Where Is The Love? Mourning The Death of the Duet
I remember the first time I was able to fully appreciate the magic of “Endless Love”, the classic soul duet popularized by Lionel Richie and Diana Ross. The simplicity of the piano and guitar and the resplendent vocal arrangement, enhanced by the intimacy of Ross’ whimsical tones intertwined with Richie’s subtle tenor, made for not only one of the most beautiful ballads ever recorded, but it was also named the greatest duet of all time by Billboard magazine.
I am a sucker for a great love song, I will admit. There is something so incredibly endearing about two people singing to and with each other, expressing intimacy and love in ways that resonate with lovers the world over. Perhaps their love is directed elsewhere, to a child or to their spiritual guide/god, but they connect in their shared feelings for what or whom they’re singing about — it is all love from the heart and soul, and I’m here for it.
Whether performed by artistic soulmates, long-time friends, siblings, or married couples/romantic partners, my favorite love songs are usually sung by a man and woman coming together for the ultimate classic duet. There is a unique sense of balance and completion, and I appreciate how synchronicity becomes an essential element of the piece.
When was the last time you heard an amazing duet? One that prominently featured a Black woman as one half of the duo? It might take you some time to think about man/woman pairings who are actively recording and producing modern music, and even longer time to think about stand-out songs that echo the gender-blending compositions of old. I can, rather effortlessly, rattle off the names of iconic duos who produced some of the most enduring love songs, but those people are from the 1960s, 70s, 80s mostly. How did we lose our way?
At what point did the music industry decide that duets were no longer important or valuable? I am not speaking about the greedily manufactured “hit” singles” conceived in board rooms by execs looking to cash in on two artist’s fleeting popularity. I am focusing on two artists recording entire albums or at least several songs together that reflect their obvious connection outside of the recording studio? In speaking on conceptualizing and arranging 2002’s “Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape”, Meshell Ndegeocello noted that Neo-Soul singer Jill Scott was supposed to be on the album, but the label conflicts prevented the collaboration. Instead, Meshell worked with Lalah Hathaway and Caron Wheeler, which she said ultimately made the album perfect. While these are all women, this is an example of how the entertainment industry stifles the organic production of amazing music by focusing more on revenue than refrain.
I think about one of my favorite groups, the Grammy-nominated powerhouse duo, Kindred the Family Soul, whose music keeps alive the tradition of partnered ballads that explore the ups-and-downs, ins-and-outs of love and life. They are the most recent duo I can think of that conjures that symbiotic soul sound — at least one I can think of that has gone mainstream. Despite industry pressure to fly solo and focus on the latest trends in music production, Kindred remains authentic in their expressions of love for each other and the art itself. Like their love, their sound is uncompromising and timeless, and I’m not exaggerating when I say I listen to them daily — they’re keeping the love alive.*
Let’s take it back a bit, though. Let’s go back to times when music was organically created and when the spirit didn’t much find itself waiting for record label execs’ permission to move through the artists. Let’s take a look at some** of the most important duos and their classic duets and ask ourselves, “Where is the love?”
Tammi Terrell was born Thomasina Winfred Montgomery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1945. She began singing at a young age and was signed to her first label deal at 15. She then backed up musicians like James Brown as a young woman before enrolling at the University of Pennsylvania to study medicine. In 1967, she was introduced to Marvin Gaye when she was hired to record duets with the soul singer. They recorded two studio albums together, United and You’re All I Need, which produced several Billboard Top 10 ballads that would go on to become timeless classics.
For some of the recordings, Terrell’s and Gaye’s vocals were recorded separately and dubbed together during mixing. The true magic was in their live performances, however, which drew huge crowds and set the standard for soulful R&B duets. Terrell’s short life was riddled with trauma, from childhood rape to violently abusive relationships with Brown and David Ruffin, and the sultry singer’s voice resonated more like that of a woman two or three times her age; she seemed to escape through the music that slowly became her personal solace. Though Terrell only lived to age 24, the songs she produced with Gaye would go on to be essential contributions to what we might call the “Black Love Musical Canon” — if you need a song about enduring love, just shuffle through their tracks and you’ll likely find one that fits your sentiment. Terrell and Gaye became the R&B duet ideal as they laid the foundation for so many to come.
There would be no Tammi and Marvin without Valerie and Nick, better known as the R&B duo Ashford & Simpson. It was this talented team that wrote “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “You’re All I Need To Get By”, and“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”, three of the biggest hits for Terrell and Gaye. Bronx native Valerie Simpson met southerner Nickolas Ashford in a Harlem church and after the two fell deeply in love but were unable to launch a successful singing career, they were hired as songwriters and their undeniable talent flourished behind the scenes.
When you listen to the songs they wrote, you can tell they were radically in love with each other:
“Like sweet morning dew, I took one look at you
And it was plain to see, you were my destiny
With my arms open wide
I threw away my pride
I’ll sacrifice for you
Dedicate my life for you” — “You’re All I Need To Get By”
Though they’re best known for spending nearly 20 years writing hit songs and classic ballads for the likes of Terrell and Gaye, Diana Ross, Teddy Pendergrass, Gladys Knight, and Smokey Robinson, the duo also recorded several albums themselves, including four that went gold. It makes perfect sense that their most popular hit, “Solid”, is about both their enduring love and relationship and their music career, which relied heavily on the power of their love and the creativity of their bond.
In 1974, Roberta Flack made history by becoming the first (and remains the only) solo artist to win back-to-back Grammys for “Record of the Year”. This may sound surprising, but it seems like business as usual for the prodigy Howard University alum who entered at age 15 on a full music scholarship and graduated at age 19, having studied piano and voice. She was discovered singing jazz in Washington D.C. nightclubs and developed an incredible talent for churning out dozens of songs in just a few hours that led to her being eventually signed with Atlantic Records.
It was in the 1970s that Flack also began recording duets with Donny Hathaway, another Howard University student. In 1972, they released an album of duets, Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, which produced covers of classics like “You Lost That Loving Feeling” and “You’ve Got A Friend” and introduced us to original gems like “Be Real Black For Me”, an important revolutionary love song for the times. Their second album, recorded immediately prior to and released shortly after Hathaway’s untimely death in 1979, featured songs, instrumentation, and vocal performances/ arrangements by Luther Vandross and Stevie Wonder. Hathaway’s passion was unmistakable and while they were only close friends, Flack and Hathaway tapped into the nuances of loving relationships from the celebratory expressions of pure joy to the scandal of torrid love affairs.
Throughout R&B history, we see that singer-songwriters wield the true magic because just as the soul-stirring melodies get us into the right grooves, the lyrics seize our hearts and dawdle in our minds. Grammy winner and Academy Award nominee Siedah Garrett holds fast that tradition — the co-writer of Michael Jackson’s global smash, “Man In The Mirror”, Tevin Campbell’s, “Tomorrow (A Better You, A Better Me)”, and the Academy Award-winning “Love You, I Do” from Dreamgirls. The more gifted songwriters have a knack for incorporating the nuances of an artist’s personality and style into their pieces and Garrett’s work with Jackson and Quincy Jones exemplifies her talent in that area.
When you listen to “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”, the sublime duet performed by Garrett and Jackson on 1987’s Bad, you can’t help but note how similar their voices sound and why it works so perfectly. Jackson apparently wanted Whitney Houston or Barbra Streisand on the track but they both declined, so Garrett got her moment to shine. A break away from the traditional soul vibe of duets of yore, their passion was no less moving and many of us were convinced they were secretly dating.
Check Out: “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”
To be clear, duets haven’t always been simply about the R&B baby-making ballads. Sometimes, artists came together to give us upbeat dance grooves that got our bodies moving and brought us together on the dance floor. Groups like DeBarge, Rose Royce, Atlantic Starr, and Shalimar blended the vocal stylings of men and women and churned out some of the biggest hits of the 1970s and 1980s. However, their focus wasn’t on making chart-topping duets so much as it was on maintaining the garage band synergy that became popularized as Black people realized they had more opportunity to share their music with mainstream audiences and make real money doing so.
The sound was changing in the 1980s, but the love remained the same. Cherrelle and Alexander O’Neal managed to blend old school sentiments with new school vibes, tantalizing audiences with sensual songs that vacillated between torrid taboo and affectionate affirmation. Cherrelle began working with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis before Alexander O’Neal joined her for two duets. The whimsy of her soprano rode his gritty passion and “Saturday Love” became an instant classic. As solo pop stars rose to global stardom, these two reminded us that we could still sing about love as a duo and make magic happen.
Remember when you found out BeBe and CeCe Winans were not husband and wife? I…it caught me so off-guard because I just knew they were masking their lust for each other with songs about Jesus. They are, in fact, brother and sister and part of one of the most successful families in gospel music, The Winans.
When they emerged on the music scene in the 1980s, it was clear that CeCe’s crystal clear tones were the perfect complement to BeBe’s husky, cornbread-fed baritone. The Grammy-winning duo have been instrumental in the crossover success of modern gospel music into the mainstream — their 1991 project, Different Lifestyles, went to #1 on both the US Gospel and R&B charts. Their passion for Christ was undeniable and they reminded us that the roots of modern R&B are buried deeply in the Black Church tradition.
So what happened? I have a few ideas about why it is so hard to hear meaningful duets on the radio these days. Label rifts, financial desperation, the rise of the solo pop star, and the ever-changing music industry can explain most of it.
But it isn’t as simple as that.
We have to ask ourselves where the love has gone. I don’t listen to modern radio, and haven’t in about a decade or so, because I simply cannot stand to hear all the songs about how we don’t trust each other, don’t need each other, and how worthless Black women are to Black men. I’m tired! There was a time when Black men and women understood that they needed each other to survive. Note, I make no attempt to be ahistorical or romanticize Black relationships because I am well aware of the problems that have plagued us for generations. I also know that much of our “soul” came from our struggle and the primary way in which we survived our struggles was through radical love for each other as parents, siblings, lovers, and more.
Yes, our music has been almost completely heteronormative and queer artists still fight for permission to freely express their love and desires and use the pronouns that work best for them. Though they wrote and sang some of the biggest tunes that shaped the musical landscape, most queer artists lived secretive lives out of fear of alienating their fan bases and losing revenue because they weren’t heterosexual.
Even understanding the context of those experiences, it amazes me that there has still been an inexplicable connection made with the music that has come from the depths of our people’s various experiences. It has kept us alive through the most trying of times and maybe we’ve lost our connection to the reality of the struggle we once lived and breathed. I fear that we will lose it completely as our schools are stripped of music and arts programs, as fewer people have exposure to the vocal “greats” for inspiration, and as aesthetic continues to sell more than talent. Can we afford that?
Market over-saturation has made it nearly impossible for a new R&B duo to emerge and have a significant amount of mainstream success. Between the major drops in album sales and the rising costs of record production, the idea of splitting revenue in two isn’t very appealing to those who see singing as a “way out”. And when young people look up to their “favs”, they see individuals having success around the world as free agents, so they aspire to do the same.
We can’t forget our roots, especially our artistic innovations that have shaped the world’s culture. We can’t let our children grow up without knowing Roberta’s and Donny’s passionate pleas to each other or Ike and Tina’s rock classics. I’m saddened that we seem to have all but lost this particular genre of Black music, but I’m hopeful when I hear newcomers like Anthony David and Algebra Blessett or when perpetual Grammy-winner, Lalah Hathaway (yes, Donny’s daughter) teams up with male crooners like Eric Roberson to keep the love alive.
The duet isn’t dead, but it’s on life support and it’s become clear to me that the only remedy is a huge dose of Black Love.
Honorable Mention: Rick James and Teena Marie, “Fire And Desire”
Teena Marie was the down ass White girl your older brother wasn’t afraid to bring home for Sunday dinner. As I focus on centering Black women in this blog, I had to exclude this duo on a technicality. However, “Fire & Desire” is one of the greatest R&B duets ever recorded and I would be remiss to completely leave it out. Besides, many folks didn’t know Teena was really White; she was probably just a lightskint to them.
Also, many of you reading are here because of that song… ask your parents.
*I recently sat on a panel with these two and after 18 years, their love continues to shine through and inspire others. I tried not to freak out and be all fan-girly but I was so honored and just blown away by their presence. And the way Aja says “My husband” is why their music is so fantastic.
*Some of you read these pieces and ask me why I didn’t cover someone you think should be covered. Stop that. It’s impossible to include every single musical act that ever connected to what I’m writing about.