Often in online comments below panegyric reviews of a certain contemporary US pop/R&B superstar, readers complain: she doesn’t write her own material, how can she be lauded as a great artist, or a visionary? This criticism is interesting to me, in the way it profoundly misunderstands a key aspect of black American music.
Not only black American music – Soul/R&B, jazz - but dub/reggae and other musical traditions, such as la chanson française and popular music found in non-English speaking countries. The point is not if the singer wrote the material, but more how they interpret and make it their own. Indeed, the idea that it isn't something personal, or unique to them, but part of a broader tradition is central to the interest of their work; as I've written before in relation to sampling in hip-hop, there is always this doubling going on of paying homage, while making it new.
What then makes an exceptional interpretative artist? (I’m aware that this term is being used rather loosely here). Three qualities: artistry, investment and self-awareness. The first is self-explanatory, they need a voice with depth, range and character, not the light/treated singing style favoured by pop, but one of those voices you can’t forget; a voice that haunts you; comforts you, unsettles you.
Investment is the quality of presence, where the singer gives the impression that he/she is fully present, there in the moment and the musical expression is offering direct connection with something private, their secret self. This might seem lofty, but listen to Cesária Évora or Fairuz and this doesn’t seem so difficult to understand. Finally, self-awareness comes from the impression you have that the singer is fully conscious of their effect (this is where their charm and ability to captivate comes in).
David Ruffin is the great interpretative artist of his generation (when at his best). Ruffin's ability to re-invent classic songs of his era, while imprinting them with his character was formidable, unbeaten (even, even Stevie Wonder came up short in comparison, as in some ways his talent could not be 'used' in this way and was inexorably linked to the expression of the visions in his mind).
‘(If loving you is wrong) I don’t want to be right was first recorded by The Emotions – see my piece on their track ‘I don’t wanna lose your love’ from last month here - but it was not until Luther Ingram released the song in 1972 that it became a hit, topping the R&B charts for four weeks. See this wonderful live performance by Ingram that one YouTube poster has said comes from the Watts StaxFestival in August, 1972…
The Ingram performance is flawless in terms of the voice and conviction, but in terms of the psychological message it is relatively one-dimensional. He seeks our approval, he seeks our sympathy for his predicament. It’s moving, certainly, but there is nothing inherently difficult about it.
Isaac Hayes released a version of the song one year after Ingram. Now, I understand that Hayes is an important artist, a much-sampled artist, a key artist to understand if you want to understand black American music but so often the over the top orchestration of his music makes me laugh (listen to all those beeps and squeaks that come and go; those temporary dramatic drum-rolls and dramatic pauses, it’s kind of nuts).
And I don’t get the way he sings: it’s always so bombastic, he never sounds sincere to me. Musically it has a lot of interest and I can see the influence everywhere today, but as a singer interpreting a song and connecting with his listeners ….
This brings us to the Ruffin version, released on his David Ruffin album in 1973. Obviously, this is my favourite, especially in the way it allows for emotional complexity that sounds utterly real; Ruffin allows us to feel his desperation, but he is also defiant – again using his trademark bossy turns of phrase, all those ‘Listens’ – as if he believes that whatever others might feel, he is right to cheat on his wife.
And yet, throughout Ruffin’s vulnerability is highlighted, expressed through the gravelly timbre of his voice but also in the way the song ends, the way it falls apart (my notes: ‘tender ending, riffing, growling almost’). No other singer of his generation had this same ability to express such nuanced contradiction and such sadness; one critic said that this performance ‘gave insight to his inner demons’ in that it finds him openly pleading as ‘ ... a man in desperation,’ before begging ‘...can't you help the situation.’
(After listening to Ruffin's best work, so many other much more feted stars from the 60s and 70s, Al Green, Otis Redding, seem bland, lacking mono-dimensional in comparison).
The Millie Jackson version, released in 1974, is special for the way she built on the original and has its own intensity and power (this description is from Wikio):