Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Soul Evolvers

The titans are elsewhere. Sam Cooke died before soul music knew its name, Otis Redding died before he became a god, and the style's three greatest (and most uncategorizable) artists--Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown--have for decades pursued callings so boundless some fools think them without meaning. Joe Tex, Sam and Dave, and Wilson Pickett are out of sight, Al Green plays footsie with the big bad secular wolf from his gospel haven, and the likes of Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, and Smokey Robinson, church-trained biz fixtures who seemed soul enough 20 years ago, are dismissed as pop.

But floating in on a river of reissues--better the heroic obscurities of Peter Guralnick and Joe McEwen's Sweet Soul Music: Voices From the Shadows than the exorbitant Booker T. and the M.G.'s showcase that is The Complete Stax-Volt Singles; better the remastered Immortal Otis Redding than the unearthed Remember Me--is a whole raft of keep-on-keeping-on. Although the new product by Solomon Burke, James Carr, Otis Clay, Tyrone Davis, Ben E. King, Ann Peebles, Johnnie Taylor, Irma Thomas, and God knows who else has barely charted, it signifies an artistic vitality and commercial viability that seemed unlikely to survive the crossover strategy typified by Taylor's embarrassing "Disco Lady" in 1976. If this be nostalgia, it's not the good-old-days condescension that flowered so rankly around The Commitments, a superb novel transformed into a pretty good movie cross-marketed with a damnable soundtrack.

The problem with the soundtrack, of course, was that it induced impressionable moviegoers to buy their "authenticity" secondhand. The reality, honesty, and so forth of those competently imitated vocals and rhythms seemed like home only because older, subtler, and less Caucasian artists--artists whose recorded music if not warm bodies remained available to anyone with the will to go shopping--had struggled long ago to get them over. Nor are such offenses limited to white people. I prefer the Commitments, who at least exude the grease of commerce, to Ry Cooder frontmen Bobby King and Terry Evans, who mimic the usages of transcendent genius and functional culture on two negligible Rounder albums. When Carla Thomas regales Tramps with a smarmy medley of "Little Red Rooster," "Spirit in the Dark," and "Sing Me Back Home," I get out of there before she finishes "Stand by Me." And when Ann Peebles skirts the details of her own artistic evolution on St. Louis Woman (With a Memphis Melody), the autobiography that's supposed to anchor her comeback album, she obscures how thoroughly she inhabits Robert Ward's "Fear No Evil" and the Rolling Stones' "Miss You," how neatly Dennis Walker's "Bouncin' Back" adduces her long absence from the scene with a soulful evocation of marital limbo.

I don't want to disrespect Carla Thomas, who came across as an exceptionally decent woman at CMJ last fall. But for all its from-the-heart ideology, soul is an aesthetic construct, and though Carla the person may be everything she seems, Carla the artist will be remembered for a couple of lucky songs and the bravura leads, harmonies, and backtalk of Otis and Carla's King and Queen--which if you believe Redding's report that she overdubbed them were a great moment in the history of showbiz, simulated spontaneity for the pop annals. Because this kind of historical detail is obviously inimical to nostalgia, Thomas's medley was designed not to reveal underlying stylistic similarities but to dissolve all roots-pop distinctions in a mist of reminiscence, bagging Aretha and Merle only after felling Howlin' Wolf, Sam Cooke, and the Stones with one shot. As Peebles likes to say: "I don't remember just how it happened/And I don't remember how it started/But music and I got together one day/And I knew we would never be parted."

Yet to their credit, the soulkeepers rarely stoop to such stratagems--in their various ways they just go out and sing. They get away with this because the style retains a sizable indigenous audience. Their base market resembles country's in its ingrained formalism and regional loyalty and is much larger than that of blues, with which soul fused so tellingly on Z.Z. Hill's Down Home, a major hit on Southern sales alone that established Mississippi's Malaco label in 1981. By continuing to take a profit on such standbys as Taylor and Denise LaSalle, Malaco revived the Stax formula now purified by Cambridge/New Orleans's Bullseye Blues with Peebles and Clay, computerized by Atlanta's Ichiban with Davis and King, and emulated by Memphis's Goldwax with Carr. None of these records is great, and the Ichibans are worse--King has always been a bit of an opportunist, Davis a bit of a plodder. But they don't smell of embalming fluid. They speak to listeners who treasure soul's once brazen meld of blues immanence, gospel transcendence, and rock and roll hootchy-koo because its ethos of common sense and uncommon feeling remains the bedrock of their lives, not because they romanticize prepostmodernism or the civil rights era or a youth they didn't have the stuff to follow through on.

Brought to us by the same Rounder tradmongers who've turned the overexposure of New Orleans into a cottage industry (Irma Thomas's corny nightclub album, Johnny Adams's prosaic Doc Pomus tribute, more bluesmen than you can count without a catalogue), Peebles's Full Time Love and Clay's I'll Treat You Right are backed by the Hi Rhythm Section and imagined for the base market rather than the kneejerk humanists of contemporary folkiedom. Sure kneejerk humanists have their uses--Solomon Burke's two mid-'80s Rounder albums avoid the liberal schmaltz that wrecks Bizarre/Straight's Home Land, and Rounder's Black Top affiliate commissioned Robert Ward's Fear No Evil, the solidest soul album since Down Home. But I bet it was the soul faithful who inspired Rounder's Ron Levy to get that groove out of the Hi guys. Never straying into the bad faith of the old studio hand with a jazz gig on the side, it's deeper and crisper than anything those popwise Muscle Shoals boys lay onto Taylor's (I Know It's Wrong, but I . . . ) Just Can't Do Right, yet at the same time trickier than Hi's '70s norm. Malaco's mainstay since Hill died in 1984, Taylor's unfailingly pleasant records just don't peak like his Stax hits, while the best of Full Time Love seems of a piece with Peebles's 1971 Part Time Love (that's right, her great period preceded "I Can't Stand the Rain") despite its attempt to make a theme out of her long conjugal partnership with songwriter Don Bryant (in soul even more than other pop, the aggrieved lover gets the best tunes). And Clay's minor legend, rooted in the gritty journeyman's steadfast Hi connection, has never seemed more credible than on I'll Treat You Right--especially when Levy adds an unforced AIDS verse to Lowell Fulson's "Thanks a Lot."

Those on the lookout for minor legends, however, would be better served by James Carr's Take Me to the Limit. Carr's voice is a great grave thing that doesn't so much interpret his best material as haunt it, and for as long as the songs here hold out the voice holds out too. I think that's how it works, anyway--somewhere around cut seven the proceedings thicken uncomfortably and then grind to a near halt. The voice was even stronger at Tramps in March, when he played New York for the first time in at least two decades. Since the rest of Carr's legend revolves around his long periods of seclusion--by all accounts a pathologically reluctant performer, he had to be pushed back out onstage midway through his set list--I attributed his undistanced commitment to the historical fact that he'd never sung his great songs into the ground, but now I suspect that some of those I thought I'd forgotten were new. "Take Me to the Limit" and "She's Already Gone" are squarely in the obsessive tradition of "Dark End of the Street," which belonged to him first.

But to call Carr's appearance the soul sighting of the year would be giving it up to an assumption I've let slide: the idea that soul means not any gospel-cured r&b but the Deep South strain of the Macon-Memphis-Muscle Shoals axis. For several reasons--the overwhelmingly Southern demographic of its most loyal audience, rank nostalgia for the admiring but paternalistic integration of every great Southern soul studio from Stax to Malaco, and the influence of Peter Guralnick's Memphis-based Sweet Soul Music, a more persuasive history than Gerri Hirshey's ecumenical Nowhere To Run and a more thorough one than Nelson George's sweeping The Death of Rhythm & Blues--this has become the standard view. Presumably, its guaranteed cultural conservatism doesn't bother settled core fans nor romantic nouveau folkies. But it bothers me. Odd, isn't it, that the nicest thing I can say about Ann Peebles is that she sounds as good as she did in 1971? Odd too that so many of the pop moves that turn soul purists off have originated with independent black artist-entrepreneurs. Think of Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield, the Isley Brothers. Think of Prince and Michael Jackson. Think of Motown.

That's why I got such a charge out of Swamp Dogg's visit to Tramps last month. Though his latest label was once Otis Redding's, Swamp Dogg was pure soul even more briefly than Patti LaBelle or Smokey Robinson. Having scored smalltime as Little Jerry Williams in 1966, he served as Atlantic's affirmative action program until his stomach couldn't take it any more, after which he recreated himself with the in-your-face black rock of Total Destruction to Your Mind. Among his semifamous productions are Irma Thomas's cult classic In Between Tears; his copyrights have been covered by Loretta Lynn, the Commodores, and Lester Bangs. Though he's been married to his business partner for almost 30 years, he's as hung up on fucking around as any of Malaco's Nashvillians manque, and he complains about racism a lot. Like most of his albums, Volt's current Surfin' in Harlem isn't quite undeniable. But Swamp Dogg has followed through on his youth. He's one of black music's most indomitable originals.

Swamp Dogg will be 50 next month. He looks something like a fireplug. But still sings like a fire siren, and he and his integrated band tore up the place with a slightly syncopated, rock-slanted groove. The power of his voice wasn't simply a matter of never having played out much. Adding to the excitement was that he was singing what was on his mind--a long apostrophe about drugs included the news that he had a daughter on crack--and that his mind wasn't immune to change. If this was soul, it certainly wasn't pure--Swamp Dogg isn't one for categories. But his version of John Prine's "Sam Stone" sure had a lot of common sense and uncommon feeling. Give credit to those who preserve their own reality, honesty, and so forth. But remember that those things evolve like everything else.

Village Voice, June 16, 1992