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Soul Survivors: 5 Gritty R&B Greats Rescued from Obscurity

Elizabeth Weinberg

Over the last few years, the overbearing sound of electro and Euro-house has infiltrated modern R&B production. Recent chart hits by artists like Jason Derulo and Jay Sean have had almost everything in common with the dance-floor-driven club bangers of DJ David Guetta and nothing to do with the blues- and gospel-informed soul music of the ’60s and ’70s. But while radio programmers lost interest in the traditional sound, plenty of other folks still wanted to hear R&B records with prominent horns, crisp drums, funky bass lines and singers who didn’t rely on Auto-Tune to get their point across.

It’s no surprise that a new wave of throwback soul labels — Daptone and Ubiquity among the most notable — and old-school-minded artists (Anthony Hamilton, Kendra Morris) started sprouting up and feeding fans starving for the classic stuff. As a direct result of this, many long-forgotten — and in some cases, previously undiscovered — soul singers have enjoyed career rebirths, recording new music and performing to capacity crowds the world over. Here are 5 soul survivors — gritty R&B greats rescued from obscurity.


Charles Bradley

 
 

Charles Bradley had spent most of his adult life working odd jobs and playing small gigs to get by when the soul/funk singer, already in his mid-50s, finally caught his big break in the early aughts. Daptone Records co-founder Gabriel Roth discovered Bradley after seeing him do a routine impersonating James Brown. Roth was floored by Bradley’s voice -- a force of nature capable of sweet tenderness and gut-scraping grittiness in equal measure -- and signed him to his growing label roster. Now with two critically lauded studio albums and a slew of singles under his belt, the singer and his unlikely rise to fame are the subjects of the recently released documentary ‘Charles Bradley: Soul of America.’

 

Lee Fields

 
 

Crate-digging DJs fond of rare ‘70s soul and funk might have cherished Lee Fields’ early sides, but outside of the Southern lounge and club circuit, the singer remained an obscurity. After the North Carolina native spent most of the ‘80s away from the recording studio, Fields dusted off his stage suits and returned in 1992 with ‘Enough Is Enough,’ his sophomore album. Since then, Fields has kept a busy touring and recording schedule, issuing new music on labels like the aforementioned Daptone and Truth & Soul. His 2012 album ‘Faithful Man’ found the 60-something-year-old singer receiving rave reviews and inspired Pop Matters to call Fields “one of the 21st century’s most relevant ‘60s survivors.”

 

Barrence Whitfield

 
 

Journalism student and record store clerk Barry White’s life changed after meeting Peter Greenberg of garage rockers the Lyres in 1977. Joining up with Greenberg and other members of his band and taking on a stage moniker to avoid confusion with the Motown icon who shared his name, White and the group started performing as Barrence Whitfield & the Savages, bringing their primal R&B to the Boston club scene. Despite gaining a strong local following and touring the U.S. and Europe in the ‘80s and ‘90s, only the most well-versed soul aficionados knew about Whitfield. That may change thanks to the recent release of ‘Dig Thy Savage Soul,’ the 58-year-old’s excellent new album with the Savages, out on Bloodshot Records.

 

Darondo

 
 

Born William Daron Pulliam in Berkeley, Calif., Darondo began his career in the ‘60s, performing his one-of-a-kind (and often raunchier) take on the soul music of the day. Like the other vocalists mentioned in this list, Darondo’s scarce recorded output was a hot commodity to rare groove collectors, but his only true commercial success came in the form of ‘Didn’t I,’ a 1972 single. A regional hit when it was first released, the song found a new audience after influential British DJ Gilles Peterson began playing it on his BBC Radio 1 program in ’05. A few compilation albums and key film/TV placements later, Pulliam was enjoying a late-career resurgence when he sadly passed away of heart failure earlier this year at the age of 66.

 

Syl Johnson

 
 

Syl Johnson’s career goes all the way back to the ‘50s, when he sang and played guitar with blues greats such as Junior Wells and Howlin' Wolf. Johnson scored R&B hits throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, but he never quite became a household name. Now, thanks to a recent and well-publicized fundraising campaign for a documentary on the musician, as well as his music being sampled by rap giants like Run-DMC and Public Enemy in the last couple of decades, it looks like Johnson’s rich body of work will finally get the kind of mainstream attention it has always deserved.

 

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