Tag Archives: Black History Month

Music Musings: Janet Jackson’s Control– 30 Y.O.

Long before Adele or Taylor Swift were household names, All eyes and ears in the pop music world were affixed to the one and only Janet Jackson. Through iconic albums like janet., The Velvet Rope and Rhythm Nation, she broke barriers regarding race, gender, artistic expression, and celebrity involvement in social justice.

However to get to the point of icon, Janet first had to make an impact, and enter the mainstage of pop culture. Thirty years ago today, Jackson forged this path with the release of Control.

Here’s how Brannon Smith of Ebony Magazine celebrated the album back in 2014…

If Beyoncé is “the album that is going to launch a thousand women’s studies papers,” then Janet Jackson’s Control is the album that launched a thousand feminist music careers. Nearly 30 years after its initial release, the groundbreaking album still stands as one of the boldest statements in the history of Black feminist music, and Janet’s storied career remains an often-referenced blueprint for a legion of female performers following in her fearless footsteps.

In August 1985, Janet Jackson left the glamour of her show business upbringing and set out for Minneapolis — the home of former Prince protégés Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. By this time, 19-year-old Janet had starred in three TV shows, been married to and split from an addiction-plagued James DeBarge, and fired an overbearing Joe Jackson as her manager. She was coming into her own as a woman — and she, Jam and Lewis were determined to chronicle that evolution on her third studio album, Control. Unlike the music of her safe, bubble-gummy debut, Janet Jackson, and its follow-up, Dream Street, Control was largely autobiographical — relaying honest, raw stories born out of real-life events.

Though Jackson had recorded two albums before Control (in addition to an already impressive acting career), the collaboration with legendary producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis stood out because it was Janet that co-wrote the songs, and spoke the truth about her life at the time.

30 years on, Control still resonates as the quintessential ‘Janet Jackson’ album. From the sensuous, sultry moans of Funny How Time Flies, irresistible club starters like The Pleasure Principle, the tight vocal harmonies and surprising character voices of Nasty, to the delightful  interlude opening and jazz pop fusions of What Have You Done For Me Lately?, all the elements of how we understand Janet Jackson as an artist can be found on Control. And oh yeah… Don’t ever forget those FINGER SNAPS!!

Basically, with Control, it was clear that Jackson and her collaborators had found the recipe for success, and we as a music-loving public are all the better for it.

 

And in case this post has you wondering ‘What Has Janet Done For You Lately?’, then you need to check out her new album Unbreakable. If you haven’t bought it yet, go get a copy along with a new copy of Control, and play them back to back. You might be surprised at what you hear.  And the Unbreakable World Tour??  Not to be missed!!

During this Black History month, what better way to celebrate with a truly impressive milestone. Thank you Janet Jackson for releasing your masterpiece to the world, 30 years ago today.

Control 30

Music Musings: John Wesley Work Jr.

Nashville Tennessee has earned the nickname “Music City, U.S.A.” for good reason.  And although for most Americans, the city is known primarily for being a hub of Country Music, Nashville houses a rich history for all kinds of music traditions.

Nashville’s Fisk University is well-known for being one of the nation’s most treasured Historically Black College/ Universities and for the internationally-acclaimed Fisk Jubilee Singers. One of America’s most storied choral ensembles, the group has provided a window into the history of Negro Spirituals for 144 years.  But even that preservation wouldn’t have been possible without the work of famed musician, composer, conductor and musicologist John Wesley Work Jr.

Born the son of a slave and coming of age during the Reconstruction era, John Wesley Work Jr. was surrounded by great music.  His father, the first John Wesley Work, was a singer and choir director.  So when he came to Fisk University as a freshman in 1890, he knew that his acceptance into Fisk’s music program was a great accomplishment in itself. Founded in 1871, the Fisk Jubilee singers had quickly become legendary, as their tour to raise funds for the university had already taken them to notable performances for President Ulysses S. Grant at the White House, and even Queen Victoria in England.

But Work Jr. brought the Fisk Jubilee singers to the world in a way not previously imagined, and one that we are thankful for today. In 1909 Work, now a Faculty member at Fisk and conductor of the group, landed upon critical music history when he agreed to a recording project for the Fisk quartet.  Here’s more on its significance, via Archeophone

The quartet of Work, first tenor, James Myers, second tenor, Noah Ryder, first bass, and Alfred King, second bass, made ten sides for Victor at the end of 1909, records that signaled a sea change in the kind of entertainment Americans could purchase for the home. As Tim Brooks points out in his recording notes accompanying Mr. Seroff’s essay, most of the recorded fare of the previous 20 years with a “jubilee” theme or African-American influence was parodic and often demeaning. With the Fisks, now black art, history, and culture were literally getting a fair hearing. Songs such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “There Is a Balm in Gilead” were well-known, and the Fisks give masterful performances, while “Little David, Play on Yo’ Harp / Shout All Over God’s Heaven,” “Roll Jordan Roll” and “The Great Campmeeting” became instant favorites that the group were called on to perform regularly in concert.

This recording, made by the sons of emancipated slaves, provides a critical link to the traditions of American Negro Spirituals.  Thanks to Work and the other singers, it and the recordings that followed stand as a witness to our musical past.  They’ve even found new relevance via digital restoration and platforms like YouTube.

Work’s time on the Fisk faculty was somewhat short… only 1909-1916.  In that time, he managed to not only commission a series of landmark recordings, but wrote an impressive document of the history being sung at the institution.  Work’s Folk Song of the American Negro stands today as one of the most important ethnomusicological contributions of the 20th Century for its exhaustive research of the various African-American music traditions from that time and before.  Without John Work Jr., much of this history could have been lost.

Last but certainly not least, John Wesley Work Jr. was a gifted composer in his own right.  Besides writing songs in the Negro Spiritual style and substantial choral arrangements, Work also composed some treasured art songs.  Soliloquy is a favorite of his for the tender poetry and ascendant vocal line, proving some of the best elements from Work’s musical fortitude.  Here is my performance of Soliloquy from 2010.

The contributions of John Wesley Work Jr. are not only a pillar of African-American music history, but continue to enrich the lives of all American music today.

Fisk Quartet

(The 1909 Fisk Jubilee Quartet, with John Wesley Work Jr. to the far right.  Photo credit:  Doug Seroff via NPR