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Opinion/Editorial

They're Still Here: How to Honor Maturing Singers

By Published: September 17, 2004
Ernestine Anderson, Etta James, and Johnny Mathis have been recording for five decades and still release albums. More importantly they still sing well and sound good. Can you imagine the horror if in a few years these singers, feeling compelled by ego, record company suggestion or just bad judgment, released a "duet" album where they revisited their signature hits with younger popular singers? Or worse, what if these duets were separately recorded and digitally synchronized? How about a few rap cameos? Such nightmarish notions may seem a ridiculous but increasingly the record industry does not quite know what to do with classic singers as they age.

An increasingly common record company strategy is to pair veterans with singers based on marketing appeal or sentimental reasons, but rarely are such decisions based on any consideration of style or legacy. The results are usually embarrassing, gimmicky recordings for great active singers and unfortunate epitaphs for those who have passed. It is a broadly accepted lament among music critics that the nadir of vulgar duet projects was Frank Sinatra's Duets albums. Ray Charles' newest album and unfortunately his last Genius Loves Company , recorded at Mr. Charles' request, but surely influenced by marketing considerations, is the latest example of the questionable duet strategy.

Genius pairs "The Genius" with a barrage of duet partners ranging in age from youngster Norah Jones to baby boomers James Taylor, Natalie Cole and Elton John and elder statesmen B. B. King and Van Morrison, among others. It is likely to be one of his most promoted and best-selling albums ever; such is the odd result of superstar pairings and the death of legends. It's also likely to rack up multiple Grammy nominations by virtue of built-in commercial appeal and the appearance of perennial award winners Bonnie Raitt, Natalie Cole and Diana Krall. I'm less interested in reviewing it so much as understanding its predictable sociology. For the record, Genius is a pleasant but uneven album showcasing Charles' penchant for lushness more than his famous gospel-R&B synthesis. Charles recorded in poor health and despite occasional straining he sounds fine. But with the exception of fine duets with stylistic peers Gladys Knight, B. B. King and Van Morrison, he has little to no chemistry with many of his guests. Several songs collapse under the weight of heavy orchestrations. The album's strengths and limitations are instructive of duet record hazards.

Charles' unique style has endured as rock 'n' roll, acid rock, adult contemporary, disco, hip-hop, alternative rock etc. have rotated in dominating the commercial spotlight. Through these trends he has maintained his appeal as a singer, pianist and personality. Charles has remained visible over the years appearing on everything from commercials to guest appearances on sitcoms. Several months ago when I read he'd signed with Concord Jazz, which once provided a home for seasoned talents like Rosemary Clooney and Mel Tormé, I was happy because his talents as a jazz pianist and jazz-oriented interpretive singer are underrated. However, when I read about his then upcoming duet album I sighed, knowing it was intended to provide a commercial bounce rather than to showcase Charles in the September of his years. The best way to honor aging musicians is to play to their strengths rather than patronizing them with insulting attempts to make them "hip" through bald marketing. The fact that many great musicians have survived as long as they have is a tribute to timeless and enduring talent that doesn't warrant tinkering.

After enduring the travesty of ill-conceived duet projects intended to revive careers below I offer suggestions for record companies seeking recording ideas for mature musicians on their rosters:

1. If you MUST release duet albums pair singers who are stylistically compatible.

For a good example of this check out Tony Bennett and k. d. lang's A Wonderful World. Bennett and lang are both accomplished interpreters, with robust pseudo-operatic voices. For this recording, focused on songs associated with Louis Armstrong, they chose material with a geniality suitable for their personae and voices. Though a little too serene at times, on the album's best tracks, such as the playful "Exactly Like You," they have demonstrable chemistry and sound like they are having fun. In contrast Bennett's own Playin' With My Friends , which mixes solo turns with duets (with lang, Charles, Krall, Stevie Wonder Natalie Cole, Kay Starr, Bonnie Raitt, Billy Joel) is a less successful variant of the duet formula. Like Charles' album it only works about half the time. Bennett singing the blues is a stretch to begin with and tellingly his most effective singing occurs when he sings solo—as God intended.

2. Allow singers to redefine their sound and record their "dream" albums.

Maturing singers often expand their styles and record overlooked songs as they enter their twilight years. When given proper creative support and promotion the results are often stunning. Singers with established styles are more likely to gain momentum than lose their original appeal because they have core audiences. Check out Etta James' career over the last decade. James has always been a soulful balladeer but since the 1990s she's gotten the opportunity to record four albums of American Songbook fare. Of these, 94's Mystery Lady best showcases her maturity, wisdom, and nuance as a musician and storyteller as effectively as her blues and R&B performances. In the album's liner notes she sounds grateful and ecstatic for the opportunity. She has since alternated between jazz with albums of R&B, rock and blues tunes. Her June '04 release Blues to the Bone showcases her formidable command of bluesmen classics and she sounds more alive than ever. Ruth Brown and Van Morrison are other examples of R&B singers who have found comfortable niches in jazz-oriented recordings in the latter part of their careers while maintaining their signature sound.

3. Support performers revisiting and building on their "roots."

What if Charles' last album was a collection of good old-fashioned gospel songs like the ones which inspired some of his early hits? After all he is the pivotal figure who translated gospel into secular music. One of the best tracks on Genius is his duet on "Heaven Help Us All" with the glorious soul singer Gladys Knight backed by choir. Gospel may not have been the most commercial choice but it would have been a delight. Speaking of roots, consider the case of Sarah Vaughan. After recording several undistinguished pop efforts in the '60s and early '70s Sarah Vaughan recorded some of the finest albums for Pablo Records in the late '70s and early '80s. Her amazing bebop interpretations on How Long Has this Been Going On? ('78) and her self-produced Crazy and Mixed Up ('82) were definitive proof of going home again, creating something new and leaving your mark. Another good example is Joe Williams. After recording a jazz concert and orchestral pop set at Telarc Records he made the spiritual-themed Feel the Spirit. The album was as warm and accomplished as any of his records and reflected his self-proclaimed heritage. Like many African- American singers of his generation gospel music was some of the earliest music he ever sang, which added an authentic dimension to a fine performance.

These are just a few ideas, but as our finest vocalists begin approaching maturity we must remember they are alive. Hopefully the culture can honor them for their active presence as well as their influential pasts.

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