Nostalgia is a fickle beast. Kind to some memories, cruel to others, it can seem maddeningly capricious in what it chooses to remember and what it would prefer to forget. But that's because nostalgia, despite its professed allegiance to history, is really a creature of fashion, its selective memory reflecting only the latest fads and fancies.
Nowhere is that more the case than in popular music. It isn't just that the pop styles of the past are regularly recycled (remember the ska revival? new folk? neo-psychedelia?), or even the way some hits get remade again and again. Where pop nostalgia is most obviously a fashion victim is, ironically enough, where it makes its greatest claim to historicity: on the oldies circuit.
A case in point is "Soul Hits of the '70s: Didn't It Blow Your Mind" (Rhino 70781-90). In terms of pop history, this 10-volume anthology serves up only a small slice of that decade,with most of its 120 tracks plucked from the years 1970-'72. Nor does it waste time on the obvious; although the series does include such mega-hits as Betty Wright's "Clean Up Woman," Edwin Starr's "War" and Isaac Hayes' "Theme from Shaft," there's little duplication between "Soul Hits" and Rhino's "Billboard Top R&B; Hits" for the same years.
Not that anyone would notice, for the selections here are uniformly excellent. "Soul Hits of the '70s" includes a little bit of everything -- harmony numbers, gutbucket funk, melodic pop, gritty instrumentals, even touches of jazz and reggae. And every one was a hit, cracking the Top 20 on the R&B; charts, the pop charts or both.
So how come they end up seeming like rarities?
It isn't as if these songs have been forgotten. Last year, radio programmers couldn't get enough of "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind)" -- it's just that the version they preferred wasn't the Delfonics' original, but a remake by New Kids On the Block. Similarly, "Respect Yourself" proved a sturdy enough vehicle to get even the weak-voiced Bruce Willis into the Top 10, even though it was pale imitation of the Staple Singers' 1971 hit.
But unlike the R&B; recordings of the '60s, which live on in heavy rotation everywhere, '70s soul seems largely forgotten today. From VH1 to Time/Life reissue packages, soul nostalgia is invariably defined in terms of old Motown and Stax recordings, giving us Marvin Gaye instead of Al Green, Martha Reeves instead of Jackie Moore, the Persuasions instead of the Chi-Lites.
Which, frankly, is more than passing strange. After all, "classic rock" extends its reach well into the '70s, treating Led Zeppelin and Steve Miller with the same reverence reserved for Cream or Hendrix. So why should "classic soul" evaporate after 1969, as if it faded away with the decline of Motown and the death of Otis Redding?
Most people tend to blame the baby boomers for most of this, suggesting that they've enshrined the soul sounds of their youth and crowded the rest of us out through sheer force of numbers, but that's only part of the reason. More to the point is the fact that soul, in the heart of the '60s, was treated by radio as being just another thread in the fabric of rock and roll. It was standard practice in those days to integrate the music, so that the Beatles would follow the Supremes, Aretha Franklin the Rolling Stones and so on. Back then, it was all equally popular music.
By 1970, however, things were changing, and changing fast. As albums replaced singles as popular music's medium of choice, the Top 40 seemed increasingly irrelevant; all the action was over on the underground FM stations, where hip DJs played even hipper album tracks. But for all their purported eclecticism, the underground stations mostly ignored black music, and as those stations matured into album-rock outlets, radio's musical apartheid became cemented in place.
Which is why "rock" fans are unlikely to remember such gems as the Persuaders' "Thin Line Between Love & Hate" (though they probably know the Pretenders' cover version). Nor is there a classic-rock radio equivalent for R&B; listeners; historically, soul fans have always had an easier time keeping up with the hits than their rock and roll counterparts.
Amazingly, the one sound on radio that does let these records live on is rap. Not as oldies, of course, or even remakes, although M. C. Hammer did record a version of the Chi-Lites' "Have You Seen Her." But thanks to the magic of digital sampling, these soul oldies have fueled quite a few rap records.
"Scorpio," by Dennis Coffey & the Detroit Guitar Band, turns up quite frequently on rap records -- behind the chorus to L. L. Cool J's "Jingling Baby," for instance. N.W.A.'s "Express Yourself" takes its title, chorus and bass line from a single by Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. And "Jungle Fever" by the Chakachas is the basis for 2 Live Crew's notorious "Put Her in the Buck," right down to the original's orgasmic moans.
Why today's rap stars -- some of whom weren't even born when these records were being made -- would return to such ancient grooves may not be obvious at first. To be sure, the mere fact that these records have held up after two decades says something about their power and resilience, but there's a deeper reason as well.
Just as the early '70s were a point of departure for rock and roll, a time that brought forth heavy metal, progressive rock and the singer/songwriters, so too was it a time of transition for black music.
Funk was coming into its own, supplanting the spry rhythms of Southern soul and taking pointers from James Brown's monolithic grooves. There was also an added sophistication to the music, thanks to the imaginative orchestration of artist-producers like Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield. Listen to Hayes' "Theme from Shaft" or Mayfield's "Superfly," and it's not hard to hear how their ideas would eventually spark even more ambitious work by Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and, eventually, Earth, Wind & Fire.
All that and more can be found in these 10 volumes. Believe me, you won't find a better musical education for less.