Monday, April 15, 2013

The R&B Hall and how it might affect the R&R Hall

In the much too long hiatus at the beginning of the year, a lot of drama has unfolded regarding the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, even as recent as this past week.  Among the biggest pieces of news, but not so fully explored, was the announcement of the departure of key people at the Rock And Hall Of Fame Foundation, including some members of the Nominating Committee.  Supposedly, these people left to focus on the development and execution of the new R&B Hall Of Fame.  The R&B Hall Of Fame announced its inaugural class shortly after the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame announced its Class Of 2013.  Looking at the people behind and the charter inductees of this new establishment, it raises some questions and concerns about the direction of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.  Some of the questions looming nigh deserve serious discussion.

First off, why the split in the first place?  It really does seem pointless for a couple reasons.  For starters, how much extra time and energy does it take to be a part of two halls of fame?  Admittedly, perhaps ignorance on the subject matter is coming through, but given how many years the Rock Hall existed without even having a museum, and given that NomCom members only meet to decide nominees, decide inductees in the categories outside of Performer, and to actually attend the ceremonies; it doesn’t seem like a heavy extra commitment on top of their regular jobs already, all of which are at the very least tangentially connected to the recording industry anyway.  Planning the ceremonies themselves are really the only seriously strenuous part of being involved in the process, outside of trying to convince other committee members that a certain nominee belongs on the ballot, even if at the expense of another candidate who may also be deserving.  Taking part in another hall of fame shouldn’t be that demanding.

Maybe this is being done in recognition of the changing of demographics in the United States.  As political pundits loved to repeatedly point out upon announcing Barack Obama’s re-election, Caucasians are rapidly, if not already, losing status as a majority, and may in fact soon not even comprise a plurality.  Shouldn’t there be a Hall Of Fame for a musical style that hasn’t been skewing more and more White over time (which is another blog entry itself for the future), to reflect that?  But if that were the case, why not also make plans to begin a Latin Music Hall Of Fame in the States, since that is the most rapidly growing demographic?  Or maybe it’s being done to reflect the extreme dominance of R&B and rap in the Pop charts and the programming of Contemporary Hits Radio stations.  Again, this is insufficient because it leaves danceable pop out of the picture, which has carved out its own strong presence with the likes of Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, etc.  Changing demographics as an explanation only raises more questions than it answers. 

On top of that, hasn’t the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame pretty much acted like an R&B Hall Of Fame?  Not per se, but in the first eight years, at least half of the inducted Performers were African-Americans, none of who were renowned for playing rock and roll that leaned more heavily on the folk or country side.  And there have been only three years where none of the Performer inductees chosen from the ballot were Black, and one of those years had a blue-eyed soul act while another had a trio of White rappers (although one year did have a jazz artist in lieu of an R&B artist, and two more had reggae, which while still derived from R&B isn’t part of the traditional connotation of “R&B”).  Even as recent as 2008, Jann S. Wenner reminded the room how rock and roll is rooted in the “music of the Black man”, i.e. blues, jazz, gospel, and R&B.  There’s pretty much been representation of R&B of some sort in every year of inductions in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.

Which again begs the question, why the impetus to cut bait now?  While the language of the resignations has all been very pleasant, one really need only look at what they’re creating upon leaving to get at potential ulterior motives.  On the surface, it would appear that the people who’ve split feel that R&B has been getting less than adequate representation, which as mentioned above is an odd attitude to take given the continual presence in the annual selections.  Even more incredible given the littering of lists one can find online of the most snubbed artists.  Most are either classic rock, metal, or early alternative scene acts, none of which appeal heavily in the R&B scene.  Still, a look at the artists who’ve been repeatedly nominated but have failed to get in reveals at present the likes of Chic, Chuck Willis, and Joe Tex as the top three, with 18 nominations between the three of them.

Looking even closer at what they’re creating, the inductees themselves also reveal another side to this split.  Some of the no-brainers are there, such as Aretha, Ray, Sam, James, and Berry Jr.  There are even a couple awesome surprises for charter induction like Johnnie Taylor and Martha And The Vandellas.  But what ultimately is telltale is the inclusion of inductees like the Spinners, the Marvelettes, Whitney Houston, and Don Cornelius.  No one is saying that these choices are less than deserving, but the Spinners missed out on the Class Of 2012, the Marvelettes on the Class Of 2013, Whitney Houston from nomination for the Class Of 2013, when many thought it was a certainty, and Don Cornelius not receiving a posthumous Ahmet Ertegun Award induction this year either.  Though these are but four of the forty-eight inductees, the fact that these four are noteworthy snubs from the past two years of Rock Hall inductions.indicates possible bitterness about these people getting snubbed, and possibly other artists they want to see nominated, but can’t make any headway in the process.  Mere speculation, but not to be entirely ruled out either.

Another possible factor is the rise of rap in the ranks of the Rock Hall.  NomCom member Toure, who is not listed among those splitting, has sworn to only nominate rap artists from here on out.  That may seem counterintuitive, but again, look at the inductees.  Whitney Houston and Luther Vandross are representing the ‘80s, but there are no rap artists, not even Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five.  On the surface, it would seem no conflict should be present.  Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five got in the same year as the Ronettes who, while part of the Spector sound did have R&B in that sound.  Run-D.M.C. was inducted the same year as doo-wop group Little Anthony And The Imperials and “Soul Preacher” Bobby Womack.  This year, Public Enemy is inducted alongside blues guitarist Albert King and disco queen Donna Summer.  Even 2012’s elected Performers were half “blue-eyed” R&B of sorts.  So rap doesn’t seem to be conflicting with other forms of R&B.  Nonetheless, looking to the future, the presence of non-rap R&B candidates may get thinner in terms of soon-to-be eligible, viable candidates.  Whitney Houston herself might still not even be part of the conversation if not for her famous passing away early last year.  Beyonce, Destiny’s Child, Usher, and maybe Mariah Carey are the strongest candidates right now, but what about the likes of Mary J. Blige, Boyz II Men, or Faith Evans?  Does Bruno Mars have a shot, assuming he maintains his current pace?  Another piece of evidence, though by no means concretely telling, is the Rock Hall Projected project on Future Rock Legends.  Non-rap R&B artists of the ‘80s and beyond are pretty scarce, and those that made it often took multiple nominations.  Again, the opinions of the people on FRL vary quite differently from those of the NonCom and the voting bloc, but the sentiment may not be confined either.  If not, maybe there is a need to branch out after all.

Whether or not these are good reasons is partially moot, since the split has been made already.  Which brings us to the next logical question: how will this shape the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame classes in the future?  One obvious but perhaps erroneous conclusion is that the classes will get a lot more “Rock” oriented, meaning overwhelmingly heavy with guitar bands, a classic rock fan’s utopia.  This seems to be what would happen, since without a strong R&B presence, what’s left?  And the recent nominations of KISS, Bon Jovi, Deep Purple, and the recent inductions of the likes of Rush and Alice Cooper seem to point in that direction.  The problem with that logic is, of course, there are still a lot of NomCom members remaining in their seats of power who still don’t like those acts.  KISS and Bon Jovi have yet to return to the ballot, and it may be that Deep Purple will continue that trend. 

Those remaining members, in fact, may even serve to keep the Rock Hall continuing same as usual.  After all, how many members did the NomCom really lose?  Out of how many?  Ultimately future ballots and future classes will not only present the immediate answers, but also hint to the long-range possibilities.  And who knows: perhaps this split will wake up NomCom members and voters alike in favor of some of these overlooked artists?  Will the next time be magic for the Spinners or the Marveletees?  Will the Chi-Lites, Manhattans, and Dramatics finally be noticed for their impeccable smooth soul?  Will Johnnie Taylor, the Bar-Kays, or the Ohio Players serve to open eyes beyond the world of Pop chart sensibilities, and re-orient said eyes towards the R&B chart history?

Whatever happens, one thing seems sadly inevitable: the eventual closing up shop of the R&B Hall Of Fame.  Not to cast signs of doom and gloom, but things are already looking bad on the outset for this new creation.  Here are a few signs that may indicate repatriation to the Rock Hall by those who chose to split:

  1. It seems to be done out of spite.  As stated earlier, some of the inductees seem like choices made to spite the Rock Hall for not getting them in sooner, while they had a chance to prevent any kind of fissure.

  1. The quotas of eras.  Admittedly, not enough research has been done into this one, but offhand, quotas of eras do not bode well.  The Vocal Group Hall Of Fame did the same thing, and folded after a clean decade.  The same thing happened with the UK Music Hall Of Fame, which was even more short-lived and less restrictive than the Vocal Group Hall.  Meanwhile, the Rock And Roll, the Country Music, and the Baseball Halls Of Fame all require a minimum of time passage prior to eligibility.  Definitely more correlation than causation, but it’s still noteworthy.

  1. Ridiculous pace at the outset.  Forty-eight inductees in their first class.  Maybe they’re trying to get things started with a bang, but this is more than twice the number of inductees than the Rock Hall has ever inducted in a single year.  Even if they do start including rap artists, there’s no way they’ll be able to maintain that kind of pace.  Like the Rock Hall has done, they’ll have to slow things way down to ensure long-term durability.

4. Significant omissions.  As mentioned earlier, some of the inductees are no-brainers.  Unfortunately, so are some missing names: Michael Jackson, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, etc.  Even worse, they seemed to have forgotten that R&B predates rock ‘n’ roll, as Ray Charles is the only inductee listed whose chart history predates 1955.  Where’s Louis Jordan And His Tympany Five?  The Ink Spots?  The Mills Brothers?  The Ravens?  Just some glaring omissions out of the gate, due possibly to the era quotas they seem to have in place.

  1. Absurdity of some of the inductees.  Making judgment calls on the merits of particular inductees can certainly lead to heated arguments, but there are some questionable calls on this one.  It may not be about hits as much as musical excellence (similar to the Rock Hall’s apparent mission), but a charter class should be about those who are easily and undisputedly among the royalty.  To that end, Enchantment?  They only had a couple significant albums and less than a dozen hits across all the Billboard charts.  Or the Hesitations, a band with even less presence than Enchantment?  It would be an understandable statement to include acts that were huge on the R&B charts but largely unknown on the Pop scene, but they didn’t induct Millie Jackson, Fatback, or Chuck Jackson.  They went for the Hesitations and Enchantment.  Additionally, the inductions of places and record labels seem a bit ludicrous.  Was Motown absolutely pivotal in the evolution of R&B?  Absolutely.  But they’re simultaneously inducting Berry Gordy, Jr. and Motown Records.  Inducting a whole record label just seems ridiculous, especially when it makes more sense just to induct the people who made it monumental (and while the subject’s been broached, where’s Stax-Volt or Jim Stewart?)  Inducting exhibition locations?  Again, no one will downplay the importance of the Apollo, but that’s why exhibits are built spotlighting these locations, or why people petition the local council to name it a historic landmark.  But to induct a club is just a bit out there.  Lastly, Al Sharpton.  Seriously?  Being friend and mentor to James Brown does not merit induction into a music hall of fame.  By that logic, Perry Como should be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame because he was friend and source of strength for Elvis Presley during his Las Vegas stint, and helped keep the King going during the depressing post-Priscilla days.  But no one’s seriously mentioned the Man Who Invented Casual as a Rock Hall candidate.  Nor should Sharpton be in the R&B Hall.  The NAACP Hall Of Fame?  Unequivocally.  The R&B Hall Of Fame?  No.  Just no.

In conclusion, the R&B Hall Of Fame seems like a creation curious in its origins.  There is certainly an ample supply of acts to induct and honor, many of whom will likely never even be seriously considered by the Rock Hall’s NomCom, but the approach needs considerable re-alignment before they induct their second class.  Otherwise, it’ll go down as a footnote in the history of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.