Picture Book

Simply Red

album cover

Blue-Eyed Soul from a British Redhead

Face it: The track record of white people doing black music isn't all that stellar. Start with Pat Boone's unswinging covers of Little Richard, which outsold the originals and remain an outrage of exploitation, and work your way up the time line. What you find is one feeble approximation after another. Even the mega-selling acts of blue-eyed soul don't exactly thrive under long-term scrutiny. Hall & Oates? Great singing, three for-the-ages songs, and after that you can figure out why the luncheonette was abandoned. George Michael? Please.

On the short list of white vocalists who instinctively understand the fine art of singing soul—Boz Scaggs, Van Morrison, David Bowie circa Young Americans—belongs Mick Hucknall, the leader of Simply Red. With this surprising debut album, Hucknall and a band of Stax-worshipping rhythm players turn out natty (if occasionally overly synthesized) songs that embrace the basic song styles and strategies of soul—but are never cheap knockoffs. "Money's Too Tight (to Mention)," for example, is built on a disco shoop, but it uses the plush trappings of Philadelphia soul—shivering strings and O'Jays-style male-harmony choruses—to shout down the unfeeling Reagan-era response to poverty.

Blue-eyed soul ultimately works on the strength of the songs, and there lies the real story of Picture Book. From the opening plea "Come to My Aid" to the rousing "Jericho" to the gentle "Holding Back the Years" to the grumbling funk of "(Open Up the) Red Box," these ten pieces celebrate and then revitalize the basic teachings of old soul in ways even the glammed-out New Wave kids of the '80s could appreciate.

Genre: Rock
Released: 1985, Elektra
Key Tracks: "Holding Back the Years," "Come to My Aid," "Jericho," "Heaven"
Next Stop: Boz Scaggs: Silk Degrees
After That: James Hunter: People Gonna Talk
Book Pages: 705–706

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