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'Kiddie Soul' Compilation Not Just Kidding Around

The late 1960s and early '70s were a golden age for what came to be called "kiddie soul." Inspired by the huge success of The Jackson 5, hundreds of very young R&B groups formed across the country.

Many of them recorded only one single. Now, a new compilation gives nearly 20 of these obscure sides a fresh spin: It's called Home Schooled: The ABCs of Kid Soul.

There has long been a fascination with the sound of pre-pubescence, as the castrati of 18th-century Italy would likely (and painfully) attest. The affected falsettos and natural sopranos of young boys and girls often evoke a halcyon world of simplicity and purity.

Even though the voices are those of children, the themes were rarely childish. Part of the appeal of the genre was hearing young boys and girls sound worldly beyond their years. Home Schooled is thick with songs about love, relationships and the encroaching awareness of sex. While the adult world is absent in the voices, the record suggests that its complications of the heart and body are still a liminal presence.

This tension — between youthful innocence and romantic preciousness — made stars out of The Jackson 5 and the group's youngest member, Michael. He was only 11 when the group first hit in 1969 with "I Want You Back." That inspired the gold rush of kiddie Casanovas: the younger-sounding, the better.

Not all of the era's groups were trying to cash in on 'tweener romance. Several of the Home Schooled selections offer a rare, children's perspective on another dramatic relationship: between themselves and their parents.

As provocative and whimsical as many of these songs prove to be, Home Schooled also serves as an unintentional anthology of failures. Most of the groups on the album never made it past a single release, nor did any of the promising young talents find a way to mature into adult successes.

Yet, if these songs are forced to stand alone as the sole efforts these groups recorded, that feels appropriate, too. After all, what else is youth but a playlist of singular songs whose sentimental power still rings in our ears, even as the rest of our childhood memories fade to static?

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Oliver Wang is an culture writer, scholar, and DJ based in Los Angeles. He's the author of Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews of the San Francisco Bay Area and a professor of sociology at CSU-Long Beach. He's the creator of the audioblog soul-sides.com and co-host of the album appreciation podcast, Heat Rocks.