing “Over the Rainbow” for over 50 years. She grew this song into one of her signature iconic tunes, and all the building blocks were already there at 22.
Gladys Knight, 23 years old
I’ve seen this clip of Gladys Knight & The Pips singing “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” many, many times, but I always assumed she was younger because she looks so fresh and bubbly. (No really, she looks like a cheerleader on the way to a sock hop and I’m obsessed.) She was 23 in this clip, but the timbre of her voice is very much giving that of a woman twice her age.
Evelyn “Champagne” King, 17 years old
Speaking of timbre….close your eyes and listen to “Shame.” Evelyn was a high school student when she was overheard singing one night by a producer at Philadelphia International Records where her mother cleaned the offices. She was signed and then recorded this disco classic when she was 16 years old.
Whitney Houston, 20 years old
Clive Davis signed Whitney Houston in 1983, but it was a couple of years before an album came out. He recognized her talent and didn’t want to let Whitney slip through his fingers, but he took his time collecting the right material for her after she signed on the dotted line. This clip from the Merv Griffin Show was her introduction to the world, singing “Home” from The Wiz, but it was just a small glimpse at the greatness to come.
Mariah Carey, 21 years old
Mariah Carey’s technique isn’t quite as rooted in the gospel music of the Black church as Patti or Whitney, but that’s who she takes her cues from. These are the singers she looked up to, and it’s reflected in her delivery and ad libs. Once she freed herself from Tommy, she was able to more firmly cement herself into R&B music, but she was already a singer for real vocalists from the jump.
Deborah Cox, 21 years old
By the time Deborah hit it big with “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here,” she was already 24, which is past the cut off in my mind for an ingenue with a big voice. However, her first album was released when she was 21 years old and she was already a big balladeer in the tradition of Whitney (who she would go on to portray on Broadway as well as provide the vocals for in the Lifetime biopic). I can’t find a great live clip of “Where Do We Go From Here?” but the album version is worth a listen if you’ve never heard it.
Tamia, 20 years old
Tamia Marilyn Washington Hill (I love her so much, y’all don’t even know!) was just 19 years old when she recorded one of my favorite ballads of all time, and she had three Grammy nominations by 21, before she even released her first album. “You Put A Move On My Heart” was originally recorded by Mica Paris (who did a bang up job), but it will forever be a Tamia classic to me.
KeKe Wyatt, 19 years old
There aren’t a whole lot of clips of KeKe singing live from the beginning of her career………..because she stabbed her husband and was indicted for assault right after her first album came out. It was a self-defense case and she didn’t go to jail, but she earned an unfair reputation due to the coverage. Still, she’s one of the most impressive R&B singers of our generation, because not everybody can tackle a Patti LaBelle cover. I put the album track first and then a clip of a performance from a few years ago because I feel like everybody needs to witness the breath support and control she still has after twenty years in the game (and ten kids).
Monica, 15 years old
Monica came on the scene at 14 with a voice that was 44. Today, she sounds exactly the way she did in 10th grade, because she always sounded like an old church lady.
Beyonce, 22 years old
Beyonce wasn’t my favorite singer in the first half of her career. I feel like she hit her stride vocally once she started utilizing more of the bottom half of her range. Still, she names The Clark Sisters as major influences in her singing technique, and she’s one of the last superstar holdouts from this vocal style.
So why aren’t the big vocalists still making waves in the industry? The ones who have this kind of talent (eg. Jazmine Sullivan) don’t hit the commercial highs of previous generations, and the talented vocalists at the top of the charts (eg. Ariana Grande) don’t have the power and delivery of the church singers we grew up with. Not to make it too simple, but I do blame modern technology and autotune.
If you were listening to a new record in 1961 and somebody sang the stuffing out of it, you know they were in the studio hitting it out of the park. It might have required a few takes, but that vocal on the record is the vocal that came out of their mouths. You looked forward to hearing that vocalist live. If you’re listening to a new record in 2021, maybe that’s how the vocalist sounds and maybe not. Maybe the final product was spliced and diced from a lot of different takes.
And maybe it’s autotune.
It’s not as important to be a good vocalist, so the music is less focused on the singer and more focused on the production (and the image). We also have a generation of listeners accustomed to hearing autotune in their music, so potentially great vocalists have gotten lazy. They don’t do it until it’s right — they do it until it’s good enough, and if the autotune is noticeable, who cares?
K. Michelle can sing her ass off. I love so much of her music including “V.S.O.P.” but I hate that you can hear the autotune. Listen to this song, which really is an example of modern soul excellence, tainted by so much autotune really from 2:40 on out.
The latest unnecessary offender comes from an unlikely source, but it’s the one currently on my mind: Candiace from the Real Housewives of Potomac. She’s released a surprisingly solid R&B single to capitalize on her reality TV popularity, but unlike other Housewives, she’s going the Serious Artist route as opposed to being a cash-grab gimmick. This song has production, the video has budget, and the singer has talent. But it also has autotune for no reason at all, because Candiace could absolutely perfect this vocal without studio help if she wanted to.
We’ve come so far past autotune being used as a necessary tool to correct bad singers that even good singers use it stylistically, which further cheapens the art of delivering a good vocal. The listeners don’t care as much about whether you can sing as long as the final product is good. So, nobody needs to grow up singing in the church anymore. Jesus had the girls hitting every note, but now they just hit some of them and pray to autotune instead.
90s R&B Girl Groups Playlist
Every song I like from every R&B girl group of the 90s.
The Xscape / SWV Verzuz prompted me to make a playlist of all the songs I like from R&B girl groups of the 90s. It’s in chronological order, so it’s a good progression of sounds and trends, from En Vogue “Hold On” to En Vogue “Riddle”
If your jam is missing, it might not be on Spotify (Pure Soul “We Must Be In Love” Brownstone “5 Miles to Empty” etc.) but lemme know if I skipped some groups!
(Also, I think I might expand into the 2000s a bit? Cherish and ISYSS and groups like that fit right in, and I want more Destiny’s Child.)
((AlsoAlso, the Spotify embed stops at 100 songs, but there are over twice that many on it. It’s an extensive overview!))
Ultimate Christmas Party
Bops ONLY! No ballads!
I love Christmas music!
No sarcasm either. I worked retail for the better part of a decade and it didn’t make me hate holiday season at all — but it gave me a lot of Christmas Bops! The thing that I don’t like about most Christmas playlists is when you’re at a party and you have a good vibe going and then somebody’s overly ad-libbed version of “Silent Night” or “O Come Emmanuel” comes on and drags the mood down.
So this is a Christmas Party Playlist — bops only, no ballads. I tried to group the songs together by genre so you could skip a section if that’s not your sound, but it roughly goes from Gospel to R&B to Pop to Rock to Country and I feel like you should just put it on shuffle for your Ugly Christmas Party and have a ball.
And! For the heathens who like some secular music sprinkled in, there’s a Deluxe version that has a non-holiday bop for every Christmas song.
(For those who are asking, I didn’t make a Christmas Wishlist this year because I’ll be moving in a few months and I don’t need anything until we see what our space is like. Send good vibes and do something nice for somebody!)
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