A Singer's Hardy Old Soul
Sunday, July 1, 2007
PHILADELPHIA -- Officially, Ryan Shaw was born on Christmas Day 1980. But those who've heard him sing -- who've heard that vintage R&B voice, a sensational instrument that sounds like something out of the Stax-Volt vaults -- sometimes wonder whether Shaw wasn't actually born four or five decades earlier.
So big and raw and rangy, that voice. So churchy and unmistakably Southern. So full of fire and conviction, exploding with energy and emotion.
So not like something you'd expect to hear out of a 26-year-old recording artist circa 2007.
"When Ryan sings, it comes right from the center of his soul," says his friend Bobby Lewis, executive pastor and musical director at Central Baptist Church in Manhattan. "And it's an old soul. He's really way older than his years."
Shaw opens his mouth to sing, and out come the ghosts of '50s and '60s soul greats, from Sam Cooke to Otis Redding. Contemporary, to him, means Donny Hathaway, who died in 1979 -- a year before Shaw was born in Decatur, Ga.
Let the others emulate R. Kelly and collaborate with Timbaland. Shaw would rather resurrect the sound of Muscle Shoals.
"This Is Ryan Shaw," his debut album, is unapologetically retro, right down to the material: Nine of the 12 songs are covers of old soul sides, from "I'll Be Satisfied" (previously performed by Jackie Wilson) and "I Found a Love" (Wilson Pickett) to "Lookin' for a Love" (Bobby Womack) and "Do the 45" (the Sharpees).
Just as the CD format is dying a slow death, here comes Ryan Shaw, singing about a dance based on . . . vinyl 45s! And then there's his cover of "I Do the Jerk." He's nothing if not anachronistic.
"I appreciate what he's doing," says Sam Moore, the legendary singer whose work with Sam & Dave helped define Southern soul in the 1960s. "Shaw is caught up in that time; he's reaching back, doing something that makes you go: Whoa-ah, what's going on here? He's putting his heart in it, showing that's where his love is."
"This Is Ryan Shaw's" three originals -- each of them co-written by Shaw -- are modeled after '50s- and '60s-style soul songs. The lyrics focus mostly on love. The music is straightforward and traditional. Even the album cover is old-fashioned: It features a grainy, sepia-tone photo of Shaw singing into a ribbon-style microphone.
"I've guess I'm just different," Shaw says backstage before a recent club concert here. "I've always been that way." He's drawn, he says, to the emotion and sentiment and sound of vintage soul. "It just touches something in me," he says. (Perhaps not surprisingly, he doesn't particularly care for sexualized modern music.)
Later, he'll open his set by singing the first verse of Sam Cooke's classic social statement, "A Change Is Gonna Come," a cappella -- a breathtaking performance that has jaws dropping all around the Electric Factory.