'Blue-Eyed Soul': Are Whites Taking over Rhythm & Blues?

By Narine, Dalton | Ebony, July 1989 | Go to article overview

'Blue-Eyed Soul': Are Whites Taking over Rhythm & Blues?


Narine, Dalton, Ebony


'BLUE-EYED SOUL' ARE WHITES TAKING OVER RHYTHM & BLUES?

BRITISH singer George Michael is voted Best Rhythm and Blues artist of 1988 at the American Music Awards. American Michael Bolton beats out Black challengers for New York Music Awards' prestigious soul music title in the same year. Scottish singer Sheena Easton cracks Black radio's Top 10 charts--again. Out of Boston, the New Kids On The Block, a White group, orchestrate their act like a New Edition clone. And Boy George unabashedly spices a comeback attempt on a diet of funk. It's enough to turn their Black counterparts money-green with envy.

What's happening to "Black music"? Are Whites taking over Rhythm and Blues?

"R&B means Real Black," says Little Richard seriously. "What James Brown, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and I created still stands today. Granted, George Michael is a natural; he sings from his heart. But you can't take over a culture."

Antonion (L.A.) Reid and Kenny (Babyface) Edmonds, a prolific writer/producer team, admit there's no patent to the Black sound. "To a point, we actually like what's happening in the industry," they say. And Reid adds: "Sheena and George Michael could never be a threat to Black music as we know it. At the moment, Bobby Brown, not George Michael, is revered in the Black community."

George Michael's co-manager Michael Lippman says tersely: "Music has no barriers."

To one degree or another derivative White artists have been making a name for themselves across Black music charts, thus spawning in a sense a reverse crossover trend. In the past, Black R&B artists' quest to cross over to White-Dominated pop radio has been an uphill struggle. Generally, that still is the case. By contrast, however, since the industry's convenient renaming of Black pop music to the all-encompassing urban contemporary format about eight years ago, Whites have found it easier than ever before to cross music tracks, tradition notwithstanding. There seems to be no panic in the Black community, where George Michael fans are legion, but ramifications of the trend are aswirl in influential Black circles.

Dr. George Butler, vice president/executive producer at CBS Records, likens Michael's "across-the-board" popularity to the universal appeal of Prince, a consistently proven rocker "who's more innovative than most White Rock 'n' Roll artists." Yet Dr. Butler is incredulous over the public vote favoring George Michael as the top R&B performer. "It's like a hot, talented Dixieland trumpet player winning a poll over Wynton Marsalis," he says. "George Michael performs very convicingly, and so does Michael Bolton, but when you enumerate the sheer numbers of Black R&B singers, people with exquisite talent who are still creating new directions in the music, it [the award] is difficult to comprehend."

Some executives of Black radio claim they understand why Blacks came up short in the national vote. Alluding to inequities in the ballot system, Joe (Butterball) Tamburro, program director for WDAS AM/FM in Philadelphia, says: "Blacks, for whatever reason, are reulctant to keep diaries of their listening habits for the Arbitron ratings. Moreover, ballots are placed in malls and shopping centers, but not in mom-and-pop stores and wherever else Blacks shop heavily. So there is no true measurement of the actual choices of Black voters. I'm sure there wasn't tremendous response [to the balloting] from Blacks."

On the other hand, Dick Scott, who is Black and manages the New Kids On The Block, feels there's absolutely no reason not to honor George Michael, "as great as he is. I hope my kids are able to achieve the same status some day. It's what we all hope for, isn't it?--attain a wider, broader audience. Black artists have always wanted to cross over the pop market," he adds, "so it's only fair to the other side."

What attracts the "other side" to soul music? …

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