Thursday, September 22, 2005

Ol' Skool Continues To Rule

While watching Oprah the other day, I realized that Fall 2005 is always my favorite time for album releases. The music industry always saves the best for last and usually the bulk of the good stuff hits the shelves during the last quarter of the year.

Yes, we are catered to gospel music. This is where gospel music lives. But I have always been an admirer of the ol' skool R&B and soul genres. And if you are a true gospel fan, you have to render props where props are due. The bulk of today's gospel artists borrow consistently borrow melodies from ol' skool's finest.

Kirk Franklin
"Looking For You" + Ol' Skool sample = Patrice Rushen's "Haven't You Heard"
Mary Mary
"Heaven" + Ol' Skool sample = Honey Cone's "Want Ads"
Smokie Norful
"Power" + Ol' Skool sample = Earth Wind And Fire's "Serpentine Fire"
Karen Clark-Sheard
"We Acknowledge You" + Ol' Skool sample = The Emotions "Best Of My Love"

Ok. Think I proved my point. We owe a debt to ol' skool.

And that is why I am paying my attention towards two incredible projects which were released Tuesday, September 20, 2005. Oprah recently showcased the artistry of Usher and Patti Labelle as they both paid tribute to the late Luther Vandross; one of the world's greatest vocalists in R&B and pop music. Gone too soon, Luther impacted millions with his love songs and his incredible taste for quality music. And this week marked the release of the
all-star tribute album to such an incredible legend. Artists such as John Legend, Celine Dion, Beyonce Knowles, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Patti Labelle, Elton John, Fantasia, Babyface, Mary J. Blige and Angie Stone laid down their remakes of Luther's timeless artistic compositions. Of course, don't even compare these renditions to Luther's, but the listen is quite enjoyable and proves expressions of emotion springing from their heart. To know that these artists whom are legends themselves opened up their schedules to pay tribute to such a mighty voice in American music is totally incredible. I think we all can learn a lesson or two from this kind of united celebration. Several cuts stick out such as Fantasia's upbeat/gospel-like take on "'Til My Baby Comes Home", Mary J. Blige's party-like formula for "Never Too Much" and John Legend's neo-soul remake of "Love Won't Let Me Wait". Heartfelt emotion and condolences from the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin overtake the crafty reworking of Bacharach/David's "A House Is Not A Home"; developing into a unique centerpiece for the project. But the heavy hitters here remains Patti and Usher. Patti Labelle launches into her timeless ability of "keeping it real" on "Here And Now" while Usher brings his bonafide sexy vocals to the mesmerizing "Superstar"; a song that is virtually impossible to conquer against Luther's 1983 version. Ruben Studdard attempted it, did a good job...but Usher brings a clean, slick feel to it - making it a pretty, modernized track appealing to both young and older generations alike.

Earth Wind And Fire returns to the charts (like they never went away) after dominating the world with Chicago on a very successful year-round tour with "Illumination". No, this is not a tribute album nor another "greatest hits" compilation. This is a new project. And a very good one at that. Of course, the rich formula created by founder Maurice White and the late Charles Stephney found on their earliest projects have stood the test of time to be pure magic and bliss, but staying current is the name of the game today for ol' skool artists. EWF successfully does that while preserving the vibrant juices of their marvelous classics. That would include the horn section, their knack to create funky grooves and the definite mix of gospel, funk, jazz, soul, calypso and pop music. Some of today's finest producers take their spin on EWF's sound and style including the Black Eyed Peas (, Raphael Saadiq, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Big Boi (Outkast), while the legendary founder Maurice White, whom has been absent with EWF on tour due to his bout with Parkinson's disease, dominates in the production chamber as well as finishing things up with his gifts on the Kalimba, guitar and keyboard. He even sings a duet with Saadiq on the eight-minute jam "Show Me The Way". Of course, we are all fascinated with the amazing vocal powers of Phillip Bailey, which he showcases throughout the bulk of the project. "This Is How I Feel" is EWF merged with a youthful party atmosphere as guest vocalist Kelly Rowland of Destiny's Child jumps in the heat of things. Jam & Lewis heats things up with the lead single ("Pure Gold") and "Love's Dance" while Kenny G. blazes the sax on Outkast's "The Way You Move" which closes out the project. "Pass You By" has a groovy, neo-soul style that fits well on EWF. Pretty much, this album doesn't overshadow the terrific talents EWF possesses. Hopefully, the world will arise to help celebrate this achievement and send it to the top of the charts; where it soulfully belongs.

Expect both of these albums to dominate my Disc Man, MP3 player and boom box for the next couple of months. Ol' Skool Rules!!! You best believe it.

[Earth Wind And Fire]

[Luther Vandross]

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