I suspect cultural anthropologists of a certain age look back now and swear something awful happened to their music. They probably say their tastes got hijacked between the early 1970s and the millennium.
But I can tell them precisely what was taken: real voices, real instruments and, well, real talent.
At the turn of the ’70s, Baby Boomers turned up the volume on soul sounds like Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones,” Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” and Luther Ingram’s “If Loving You Is Wrong.”
Who from that generation can forget the contribution to the genre The Spinners made with their single “I’ll Be Around” or The Staple Singers with their “I’ll Take You There”?
OK, I know I’ve already outraged a generation of rap fans. They would remind me that the Philadelphia sound might have held sway in early 1973 but doesn’t appeal to the masses in 2023. It moved aside for rawer, more poetic vocals.
I won’t make a blanket statement about how misogynistic early rap music was, because I know as well as anybody else the word “all” ought not be thrown around like confetti in ticker-tape parades.
Still, how do you put rappers like Rick Ross and Danny Brown in the same discussion of musical excellence as, oh, Barry White and Roberta Flack?
I don’t, which is why Ross, Brown and Eminem’s songs don’t fill my playlist. I don’t find what they do with their music as elegant or as emotionally stirring as the soul sounds of Motown.
As dismissive as I am of rap, which turns 50 in August, I know it got its legs from soul music, blues and jazz. It built on what those popular styles did and spun them into direction I (and others from my yesteryears) couldn’t have imagined.
For I never expected to hear vulgarity in song passed off as poetry. I certainly didn’t expect less storytelling in the music that unfolded in the decades since “Me and Mrs. Jones made infidelity cool.
We meet every day at the same café/6:30 and no one knows she’ll be there
Paul’s Grammy-winning single — it hit radio stations September 13, 1972 — got me thinking about all of this. Its importance struck me when I bumped into Michael Bublé’s version of “Me and Mrs. Jones” on YouTube.
After listening to Bublé, I thought: Did he have to go here? Aren’t there other songs the Canadian crooner could have covered?
Artists know a great song when they hear it, which is why many songs get a second or third revival — for better or for worse.
I thought nobody could do John Lennon’s solo “Imagine,” released in 1971, better than he did. I thought wrong.
In 1984, songbird Randy Crawford knocked “Imagine” over the scoreboard in her remake of Lennon’s classic. Two distinctly difference voices; two unforgettable renditions.
Such were our times — the protest period that arose from the nonviolent movement. “Make love, not war,” a popular ‘60s slogan, resonated less as Vietnam was winding down.
In song, love was indeed the answer — even when it has veered in a direction I prefer it not go.
I have no idea what music will sound like in 2073. Rap/hip hop might still dominate people’s playlists. But I do hope some café will find it all right for two people to meet clandestinely there every day at 6:30.