Thursday, March 30, 2023

Whiteboy Wednesdays: "Arthur's Theme" by Christopher Cross (1981)

As a student of anthropology, I learned that whenever two cultures meet certain standards - i.e. knowledge, practices and ideas - are inevitably exchanged and if in contact long enough, intermixed.  This is something people have understood since time immemorial, considering that one of the subthemes of the Old Testament revolves around that awareness.  And the reason I'm bringing that up is because even though this is the "Black arts review", sometimes I feel like writing about non-Black artists also.

Even if you are Black and prefer the music of your own people, by all means you're going to have a favorite White musician as well.  Well actually, I may not have a favorite White musician per se.  But I do have a personal favorite song headlined by a White artist, which would be 1981's Arthur's Theme by Christopher Cross.  So the purpose of this post is to research that track as the first installment in what will be dubbed the "Whiteboy Wednesdays" series.

The cover art from 1981's
Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)


Arthur's Theme is a very unique song, because the lyrics are based specifically on the plot of a movie but are also a lot more general.  For example, the word "Arthur" is not found anywhere in the track.

I spent a good portion of my life living in New York City, and my favorite place to chill during the evenings was at the Brooklyn Pier, blazin' a phat one while gazing at the bright lights of Lower Manhattan.   This was pre-9/11, when the skyline from that angle was graced by the Twin Towers, which definitely looked cooler at night.

I did return to the Pier a couple of times after the towers were destroyed, and the feel just wasn't the same.  Without the Twin Towers (and before Freedom Tower), Lower Manhattan looked a city from the 1920s.

But the point I'm trying to make is that there is something magical about New York City - the Financial District, Times Square, Madison Square Garden, etc.  NYC is one of the top tourist destinations for a reason.  And I now understand that Arthur's Theme is romance based, but I always interpreted it more as being about falling in love with New York City itself.  It's just you, the moon and NYC, with the former being representative of the beauty of nature and the latter, the best man has to offer when we all work together. 


Christopher Cross does his thing, but the vocals aren't mind-blowing.  Nor do they need to be, considering that he's backed by what I would call one of the best instrumental performances ever rendered in a mainstream song.  So I actually want to use the bulk of this article to give a shoutout to the individuals who played those instruments.

First would be the two which I think standout the most - keyboard and saxophone.  The former is rendered by Michael Omartian, who actually won a few Grammys alongside Cross.  Christopher Cross was pretty hot stuff during the early 1980s, and one of the biggest contributors to his success was obviously Omartian.  So evidently, them putting a quality song together wasn't like a fluke or one-time occurrence.

Ernie Watts (Saxophonist)

As for the impressive saxophone playing, the credit goes to Ernie Watts.  Watts possesses a lengthy discography, having worked with all-time greats such as Marvin Gaye, Dizzy Gillipsie, Aretha Franklin, Bill Withers, Cher, Paul McCartney and innumerable others.  He even contributed to the soundtrack of Roots (1977), whose musical side was helmed by Quincy Jones.

A device built by Michael Boddicker (Keyboardist)

Meanwhile, the synthesizer is held down by Michael Boddicker.  He has a Grammy also, from a song he participated on as a writer, which is Imagination (1983) by Laura Branigan.  He's also won numerous other awards, especially during the first half of the 1980s, due to his skills on this instrument.  And if you look at the contraption displayed on his Wikipedia page, you'll see that he was heavily into his craft.  So now we see a trend developing, in that Christopher Cross clearly enlisted top-notch musicians to participate on Arthur's Theme.

Paulinho da Costa (Percussionist)

The percussion on the song was handled by Paulinho da Costa.  Being from Brazil, he's the only non-American to pop up on this list.  He's also worked with some big names, such as the late Michael Jackson.  In fact he played on all of MJ's albums from 1979's Off the Wall to 2001's Invincible.  And we know that Michael didn't joke around when it came to those he employed on his projects.

Steve Lukather (Guitarist)

Dave Hungate (Bassist)

The next three instrumentalists on the list are Steve Lukather, David Hungate and the late Jeff Porcaro (1954-1992).  They respectively played guitar, bass and drums on the track.  The reason I'm putting them all into one paragraph is because at the time, the trio belonged to a band called Toto, who were a multi-platinum act when this song came out.

Last is Marty Walsh, who served as a second guitarist.  His Wikipedia isn't as extensive as some of the others, but like them he did collaborate with A listers such as Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, ABBA, etc.

But even without knowing the histories of these instrumentalists, the proof is in the product, and all you need to do is listen to Arthur's Theme to appreciate how good they were in their prime.  And the fact that all eight of them have their own Wikipedia pages says a lot, because with most other songs, even smash-hit singles, that's usually not the case.


I got around to watching Arthur awhile back - or at least as much of it as I could tolerate.  I was surprised to find out that it was one of the biggest box office hits of 1981, harping back to a day when superhero films weren't as dominant as they are now (though Raiders of Lost Ark and Superman II did outperform it).  The movie is actually pretty entertaining, with Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli offering noteworthy performances (and Moore being nominated for an Oscar).  But it's also over an hour and-a-half long and starts to lose steam once you get about halfway through.

The truly amazing thing about the lyrics to Arthur's Theme is that besides serving as a beautiful ode to New York City, they also encapsulate the character of "Arthur" as portrayed by Moore. I guess that's why the song actually has two titles.


When the movie starts, "Arthur" a childish womanizer living large off of his family's wealth.  So they give him an ultimatum, that he has to marry a woman of their choosing who comes from the same class or be financially cutoff.  But instead he ends up falling in love with Minelli's character, "Linda", who comes from a much humbler background.

And that's the exact same thing that the first verse and chorus of this song seem to be saying, that "when you get caught between the moon and New York City", it's as if you can't really help who you end up falling in love with.  Of course, being unexpectedly smitten is a phenomenon which happens all around the world.  But the movie itself is set in NYC.  And to reiterate, Christopher Cross is also speaking to allure of nighttime Manhattan.

Ted Ross, who played "Bitterman" in Arthur.


Since this is the Black Arts Review, I wanted to use the opportunity to give a shoutout to Ted Ross (1934-2002), the actor who played "Bitterman", the main Black character in Arthur.  I knew I saw his face somewhere before, but it seems he's appeared in so many 1980s' sitcoms that I can't remember exactly where.

"Bitterman" is a chauffeur - albeit an entertainingly-solemn one whose mood contrasts Arthur's loose spirit - the quintessential loyal Blackman whose life is dedicated to looking out for an aloof White, sorta like Robert Guillaume's Benson.  Some may argue that his role was based on a racist stereotype, an idea that holds strong merit since the only other Black character I remember from Arthur was a prostitute.  But even to today honestly, most of the movies I come across seem to have Black people playing servile roles.


Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do) deserved the Academy Award it won and then some, being one of the most cleverly-written and masterfully-composed songs ever.  I always enjoyed this tune from an audio perspective and knew that Cross was backed by quality musicians.  But only after doing this research did I discover that he really did use some of the top talent of his day.

And in terms of the writing, which he achieved alongside Carole Bayer Sager, Burt Bacharach (1928-2023) and Peter Allen (1944-1992), I've studied countless songs that were written for movies.  But none have done a better job of encapsulating the specific plot of the film while simultaneously boasting a larger, generally-appreciable sentiment than this one.  And since New York City is not really a major plot device in Arthur, whoever came up with the idea of associating this love song with the Big Apple really thought outside of the box.

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

"Summer Soft" by Stevie Wonder (1976)

Stevie Wonder is my favorite music-industry artist of all-time.  He's been active for over 60 years now, and honestly speaking, I don't know if I'll ever get around to listening to his entire discography.  However, I have heard most of his studio albums, and I don't think that many people realize how dominant Stevie was during his heyday of the mid-1970s.

For instance, he won Grammys for Album of the Year three times within of four years (in 1974, '75 and '77) which, as far as I know, is a feat that no other musician has ever replicated.  And from what I can gather, it wasn't one of those situations like nowadays when someone wins a Grammy, and other musicians start beefing like they don't deserve it.  For example, it was the legendary Paul Simon who took home Album of the Year in 1976 for a project he dropped called Still Crazy After All These Years.  And in accepting the award, he actually stated "I'd like to thank Stevie Wonder, who didn't release an album this year."

The cover of 1976's Song in the Key of Life,
Stevie Wonder's signature work.

That 1977 Grammy that Stevie won was for Songs in the Keys of Life, which is unanimously considered to be his signature work.  It is also a double LP, and all things considered there are other songs from it that would have been a lot easier to research.  But I decided to go with a relatively-obscure track found therein, Summer Soft, as sometimes I feel like it is my favorite Stevie Wonder song.  Actually, it is so obscure that - combined with the fact that Keys of Life came out a good time before the internet age - information on it is basically nonexistent.  So what I'm rather doing in this post for the most part is celebrating it.

What is readily known fact-wise is that Stevie wrote and produced this track himself and also played about half of the instruments.  And that's one of the reasons why no one could f*ck with him back in his days, because he could not only envision a deep song but also, largely by his own hand, bring it into existence.  And one other participant on the track who at least has his own Wikipedia page is organist Ronnie Foster, who dropped a studio album (Reboot) as recently as 2022.

The reason I like Summer Soft so much is because on the surface it sounds like a love song.  But if you listen to it enough times, you'll realize that it's actually a war song.  Or, have you ever heard that saying that 'all's fair in love and war'?  To me these lyrics, in addition to how they are relayed, depict the similarities between those two phenomena, how the euphoria of being smitten can be effectively counteracted through the pain of abandonment.

As far as the title goes, it alludes to the fact that Stevie uses references to the seasons to get his point across.  Or as interpr by Genius, this "song captures the fleeting feelings of love and excitement as embodied by the changing seasons of the year".  I've heard other musicians try the same thing, i.e. using the seasons as metaphors, but none come close to doing so as effectively as Wonder does on this track, though Lil Wayne, an exceptional lyricist in his own right, did an admirable job on Mr. Carter (2008).  But I don't want to delve too deeply into the lyrics Summer Soft, as I'm hoping that you'll listen to it yourself and derive your own appreciation of it.

Stevie receiving the Gershwin Prize in 2009.  Fortunately, the audience
was treated to an effective rendition of Summer Soft.

In the meantime, here's a video of India Arie performing it in front of Wonder, President Obama and other dignitaries (including future-Prez Joe Biden) inside the White House itself, when Obama awarded Stevie with the highly-prestigious Gershwin Prize in 2009.  Arie is of course a well-known Stevie Wonder fan herself.  And I absolutely love this clip, like the visuals and everything.


I know how it feels to fall in love, and I also know how it feels to be forced out of it.  And to me these lyrics capture that in-between feeling, when you don't really know whether the other person (still) loves you or not.  And the reason I call this a war song is because if you listen to the way the chorus and outro rendered, they are done so with force - frustration if you will - as opposed to tender emitting of the verses, thus representing both the potential joy but conclusively the emotional pain of being emotionally dependent on a disinterested romantic interest.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

"Peru" by Fireboy DML (2021)

The BET Awards are raunchy as hell, especially for a program that producers know children will by all means watch.  And I know that may be a strange way to start off an article that really doesn't have anything to do with that ceremony or the network.  But it was after after seeing Fireboy DML's performance at the recent BET Awards - and in all honesty falling in love with one of the dancers - that I decided to write this post.

The organizers of the BET Awards promote the show as being "Culture's Biggest Night".  But if a viewer doesn't know anything significant about African-American culture besides what they see on programs like these, they'd probably be fooled into thinking that our foremothers were wearing tight skirts and shaking their asses in front of random strangers.  That's not Black culture; that's stripper culture, which has become increasingly intertwined into African-American entertainment concurrent with the rise of hip-hop.  But that's research for another day.

Besides for being taken aback by that particular shorty, another reason that performance intrigued me is because... first a little about myself.  I wasn't born in Africa, but I've been here for a minute.  Yet within that time, I haven't learnt any African languages.

In my defense, language has always been one of my weak subjects, and I never actually set out to learn any while here.  But the reason I'm bringing that up is because Africans enjoy blasting music just like everyone else.  And sometimes, based on where I'm at, I'll be hearing the trending songs over and over and over again, without knowing what's being said nor who the artist is behind it.  And one of those songs of late has been Peru.  So when I saw dude performing it on the BET Awards, I was like 'yeah, I know that song'.

Thus, I became interested in delving a little deeper into its history and meaning.  Well in reality I'm not overly interested in the meaning,  since the few words I was able to pickup on made it pretty clear that Fireboy DML is chanting about being rich and having gratifying sex, like practically every other musician in his age group is doing these days.  But I did want to know more about the artist himself.


Fireboy DML, who's currently 26, is from Nigeria.  I'm not sure if the word "fireboy" has a particular colloquial meaning in that country.  But I do know that in Ghanaian slang from back in the days, a "fireman" was a word you'd use to describe a hardworking guy, like those who'd go to the UK or America and have three jobs at once.  And as for the "DML", it's an acronym for the latter part of the his first name (which is Adedamola).  In Nigeria it's common for (especially last) names to have at least three syllables, which I would presume really isn't ideal as far as marketing is concerned.

Nigeria has the largest music industry in Africa, but it isn't really like the United States, at least not from what I've been able to observe.  In places like the US, a label can throw enough money behind an artist and force them to blowup.  Here in Africa, we have our local payola and other similar methods.  But an artist isn't really considered to have made it until their song - for an Anglophone like a Nigerian - also blows in the UK or, less frequently, the US itself.  So you knew Peru was truly a hit once Ed Sheeran - who teams up with less-popular Black artists pretty regularly for someone as successful as he is - jumped on it later in 2021.  And the only official video to this song appears to be of that collaboration:

Now contrast that with the official visuals to Fireboy's most-recent single, Playboy (2022), which solely features DML singing, yet there's barely a dark-skinned Black woman in it, smh:

Maybe in the future, DML will put out another track that generates this type of buzz that Peru has.  By the looks of things, he's been trying.  But for all we know he may end up being a one-hit wonder on the international level, though he should be pretty much set in Nigeria, considering he's made historical accomplishments like being the first Afrobeats artist to perform live at the BET Awards (according to Taraji P. Henson).  And in my opinion he had just about the best performance of the night, especially as far as the males are concerned, though I must admit Chance the Rapper - completely devoid of sexy female dancers - represented also.  But it's going to take the system a long time, if ever, before they can show ample love to an African artist.


YBNL Nation was founded by an older Nigerian hip-hop artist known as Olamide.  I just checked out their roster, and I can't say I ever heard of any of them cats.  But the big names would undoubtedly be known in Nigeria and beyond.  In fact even before Peru came out, YBNL signed a deal with Empire Distribution, which is based in California and handles some of the biggest names in American music.  And I'm sure that partnership contributed to the success of Peru.


The lyrics of this song don't have anything to do with Peru.  They're recited partly in standard English, partly in pidgin English and partly in Yoruba.  Pidgin, as far as I can tell, is basically the same as West Indian patois. 

So I can understand pidgin pretty well, and this song really isn't that reliant on Yoruba.  And in reading the lyrics, Fireboy DML appears to be singing about two main subjects.  One is his jetset lifestyle, which is just another way of saying that he's paid.  And second, he appears to be singing about his main squeeze and most strikingly how he enjoys having sex with her.  That's the part, when he talks about her "puna" being "sweet like sugar", that even the booty-reliant BET was compelled to blot out for listening audiences.


It's cool to see more genuinely-African musicians get recognition in the United States, as it is imperative that African-Americans form a more meaningful understanding of the Motherland than what they currently possess.  But unfortunately for the cause, the music/musicians from Africa who are trickling in are heavily Americanized to begin with.

Perhaps such is to be expected, considering that - as evident by the 2022 BET Awards - only certain ideas and opinions are allowed to be expressed at the highest levels of the entertainment industry.   So in a way, African pop music - Afrobeats as it is called these days - is just as uniformly carnally-minded as mainstream Black music from the States.  So I guess it's a case of you can't have your cake and eat it too.  After all, the prospect of scoring some 'sweet puna' is a tourism draw if there ever was one.