Leon Bridges, ‘Selma,’ and the Mini-Revival of 1960’s R&B

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One of the unsung strengths of the recent film Selma is its soundtrack. With the exception of the celebrated, Oscar-winning, gospel-rap of John Legend and Common’s “Glory”, Selma is full of of 1960’s rhythm & blues that succeeds at being both understated and evocative. No huge hits are used, but the music still expertly and thoroughly channels the spirit of the American South during the 1960’s.

Two of my favorites from the soundtrack are the slow-churning, sweaty R&B of “Ole Man Trouble” by Otis Redding, and the spare, acoustic blues of “Alabama Blues” by J.B. Lenoir, as he sings “I never will love Alabama / Alabama seem to never have loved poor me.” The songs’ lyrics give us a glimpse into the oppression felt by black Americans in the South, and you can almost feel the heat and humidity in the music.

 

As a contrast, “Keep On Pushing” by the Impressions provides inspiration and hope. “Now maybe some day, I’ll reach that higher goal / I know I can make it with just a little bit of soul / ‘Cause I’ve got my strength, and it don’t make sense not to keep on pushing.”

 
I imagine it must have been tempting to throw a powerful, splashy number like Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” into the mix, but director Ava DuVernay chose the subtler route, which served Selma well. The understated power of the soundtrack took me back to that golden era of R&B, just in time for me to discover Leon Bridges.
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Leon Bridges is a 25-year-old from Forth Worth, Texas who was certainly interested in music as a kid, but more into dance and artists like Ginuwine and Usher. He thought his voice was passable, but didn’t have the confidence to use it. Eventually, upon hearing Sam Cooke, he got hooked on the 1960’s R&B sound, started writing songs, doing small gigs in Forth Worth, and then signed to Columbia and took the Internet by storm.

“Coming Home,” Bridges’ lead single, is a pure re-creation of that sound that was so deftly employed in Selma. It’s not overly showy — its small guitar and organ flourishes provide a an impeccable complement to Bridges’ voice and melody.

 
In an article in the Guardian, Bridges says, “I became so fascinated with that sound I wanted to recreate it exactly.” When asked why, he said, “It made me happy to make it identical. The simplicity just sounded so good.” It’s tough to walk the tightrope of staying true to a particular sound while also sounding fresh. So many artists try to recreate the sounds of the past only to sound derivative and boring. Why should I listen to you if I can listen to the original, who did it first and did it better?

The key is in the execution. Bridges’ songs are executed perfectly. Even though we’ve heard this sound many times before, the songs themselves sound so good that it doesn’t matter — they stand on their own. That’s what separates Bridges from the pack. Not to mention that these songs also benefit from modern production, which allows for a warmth and clarity that was tougher to achieve in the studio 50 years ago. Listen to another gem, a doo-wop number called “Lisa Sawyer.”

 
It will be exciting to see what more Leon Bridges will bring us this year. My hope is that he can spark a mini-revival of sorts for that classic, sublime 1960’s R&B sound.

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