While listening to surfer turned guitar-strumming pop sensation Jack Johnson’s “Sleep Through the Static” recently, I was struck by the open, confessional tone of his material. There were moments over the course of the album’s 51 minutes that I found myself really connecting with the singer in ways I didn’t quite think I would. It could be the way a word was rendered or a soft pause between verses … but there are some truly soulful moments there. You read it right. Soulful.
Listening to him made me think about some of the other warblers of the Caucasian persuasion that reside in my stacks of records, CDs and audio files. While the mass media will have you thinking that blue-eyed soul is confined to classic but oft-referenced masterpieces like Teena Marie’s “Robbery” and Michael McDonald’s “If That’s What it Takes” – or to a lesser to degree, the imitation soul of Justin Timberlake, Amy Winehouse, Joss Stone and Christina Aguilera – there are a slew of white pop and rock artists who reach soulful peaks without delving into the tried and true mores of the R&B style. After all, a set of pipes with no understanding of emotional resonance is just a set of pipes, a vessel for projecting lifeless wails.
So, below you’ll find five of my favorite blue-eyed soul jams, some of which might surprise you. Don’t let the atypical choices fool you – these cuts are the business and are among these artists’ best recorded moments.
“A Fool At Heart” – Stephen Bishop (from “Bish,” ABC, 1978): Best known for his contributions to the “Animal House” soundtrack and the pop hit “On and On,” Bishop was in rare form on this tuneful, heart-on-your-sleeve ballad. Laced with a sweet electric piano and soft-rock guitar licks typical of the time, the cut is the perfect platform for his plaintive, often poignant crooning. And with R&B divas Chaka Khan and Natalie Cole soulin’ on the backgrounds, Brother Bish couldn’t lose.
“I Only Have Eyes for You” – Art Garfunkel (from “Breakaway,” Columbia, 1975): Save the side-eyes folks. The velvet-voiced half of Simon & Garfunkel took this song, an R&B smash for the Flamingos in 1959, and made it his own. Like the late Karen Carpenter, Garfunkel’s gift is his knack for storytelling, and his personal touch is a perfect fit here. Uncomplicated and beautiful for beauty’s sake, the performance – which features Garfunkel discovery Bishop providing harmonies – is a guilty pleasure.
“Deeper” – Pete Belasco (from “Deeper,” Compendia, 2004): One of the best soul-jazz offerings of the last few years, Belasco’s “Deeper” is the truth. He’s getting his Curtis Mayfield on here, flexing his sticky falsetto with undeniable, almost enviable icy cool. The cosmopolitan sheen of Belasco’s swagger makes this, and its parent album, the quintessential late-night listening experience. This is put on your fly gear and cruise through the city in your ride shit.
“Pathway to Glory” – Loggins & Messina (from “Full Sail,” Columbia, 1973): A favorite among Chicago steppers, this forgotten groover is a slow-building blend of AM rock and sublime soul. The bass-line is ominous, the harmonica and violin eerily emotional. The instrumental break is a moving bit of musical quietude that eventually clashes with a searing electric guitar, giving up a toe-curling climax and one of the album’s key moments. Jim Messina takes the lead, as Kenny Loggins’ trademark urgency would have been too forceful for the cut’s subtle beauty. Not one of the song’s eight minutes are wasted. In fact, you’ll want to listen twice to take it all in.
“Mellow My Mind” – Simply Red (from “Blue,” EastWest, 1998): This Neil Young-penned classic opens Simply Red’s “Blue,” an album originally intended to be a collection of cover tunes. Lead singer Mick Hucknall is known for the bombast of classics like “Holding Back the Years” and “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” but he takes things down a notch for this one. The light, breezy trip-hop laced backing and Hucknall’s bluesy delivery make this one a winner. For my money, the softer side of Hucknall is where his greatest strength lies.
When I think about songs like these I’m reminded that soul music is really about coming from the heart, which is what these blue-eyed soul brothers do in their own way. It may not be the soul of Otis Redding or Aretha, but these compositions can touch you, if you let them.
It’s all about feeling, and you’ll be surprised what you can feel when you open yourself up.