TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.
(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Popular Music")
The Founding Fathers of Soul MusicTM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
The gospel revival and doo-wop merged into the great season of soul music.
Soul music was enabled by the commercial boom of "race" music, that had led
to the creation of channels and infrastructures run by black enterpreneurs for
black artists. This class of black enterpreneurs hired and trained a generation
of session musicians, producers and arrangers (not to mention songwriters)
who were specifically meant to serve the needs of black music.
As the civil rights movement staged bigger and bigger demonstrations and increased African-American pride, soul music became more than party music for young blacks: it became a rallying flag for the black nationalist movement. While never truly political in nature, soul music's ascent in the pop charts came to represent one of the first (and most visible) successes of the civil-rights movement.
Soul music was born thanks to the innovations of a generation of post-war musicians who, essentially, turned gospel music into a secular form of art.
Brown and Charles (the two sound stylists) were raised in the South, whereas Cooke and Wilson (the two vocal virtuosi) were fully urban.
Another of the soul pioneers, Detroit-based vocalist "Little Willie John" Woods introduced the quavering gospel falsetto (that James Brown learned from him). The melancholy of Need Your Love So Bad (1956), perhaps his most intense performance, and Sufferin' With The Blues (1956) established the quintessential soul mood, while his versions of Otis Blackwell's Fever (1956) and of Titus Turner's All Around The World (1958) created an even more passionate style of singing.
New York gospel singer
Roy Hamilton, who had achieved stardom status with his interpretation of
Alex North's Unchained Melody (1955), created a gospel-tinged pop
style, best epitomized by later material such as Don't Let Go (1958),
that was influential on soul music.
Soul music was perceived a music of vocalists, but songwriters were, from the beginning, no less important to define the style.
Chuck Wills was a delicate and evocative singer from Atlanta, who penned his own My Story (1952), You're Still My Baby (1954), I Feel So Bad (1954) and It's Too Late (1956), before striking gold with CC Rider (1957), an adaptation of Ma Rainey's standard from the 1920s.
South Carolina-born baritone Brook Benton (Benjamin Peay), a former member of the Golden Gate Quartet, was the main songwriter of this generation, dishing out A Lover's Question (1958), a hit for Clyde McPhatter, It's Just A Matter of Time (1959), Thank You Pretty Baby (1959), So Many Ways (1959), The Ties that Bind (1960), The Same One (1960), Kiddio (1960), etc.
Another South Caroliner, Don Covay moved away from his dance novelties Bip Bop Bip (1959) and Pony Time (1961) to pen soul ballads such as You Can Run (1962) for Jerry Butler, Letter Full Of Tears (1962) for Gladys Knight, his two classics Mercy Mercy (1964) and See Saw (1965), and the mega-hit Chain Of Fools (1967) for Aretha Franklin.
Bobby Womack, Sam Cooke's guitarist, wrote Lookin' For A Love (1962) and It's All Over Now (1964) that crossed over into rock'n'roll, and later would reinvent his career as a romantic soul balladeer with That's the Way I Feel About 'Cha (1971) and Woman's Gotta Have It (1972).
Nina Simone (Eunice Waymon), the "high priestess of soul", an eclectic interpreter of both blues, jazz and pop classics, composed My Baby Just Cares For Me (1958), Mississippi Goddam (1963), Four Women (1966), and Young Gifted And Black (1969). Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood (1964) was written for her by songwriters Bennie Benjamin and Sol Marcus. As the controversial lyrics of these songs prove, the angry young woman of soul music also represented the link with the folksingers of the "Movement".
Chicago's soul music was dominated by the
artistic persona of guitarist, songwriter, arranger and vocalist
Curtis Mayfield (1), whose
Impressions created a smooth, majestic, orchestral, jazzy style with
carefully crafted vocal and horns arrangements
to accompany his allegorical messages:
For Your Precious Love (1958), one of the candidates to first soul record,
Gypsy Woman (1961),
the rumba-like It's All Right (1963)
the anthemic Keep On Pushin' (1964) and People Get Ready (1965),
the baroque Choice of Colors (1969).
As a solo artist, Mayfield pioneered the format of the extended message-oriented psychedelic funk-pop shuffle on his concept albums Curtis (1971) and Roots (1972), and then applied the idea to the danceable soundtrack for the film Superfly (1972).
While they had little in common, soul and rock interacted from the beginning.
Cleveland's shouter "Screamin'" Jay Hawkins, the first great gothic perfomer, who had studied opera and whose stage antics were the horror counterpart to the sexual histrionics of most black singers, experimented bizarre vocal styles in his demented melodramas I Put A Spell On You (1956) and Constipation Blues (1967), with Plas Johnson on sax.
Virginia's demonic soul-rocker Gary "U.S. Bonds" Anderson coined the
rough, exuberant rhythm'n'blues sound of New Orleans (1960),
Gene Barge's Quarter to Three (1961), School's Out (1961).
Soul music retained its vocals-driven image, typical of all pop music, but, like so much pop music, its hits became increasingly dependent on the skills of the arrangers and producers. In other words, soul music mutated transparently from a vocal style into a sound style.
This mutation took place mainly in four places: New York, Memphis, Detroit, Philadelphia. And it corresponded with four independent labels, respectively: Atlantic (founded in 1947 by white songwriter Ahmet Ertegun), Stax (founded in 1959 by white country fiddler Jim Stewart), Tamla Motown (founded in 1959 by black enterpreneur Berry Gordy), and, much later, International (founded in 1971 by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff).
The sound of Atlantic was largely the invention of producer (and former critic) Jerry Wexler, hired in 1953. The peak of Atlantic's reign on soul music came when (1967) Wexler started working with arranger Arif Mardin and engineer Tom Dowd.
Former Philadelphia preacher Solomon Burke transferred the fervor of his sermons into the stirring rhythms of black dance music. Needless to say, his live shows became legendary for their delirious intensity, second only to James Brown. His material ranged from Virgil Stewart's Just Out Of Reach (1961), possibly the first country crossover by a soul artist, to Bert Berns' Cry To Me (1961), Gene Pitney's If You Need Me (1963), Alain Toussaint's Got To Get You Off My Mind (1964), Bert Berns' Everybody Needs Somebody To Love (1964), his own The Price (1964), perhaps his vocal masterpiece, and Don Covay's Tonight's The Night (1965).
Vocalists of other big cities shared the same spirit.
Fontella Bass was perhaps the most vibrant soul singer of the Chicago area, breathing life into Oliver Sain's Don't Mess Up A Good Thing (1965) and Raynard Miner's Rescue Me (1965), with the young Maurice White on drums, before joining the jazz avantgarde (the Art Ensemble Of Chicago). Predating Franklin, her touch was bluesier and less poppy.
Los Angeles-based vocalist Dobie Gray (Leonard Ainsworth) recorded in a sandpaper voice Billy Page's The In Crowd (1965), the quintessential mod anthem, Out On The Floor (1966), and Mentor Williams' Drift Away (1973).
The sound Of Stax, an elegant hybrid of rhythm'n'blues and country'n'western with simple arrangements and sober rhythms, was largely the sound of its session musicians (and their first producer, Chips Moman). The Mar-Kays' instrumental hit version of Chips Moman's Last Night (1961) pretty much set the standard for all subsequent Stax productions: punchy horns section (two trumpets and two saxophones) and powerful rhythm section (groovy organ, staccato guitar, bass and drums). The band's guitarist, Steve Cropper, one of the most original guitarists since Lowman Pauling, whose stinging riffs bridged country and blues, joined saxophonist and keyboardist Booker Jones and drummer Al Jackson to form Booker T. & The MGs, that released the similar instrumental shuffle Green Onion (1962), while trumpet player Wayne Jackson formed the Memphis Horns. These remained the house bands for all Stax musicians.
Among the classics crafted by this "team" were: Carla Thomas' Gee Whiz (1961), produced by Chips Moman, and B-A-B-Y (1966), written by Isaac Hayes, songwriter William Bell's You Don't Miss Your Water (1962), Rufus Thomas' dance novelties, such as Walking The Dog (1963) and Do The Funky Chicken (1970), Eddie Floyd's Knock On Wood (1966), a Cropper composition, Arthur Conley's Sweet Soul Music (1967), an Otis Redding rewrite of Sam Cooke's Yeah Man that sounded like the label's aesthetic manifesto, Albert "King" Nelson's Born Under A Bad Sign (1967), a William Bell song that crystallized the Stax ensemble sound, the hits for Johnnie Taylor (another ex-Soul Stirrers), such as Isaac Hayes' I Had A Dream (1967) and Who's Making Love (1968), and those for Sam (Moore) and Dave (Prater), Hold On (1966) and Soul Man (1967), both composed by Isaac Hayes, etc.
Overton Wright cried and sobbed in That's How Strong My Love Is (1964), You're Gonna Make Me Cry (1965), and Eight Men Four Women (1967), three of the most melodramatic performances of southern soul, as well as wailing in the intense and haunting Willie Mitchell productions of Ace Of Spades (1970), A Nickel and a Nail (1971), and I'd Rather Be Blind Crippled and Crazy (1973).
Another influential Memphis singer, James Carr recorded Baker and McCormick's Pouring Water On A Drowning Man (1966) and especially Chips Moman's poignant Dark End of the Street (1967), as well as two Obie McClinton compositions, You've Got My Mind Messed Up (1966) and A Man Needs A Woman (1968).
If Memphis was the epicenter, it certainly wasn't the only source of southern soul.
The queen of New Orleans soul was Irma Thomas, who penned three self-written gems such as Don't Mess With My Man (1961), Ruler Of My Heart (1962) and Wish Someone Would Care (1964), as well as premiering Jerry Ragavoy's Time Is On My Side (1964).
Joe Tex (Joseph Arrington), from Texas, sang witty stories in a rather limited falsetto against Memphis-style arrangements, alternating his singing with sermon-style raps. Hold What You've Got (1964) was the first southern soul song to become a national hit, followed by The Love You Save (1965), the dance novelty Skinny Legs And All (1967) and I Gotcha (1972). His album From the Roots Came the Rapper (1971) was one of the first instances that a street poet was called a "rapper", and included extended versions of Burt Bacharach's I'll Never Fall In Love Again and Jim Doris' Oh Me Oh My.
The purest phrasing was Percy Sledge's, the devoted Alabama tenor of When A Man Loves A Woman (1966), composed by Jimmy Hughes' organist Andrew Wright and bassist Calvin Lewis, and featuring "church" organ by Dewey Oldham, who composed Sledge's other two jewels, It Tears Me Up (1966) and Out Of Left Field (1967). Another impeccable demonstration of his country-soul style was Take Time To Know Her (1968).
The next big thing to happen to southern soul was Isaac Hayes' extended orchestral raps, that debuted on Presenting (1967) with a lengthy cover of Erroll Garner's Misty, and that matured on the four-song album Hot Buttered Soul (1969), including colossal covers of Jimmy Webb's By The Time I Get To Phoenix and Burt Bacharach's Walk On By. This style of subdued singing and lavish production was further revolutionized by the soundtrack to the film Shaft (1971), that added a strong funky undercurrent, setting the stage for disco-music.
Willie Mitchell organized another artistic colony in Memphis by hiring veterans of Booker T. And The Mg's and producing the mellow hits of singer-songwriter Ann Peebles, notably Slipped Stumbled and Fell In Love (1971), I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down (1973) and I Can't Stand The Rain (1974).
Mitchell's southern-soul productions also propelled the erotic hymns of Al Green: Green's own Tired Of Being Alone (1971) and Mitchell's Let's Stay Together (1971), Look What You Done To Me (1972), I'm Still In Love With You (1972), as well as Green's own Take Me To The River (1974). These productions expressed the ultimate contradiction of soul music, the tension between sex and God.
The sound of Detroit's soul music was the sound of Berry Gordy's Tamla Motown, the greatest success story of a black enterpreneur in the music business.
Gordy borrowed the concept from the assembly lines of Detroit's car industry: Tamla's hits were manufactured on industrial scale by a team of skilled professionals. Composers and producers included the trio of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland (alias H-D-H), the duo of Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, as well as Norman Whitfield and Smokey Robinson. Session musicians (the Funk Brothers) included bassist James Jamerson (one of the most influential bassists of all times), drummer Benny Benjamin, saxophonist Hank Crosby, trombonist Paul Riser, trumpet player Herbie Williams, guitarists Robert White, keyboardists Joe Hunter and Earl VanDyke.
Gordy's "Motown sound" was the least "black" and most "white" of the various soul styles. His hits were catchy and elementary. Arrangements overflew with strings and other orchestral instruments. Rhythms were driving and infectious. The vocals and the instrumental backdrop had little of the psychological sophistication of southern soul: Tamla's hits were emphatic and epic. The "call-and-response" structure was largely abandoned, and the new center of the song became the melodic "hook". The lyrics targeted the lifestyle of teenagers.
The first hits were, actually, plain party music: Barrett Strong's Money (1960), written by Berry Gordy, the Miracles' Shoparound (1960), written by Smokey Robinson, the Contours' Do You Love Me (1962), written by Berry Gordy, Martha (Reeves) & The Vandellas' Dancing In The Street (1964), written by William Stevenson, pianist Frederick "Shorty" Long's Devil With A Blue Dress On (1964), and saxophonist Junior Walker's instrumental Shotgun/ Hot Cha (1965).
H-D-H, the greatest tunesmiths of the era, also wrote Heat Wave (1963) and Nowhere To Run (1965), whose booming arrangement was an exercise in excessive rapture, for Martha & The Vandellas, Please Mr Postman (1961) for the Marvelettes, Can I Get A Witness (1963) and How Sweet It Is To Be Loved by You (1964) for Marvin Gaye, and virtually all the hits for the Supremes, a female trio (the most commercially successful in history), and for the Four Tops, a male quartet.
The Four Tops excelled both at melodrama, as in Baby I Need Your Loving (1964) and Reach Out I'll Be There (1966), both marked by Levi Stubbs' blues lament and highly emotional harmonies, besides H-D-H's cataclysmic arrangement (the latter a concerto for piano and strings), and at sprightly party dance music, such as I Can't Help Myself (1965) and Same Old Song (1965). With the mystical overtones and morbid introversion of Standing In The Shadows Of Love (1966) and Bernadette (1967) they transcended passion and ghetto.
The H-D-H trio rank among the greatest pop phenomenon of all times. Their songs were a simplified form of soul music, but these were the kind of black music that white radio stations had no problem broadcasting. They were meant to inspire dances at private parties, they complied with the conventions of the romantic ballad, they were sung by polite singers, and they implied no more than the usual stories of falling in love and heartbreak. There were none of the controversial elements of the Afro-American culture that had alarmed white American parents when their children were listening to rhythm'n'blues.
Norman Whitfield penned some of the most dramatic and creative productions, from the epochal I Heard It Through The Grapevine (1967), a concentrate of anxiety (largely packed by the instrumental choreography of piano, guitar, drums, strings and horns), sung by Marvin Gaye and later Gladys Knight And The Pips, to most of the Temptations' classics, from Edwin Starr's War (1970) to Rare Earth's I Just Want To Celebrate (1971).
The Temptations, featuring baritone David Ruffin and tenor Eddie Kendricks, were more stylish than the Four Tops thanks first to the baroque productions of Smokey Robinson's My Girl (1965) and Since I Lost My Baby (1965), and then to the psychedelic visions of Norman Whitfield: Cloud Nine (1968), Runaway Child (1969), I Can't Get Next To You (1969), Psychedelic Shack (1970), Ball Of Confusion (1970), and the suite Masterpiece (1973), ever more bizarre despite lighter fare such as the ballad Just My Imagination (1971) and the funky Papa Was A Rolling Stone (1972).
William "Smokey" Robinson was both a gifted melodic composer, a fluent vocalist, a consummate poet and a creative arranger. He composed the Miracles' Shoparound (1960), Mary Wells' My Guy (1964), the Temptations' My Girl (1965) and Since I Lost My Baby (1965), Marvin Gaye's Ain't That Peculiar (1965), One More Heartache ((1966), and I'll Be Doggone (1965). The Miracles were his own group, and they delivered his best material: You Really Got A Hold On Me (1963), The Tracks Of My Tears (1965), I Second That Emotion (1967) and the baroque, breathtaking The Tears Of A Clown (1970). Robinson did not merely create catchy refrains, he created mini-dramas or mini-symphonies. He also became the epitome of the romantic soul vocalist of the post-Cooke era.
In 1973 Motown moved from Detroit to Los Angeles, a sign that an era had finished.
Soul music was, fundamentally, a consequence of rock music. The leadership went from the blacks (rhythm'n'blues) to the whites (rock'n'roll) back to the blacks (soul). Soul music was everything that rock music was: dance music, personal expression, teenage angst, political rebellion. Rock'n'roll had stolen the body (the sound) of rhythm'n'blues, and soul music stole the soul (the spirit) of rock'n'roll.
From the musical viewpoint, the aesthetic priorities of soul music were rather different from those of blues music. The singer was still the center of action, but the arrangement (the ambience, the soundscape) was way more important than in rhythm'n'blues. The great figures of soul music were, first and foremost, arrangers.
The mystical element of blues music was largely lost, replaced by sociopolitical awareness and a philosophical inquiry into the meaning of life; or simply by enjoyment of life. In many ways, one could claim that soul music was the result of black musicians adopting the European stance about artistic matters: intellectual, creative, melodic.
At the same time, soul music introduced a new form of dancing: elegant, sensual
and nonetheless primal.
During the 1970s,
Tamla Motown was replaced at the helm of soul music by Philadelphia International.
Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff added lavish orchestrations and disco rhythms to
the new wave of Detroit's soft soul music. Their house band, the
MFSB, was their equivalent of the MG's. Their sound was defined via
the Intruders' Cowboys to Girls (1968),
Jerry Butler's Only The Strong Survive (1969),
the O'Jays' Back Stabbers (1972),
female trio Three Degrees' When Will I See You Again (1974),
and, above all,
If You Don't Know Me By Now (1972) and
Don't Leave Me This Way (1976)
Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, featuring the young Teddy Pendergrass.
The other local producer-composer, Thom Bell, created an even softer sound
the Delfonics' La-La Means I Love You (1968),
the Stylistics' Betcha By Golly Now (1972),
the Spinners' I'll Be Around (1972),
In 1974, Philadelphia ruled the charts (Bell had eleven hits, Gamble & Huff had ten).
With the cerebral and elegant productions of Isaac Hayes' Hot Buttered Soul (1969), Marvin Gaye's What's Going On (1971), Curtis Mayfield's Superfly (1972), and Stevie Wonder's Music Of My Mind (1972), soul music had recognized its crisis, and entered a new era. Instead of the assembly-line approach and the song format of the early era, the new era valued an author-oriented approach and the suite format.
A typical product of the era was Los Angeles' multi-instrumentalist Shuggie Otis, the son of Johnny Otis, who embraced the aesthetics of Sly Stone and Marvin Gaye on his fourth album, Inspiration Information (1975), a work that he composed, played and produced on his own, a stylistic tour de force, heavy on drum-machine and keyboards as well as strings and horns, that concocted an orchestral and sometimes electronic blend of funk, soul and psychedelic-rock.
However, the 1970s were a decade of steady decline for soul music. First it was funk music that reduced the market for soul musicians (and, in fact, many of them simply adopted the funky beat). Then it was disco music that made soul music sound antiquated as party music. Finally, hip-hop music introduced a completely new paradigm (both vocal and rhythmic) for black music.
See this chapter for soul of the 1950s.
See this chapter for soul of the 1960s.
See this chapter for Phoebe Snow and Millie Jackson.
See this chapter for soul of the 1970s.
See this chapter for soul of the 1990s.
Southern, Eileen: "The Music of Black Americans" (Norton, 1971)
TM, ®, Copyright © 2002 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.