THE GENERATION gap in rhythm & blues has grown so acute that some R&B radio stations have actually rented out billboards to advertise that they play "more songs and no rap."
The forces of melody and romance in this generational battle would be winning more skirmishes if their melodies were more original and their romance more convincing. With a few shining exceptions (Luther Vandross, Ten City, LeVert, Alexander O'Neal, Surface), today's soul men seem to be going through the motions, allowing their all-powerful producers to saddle them with thin material and assembly-line arrangements. Where are the Smokey Robinsons and Al Greens of tomorrow?
Surface "3 Deep" (Columbia). One of the brightest spots on the soul-music scene is this New Jersey trio that recalls the high-tenor romantic balladry of Philly Soul acts like Blue Magic, the Stylistics and the Delfonics. Bernard Jackson owns the boyish tenor, whose giddy intensity recalls Michael Jackson (no relation), but Jackson's partners -- guitarist/keyboardist David Townsend and flutist David Conley -- are just as crucial to the trio's success. The three of them write the material, program the rhythm tracks, play the lead instruments and produce the songs themselves, and they do it all so well that their new album sounds fresh and distinctive in a field of sound-alikes. "Don't Wanna Turn You Off" is a persuasive, funky plea for sexual patience and responsibility, but the highlights are the ballads, especially the sweet, dizzying "Tomorrow."
Jeffrey Osborne "Only Human" (Arista). This is Osborne's first album in two years, and his first for the label that helped Whitney Houston cross over. He doesn't make as many concessions to the pop mainstream as Houston, but like Houston, Osborne squanders his terrific voice on mediocre material and formulaic arrangements. Osborne has the Teddy Pendergrass purr and growl down pat, but that's just what it sounds like: a pat mannerism. "Only Human" starts strongly with a powerful brotherhood anthem, "If My Brother's in Trouble" (produced by Britain's Shep Pettibone), but the album quickly lapses into tired, worn-out seduction moves. When Osborne sings, "Sensitive, that's what I am; make no mistake about it," he has all the sincerity of a singles bar denizen a half-hour before closing time.
Freddie Jackson "Do Me Again" (Capitol). Barry Eastmond, who produced seven tracks on the Osborne album, produced and co-wrote five songs on Jackson's new release. Eastmond and Paul Laurence (who produced four of Jackson's other numbers) are both competent craftsman; they construct sleek vehicles for Jackson's great voice, surrounding it with insistent dance beats and lush layers of synths and harmony vocals. In the process, however, their mechanical contraptions suffocate the singer, leaving no room for spontaneity or true passion. His voice is as silky as Osborne's is gruff, but Jackson's fluid, upper-octave embellishments could work very well as a romantic vocal style if only he had something fresh to deliver.
Tony Terry "Tony Terry" (Epic). Terry, who sang with the Freedom Gospel Singers in Washington and attended the Ellington School of the Arts here, has always had an exceptional voice, but only on this, his long-delayed follow-up to his 1987 debut, has he found a sound of his own. Terry and his producer Ted Currier have fashioned a romantic-soul music with a very funky kick. The kick reflects Currier's past collaborations with George Clinton (there's even a quote of Clinton's "Atomic Dog" in Terry's "Tongue Tied"), and it adds a necessary jolt to the convention of seductive purring. The songs aren't very memorable, but Terry's ability to sound seductive even as he jumps on the beat should stick with the listener for quite a while.
Al B. Sure "Private Times and the . . . " (Warner Bros.). The Sure thing is slow, simmering balladering with bedroom sighs and that's what provokes the best moments on Sure's sophomore effort. Titles like "Touch You," "So Special" and "Just for the Moment" cast Sure in a sensitive light that's more the result of his supple vocals than those songs' weary lyrical cliches. Elsewhere he goes the new jack swing route, enlisting rapper Chubb Rock on "Misunderstanding" and diva Diana Ross on "No Matter What You Do." At his best, Sure comes across like Barry White at a higher, younger pitch, but he desperately needs better material to work with.
Various artists "Black Top Blues-A-Rama, Volume 3," "Black Top Blues-A-Rama, Volume 4" and "Gulf Coast Blues" (Black Top). Black Top Records in New Orleans has specialized in tracking down obscure but gifted soul shouters from Louisiana and Texas. Just as importantly, Black Top has reunited Little Richard's old road band, Grady Gaines & the Upsetters, to give all these singers a first-rate, consistent backing ensemble. The fruits of these efforts can be heard on these three albums, the best hard-core soul music of the year.
The two Blues-A-Rama volumes were recorded live in concert at Tipitina's in New Orleans last year. "Volume 3" features five hot instrumentals by saxophonist Gaines and his band, a couple vocals by Upsetter trombonist Paul David Roberts and four bellowing numbers by the barrel-chested Big Robert Smith. The highlight, though, is the unjustly overlooked Joe Medwick singing the songs he wrote for Bobby Bland: "I Pity the Fool" and "Don't Cry No More." "Volume 4" features five songs by James "Thunderbird" Davis, perhaps the best soul singer on the Black Top roster, plus numbers by younger blues keyboardist Ron Levy and former D.C. blues guitarist Bobby Radcliff. "Gulf Coast Blues" is a studio session featuring Gaines, his singer/guitarist Joe Hughes, his singer/pianist Teddy Reynolds and a real find, Carol Fran, who sounds like Irma Thomas with a touch of zydeco.