On the Note: Soul
Around the middle of 1965, records by African-American musicians began to appear on the pop charts in unprecedented numbers. Motown, already well established, only seemed to grow in revenue and influence with the arrival of the Beatles and other British bands. Southern soul, recorded in Memphis for Stax Records and in Muscle Shoals, Alabama for Atlantic, began to match on the pop charts the success it had already enjoyed with R&B buyers. James Brown scored his first top-ten single, "Papas Got a Brand New Bag," in 1965. In Chicago, Curtis Mayfield created moving, sophisticated records for his group, the Impressions, and for such artists as Major Lance and Walter Jackson.
These geographical centers only begin to tell the story of '60s soul, which is almost too complex to nail down. Mayfields Chicago soul rivaled Motowns for its smooth pop veneer, but often showed a strong hint of gospel. Motown included Junior Walkers old-style-flavored R&B in its lineup. Other areas of the country blended together different strains of soul to create their own hybrids. Tyrone Davis recorded in Chicago with producer Carl Davis, a partner of Mayfields, and the result often combined the grit of Southern soul with the uptown swagger of Motown (Davis sometimes hired the Motown session band, the Funk Brothers, to play on his sessions). James Brown made his records in the rural South, but his music, with its rhythmic complexity, its drive and power, sounded as urban in 1965 as it does today.
Motown was elegant black pop music, the meeting of African-American musical traditions and Tin Pan Alley. Motown sounds to us today like the very model of straightforward, refined simplicity, but in the '60s it sounded slick and produced. Jerry Wexler said of the label, "They took black music and beamed it directly to the American white teenager." For some, that made it somehow less authentic than the music released by Stax/Volt or Atlantic, yet Levi Stubbs cries of anguish on "Bernadette," to choose just one example, sound as deep and real as any blues singing youll find. Id be hard-pressed to describe that song or most other Motown hits as blues in form or even in intent, but the conviction on those records comes from the same place in the heart and is informed by the same history of its people.
Southern soul, on the other hand, is so strongly blues influenced that Im honestly surprised when I dont hear Sam and Dave or Otis Redding on Saturday-evening blues shows on public radio. Every record released by Stax/Volt and Atlantic, as well by such lesser-known labels as Bell, Excello, Paula/Jewel, and Loma, is shot through with an almost pentecostal surrender to emotion. The backing bands for these sessions, usually Booker T. and the MGs for Stax and the Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section for Atlantic, were masters at understatement. The tin-eared might mistake their playing as rudimentary, but they should try playing the guitar line in Sam and Daves "A Place Nobody Can Find" with as much swing and exuberance as Steve Cropper does. Each instrumental element in Southern soul is stripped down and precise. As MGs bassist Duck Dunn describes it, " you can pick one instrument and theres a separation there. Its not cluttered." You concentrate on the singer in a Southern soul record and its only later that you realize how hot the band is.
James Brown is as big as any record company or any regional sound - - maybe bigger. While much of the '60s soul Ive described so far retains its ability to move us, in many ways its a sound from the past. James Browns influence is still present in nearly every R&B, funk, and hip-hop record on the charts. Its hard to imagine how exotic Brown must have sounded to the middle-class white kids who put him on the charts in 1965. "Papas Got a Brand New Bag" was a sleekly efficient rhythm machine, but each time you heard it a new facet revealed itself. The horns played chords that were unusually complex for pop or R&B and they punched the beat in unexpected places. The bass player, Bernard Odum, snaked around the rhythms with melodic elegance. Brown held court above it all with passion, precision, and, more than anything else, confidence: "Say it loud - - Im black and Im proud."
A lot of writing about rock as a social force in the '60s has been na´ve or self-serving, but I think soul music really did help people change their attitudes about race. At a time when middle-class white kids anointed pop stars as their spokesmen and consciences, quite a few of those stars were African-American. In the late '40s and into the '50s, bebop had shown white intellectuals that blacks could create complex art - - that they could initiate an intellectual movement themselves. Soul music showed relatively affluent white kids that an entire race of Americans had been denied things in life they took for granted. "Love Child" by the Supremes might have sounded like bubbly pop, but the story it told was harsh and real. And if you missed the point that time, Sly Stone told you again, angrily and sadly, in There's a Riot Goin' On.
What I've showed you so far are plot points on a map to help get you on your way. For a detailed look at the terrain, read Peter Guralnick's Sweet Soul Music and Gerri Hershey's Nowhere To Run. Paul Justman's documentary about the Funk Brothers, Standing In the Shadows of Motown, tells the story of the talented musicians who selflessly gave themselves over to the visions of Motown's singers, songwriters, and producers. The musicians who played in Muscle Shoals, Memphis, Nashville, and all the other towns that helped tell souls story showed the same willingness to set aside their egos for the larger goal - - to serve the singer and the song.
Lists like the one that follows are always subjective and arbitrary, but these records should help form a basis for understanding soul music. To get the full picture youll want to reach back to some artists who laid the groundwork. A single disc each of Ray Charless and Sam Cookes greatest hits will get you started. Both singers are, to some extent, present in the styles and approaches of the people whose records Ive listed below. When you read about how much Little Willie John meant to James Brown, you'll want to pick up his music, then Hank Ballard's, and so on. Ive brought the list through to a couple of the great Gamble and Huff records from the '70s and to Chic, whose guitarist, Nile Rodgers, could probably drop right into James Browns band.
A number of great boxed sets present a vivid overview of this music's sweep: Atlantic Rhythm and Blues 1947-1974; Beg, Scream & Shout!: The Big Ol' Box of '60s Soul; Hitsville USA: The Motown Singles Collection 1959-1971; and The Complete Stax-Volt Singles 1959-1968.
Lay in some cash. Once you get started with this stuff, you'll want it all. Next thing you know, you'll be buying a turntable so you can hear Sam and Dave in pristine mono.
GO BACK TO: