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Lady Day to Lady Tee: The Leading Ladies of Blue-Eyed Soul

Saturday, Oct 23rd

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Lady Day to Lady Tee: The Leading Ladies of Blue-Eyed Soul

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Growing up my mother played a lot of what’s now referred to as “old school” music—Atlantic Starr, Luther Vandross, Patti LaBelle, Prince, and the like. But I recall being particularly enamored by the voice of the woman singing alongside Rick James in the classic R&B song, “Fire and Desire.” As a child, I thought, this lady can really sing, but I was shocked to learn some years later that this big “Black voice” belonged to a 5-foot White woman—Teena Marie.

Also known as the “Ivory Queen of Soul,” Marie’s powerfully soulful vocals not only fooled me, but led many to believe that she was in fact Black. This dichotomy of White singers with Black voices is the basis for “blue-eyed soul,” a term that describes R&B and soul music performed by White artists.

While the success of contemporary artists like Joss Stone and Robin Thicke may suggest that the concept is now obsolete or even offensive, the term blue-eyed soul originated in the mid-’60s at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and describes a time when many White musicians thrived on performing Motown-like music, albeit watered-down for mass consumption.

The godmother of blue-eyed soul is Chris Clark, Motown's first White female soul singer. Her most memorable tracks are 1965's “Loves Gone Bad” and 1966's “Do Right Baby, Do Right.” Clark was known as "the White Negress" in England (a term meant to be enduring) for her 6-foot frame and platinum blond hair.

With their straight-laced appearance in contrast to their emotive vocal style The Righteous Brothers, a doo-wop duo from Southern California, first defined the sub-genre with their smash hit “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” During the ’70s blue-eyed soul continued to flourish, especially among British artists. For example, in 1975, David Bowie was one of the early White artists to appear on “Soul Train.” George Michael also became the first White solo artist to sing a duet with the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin. When Daryl Hall of the self-proclaimed “rock and soul” duo Hall & Oates learned that their funk-infused song, “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” hit No. 1 on the U.S. R&B charts in 1982, he famously wrote in his diary, “I’m the head soul brother in the U.S. Where to now?”

However, the Afro-centric hip-hop movement of the late ’80s and early ’90s generated criticism from some about the exploitation of Black music by White artists.  Thus, the question of authenticity has always remained at the forefront of the blue-eyed soul debate.

Blacks seem more receptive to an artist like rapper Enimem because of his experience and exposure to African-American culture, growing up in Detroit. Whereas the pill is harder to swallow with say, Justin Timberlake, who began his career on “The All-New Mickey Mouse Club” and went on to front the bubblegum boy band *NSYNC.

In March, British songstress Adele’s sophomore album, “21,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts proving that after 40 years the genre’s flame won’t be snuffed out. In fact, with the sudden and unexpected death of Marie in December 2010, it’s as though the torch of blue-eyed soul has been passed on, so we pay homage to six women of blue-eyed soul and the Black female artists who inspired them.