GEORGE CLINTON of Parliament-Funkadelic dubbed Washington "Chocolate City." It was his hope that the black majority would make the town a center for black pop music.
Though it's a great audience town, Washington has never produced a distinctive soul sound of its own, and never had a trend-setting producer like Detroit's Berry Gordy, Chicago's Curtis Mayfield, Los Angeles' Dick Griffey or Philadelphia's Thom Bell, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. The recent releases by Roberta Flack, Peaches & Herb, the Reddings and the Blackbyrds indicate that D.C.'s soul artists are more likely to follow trends than set them. Only Gil Scott-Heron's new album stands out as a distinctive work.
Scott-Heron's "Real Eyes" (Artista AL 95-40) is his best album in years. His approach is the same: He sing/raps his political lyrics over a funk rhythm and jazz leads. On his album, though, Scott-Heron has moved from vague rhetoric to more specific poetry. Instead of making scattershot attacks on the status quo, he draws memorable portraits of its victims.
"Not Needed" is a chilling picture of a poor retiree with nothing to do but "light up a cigarette, sit down, turn on the radio." "Waiting For the Axe To Fall" portrays a ghetto family members who live as if they have been sentenced to the chopping block. "A Legend In His Own Mind" is a funny send-up of a strutting macho man, "God's gift to women on a day God wasn't giving up a thing."
Scott-Heron's music is also more tightly focused than before. Bassist Robert Gordon makes the funky bottom lively rather than monotonous. Reed player Carl Cornwell and keyboardist Glen Turner make their jazz touches a real part of the songs rather than more add-ons. With this album, Scott-Heron has finally fulfilled his long-delayed potential.
Roberta Flack is probably Washington's best known soul singer. In recent years, though, she has deserted the brashness of soul for the mushy sentimentality of easy-listening pop. Flack still has a vibrant, expressive voice, but she now uses it to pull easy emotions out of romantic cliches.
Flack once dueted regularly with Donny Hathaway, who died two years ago. She has found a new partner in Peabo Bryson, who has a pretty voice but lacks Hathaway's personality. Their new double album, "Live & More" (Atlantic SD 2-7004), contains solos and duets from an Indiana concert plus three new collaborations from the studio.
The three studios songs are breathy froth, but on the live versions of her recent album cuts, Flack's voice is freed from her producer's heavy-handed string and rhythm arrangements. Flack and Bryson each sing several of their "greatest hits." The pair perform admirably, but except for two Stevie Wonder tunes, the material doesn't deserve their warm voices.
Washington's Peaches & Herb are another duo who stick to unambitious commercial fare. Their latest album, "Worth the Wait" (Polydor PD-1-6298), contains songs like "Funtime" and "Lovey Dovey (Guy & Girl)" that are every bit as mindless as their titles suggest. Where Flack and Bryson tend to stretch out rhythms till they sag, Peaches & Herb bounce through their songs with enthusiasm.
Nothing on the new album is as captivating as their smash hit, "Reunited." Most of it is lots of fun, though, even if it only recycles familiar ballad and disco styles. Peaches' high, silky voice glides along easily, while Herb's low, gruff voice provides the gravity. The final two songs are graced by Jose Feliciano guitar solos.
The reddings are one nephew and two sons of the late Otis Redding, the Southern soul shouter who still stands as a major figure in American music. With such a rich legacy, the Reddings could have challenged the commercial compromises of modern soul. They could have reinjected some raw passion into the music.
Inexplicably, they have thrown away their legacy and embraced all the cliches of modern soul. Their debut album, "The Awakening" (B.I.D. JZ 36875), is full of tedious disco, half-hearted funk and syrupy ballads. The album's hit single, "Remote Control," celebrates the radio. The song's mechanical rhythms and impersonal vocals sound as if they were done by remote control.
The one shining virtue of the album is Washington's tenor saxophonist, Ron Holloway. Neither: Dexter Redding nor Mark Lockett has Otis Redding's big, grainy voice. Nor can they sustain interest in their funk-formula instrumentals.
The Blackbyrds were formed in 1974 by jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd when he was teaching them at Washington's Howard University. Byrd used the group as a vehicle for his jazz-soul fusion experiments. Unfortunately, he fused indulgent jazz solos with monotonous soul rhythms. Last year, the Blackbyrds went to court to win their legal and artistic freedom from their former mentor.
On their new album, "Better Days" (Fantasy F-9602), the Blackbyrds have hooked up with keyboardist/producer George Duke -- another jazz-soul fusionist who commits all of Byrd's sins. There isn't a memorable melody on the record. The arrangements are neither complex enough to be good jazz nor sensual enough to be good soul. The record sounds like skilled studio musicians going through the motions.