LIKE ANY big American city, Washington is full of young soul singers dying to get their foot inside the music industry door. There are two ways to get through that door: Either you create a sound so original and attractive that they have to let you in, or you copy the popular formulas of the day, adding a personal angle.
Frank Hooker, Stacy Lattisaw and the Reddings are three young D.C. acts who have made it through the door. Hooker used the risky first album approach. His debut album, "Frank Hooker and Positive People," mixes modern funk and rap styles with old-fashioned horn and organ and a classis soul voice to create a contagious party sound that's all Hooker's.
By contrast, Lattisaw and the Reddings have relied on the safer second approach, and they continue to rely on it with their newest albums: Lattisaw's "With You" and the Reddings "Class." Both records use the highly polished funk of Earth, Wind & Fire and dozens of other radio acts. Neither Lattisaw nor the Reddings add much to this overused sound, but each has an angle. Lattisaw's angle is her age (14) and her incredible poise. eThe Reddings' angle is their relation to Otis Redding Jr. -- two of them are his sons, and one is his nephew.
"Frank Hooker and Positive People" (Panorama BXL1-3853) has already yielded a hit single, Ooh Suga Wooga," that summarizes 20 years of ghetto house parties in seven minutes of delirious dance music. The song opens with a hard-hitting, hip-pushing modern funk bet.But then Hooker's Booker T.-style organ comes in and clears the way for a soulful lead vocal. As the song progresses, the electric keyboards imitate Stax horn charts and P-Funk noodling. Hooker throws in Latin percussion and a delightful rap. All these different facets of party music are held together by the steady groove and the commanding presence of Hooker's talent.
All three Hooker compositions are on the far better second side of the recored. "This Feelin" is strongly reminiscent of Stevie Wonder's extended rockers with their circular melodies and climactic crescendos. "Looking for My Number One Love" is an effective ballad showcase for Hooker's unusually expressive voice. Unlike most funk and rap singers, Hooker can play with the musical textures of a single syllable till he gets all the emotional nuances he wants. Hooker's vocal flourishes and organ swells are both reminiscent of Ray Charles, while his synthesizer and rhythm arrangements are as modern as Stevie Wonder and George Clinton. Though side one is overly cluttered with strings, the entire album succeeds in reconciling the old soul verities with modern funk's power.
Stacy Lattisaw is soul's biggest child star since Michael Jackson. Like Jackson, Lattisaw has a strong soprano that can project teen love songs with unquestionable innocence. She doesn't seem to have Jackson's instinct for dance rhythms, however, and she certainly doesn't enjoy the same quality of material. On Lattisaw's third album, "With You" (Cotillion SD 16049), these limitations are more obvious than ever.
When Lattisaw sings a puppy-love ballad like her new hit single, "Love on a Two Way Street," her pretty voice and undeniable charm come through clearly. When she tries something a bit more ambitious rhythmically, she runs into problems. On an up-tempo funk tune like "Screamin' Off the Top," she sounds as if she's following the band rather than leading it. Her worst moment comes in "Feel My Love Tonight" when she attempts a mid-song rap and forgets the syncopation and style essential to rap.
Narada Michael Walden wrote five of the album's 10 songs and produced and arranged them all. Walden is one of those West Coast producers who prefer "easy listening funk." This contradiction in terms further dampens the proceedings on "With You." Walden does give Lattisaw classy settings for her voice, and when she sticks to simple rhythms she tuns out appealing -- if not terribly original -- pop songs.
The Reddings, who will appear at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Friday and Saturday, are a family trio: brothers Dexter Redding and Otis Redding III and cousin Mark Lockett. Unfortunatley, their new album, "Class" (Believe in a Dream FZ 37175), displays no more evidence of their rich musical legacy than their debut did last year. The tiresome funk cliches that clog this record could have come from any of a hundred bands with a less famous lineage.
Actually the three, along with guitarist E. J. Mitchell and drummer Darrell Dickerson, form a solid rhythm unit; the bass runs are especially lively. Unfortunately no one in the group has an outstanding voice or any noticable flair for writing or playing melodies. Without these key elements, the album scarcely merits attention but for the famous Redding name. While the singing is passable, one can't escape the suspicion that this town is full of hopeful nobodies who could step in and do just as well or better if they could only get their foot in the door.