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The Sons of Lionel: Thomas Callaway and John Stephens


By Mark Anthony Neal | @NewBlackMan | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Tuesday, July 14, 2020.

 

That Cee Lo Green’s recording Cee Lo Green is Thomas Callaway was released on Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound label, is a stark reminder that it’s been 14 years since he broke through with Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” and a decade since “Fuck You” (from 2010’s Lady Killers) made him, albeit briefly, a pop star.  Green’s pop success almost seemed incidental and accidental in consideration of his earlier solo recordings, the robust Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections (2002) and Cee-Lo Green... Is the Soul Machine (2004), which is to say that neither, particularly the former, seemed interested in conforming to the mainstream.  As surely as Thomas Callaway finds himself in need of redemption in the #MeToo era, Cee Lo Green needs to recover a musical career. 

The pressures on John Stephens are a little different, as he has emerged as one of the most consistent and accessible models of celebrity wokeness – with a willful and dynamic domestic collaborator in Chrissy Teigen. Yet the music of John Legend, save the Oscar winning “Glory” and 2010’s Wake Up, where Legend joined The Roots on a politically minded concept album – and kudos to anyone who takes on Eugene McDaniels’ classic “Compared to What?” – has rarely recorded music that meshed easily with the rhythms and melodies of protest.  What’s to be said in the moment of a global pandemic, for which “quarantine” and “death” will live as this era's most explicit keywords; a moment that quickly shifted focus into a pandemic of another kind: anti-Black violence, which for far too many is often one in the same.  

Legend is not alone figuring the right pitch for this still unraveling time – see Beyonce’s Juneteenth anthem “Black Parade”.  And for sure Cee Lo Green will not be the last artist to attempt to rebuild a career in the midst of a scandal with a move towards interiority – see Robin Thicke’s Paula (2014), which to date is his last studio recording.  The common ground that both John Legend and Cee Lo Green find with their new releases, is the music and career of Tuskegee, Alabama legend Lionel Richie, whose music has traversed the early days of the so-called post-Civil Rights era, the emergence of the both the Ronald Reagan Right and George W. Bush Right (when Richie’s daughter Nicole was a reality TV star), the rise of commercial Hip-Hop in the 1980s, the demise of nuanced Black radio programming, several throat surgeries and his own personal scandal – the  latter long forgotten in the pre-internet and 24-hour cable news years.  Which is to say that Lionel Richie has managed to record music for almost 50 years, that just feels right, regardless of what is going on in the world.

Richie first emerged as the keyboardist, saxophonist and vocalist for The Commodores, a Motown produced Funk band that was founded on the campus of HBCU Tuskegee University. By the group’s second  album Caught in the Act, Richie began to exhibit his songwriting chops, particularly for mid-tempos and ballads  beginning with early classics like “This Is Your Life”, “Just to be Close to You” and “Zoom”.  It was with “Easy” (1977), which become the group’s most successful single, that the signature Lionel Richie sound became The Commodores sound, as evidenced by the subsequent crossover success of “Three Times a Lady”, which topped the pop charts in 1978, “Sail On” and “Still”, which also topped the pop charts. In the echo of all of those great Richie compositions were the sounds of a Black south that were too often misread as simply Soul music riff’s on so-called Country music – which runs the gamut of, of course, Ray Charles, but also Millie Jackson, Bobby Womack, Joe Simon, Charley Pride, Dorothy Moore, Darius Rucker, and Brittany Howard to name just a few.

By the time Richie starts his post-Commodores solo-career solo-career – first  with “Endless Love”,  a chart-topping duet with Diana Ross and later with “Lady”, a song he penned for Country music legend Kenny Rogers in 1980 where the Black Southerness of Country music is made more explicit – he emerged as the definitive Pop songwriter of the 1980s. To this point Rogers’ “Lady” topped the Pop, R&B and Country charts. And Richie didn’t disappoint with his eponymous debut in 1982 which included the ballads “My Love” and “Truly” and the breezy “You Are”. Richie followed up with the massively successful Can’t Slow Down, which generated five top-10 singles including the now iconic songs “All Night Long” and “Hello”. That Richie doesn’t immediately capture our fascination from that era has much to do with figures that overshadowed him in that moment, namely Prince Rogers Nelson and Michael Jackson; Richie’s pretty, twangy ballads were never gonna hold the attention of the MTV-generation the same way, though he tried with Dancing on the Ceiling (1986). Almost two generations later, those little pop songs from Richie still resonate.

With Bigger Love, John Legend establishes himself as Richie’s rightful heir.  “Ordinary People” from Legend’s debut Get Lifted (2004) stood out among the collection of Kanye West productions as extraordinary songwriting that sixteen years later is every bit the equal of the songs on Richie's debut. On his follow-up Legend, with an assist from Will.I.Am, shows that quality pop songwriting could exist alongside sampled based production with the lead single “Save Love” which drew from Classics IV’s “Stormy” and “Slow Dance” which recovered The Icemen’s “My Girl (She’s a Fox)”.  Legend’s albums have often been a mixed-bag, largely to do with him being an idiosyncratic songwriter in an era when the market seems to demand a formula, yet there are still songs like “All of Me” from Love in the Future (2013), which became Legend’s first number one Pop song.

Bigger Love finds Legend as a mature songwriter, and it is easily his most accomplished album.  Legend’s musical collaborators include Raphael Saadiq, Anderson.Paak, Cautious Clay and Warren "Oak" Felder, who produces the opening doo-wop throwback “Ooh Laa” and “Actions”, which samples everybody’s favorite David Axelrod production, “The Edge”.  As Legend admitted in a listening session for Bigger Love, the opening scat is emblematic of his songwriting practice, where he scats while working through the lyrics.

Chicago-based string arranger Matt Jones is featured on the existential two-stepper, “One Life”, which is one of the up-tempo songs on the album, like the title track, where Legend makes explicit the challenges of this moment: “We need this kind of joy in our lives…”. Though the album was recorded and completed before the quarantine and well before the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, the music feels inspired.  The same can be said about the summer-anthemish “Remember Us” that features Snow Hill, NC’s most famous Grammy-Award nominee Rapsody, who turns the song into a remembrance of the recently fallen Kobe Bryant and Nipsey Hussle; it is one of the highlights of Bigger Love.

If there is a metaphor for Legend’s music, it would be the “Slow Cooker”, which along with "U Move, I Move" (which features Jhene Aiko), the defiant album closer “Never Break”, and “I’m Ready” find Legend in his most comfortable as a Pop-Soul balladeer.  This is particularly evident on the latter song, where Legend deploys an exquisite falsetto that is reminiscent of Leon Ware in his prime, as well as mid-1970s Marvin Gaye when Ware was his primary collaborator on I Want You (1976).

For the past fifteen years it has seemed as though Cee Green has been chasing hits, and to be clear there were two of them. With one of the more disparate musical backstories, Green began his career as a member of Goodie Mob, and then launched a promising solo career that suggested more George Clinton and Bootsy Collins than the songs that eventually made him famous.  An extravagant and exhilarating performer, Cee Lo Green is Thomas Callaway is a lesson in restraint (think Gamble and Huff producing Patti LaBelle on “If Only You Knew”).  If there is a template for the album, it might be Richie’s most recent recording Tuskegee (2012) where Richie revisits his own catalogue alongside contemporary Country music stars; it is his most successful album since Dancing on the Ceiling, in part, because it might be Richie’s most honest music in two decades, In the case of Green, such honesty serves him well on Cee Lo Green is Thomas Callaway.

As  Melissa Ruggieri writes, “What Auerbach extracted from Green are songs that glisten with authenticity, not artifice.”  Recording with a full band – a first for Green – over the span of two days last fall, Cee Lo Green is Thomas Callaway is rife with for a nostalgia for the breezy Country Pop of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when artists like Dusty Springfield, Bobby Goldsboro and Glen Campbell found favor; Green wouldn’t have missed a step had he included Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” or Brook Benton’s “Rainy Night in Georgia”, alongside the album’s twelve originals.

Green has one of the most compelling and original voices, and he utilizes it – perhaps  better than he ever has – throughout Cee Lo Green is Thomas Callaway.   Green’s unadorned vocals are the highlight of songs like “Lead Me” where one can hear notes (like the flavors of wine) of Climax’s Soft Rock classic “Precious and Few”,  “You Gotta Do It All”, and the album standout “Thinking Out Loud”. Listeners will be pleasantly surprised by this nearly perfect collection.  Green has suggested that “CeeLo Green was just the extroverted and working component of my character. Thomas Callaway always writes those songs but CeeLo Green performs them.” If the album is the successful rebranding of Cee Lo Green to Thomas Callaway, there is much to look forward to.


Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several critically-acclaimed books and Chair of the Department of African & African American Studies and the founding director of the Center for Arts, Digital Culture and Entrepreneurship (CADCE) at Duke University. As a tutor, he offers courses on Black Masculinity, Popular Culture, and Digital Humanities, including signature courses on Michael Jackson & the Black Performance Tradition, and The History of Hip-Hop, which he co-teaches with Grammy Award Winning producer 9th Wonder (Patrick Douthit).


Prof Neal also co-directs the Duke Council on Race and Ethnicity (DCORE).


The Sons of Lionel: Thomas Callaway and John Stephens

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