Lou Rawls was defined not only by his lush baritone, but by the romantic tunes that were part of his signature sound. A classic crooner with an R&B slant, Rawls was a singer whose tenderness was echoed by Luther Vandross and others. But that style is heard less and less on radio today. Though there are still smooth, sexy tenors and deep baritones, it's hard to find male singers performing gallant love songs with the silky style of Rawls, Vandross, Barry White, or Donny Hathaway.
"It's a big loss. We're losing too many singers," legendary songwriter Burt Bacharach said after Rawls' death from lung cancer Jan. 6. Rawls was buried Friday in Los Angeles; his funeral was a celebration of his life and music. Mourners, famous and unknown, clapped and swayed to performances by Andre Crouch, Stevie Wonder, Della Reese, Joan Baez and Willie Rogers of the Soul Stirrers gospel quartet, which Rawls performed with, who shook the congregation with "A Change is Gonna Come." The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who presided over the service, eulogized Rawls as "authentic, an original, a source of light in dark places."
Bob Slade, a host at the New York City old-school radio station WRKS-FM, said what defined artists like Rawls and Vandross is that "they were stylists. When you heard them, you knew exactly who they were." "We're not going to see that anymore," he said. What also differentiated Rawls and others was the material.
Today's slow R&B grooves are not about idyllic love, but more often by sex-focused euphoria or the drama of broken relationships. The slow songs that helped propel Usher's 2004 album "Confessions" to 8 million in sales were characterized by cheating ("Confessions") and an impending breakup ("Burn").
The music of R. Kelly, perhaps the most consistent male R&B chart-topper, is most identifiable for its highly sexual tone. Romantic ballads may still exist, "but I don't know that it's going to the top of the charts like it used to," says Babyface, whose own career as a singer and producer has been defined by hopelessly romantic love songs. His latest album "Grown & Sexy" was an attempt to put the romance back in music.
"There was a whole period where it kind of wasn't necessarily cool to be romantic," he said. Some singers say that today's audience only want to hear songs that reflect drama and grit. "I guess a little more edge is required on songs nowadays, more drama, as opposed to being pure love songs," Babyface said. "You're competing with reality TV; it's sensationalism."
That hurts the material, Slade argues. He jokes that if aliens landed on Earth and listed to today's R&B music and compared it to that of the early 1990s "they'd say we're a sorry bunch of folks, because all we're talking about is `My baby's mama, you double-crossed me, you dirty so-and-so.'
"Nobody is singing about love and the things that they sang about 30 or 40 years ago," he said. "It's about who's cheating on who." But, there are still some holdouts who manage to sing about a purer love. While John Legend's Grammy-nominated debut, "Get Lifted," has it's share of salty tunes, it's songs such as "Ordinary People", about sticking together through hard times, and the airy ballad "So High" that have boosted its popularity.
Some believe that the pendulum will have to swing back, and that singers such as Legend will no longer be the exception. "I think it will probably turn back," Babyface said. "People will get tired of being mad and start falling love", reports the AP. N.U.