(March 7, 2021). It’s been just over 48 hours since the new collective of pop/R&B superstar Bruno Mars and immensely talented musician Anderson .Paak dropped their instant smash single “Leave the Door Open,” a pure soul throwback to the days when R&B music was still known as “soul” music because, well, it was soul music.
“Leave the Door Open” is a soul music-lover’s dream. For us old heads who were listening to the radio and buying records in the early ‘70s (or whose parents were), it’s a reminder of what things were like before disco, funk and hip-hop changed the direction of Black music forever. It was a time when melody and instrumentation mattered, when intricate vocal arrangements and harmonies were the norm and not the exception, and when sex was implied, not brazenly expressed.
“Leave The Door Open” by the talented twosome of Mars and .Paak – aptly billed under the name Silk Sonic – has all of those old elements and more.
Sweet main melody? Check.
Unexpected chord changes at the transitions from verse to chorus (and a key modulation before the final chorus)? Yep.
Vocal harmonies (including a .Paak-led call-and-response) built around Mars’ tenor that effortlessly morphs from smooth to soaring and back again (with a hint of falsetto thrown in for good measure). Yep, it has that, too.
Enough “la-la-la’s” to give “My Cherie Amour” or any number of other great 20th century ballads a run for their money? No problem in that department, either.
Real drums…and a tambourine to boot? You can never lose with those elements.
And get this: it even has a 20-second fade-out at the end. Who does that anymore in R&B? Or in any genre of music this side of 2010?
But if you’re having a hard time pinpointing exactly which old-school soul group Silk Sonic was aiming for in this new masterpiece, well you’ve come to the right place.
Djrobblog has narrowed down the list of the most likely candidates to five acts based on the similar sounds they put down during their respective heydays, which, for many of them, were around the same time in the 1970s and early ‘80s.
And some of the answers might surprise you. Here they are:
The Delfonics. This Philadelphia soul group was popular during the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Their two biggest hits were “La-La (Means I Love You)” and “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time).” Most of their songs were conducted by maestro Thom Bell of Mighty Three Music fame. Their harmonies were tight and were usually surrounded by a lush string arrangement. It was “Didn’t I” that made early prominent use of the glockenspiel, a miniature percussive instrument similar to the xylophone with keys arranged in the shape of a piano which produced high-pitched bell sounds. Silk Sonic’s “Leave the Door Open” makes very prominent use of that instrument, along with various other elements that make the Delfonics’ the group whose sound bandmates Bruno and Anderson were likely inspired by the most.
Switch. Now this comparison may surprise readers, if for no other reason than Switch – the latter day Motown band featuring Bobby and Tommy DeBarge – came into the music game in the late 1970s, long after soul music had peaked in popularity and groups like the Delfonics had become a distant memory on the charts. But Switch had a sound that was about as close to what Silk Sonic are doing today than anything by those older groups. Consider mid-tempo burners like the top-40 hit “There’ll Never Be,” “You’re The One For Me,” (both of those infused with a lot of sweet “la-la-la’s“, by the way), or any of their classic ballads such as “Calling On All Girls,” “Love Over and Over Again” or the unforgettable “I Call Your Name.” Perhaps it’s the fact that Switch came after those other bands which makes them the closer comparison to the soul sound of Silk Sonic today.
Blue Magic. Here’s another Philly soul group who, like the Delfonics, didn’t record for the famed Philadelphia International label helmed by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Instead, Blue Magic recorded for Atco/Atlantic during their heyday. It was that heyday that produced such classics as “Sideshow,” “Stop to Start,” and “Three Ring Circus.” On average, their songs play a little slower than Silk Sonic’s “Leave the Door Open,” and they eschew tenor for the smooth falsetto of lead singer Ted Mills. But the unmistakable glockenspiel is there, along with lush string arrangements that envelope those beautifully crafted melodies that were so characteristic of Blue Magic and the many other soul groups of their day.
Dramatics. This group out of Detroit is a one-of-a-kind that would be hard for any act to duplicate (although they themselves tried when they splintered into a couple different factions after their first major success in the early 1970s). Founded by the late Ron Banks, the “original” Dramatics had huge hits in “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get” and later “In The Rain,” both million-selling singles in 1970 and ‘72, respectively. A personal fave of mine was “Be My Girl,” a 1977 No. 3 hit on the Billboard Hot Soul Singles chart. Though Silk Sonic’s sound carves out a slightly different niche than that of the Dramatics, there’s still enough melody, full instrumentation, and trademark blending of baritone, tenor and falsetto voices on the Dramatics’ songs to make them legitimate forerunners of Mars’ and .Paak’s current brand of soul.
Cameo. This may be the other surprise on this list. Most people consider Cameo to be a funk/R&B band whose biggest successes came in the 1980s with uptempo jams like “Word Up,” “Candy,” “Attack Me With Your Love,” “She’s Strange” and so many others. And those people would be right. But Cameo’s ballad game was just as tight as their uptempo one, especially as the 1970s were giving way to the ‘80s. Songs like “Sparkle,” “We’re Going Out Tonight,” and “Why Have I Lost You?” are late-period ballads that kept Cameo’s catalog balanced and which could easily fit in a playlist featuring the new track by Silk Sonic.
But who would you consider to be one of the forerunners of the sound Bruno and Anderson were shooting for? One of the acts above, or someone I didn’t include like the Chi-Lites, the Main Ingredient, Stylistics, Spinners, or any number of acts on the Philadelphia International roster?
Feel free to comment below or in any of the social media feeds where this article is posted. In the meantime, please enjoy the new song’s video below.
DJRob is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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