The Soul Revivers

The soul train arrived in St. Martin on Memorial Day weekend, kicking reggae off the West Indian island for a few days. During Sinbad's '70s Soul Music Festival, a five-day extravaganza of concerts, street fairs and grooves deeper than the ocean, Pelican Bay Beach looked like a giant, open-air house party. Enormous speaker cabinets blared old-school funk from a deejay platform in the middle of the beach. Hordes of soul revelers boogied, goofed off and chomped on barbecue. When the deejay played Parliament's booty-shaking 1978 hit "Flash Light," the crowd couldn't contain itself. People splashed into the water and formed two lines, just like on the classic TV show "Soul Train," with Sinbad himself leading the way. They acted like teenagers, even though they were really a bunch of African-American physicians, lawyers, dentists and schoolteachers in their late 20s and 30s. They had lived through this stuff the first time around, and they were here to live it again. "My 15-year-old daughter wanted to come," said Lenola Washington, 35, a nurse from Chicago. "I was like, 'Girlfriend, no. This weekend is for me and my memories'."

In the past few months, soul-music fever has been gripping people's brains (and other parts of their body, too). The signs are everywhere: '70s soul, in all its glittering, Afro'ed, sweaty-chested glory, is more popular than it's been since its heyday. In cities like New York, Miami, Chicago and L.A., new radio stations programming "classic soul" formats are winning the top ratings spots in their markets. Groups like Earth, Wind & Fire, Teena Marie and Rose Royce are finding life on the road more lucrative than it's been in years. Soundscan, the company that monitors record sales, reports that oldies acts like Teddy Pendergrass, Cameo, Al Green and the Chi-Lites have sold more than 100,000 albums this year--each. And it's only June. Record stores say sales have increased 300 percent over a year ago. Isaac Hayes has a new, high-profile deal with Virgin. One of the biggest male R&B stars of 1995 isn't young, slim and pretty; he's 50, suave and very heavy. He's the icon of love, and his name is Barry White.

The soul revival is not just the latest kitschy joke the culture is playing on itself. The truth is there's a gaping hole in contemporary black music that hip-hop, Whitney Houston and new jack swing simply can't fill. With gangsta rap under renewed fire from conservative leaders, and with the R&B singles chart falling prey to sugar-voiced baby-faces (Brandy, Monica and Da Brat's combined age is 52), black music lovers craving something adult are being shut out. Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire believes the nostalgia is grounded in a very real desire on the part of African-Americans to escape to a more optimistic time. "The '70s were right after the civil-rights movement, and hope was high," Bailey says. "That was reflected in all the songs talking about love and happiness. You don't hear that anymore with these kids out there. The world is a much bleaker place for them."

Young listeners: So far, the audience for the revival is predominantly black; except for White and Earth, Wind & Fire, most of these acts barely crossed over to pop in the first place. But the music is starting to appeal to young black listeners. Hardcore rappers like Ice Cube and Dr. Dre sample old-school funk in their songs. Ice Cube slotted old hits from Rose Royce, Rick James and the Isley Brothers right alongside new raps on the "Friday" soundtrack, currently number three in Billboard. Kadeem Johnson, a 15-year-old hip-hop fan from Brooklyn, saw the movie and decided one track from Rose Royce wasn't enough. "That track is so phat I gotta hear the whole album," he said. "You don't hear that kind of smooth groove anymore. I hate to sound like my moms but the music today ain't happening like it used to."

Seventies soul fills a curious gap between the golden crossover era of '60s Motown and the blinding, garish moment of disco. Some of it, like Rose Royce's 1977 classic "Car Wash," is pure fluff: daffy topics, percolating rhythms, minimal production that had more to do with groove than gloss. Some soul is more sophisticated: Barry White draped orchestral arrangements all over hits like "Never, Never Gonna Give Ya Up," and his prescriptions for passion were the era's final word on soul seduction. Other groups had a political conscience, like the Chi-Lites in "(For God's Sake) Give More Power to the People." And some were just out of this world. To this day no one knows what planet George Clinton came from. At their peak in 1977, Earth, Wind & Fire staged outrageous live shows with rockets shooting off, figures in ancient Egyptian garb, gongs, giant shining pyramids and Spinal Tap-like cylinders encasing band members in flowing robes.

Today, the spectacle has toned down somewhat. But the fact remains that '70s acts have a grasp on the art of showmanship that has always eluded rappers. "These artists want to put on a show as badly as anyone wants to see them," says promoter Joe Sykes. They have something else missing from a lot of contemporary R&B: live instruments. Classic soul is refreshingly free of canned studio tricks and synthetic sounds; in a great tune like "Car Wash," there's an inestimable charm about a rhythm built around handclaps instead of drum programs. "What you're seeing with rappers is just a lack of musical knowledge," says Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire. "These kids aren't being taught music in school, so it isn't their fault. I was in the studio recently with the group PM Dawn and they didn't know a C minor from a C sharp. You can't expect them to do anything else but go back and sample old songs, because for them that's their history lesson."

But the old and new schools may have more in common than they think. Mary J. Blige and Madonna have both covered Rose Royce; onstage at the '70s Soul Festival, Rose Royce singer Richee Benson, dressed in knee-high boots and blue hot pants despite the humid weather, thanked her younger soul sisters for keeping the songs alive. Earth, Wind & Fire expect to play dates this summer with Boyz II Men, a cross-generational pairing Bailey never experienced with his '50s forebears: "You would have never seen Chuck Berry perform with us during our heyday." Soul music, with its good-time outlook and love-unlimited vibes, continues to draw people together. "The best thing about this music is that it really bonds me with my kids," said Donald Mathis, 34, of Detroit. "I like the Isley Brothers--they like the Isley Brothers. My father and I never had the connection. It sounds trivial, but these days you connect with your children any way you can." A soul connection is the deepest kind.