Category Archives: Being 20 Series

Being 20: Spotlight on Teena Marie

If anyone decides to put together a “greatest blue-eyed soul singers of all time” list, Teena Marie would most likely come out on top. So, I thought to spotlight her in the Being 20 series (or being 21 or 23).  What exactly was Teena Marie doing around David’s present age, and why does she come to my mind when I think of David’s soul-singing potential?

Well, when Teena Marie (born Mary Christine Brockert) was 20 years old, she caught the attention of folks at Motown Record.  She had formed her own band, growing up in Venice, California, and established an R&B soul style.  However, Berry Gordy had no interest in signing bands and decided to sign Teena Marie as a solo act.  While being mentored and developed at Motown, she caught the attention of Rick James, who was establishing himself in 1970s soul funk music.  Teena Marie was 23 when she released her debut album in 1979, Wild and Peaceful. What’s most interesting about this debut album? Her portrait is nowhere on the album cover.

Yep, Motown didn’t know quite how to “market” a white artist to a black soul-loving audience.  As a result, when audiences heard songs like “I’m Just a Sucker for Your Love,” they assumed that Teena Marie was a black woman.  That is, until she showed up on Soul Train:

I imagine it’s hard for us to wonder why race would ever play a role in marketing music artists to audiences, but consider the stereotypical, often offensive images used to market early African American artists on “Race Records” to a racially segregated society in the 1920s or how someone like Elvis Presley basically had to “whitewash” rock music, becoming a marketable “white boy who can sing colored.” In other words, music labels always had to rely on white music artists to “mainstream” black music, from blues to jazz to rock-n-roll.  Teena Marie was unique in that she was someone whose sound wasn’t “white enough” to mainstream black music. Her sound was “too black,” so to speak, and so her racial identity was actually covered up by her record label!  Why is race an issue when it comes to promoting artists to certain audiences?

Indeed, even today, certain artists are limited to racial music categories, as had occurred with The Voice’s season 1 winner Javier Colon, whose interest is pop/rock music, not R&B, and yet his album was erroneously released as an R&B album.  This is where labels get very lazy with convenient labeling. I’m sure such mislabeling helped to get Colon dropped (or is it “parted ways”?) from his label.

At the same time, it’s interesting that while certain artists are pigeon-holed into genres, others can cash in on “black culture,” a la the “blue-eyed soul singers” of late, like Justin Bieber or Justin Timberlake or Robin Thicke or John Mayer, whose versions of “soul” make me roll my eyes so hard, I could go blind from the effort.

Obviously, an artist like Teena Marie, whose soul-singing credentials are a staple among black audiences, has established reverse cross-over in music, so much so that her music is often sampled for hip-hop tracks more than any other white female artist – given that Teena Marie gave us perhaps the first female-rapped song, “Square Biz” (my favorite roller disco song!).

Something else: when she was 26, Teena Marie also established a law called “The Brockert Initiative,” which made it illegal for record labels to not release new material by artists and which gives artists the right to release new music with other labels that are willing to support them. That came out in 1982 when she warred against Motown and eventually left the label for Epic Records, a label that now includes perhaps the most recognized blue-eyed soul singer in Adele.

Despite her early death at age 54 in 2010, Teena Marie helped to lay some important music business foundations for artists like David. More than that, she laid the foundation for soul-singing artists to find different kinds of diverse audiences.

I’m still one of those Archies who is a die-hard fan of “Soul David.” What I would give to hear him do more “Ribbon in the Sky” type songs, which I personally think would put any of the current “blue-eyed soul singers” to shame.  Maybe it’s because an artist like Teena Marie set the bar high on white soul-singers, I know “soulful soul” non-black soul-singing singers when I hear them.

Too bad David’s team convinced him that there was no potential market in that chosen genre while he performed on American Idol (apparently he was told to avoid his “Soul Man from Utah” persona to develop “inspirational David” instead).

Maybe one day, when David returns to music, he’ll get his groove back.

Being 21: Spotlight on Bob Marley

Last night, I went to the movies to see the recently released documentary film, Marley, exploring the life of the legendary reggae artist Bob Marley, the most famous Jamaican in the world, even though he died of cancer at the young age of 36 in 1981.

His life story, which begins in the impoverished St. Ann parish on the island of Jamaica, made me think he would make a great feature for my defunct “Being 20” series here at Soul David. Remember back when we were all hand-wringing over David’s stalled career and how I tried to put things into a larger perspective by reminding y’all how David, at age 20, still had time on his hands?  I showed this by highlighting what music legends did when they were David’s age.

Well, David is now 21 and hanging out in Chile doing his Mormon missionary thing, and I feel the need to give this series a reboot. Except, now that David is 21, I’m calling the series “Being 21.”

And since Bob Marley is still fresh in my mind, I’d like to start with what this legendary musician was doing when he was “David’s age.”

Here’s an interesting parallel to being with: when Bob Marley was 17, he recorded his very first single, “Judge Not,” with his stepbrother Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh. Hmmm, kinda like how David recorded his first single “Crush” at age 17! :)

Afterwards, Bob Marley and his forming group, eventually to be called The Wailers, would be discovered by Kingston record producer Coxsone Dodd, who felt they weren’t ready yet to perform before live audiences. He made them practice, practice, practice for two years performing at local events – from small churches to local clubs, even to “de Duppy dem” in the cemetery (that’s ghosts for those of you who are non-Jamaican-patois-speaking). Singing in the cemetery at 2 in the morning, their producer told them, would toughen them up and help them conquer their fears about performing before a live audience! :P

By the time Bob was 21, The Wailers trickled down to form a trio of himself, Bunny Wailer, and Peter Tosh, and Bob’s mother encouraged him to marry his girlfriend Rita, which he did (see top photo), just before leaving for the United States in Whilmington, Delaware looking for work and other opportunities.  While in exile away from Jamaica, Bob Marley worked on an assembly line for Chrysler while developing his musical skills (an obsession for him – sound familiar?). He also started becoming more religious (again, sound familiar?) and began exploring the Rastafarian religion.

Returning to Jamaica, Bob started branching out into new sounds, left his record producer and teamed up with a different studio, run by Lee “Scratch” Perry, while his wife Rita and two other women formed the back-up singing group, I-Three.  This is a period that many Marley enthusiasts recognize as the finest work The Wailers ever created, and keep in mind, this is well before Bob Marley became iconic.

Things didn’t really take off until he and The Wailers toured in London and were discovered by Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records (you know, that same label that features Rihanna and Justin Bieber today? Um, yeah, what a decline music has seen!).  Some of the members of the band didn’t appreciate not getting paid for an extended tour in England, but Bob Marley – forever a visionary – went along with Blackwell’s plan, for he knew that exposure beats pay any day of the week. Granted, Bob Marley was never really about pay as he was about the music (again – sound familiar?).

Eventually, Blackwell enabled their international audience, and years later, Bob Marley would be able to team up with legends like Stevie Wonder.  Even as Bob Marley became an international icon throughout the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa, he still needed to breakthrough in the U.S. market.  He had an opportunity to do so when he “opened” (that’s right – opened!) for The Commodores at a concert in Madison Square Gardens in 1980 (see right pic).  When Bob’s band thought it was an insult to be reduced to an opening act, Bob Marley remained humble and saw the opportunity to be introduced to an American audience.  Sure enough, it worked! And the rest, as they say, is history.

Sadly, Bob Marley would be diagnosed with stage-4 cancer at age 35, and he died a year later.  Imagine, had he kept having routine medical checkups, had he not spent so much time giving of himself, reaching an international audience, and just living his life, he’d still be with us.  At the same time, look at the legacy he left behind with his short time on earth. He is survived by his wife Rita and eleven children (by seven different women altogether! Yep, he was a “chick magnet” and had a certain charisma with the ladies – like so many rock stars).

What I do see as some interesting parallels between Bob Marley and David is their musical obsessions, humility, and a deep-rooted sense of spirituality (Rastafarianism in his case, Mormonism in David’s).  But more than anything, it’s fascinating to me how, when he was just 21 years old, Bob Marley was adjusting to marriage, surviving economically on menial jobs, and finding his musical identity.  He had yet to become the Bob Marley we would all know and cherish 31 years after his passing on this earth. The movie was truly illuminating, and I highly recommend you go see it if it’s playing in a theater near you.

“Redemption Song” is one of Bob Marley’s last songs recorded, meditating as he does on his mortality and continuing in his consciousness-raising songwriting values:

Being 20: Spotlight on Stevie Wonder

It was very telling to me when David, during Beatles week, chose to do a Stevie Wonder version of the Beatles’ song, “We Can Work It Out.”  He’s a soul man through and through! (That’s why I knew, when Jive tried to turn him into teen pop, that they wouldn’t know soul if it hit them in the face.)  Stevie Wonder is also hard to cover, if you’re not going to do a ballad, and David was bold to take on this song, so this choice also revealed to me his courage very early in the competition.

And David did so in a high-pressured environment when Stevie is hard on a good day!

When I say Stevie is hard, I’m actually referring to his complicated musical notes, which are all over the piano keyboard.  When I was playing piano and “graduated” from Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, to finally being able to tell my piano teacher that I wanted to play more “modern” songs, he asked me what I wanted to play, and I said: “Stevie Wonder”!

Good Jesus, Lord!  Whatever made me think I could do Stevie, after doing Mozart?  I’m telling you: all the B-flats and D-sharps were cuh-razy!  It took me an entire season to master “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” And if it’s hard to do Stevie on piano, whatever could you do on vocals?  So, David – despite flubbing the lyrics and making a mess of “We Can Work it Out” (see, the Beatles’ version wasn’t that hard) – earned my mad respect.  And, of course, reading in Chords of Strength how Stevie Wonder is one of David’s idols, I’m dying to hear David do a proper cover of any number of Stevie Wonder’s hits (he already gave us “I Just Called to Say I Loved You” on a ring tone – haha!). How about “Lately,” or “Ribbon in the Sky,” or “I Believe,” or “You and I” or “Higher Ground” or “As,” the last track being the best Stevie Wonder song ever, IMHO?

What else is there to say but that Stevie Wonder, who at an early age was playing piano, harmonica, bass drums, and guitar, is a musical genius? What magic could exist with the music of a musical genius married to The Voice?  Not to mention that Stevie, like David, gets how music is indeed a spiritual portal connecting the divine to us mere mortals.

So, what was Stevie up to when he was David’s age? Well, Stevie started early in the music business, getting signed to Motown records as a child act when he was 11, known as “Little Stevie Wonder.”  During his teen years, he had a few hits, like “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and “For Once in My Life,” and a few flops, but Stevie definitely felt stifled on the label, reduced mostly to just doing “bubblegum soul” to the more mature sound the other acts were doing.

By the time he was 20, Stevie married Syreeta White, a secretary at the label and songwriter, and they ventured to work on an album a year later, Where I’m Coming From, which failed to chart.  Stevie also did the instrumentals on The Spinners’ now classic 1970 R&B song, “It’s a Shame,” hoping to showcase his creative talents to his label.  Of course, being that I’m of the hip-hop generation, it was rapper Monie Love, who introduced me to this track – haha! I still marvel that Stevie did all the instrumentals on this immortal baby when he was 20 years old!! A real showcase indeed! Of course, the work that he did, not just providing instrumentals but also songwriting, enabled Stevie to renegotiate his contract, which reportedly was 120 pages long and stipulated that he have more creative control over his music and be entitled to a larger percentage of royalties.

Musical genius and business smart! It’s during this time, also, that he independently recorded two albums.  So, all this happened before Stevie entered what is known as his “Classic” years: 1972-1976, giving us legendary albums like Talking Book (1972), Inner Visions (1973), and – IMHO – his masterpiece album, Songs in the Key of Life (1976), which came out when he was “peaking” at age 26 (what is that I said about a man at 25 or 26?).

There definitely seems to be a theme somewhere in this “Being 20” series.  The age 20 seems to be the “transition” period, where an artist has an epiphany: either he is itching to change musical directions (like MJ, like Stevie) or he/she is ready to enter into the professional realm of music (like Elton, like John, like Eva).  Either way, these artists constantly prove that their musical lives are really just beginning at such a tender age.

Seems to me like David is in good company.

Being 20: Spotlight on Eva Cassidy

As we celebrate the third anniversary of David’s “Imagine” this week, it is only fair that I spotlight Eva Cassidy, the songstress who only achieved fame after her premature death at the age of 33 in 1996.  She had died of cancer at such a young age, and still, she left a poignant legacy that is felt today by any true and devoted David Archuleta fan.

It was a young David, who was introduced to her “Fields of Gold” recording at the Winter 2002 Olympics, when Michelle Kwan skated to this ethereal music, and who would later find inspiration from Eva’s own signature take on John Lennon’s classic.

When Eva Cassidy was 20 years old, she sang and played guitar during the summer at the Wild World theme park.  She was painfully shy (um… sounds familiar?), but her love of singing helped her transcend her fears of performing in front of strangers.  She continued to work with several bands and played at local pubs in the Washington D.C. area before she graced the stage of the legendary jazz club, Blues Alley, and partnered with a blues legend, Chuck Brown, who was thoroughly amazed at this “white girl schooling him on the blues.”

It wasn’t until she was 30 years old that a major label, Blue Note, tried to sign her, but Eva Cassidy refused to compromise her versatility as the label wanted to pigeonhole her as a “jazz singer” when Eva sang all sorts of genres: jazz, blues, gospel, standards, even a bit of pop (despite her disinterest in singing “pop crap,” she gives Cyndi Lauper a run for her money with her brilliant cover of “Time After Time“).  Sadly, Blue Note couldn’t correct their mistake as, three years later, Eva died of melanoma.  Her friends and family put on a special concert in her honor, in which she sang in public for the last time to a grateful crowd a stunning delivery of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.”

As things go, we always have to wait for folks across the pond – in Britain to be specific – to launch her fame, where radio programmers have control over their playlists and music folks have a healthy appreciation for America’s founding musical genres: blues, jazz, rock.  It would take a special program on ABC’s Nightline about “The Eva Cassidy Story” in 2001 to really launch her name in the U.S.

Watch this and weep:

Somewhere between John Lennon’s worldwide legendary status and Eva Cassidy’s own underground status before she broke into the mainstream posthumously, David might fall in the middle.  Of course, he always has the potential to break the mold and surprise everyone.  Exhibit A: his take on “Imagine,” all three versions performed on Idol.

Thank the heavens for John and Eva and their influence on The Voice.

Being 20: Spotlight on John Lennon

Another musical legend, whose influence on David has everything to do with how he penned a song, “Imagine,” that would later be re-imagined – pun intended – into a little piece of magic, as sung by The Voice, is worthy of our attention.

Did David revive this song for a new generation? Most definitely!  By infusing his youthful, boyish hope for a better world, he transformed John Lennon’s own mature take on world peace – and the melancholic clinging to this hope in the midst of widespread cynicism – into a sincere yet deliciously complex rendering of a recognizable tune and made it sound brand new.  That’s not talent to sneeze at, folks!

So, a little spotlight on the man who penned this classic and what he was doing when he was David’s present age.  When John Lennon was 20 years old, he was transforming an old skiffle band, which he formed with some friends from his high school, called the Quarrymen, into The Beatles.  Together, they practiced and toured and eventually hooked up with a manager, before they broke onto the British pop charts in 1963, when he was around 23.  A year later, they went to the U.S. and made their debut on the Ed Sullivan Show, and the rest, of course, is history.

John Lennon’s own longing for change happened around 1965, again that magical male age of 25, when he wanted The Beatles’ music to be taken seriously as more than “boy band music,” and an anecdote goes that their song, “Help,” was really about wanting help from the Beatlemania that surrounded them.  In 1970, he finally broke up with the band to pursue a solo career, and a year later, he would give us “Imagine.”

Considering how John Lennon’s artistic vision evolved through a longer process (despite his premature death at age 40 due to his assassination in 1980), imagine if he got dismissed from a music career at age 20!  As I keep saying, the best is yet to come.  Who knows what David has in store, when so many others before him took a while to mature their sound.

Here’s to the promise and potential! :)