The word soul has its origins in the religious experience. The soul is that ineffable part of a human being that many understand as their core or essence. It is the soul that many people believe survives the corporeal part of one’s body – the flesh, blood, bones, organs and brain – and that ascends to heaven upon one’s death. Just as the soul is understood to represent the essence of a given individual, soul music was understood, implicitly by some, explicitly by others, to represent in some sense the very essence of black culture.
The term was first used with regard to music to refer to a style of jazz that was an offshoot of hard bop current in the 1950s. Sometimes designated ‘soul jazz,’ a few of the style’s primary exponents were Horace Silver, Bobby Timmons and Lee Morgan. The recordings of these musicians, in many senses, can be understood as responding to the increasing complexities of the bebop style originated by musicians such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the early and mid-1940s by returning to the musical roots of black culture. Consequently, soul jazz drew extensively on techniques, gestures and, at times, the repertoire of blues and gospel.
As the 1950s gave way to the 1960s the term soul began to be used colloquially to refer to aspects of African-American personality, style or culture, as in ‘she’s a soul sister,’ ‘he’s got soul,’ ‘boy, that’s soulful’ and, of course, as an appellation for down home cooking, ‘soul food.’ In the 1960s soul music came to designate a variety of styles of rhythm and blues, demarcated by region and largely rooted in black gospel music, and which, although having antecedents in the 1950s, came to fruition at the turn of the decade, peaked in the mid- to late 1960s and by the mid-1970s were supplanted by funk and disco as the dominant styles of black popular music.
Soul music has often been referred to as gospel music with secular lyrics. In the mid- and late 1950s three artists, James Brown, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, were instrumental in bridging the musical worlds of gospel and rhythm and blues. In the process, they created the very first recordings that might be called soul and set the stage for many of the subsequent developments in black popular music in the early 1960s.
Universally recognized as the creator of funk music with seminal recordings such as 1967’s ‘Cold Sweat’ and 1968’s ‘Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,’ James Brown played an important role in the birth of soul music with early recordings such as ‘Please Please Please’ (1956), ‘Try Me’ (1958) and his cover of the Five Royales’ ‘Think’ (1960). Brown and his backing group, the Famous Flames, started off singing in the hard gospel quartet tradition pioneered by groups such as the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and the Dixie Hummingbirds. When the Famous Flames switched to secular music, R&B vocal groups such as Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, who also displayed considerable gospel roots, became primary influences. Brown’s very first recording, ‘Please Please Please,’ (1956) took the first verse of the Orioles’ version of ‘Baby Please Don’t Go,’ slowed it down, made it the basis of the whole recording and arranged it as a series of emotionally intense one-bar call-and-response utterances between Brown and the Famous Flames. The net effect foregrounded emotional display to a degree that was unprecedented in the history of popular music. ‘Please Please Please’ remains one of the milestones in the history of secularizing the gospel spirit and one of the first recordings that one could point to as nascent soul. While eventually making its way into the R&B Top 10, significantly, ‘Please Please Please’ did not cross over into the pop charts.
Ray Charles’s career both pre-dates and post-dates soul music. Heavily influenced by the Nat King Cole Trio, Charles’s first recordings in the late 1940s and early 1950s for Down Beat and Swing Time Records were rooted in the mellow club blues tradition pioneered by Cole, Cecil Gant and Charles Brown. In 1952 Charles signed with Atlantic Records, his career taking on significance as he gradually incorporated elements of gospel music into both his vocal performance and the arrangements he crafted for an expanded horn-laden ensemble.
Charles also began taking gospel tunes, many of which he had been singing since he was three, and rewriting them as secular tunes. Paeans to the love of God became paeans to the love of a woman. ‘This Little Girl of Mine,’ ‘I Got a Woman’ (both 1955) and ‘Lonely Avenue’ (1956) are all based on religious models. Throughout the second half of the 1950s Charles used this successful formula to write and record a succession of hits that helped provide the blueprint for what became soul, each featuring an emotion-laden, gospel-inflected lead vocal, gospel chord changes and heavy use of call and response. Charles was to go on in the early 1960s to cut a series of ground-breaking country soul recordings.
Sam Cooke first sang gospel music professionally while he was still a teenager with the Chicago-based Highway QCs. In 1950 he replaced R.H. Harris as lead singer in one of the most important post-war gospel quartets, the Soul Stirrers. While the Soul Stirrers’ home base remained Chicago, during Cooke’s tenure with the group they recorded for Specialty Records in Los Angeles with Cooke singing lead on emotionally charged recordings such as ‘Were You There,’ ‘Touch the Hem of His Garment,’ ‘Be With Me Jesus’ and ‘Nearer to Thee’ (the latter three written by Cooke). At Specialty, producer Robert ‘Bumps’ Blackwell suggested that Cooke also record solo as a secular artist.
With Specialty owner Art Rupe less than supportive, Blackwell took Cooke to the smaller Keen label where the former gospel singer wrote and recorded a succession of pop singles including ‘You Send Me’ (1957), ‘Everybody Likes to Cha Cha Cha’ (1959) and ‘Wonderful World’ (1960). Signing with RCA Records, Cooke continued to write and record an ever more impressive string of soul and pop hits including ‘Chain Gang’ (1960), ‘Cupid’ (1961), ‘Twistin’ the Night Away,’ ‘Bring It On Home to Me,’ ‘Having a Party’ (all 1962), ‘Another Saturday Night’ (1963), ‘Shake’ and ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ (both 1964). Cooke’s legacy is immense, influencing a who’s who of subsequent soul singers, most notably Otis Redding, Bobby Womack, Johnnie Taylor and Al Green.
Home to Stax Records, Hi Records and American Sound Studios, as well as lesser concerns such as Goldwax, Pepper and XL Records, Memphis, Tennessee was the single most important location for what has come to be known as Southern Soul Music. Stax was started in 1957 under the name Satellite Records as a country and pop label by fiddler and banker Jim Stewart. The label developed into a soul music power-house when in 1960 Stewart relocated his operation to an abandoned movie theatre in a neighborhood whose demographic was rapidly changing from white to black. Although the company subsequently sporadically attempted to record pop, rock and country records (in addition to jazz, gospel and black comedy), its importance lies in the soul recordings released on Satellite, Stax and the Volt, Enterprise, Respect and Truth subsidiaries between 1960 and 1975.
Stax recordings, for all intents and purposes, provided the blueprint for southern soul at large. When one hears recordings by artists such as Aretha Franklin on Atlantic or Etta James’s mid and late 1960s Chess recordings cut in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, although no Stax musicians were involved, one is hearing southern soul music as defined by the early and mid-1960s recordings at Stax.
While the influence of gospel music is manifest in all of the regional varieties of soul, gospel had a much greater influence on southern soul than it did on the northern styles found in Detroit and Philadelphia. A common southern compositional technique was simply to take a gospel song and, by changing the words, transform it into secular soul music. In the 1950s Ray Charles transformed the song ‘It Must Be Jesus’ by the Memphis gospel quartet the Southern Tones into ‘I Got a Woman.’ At Stax, Isaac Hayes and David Porter took ‘You Don’t Know Like I Know What the Lord Has Done for Me’ and made it into ‘You Don’t Know Like I Know What that Woman Has Done for Me.’ Stax vocalists such as Sam Moore of Sam and Dave, Otis Redding and Ollie Nightingale quite clearly made much more extensive use of gospel vocal techniques (particularly melismatic decoration and timbral variation) than did most northern singers and Stax pianists, such as Booker T. Jones and Marvell Thomas, regularly employed gospel voicings while playing block chords on a triplet grid such as one would commonly hear in church. Stax songwriters gave the IV chord, which is ubiquitous in gospel music, much more prominence than did their northern counterparts while, in turn, they regularly minimized their use of the more common secular V chord. Finally, Stax recordings nearly always ended with an extended ad lib outro that would fade while reaching emotional catharsis, emulating a typical gospel recording where a significant portion of the performance would be devoted to emotional improvising over a repeated riff and chord progression.
Just as the sound of Stax was inextricably tied to the church, the black church was inextricably tied to the Civil Rights movement. Triangulating these points, the sounds and practices of southern soul music cannot be understood except as being influenced by, and having an influence on, the Civil Rights era.
As Peter Guralnick notes in Sweet Soul Music (1986), the sound of Stax and the sound of southern soul in general were born out of the impulse towards integration. Both the Stax rhythm and horn sections (Booker T. and the MG’s and the Memphis Horns respectively) were comprised of white and black musicians. While all were engaged in the creation of African-American music, the racial composition of the band invariably meant that a number of pop, rock and country influences were also to play a part in the creation of the Stax sound and, by extension, southern soul music. Most notable among these are guitarist Steve Cropper’s deployment of open sixth dyads (typically used by country guitarists such as Chet Atkins) and bassist Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn’s tendency to craft melodic, contrapuntal bass lines (Paul McCartney was a big influence in this regard).
Precisely summing up the sound on the several hundred recordings issued on Stax and Volt in the 1960s is a nigh-on impossible task. One can, however, delimit in general terms the main features of the Stax sound in the 1960s, all of which stand in stark contrast to the musical practices of Detroit’s Motown Records, Stax’s main rival in this period. The Stax sound consisted of (1) an emphasis on the low end; (2) the prominent use of horns which often took the place of background vocals; (3) pre-arranged horn ensembles often serving as bridges in place of the more typical ‘improvised’ guitar, keyboard or sax solos heard on many popular music recordings (this concept was originated by Otis Redding); (4) a ‘less is more’ aesthetic manifested in sparse textures, the absence of ride cymbals on many vocal recordings, unison horn lines, and the absence of strings until mid-1968; (5) a mix that placed the vocalist in the middle of the recording rather than way out in front; (6) a prominent gospel influence as heard in the juxtaposition of organ and piano, the extensive use of the IV chord and, most importantly, in the deployment by vocalists at Stax of extensive timbral variation, pitch inflection, melismas and highly syncopated phrasing, all in the service of emotional catharsis; and (7) a delayed back beat. The latter was developed in 1965 by Steve Cropper and drummer Al Jackson Jr., while working with Wilson Pickett on ‘(In The) Midnight Hour’ (released on Atlantic Records), in response to a new dance known as the Jerk, and became a component of virtually every Stax recording through the end of the decade.
The readily identifiable sound of Stax in the 1960s gave way to a disparate array of new and different sounds in the 1970s. The most significant of these was Isaac Hayes’s groundbreaking fusion of soul, pop, jazz, classical and rock on his Hot Buttered Soul, Isaac Hayes Movement and To Be Continued albums. Charting as R&B, pop, jazz and easy listening, these albums transformed the political economy of the black music industry, contradicting the widespread belief in the music industry at large that black LPs (as opposed to singles) could not sell in significant numbers. Hayes’s breakthrough paved the way for subsequent album-oriented projects by Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Funkadelic and others. In 1971 Hayes pioneered the black soundtrack with the double album Shaft.
In the wake of the success of Stax, a number of smaller labels were started in Memphis. Of these Goldwax, with hits by James Carr and the Ovations, was the most significant. Many of the Goldwax recordings were cut at Chips Moman’s American Sound Studios on the north side of Memphis. Moman and the American house band were equally adept at cutting pop, country, soul and jazz records. Between November 1967 and January 1971, they were responsible for an astonishing 117 chart hits. These included soul records released on a variety of local and national labels by James Carr, James and Bobby Purify, Oscar Toney Jr., Wilson Pickett, Bobby Womack, Solomon Burke, the Sweet Inspirations, King Curtis, Joe Tex, Joe Simon, the Masqueraders, Arthur Alexander and Roy Hamilton.
Also worthy of note with regard to Memphis soul are a number of recordings by Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland. Bland’s career predates Stax Records. Recording for Duke Records in the 1950s, Bland specialized in a sophisticated, uptown urbane style of blues dominated by a falsetto cry. In 1958 after having an operation to remove his tonsils, Bland’s voice had lowered and the falsetto cry was no longer an option. At this point he married a guttural squall that he adapted from preacher Reverend C.L. Franklin to a singing style that was heavily influenced by the larynx-shredding aesthetic of gospel quartet greats such as Julius Cheeks of the Sensational Nightingales. A blues singer in the 1950s, by the 1960s Bland was a soul singer, having developed the ability to move from a calm and smooth, if slightly smokey, timbre to an out and out soul-shaking gospel rasp. The result was a mature style that was singularly unique and instantly recognizable among his blues and soul singing brethren.
Outside of Memphis the most important region for the recording of southern soul music was a cluster of four towns in northern Alabama collectively referred to as Muscle Shoals. Situated on either side of the Tennessee River in the dry counties of Colbert and Lauderdale, the four towns – Florence, Sheffield, Tuscumbia and Muscle Shoals itself – boasted no music scene to speak of through the late 1950s. That was to change when an eccentric local visionary, Tom Stafford, joined forces with two songwriters from Hamilton, Alabama, Billy Sherrill and Rick Hall, to form FAME (Florence, Alabama Music Enterprises) Music in 1959. Quickly transforming a doctor’s office located above Stafford’s father’s drugstore into a studio, FAME began to attract an array of aspiring white country, rock and R&B musicians including Donnie Fritts, Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn. The latter two were to write soul standards such as ‘Out of Left Field’ for Percy Sledge and ‘I’m Your Puppet’ for James and Bobby Purify and later become important parts of the Memphis music scene working with Chips Moman at American Sound Studios in the latter half of the 1960s.
The FAME partnership ended in mid-1960 with Rick Hall retaining the name while building a new studio modeled on Nashville’s RCA complex in an old tobacco and candy warehouse. In mid-1961 Hall produced ‘You Better Move On’ (later covered by the Rolling Stones), backed with ‘A Shot of Rhythm and Blues’ for local black singer Arthur Alexander, accompaniment being provided by an all-white local rhythm section including future Elvis Presley sidemen drummer Jerry Carrigan and pianist David Briggs. Over the next few years Hall produced hits on a freelance basis for Tommy Roe and the Tams. In 1964 he produced ‘Steal Away’ for local gospel singer Jimmy Hughes and issued it on his own Fame label. Shortly after the record broke into the R&B Top 20, the Fame rhythm section quit and went to Nashville. Undeterred, Hall put together a second rhythm section, heavily influenced by Booker T. and the MG’s, consisting of drummer Roger Hawkins, bassist David Hood, guitarist Jimmy Johnson and keyboard player Spooner Oldham. In 1967, when the latter headed to Memphis, Barry Beckett joined what became known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.
The first southern soul record to reach number 1 on the pop charts and the first hit recorded by Hall’s new rhythm section was Percy Sledge’s ‘When a Man Loves a Woman.’ Cut in early 1966 at another local studio, Quinvy, the record was picked up by Atlantic Records for national distribution. Since Stax had closed its doors to outdoor sessions several months earlier, Atlantic immediately turned to Rick Hall and Fame studios for subsequent sessions by Wilson Pickett (‘Land of 1000 Dances,’ ‘Mustang Sally’) as well as Aretha Franklin’s first Atlantic session (‘I Never Loved a Man [The Way I Love You],’ ‘Do Right Woman-Do Right Man’). After the first Franklin session, Wexler and Hall had a falling-out and no further Atlantic artists were brought to Fame. Hall next began producing hits for Chess soul singers including Laura Lee, Etta James and Irma Thomas, Goldwax artists including James Carr as well as hits for two local artists he had signed to Fame, Clarence Carter and Candi Staton.
In April 1969 Hall’s rhythm section left to start their own Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, financing being provided by Atlantic Records. Over the next several years the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section cut a large number of soul hits for artists such as the Staple Singers, Johnnie Taylor, Mel and Tim, Luther Ingram, Margie Joseph, Veda Brown and the Soul Children as well as pop and rock hits for artists as diverse as Simon and Garfunkel, Cher, Rod Stewart, Willie Nelson and Bob Seger. At Fame, Rick Hall was cutting pure pop hits for the Osmonds (‘One Bad Apple’), Paul Anka (‘You’re Having My Baby’) and Mac Davis (‘Don’t Get Hooked On Me’). In 1973 alone recordings produced by Rick Hall held the number 1 slot on the pop charts for an astonishing 17 weeks.
In the 1970s Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler attempted to construct a similar recording scene at Criteria Studios in Miami, importing a group of white session players from Memphis named the Dixie Flyers as the house band. While Criteria ultimately became more famous as the studio where Derek and the Dominoes’ Layla and the Allman Brothers’ Eat a Peach albums were recorded, the studio was also used for soul sessions by Aretha Franklin, Sam and Dave, Esther Phillips and Brook Benton.
Through the first few years of the nineteenth century, New Orleans was under either French or Spanish rule and consequently was largely Catholic. Catholic slave masters then and later took a different stance from those of a Protestant persuasion towards some aspects of their slaves’ lives. Equally brutal during the working day, Catholic slave masters chose to interfere very little with the recreation time of their slaves. The result was that in South America, the French and Spanish Caribbean and the southern part of Louisiana, African cultural retentions were much stronger among slaves and their descendants than they were in other parts of the United States. This partially explains why, despite the purchase of Louisiana by the United States from Napoleon in 1803, the music of black New Orleans has always exhibited a markedly different rhythmic sensibility compared to black music in the rest of the United States. In the case of New Orleans soul that often means an asymmetrical division of a 4/4 bar into 3 + 3 + 2 clave rhythmic groupings.
New Orleans soul centered primarily around the talents of writer, pianist and producer Allen Toussaint and the studio of Cosimo Matassa. In 1958, by the time he was 20, Toussaint had played piano on Fats Domino recordings, released a solo album on RCA and written and produced a local hit for Lee Dorsey. Toussaint was to go on to write, arrange and/or produce local and national hits by a who’s who of ‘Crescent City’ soul stalwarts including Jessie Hill, Lee Dorsey, Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry, Irma Thomas, Aaron Neville, Ernie K-Doe, Benny Spellman and Chris Kenner. In the late 1960s Toussaint began to use the Meters as a house band. The latter were clearly influenced by the work of Stax’s Booker T. and the MG’s and similarly developed simultaneous careers as session musicians and hit instrumental artists unto themselves.
In addition to Toussaint, arranger Wardell Quezerque was responsible for a number of superior recordings by New Orleans soul artists including King Floyd’s ‘Groove Me’ and Jean Knight’s ‘Mr. Big Stuff,’ both cut at a single session at Jackson, Mississippi’s Malaco Records in 1970.
As a soul center in the 1960s, Detroit was dominated by Motown Records. Founded by Berry Gordy Jr., the history of Motown, in many respects, parallels that of Stax. Both companies were based in residential neighborhoods, both owners built idiosyncratic recording studios in pre-existing buildings, both companies utilized a ‘house’ band and ‘in-house’ song-writing teams and, most importantly, both companies developed identifiable sounds. Motown liked to refer to their sound as ‘the Sound of Young America,’ the sign outside their headquarters proudly proclaiming the building as ‘Hitsville U.S.A.’
In direct contrast to Jim Stewart and Stax, Gordy was the product of an urban, middle-class upbringing in the depersonalized North. Having experienced life on the Mercury assembly line, Gordy understood that time is money, had internalized the basic precepts of industrial capitalism and ran his company accordingly from the top down in an assembly-like fashion. A firm believer in vertical integration, Gordy’s Motown empire included a management company, a booking agency, a finishing school and a choreography department, in addition to a variety of record labels, including Tamla, Motown, Gordy and Soul, and the Jobete publishing company.
From the beginning, Gordy was determined to sell records to both white and black Americans. He consequently spent time attempting to deduce the qualities necessary to facilitate the crossing over of black records from the R&B to the pop charts. Armed with his conclusions, Gordy developed an approach to songwriting, arranging and producing that focused on narrative lyrics that presented a problem in a relationship that was never fully resolved, maximized the use of hooks, employed a great deal of high register sounds, and positioned the lead vocalist way out front in the mix. Gordy was also enamored of Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ approach to production and consequently Motown recordings, in contrast with those at Stax, tended to be extremely dense, employing at various times up to three guitarists, two drummers, strings, horns and back-up vocalists. Above all, Motown relied on a massive beat, with in-house producers such as Holland, Dozier and Holland creating enormous composite sounds by layering handclaps, foot stamps, tambourine and snare. While a back beat was very much in evidence on the majority of Motown recordings, the difference in accents between beat 1 and 3 and beats 2 and 4 on was much less than that heard on most southern soul recordings. Finally, in contrast to Stax Records, where all members of the integrated house band had a background in R&B, the Motown house band, nicknamed the Funk Brothers, was primarily made up of black jazz musicians (white guitarist Joe Messina being a notable exception), which informed the kind of innovative parts crafted by musicians such as bassist James Jamerson.
With a roster of artists that included Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Four Tops and the Jackson Five, Motown became the most successful black-owned and, arguably, the most successful independent record company in history. In the 1960s alone Motown placed 79 records in the pop Top Ten. In 1972 Gordy moved the company to Los Angeles. While the Motown sound of the 1960s was no longer in evidence, in the 1970s and 1980s Motown continued to produce a substantial number of hits with funk and disco-oriented artists such as Rick James, the Dazz Band, DeBarge, the Mary Jane Girls, Teena Marie, the Commodores and Lionel Richie.
In the wake of Motown’s early success, dozens of local entrepreneurs attempted to start record labels in Detroit. The most successful were Golden World, Revilot, Ric Tic, Hot Wax and Invictus, who collectively produced hits by the Parliaments, Edwin Starr, Freda Payne, 100% Aged in Soul, the Chairman of the Board and Flaming Ember. Hot Wax and Invictus were started by songwriters Eddie Holland, Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier after their departure from Motown in 1968.
During the first half of the twentieth century, in what has been termed the ‘Great Migration,’ Chicago was the primary destination of thousands of black Americans from Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri and western Tennessee. With a constant flow of migrants north and family members routinely visiting in both directions, well into the 1970s most black citizens of the Windy City maintained strong relationships with southern black relatives and culture.
Pre-World War II, Chicago developed into the most important urban center for both boogie woogie piano music and all forms of gospel. In the post-war era, as the home to southern migrants such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter, Chicago became the focal point for the most influential tradition of electric blues. The city could also boast of a healthy vocal group scene. Given all this musical activity, it is not surprising that the ‘Windy City’ was home to two of the most important post-war record labels specializing in black music, Chess and Vee Jay Records.
Chess Records was started as Aristocrat in 1947 and, although primarily specializing in blues, also recorded gospel, jazz, rock ’n’ roll and soul artists. Among the latter were Etta James, Fontella Bass, Billy Stewart, Irma Thomas and the Dells. Vee Jay, founded in 1953 by African Americans Vivian Carter and James Bracken, was one of only a handful of black-owned record labels. In the 1950s the company specialized in blues, gospel and doo wop. Before going bankrupt in 1965, Vee Jay entered the soul market issuing seminal recordings by Jerry Butler, Dee Clark, Gene Chandler and Betty Everett and serving as the distributor of the Memphis soul label, Goldwax Records.
In 1959 Vee Jay issued ‘For Your Precious Love’ by the Impressions. While the lead vocal was sung by Jerry Butler, the record was also notable for the contributions of 16-year-old guitarist, singer and writer Curtis Mayfield. As the first important R&B artist to be born in the urban North, in the early 1960s Mayfield developed an utterly original approach to writing and recording soul music that fused gospel harmonies and an idiosyncratic guitar style with innovative vocal and instrumental arrangements. His recordings with the Impressions commonly featured multiple lead vocals where each member of the group sang lead on different lyric lines, signifying a sense of community where, while everyone was contributing to the common good, individuality was valued. Mayfield’s distinctive sound also featured: extensive use of falsetto; a clipped rhythm guitar timbre juxtaposed with a bright lead guitar timbre; strings used percussively (often played pizzicato); metallic keyboards (xylophone, glockenspiel, vibraphone); brass (as opposed to the saxophone so ubiquitous in southern soul); and short instrumental vamps instead of solos. The instrumental arrangements were crafted in large part by producer Johnny Pate. In stark contrast to the majority of soul recordings cut elsewhere, Mayfield’s work eschewed frenetic exhortation and instead exhibited a sense of calm and confidence that could be seen as reflecting a belief that in the wake of the victories achieved by the Civil Rights Movement in the first half of the 1960s a new day of equality and equal opportunity was on the horizon.
Mayfield wrote, sang lead, played guitar on and produced over three dozen hits for the Impressions, many of which, such as the often-covered ‘People Get Ready’ and ‘We’re a Winner,’ he referred to as ‘songs of faith and inspiration.’ In addition to his work with his own group, Mayfield wrote and produced hits for a number of other Chicago artists including Major Lance and the Staple Singers, as a solo artist scored the influential soundtrack to Superfly and owned three record labels that specialized in soul, Windy C, Mayfield and Curtom. For all intents and purposes, the sound of Mayfield’s work with the Impressions became the ‘sound of Chicago soul.’
Home of the fabled Apollo Theatre, and more specifically 125th Street in Harlem, New York City had long been the epicenter of black entertainment in America. An important hub for both doo wop and girl groups, it is curious that, outside of King Curtis, Chuck Jackson and Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, New York produced few soul artists of significance. The city did, however, serve as the home of three record companies which each issued important soul recordings; Bobby Robinson’s complex of labels, Sue, Fire, Fury and Enjoy, Florence Greenberg’s Scepter/Wand imprints and Ahmet Ertegun, Nesuhi Ertegun and Jerry Wexler’s Atlantic Records.
Atlantic was founded in 1948 as an R&B and jazz label. Beginning with Ray Charles’s seminal recordings in the 1950s, the company grew into a soul music powerhouse as in the 1960s Jerry Wexler signed a bevy of soul greats including Solomon Burke, Don Covay, Wilson Pickett, King Curtis, Aretha Franklin and the Sweet Inspirations. Atlantic augmented this rather impressive roster when Wexler, through Atlantic’s distributor in the mid-South, got wind of the regional success Stax was enjoying with Rufus and Carla’s ‘Cause I Love You’ in the summer of 1960. Wexler immediately flew down to Memphis and worked out a hand shake deal that would be formalized in written form in 1965 giving Atlantic distribution rights for all Stax/Volt product issued through May 1968. Over time, Wexler was to work out similar deals with Fame, Dial and Malaco Records, picking up seminal soul recordings by Clarence Carter, Joe Tex and King Floyd in the process. Although Atlantic was always based in New York City, the majority of its soul recordings were either recorded in the South or cut in New York with various musicians from the South, such as the Memphis Horns and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, flown in for the sessions.
From its beginnings in the 1950s the Civil Rights movement was integrally connected to the black church, with gospel singers such as Mahalia Jackson and the Staple Singers routinely raising funds and playing at rallies for the movement. In the second half of the 1960s soul records such as Otis Redding’s ‘Respect’ and Sam and Dave’s ‘Soul Man,’ while not explicitly referring to Civil Rights per se, were interpreted by many African Americans as anthems of black pride. In Aretha Franklin’s hands, ‘Respect’ was also understood by many fans as a black feminist statement. While Sam Cooke wrote and recorded the seminal ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ just before his death in December 1964, it was not until the late 1960s that songwriters such as Curtis Mayfield, Randy Stewart, Homer Banks and Bettye Crutcher were writing songs, such as the Impressions’ ‘We’re a Winner,’ ‘This Is My Country,’ ‘Choice of Colours,’ ‘Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey)’ and the Staple Singers’ ‘When Will We Be Paid,’ ‘Long Walk to D.C.’ and ‘The Ghetto,’ that explicitly underscored and supported various aspects of consciousness that arose out of the Civil Rights movement.
While the lyrics of the majority of soul recordings focused on the vagaries of love, in addition to the explicitly Civil Rights-oriented lyrics cited above, a very small percentage of the genre’s songs, such as Isaac Hayes’s ‘Soulsville,’ Edwin Star’s ‘War’ (written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong) and Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On,’ addressed aspects of black culture and social issues.
A few blocks from Stax Records was the Royal Recording Studio, home of Hi Records. Like Stax, Hi had also started in the late 1950s but, with the exception of a series of soul-based instrumental hits by trumpeter Willie Mitchell, focused on pop, country and rockabilly records. This changed in the late 1960s when owner Joe Cuoghi put Mitchell in charge of signing and producing R&B talent at Hi. Over the next decade Mitchell perfected an original, distinctive Hi sound on recordings by Al Green, Ann Peebles, Syl Johnson, Otis Clay, O.V. Wright and Denise LaSalle (the latter were released on Westbound Records) that came to define much of what was great about soul music in the first half of the 1970s. Virtually all of the soul records produced by Mitchell for Hi featured the talents of the Hi Rhythm Section. The core of the group revolved around the Hodges brothers, whom Mitchell had virtually raised since they were kids and whom he had personally groomed as members of his gigging band. Augmenting Mabon ‘Teenie’ Hodges on guitar, Leroy Hodges on bass and Charles Hodges on organ, were Mitchell’s nephew Archie Turner on piano and either Howard Grimes or Al Jackson Jr. on drums. As was the case with Stax and Motown, the distinctive sound heard on Hi recordings was partially a result of the company’s hand-crafted studio and partially the result of the unique proclivities of the resident musicians, in this case Mitchell and his house band. Common characteristics of Hi releases were ride patterns played on the tom toms instead of cymbals, pronounced behind-the-beat phrasing by the horn section and lead vocalists, lightly deployed strings and a trio of white background singers consisting of two women and one man.
Inspired by the success of Motown, in 1966 singer/lyricist Kenny Gamble and pianist/arranger Leon Huff decided to team up and start Gamble Records in Philadelphia. Up to this point, with the exception of Arctic Records, the ‘City of Brotherly Love’ was primarily known as the home of American Bandstand, Cameo-Parkway Records and a plethora of artistically limited teen idols. Gamble Records enjoyed substantial success with the Intruders. At the same time, another Philadelphia writer, producer and pianist, Thom Bell, was storming the charts with the Delfonics on Philly Groove Records. Pooling their resources, Gamble, Huff and Bell collectively founded Mighty Three Music Publishing.
In 1968 engineer Joe Tarsia took over a local studio, Sound Plus, and transformed it into Sigma Sound Studios which was soon to become the home of all sessions conducted by Gamble, Huff and Bell. For the next few years Gamble and Huff freelanced, producing hits for Jerry Butler, Wilson Pickett, Dusty Springfield, Archie Bell and the Drells and Peaches and Herb. In 1972 Gamble and Huff worked out a deal with Clive Davis at CBS Records. In exchange for financing their new label, Philadelphia International, CBS would distribute their productions. With a label, studio, house band and writing teams in place, Philadelphia International became the Motown of the 1970s, developing a recognizable sound that featured medium tempo compositions, Latin percussion, vibraphone, omnipresent dramatic string arrangements and background vocals, a minimized or absent back beat, and electric bass and bass drum parts mixed to the forefront that emphasized beats one and three and the following off-beats. The result was a series of releases by artists such as the O’Jays, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Teddy Pendergrass, Billy Paul, MFSB and the Three Degrees that hit both the R&B and pop charts repeatedly over the course of the 1970s. By 1975 Philadelphia International was the second largest black-owned record company in the United States and Gamble and Huff’s ‘Sound of Philadelphia’ was one of the primary influences on the nascent genre of disco.
While on the surface soul and country music might seem to have little in common, the majority of soul performers in the South in the 1960s grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry and had a reasonably thorough knowledge of, and affection for, contemporary country music. Many soul singers and writers have stressed that the lyrical concerns of country and soul share much in common as in both genres writers tend to address the vagaries of adult as opposed to teen relationships. In addition, the white session players who participated in soul recording sessions in Memphis, Muscle Shoals and Jackson, Mississippi were all more than familiar with country music from the 1950s and 1960s and not surprisingly, the influence of country music would was to itself in various ways in their playing.
The practice of black R&B artists covering country songs has its roots in late 1940s and early 1950s recordings at King Records by balladeer Ivory Joe Hunter and jump blues artists Wynonie Harris and Bullmoose Jackson. This practice increased in the soul era to the point where collectors, critics and historians often refer to a sub-genre termed ‘country soul.’ The first soul cover of a country song was Ray Charles’s 1959 recording of honky tonk artist Hank Snow’s ‘I’m Movin’ On.’ A year later Atlantic Records’ first bona fide soul artist, Solomon Burke, launched his career with a cover of Wynn Stewart’s country classic ‘Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms).’ In 1962 Ray Charles released his seminal albums Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music and Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (Volume II). Including Charles’s covers of country standards by Hank Williams, Bob Gibson, Jimmie Davis and Ted Daffan, the two albums produced seven hits in total, six of which charted as both pop and R&B.
In addition to Charles and Burke, a significant number of soul singers in the 1960s and 1970s including major figures such as Otis Redding (‘Tennessee Waltz’), Aretha Franklin (‘You Are My Sunshine’) and Al Green (‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’) included covers of country songs on various albums while at the same time country singers such as Charlie Rich covered soul songs such as Sam & Dave’s ‘When Something Is Wrong With My Baby.’
With a few exceptions, in the 1960s and early 1970s soul artists appeared onstage wearing expensive suits and jewelry, their hair neatly coifed. Such an appearance signified achievement to their largely working-class black audience and, in the process, suggested that moving up the social ladder was both possible and desirable for African Americans at large. In the early 1970s funk-oriented soul artists such as the Bar-Kays and Parliament/Funkadelic dressed in outlandish outfits that drew on sci-fi futurism, psychedelia and/or cartoon-like characters. In the same period, Isaac Hayes, proclaimed ‘Black Moses’ in the media, performed in a variety of outrageous outfits, the most famous perhaps being a vest made of chains that symbolized the history of slavery shared by all black Americans.
In the 1960s and 1970s it was de rigueur for soul vocal groups to have their stage performances choreographed. At Motown, Berry Gordy hired the legendary black dancer Honi Coles to work on choreography with all of the company’s artists. The horn sections of southern soul groups practiced a much more simplified form of choreography typically referred to as stepping which, more often than not, consisted of little more than uniform movements from the left to the right.
In the earliest days of soul music, the 45 rpm single was the dominant medium of commerce with relatively few soul artists having their music released in the album format. A number of the earliest soul albums featured cartoon drawings on the cover rather than photographs of the actual artists so that the albums had a greater chance of being stocked by southern record stores in white neighborhoods. Examples include the Marvelettes’ Please Mr. Postman and Rufus Thomas’s Walking the Dog albums. Although this practice was relatively short lived, as late as 1965 Otis Redding’s Otis Blue album featured a photo of a lithe white female model rather than a shot of the artist himself.
After the phenomenal success in 1969 of Isaac Hayes’s Hot Buttered Soul album transformed the political economy of the black music industry, much more time and money was spent on the artwork for soul LPs. The apotheosis of this was the elaborate cover for Hayes’s Black Moses album, which folded out into a cross shape with Hayes dressed up in a colorful African robe, his hands and arms stretched out to the sides in a striking, Christ-like pose.
By the mid-1970s the soul era had passed as funk and disco became the dominant genres of black popular music. A few soul artists, such as Diana Ross, enjoyed substantial success in the disco era. Others, such as Curtis Mayfield and Rufus Thomas, embraced the sound of funk but, with the exception of the Bar-Kays, James Brown and Parliament, few former soul artists enjoyed successful careers as funk artists post-1975.
Instead, the majority of soul artists found themselves pushed to the margins of the industry, either without record contracts or signed to the tiniest of independent labels. One of these independents was Malaco Records based in Jackson, Mississippi. Started by Tommy Couch and Mitchell Malouf in 1967 as a production company, Malaco achieved early success with their productions of King Floyd’s ‘Groove Me’ and Jean Knight’s ‘Mr. Big Stuff,’ which they placed with Atlantic and Stax respectively. Buoyed by their success, Couch started the Malaco label proper (back in 1967 they had issued a solitary single on Coma before deciding that leasing their recordings to more established labels made more sense). With the exception of Dorothy Moore’s country-soul recording of ‘Misty Blue’ and ‘Funny How Time Slips Away,’ Malaco struggled through most of the 1970s cutting disco, funk, early electro-beat and uptown R&B records with little success.
Things changed substantially in the early 1980s when the company hired legendary R&B promotion man Dave Clark. Clark’s reputation and extensive contacts within the black entertainment industry enabled Malaco to sign a bevy of veteran soul singers including Z.Z. Hill, Denise LaSalle, Latimore, Little Milton, Johnnie Taylor and Bobby Bland. The company proved eminently successful in reviving these artists’ careers recording blues, soul and material that seamlessly fused the two genres.
Despite the soulful grooves that define many Malaco recordings cut in the 1980s and 1990s, at the level of radio and within trade journals such as Billboard the majority of Malaco recording stars became pigeon-holed as blues artists. Whereas in the 1970s Denise LaSalle, Latimore, Little Milton and, especially, Johnnie Taylor, were mainstream black soul stars, in the 1980s and 1990s they were considered blues artists. As such, they were considered of little commercial interest by the industry and consequently found themselves selling 100,000 and 200,000 copies of their biggest hits rather than half a million or more. This reclassification of soul as blues is largely a product of the aging demographic that continued to support artists such as Little Milton and Johnnie Taylor. In the minds of most radio programmers, older black people listened to the blues. So, if a middle-aged demographic listened to Johnnie Taylor, ergo, he had to be a blues artist. The music had not changed all that much, but the way it was understood and consequently marketed and consumed had shifted significantly. While a number of artists such as Z.Z. Hill, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland and Johnny Copeland had at different points in their career worked within a gray area that was part-blues and part-soul, the situation with Malaco artists in the 1980s and 1990s recording clearly soul-based material that was automatically classified as blues was a new phenomenon.
This was especially odd when it came to Johnnie Taylor’s recordings, very few of which were even close to straight ahead blues. Taylor came to Malaco with an impressive pedigree, which included 37 charting records, 15 of which had been Top Ten R&B hits. By 1984 when he was signed to Malaco, Taylor, like so many of the company’s other artists, had found himself a relic of an earlier era unable to find anyone interested in recording him. With Malaco, his albums proved to be a heady mix of blues, southern soul, urban ballads and funky floor-shakers. Despite such diversity, Taylor found himself fighting being pigeonholed as a blues artist.
In the first decade of the twenty-first century the soul blues genre found itself struggling. While Malaco and smaller concerns continued to cut records aimed at an older black demographic by artists who continued to work the southern chitlin’ circuit, there were fewer radio stations every year that catered to the demographic that supported these artists and in the age of digital downloads, fewer retail outlets existed and those that did were less willing to stock CDs in the soul blues genre.
In 2010 a handful of soul superstars such as Aretha Franklin, Al Green and Diana Ross continue to record and play theaters in both North America and Europe while numerous other soul artists, such as Booker T. and the MG’s, Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave), the late Solomon Burke, Bobby Womack and Irma Thomas, have continued to ply their trade for eager audiences on the festival circuit in the summer and at casinos and clubs in the winter months.
While soul music as practiced in the 1960s and first half of the 1970s has not been a dominant genre of popular music for several decades, there have been a number of significant artists in the interim who in various ways evoked the aesthetic and some of the characteristics of classical soul music. In the early 1980s the British pop group Dexy’s Midnight Runners hit the number 1 spot on the UK pop charts with ‘Geno’ and ‘Come On Eileen,’ both of which featured a Stax-like horn section and, in singer Kevin Rowland, soul-influenced vocals. At various points in the 1980s Prince also recorded and performed material heavily influenced by southern soul music as did Terence Trent D’Arby. Prince was to continue to do so throughout his career.
In the late 1990s Motown executive Kedar Massenburg coined the term neo-soul as a marketing category to describe the work of artists such as D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Maxwell, Angie Stone and Lauryn Hill who collectively participated in what was, at least on a minor scale, a revival of the aesthetics of classic soul music. Deploying live instrumentation in both the studio and onstage, the music made by these artists stood in stark contrast to the highly digitalized and sample-driven sounds of what was then contemporary black music. The majority of artists who fell within the neo-soul category wrote their own songs and often crafted lyrics that dealt with issues of social consciousness. Following in the footsteps of D’Angelo, Badu, Maxwell, Stone and Hill were artists such as Jill Scott, India.Arie, Macy Gray and Alicia Keyes. In the twenty-first century British singers Joss Stone and Amy Winehouse have continued to exhibit significant soul influence while achieving mainstream success, while in the United States Sharon Jones, although based in New York City, emerged as a full-blown southern soul diva with the 2002 release Dap Dippin’ with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.
While there were a handful of popular press books on soul music in the late 1960s and early 1970s, such as The Sound of Soul by Phyl Garland (1969), The World of Soul: Black America’s Contribution to the Pop Music Scene by Arnold Shaw (1970), Soul Music! by Rochelle Larkin (1970), Right On! From Blues to Soul in Black America by Michael Haralambos (1974) and The Soul Book by Ian Hoare, Clive Anderson, Tony Cummings and Simon Frith (1975), the first substantial book on soul music did not appear until Gerri Hirshey’s Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music was published in 1984.
David Morse’s 1971 book Motown was the first book-length work on Detroit soul. It was followed by Peter Benjaminson’s The Story of Motown in 1979, and in 1985 Don Waller’s The Motown Story and Nelson George’s much more substantial Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound. In more recent years Suzanne E. Smith, in Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit (1999), and Gerald Posner, in Motown: Music, Money, Sex, and Power (2002), have moved beyond general history and focused on the relationship between Motown, the social and political milieu of Detroit and the political economy of the company in general.
The first book of consequence devoted exclusively to southern soul music was Peter Guralnick’s 1986 tome Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom. It was followed in 1997 by Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records by Rob Bowman. Tony Cummings’s The Sound of Philadelphia, first published in 1975, contained a couple of chapters on Philadelphia soul. It was superseded in 2004 by the much more definitive A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul by John Jackson. To date, Robert Pruter’s 1991 work, Chicago Soul, is the only book to focus on soul music from the Windy City. Jeff Hannusch’s 1985 book, I Hear You Knockin’: The Sound of New Orleans Rhythm and Blues, looks at black music in New Orleans from the 1940s to the 1970s. Along the way he discusses the careers of a number of New Orleans soul artists. There have yet to be book-length works on West Coast or New York soul or the Muscle Shoals scene.
Brian Ward’s Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Race Consciousness, and Race Relations (1998) and Craig Werner’s A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America (1999) both devote a few chapters to soul music, focusing on issues of race. In addition to the above, there have been numerous biographies and autobiographies published on various soul artists over the past three decades.
Beginning in the late 1960s there were a number of mostly short-lived soul music fanzines published in the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada such as Hot Buttered Soul, Voices from the Shadows, Sweet Soul Music, Soul Illustrated and Soul Survivor. More professional and longer-lasting publications have included the European publications Blues and Soul (1966 to the present), Soul Bag (December 1968 to the present), Black Music (December 1973 to the mid-1980s), Soul Express (first published in Finnish in 1989 and published in English from 1993 to the present) and In the Basement (the mid-1990s to the present). The only comparable North American publication was Soul (1966–82).
To date, other than a handful of articles by Professors Portia Maultsby, Rob Bowman, Craig Werner and Brian Ward, there has been relatively little academic work published on soul music, especially in comparison to the plethora of academic work in recent years on hip-hop and various forms of electronica.