When talking about the feel of a certain era of R&B, the imagery of the park cookout, the family reunion—those joyous kind of multigenerational black gatherings, where the music is as important as which aunt brought the potato salad—is often invoked. This is the kind of environment I will always associate with the expansive, loving soul of cats like Earth, Wind & Fire, Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, and Jeffrey Osborne. Osborne is one of those singers—much like Beverly—who may be somewhat obscure to mainstream America (or maybe just folks born after the 1970s) but whose voice would be recognized in milliseconds in most black households. His u-black-quity, if you will, is such that in 2013, President Barack Obama mistakenly and repeatedly referred to UK Conservative Party MP George Osborne as "Jeffrey." (Hey, maybe white folks call him "Ozzy.")
Jeffrey Osborne's story started in Providence, Rhode Island—one of 12 children born to Wanita and Clarence "Legs" Osborne, a trumpeter who'd played with the era's great bandleaders, including Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Lionel Hampton. Jeffrey, a drummer, also got to strut his stuff for the heavies of the time; at 15 years old, he spent two weeks gigging with the O'Jays—after their drummer kept nodding off on the job.
In 1970, touring group Love Men Ltd. found themselves in Providence, in dire need of a drummer after theirs had been busted for smoking weed outside of the club. Osborne was asked to sit in by the club's owner—and soon found himself the group's official drummer, driving with them cross-country to LA. The 10-man group, name shortened to just LTD (short for Love, Togetherness, and Devotion), lived in a one-bedroom apartment, hustling and gigging to eat. Osborne himself kept busy—via stints on drums for Smokey Robinson and others. It would be two years before they finally signed a record deal with A&M.
After two underperforming albums, A&M recruited the Mizell Brothers (my father, Larry Sr., and his brothers Fonce and Rodney) to write and produce LTD's third album, 1976's Love to the World. (Okay, maybe that's why I personally associate Osborne's voice so much with home and family gatherings, even the sad ones. That album's closer, "Love to the World Prayer," played at my uncle Fonce's funeral.) That album not only put the band on the map, but it took Osborne off of the drum throne and put him up front, as lead singer—where his muscular baritone lent grace and power to the oft-covered and sampled hit "Love Ballad." LTD's late-'70s streak only flared hotter through their next two albums, with monster gold and platinum jams "(Every Time I Turn Around) Back in Love Again" and "Holding On (When Love Is Gone)" topping the charts.
Despite his successes, after a decade Osborne felt stifled—opportunities to write and collaborate with others were repeatedly blocked by the band, leading to an acrimonious split with LTD in the early '80s. His self-titled 1982 solo debut—which took off on the wings of "On the Wings of Love," one of the era's biggest, best, and cheesiest ballads—set off a run of albums through the mid-'80s that netted him five gold and platinum albums and numerous hits—"You Should Be Mine (The Woo Woo Song)," and the Dionne Warwick collaboration "Love Power" among them—that were standards of Reagan-era soul.
The kind of cool and restraint of '80s R&B that Osborne's solo work typified—like the sanctified power of the best '70s soul—is hard to find nowadays. With a few notable exceptions, anything not explicitly puerile and highly processed is tagged as "grown and sexy," and sold on small indies or self-released on CD Baby, typically far from the charts or radio playlists. Veterans play for rapt fans in old-school package tours, in casinos, on cruises, or in clubs like Jazz Alley, where Osborne will headline a four-night stand this weekend.
The big old baritone voices, like those of Osborne, Teddy Pendergrass, or Barry White are nowhere to be found, either—contemporary male singers tend to exist in a perpetual man-child mode, where falsetto is king. Some would chalk it up to a literal conspiracy to infantilize and emasculate black men in America—just like "Bill Cosby is being railroaded to destroy images of black fatherhood." I don't know about all that, but I do know that the narrowing commercial viability of the whole range of expression in black music shows no signs of letting up.
During interviews promoting his most recent album—the 2013 jazz covers album A Time for Love, produced by George Duke, who also helmed his first three solo LPs—Osborne made a great point about modern R&B singers' tendency to focus on over-singing, on acrobatic runs. He said: "I always remember one thing my father always told me, 'You can do all those runs that you want. If you can't touch me with a whole note, you can't sing.'" Duke warmly reimagines the music on A Time for Love's well-chosen covers—like Stevie Wonder's 1963 "Smile," or the Carpenters' "(They Long to Be) Close to You"—allowing Osborne to emotively and unshowily honor the original melodies. "To me," said Osborne, "beauty is simplicity." A nation of uncles and aunties—hands up as soon as "Concentrate on You" comes on—would probably agree.