British Soul hits U.S. soil
”There’s a pah-tee?” Lisa Stansfield’s eyes pop wide open.
Sitting in the bar of a midtown-Manhattan hotel, hours before her New York debut at the Ritz nightclub last month, the British singer rouses herself. It has come to her attention that there will be a bash the following night at a downtown club in honor of Barry White.
Barry White? The R&B crooner best known for such ’70s pillow-talk hits as ”Never, Never Gonna Give Ya Up” and ”You’re the First, the Last, My Everything”? The least-hip musician anyone could idolize in 1990, despite his new album and summer comeback tour?
”He could sing ‘I’m just going to the toilet’ and it would have been wonderful,” Stansfield recalls wistfully between sips of coffee and puffs on a cigarette. ”I used to be quite ashamed of (liking that music) when I was younger. When all my friends were into punk, I’d be singing versions of soul ballads. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I don’t want them to know I’m doing this.’ But I really enjoyed singing those songs.”
Stansfield’s admiration for the flamboyant White may seem odd here. But back home in Britain, musicians and fans are breathing new life into a style of music Americans have either taken for granted or forgotten: the ’70s R&B of Philly Soul (named for its base of operations) and the likes of Barry White, with its suave rhythms, sweeping orchestration, and impeccable production. It’s not unusual to hear 20-year-old songs by the Spinners, the O’Jays, or Lou Rawls in British clubs and restaurants. Or to turn on the radio — in the U.K. or the U.S. — and listen to what Billboard magazine calls the New British Invasion: records by Stansfield and such U.K. bands as Soul II Soul and the Chimes that are nothing if not high-tech updates of Philly Soul.
”(The revival) has a lot to do with when we were born and what we listened to,” Stansfield, 23, says. ”A lot of it’s been influenced by Philadelphia and the ’70s.” Baby-boomers have their Motown records for memories, but for those who followed, the nostalgia of choice is the post-Woodstock, pre-disco sound of early ’70s R&B. ”We all grew up within that period of time, with that music and that feeling,” Stansfield says.
The feeling is catching. Stansfield’s debut album, Affection, and its hit ”All Around the World” recently leapfrogged into the U.S. top 10. In 1989 Simply Red scored a comeback hit with its faithful remake of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ 1972 ”If You Don’t Know Me by Now.” Soul II Soul — a combination group, clothing store, and overall enterprise organized by entrepreneur Jazzie B. — went platinum last year with Keep on Movin’, which fused Philly strings, rap, and disco. The group’s second album, Vol. II-1990-A New Decade, covers much of the same ground. And Columbia Records is expecting big things from the Chimes, an interracial U.K. band powered by the funky vocals of lead singer Pauline Henry, who recalls peak-era Gladys Knight.
”Around Britain, a lot of people have the same attitude about music — that club music has really ruined everything,” James Locke, the Chimes’ drummer and keyboardist, says of the return to an older sound. ”The typical kind of rock element, or the overproduced kind of dance and pop, has suddenly become boring.”
”The Chimes are really like the Three Degrees, and there’s a lot of Teddy Pendergrass in Lisa (Stansfield),” says Larry Gold, a longtime Philadelphia arranger and musician who worked on records by the O’Jays and other Philly Soul acts. ”Maurice Starr (producer-songwriter behind New Kids on the Block and other teen pop acts) is copying the Philly Sound left and right. It comes down to the simpleness of the melody and the feel. Put those together with the right song, and you got it.”