May 2004

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, "Papa’s 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. Mayfield’s Chicago soul rivaled Motown’s for its smooth pop veneer, but often showed a strong hint of gospel. Motown included Junior Walker’s 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 Mayfield’s, 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 you’ll find. I’d 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 I’m honestly surprised when I don’t 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 Dave’s "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 there’s a separation there. It’s not cluttered." You concentrate on the singer in a Southern soul record and it’s 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 I’ve described so far retains its ability to move us, in many ways it’s a sound from the past. James Brown’s influence is still present in nearly every R&B, funk, and hip-hop record on the charts. It’s hard to imagine how exotic Brown must have sounded to the middle-class white kids who put him on the charts in 1965. "Papa’s 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 - - I’m black and I’m 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 soul’s 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 you’ll want to reach back to some artists who laid the groundwork. A single disc each of Ray Charles’s and Sam Cooke’s greatest hits will get you started. Both singers are, to some extent, present in the styles and approaches of the people whose records I’ve 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. I’ve 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 Brown’s 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.

Essential soul

  • James Brown: Live at the Apollo (1962)
  • James Brown: 20 All Time Greatest Hits!
  • Solomon Burke: Rock ‘n Soul (1964)
  • Otis Redding: Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul (1965)
  • Otis Redding: The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads (1965)
  • Percy Sledge: It Tears Me Up (Anthology)
  • The Temptations: The Temptations Sing Smokey (1965)
  • Smokey Robinson and the Miracles: Away We a Go-Go (1965)
  • The Four Tops: Reach Out (1966)
  • Sam and Dave: Hold On, I’m Comin’ (1966)
  • Wilson Picket: The Exciting Wilson Picket (1966)
  • James Carr: You Got My Mind Messed Up (1966)
  • Arthur Conley: Sweet Soul Music (1967)
  • Aretha Franklin: I Never Loved A Man the Way I Love You (1967)
  • William Bell: The Soul of a Bell (1967)
  • Booker T. and the MGs: The Very Best of Booker T. and the MGs
  • Howard Tate: Get It While You Can (1967)
  • Tyrone Davis: Can I Change My Mind (1968)
  • Jerry Butler: The Iceman Cometh (1968) [Available on CD with Ice On Ice (1969) as The Philadelphia Sessions]
  • O.V. Wright: The Soul of O.V. Wright (Anthology)
  • Impressions: Ultimate Collection (Anthology)
  • Dusty Springfield: Dusty in Memphis(1969)
  • Isaac Hayes: Hot Buttered Soul (1969)
  • The Supremes: Ultimate Collection
  • Junior Walker and the Allstars: Ultimate Collection
  • Sly and the Family Stone: Stand! (1969)
  • Sly and the Family Stone: There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1971)
  • Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On (1971) Also: Every Great Motown Hit
  • Marvin Gaye: Let's Get It On (1972)
  • The Delfonics: La La Means I Love You (Anthology)
  • The Staple Singers: Beatitude: Respect Yourself (1972)
  • Curtis Mayfield: Super Fly (1972)
  • Al Green: I’m Still in Love With You (1972)
  • The O’Jays: Back Stabbers (1972)
  • Stevie Wonder: Talking Book (1972)
  • Stevie Wonder: Innervisions (1973) Also: Stevie Wonder’s Greatest Hits
  • Tower of Power: Tower of Power (1973)
  • Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes: To Be True (1975)
  • Chic: C’est Chic (1978)

...Joseph Taylor