If you lived in the vicinity of New York City in the ’70s, you probably listened to WPLJ, one of those progressive FM stations with deejays who would use the word ”excellent” whenever a new Emerson, Lake & Palmer album arrived. And if you listened a lot, as I did, you knew what to expect: plenty of Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Grateful Dead, and other heroes of the 10- minute-guitar-solo gang.
But at least once during every set, something would leap out of the airwaves that would jar me from blankly staring at the Dylan and Neil Young posters on my wall, something strange and funky and undeniably black: Stevie Wonder singing about living for the city, or the Spinners wondering if they were falling in love, or the O’Jays warning you about back-stabbing jerks. Even for a generation that grew up with stylish Motown 45s, this R&B was dramatically different, with string sections, horns, and funky clavinet keyboards creating supple rhythms that were both sophisticated and rooted in a deep, sexy groove. It was baffling but tantalizing for anyone who thought the Dune-and-gloom landscapes of Yes were the ultimate musical mind-benders.
WPLJ wasn’t alone in considering it natural to segue from the Steve Miller Band to the Isley Brothers. Later in the decade, the rise of disco drove black music off white rock stations by unintentionally building a racial wall between listeners. But circa 1973, it was perfectly normal for white rock and R&B to coexist on the same radio frequency — speaking to the same audience and addressing the same fears, dreams, and desires. That’s the era preserved on Soul Hits of the ’70s: Didn’t It Blow Your Mind!, a 10-volume, 120-song series of an era (1969-73) that, particularly in light of the rosy glow of Motown nostalgia, is the most underrated and underappreciated in R&B. (Vols. 1-5 have already been released; Vols. 6-10 are due Feb. 27.) At the time, the term soul itself was a catchall that encompassed everything from the folk-R&B of Bill Withers to the creamy Philly Soul of the O’Jays to the nascent black rock of the Isley Brothers — a splashy post-Motown era of black music that reached out in any direction it could.
It’s almost impossible to re-create how amazing it was to hear these songs in the middle of a primarily white New Jersey suburb. The records themselves were being released by black-owned companies like Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International and Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom; the messages were tougher and more ”black” than those in earlier R&B, and yet the music was increasingly seductive. For white suburban kids, it came as a stunner to hear Mayfield’s unblinking (but sweetly sung) ode to a dead junkie, ”Freddie’s Dead,” or an elegant black cheating song like Billy Paul’s ”Me and Mrs. Jones.” Not to mention the Staple Singers’ ”I’ll Take You There,” which made gospel seem funky, or the Undisputed Truth’s ”Smiling Faces Sometimes,” which did the same for debilitating paranoia. For culture-shock value, the only equivalent is probably another generation of sheltered Caucasians hearing rap for the first time in the early ’80s. R.B. Greaves’ ”Take a Letter Maria,” a No. 2 1969 hit, seemed lightweight, down to its Herb Alpert style trumpets. But when I pressed my ear close to my transistor radio, I heard something very much at odds with the musical arrangement: Was this actually a song being sung by a black executive in marital distress who asks his Hispanic secretary out for a date? Could you really sing about that on AM — or FM — airwaves?
But there are good reasons why some of this music has been undervalued. Soul of the bell-bottom era was smoother and more urbane than anything out of Detroit or Memphis in the previous decade, but it took a while to find its voice. The first three volumes of Soul Hits, for instance, have their share of highlights: the Moments’ lush ”Love on a Two-Way Street,” Ike & Tina Turner’s driving ”Proud Mary,” and Freda Payne’s ”Band of Gold,” as desperate and yearning as upbeat pop singles ever get. But many of the tracks are merely an extension of the Aretha-Otis school of ’60s soul — strong, funky, and roadhouse-rooted but without the more developed music and lyrics heard on a record like Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ sumptuous ”If You Don’t Know Me By Now.” Also, while the collection contains plenty of the comforting pop-R&B that dominated AM radio (the Main Ingredient’s ”Everybody Plays the Fool,” Johnny Nash’s ”I Can See Clearly Now,” the Chi-Lites’ ”Oh Girl”), there’s none of the new-wave Motown of the time (courtesy Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and others prevented from appearing here because of licensing agreements) and not enough Philly Soul. And the records are sprinkled with a fair number of forgettable duds.
No matter. Soul Hits of the ’70s generously chronicles an era that deserves to be remembered — not just for Isaac Hayes’ ”Theme From Shaft,” an orgasm for orchestra and wah-wah guitar, or for the original Spinners lead singer G.C. Cameron’s leaping falsetto in the chorus of ”It’s a Shame,” but for the cultural integration it represented. These days, WPLJ itself is one of those generic power-hits stations where, on a given afternoon, you can hear the sleek R&B of Ralph Tresvant, the guitar anthems of U2, and the Stepford Children pop of Wilson Phillips saddled up next to each other. But the format isn’t tearing down any walls; it’s speaking to a pop audience accustomed to hearing beat-heavy white and black tunes, not the rock crowd, whose only exposure to black music these days is limited to hearing the funk-metal blast of Living Colour once a week. Listening to Soul Hits of the ’70s, you remember a time when radio brought the world to your fingertips, and you didn’t even have to touch the dial. Vols. 8, 9: A Vol. 10: A- Vols. 1, 2, 7: B+ Vols. 5, 6: B Vols. 3, 4: B-