By Je’Don Holloway Talley
Special to the Times
Reminisce for a moment, and reflect on a time when music gave the gift of variety in one act. Remember when love ballads dominated the radio airwaves?
Be it heartbreak or uncontainable love-joy from of girl groups like the Marvelettes and the Emotions or male groups like the Whispers and Boyz II Men, these artists fused their talents to curate a distinctive sound and matchless melody. Those qualities coupled with seductive choreography, a signature style, and the “It” factor created sensational groups.
Fond memories of those groups come to mind and evoke nostalgia whenever influential musical groups perform in Birmingham—New Edition at the Funk Fest at Legion Field in May; Maze featuring the talented Frankie Beverly at the Steel City Jazz Festival at Linn Park (June 2–4).
In honor of Black Music Month, the Birmingham Times will highlight some of the great groups across several genres. The series begins today with rhythm and blues groups and continues throughout the month:
- June 9: Gospel groups
- June 16: Hip-hop groups
- June 23: Jazz groups
Today’s cover story looks at the demise of groups in black music, an intricately woven fabric quilted into American pop culture. What happened? When did the decline begin? Has America’s taste in music changed, or has a ripple effect been caused by an evolving industry?
“It’s a different age,” said Alvin Garrett, a Grammy-nominated songwriter, bass guitarist, and band leader for Just a Few Cats. “When groups were prevalent back in the day, it was also a reflection of a community. These people grew up in the same cities. It was almost like being on a neighborhood sports team. It was extracurricular. It was a social getaway. When you were a musician in those days, it was life to get together and jam, to perfect your craft. They lived for that. Nowadays, the change in society overall doesn’t support the formation or foundation of creating and sustaining new music groups.”
While creating a megagroup may seem simple in formula, the challenge comes in keeping the group together. What affects the members’ willingness or unwillingness to stay committed to their group?
“Life is an ever-evolving cycle of rebirths and new commitments, and those journeys are personal to each individual,” says Jonathan “Air” Talley, founding member and former bandmate of Birmingham rap group Klub Monsta. (Full disclosure: Talley is married to the author of this article.) “When you have an aspiring group of five men, all moving at different paces in life, you have five different sets of priorities and goals.”
Are differing ideas of priority a factor in the demise of music ensembles?
“Yes,” said Talley. “When some of the members have responsibilities to a family and others don’t, it’s easy to end up the odd man out.’”
Is there a honeymoon phase in music that eventually fades? Perhaps so, said singer-songwriter John “YungVokalz” Bell.
“In the beginning, everyone is on the same page, and it’s a beautiful thing,” he said. “But as soon as someone finds out how to get a little more notoriety and figures out how to make more money on their own, that’s when the problems surface.”
While it’s no surprise to find that money plays a role in the dissolution of music collaborations, what’s more intriguing are other forces that factor into the demise, said YungVokalz.
“Newness is the ingredient that makes a group so magical in the beginning. Everyone is excited, and that excitement builds chemistry. That chemistry is what keeps it fresh and fun. Once a group no longer has that and can’t find ways to keep it fresh—growth, evolution—people run off and try new things in search of that new high,” he said.
Once upon a time in music history, the late 1950s and early 1960s gave birth to Soul Music—a sound that combined gospel with R&B and jazz. Booker T. and the M.G.’s, the instrumental R&B-and-funk band, was influential in shaping the sound of Southern soul and Memphis soul as the house band for Stax records.
Then along came Motown, which set the standard for groups like the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and of course the Jackson Five.
In jazz, there was the Miles Davis Quintet, Billie Holiday and Lester Young, and the Count Basie Orchestra—world-renowned musicians who toured the globe and set the mold for “black classical” music. Where are the Duke Ellingtons of the 21st century, and why aren’t they touring today?
“People never stop to consider the effects that war had on the music economy in regards to jazz orchestras and full bands,” said classically trained jazz musician Cameron Ross. “Promoters just didn’t have the money to finance tours of 30-piece orchestras, and that’s when the big acts died out. It became easier for record companies to finance and manage two- to five-piece sets, and they made much more money.”
A common thread in theory all the industry weigh-in has been the inability to keep several people on one accord. Consider, for example, some of the more popular girl groups from the 1980s and 1990s that are no longer together. En Vogue emulated the elegance of the Supremes and, like the popular Motown group, the members eventually went their separate ways. Destiny’s Child also was popular but split after Beyoncé began her meteoric solo career. Groups like Total, SWV, 702, and Xscape later created the essence of girl groups with an urban edge—and they, too, broke up.
Let’s not forget the explosion of guy groups in the 80s and 90s. New Edition—reminiscent of the Temptations and the O’Jays but with a fresh, youthful flare—brought one of the last attempts at a collaboration of male musical prodigies and paved the way for groups like Boyz II Men, Jodeci, Dru Hill, and BLACKstreet. With voices ranging from glass-shattering falsettos to deep-signature baritones, male R&B singers blended their talents to create the perfect fawn-worthy ensemble.
Groups of the 90s had a magic that created originality, said YungVokalz.
“You had several acts all from the same avenue, but they occupied different lanes. That was the magic; no two groups were the same. Today’s industry lacks originality; everyone sounds the same. Group dynamics create authenticity, and today there is none. Maybe that is part of the reason record companies aren’t big on group acts anymore.”
What’s the evolution of music without the rise of hip-hop? From beat-boxing to B-boy freestyle dancing, 80s hip hip-hop was derived from the crux of the soul era—music born of the black experience in America. In fact, it was a group that put hip-hop on the map. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five sent a clear message: Rap was to be taken seriously.
“I’m all for conscious music,” said Air Talley. “But in order to be part of today’s music industry, you need star quality, entertainment value, and showmanship. As a solo act, I am now able to explore a wider range of music styles and bring that to my version of conscious rap.”
So perhaps changing music tastes and individual artistic evolution eventually cause groups to dissolve, even in rap.
While the godfathers of soul and blues are the true inventors of rock and roll, urban musical genius continues dominate the industry. It’s interesting to note that all five hip-hop acts inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are groups: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (2007); Run-DMC (2009); Beastie Boys (2012); Public Enemy (2013); N.W.A. (2016).
Gospel is one of the last subgenres of black music with thriving groups. The Clark Sisters, the Winans, and Commissioned paved the way for Kirk Franklin and the Family, Fred Hammond and Radical for Christ, and others. And though they’re not as plentiful as they were in the 80s and 90s, gospel groups are still striving.
Joe Bracy, founder and director of music for Birmingham-based Grace and Mercy Music Ministry, said change also can be seen in gospel even during Sunday-morning worship service.
“The praise and worship team [small group] has the job of ushering the spirit of God in, and the choir has the duty of ministering to the congregation before the pastor takes the pulpit,” said Bracy, who is also a gospel music composer and pianist. “Oftentimes, the choir adds a totally different message of healing and connectedness with God to the service, and it’s sad that the demise of the old-fashioned God-experience is due in part to a changing enterprise.”
The question in the end remains the same: Has the art of collaborative music composition come to term? Has this melodious commodity reached its end? Has music’s natural evolution brought us to a fork in the road, or have we reached a new plateau that should be embraced?
After all, black music has conquered the industry and set the tone for American pop culture for well over a century now. Perhaps that alone should be celebrated.