Climb aboard and grab ahold. as Paul W. Hullah eases his way into the boudoirs ofsome of the sexiest soul singers alive and gets right down to the root oftheir appeal. I think the ladies know what I‘m
talking about . . .
ed silk handkerchiefclasped tightly in an upraised fist. nimbly mopping beads ofsweat from a multi- furrowed brow. A well-fed. ample paunch. swaddled in a lilac dress-shirt and straining over coal-black slacks. Everything Sta-Press-creased atop a pair ofwhat. even in these educated days. look uncomfortably like slip-on. 70s wedges. At the helm. a frozen facial expression. mapping an emotion somewhere between anguish and ecstasy. a feeling halforgasmic. halfagony.
No. that image isn't me writing this piece. it‘s Barry White circa 1969. circa 1979. circa now. It‘s Tom Jones. It‘s the aptly named Luther Vandross. It‘s Barry Manilow with better songs. Teddy Prendergrass. Theophilus P. Wildebeeste. Alexander O'Neal. It‘s the soul man — the one who tells us all about his pained. gut-wrenching love for us. The one we love to believe.
Soul music as we know it originated with American Negro spirituals in the early 19th century. lts pain and passion came from a sense of righteous outrage at man's shackled. Oppressive predicament: the idea that God was on a Man‘s side came from the Israelite songs sung when the Jews were in Egyptian spiritual bondage in Biblical times. The suffering song was intended to have cathartic effects. playing out the singer’s troubles in poetic form that uplifted the spirit. Life could stifle everything except the expression of discontent: singing made you feel better.
But there‘s one brand of recent soul. typified by artists like Alexander ()‘Neal. that has taken the inner torment and given it
. an overt and calculated sexual thrust. These performers are out to persuade us that vocal catharsis isn’t enough. Only your very sensual luri'e. baby. will make them feel alright. limphasis is deliberately placed on the intensely physical nature of the artist‘s performance. until the song becomes metaphor for the love-act. ‘I don‘t mind being treated as a sex-object. as long as it‘s
10'l‘lic List 5 lb April l‘Nl
by females.‘ affirms part troubadour. part male-stripper Tom Jones. unwittingly acknowledging the loaded nature ofthe medium in which he operates.
But the carefully arranged techniques can be effective. and the seduction works. Faced with the colossal. sweat-dripping figure of Barry White. insisting that ‘lt‘s ecstasy when you lay down next to me‘. all notions of sexist iniquity seem to fly out of the window. No sense objecting to patriarchy when a father-figure like Bazza wants to mollycoddle you. The power of Love transcends. reducing everything to a primitive. ideologically uncluttered. animal level. Spiritual self-survival becomes translated into the physical desire to mate. You can‘t help but thinking that there‘s also something insidiously racist involved too. which is worrying. but that seems also to laugh in the face of reason. ‘l'ley. darlin’. you got any African in you‘." leers Lenny Henry‘s loveable (and acutely accurate) soul-stereotype. Theophilus P. Wildebeeste. ‘No. I haven‘t.' replies his pretty. demuring foil. ‘You want some'." the codpieced one replies. ominously. obviously.
And the answer seems to be. ‘Yes please'. Some (rather eager) people call it witchcraft: others take it as an affirmation of the keenly intimate contract a modern-day soul ptirveyor like Prendergrass. Vandross or ()‘Neal deliberately establishes between himself and his direct audience. Why on earth anyone should want to hurl their underwear at Tom Jones (of whom Elvis incorrectly surmised 'With that voice. that guys gotta be black'). let alone the whale-like frame of Barry White is anyone's guess. but it happens. In the hands (or is it the larynx) of these showmen. soul singing becomes an invitation into a sexual contract. The ().li.l). defines ‘soulful‘ as 'expressing elevated feeling'. but its base instincts that this soul seeks to summon. Lethal in the possession ofcrooners like Alex ()‘Neal. this potentially sinister aspect ofthe mode
has been expertly exploited in the pseudo-soul undertow in Prince‘s work — which is perhaps why a lot of men feel uncomfortable about admitting their admiration for the hermaphroditie one. Or maybe it’sjust the pink high heels.
Because presentation is as important as anything else in the soul-seducer's arsenal. Semiotically speaking. all the signs point to pampering. to indulgence and comfort — Sexual Healing. as Marvin (Jaye so beautifully put it. It's a different kind of catharsis than that originally sought by the spiritualist singers. but one which. for its instinctual reliance upon the power of physical love. is just as necessary to the modern world. Performers like ()‘Neal. Tom Jones (on a good day) and Barry White communicate with a primal area ofthe selfini a way that is purportedly instinctive. but. in i