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By Mark Anthony Neal | with thanks to NewBlackMan

Thursday, March 8, 2012.

The young lady who is the absolute personification of soul itself”—MC, January 1970

In his brilliant and demanding book, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, theorist Fred Moten describes Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin as a “record of a wonderfully articulate body in pain.” (107)  Recorded as Holiday’s body was literally falling apart, Lady in Satin lacks the robustness and sassiness that marked so many of Holiday’s earlier recordings.  Here, Holiday is defiant, though, embracing death in the full bloom of her imperfection(s). As Moten writes, Holiday, “uses the crack in the voice, extremity of the instrument, willingness to fail reconfigured as a willingness to go past…” The same could be said for Soul singer Linda Jones who recorded her most famous tune, “Hypnotized” a decade after Holiday’s death. What links Holiday and the largely obscure Jones, is the violence they enacted—lyrically and musically—within the realm of their vocal performances.  This was a violence, that in large part, was a response to that which their own bodies bore witness to—how does one sing of a body in pain?

Born in Newark, NJ in 1944, Jones spent much of her childhood and early adulthood struggling with a debilitating case of diabetes, which as writer Becca Mann suggests, “lent her career an urgency.”  The disease led to Jones’ early demise at the age of 28—she was in the midst of successful week-long engagement at the Apollo Theater in Harlem at the time of her death in 1972. Vocally, Jones style can only be described as “fits of melisma”—melisma being that particular style of vocal performance that is marked by the singing of single syllables across several pitches—and it is likely one of the reasons, including lack of national distribution, Jones never found a mainstream audience for her music.  Though some found Jones performances as overwrought, that was exactly the point; Jones performed songs like “That’s When I’ll Stop Loving You” or “For Your Precious Love” not simply as  performative gestures, but as if she knew she was dying.

Linda Jones’s music demanded an emotional investment—specifically, in the lives of black women—that mainstream audiences, I’d like to argue, were likely incapable of making at the time. While Aretha Franklin is a seemingly clear example of a black woman who attracted a broad mainstream audience in the late 1960s, I would argue that Jones’s performances were inspired by a depth of pain that Franklin’s music more actively attempted to transcend. While Jones had peers in this regard—the tragic career and life of Esther Phillips being a prime example—few could match her vocal calisthenics.  As Rolling Stone critic Russell Gersten once commented, Jones sounded like “someone down on her knees, pounding the floor, suddenly jumping up to screech something, struggling to make sense of a desperately unhappy life.”

What distinguished Jones from a figure such as Holiday, was the extent that Jones made palpable the influence of the Black Church on her vocal style.  As such, Jones was of a generation of vocalists, who were making the transition from the gospel choirs of their youth onto the secular music charts.  Sam Cooke was of course a tremendous influence in this regard and in Jones’s case that influence can be clearly  heard on her soul stirring performance of “That’s When I’ll Stop Loving You” on the live recording Never Mind the Quality…Feel the Soul. Cooke’s singing was a model of control and restraint, performed under the guise of aesthetic risk-taking—Cooke arching to reach that high-note, only to float seamlessly across a phrase. Jones, in comparison, had no interest playing to the fiction that she was in control of anything—the music, her voice and at times her own body.  Both artists had the ability to present an aura of vulnerability that made their music so palpable to audiences—Cooke’s emotiveness was particularly striking for a male singer—but in Jones case shewas vulnerable and each performance was an attempt grasp a slither of the humanity that was slowly departing from her.

Jones, like Cooke and others including Franklin and Sly Stone (Sylvester Stewart) helped secularize African-American gospel ritual in the late 1950s and 1960s. In his work on the tradition of African-American gospel quartets (the specific tradition that helped produce Cooke), Ray Allen writes, “in its ritualized context, gospel performance promises salvation for the believer in this world as well as the next.  Chanted narratives remind listeners of their past experiences, collective struggle, common southern and familial roots, and shared sense of ethnic identity.” (The Journal of American Folklore, Summer 1991).  Such rituals likely allowed Jones to provide her audience with some language to better interpret the aspects of her performance that were simply beyond language.  In this regard, Jones literally had to talk through those aspects of her pain—testifyin’ as it were—in order to better galvanize her audience, which was largely African-American, around her pain and by extension the pain uniquely experienced by African-American women.

Jones’ desire to give tangible meaning to her pain  is evident during her performance of “Things I Been Through.” Ostensibly a song about a woman surviving the infidelity of a partner, Jones’ sermonic break  midway through the song, transforms it into a performance of  (black) women-centered resistance in which Jones seemingly relishes her literacy of African-American church traditions.  Speaking directly to her audience, Jones says:

I don’t believe you people out there no what I’m talking about/I hear people say that it’s a weak women that cries/But I do believe that there are very few women that can stand up under all of this pressure without out at least shedding one tear/I do believe that some of you out there have had heartaches and pain of some kind…/now if you have, I just want you to raise your hand and say with me just one time…/now mercy, mercy, mercy, mercy, whoo, whoa”

The irony for Jones is that it was never about simply “shedding one tear”, but a cavalcade of shrieks, screams and cries that found its place in the violence she did literally to each note she sang.  As Elaine Scarry observes  in her now classic book The Body in Pain (1985), one of the dimensions of physical pain is “its ability to destroy language, the power of verbal objectification, a major source of our self extension, a vehicle through which the pain could be lifted out into the world and eliminated.” (54) .

Things I Been Through” highlights the ways that Jones’ music was transgressive, particularly with regards to the connections between the black preacher and African-American musical idioms.  According to jazz scholar Robert O’Meally, the “black preacher presents a rhythmically complex statement in which melisma, repetition, the dramatic pause, and a variety of other devices associate with black music are used,” noting that the “man or woman of the Word,” often “drops words altogether and moans, chants, sings, grunts, hums, and/or holler the morning message in a way that one of [Ralph] Ellison’s characters calls the ‘straight meaning of the words’.” (Callaloo, Winter 1988). Writing in the late 1980s, O’Meally’s analysis captures a more progressive notion of the gender politics of the black pulpit, but when Jones was recording in the late 1960s, the idea of a black female preacher—and there were many—was still fairly radical concept, especially during an era when many still presumed black men of the cloth to be the logical public voices of black communities. (Think here of James Brown’s deliberate marketing of Jones contemporary Lynn Collins as the “female preacher” ) “Things I Been Through” is notable because it is one of the best examples of the ways that Jones employed the black preacher tradition—historically one of the most prominent sites of black patriarchal power and privilege—in the service of addressing black female pain and struggle. Consider the way, for example, that Jones disturbs assumptions about the relationship between physical emotiveness and weakness stating that there are “very few women that can stand up under all of this pressure without out at least shedding one tear.”

Jones’ music was also transgressive because of the way that it exploited African-American religious rituals for distinctly secular concerns.  The same could be said about the black liberation struggle of Jones era, which consciously utilized the discourses of Christianity to address the political and social realities of the black masses.  But in this regard, Jones’ music  was concerned with the more immediate concerns of pleasure and joy amidst the physical pain that largely defined Jones’ life; Jones’ rendition of “For Your Precious Love”, popularized by Jerry Butler exemplifies these desires.  Like “Things I’ve Been Through” Jones’ version of “For Your Precious Love” features a sermonic break, though Jones also provides a spoken introduction to the song. Midway through the song Jones addresses the women in her audience (“you know something ladies. It’s especially you ladies I’d like to speak with”):

Sometime I wake up in the midnight hours, tears falling down my face/And when I look around for my man and can’t find him/I fall a little lower, look a little higher/Kind a pray to the Lord, because I always believe that Lord could help me if nobody else could/But sometimes I think that he don’t hear me/So I have to fall a little lower on my knees, look a little higher/kind of raise my voice a little higher…”

Here Jones suggest that the “Lord” was not fully attentive to her needs. Though this could be read as a rejection of religious practice, I’d like to suggest that, given Jones' use of the African-American gospel ritual, that she was instead rejecting the distinctly masculine concerns (“he don’t hear me”) in which often frame such practices.  In other words, Jones is suggesting that if such practices were fully cognizant of the lives of black women, as embodied in Jones’s voice, the emotional and sexual desires of black women would be addressed. In Jones’ case the desire for companionship, in the midnight hour, was infused with the knowledge that any midnight could be her last.

A Case of the Runs: A Consideration of Keyshia Cole

Whereas the Soul singers of Linda Jones’ era often strategically deployed their use of melisma, it can be said that many contemporary R&B singers have a case of the runs.  For example what often marked  the best performances of seminal R&B singer Luther Vandross, was his ability and willingness to leave his audiences anxious in wait for the deep runs that he was noted for. With a flair for the dramatic, Vandross often held out those runs towards the end of a song as a form artistic denouement—a final pronouncement, if you will, of his singular vocal genius.  In the case of Vandross and others of his generation (think here of Whitney Houston at her peak), these moment were to be cherished—a grand gesture for the audiences that supported his music.

Such subtleties have largely been lost on the contemporary crop of R&B singers, who often break into frantic riffs and runs midway through the first verse, in the process cheapening the integrity of the lyric as well as audience’s investment in their craft. And it’s not necessarily the fault of the singers,  at a moment when so-called “urban” music is being driven by producers whose skill set is largely related to making beats and many young singers are simply not getting the vocal direction that the deserve.  For example producers such as Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd were seasoned veterans when they worked with Aretha Franklin upon her move to Atlantic Records in 1967 after languishing at Columbia Records for a few years.  In the case of Patti LaBelle, another vocalist well known for her histrionics, one of her most popular recordings as a solo performer—“If Only You Knew” (1983)—was the product of her collaboration with Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. The duo had worked with LaBelle a decade earlier on Laura Nyro’s Gonna Take a Miracle and thus knew how to reign in her voice to produce, what remains, her most nuanced performance. Too often contemporary R&B singers are working with producers who have been in the game only a few years longer than they have.

This lack of experience by producers and vocalists often adds to the dissonance that resonates in the vocal quality of figures like Mary J. Blige or Faith Evans, who have become easy targets for a generation that is regularly thought to be out of tune—musically, morally, and politically—with the Soul singers of the 1960s and 1970s.  But I’d like to suggest that such dissonance is not simply the product  of a generation of singers who are out of pitch—and lacking the training to know so—but a response to the ways that post-Civil Rights generations hear the world.  The nostalgic harmonies of the Civil Rights Generation (and their parents, many of whom are in the 80s) strikes discord in the lives of post-Civil Rights generations, notably Generation Hip-Hop,  which have never had a tangible relationship to concepts such as “freedom” and “liberation” that some in the old guard presumed was transferable.  Issues like the crack cocaine epidemic, the prison industrial complex, police brutality, voter disenfranchisement largely based on race and class, wage depression, lack of access to quality and affordable healthcare, misogyny, the failing infrastructure of public schooling, homophobia,  as well as a populism of common sense (which by definition is stridently conservative and anti-intellectual),  have often left post-Civil Rights generations grasping for straws, much the way Keyshia Cole—who I offer for your consideration—seems to frantically grasp for notes in virtually every song that she sings.

In the case of Cole, her singing style really is the embodiment of her on-going desire to hold together a life that has been fragmented by an absentee-father, a drug addicted and incarcerated mother, a difficult stint in  foster care and her years as a runaway.  Cole’s debut recording The Way It Is (2005) provides some context for her near-tragic back-story, which became the basis of a reality show (production on season two is about to begin) which captures Cole’s attempts to find some closure to her relationship with her mother and the hard-scrabble Oakland community that reared her.  And though none of Cole’s songs, many of which she co-wrote, speak directly to the struggles of her childhood and teenage years, those  difficulties are implicit  in lyrics like “I used to think that I wasn’t fine enough/And I used to think that I wasn’t wild enough” (from “Love”) which powerfully attest to Cole’s desire to be loved—by any somebody—and the desire to matter in society that has shown little love for young, poor, and homeless black girls.

It was in fact a demo copy of Cole’s “Love” that found its way to industry executive Ron Fair in 2003 and became the stimulus for his  signing of  Cole to Interscope A&M Records. As Fair recently noted, “When [Cole] sings, there’s real feeling in the notes…There’s pain in her voice that is coming from reality.” (LATimes, 4.20.06)  Much of the drama in “Love” pivots on Cole’s utterances of the words “found/find” throughout the song’s chorus (“Love, never knew what I was missing, but I knew once we start kissing I fououououounnd, love”).  In the context of the song, found is the virtual space where Cole finds some emotional and psychic grounding. But as the tortured nature of the performance suggest, this space offers little solace—if Cole relaxes one bit, the performance literally falls flat—as Cole is symbolically in constant turmoil with the melodic terrain that she is largely responsible for creating.  

With a successful reality series in rotation and relative mainstream visibility for her music, Keyshia Cole has access to an audience that Linda Jones couldn’t even imagine.  What the two artists share is a willingness to make plain, musically, the pain that has defined their lives, in the process creating a sensual and spiritual space which gives voice to the wide ranging desires and fears of black women—even as so many simply want render their music as little more than noise.


A version of this essay was published in the collection The Best African-American Essays, 2009.


Mark Anthony Neal is the author of five books including the forthcoming Looking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities (New York University Press) and Professor of African & African-American Studies at Duke University. He is founder and managing editor of NewBlackMan and host of the weekly webcast Left of Black. Follow him on Twitter @NewBlackMan.




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