The Light Skin, Curly Hair, And A Falsetto Era: Remember In The Early ’80s When Every Male Singer Looked And Sounded The Same?

May 10, 2013  |  

I swear I watch old videos on YouTube just to humble myself. No way should we young old-heads be throwing shade at the young’ns for their taste in music and fashion without first explaining Al B. Sure.

Don’t get it twisted; throw on an old school Al B. track on and I’ll be the first one up, waving my hands, singing along off-key to, “Do you wanna, Res-cue Meeee…” But trust and belief, I won’t be the only one off-key, because in spite of how pretty he is, dude couldn’t sing. In the words of Trinidad James, don’t believe me just watch – this YouTube video of him performing live (in the 80s) on an episode of Showtime at the Apollo. Notice the false falsetto, the pithiness, and the cheeky dance moves to hide the fact that he could not sing. I mean, we do realize that there were probably a few poor saps during that same episode of Apollo, who were booed and escorted off the amateur night stage by Sandman Sims who sounded better than Al B did in this clip? I know whoever they were, they probably took that train back to Brooklyn pissed.

Word is that Al B. turned down a college scholarship to pursue a musical career and it was the great music mogul, Quincy Jones, who facilitated him getting a record deal through Warner Brothers. What I haven’t heard though, is what the heck was Jones and the Warner Brothers executives smoking, because that boy couldn’t sing. I have joked about this before on my Facebook page, but after watching this clip of his non-singing behind gyrating across the stage in tight, cut-up, stonewashed jeans, I am more convinced that the only reason why Al B. Sure ever got on was because he was light-skinned with curly hair, and girls wanted to have a baby by him. If not, please, explain to me some other rationale for how this dude got a record contract.

Oh no, she’s not starting the light-skinned talk is she? Oh yes I am, because it’s Friday and folks need to lighten up. But in all half-seriousness, Al B. Sure arrived on the scene at a time when male R&B singers were keen to what had been traditional, and stereotypical, light-skinned attributes: I’m talking silky black curly hair, soft Café au lait skin tones and delicate voices. This is the period where Lionel Richie decided to trade in The Commodores and the Afro for a Jheri Curl and a blind girl with a miraculous gift of making exact replica busts of people just from touching their faces. Or if you will note on the Michael Jackson hair evolutionary chart, this era is best known as the time between the Thriller curl years and the Dangerous wave nouveau years.

By most accounts, Prince blazed the trails for these particular pretty men to come in and take their rightful place in black music. It wasn’t that light-skinned dudes weren’t in music before, or that they were unwelcome, but Prince made looking light-skinned and feminine/androgynous hot. He also gave us Morris Day and the Time, who not only carried on the tradition, but also gave us, for the first time, some light-skinned bravado, which came complete with a perm and a pinky ring. This new view of lighter complected stars helped to usher in the DeBarge Family, which was literally an entire squad of light-skinned, curly haired men (and their sister) with soft voices. They were basically burning up the charts with such classics as “I Like” and “All This Love.” But they were also burning up the ladies (and some men), who couldn’t get enough of their Farrah Fawcett tresses.

The success of Prince, Morris Day and The Time, and the DeBarges brought about a second, more pronounced wave of Team Light-Skinned singers, including notable talents like Howard Hewett (after leaving Shalamar to take full advantage of the light-skinned tide), Georgio (“Lovers Lane”), Colonel Abrams (“Trapped”), Sherrick (“Just Call”), Lillo Thomas (“I Want to Make Love”), James Ingram, Rockwell (“Somebody’s Watching Me”), and Gregory Abbott (“Shake You Down”), just to name a few. Soon, non-light skinned singers couldn’t deny the influence of their counterparts and tried their best to emulate either their style, as demonstrated by Luther Vandross’ Jheri Curl, or their voices, as demonstrated by the group Switch, whose lead singer, on occasion, bares a striking vocal resemblance to Beyoncé.

For a while there it looked like there would be no stopping the Team Light-Skinned dominance in R&B music. However, this era of music would soon meet its tragic end, thanks in part to the rise of scowling and sneering bad boys of Hip-Hop…and Wesley Snipes, whose dark hand figuratively and literally, drove a nail through the light-skinned coffin when he stabbed Christoper Williams in New Jack City. Although they tried desperately to hang on with artists like Tony Terry and groups like Color Me Badd, their light-skinned powers could not stop the force that was Bobby Brown from taking “Every Little Step” up the charts and dominating the latter years.

Today, Team Light-Skinned finds itself trying to rebuild its empire and will occasionally shine with star players like the members of the DeBarge family trying to make a comeback, who gave us their younger, more thugg-nificent sibling Chico. And there is no denying that Miguel has managed to bring some of that curly-haired soul music back to the scene. But the squad still has yet to regain the momentum that was lost because of the Chris Brown years. And there is no telling who, if anyone, can restore them to their former glory. Perhaps the DeBarge family has another member ready to slick down his baby hair and step on the scene…

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