The death of Don Cornelius last week has prompted a great deal of nostalgia for Soul Train and the wonderful performances that were a regular part of the show. But when it was actually on the air, the program had little time for nostalgia—it very much existed in the present. So rather than troll through great old clips, let’s celebrate the spirit of the show by looking at new soul music. We can ease into things by talking about some still-active artists who were scoring hits a decade and a half before Soul Train even went on the air: the seemingly eternal Isley Brothers, who appeared on the show many times.
These days there are only two brothers in the fold, but when the group performs at the Chicago Theatre on Saturday night both Ronald and Ernie will be tapping into a massive repertoire of music that the family franchise has created since the early 50s, when they transformed themselves from a gospel group to rock ’n’ roll progenitors. Six brothers in all have played under the Isley name, but singer Ronald and guitarist Ernie are arguably the most distinctive: the former’s creamy croon and the latter’s liquid psychedelia pretty much defined the band’s sound starting in the early 70s. Ronald suffered a stroke in 2004 and three years later went to prison for tax evasion, but after being freed in 2010 he returned with Mr. I (Def Jam), his most recent album and first solo effort. As with most of the Isleys’ records, it keeps up with evolving trends in R&B—all three of the group’s albums in the aughts landed in the Billboard top 20. In fact, I can’t think of another R&B veteran who’s managed to evolve so gracefully—though some of 70-year-old Ronald’s come-ons can sound rather lecherous. Below you can watch the video for the single “No More.”
For a decade or so Anthony Hamilton has been my favorite contemporary male soul singer; he gracefully acknowledges and makes judicious use of the hip-hop rhythms ubiquitous in neosoul without becoming beholden to them. Even when his music is built on samples and programmed beats, it usually feels familiar and old-fashioned because the focus is on solid songwriting and terrific singing. He’s made countless cameos on hip-hop records, but he hasn’t let his work become defined by them. In mid-December he released another strong album, Back to Love (RCA). For the first time in a while, there are a few duds, specifically some of the tracks coproduced by Babyface, which provide an unfortunately soft-and-squishy foundation for Hamilton’s lean, generally restrained voice—among them is "Pray for Me," where he asks God to get his woman back for him, promising he’ll be so good that even Oprah will be jealous of her. But otherwise he’s in top form. His voice is smooth, with the slightest bit of grit and a conversational tone a la Bill Withers. Below you can see the video for his recent single “Woo,” which he performed on the Soul Train Awards in November.