IN SEARCH OF THE PROVERBIAL SOULMAN!
By Mark Anthony Neal
Tuesday, April 05, 2011.
Filmmaker Robert Townsend didn’t have to conjure Eddie King, Jr., the lead singer from the fictional soul group The Five Heartbeats, the subjects of Townsend’s 1991 film of the same title. Well known at the time was the role of The Dells, legendary hit-makers with songs like “Oh What a Night” and “Stay (In my Corner),” as the film’s consultants. And while the Dells’ career resembles nothing like the drama that shapes The Five Heartbeats, as veterans of the chitlin’ circuit, they of course had stories to share.
Townsend also could draw on the tradition of the male Soul singer—the proverbial Soul Man—an iconic figure from the 1960s and 1970s that congealed grand narratives of tragedy—shot dead in a motel; shot dead by your father; shot dead in a game of Russian Roulette; killed in an airplane crash; scorched by a pot of boiling grits, paralyzed in a car accident, marrying your dead mentor’s wife months after his death—wedded to even more complicated personal demons—physical abuse of wives and girlfriends; sexual assault of younger female artists; sex with underage girls.
Conventional wisdom is that these tragedies were the price that these men were damned to pay for offering their Godly gifts of voice for sale in the marketplace of the flesh. And immediately we can see Choir Boy, the Five Heartbeats’ falsetto voiced singer, arguing with his preacher dad about the temptations of being out on the road. What was Choir Boy’s story line was likely applicable for the majority of these men who took a leap of faith—literally—and hoped that those gifts from God would translate into some modicum of fame and the ability to live the “good life,” for a generation of black folk, for which such themes were always simply an ideal. The glitz and glamour of those early Motown days were more wishful thinking than anything—just look at the building in Detroit that housed the famed “Hitsville, USA.”
And whatever the tragedies that befell these men, they were not occur in isolation; in the decades before the internet and 24-hour new cycles, and when Jet Magazine was effectively Black America’s social media, the Soul Man was the secular brethren of the equally iconic Race Man—figures who were dually in a noble (and decidedly patriarchal) struggle against good and evil; blackness and whiteness; military aggression and pacifism; sex and love; and “class and crass” to quote another fictional Soul Man, Dream Girls’ Curtis Taylor. These men existed at the same crossroads where legendary Bluesman Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil (and damn if his BET founding namesake ain’t been every bit the devil); a subtle reminder that if Huey Newton or Medgar Evers had been able to carry a tune or two over a Motown backbeat or a Stax horn chart, they might have still been in the line of fire.
When Townsend’s The Five Heartbeats was released in March of 1991, audiences might have still been aching over the shocking murder of Marvin Gaye, 6 years and 362 days earlier. In truth, Michael Wright’s Eddie King, Jr., most evoked the troubled and tragic soul that was David Ruffin, lead singer of the most classic Temptations’ lineup from 1964, until his ouster in 1968, though Five Heartbeats cast-mate Leon would better perfect Ruffin’s cavalier brilliance in his portrait of him for the television mini-series The Temptations (1997).
Townsend’s movie was released only months after the first of two box-set collections of Gaye’s musical career was released, a moment that demanded a re-evaluation of Gaye’s career, which could be heard in the generation of R&B singers that emerged in the 1990s including Kenny Lattimore, Maxwell, D’Angelo and perhaps, most dramatically, Robert Sylvester Kelly. As the quintessential Soul Man (save Sam Cooke, who served as the template), it was not difficult to read Gaye onto Eddie King, Jr. or a generation later, Eddie Murphy’s stellar portrait of the fictional James “Thunder” Early in the film adaptation of Dreamgirls.
In many ways the specter of Marvin Gaye continues to haunt contemporary imaginations of Soul Men. Perhaps it’s because Marvin Gaye was a project incomplete—we all long for what Gaye might have had to say about the Hip-hop generation that was just emerging when he took his last breathe and how he might have engaged the music that was produced in its wake. I for one, wonder what Gaye might have had to say to Mr. Kelly—men who could be accused of, but never convicted of the same crime; like I said there are stories to tell.
But what makes Gaye’s music so singular, is that he never seemed to seek redemption—he seemed almost tragically comfortable with the duality of his experiences and his duel lust for God and the flesh—thinking of his description of sex, fucking really, as “something like sanctified.” Indeed figures as diverse as Al Green, Teddy Pendergrass, Ronald Isley, Charlie Wilson—and yes, even Mr. Kelley, have actively sought, and in some cases found redemption.
Even Eddie King, Jr. found his redemption, singing Rance Allen’s “I Feel Like Going On” in one of the most memorable scenes from The Five Heartbeats. There are no such moments in Gaye’s career—even his most lasting performance, singing the National Anthem at the 1983 All-star game in Los Angeles, was not so much an attempt at redemption, as it was one last dig at the failings of American Democracy—that programmed back-beat a reminder of the Black humanity that lie at the center of a radical Democratic project.
And it is perhaps this lack of resolution that makes Marvin Gaye such a difficult cinematic subject—and perhaps the very reason the idea of Eddie King, Jr.—and all the men who contributed to his mythic creation, will continue to resonate well after The Five Heartbeats are forgotten.
Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African & African-American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of five books including the forthcoming Looking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities (New York University Press). Neal is also the host of the weekly webcast, Left of Black, produced in collaboration with the John Hope Franklin Center at Duke University.