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Move On Up: Why 60s And 70s Black Music Will “Resonate Through Time”
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Interviews

Move On Up: Why 60s And 70s Black Music Will “Resonate Through Time”

‘Knowing what’s happening today,’ Lalah Hathaway tells Dig!, the socio-political soul music of the 70s ‘could have been written last week’.

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From Louis Armstrong to Kanye West, Muddy Waters to George Clinton, and Charlie Parker to Aretha Franklin, America has produced an incredible array of influential black musicians during the last 100 years who have all played a pivotal role in shaping the style, form and direction of popular music. These trailblazers of jazz, blues, soul, funk and hip-hop have enriched pop’s DNA with unique melodic, harmonic and rhythmic innovations that have simultaneously propelled the music forward while reflecting the lives and times of its creators. During the 60s and 70s, in particular, black music was at the forefront of some of the most exciting developments in pop culture, fusing pioneering sounds with a socio-political consciousness that laid the groundwork for future generations to follow.

Listen to classic songs from the world’s most influential black musicians here.

Progressive and expansive: black music in the 60s and 70s

The 60s was a key decade for black music, witnessing the emergence of the influential soul and funk music styles that ushered in a more progressive and expansive approach to music-making in the 70s. The seeds for what became soul music were sown in 1955 when Ray Charles controversially married the sanctified cadences of gospel music with the sensuality of the blues on his groundbreaking single I Got A Woman. Charles’ chart-topping hybrid established a blueprint for what evolved into soul music during the 60s and which was further developed by the innovations of James Brown, Sam Cooke, Solomon Burke, Carla Thomas, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye.

Another important pioneer of 60s soul music was Chicago-born singer-songwriter Curtis Mayfield, whose seraphic falsetto voice was first heard as part of the influential group The Impressions. Mayfield was a major architect of “Chicago Soul”, a finely orchestrated R&B style that oozed urbanity; though lighter than the earthy Memphis Stax sound, it was grittier than the polished production-line pop-soul coming out of Detroit on the Motown label.

“He had to deal with segregated towns and sleep in a car”

Like many black musicians, Mayfield’s roots were in gospel music. “I think it was very important in his musical development because he spent a lot of time in the church as a child,” Mayfield’s son Cheaa tells Dig! “So the topics and sounds in some of his songs were based on gospel music.”

As the 60s developed, Mayfield emerged as an eloquent social commentator, which stemmed from his regular encounters with racism and injustice. “I think that was based on a lot of his personal experiences,” says Cheaa, “because as a performer he had to deal with going to segregated towns and having to sleep in a car because there were no hotels that would allow him to rent a room for the night.”

“These were civil-rights anthems sung by protestors”

Cheaa Mayfield says his father “stood for equality for everybody and supported the underdog”, but wasn’t embittered by being discriminated against; instead, he wrote melodic, uplifting songs full of hope and determination, among them People Get Ready and Keep On Pushing, which soundtracked black Americans’ struggles for freedom and justice. “They were civil-rights anthems,” explains Cheaa, “and sung by the protesters when people marched or went on buses to stage sit-ins.”

Mayfield started his own label, Curtom, in 1968; two years later, he left The Impressions to begin a storied solo career. He continued to chronicle black life, though his observations were often grittier and more sardonic than before. One of his most iconic solo albums from the 70s is Roots. “It’s a great work of art,” says Cheaa proudly. “It’s my favourite among my Dad’s albums because it has some strong grooves – it’s also inspirational and takes you back to when he was singing Keep On Pushing.”

“These problems still exist”

Mayfield died in 1998, but his contributions to 60s and 70s black music still have immense value. “The reason why his music resonates with so many people today is that the problems he sang about unfortunately still exist,” observes Cheaa.

Like Mayfield, fellow Chicagoan Donny Hathaway – a musical polymath noted for his caressing voice, virtuoso piano playing and supreme arranging skills – was a crucial figure in shaping soul music in the 70s. Unsurprisingly, his roots were also in gospel music, but enrolling in Howard University, in Washington, DC, led him to combine classical music, jazz and blues with his church upbringing to create a singular style that was in sync with the progressive zeitgeist of 70s black music. “I think the times [he was living in] drove it,” explains Hathaway’s daughter, Lalah, a five-time Grammy winner who keeps the Hathaway name alive today. “There was this confluence of influences and all of these things just meshed together.”

“Those records are so true; they will resonate throughout time”

Lalah attributes her father’s unique sound to his ability to convert his personal experiences into spellbinding musical stories. “He was an alchemist,” she says. “What he brought into his music was his upbringing in Chicago – cold weather, the gospel church, an educated mind and his neighbourhood. He also sang about the civil unrest that was happening in the 70s, and being a black man in America. That was what made his music so compelling and relatable for people.”

The scope of Hathaway’s work is clearly reflected in A Donny Hathaway Collection, a seminal anthology whose highlights include his debut hit, 1970’s The Ghetto, as well as his indelible reading of Nina Simone’s aspirational anthem To Be Young, Gifted And Black. “Those records are so true that they will continue to resonate throughout time,” stresses Lalah, who sees a parallel between the 1970s and the 2020s in regard to America’s racial divisions and inequities. “Knowing what’s happening in America today, his music – which was created during the civil-rights movement – could have been written last week.”

One of her father’s most enduring songs is Someday We’ll All Be Free, a rousing utopian hymn that’s been covered by everyone from Aretha Franklin to Alicia Keys. “It’s such a beautiful song of hope for so many people,” says Lalah. “I think what people can relate to about my dad on that song is that they feel his vulnerability, honesty and pain – but at the end there’s a sense of hope that he always left you with in his music.”

Despite his music’s life-affirming optimism, Hathaway tragically took his own life, aged 33, in 1979, but his influence – in particular, his distinctive vocal mannerisms – helped to shape both New Jack Swing in the late 80s and the neo-soul movement of the 90s; it also had a profound impact on singers such as Amy Winehouse, John Legend and, more recently, Gregory Porter.

“We found new and innovative sounds”

Hathaway came on the radar of many listeners via his 70s hit duets with Roberta Flack, whom he met at Howard University and whose musical bedrock was also founded on gospel. But, like Hathaway, her sensibility was also shaped by other influences. “When I was 15, I was awarded a scholarship to Howard as a classical concert pianist,” Flack says, but she reveals that, from the outset, she wanted to be original and authentic: “I tried to find my own voice in the inspiration I found listening to everything I could hear.”

Flack distilled her various influences (which ranged from Frédéric Chopin to Nina Simone) into a warm, intimate and understated style. Her career ignited in 1972, when her haunting version of Scottish folk singer Ewan MacColl’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face spent six weeks at the top of the US pop charts. “It was breathtaking and

surreal,” laughs Flack, recalling those heady days. She first heard the song when a friend played her the 1963 version by gospel-folk duo Joe And Eddie. “I thought it so beautiful and added it to my first album,” says Flack, who has film director Clint Eastwood to thank for helping to expose her version to a wider audience. “He called to say that he loved the song and wanted to use it in his movie Play Misty For Me,” remembers the singer. “After that, it really took off.”

While Flack’s male counterparts – Donny Hathaway and Curtis Mayfield among them – were expanding soul music’s palette in the 70s, she was also progressive in terms of her sound and arrangements. “There was so much happening in music – not just in soul and jazz,” she explains. “Stevie [Wonder], George Clinton, Donny and me, alongside Carole [King], Elton [John] and Bruce Springsteen all had so much to say. In the recording studios, we were able to find new and innovative sounds.”

“As a woman of colour, I had to do ten times as much”

Though Flack’s career flourished in the 70s – in the US, she racked up three No.1 pop singles and six gold albums – it wasn’t without its struggles. “As a woman of colour, I, like so many others, had to do ten times as much to achieve half the success,” she says. Even so, she wasn’t afraid to take risks, and, from her 1975 album, Feel Like Makin’ Love, onwards, Flack took the bold step of producing herself. “In a broad sense, it gave me more freedom to create my own sound,” she explains. “But in a real sense, it created so much more pressure as I had to consider finite realities like budgets.”

Now 84, Roberta Flack remains an active musician. Her place in the pantheon of 70s black music innovators is assured because of those iconic records she made.

An ever-evolving continuum

Despite the unique styles they cultivated, and their different career paths, Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack all had one thing in common: the sanctified sound of the black church. It imbued their music with a visceral emotional power that enabled them to connect deeply with millions of listeners across the globe.

While their original recordings have stood the test of time and continue to be revered by soul music connoisseurs, perhaps the ultimate accolade for this illustrious trio is how their music and messages reverberate with newer and younger generations. That’s partly because of the role hip-hop has played in pop culture over the last 40-plus years, with its voracious sampling and recycling of old-school soul and funk records, fashioning snippets of antique drum beats, vocal hooks, chord sequences and orchestral lines into new grooves.

It’s a development that shows how 60s and 70s black music continues to be an important element in the ever-evolving continuum that is contemporary culture.

Classic albums by Curtis Mayfield (Roots), Donny Hathaway (A Donny Hathaway Collection), Aretha Franklin (Young, Gifted And Black) and more have been reissued on limited edition coloured vinyl as part of our 2021 Black History Month celebrations. Check out the full range here

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