My first exposure to the Black male voice was Sam Cook and Jackie Wilson. I was in good company. As I grew older, I was introduced to Motown Music and Mr. Berry Gordy. He and Mr. James who owned the corner Black candy store introduced me to the Black entrepreneur. I often wondered why neighbors laughed at Mr. James and his run down store. They were too backwards to understand that though he was as poor as we were he owned his own place and had a better control of his destiny.
Motown introduced me to music in all its splendor. And as a young Black boy to witness five stoic Black men singing and being Black was what I needed at the time. I met the Temptations. I grew to love the Temptations. I was being socialized into comprehending the various prototypes of Black men. There was my father. He went to work everyday. He was afraid to take vacation because he was afraid he would be fired. A black man without a job was a slave. He was a great provider, often angry in our early days together. And that made me not like him very much. When I got older I realized that his anger was not at me but the predicament he confronted everyday of having to endure racist mean ass men who were not half as talented or smart as he was, but having to endure their madness to feed his family.
I then began to understand Mr. James, a Garvey man who refused to work for the White man and ran that little store until he could longer pay the escalating rent imposed on him by the slum lord who disrespected everyone as she came once a month in her fur coat and heavy accent to collect the money from all the Negroes that were her plantation workers up North in the urban ghetto known as Bed Sty.
By this time the music was changing. I knew what drugs and alcohol addiction was all about. My Father and his brother-in-laws would drink like fish every weekend and drive recklessly through the streets trying to find a thrill in this life they were shackled to deal with every day. Soon Daddy, after receiving the ultimatum from my Mother that if he came in drunk one more night she would take us and leave him and he would never see us again, he went to church rediscovered Jesus, became a deacon, removed all the whisky from the house and announced to his Brother- In Laws that they could come over and visit but they could no longer drink in his house. He did it cold turkey and that decision aligned with me starting High School.
My high school was near his job so I rode to work with him every morning and endured his lectures on what it meant to be a man. I hated them and hated him. And then all of a sudden with the death of Sam Cook. being shot by a woman in a hotel room, Jackie Wilson being shot in the penis by a women while he performed on stage, David Ruffin lead singer of the Temptations allegedly beating Tammi Tarrell and hitting her in the head with a hammer, I began to make a connection between choices of what kind of man I was going to be and what it meant to be sexual. That was a discussion my Father and I never had. I would observe my cheating Uncles, relive the Sam Cook, Jackie Wilson and David Ruffin stories and face a decision on my own identity.
Then Dennis Edwards hit the scene on the Ed Sullivan show. He had a voice that was out of this world. He was tall and devastatingly handsome according to my Aunts and Mother and he cold sing like no other. I was drawn to him, but guilty and unable to share this attraction for fear of being labeled a sissy. But Dennis Edwards had the voice I wanted, the looks I wanted and the virility that translated to men and women. He did not just sing about love, he sung about drugs, and sex and infidelity. He was fearless and I chose him as one of my new role models. I had never heard a Black voice exactly like his. It was different from James Brown's. It was cleaner and more precise and his public demeanor was not confusing. He was a virile Black man and his image was not predicated by always having several women on his arms. I am sure he was as active as the rest, but his persona dealt more with his vocal instrument and his stage presence than what was or was not between his legs. He expanded our image of the Black male performer. He was no Little Richard, no Sammy Davis Jr. and no Eddie Kendricks. He did not sing in falsetto, he was no minstrel and he did not spin around the dance floor like a top. He was a Black man with a big Black man's voice and you knew if your Mother was given the opportunity, she would have had him.
This Black male prototype had left the music industry. We now have "ordinary" little men like John Legend and all the others are dead. Luther was ambiguous, Isaac Hayes confusing, Michael Jackson and Diana Ross clone, Peabo Bryson the vocal orator but short, and that goes for Jeffrey Osborne, Benson and all of our other great male singers. Dennis Edwards was different and remained so until he like many of the others fell prey to the indulges that have taken the lives of so many of our great male singers.
I realize that the father I did not like as a child remains the most important male figure in my life. He was non judgemental. Never had to walk around parading his penis in his delivery, disciplining me and my brothers or supporting my Mother. He was gentle but forceful, handsome but totally secure when in the public. He never demanded that I be like him but he did insist on me being accountable. When I started to sing, he said nothing. He just loved me and encouraged me. Any girlfriend or male friend I brought home, he accepted them and welcomed them into his home. He died far too soon, but he left an example that has sustained me. He helped me to reconcile worldly desires, and duty to family and the community. Now there are few of these men left for the public to admire. Whether we are talking about politics entertainment or just the brother next door, you got to really search for those bold enough to stand tall and exert their Black presence.
Everyday I cringe as young singers are raving about the talentless performances of Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith and a litany of appropriators of the Black sound. And in the Black camp you have physical batterers of women and others who choose to write songs instructing woman on how their private parts operate. It is a total nightmare. Sadly young men or women have few black male singers to admire as they transition from children to male adults.
We will miss the now discontinued vocal pattern coined by the likes of Dennis Edwards. It is now a vocal styling and prowess we have possibly lost forever. We are facing on big "Ball of Confusion."