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They're Still Here: How to Honor Maturing Singers

By Published: September 17, 2004
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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