R&B Recordings to Hear Before You Die

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The Ultimate Arthur Alexander

Arthur Alexander

Most people who rode on the social-services bus that Arthur Alexander drove around Cleveland for much of the ’80s didn’t really know who he was. They weren’t aware of his “other” career—as a singer and songwriter who blended country and soul in ways no one had done before. Being a soft-spoken fellow, he didn’t talk much about why, after years on the edges of the music business, he ended up driving a bus. Some accounts say he left the music business to overcome substance abuse problems, others attribute his disappearance to a debilitating illness.

Alexander’s cover was blown in 1993, when a “comeback” album, Lonely Just Like Me, appeared. The album reawakened interest in his sly, genre-blurring singing, and drew new attention to his unusual track record as a songwriter. An early original, “Anna (Go to Him),” was covered by the Beatles, and one of his biggest hits, “You Better Move On,” reached number 24 on the pop charts. (It was later done by the Rolling Stones.) Alexander’s 1962 version of the latter, which is part of this collection, was the very first recording made at the legendary Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama—Alexander and songwriter Rick Hall converted an old tobacco warehouse themselves—and it began a career that, despite hot flashes, never fully took off.

That lack of success is a great mystery, because there’s passion and grit inside everything Alexander recorded. His nimble, unassuming voice had a touch of George Jones in it; like Jones, he could make generic odes of lost love instantly riveting. At the same time, Alexander was a Southern soul man with Otis Redding’s ability to work a groove; one head-swiveling moment on this collection comes on the up-tempo “Shot of R&B,” an ebullient party song that should have been massive. Though it’s not a full-career retrospective, this compilation gathers most of Alexander’s most heart-wrenching work from the 1960s. Those enchanted by it should seek out Lonely Just like Me, the album that rescued him from the footnotes. Though he’d been gone from active performance for more than a decade, Alexander hadn’t lost a step: His plaintive vocals are nothing less than astounding. Alexander, just fifty-three, was promoting Lonely when he fell ill and died.

RELEASED: 1993, Razor & Tie.
KEY TRACKS: “Anna (Go to Him),” “You Better Move On,” “Shot of R&B,” “Call Me Lonesome.”

What’s Going On

Marvin Gaye

In the two years before he began work on this, his magnum opus, Marvin Gaye struggled with writer’s block, depression, and addiction—while still recording at a relentless pace. So when, in 1970, he announced to executives at Motown Records that he’d be producing his next album himself, he faced a degree of skepticism. No artist, not least an infirm one, rejected Hitsville’s famed assembly line.

Gaye eventually prevailed, and the rest is history—What’s Going On is a radical miracle of pop music, an alignment of talent and message unlike anything before or since. Using his formidable powers of seduction, Gaye spoke about the Vietnam war, conditions in the inner cities, and the environment in a way that gently led listeners to greater awareness. “Something happened with me during that period,” Gaye said later. “I felt the strong urge to write music and to write lyrics that would touch the souls of men.”

He did that first with the title song, which rises from the sounds of a party in progress—an emotional homecoming for a Vietnam veteran. The song acquired its distinctive sound, with several different layers of Gaye’s lead vocals, through a happy studio accident: As an engineer played back a practice track he’d recorded earlier, Gaye, sitting at the piano in the famous Motown studio nicknamed the “Snakepit,” began singing along, echoing and embellishing the existing vocal. His overlapping voices, locked in an urgent, internal conversation, surprised everyone in the room—and from that moment became a distinguishing feature of What’s Going On.

When Motown executives heard the track, they flatly refused to release it—saying it was too political, not hit material. A standoff ensued: Gaye vowed he wouldn’t do anything else for the label until “What’s Going On” came out, and in January 1971, six months after it was recorded, the song was issued. It became an immediate hit, reaching the top of Billboard’s soul chart and the number two position on the pop charts. Motown wanted an album to follow immediately, and during a feverish ten-day marathon, Gaye and a crew of writer/producers knocked it out, with the house rhythm section, the Funk Brothers, establishing the basic accompaniment and members of the Detroit Symphony providing the sweet, questioning strings. The album reached stores in May, and its album tracks and subsequent singles—“Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”—coalesced into one riveting whole, a commentary somehow greater than the sum of its (stellar) parts. Through these persuasive songs, Gaye took the frustrations of a heated wartime moment and made them eternal: What’s Going On resonates wherever there is conflict and misunderstanding, touching the souls of men by calling to the highest within them.

RELEASED: 1971, Motown.
KEY TRACKS: “What’s Going On,” “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” F.Y.I.: Smokey Robinson, Gaye’s Motown peer, once called this “the greatest album of all time.”

Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds, Vol. 1

Jill Scott

Give Beyoncé the form-fitting dress and Mariah the Blahnik heels; Jilly from Philly is the kind of girl who dashes out in sweats to put together a feast for her man after some early-morning loving. Scott’s songs are the opposite of hot-action party-in-the-club gimmickry; one finds her describing an entire workday in anticipation of the evening of lust she’s got planned. Another catches her sizing up a potential lover: “Your background, it ain’t squeaky clean,” she observes, adding, “Sometimes we all got to swim upstream.”

Replacing the rampant Cristal-swilling fabulousness of commercial urban music with conversational observations about trust, romance, and devotion, Scott positions herself as a kind of anti-diva, the regular girl with an ear for poetry and a different notion about keeping it real. The songs on this astonishing debut ooze plenty of sex, but it’s of the everyday variety—in Scott’s world, sex is a beautiful and natural thing, not a weapon or a power center. These thoughts become radical when set to music that’s far more imaginative than the automated thumps of Destiny’s Child and countless others. There are ten kinds of smart music here, including a languid samba, a hard-swinging throwback to the soul-revue era, and several stupendously sung Philly-soul ballads.

A native of the tough streets of North Philadelphia, Scott was first heard sitting in with the pioneering hip-hop band the Roots (she coauthored the group’s 1999 hit “You Got Me”). She went from being a spoken-word artist to frontwoman in an astoundingly short time—to understand why, cue up “A Long Walk” and marvel at her command of soaring lines and whiplashing rhythmic syncopations. Scott’s second album, Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds, Vol. 2, continues in the same intensely musical vein, with Scott dispensing sharp commentary about senseless violence and the role of black men in the community.

RELEASED: 2000, Hidden Beach.
KEY TRACKS: “Lyzel in E-Flat,” “A Long Walk,” “Slowly, Surely.”