The lounge at the East of the Ryan Motel on 79th Street is not what you'd expect from a nightclub with a reputation for elegance and sophistication. The ceiling is low, the wooden walls mostly unadorned. Customers sit at long, cafeteria-style tables. Despite a few sparkling chandeliers, which add a touch of class to the room's upper reaches, it feels less like a nightclub than the venue for a neighborhood church social. Only the well-stocked bar, which winds its way along the back wall, reveals the place's true function.
It's up to the patrons and performers to make the room live up to its classy reputation. And as the crowd filtered in for the 1 AM show on a Saturday night last month, a subtle but striking transformation did take place. And once the performers--an R & B revue featuring four well-known contemporary entertainers--had done their stuff, the transformation was complete. R & B at its best mixes earthiness and sophistication in a way that mainstream white pop and rock can't seem to match without sounding strained.
Chicagoan L.V Johnson opened the show. He's probably best known as a songwriter; he penned Tyrone Davis's hit "Are You Serious" a few years back. But he's also a passionate crooner with a dusky, sensuous voice and an explosively emotional stage presence. That emotionality is both his strongest suit and his greatest weakness.
For a song or two it worked perfectly. Of all the entertainers featured on this show, Johnson most clearly expressed the music's gospel roots. His gruff, shouting vocal style combines leather-lunged masculinity with a sexy smoothness that's initially very appealing, especially on contemporary blues standards like Z.Z. Hill's "You've Been Steppin' Out." This song and others like it require less subtlety and emotional finesse than soul ballads; and Johnson's no-holds-barred testifying was most successful in these numbers. His guitar playing is modestly effective, the string-bending post-B.B. King style.
But when Johnson ventured into more emotionally complex areas, he tended to fall short. "Get Your Money Where You Spend Your Time" was originally popularized by Bobby "Blue" Bland, and his version remains the standard by which all blues balladeers are judged (though his vocal abilities have waned in recent years). "Get Your Money" requires a delicate mix of anger and bluesy resignation, but Johnson charged into it full throttle, roaring out the lyrics and attempting to affect the trademark guttural gasp that's become a cliche even in Bland's performances. Johnson's attempts made him sound like a tubercular lion.
After a while Johnson's steady stream of slow and medium-tempo ballads, which he seems most comfortable singing all forced out at the same high-energy level, became monotonous. There's no denying his vocal talent or his commitment. He'll have to learn to turn down the jets a bit, though, and let some softer emotions come through if he's to get above the run-of-the-mill.
Benny Lattimore faces no such problem. Although he was introduced at East of the Ryan as the Florida sex machine, his appeal rests on a well-crafted persona of smoldering sensitivity, in pointed contrast with others' macho strutting. His "Let's Straighten It Out" is a modern soul classic, a gentle and deeply moving expression of masculine tenderness: "For the last five nights, honey, when we went to bed / I could tell something just wasn't right You turned your back to me and you covered your head You didn't even say good night / Now if you're tired and don't want to be bothered baby / just say the word and I'll leave you alone / Instead of just lyin' around cryin' your eyes out baby / You and me ought to be gettin' it on / M-m-m-m-m, let's straighten it out, let's straighten it out."
Lattimore is an imposing man, tall and broad-shouldered, crowned with a bushy head of prematurely white hair. He plays the sex symbol with just enough grace to keep from being trite. Every move and word is carefully choreographed to titillate and please the ladies, but it works, because of his commitment and because his image, though every bit as theatrical as a Superfly strut, dares to suggest that kindness and understanding can be just as sexy as the boasts of a would-be sexual superman.
This is not to say that Lattimore is incapable of other moods. "Keep the Home Fires Burning" is hard-driving funk with a hint of heavy metallic threat lurking around the edges, offset by Lattimore's playful, innuendo-laden rap and the song's overall message about sexual fidelity and responsibility. His up-tempo version of "Stormy Monday," an arrangement that's apparently become a requirement for every Chicago blues band's warm-up set, strips T-Bone Walker's blues classic of its workingman's weariness and transforms it into a jaunty party tune. Hardly the heartfelt tribute to roots Lattimore claimed during his introduction, it does allow him to show off some of his playfulness. He contorts his synthesizer to sound like a flute and then a guitar, and scats along behind it in a manner that won't cause Betty Carter to lose any sleep but perfectly complements Lattimore's good-time affability.
Everything was prelude, of course, to "Let's Straighten It Out," prefixed in Lattimore's current show by a Wagnerian swell of guitar and synthesizer that threatens to overwhelm the song's gentle romanticism. He then augments it with yet another spoken lecture on tenderness, understanding, and the "difference between making love and screwing." It's a message that Lattimore's fans, especially his female fans, never seem to tire of.
If Lattimore offers an alternative to macho posturing, Denise LaSalle likewise challenges traditional notions. The lyrics of her hit "Lady in the Streets" sum her up perfectly: "I'm a lady in the streets / Freaky in the bedroom." Carrying on a tradition at least as old as Bessie Smith and her classic blues contemporaries, LaSalle manages to maintain her dignity even as she explores areas of expression every bit as explicit and raw as any in modern pop music.
At the Chicago Blues Festival a few years back, some observers expressed shock at LaSalle's appearance; her success had definitely gone to her hips. But I think she looks great, hot and hefty in the grand tradition and unafraid to celebrate the sexiness of a well-endowed body. For all her reputation as the queen of raunch, LaSalle is a multifaceted performer, at once risque and deeply expressive. She delights in rollicking, churchy renditions of classics like "Cry Me a River," during which she shakes her ample body dexterously across the stage, inviting the audience to join in and proving she's capable of some serious getting down, in more ways than one.
LaSalle's musical persona is exemplified by her retooling of Z.Z. Hill's "Down Home Blues." This song was originally a celebration of the singer's love of the music; LaSalle's interpretation tells a more personal story--and sets the tone for her entire performance. She sings primarily to women, sharing sisterly confidences and speaking with a declamatory aggressiveness about men. Men often wonder what women talk about behind closed doors, and LaSalle's show provided a good part of the answer. "Most of the time it's the men who fuck around and step in their own mess!" she shouted, driving home the point of "Down Home Blues," which she transformed into an unabashed boast of infidelity and revenge.
At times LaSalle's earthiness nudges the boundaries of decorum even in the permissive atmosphere of R & B. Her introduction of her band popped a few ears at East of the Ryan: "Do they sound good? They fuck good, too! I tested them all out myself! There's so many needy women out here, I'm not taking anyone with me who's not qualified!"
Perhaps in atonement, she concluded her rap with an unexpected but well-received lecture on safe sex: "Before you let anybody go wading in your pond, be sure he got good boots on! And fellas, before you go wading in anybody's boots, make sure you got on a good life jacket!" LaSalle finally put her red-hot-mama persona aside and concluded her show with a stirring finale in the style popularized by Otis Redding, soaring above the band with some powerful vocals and proving that her dirty-talking funk, amusing as it is, shouldn't be allowed to obscure the fact that she's a first-class R & B entertainer.
No one's ever mistaken Clarence Carter for anything but an accomplished deep-soul artist. His voice has a resonant, gritty vibrato, and he takes total command of the stage despite his blindness, which renders him relatively immobile once he's in front of the microphone. Carter's trademark is an oily, gutbucket chuckle of undistilled, lipsmacking lechery. It's more suggestive than LaSalle at her raunchiest.
Carter's famous onstage rakishness, however, is tempered by a profound feel for both musical and personal roots. His most well-known song is "Patches," an eloquent, late-60s hit about the burdens faced by a young southern farm boy when his father dies. The song is an uplifting testimonial to family strength, sober dedication to duty, and dignity in the face of catastrophe--the essence of the cultural roots from which this music has grown--and it's as effective now as it was nearly 20 years ago.
But Carter's natural ebullience prevents him from crossing the line from pathos to bathos. His joyful paeans to extramarital high jinks--"Slip Away" and "Slip Away Again"--are legendary, and he sings them with an affectionate gentleness that avoids the more usual "gangster of love" posturing. Then there's his wry sense of humor and apparently limitless repertoire of double entendres--"Grandpa can't fly his kite, Grandma won't give him no tail / I'm gonna use what Mother Nature gave me / 'Fore Father Time come and take it away"--delivered with the good-natured authority of a very sexy country philosopher.
Carter's combination of innuendo and hard-won worldly wisdom exemplifies the fusion of dignity and funky exuberance of the best R & B. With the others on the bill at East of the Ryan, Carter shows that attitudes and situations that might be taken as crude or depressing can be sources of sophisticated good humor and optimism. Just as the patrons' spirit of affirmation and dignity transformed an otherwise barren room into a place of elegance and celebration, these artists' music affirmed the strength it's possible to find to transform the bleakness of day-to-day life. It also reminds us that sexuality can be celebratory instead of degrading or frightening. These things are often forgotten in today's pop music, but they're things we need to hear.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul Natkin--Photo Reserve, Marc PoKempner.