This has been a remarkable year for new black singers. Some are among 1985's top newcomers. In other years, it was cause for celebration if one emerged.
This year, two black female singers, Sade and Whitney Houston, have had Top 10 albums. Two rookie black female singers rarely have such success in the same year. This seldom happens in the same decade.
Another unknown black singer, Billy Ocean, has become a star with his smash-hit album "Suddenly" that includes three Top 10 singles. Though released last year, the album really ascended to super-hit status this year.
Fledgling black singers usually have a hit single--maybe two--but seldom sell many albums. But these newcomers are selling albums.
Another promising rookie, Freddie Jackson--a singer largely unknown outside soul circles--has established himself as a force to be reckoned with.
"This seems to be the time for some young black singers to make their mark," said Jackson, a 26-year-old New Yorker. "The big black stars, like Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Lionel Richie and Prince, paved the way for us. With all these black superstars around, it's probably a little easier for other black singers--even some new ones--to get air play. Maybe the radio people are finally seeing that black music is happening."
Jackson's hit single is the slow, steamy, sultry "Rock Me Tonight," which has an appropriate nickname--the "bedroom song." This single and his "Rock Me Tonight" album--which crossed the half-million sales mark some time ago--have dominated the soul charts for the last few months. Both have also done respectably on the pop charts, hovering in the lower part the Top 30.
Jackson--chatty, cheerful, enthusiastic--is still dazzled by his quick success: "I still get sort of giddy when I focus on what's happening to me. It's amazing that it's happening with my first solo album. I guess people like the music. But I know there's more to it than that. Plenty of good albums die for all sorts of reasons. But this one didn't. The climate must be right for it."
His emergence is linked to what might be called the Luther Vandross syndrome. Vandross is a black ballad singer who has had huge success--several million-selling albums--primarily in the black market. Despite impressive sales, his records have seldom made a big splash on the pop charts. He has proved it's possible to have a predominantly black audience and still be a major record seller.
Other record companies admire how Vandross, who is with Epic Records, skillfully capitalizes on the black market. Each wants its own version of Vandross. Jackson is Capitol's Vandross.
Vandross has said that he isn't satisfied with just a black following, no matter how large. He wants to cross over to that white pop audience--the key to stardom. So does Jackson.
"I don't want just the blacks," he said. "I'm black and I love my people, but I'm in show business and I naturally want the biggest possible audience. There's still a lot of things closed to you if you just have a black audience. I want more. I want it all."
There's another reason--a musical one--that Jackson is compared to Vandross. Jackson's vocals--high-pitched, non-linear, emotion-packed--sound quite a bit like Vandross'. "I doesn't bother me that people say I sound like him," Jackson said. But some have turned the comparison into something unpleasant.
"I don't like it when people try to set up animosity and hostility between Luther and me," Jackson said. "They want controversy. Like they ask me if I'm jealous of Luther. They're trying to bait me into saying something nasty about Luther but I don't fall for it."
When he's not sounding like Vandross, Jackson's sultry style closely resembles Billy Ocean's. That's easily explained through two links to Ocean. According to Jackson, Barry Eastmond, who produced and co-wrote the Jackson album, worked extensively on Ocean's album with its producer, Keith Diamond. Also, two of the songs on Jackson's album were co-written by Diamond. While working with Jackson, these two were apparently under the Ocean influence.
Jackson was discovered by singer Melba Moore, who became his mentor. "Without her," Jackson said, "I might still be slaving away on my little job working that word processor."
At the request of a friend, Moore went to see Jackson at a New York club. Immediately, she recognized his potential. "She asked me to meet with her manager and show what I'd written," he said. "I had tons of demos (tape samples of singing and songwriting). I wound up going on tour with her as a background singer. I was writing songs for her, too."
Meanwhile, Jackson wasn't neglecting his own solo career. "I was gaining experience and sharpening up my own singing skills," he said. "Finally, the management people asked me if I was ready to make my album. Man, was I ready! So we recorded some tracks and let Capitol hear them. They liked them and signed me."
Working with Moore was Jackson's second big break. The first one turned out to be a dud. In 1982, he was hired to be lead singer on the third album of a Capitol Records group called Mystic Merlin.
"Recording that album was total hell. I didn't like working with those people. If I hadn't been strong, that experience might have turned me against the music business. I can't say I was looking forward to going on tour with that group."
Jackson never had to perform with Mystic Merlin. The album bombed and Capitol dropped the group, forcing him to resume his word-processor job. "If I had been still fooling around with Mystic Merlin, I might not have met Melba," Jackson said. "It's the first time that failure was a good thing for me."