L. Michael Gipson: Bye, Singin' Chile. You’re Just Too Heavy
Critical Matters: Bye, Singin' Chile. You’re Just Too Heavy
By L. Michael Gipson
“Heavy, heavy, you got so heavy, baby. Heavy, heavy you got so heavy on me.” – Dreamgirls
No, this isn’t another diatribe about how the industry discriminates against people of size. Henry Krieger’s famed song, “Heavy,” from the Broadway musical Dreamgirls at least partially referred to the show’s star, Effie White, becoming undesirable by ever-changing industry standards. As much as the lyrics refer to Effie’s ballooning size and darkening mood in the show, it also subtly referred to the commercially undesired weight and power of White’s voice. Her lead replacement and nemesis, Deena Jones, was said to have the more “commercial” and “mainstream crossover” voice (read: light and supposedly more pleasing to white music buyers). While inspired by The Supremes’ story, Dreamgirls was supposed to be a fiction, but artists with heavier, rougher, fuller, raspier, and more mature mahogany voices will tell you that fact is stranger than fiction.
Gerald Levert’s Unsung on TV One talked about how his voice was considered “too mature” by the label for contemporary audiences by the late 1990s; LeVert was barely in his 30s at the time. With every big voice label signing from Jennifer Holliday to Jennifer Hudson, there’s always the anxious discussion about finding marketable songs that can “fit” their big, cavernous voices (they usually fail). In an interview I once conducted with Terrell Carter of Tyler Perry fame, we talked about how the 6’6 model handsome muscle god was told by some prospecting major labels that he posed a marketing challenge because his elastic multi-octave baritone was considered “too heavy.” When you can’t market singing Ebony Male models to women and gays, you need to lose your A&R job…no, like, seriously.
Sometimes audiences don’t have any idea that this discrimination against their cult favorites is taking place. Fans often confuse talent and critical acclaim with financial rewards and assume top Billboard positions and big contracts for artists who have never enjoyed either. Donnie, N’Dambi, Mica Paris, Lizz Wright, Maysa Leak, Oleta Adams, Kelly Price, Will Downing, Lalah Hathaway, Anthony David, Eric Roberson, Kevin Mahogany, Rosie Gaines and Toshi Reagon have never had a #1 Billboard Hot 100 or R&B hit or multi-platinum success as a solo artist and certainly not for a lack of talent or quality material. Some like Mica Paris has never even had a Top 10 U.S. hit and her singular talent is undeniable.
The above-listed artists operate in several disparate genres, some of which are certainly niches, but it is difficult to explain how a Mahogany or Reagon can’t even quite break through to the limited level of fame and fortune afforded by that genre. Even in jazz, a lustrous and internationally revered altos like Dianne Reeves and Cassandra Wilson have rarely seen the kind of label investment and chart success of contemporaries like Diana Krall. Luckily, fans have ensured that the names I’ve listed have had longer shelf lives in their career spans than many of those here today, gone tomorrow more commercially viable voices. Most make a respectable if not an enviable living as working artists, touring often, and selling well enough for smaller labels to release product on them every few years. Still, it has to smart when someone like The Dream can have a #1 album and few still know Bernhoft’s name.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rules, most notably Anita Baker, Jill Scott, John Legend, and Toni Braxton – though Baker spent years grinding as a secretary in Detroit because record executives repeatedly told Baker that her deep, soothing voice was not commercial enough. All have had #1 platinum to multi-platinum albums, earned Grammys, and had money lavished on par with their gifts, each beating the industry discrimination against their lush, sultry instruments.
It hasn’t always been this way, especially among men: artists like Otis Redding, Lou Rawls, Jerry Butler, Percy Sledge, Sam & Dave, David Ruffin, Bill Withers and, of course, Barry White all enjoyed enviable commercial success and became legends. Then, female fans wanted a gruff, directive, and vocally virile man serenading them and men wanted a man whose voice they respected and could try to match in their cars and shower. Successful boy groups once always managed to have a churchy baritone who was a if not the signature voice of that group, be it Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops and Marvin Junior of The Dells or ‘90s starring leads like Aaron Hall of Guy and Sisqó of Dru Hill. Sometime after the fall of Boyz II Men, the subsequent handful of boy groups have been nearly universal trios and quartets of high tenors. For solo male artists it’s even worse, from Trey Songz and Chris Brown to skyscraping newcomers like Daley and Miguel, the landscape is littered with soft and high crooning to swooning teens with few other keynotes being allowed into the club. Radio and labels have been clear: no baritones and certainly no bass singers allowed, especially for solo artists. It makes one wonder how a phenomenal up and comer like Kwabena “Kwabs” Adjepong and Gary Clark, Jr. or deep-voice fronted bands like Vintage Trouble or The Revelations featuring Tré Williams will ever be able to breakthrough.
Why does it even matter that Tamia’s version of “You Put A Move On My Heart” is better known than the original by Mica Paris? Are baritones and lower-range altos really better or more deserving singers than tenors and sopranos? Well, no. But, discrimination against rootsy, lower, thicker, grittier, and dare I say undeniably blacker voices (voices whose tone, resonance, and cadence reads old Southern Soul, blues, or Negro spiritual) is wrong and it’s time we call a thing a thing, people. Popular music is consistently fickle and changing, but we are in a twenty-plus year period where radio and labels are discriminating against voices that read “heavy” and “mature,” even if the artist is young and gorgeous. Listeners are never even given the chance to hear many of these artists to judge for themselves, with few exceptions. That a Big Maybelle might never have gotten a chance to record a timeless record like “Candy” had today’s aesthetic standard been the order of the day back then is, well, disgusting. More than wanting to give talents like Kwabs, Jose James, Jazmine Sullivan or Rebecca Ferguson a real shot at superstardom, I want the next generation of would-be singers to know that there is space for their earthy voices in the world. Without Marvin Junior there would never have been a Teddy Pendergrass. No Charlie Wilson? Then there'd be no Aaron Hall, K-Ci or Sisqo. Young artists-in-the-making need influences that affirm what they do and to know that how they sound has precedent and value. And, while the world no longer revolves around radio, depressingly far too many are still dependent on it to set the soundtracks they accept for their lives.
If for no other reason, the prospect of nothing but a future of Chris, Miquel, Usher and Trey wanna-bes should be inspiration enough to lend more consistent and louder support for artists with weight and body to their voices. You can start in your feedback and requests to radio, Djs, podcasters, bloggers, tastemakers, and even label folks. If nothing else you can lend a more supportive ear and more compassionate understanding to the plight of the resonance privileged when they ka-vetch like Effie White about their pain from “the industry.” The Effies of the world aren’t making it up. Gerald Levert tragically died not feeling like he ever cracked mainstream success or had his talents fully valued by the American public, and yet he enjoyed a level of fame and commercial successful that many of his successors will never know. Let’s just hope like Effie White, Levert's heirs keep challenging our ears with a defiant “And I am tellin’ you, I’m not going…I’m staying, I’m staying and you’re gonna love me.” Some of us already do.
By L. Michael Gipson
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