Heart and Soul

Miami's soul-music era may be over, but singers like Bobby Stringer are struggling to revive the genre

The glitter on the black painted board glints like silver in the light of the DJ booth. The booth rises from the barroom floor of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Post 8195 in west Hollywood. In the room's shadows, patrons rock back and forth as rhythm and blues tunes pour from colossal speakers. Strands of tinsel dangle from a sagging ceiling, and a string of tiny red Christmas bulbs winds around mirrors and across the wood-paneled walls. Bobby Stringer, the man of the hour, stands in the doorway, spotlighted by the glare of an illuminated hall that leads to the bar. The journeyman soul singer is scheduled to start at 11:00 this Friday night, but it's already 11:30; Stringer is pacing the room restlessly, glad-handing customers, patting men's backs, sweet-talking the women.

At half past midnight DJ Bobby White, the commander of the west Hollywood VFW post, cues a cassette and speaks sweetly into the microphone: "Bobby Stringer, coming up live in about a few minutes. We're going to have some fun tonight. We'll be giving away some prizes -- three oil changes we're giving away tonight."

On-stage now, Stringer is standing perfectly straight, his hair carded into a soft ridge that adds height to his six-foot stature. His shirt clings to a torso kept trim by a generation of vigorous performances, and he looks a decade younger than his 50 years. What gives him away is the rest of his outfit, the overshirt with kelly green and russet embroidery, the matching loose-fitting green trousers. It looks like a costume from a musical about the early Seventies.

"How about a hand for Joanne, your bartender?" Stringer implores, taking measure of the 75 or so working- and middle-class patrons. "That's not a hand, now come on," he says after the audience produces a smattering of applause, and the group responds vigorously enough that Stringer begins to sing.

"I'm at the turning point," he croons, moving in the arc of light created by an open door near the stage. The song, "Turning Point," was first recorded by Chicago soulman Tyrone Davis in 1976, and it's been played on R&B radio ever since. At the sound of the familiar words the crowd comes to attention; by the second chorus people are bobbing to the music. "Shubalu," Stringer calls out. "Shubalu," the audience returns, the way a church congregation chants its portion of the morning liturgy. The resemblance is not lost on Stringer. "Can I get a witness?" he cries as he finishes the chorus. But the singer's midnight sermon is purely secular. "Any time that you get love, you can't get enough," he imparts. "Just not enough. Everybody needs love." The spoken words float into the first line of his next tune, the Barry White classic "Can't Get Enough of Your Love."

As Stringer moves through his repertoire, his stage presence grows, aided both by calculated histrionics and genuine passion. He drags a chair to the doorway and stands on it, still singing. Then he hops his way across the stage, shaking with an almost evangelical frenzy. Sweat bathes his face, but he doesn't get winded. He turns his back to his audience. He walks down the hall, improvising notes, making up lyrics. The crowd calls him back. A woman screeches. Men murmur. At last he turns and re-enters the room with a flourish. The crowd stomps the floor and bangs the tables, and Stringer does what any consummate showman would do -- he turns cold on the crowd until they beg him to turn up the heat again.

Stringer is no stranger to this scene. For 30 years he has sung these sensual soul ballads, learned to break them down and build them back up with a dazzling array of vocal and theatrical strategies. He doesn't read music, but prides himself on his knowledge of 500 songs, written mostly between 1963 and 1975. And like the soul legends who are his idols -- James Brown, Otis Redding -- he has also developed a set of dance moves, jumps, and gestures that thrill spectators and make every night a night to remember.

The soul music era ended long ago. Gone are the heady forces -- the civil rights movement and integration, the upheaval of the Sixties and the exchange of energy with a burgeoning rock and roll scene -- that catalyzed black music of that era. Still, Stringer holds on. He's now married to his third wife, past the days when the wayward life of a touring musician brought him a succession of mistresses and seven children by seven different mothers, past the days when poverty hounded him and drugs tempted him.

But still he sings. It's what Bobby Stringer does. He has watched dozens of performers stop singing, hang up their stage shoes, put their instruments on a rack, and surrender to the nine-to-five grind. But Stringer never stops, never wants to stop. "I've seen a lot of them give up," he says. "They lose out and end up getting a truck driver's job. I don't want to be in that situation. I keep doing it. I just keep doing it, keep driving on."

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