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Soul survival on the FM band

Soul music has been good to Vinny Brown. Just a few short months ago, his station, the Manhattan-based WRKS-FM 98.7 (KISS FM), was languishing in eighth place among FM radio stations in New York City. Now the station, with Brown as program director, is sitting atop the heap in one of radio's most competitive markets.

The formula? Start with the main ingredient: The Main Ingredient. Add some Rufus, some Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Teddy Pendergrass, and the O'Jays. Old-school soul music and smooth R&B, all day and all night.

Listeners are eating it up.

"We aren't the No. 1 urban station," Brown said, noting that the station has doubled its market share since January. "We're the No. 1 station, period. The market here was starved for that music so badly that when we made the switch at the beginning of this year, it just took off. I wouldn't doubt that there will be some discussions at some other stations before the end of the year."

It seems improbable, given the music landscape of the past few years, that '70s soul music would be making a comeback in 1995. But then again, who thought we'd ever see a new album from Isaac Hayes? Or a Rose Royce song on a rap album (Friday)? Or that big, cuddly Barry White _ not pelvis-pumping R. Kelly or salaciously gyrating Adina Howard _ would be the the sex symbol of the moment?

The roster of acts coming through the bay area this week speaks volumes: White (at the Sun Dome Thursday), Harold Melvin (at the Blues Ship tonight), modern soulsters Boyz II Men and Mary J. Blige (at the Budweiser Superfest Wednesday at the Sun Dome).

Local AM radio stations WRXB-AM 1590 and WTMP-AM 1150 currently lace their playlists with healthy doses of old-school soul (Tampa remains one of the few markets of its size without an FM urban station), while shows like WMNF-FM 88.5's Soul Party draws up to three times the station's estimated average listenership.

Some of the impetus behind the soul trend comes from middle-age urban listeners, a market that hasn't been specifically targeted by retro music peddlers. Like their rock counterparts, a lot of older African Americans are turned off by much of what they hear coming from the younger artists, embracing the sounds of The O'Jays, Kool & The Gang and Parliament with the same vigor that some older white listeners take to the Eagles, the Rolling Stones, and modern country.

Record companies like Rhino and Polygram have made their bids with soul-oriented compilations like Smooth Grooves (Rhino), and Funk Essentials (Polygram). Other companies are reissuing old albums by artists like Al Green and Bobby Womack.

Demand is high, said Polygram's director of catalog development Harry Weinger. Some reissues have already sold over 100,000 copies, nearly five times the average for such discs.

"The whole thing is a blast," Weinger said. "I never thought I'd be driving in New York City and hearing Barry White, Heatwave and Earth Wind & Fire on the radio again."

The rest of the movement is being carried by youngsters. Don't expect old music to start taking over the charts, at least not yet. Since hip-hop still wields a huge influence in the urban market, soul's biggest influence is its legacy, which modern artists are continually updating and giving a new context.

That's why D'Wayne Wiggins of Tony Toni Tone doesn't think that there is a soul "resurgence" per se; it never really went away. With hardcore rap losing its popularity among white suburban youth, and with mainstream rap in a creative slump, soul-influenced music is moving into the spotlight.

"Soul is just what you feel when you listen to an old Aretha Franklin record," Wiggins said. "What she projected was soul. She was a soul artist. But so is Brandy, to me; you can hear the same sort of influences in the way she sings."

Another big factor is the urban listener's renewed desire for romance and human-ness in their music, which neither rap nor a lot of post-New Jack R&B seems capable of completely addressing.

"I ain't gonna lie, I like Luke and all that stuff," said Wiggins. "But when all that booty shaking is over and the lights go down, and you're at home chilling with your honey, you're going to put on something smooth. Ballads will never go away. Romance will never go away."

Neither will real instruments and real players. A lot of R&B has been spinning its wheels in a mire of assembly-line production values. Even among the soul-intensive rappers, the music often tends to be samples or studio remakes.

"I came up on the Motown Sound, Marvin Gaye, Cameo," said Ron Wiggins (no relation to D'Wayne), who oversees Rhino Records' soul catalog. "In the '80s you got the drum machine, and you started getting computerized music. Now we're starting to get back to the real music, with real instruments and real vocalists."

And real songs, said Harold Melvin of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.

"The songwriters then knew how to write melodies," Melvin said."Outside of people like Babyface and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, a lot of stuff today is just beats. If you don't have a melody, there's nothing for the people to sing along with."

But the revival extends beyond the African-American audience. KISS FM couldn't have achieved the ratings numbers it did without a substantial number of white listeners.

Though white audiences have always supported R&B in large numbers, a lot of '70s R&B didn't start to catch on with white audiences until recently. Much of it was lumped in with disco, and similarly dismissed, said Brown.

"A lot of the more rhythmic R&B from that time was tossed into the disco basket," Brown said. "But this music transcends all barriers. You can be male, female, whatever color; when you are talking about Marvin Gaye, Stevie (Wonder), Aretha Franklin, Teddy Pendergrass, Gladys Knight _ you are talking about music that appeals to everybody."

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