Recently, many male soul singers have adopted a stridently macho attitude. One sees them on stages everywhere: shirts unbuttoned, fists clenched, voices taunting as each tells his woman what he's going to do, how he's going to do it and why she's going to like it.
Whatever the sociological implications, the macho posture is a facade hammered down tight over the combination of hurt and generosity that defines romance. These vulnerable feelings are the soul of soul music.
Romantic soul music is now making a comeback led by a past master, Smokey Robinson. Robinson's recent hit single, "Cruisin'," and album "Where There's Smoke," were a revival of Robinson's songwriting skills and of vulnerability in soul. Both revivals are consolidated on Robinson's new album, "Warm Thoughts" (Tamla 18-367 M1).
Robinson sums up the problem on the album's second song: "Walking around talking about you're in need of nobody/Heavy on pride, light on love." Robinson's approach is the exact opposite; he offers sacrifice and commitment. On "Let Me Be the Clock," he croons: "Hickory dickory dock/I want to be your clock/Just set me for lifetime."
But the real romance in Robinson's songs is down under the lyrics. Their sincereity comes from Robinson's total surrender to emotion each time he sings. He sings each first verse in his breathy tenor as if he were mulling over the notion for the first time. As each song progresses, Robinson gets caught up in the feeling. You can hear his voice go from calm contemplation to shuddering confession.
His voice rises through a couple of octaves to a shivering falsetto that glides above the strings and rhythm section. Robinson creates the definite impression that he has gradually given in to his feelings and that his emotions now carry his voice rather than the other way around. The surrender is so dramatic and convincing that the songs could melt anyone's heart.
Robinson has also recovered his knack for metaphors, a gift that once led Bob Dylan to call him "America's greatest living poet." He has a talent for inventing comparisions that are unforgettable because they're so obvious without being familiar. On "Let Me Be the Clock," Robinson offers to be "the clock for the time of your life." On "Melody Man," his collaboration with Stevie Wonder, he offers to be the melody that "you can play any way you can."
"Wine, Women and Song," is a fascinating song about a musician's wife who feels neglected at home. Claudette Robinson, Smokey's wife and former colleague in the Miracles, sings the part of the wife, while Robinson himself sings the part of a fan who is wooing her in her loneliness.
Al Green ranks with Smokey Robinson, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye as a great crooner of romantic soul. Green, however, has become a minister and forsaken the songs of the flesh for the hymns of the spirit. His last two records were dominated by his religious concerns, and he's made no records at all since 1978.
Green created his greatest love songs under producer Willie Mitchell. With Green unavailable, Mitchell has re-created the same sound with the voice of 24-year-old cooner Kenny Doss. Doss' debut album, "Moving On A Feelin'" (Bearsville BRK6997), revives the Memphis tradition of sweet soul music as assuredly as Robinson's record revives the Detroit tradition.
Doss has mastered Green's difficult trick of singing from the middle of the throat, a point most singers just pass on their way from full-lunged wailing to breathy whisper. By holding the no-man's-land in between, Doss gives his voice a very special flavor.
Like Green, Doss seems to gurgle notes without losing their lush tone. With an enormous range, Doss can drop down for a low moan or dart up into falsetto squeal. His dramatic honesty makes most other love songs sound like tired routines run down by second-rate hustlers.
Doss created so much excitement in Memphis that the old Stax Records horn section reunited for his recording session. A highlight of the album is Mitchell's ballad "Are You Gonna Be With Me," featuring a duet with Doss falsetto and Andrew Love's tenor sax. Though Doss is obviously imitative of Green, his singing is so personal that it doesn't matter.