The Death of Rhythm and Blues, by Nelson George. New York: Pantheon Books. 222 pp. $18.95. Driving along listening to oldies can be embarrassing. What drivel expanded our young hearts! How pale the Beach Boys, how dumb Elvis! Especially when followed by rhythm and blues numbers like ``Say You Will'' or ``Signed Sealed and Delivered''! What exuberance, what wit!
The palms sweat and I miss my exit.
This music hasn't grown old. R&B flirts with the ecstasy of gospel! And yet, if Nelson George is right, R&B is history, killed by success. As he tells the story in ``The Death of Rhythm and Blues,'' black music suffered the fate of any art that seeks to accommodate power and money.
George is black music editor for Billboard and author of books on Michael Jackson and Motown. He is a brilliant journalist - a historian-prophet who finds himself at odds with the drift of things. His chronicle places popular black music in the context of the ongoing black struggle for pride and equality before the law.
He begins his story by describing the tension between two approaches to the black problem in the United States at the beginning of the century. One was developed by Booker T. Washington and emphasizes economic self-sufficiency, the other by W.E.B. Du Bois and emphasizes political integration.
Du Bois ended his career - and his association with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which he helped found - by arguing for segregation. Yet Washington has had few supporters, which makes Nelson George and this book that much more significant.
Though George continuously digresses to fill in context - such as the rise of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court and the decline of the Negro baseball leagues - he could have made all his add here points by telling his sad tale of the tragic loss of financial and artistic independence of the black deejays, promoters, record producers, and artists.
``The Death of Rhythm and Blues'' is a full-scale institutional history of R&B. The heroes are the big guys who negotiated the treacherous waters of the big time and maintained their self-respect: Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, James Brown, Dinah Washington, Aretha Franklin; and the little guys who disappeared in the process of assimilation: the personality deejays, the mom-and-pops who ran the record stores that attracted new talent and sometimes brought it to fruition.
George can catch the feeling of a neighborhood - and R&B is very much a music of neighborhoods. He's as inspired by the indefatigable traveling man, black capitalist, and R&B shouter James Brown as he is about the innocent street-corner music called doo wop. But he never neglects the bigger picture - the conglomerates on the horizon with their blueprint for taking over R&B, a Harvard Business School study that served CBS well in the '70s.
The combination of cash nexus and corporate planning has proved irresistible. The artistic loss can be gauged in the following passage: ``Compare the early Aretha Franklin to Whitney Houston. Franklin's music always relied heavily on the black inner-city experience, and especially on the black church. When she forgets that, she stumbles. Houston is extremely talented, but most of her music is add here so `color-blind,' such a product of '80s crossover marketing, that in her commercial triumph is a hollowness of spirit that mocks her own gospel roots.'' Crossover is the real enemy. Building on the fact (which George holds to be axiomatic) that whites know - and love - real black music when they hear it, crossover means that a white producer, or sometimes even a black, tailors the blackness of his artist to fit a potential white audience. The reductio ad absurdum of crossover is Michael Jackson's contact lenses, nose job, asexual personality, George argues.
With so much to tell, it's not surprising that George leaves a few false impressions, even positive ones, as when he discusses the relationship of Ruth Brown and Atlantic Records. George presents it as fundamentally sound, although it has recently been reported that the great R&B singer has been cheated out of royalties for years. Brown's future is brighter today, thanks to the good offices of Howell Begle, a fan who has devoted his law add here practice to cases of several R&B stars.
By the end of the '70s, the decline seemed irreversible. And just then something unforeseeable happened, a new form of R&B rose from the ashes. It was called rap, and it was just like the old days, says George. ``Out of a black-owned New Jersey label, by way of the South Bronx, Brooklyn, Harlem, and Queens, a record called `Rapper's Delight' by the Sugar Hill Gang came out and climbed up the pop chart in 1979.'' As a journalist, George is alert to what is happening; as a historian, he seems surprised by the capacity of black culture to renew itself.
If the cloud that hangs over black music in the '80s has a silver lining, it goes by the name of Anita Baker. George was stunned by Baker's 1986 album ``Rapture.'' Here ``was an album of contemporary intelligence and old-fashioned pipes,'' he writes. Furthermore, Baker produced the album herself, using real-live bass players and drummers rather than the electronic rhythm section that took over with disco. Her singing was warm, mature: She ``shone with the maturity of a Dinah Washington.''
Baker's music makes one see things - fireworks, sails in the sunset, rainy streets at night. George uses wit to explain her impact: ``Yes, Baker made music for assimilated black Americans, though unlike that of crossover artists, her work tapped into the traditions of jazz and blues with a feeling that suggested being middle class didn't make your taste the musical equivalent of a Big Mac.'' Baker drove George himself to innovate. To cover the phenomenon, hitherto considered impossible, of black culture's digging down into its past to ``create passionate, fresh expressions and institutions,'' he coined a term - ``retronuevo.''
Retronuevo explains why ``The Death of Rhythm and Blues,'' like the music it celebrates, is about hope as well as despair. It explains why this history of R&B is must reading this campaign year.
Regardless of how many stories he tells, how many heroes, and antiheroes, he portrays, George never loses sight of the forest, the tension between racial pride and need for respect and equality before the law. It's that tension - which, as George shows, can be creative as well as destructive - that made Jesse Jackson run for president and kept all eyes on him, all ears open.
One photo in the book shows Jackson with deejay Frankie Crocker, who George says ``was cool, slick, and upwardly mobile to a fault.'' That he didn't always consider the interests of the black community makes the photo a telling one: Jackson is arm-wrestling Crocker. Both are smiling.
Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.