Lou Rawls was not only defined by his lush baritone, but the romantic tunes that became part of his signature sound. A classic crooner with an R&B slant, Rawls was one of the singers who signified a genteel sound that was later echoed by Luther Vandross and others.
But that style is being heard less and less on radio today. Though there are still smooth, sexy tenors and deep baritones singing lush R&B ballads, it’s hard to find male singers performing tender, gallant love songs with a silky style like Rawls, Vandross, Barry White, Donny Hathaway, and other timeless singers.
“It’s a big loss. We’re losing too many singers,” said legendary songwriter Burt Bacharach after Rawls’ death from lung cancer Jan. 6.
Rawls was buried Friday in Los Angeles; his funeral a celebration of his life and music. Mourners, famous and unknown, clapped and swayed to performances by Andre Crouch, Stevie Wonder, Della Reese, Joan Baez and Willie Rogers of the Soul Stirrers gospel quartet, which Rawls performed with, who shook the congregation with “A Change is Gonna Come.” The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who presided over the service, eulogized Rawls as “authentic, an original, a source of light in dark places.”
Bob Slade, a host at the New York City old-school radio station WRKS-FM, said what defined artists like Rawls and Vandross is that “they were stylists. When you heard them, you knew exactly who they were. ... Once we lose all the stylists, the people who style so memorable you buy them just for the style, we’re not going to see that anymore.”
Besides a standout vocal style, what also differentiated Rawls and others was the kind of material they sang — songs about love and relationships with a tender side.
Today’s slow R&B grooves are not defined by idyllic love, but either by sex-crazed euphoria or the drama that inevitably ensues once a romance matures. The slow songs that helped propel Usher’s 2004 album “Confessions” to 8 million in sales were characterized by cheating (“Confessions”) and an impending breakup (“Burn”). The music of R. Kelly, perhaps the most consistent male R&B chart-topper, is most identifiable for its highly sexualized tone.
“Maybe it’s being done but I don’t know that it’s going to the top of the charts like it used to,” says Babyface, whose own career as a singer and producer has been defined by hopelessly romantic love songs and whose latest album “Grown & Sexy” was an attempt to put the romance back in music.
“There was a whole period where it kind of wasn’t necessarily cool to be romantic. It’s kind of too soft to be that, so I think it kind of happens that way,” he said.
Soul singer Lyfe Jennings, who’s debut album “Lyfe 268-192” was recently certified platinum, says fans today want their songs to reflect real life. “Most songs today are about a situation,” he says.
Your cheatin’ heartAnd today’s songs are more apt to reflect the kind of tension and strife that mark most relationships — to the detriment of the material, in Slade’s view. He joked that if aliens landed on Earth, “if they’d listen to the music today compared to what was going on even in the early ’90s, they’d say we’re a sorry bunch of folks, because all we’re talking about is ‘My baby’s mama, you double-crossed me, you dirty so and so,’ nobody is singing about love and the things that they sang about 30 or 40 years ago.
“It’s not about that, it’s about who’s cheating on who, skeezers,” he added. “It’s not the same.”
Babyface said reality TV probably chased much of the romance out of chart-topping songs.
“I think that over the years I guess a little more edge is required on songs nowadays, more drama, as opposed of being pure love songs,” he said. “You’re competing with reality TV, it’s sensationalism.”
Still, there are some male singers who warble about a purer love. While John Legend’s Grammy-nominated debut, “Get Lifted,” has it’s share of salacious tunes, it’s the longs like “Ordinary People,” about sticking together through hard times,” and the airy ballad “So High” that have marked its popularity.
“I definitely don’t think it’s dated,” Jennings said of romantic balladeering. “I think it’s alive, but it’s special.”
And Babyface says eventually it will regain its popularity.
“I think it hasn’t been that way so much recently but I think it will probably turn back to that,” he said. “People will get tired of being mad and start falling love.”