« Vocal Point wins world championship | Main | Jingle contest »

May 4, 2006

British Pilgrims' Grail: Real R&B (Don't Call It Doo-Wop)

New York Times

It can be dizzying to sit in a hotel bar in New Jersey listening to pinkish-white Yorkshiremen and middle-aged Cockney Londoners discussing the merits of 60's soul music in minute detail. About 400 British music fans invaded the Hilton hotel in East Brunswick for Northern Soul Trip USA, a weeklong pilgrimage to the land of R&B that ends today. Dancing to vintage singles and swapping bragging rights about their collections of the same, these fans claim to be "keeping the faith," cherishing and preserving American music that Americans have forgotten and discarded.

Peter Rosenbaum might have something to say about that. An American fan and collector of 50's doo-wop and 60's R&B, he formed and manages a vocal group, the Fabulous Soul Shakers, who recreated those sounds for the British fans in concert Sunday night. The first thing Mr. Rosenbaum wants you to know about the Fabulous Soul Shakers is, "This isn't an oldies act." He refers of course to those golden-oldies revues in which performers in their sunset years assay spiritless renditions of hits they first sang as teenagers.

The Fabulous Soul Shakers' repertory is certainly old; the songs are older than any of the five singers, none of whom has yet seen his 30th birthday. But the youthful energy they bring to gems like Sam Cooke's shimmeringly melancholic "Mean Old World" and the Cadillacs' doo-wop classic "Gloria" feels less like nostalgia than time travel. This, one senses listening to them, is how this music really sounded. The distinction was not lost on Kev Roberts, a British D.J. who organized Soul Trip USA and booked the Fabulous Soul Shakers to perform. Soul fans in Britain generally must endure "miserable tribute bands," said Mr. Roberts, who added that the Fabulous Soul Shakers would do very well on a British tour.

Mr. Rosenbaum began auditioning singers for the group in 2002. Growing up in Jackson Heights, Queens, in the 1960's and 70's, he developed his love of R&B vocal groups while listening to the first oldies shows on AM radio. He avoids the term doo-wop, not coined until the late 60's; in its day the music was called vocal harmony, and the groups were known as bird acts for their tendency to have names like the Orioles, the Swallows and the Cardinals. Mr. Rosenbaum played in New York rock and punk bands as a teenager, while becoming an erudite pop-music historian and avid record collector. In the early 90's he started booking acts in bars and clubs, specializing in R&B legends like the Persuasions, Andre Williams, Swamp Dogg and Rudy Ray Moore (a k a Dolemite).

Inspired by the rockabilly and swing-band revivals, he decided a few years ago to rescue vocal harmony from what he called its "corny and square" golden-oldies stigma. He auditioned about 700 performers, he said, seeking "young guys who could sing both lead and harmony, and the less they knew about the music the better." He added, "I didn't want them starting out with bad preconceptions."

The current lineup includes the tenors Jason Cousins (known as J-Nyse), Ryan Shaw (B) and Craig Stagg (Sugar); the tenor-baritone Richard Tipton (Flyguy); and the baritone Bryant Washington (Sparrow). Mr. Stagg and Mr. Washington grew up in Harlem, Mr. Shaw in Atlanta, Mr. Cousins in Jamaica, Mr. Tipton in Mobile, Ala. All sang gospel or pop, and all have won or been finalists at Apollo Theater showcases. But vintage vocal harmony was new to them. "I grew up on Michael Jackson," Mr. Washington, 29, said. "I didn't know much about this music."

Mr. Shaw, 25, sang in gospel choirs from the time he was 3. He vaguely remembers the music he is singing now as records his grandmother played. Mr. Rosenbaum picks all the songs, preferring pretty ballads and midtempo numbers in which the tenors can shine over lush group harmonies: songs like Jackie Wilson's "Lonely Teardrops," Gene Chandler's soaring "Rainbow," the Falcons' aching "I Found a Love." But the typical set also features up-tempo crowd rousers like the Sharpees' "Do the 45," Major Lance's "Monkey Time" and Bill Pinkney's "I Do the Jerk."

Upbeat was good with the British fans, for whom soul music is synonymous with dance music. One might not know it looking around at the silver-haired men and primly dressed women, but in the late 60's many of them were teenage Mods who packed dance clubs in bleak industrial cities in northern England like Manchester, York and Stoke-on-Trent, creating what came to be known as Northern Soul. D.J.'s like Mr. Roberts, who came on the scene in the early 1970's, spun upbeat American R&B and soul 45's at amphetamine-fueled all-nighters (sort of primitive raves) while the kids gyrated wildly. "Think fast, faster and off the Richter scale," Mr. Roberts said of the preferred beats. Neil Jones, who is a D.J. for Northern Soul events in London, joked that the frenetic dance style resembled "a combination of 19th-century Negro culture and martial arts."

Mr. Roberts said that the scene died down by 1980, as the young Mods grew up, got jobs and had children. But nostalgia and "working-class camaraderie," he said, brought the dancers back together in the 90's, and Northern Soul has thrived since. Mr. Roberts is the D.J. for events in Manchester that draw as many as 1,200 dancers, he said, though today, with most of them ages 35 to 60, he plays "a lot more midtempo sides." Competing to unearth new singles that would keep the kids hopping, the early D.J.'s sowed the seeds for a vintage record-collecting craze that makes a Northern Soul event as much a swap meet as a dance party. Displaying a British obsessiveness, fans avoid well-known artists and hits for obscure singers and rare B-sides.

Groups whose names would ring few bells with soul fans in the United States the Vel-Vets, the Tomangoes, Nosmo King, the Skull Snaps dominate Mr. Roberts's collectors' guide, "Northern Soul Top 500," published in 2000. He conceded that though the list includes many underappreciated gems, there is also "some real garbage" that deserves its obscurity. At record fairs and on eBay, rare singles have fetched up to $25,000.

Mr. Roberts organized the first Soul Trip USA in 2004, shepherding 700 Northern Soul fanatics to Los Angeles. During this year's trip the group has spent its days in typical tourist activities trips to the Empire State Building, Atlantic City and so on and has reconvened every night in the Hilton for dance parties. In addition to the Fabulous Soul Shakers, live acts included Archie Bell of the Drells and three Philadelphia soul singers Ronnie Walker, Charles Mintz and Bobby Cutchins who are relative unknowns in the United States but have huge followings among Northern Soul fans. In their own way the Fabulous Soul Shakers can also be said to be keeping the faith. They have all become devotees through singing the old repertory.

"The singers drive the music, not vice versa," Mr. Stagg said.

Mr. Washington added: "For the artist singing the song, it was all about passion. Not like music today that's all about the beat and electronics." Mr. Shaw agreed. "Today's music is just drums," he said dismissively. "What's hot about it?" As for rap, he said: "It's just ignorant. And full of self-hatred." Perhaps Mr. Stagg summed it up for all concerned when he sighed, "I want to go back."

Posted by acapnews at May 4, 2006 12:06 AM