The Revenge of 80s R&B

(July 2018) Peabo Bryson is tops on the urban adult contemporary singles listing, while Tower of Power’s new album dominates the Jazz chart. Chaka Khan just issued a funky new song to broad acclaim, and Jeffrey Osborne’s recent album was so popular that an accompanying remix disc has been released. It sounds like 1988, but it’s actually 2018. And in the crazy, sometimes unpredictable world of music, it appears to be the beginning of a trend. Call it “The Revenge of 80s R&B.”

(July 2018) Peabo Bryson is tops on the urban adult contemporary singles listing, while Tower of Power’s new album dominates the Jazz chart. Chaka Khan just issued a funky new song to broad acclaim, and Jeffrey Osborne’s recent album was so popular that an accompanying remix disc has been released. It sounds like 1988, but it’s actually 2018. And in the crazy, sometimes unpredictable world of music, it appears to be the beginning of a trend. Call it “The Revenge of 80s R&B.”

For R&B music fans who grew up in an era when Whitney Houston was a striking new curiosity and the biggest stars wore shoulder pads and baggy pants, modern day broadcast radio is a bit of a mess. Favorite stations from that period have long since moved on to hip-hop worship, while stations that are ostensibly aimed at adults are more likely to focus on talk, talk, talk when not spinning oldies -- they’re way more likely to play Chaka’s 1984 hit “I Feel For You” than her newest release, “Like Sugar.”

But that doesn’t mean that R&B fans who are now exiting their child-rearing years want to abandon the thrill of experiencing new music. It’s just that the major record companies haven’t focused on their needs. Purpose Music Group co-CEO George Littlejohn observes, “The reality is that there is a significant mature consumer audience that is mostly ignored and sadly often forgotten. I see them at shows and they still enjoy music when music is made that appeals to them.” Veteran R&B star Glenn Jones, who releases a new disc later this month, agrees: “In my travels, my fans love my catalog, but they are constantly asking for new material.”

So, though it took years for many of these veteran artists to fully appreciate the benefit of having a mature audience, they are now embracing that audience with new recordings. In addition to those mentioned above, notable R&B artists releasing music this Summer include Meli’sa Morgan, Boz Scaggs, Nile Rodgers and Chic, Blue Magic, Isley Brothers alum Chris Jasper and soul/jazz veteran Stanley Clarke. And of course there was the big splash that the legendary Temptations made this Spring with All The Time, their first album in nearly a decade.

Importantly, these artists, all years past their biggest hits, appear to be avoiding the common trap of doing unnatural acts with their music – such as adding an obligatory rap verse – in order to appeal to a younger audience or popular broadcast radio. Littlejohn muses, “What I am enjoying most about this seemingly sudden surge of music from veteran artists is that they are being true to themselves and not attempting to appeal to the modern mainstream.” 

The desire for new music with a classic R&B sound is certainly something we see from our readers at SoulTracks (median age 45); they are fiercely loyal to veteran artists and to styles of music that don’t pander to teenagers. At various times we’ve posted hot contemporary R&B songs, often flavored with strong “trap” or hip-hop elements, and they die a quick death with our readers. But when, for instance, we recently posted the melodic, well produced new single from the group Change – an act we hadn’t heard in three decades – readers flocked to the song and story. This doesn’t surprise Rick Rosenberg, Senior Vice President at Shanachie Entertainment, an independent label that focuses on mature audiences. “There is definitely a clamoring for ‘real’ soul music. Contemporary R&B has pretty much become interchangeable with rap and hip hop. True soul vocals are appreciated by the core audience now more than ever.” Denny Stilwell, President of Mack Avenue Records, which issued the recent releases on Tower of Power and Jeffrey Osborne, agrees. “These voices are special and there's clearly still a desire to hear them.”

The Temptations’ All The Time is instructive of the possibilities. Without radio airplay, but simply through word of mouth and clever online promotion, the album charted in the Top 5, rubbing elbows with modern stars like Bruno Mars and SZA. Longtime industry expert and Label Logic co-founder, Jeff Moskow, who worked with the Temptations on the release, realized that with good song selection and high quality production, the group could connect with adult soul fans. “This is a unique fan group. They are extremely loyal to their artists and they still enjoy buying physical CDs.”

As exciting as these new projects are, for most artists the financial expectations are far more modest than back in the day, and are below those of top hip-hop artists. In the six weeks after it was released, Bryson’s hit single “Love Like Yours And Mine” had amassed 125,000 streams on Spotify. To give context, Drake’s latest smash, “Nonstop,” will get nearly that many streams in the time it takes you to read this article.

But these performers are wise enough to know that the musical bargain has changed in the past two decades, and they are adjusting with it. Recording music is no longer a way for most artists to make a living; performing music in concert is. Veteran R&B singers still draw very well at shows, and a good new recording can bring more people to concerts and keep them engaged on a continuing basis, even without broadcast airplay. Moskow points out, “The new releases are a great creative outlet for the artists, and also give them some interesting new material to sing at their concerts. And it’s a big deal that they now have a new CD at the merchandise tables at the shows, which can sell quite a few copies. In the end, this brings them even closer to their fans.” Glenn Jones adds, “I will always perform ‘Show Me’ and ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’ at my concerts, but it is refreshing to challenge myself with new music and to find new ways to project and connect with my fans.”

While the music world has certainly been through countless bumps over the past few years, and arguably favors the hottest stars more than ever, the recent activity of these veteran artists is truly enlightening, and creates a pathway to satisfy active, often ignored mature audiences, while also extending the careers of the artists whom they love. So don’t be surprised if this 80s artist surge becomes the template for 90s artists, many of whom are hitting a similar stage in their careers. Purpose Music’s Littlejohn tells us, “Hopefully these releases are the beginning of some balance in the marketplace and possibly a message to other veteran artists to be true to themselves. There is still an audience for them too.” As Hall of Fame singer and musician Chris Jasper sings in his recent cut “Bring it on Back,” “A sweet melody, bring it on back, the way it used to be, bring it on back, well it’s in my soul, bring it on back, it never gets old.”

By Chris Rizik

 

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