There used to be a time, around 15-20 years ago when people would make fun of the Rolling Stones for continuing to do what they do into their late ’40’s and on past their ’50’s. Headlines such as “Senile On Main St.” were commonplace. Now most of the writers who wrote those headlines are on in years themselves and the Stones haven’t stopped or even marginally slowed down. Jagger’s still a lithe tornado of wiry energy, Wood maintains an adolescent (bar the wrinkles) wafer thin demeanor (he even dates teenagers)!, Watts’ bespoke polite indifference and Richards’ continued....existence well into their mid-’60’s, have shocked and ultimately won over the respect of critics who have finally been forced to accept that the Stones are a force of nature the likes of which we have never seen. And so it is with that global respect, a record breaking world tour and savvy business moves that they have managed to reposition themselves with a new recording deal and doubtless a new album and world tour will soon be in the works. It must be a great way to spend your life, being one of the Rolling Stones.
What other bands will be saying the same thing in years to come? U2, yes, probably, Sting/The Police, may be, Brice Springsteen of course and then there are a host of other rock/pop legends whose brand seems ageless - Bowie, Elton John, the Eagles, Aerosmith, Rod Stewart, Bon Jovi, the Who, perhaps. None with the same aplomb of the Stones though....but still they will be around, still drawing the crowds and making lots of cash well into their golden years.
On the R&B/soul side, however, the same, unfortunately cannot be said. Who were the supergroups in the ’60’s & ’70’s? the Temptations, the O’Jays, the Four Tops, Earth Wind & Fire, Chaka Khan. Awesome talent, no doubt and every bit as valid as their rock legend brethren but I bet if I made a phone call right now and came up with the right amount of cash I could probably book every one of them for my next door neighbors’ wedding or bar mitzvah. I know what you’re saying - ‘yes but I could probably book Mick’n’Keef and Sir Elton if I came up with the right amount of money’?. Possibly. But the price tags would be considerably different as would the notice given. And let’s face it how many of our soul music greats are still on major record labels and how many can still gallop around the world filling stadiums and being relevant to the music industry? Not a lot. I reckon there are only a handful of R&B/soul music legends who can still fill arenas on name value alone...and they because of their true “crossover” status - Prince, Stevie Wonder and Tina Turner immediately spring to mind. For the rest, unless they protected their music publishing catalog, life as a 60 year-old soul music great ain’t always so great.
In part it’s why the Rhythm & Blues Foundation was formed which often holds a benefit to help legendary R&B acts with essential things such as health insurance and even housing. Sure you can still see the likes of Maze & Frankie Beverly, The Spinners, Dells and Bobby Womack playing in venues across the US but of course it never compares with what rock legends can pull in on tour and with back catalog releases.
We have to ask ourselves why the difference? Why are classic black music artists not supported by their fans and the music industry the same way as rock legends are? In fact, why are soul music vets referred to as “old school” and rock's equivalent, “legends”?
Much of the blame in US has to be leveled at the audience themselves. Black music audiences are smaller than rock audiences, particularly those from from the ’60’s and ’70’s but perhaps more importantly the African American demographic seems to be a lot more fickle. In the last year or two I’ve seen the Stones, U2 and the Police in New York and while there is definitely an older demographic, particularly with the Stones, there are also a surprising amount of younger faces in the crowd, too. Support of such a groups is almost generational and they are marketed by their record labels and corporate America as such. Just look at the "new" face of fashion label Louis Vuitton - Keith Richards! It's still cool to be an old rocker. The same definitely cannot be said of shows by the likes of EW&F or Frankie Beverly & Maze. They are branded as ‘golden oldies’ and most R&B orientated audiences under the age of 30 wouldn’t be seen dead at their shows. In fact, the term ‘R&B audience’ is almost considered an oxymoron in this hip-hop driven world. For them it’s about the latest and greatest; Jay-Z, Kanye, Lil Wayne, Akon. These are the stadium fillers of today. Even Lauryn Hill is now considered ‘old school’!
Record companies tend to buy into this disparity hook, line and sinker. Even with plummeting record sales an older R&B artist with a strong back catalog and solid following generally has a hard time getting taken seriously by a major record label. The fact that Usher has sold less than a million copies of his new album in the first month of release has also had many skeptics labeling him “old school!”. Chris Brown is now the “it” name. Usher and his million copies, now seemingly tossed on the R&B scrap heap....and he’s not even 30! Will Beyonce also soon be past it? Seemingly heading towards golden oldie status are a host of mainstays from the last decade: R. Kelly, Joe, Faith. As for Brandy and Monica - definite has been status. How long before Alicia Keys and John Legend have to make way for the younger generation? Unless they are truly accepted the way say a Coldplay and John Mayer are accepted their outlook in the US looks far from a foregone conclusion. Ironically, many legendary R&B acts that are often overlooked by today's audiences in the US manage to tour regularly overseas and earn a decent living, their music and talented still respected and revered in Europe and Japan. Not to the same financial extent as rock's supergroups from yesteryear but the fact that their talent is more respected elsewhere than in their own backyard is a sobering and many would say sad state of affairs. There is a lot of sociological, psychoanalysis that could be read into the fact that black music audiences don’t support black music acts on a long term basis the same way that white audiences do. I won’t delve into that. But the facts are the facts.
“America Eats Its Young” was the title of a Funkadelic album from the early ’70’s. Little did they know, that where R&B is concerned, just how prophetic those words would prove to be.
About the Writer
Jeff Lorez has enjoyed a long and varied career in the music business. As a journalist he has written for a slew of publications and web sites including, Blues & Soul, Billboard, Yahoo.com and the Daily Telegraph and as a music publisher he has been involved in recent chart topping hits by Alexis Jordan and Cher Lloyd.