Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Tuning Out, Tuning In, Turning On

About eight months ago a black quartet from Chicago, the Chi-Lites, released a five-minute single called, "Have You Seen Her?" I'm sure you heard it even though you weren't trying. I did, and I was trying not to, having decided that the record was the nightmare of radio programmers, a tune-out. Whenever I heard the first bars--strangely, it was the maudlin chorus that registered, not the bizarre contrapuntal guitar distortion I hear now--I would jab the station selector on my car radio in search of something with more drive.

Somehow, though, my dissatisfaction escaped the ratings people--programmers have nightmares about tune-outs, not rock critics. Brunswick Records issued "Have You Seen Her?" on demand after it was played off the group's album by soul deejays and covered by a few minor artists. The label still believes the single killed LP sales, but it must have been worth it. "Have You Seen Her?" smashed to No. 1, and unlike the Chi-Lites' previous hit, "Give More Power to the People," it was as popular with white kids as with blacks.

Not that "Give More Power to the People," which went Top 10 nationally, lacked broad appeal. Touching on all the deplorable economic inequities, mixing wisdom and commonplaces, it was basically a vocal showcase. It featured a somewhat anachronistic bass part that quoted from "Get On Up," by a Chicago group, called the Esquires, which had used a bass hook on their big hit in 1967. The follow-up, "We Are Neighbors," was more confusing. In its first nine words, which were spoken, it managed to refer to both Amos 'n' Andy and an arguably racist knock-knock joke, then went on to undermine its own cornmeal platitudes--"If everybody looked the same/We'd get tired of looking at each other"--with its refrain: "We are neighbors/Whether we want to be or not." It was not a major success, less because of its political ambiguity, since AM music is full of anomalies if you seek them out, than because it wasn't very catchy.

These records sought their audience by following a fashion, the political music of the Impressions and late Motown, although musically the Chi-Lites were closer to the Dells, the veteran Chicago group that plays everywhere from the soul circuit to the Royal Box. The Chi-Lites had been scuffling around for a decade themselves without much success. Eugene Record, the leader, who sings first tenor, writes most of the material and produces, made his living driving a cab. Significant output: some local hits, a song called "Give It Away" that rose to 88 in six weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1969, a follow-up that went to 94 in three, and two albums. Yet they kept on getting better. Record says that when they got together they did only romantic ballads because they couldn't dance, a prerequisite for black, up-tempo groups. By the mid-'60s, they had moved on to fast stuff. "Give It Away" was somewhere in between, a step or two slower than "Give More Power to the People."

"Have You Seen Her?" brought the group back to ballads. Although the song was written three years ago, Brunswick was reluctant to record it because of its length; in 1969, three-minute cuts were still the rule on soul radio. About that time, however, several artists (including the Dells) began to challenge that standard, and by 1971 long songs were common. A lament for a lost girlfriend recited by Record with choral accompaniment, "Have You Seen Her?" was strictly a teen hit, the kind that inspires slow dancing at youth centers. Even though it was anything but abrasive or funky, it never cracked the adult easy-listening stations, and for at least one FM rock programmer, the Chi-Lites symbolized schlock. As I've said I couldn't stand it either, its sentimentality seemed unsupported by rhythm or melody.

But I've changed my mind. If "Have You Seen Her?" was a tune-out, the follow-up "Oh Girl," quickly became a turn-on. I don't know how my infatuation began--better melody, I guess, which is also why the song is picking up white cover versions and leaping up the easy-listening charts--but every time I hear that wonderful, outlandish harmonica I reach for my volume knob. And suddenly I can hear the Chi-Lites, the most extreme example of a trend I call Soul Music Meets the Women's Movement. The Chi-Lites persona is into love, not sex, and he is not even competent to find it: "I don't know where to look for love/And I just don't know how." The only teacher is a woman. He'll "try to be hip" and exploit her, but she is strong and proud and rejects him because of it. He is devastated.

Despite exceptions like Smokey Robinson, rock and roll usually implies an identification of male sexuality and aggression, so it's no wonder that hip whites dislike this music. But the Chi-Lites stereotype, which Record freely admits is unrealistic, is no less realistic than Wilson Pickett's man-and-a-half and considerably more to the point than the posturings of all but the most effective long-haired male supremacists. It just has different uses. A friend who works in a teen center complains that such a myth leads to ugly, frustrated marriages, and I suppose he's right, but there's truth in the feeling, and it touches me. Anyway, writing a column is like being your own AM programmer. I've played the Chi-Lites' latest album, A Lonely Man, a dozen times in the past week, and you know, I like just about everything on it.

N'day, June 11, 1972

Postscript Notes:

Missing 2 capsule reviews