From “The Rock Primer” edited by John Collins published by Penguin Handbooks in 1980
The Soul chapter was written by Ian Hoare
In one sense, the term ‘soul’ has simply been a convenient label for the record industry to attach to the music that sells to young blacks, replacing earlier tags like ‘race music’ and ‘rhythm & blues’. It has been used in the seventies to refer to an increasingly broad and diverse range of styles. But its entry into widespread usage around 1964 did coincide with a distinct shift of emphasis in the dominant stylistic approach in the black field.
This change did not consist of a sudden and unprecedented merging of gospel and blues, as is sometimes suggested. The epithets ‘soulful’ and ‘funky’ had already been applied to musical styles during the fifties, when Charlie Mingus, Cannonball Adderley, Bobby Timmons, Horace Silver and other jazz performers had sought to move away from what were seen as the over cerebral and elitist tendencies of the avant-garde, and to re-assert the blues and church roots.
Many popular Rhythm & Blues records of the fifties and early sixties had also displayed gospel elements. Apart from the freakish Little Richard, these forerunners of soul included the ‘rhythm and gospel’ vocal groups, of which the most notable were the Drifters featuring Clyde McPhatter, and Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. There was also a strong current of ‘gospel-blues’ solo stars, the greatest being Bobby Bland, who continued to appeal to black audiences after the advent of soul, and Little Willie John. The man whose name later became synonymous with soul, James Brown, began recording in a gospel-blues vein as early as 1956; Sam Cooke was injecting a quasi-religious purity of feeling into pop’ ballads from the same time; and Ray Charles, in his work at Atlantic between 1954 and 1959, mapped out much of the musical territory of the future soul, thoroughly exploring possible permutations of sacred and secular tradition, and,perhaps most importantly, taking his new hybrid into the upper reaches of the pop charts in 1959 with ‘What’d I Say’.
In many of the pioneering records of the late fifties, though, gospel vocal techniques were used randomly, as a gimmick or a spice added to conventional pop tunes or a twelve-bar format. Even after Ray Charles‘s breakthrough, when the melodic structures of church music began to appear more consistently in Rhythm & Blues, the backings generally remained out of sympathy with the musical core.
Soul emerged as a fully-fledged genre only after 1963, in the hands of arrangers in the South, particularly at the Stax studios, and black uptown Rhythm & Blues producers in the North, particularly at Motown. While these two streams were quite separate in many respects, their common significance lay in the commercially successful development of instrumental accompaniments and studio production styles, which complemented rather than disguised the essential qualities of the black singers.
Former Detroit assembly-line worker Berry Gordy founded his Tamla-Motown organization in 1960, and built it over the next six years into America’s richest independent record company. A roster of unknown but extraordinarily talented performers were transformed into national stars, and the operation was owned and run by blacks, a new phenomenon on this scale.
Some of the early hits, such as Eddie Holland‘s ‘Jamie‘, were dressed up with strings in a typical uptown manner; and the subsequent promotion of the glamorous Supremes, twelve Number 1 pop hits between 1964 and 1969, confirmed that Gordy always had one eye on long-established areas of mass entertainment. More remarkable, nevertheless, was the extent to which gospel based excitement was brought increasingly to the fore after 1962 in hard, intense records like Martha and the Vandellas‘ ‘Heat Wave’. At the same time, an integrated house production style took shape, chiefly under the guidance of Smokey Robinson and the Holland-Dozier-Holland team. The imaginative peaks became less frequent after 1967. But the golden years of the Motown sound, whether it’s better described as ‘soul’ or ‘pop’, were a gloriously exuberant moment in black musical history.
The chief contribution from Memphis was the style developed by the musicians on the Stax/Volt labels, set up (as Satellite) by Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton in 1959. The house band, the Mar-Keys, made up mainly of young whites from rural areas, had an instrumental hit with ‘Last Night’ in 1961; and the same basic line-up, with an organ replacing the horns, succeeded a year later as Booker T and the MGs with ‘Green Onions’. But it wasn’t until 1963 that this relaxed yet punchy sound was employed by Stax to back performers singing in a gospel mode, with guitar or horns echoing the lead vocal in the fashion of a chapel choir, or congregation. That combination brought about the classic soul of William Bell, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Sam and Dave. Pickett moved on to record at Rick Hall’s legendary Fame studios near Muscle Shoals in Alabama, a state which also served as host to Percy Sledge and Joe Tex in their heyday.
These new soul records were distributed by Atlantic, based in New York, which had earlier sensed the potential of the embryonic soul style and launched Solomon Burke as its own leading contender in the field. His first hit, ‘Just Out Of Reach’ (1961), was a re-worked country song. Elements from white music were, in fact, compounded with the black basis throughout the formative years. And Memphis provided a melting-pot for the soul synthesis, just as it had done for rock & roll.
With the exception of Motown, the most innovative period of soul (1963-6) went largely unnoticed by the mass white audience, who were preoccupied with British beat groups playing a form of music derived to an enormous extent from the new black fusions. When soul did catch on in its own right in the later sixties, it was primarily as insistent dance music, and it’s in that sense that it is most widely accepted to this day.
Dance has always been fundamental to the black tradition, but the soul explosion had a wider significance. It reflected and embodied the rapid upsurge of black social and political consciousness during the sixties, given clear expression in the civil rights movement. This aspect of the music’s meaning becomes clearer if the attitudes apparent in its chief sources, blues and gospel, are taken into account. The blues was generally,though not exclusively, individualistic and fatalistic in its outlook. It was also regarded, by and large, as the music of the disreputable outsider, who found his reason for continuing the struggle for survival in hedonistic pursuits, especially sex. Gospel, by direct contrast, was respectable in terms of conventional morality; it was also a form of communal ritual, lamenting the suffering of the present but celebrating the prospect of salvation. When the two came together it was possible for a mood of hope and change, firmly rooted in this world, warts and all, to become a major current in black popular art.
At first, the words of hymns and spirituals were often modified only slightly to give them a sexual and romantic connotation: ‘This Little Light Of Mine’ became ‘This Little Girl Of Mine’ for Ray Charles. Sexual themes were to remain essential, changing mainly by way of a greater emphasis on analysing relationships rather than simply expressing feeling. But by 1964, records like the Impressions‘ ‘Keep On Pushing’ and Sam Cooke‘s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ were beginning to bring the political implications to the surface; and by 1968, James Brown was able to spell it out – ‘Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud’.
It was paradoxical that an overtly ethnic and political approach should ripen at a time when black music was reaching new levels of mass acceptance. During the seventies, many performers have continued to address themselves to broadly social concerns, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye being particularly successful. But as soul’s commercial currency has strengthened, more and more black artists have signed to major national companies and there has been a decline in the number of identifiable regional styles appealing specifically to black audiences. Nevertheless, the opening up of international markets for different types of pop has meant that a remarkable variety of performers have now established themselves in the eyes of the public at large as ‘soul’ artists.
One aspect of this has been the impact of the white rock renaissance – with Sly Stone the principal catalyst for the interaction. The ‘streetfunk’ bands, who emerged in Sly’s wake and shot to prominence in the mid-seventies disco boom, seemed partly to represent a deliberate move away from the self-consciousness of the black pride anthems, a consolidation of the nonverbal Afro-American roots. Yet they also drew on rock’s guitar pyrotechnics, and understood the advantages of being self-contained units. Their playing was at least as important as their singing.
There has, in fact, been a generally increased emphasis on the instrumental side of the music, tying in with the move towards the album as the most important commercial unit. The lush orchestral funk of Isaac Hayes and Barry White is one current of this; and there has also been the phenomenon of jazz artists – including Quincy Jones, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Donald Byrd and George Benson – ‘crossing over’ in considerable numbers to more popular areas. One effect of the plethora of new fusions has been that versatile session-men, such as the guitarists Eric Gale and Cornell Dupree, have become stars in their own right.
The album market has also helped to establish a school of ‘black singer/song-writers’, working in a rather more intimate and reflective vein than the classic soul of the sixties, Bill Withers, Bobby Womack and Stevie Wonder, for example.
Despite such developments in the seventies, however, soul belongs essentially to a culture rather than to individuals, to the artisan rather than the genius. Its greatest moments are often achieved by performers who hit upon the right combination just once or twice before receding into obscurity. The list below contains several of these one- or two-hit wonders.
Essential Soul Singles
Gladys Knight and the Pips
Every Beat Of My Heart
One of the greatest female soul voices with her earliest and perhaps loveliest hit, written by Johnny Otis.
Booker T and the MGs
The forceful yet easy sound of the group at the heart of Stax.
Um Um Um Um Um Um
A landmark of Mayfield’s Chicago school, obliquely re-stating the notion that soul can’t be understood through explanation, only through feeling.
Everybody Needs Somebody To Love
‘The King of Rock and Soul’ at his testifying best.
Sam and Dave
You Don’t Know Like I Know
The duo’s vibrant vocal interplay is given full weight by a pile-driving Hayes-Porter production. Their peak.
Open The Door To Your Heart
A masterpiece of grinding, shuffling southern funk, considerably more complex rhythmically than the average Stax single of the day.
When A Man Loves A Woman
The aching vocal, a vividly precise lyric, and the lean Muscle Shoals backing featuring chapel-inspired organ, make this one of the purest of soul classics.
The Four Tops
Reach Out, I’ll Be There
The stunning climax of the work of the Holland-Dozier-Holland team. Definitive Motown.
The performer whose scorching vocals and earthy wit set a pattern for Millie Jackson; here at her peak in Muscle Shoals.
A manic, crashing beat and searing vocals make this an evergreen of Chicago dance soul.
I Want You Back
Simply one of the most exciting and imaginative pop records ever made. It launched the group as major stars.
At one time, Hathaway’s multi-faceted talent, especially his keyboard work, seemed at least as substantial as Stevie Wonder’s. He faded into obscurity, but this still sounds magnificent. He died in 1979.
Ain’t No Sunshine/Grandma’s Hands
Withers’ first single showed the directness, warmth and intelligence which made him an important seventies figure, best heard in the Carnegie Hall live album.
Clean Up Woman
A superb example of the influential records put out on the TK group of labels in Florida, with the stylish teenage singer supported by some amazing guitar licks from Willie’ Little Beaver’ Hale.
For Your Precious Love
Lorraine Ellison’s ‘Stay With Me’ is sometimes cited as the quintessential ‘deep soul’ record, but this spine-chilling piece of histrionic desolation has the edge.
Have You Seen Her?
The eccentric ingenuity of producer/lead singer/song-writer Eugene Record enabled this superficially corny hit to transcend camp and be genuinely touching.
I’ve Been Born Again
A sublime and immaculately played example of pure southern soul from one of the most consistent Stax performers, now with Columbia.
It’s Better To Have (And Don’t Need)
A sizzling renaissance for the man responsible for such earlier classics as ‘Mercy Mercy’ and ‘See Saw’.
Best Of My Love
An exuberant smash-hit from the ex-Stax female vocal group, with producer Maurice White demonstrating that a disco orientation need not stifle musical ideas.
One Nation Under A Groove
‘The funk, the whole funk, nothing but the funk.’ George Clinton’s demonic bunch take J.B./Sly basics to the merry outer limits of sanity and the top of the rhythm & Blues charts.