“If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.”—Sam Phillips, Sun Records founder
Walking through the streets of Harlem during the latter part of the summer, the landscape was electric as 36-year-old Robin Thicke’s bouncy “Blurred Lines” blared throughout the ’hood. Propelled by a Pharrell-produced track reminiscent of Marvin Gaye’s 1977 funk classic “Got to Give It Up” (a song most Uptown millennials might be unfamiliar with), one could hear Thicke roaring from passing cars, apartment windows and crowded parks.
Although I’ve been a Thicke fan since playing his bossa nova-inspired ballad “Lost Without You,” about 200 times on a New Jersey-Baltimore road trip, “Blurred Lines”—the first single from his sixth album bearing the same name—is the track that’s been designed to lift him higher.
In addition to being a singer, Thicke has also written songs for Jennifer Hudson, Usher and Mary J. Blige. While the New York Times tried to discount Thicke’s talents, calling him “unambitious” and a “white soul conservative,” regular folks have been loving it. Even with the recent lawsuit between him and the Gaye estate, which has large swaths of Black Facebook declaring Thicke a fraud, most of the general public could care less about the source material.
Nevertheless, while “Blurred Lines” is most definitely one of the hottest songs of the season, Robin Thicke also retains his spot as one of the more popular “blue-eyed soul” singers on modern-day pop and R&B charts. For those who might be unfamiliar, the phrase “blue-eyed soul” was coined by Georgie Woods, a popular Philadelphia-based DJ. He’d strung the words together in the mid-1960s to describe the sound of the Righteous Brothers. Apparently, soul music jocks were playing the Brothers’ 1965 hits “Unchained Melody” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ” without realizing the duo was White.
While some years back, Average White Band, Michael McDonald, the Bee Gees and Teena Marie were burdened with the tag, today it’s Adele, Justin Timberlake, Joss Stone and Robin Thicke who have to deal with it. “Blue-eyed soul is all about the terminology, which has nothing to do with the music or the artists,” says Darrell McNeill, musician and director of operations for the Black Rock Coalition.
“The term ‘blue-eyed soul’ is more about marketing, promotion and the business of selling music, but most musicians would never use the label personally,” McNeill continues. “Something that should be so simple, like making the music they like, is made complex by the coded language of labels.”
While there are people who believe “good music is good music” and could care less about what race singers, songwriters or producers might be, others argue for authenticity, while also citing the audacity of White performers who borrow from the musical well of (blues, gospel, jazz, hip-hop) Blackness.
When British pop star George Michael won his Grammy for Favorite Soul/R&B Album in 1989 for the multiplatinum smash Faith, some people reacted horribly, as though it was the worst thing that could’ve happened. “We have been modern for so long that authenticity is largely a meaningless term,” Stanley Crouch writes in the introduction to his book The Artificial White Man (2004). “[I]nfluences come and go at very high speeds. Traditions are remade and abandoned or reimagined, sometimes for the better.”
WPB-Radio disc jockey and soul music aficionado Jammer Daniels explains, “Historically, when you look at early pop history and see how much Elvis Presley stole from Little Richard or Pat Boone from Chuck Berry, of course people are suspect whenever White artists start tinkering with ‘our’ music. Whether it’s Eminem in with rap or David Sanborn in jazz, it is easy see why Black people sometimes don’t want to share our culture. Because we’re afraid people might steal it.”
While the less said about corny Pat Boone the better, the myth that Elvis Presley stole the soul from Black musicians has been publicized by critics and other recording artists (Public Enemy, Living Colour) for decades. But did he really? Does it maybe make more sense that Elvis, himself a Memphis boy attuned to ways of country culture, was simply inspired by the same gutbucket blues and screeching gospel as his Black contemporaries?
According to New York Times writer Mel Watkins, who penned the late Black cultural critic Albert Murray’s obituary this week in the New York Times, Murray was adamant that “the currents of the Black experience—expressed in language and music and rooted in slavery—run through American culture, blending with European and American Indian traditions and helping to give the nation’s culture its very shape and sound.”
Although not widely known, before becoming famous Elton John often performed as a session performer and sideman when soul artists Patti LaBelle and the Blue Bells and the Isley Brothers played his native England in the 1960s. In 1973, when his first crossover hit “Bennie and the Jets” (a song later covered by Biz Markie and sampled by both Frank Ocean and Mary J. Blige), landed on the American R&B charts, Elton became the second White artist ever invited to appear on Soul Train.
While I, too, was a fan of Elton John’s “electric music and walls of sound,” I had mixed feelings when he appeared Soul Train playing “Bennie and the Jets”—feeling like he didn’t belong on the program because of his whiteness. Obviously Don Cornelius didn’t agree. In the decades since, other White artists appeared on the show, including David Bowie, Duran Duran, the Pet Shop Boys, A-ha and Hall & Oates.
With a singer like Robin Thicke, whose music was influenced by a wide range of mature Black artists like Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye, the catch-22 of his so-called blue-eyed soul stance has been that his music sometimes sounds “more soulful” than the real Black artists currently on the charts beside him do.
“I’d rather listen to Robin Thicke’s music than Chris Brown’s,” says former record exec Gary Harris. Currently working on his music industry memoir Inside Player, Harris signed both D’Angelo and Color Me Badd. “Contrary to what his critics might think, what Robin Thicke does is not easy. While his detractors might think he is a poseur, it is obvious that he believes in the music. What he does with soul music is genuine. Forget about being blue-eyed. To me, Robin Thicke is a real soul singer.”
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.