When disco suffered a sudden heart attack and keeled over at the end of 1979, it left a huge gap in the soul music charts. The resulting scramble to fill that vacuum boiled down to a battle between funk -- with its impolite boogie -- and pop-soul -- with its satiny crooning.
A quick glance at the current soul charts will reveal that pop-soul has won in a walk. Soul's top 10 is dominated by super-smooth singles by Raydio, the Gap Band, Shalamar, Grover Washington and Smokey Robinson.
Success, however, has brought some of the same problems that plagued disco: A shallow, repetitive formula underneath a swarm of strings and synthesizers quickly grows tiresome. It takes a sharp intelligence to make a love song sound original and lift it out of mushy sentimentality. Of the current batch of hit-makers, only Raydio, the Gap Band and, of course, Smokey Robinson reveal such intelligence.
Interestingly, these three artists have all worked with Stevie Wonder, the undisputed genius of contemporary soul. Robinson has been Wonder's label-mate for years and they've collaborated often. Raydio's Ray Parker Jr. was Wonder's guitarist in the early'70s. The Gap Band's Ronnie and Charlie Wilson sang harmonies on Wonder's "I Ain't Gonna Stand for It" last year.
Smokey Robinson's latest album, "Being With You" (Tamla T8-375M1), is a masterpiece of romance. Ray Parker Jr. & Raydio's fourth album, "A Woman Needs Love" (Arista AL 9543), is no masterpiece but sure is a lot of fun. Parker has a natural knack for writing melodies that just won't go away. The key melodic phrases in "Old Pro" and the title tune drift upward in mid-phrase just as a lover's voice will drift upward in mid-confession.
Raydio is nominally a trio, but Parker is the whole show. He composes, produces, arranges, sings and plays bass, drums, guitar and keyboards. His chunky rhythm guitar kicks up a fuss underneath the layers of harmony vocals. This makes "You Can't Fight What You Feel" a great Chic imitation. It also provides the right counterbalance to the lovely melody of the album's hit single, "A Woman Needs Love." Parker is limited only by the triteness of his lyrics and the small ambitions of his clever music.
Even better is "Gap Band III" (Mercury SRM-1-4003), which is actually the fifth album for the three brothers from Tulsa: Charlie, Ronnie and Robert Wilson. The record is both consistent in quality and versatile in style. The Wilson brothers have always written insinuating melodies, but this album fleshes them out fully with ambitious arrangements.
Led by Ronnie Wilson's trumpet, the Gap Band horn section punctuates "When I Look in Your Eyes" with sharp exclamations and giddy transitions. The song sounds live vintage Earth, Wind & Fire with its male falsetto harmonies, pounding beat and improvisatory ending. "Are You Living" and "Burn Some Rubber" sound more like the best of Earth, Wind & Fire than anything E, W & F itself has done recently.
Dick Griffey's L.A.-based Solar Records is trying to build a stable of writers, producers, musicians and singers in the famous Motown tradition. Thought he label has had commercial success with the Whispers, Shalamar, Lakeside and Dynasty, the music has been too lightweight to stand up to Motown.
Typical of Solar's fluff is Shalamar's "Three for Love" (Solar BZL 1-3577), which has yielded the hit single "Make That Move." Like the rest of the album, this song features a pretty but inconsequential melody over a light, bouncy beat. It sounds like an old disco track with the rhythm shoved in the background and the vocals brought up.
Shalamar is three singers -- Howard Hewett, Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniel -- who are no more than pawns in the hands of producer Leon Sylvers III and his writers, William Shelby, Dana Meyers and Nidra Beard. Sylvers uses his brothers and former bandmates in the Sylvers as the backing band. The music is easy to listen to but difficult to remember 10 minutes later.
Lakeside is Solar Record's halfhearted attempt at funk. The nine-man band's latest album "fantastic Voyage" (Solar BXL-3720), limps along in its attempt to stir up a party. The title cut is a catalog of every funk move that Parliament ever pulled off, but the song gets you no closer to funk than a Tiffany catalog gets you a diamond ring. Unlike Shalamar, Lakeside writes, arranges, produced and plays its own songs. So they have no one to blame but themselves.