Soul Music

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Soul Music

Soul music emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s as one of the most distinctive forms in the history of American popular music. For black Americans especially, soul music defined the 1960s, offering a cultural soundtrack to the civil rights movement and the larger awakening of black consciousness and pride. Soul hits dominated the charts during that decade, but defining exactly what soul was proved no easy task, even for some of its greatest artists. Wilson Pickett defined soul as "nothin' but a feelin'." Don Covay said, "For a singer, soul is total vocal freedom." Aretha Franklin explained, "Soul to me is a feeling, a lot of depth and being able to bring to the surface that which is happening inside.… It's just the emotion, the way it affects other people." Elements of the genre live on, but the classic period of soul music, from about 1960 to 1975, remains one of the most important contributions to American popular culture for its style, its raw, emotive power, and its depth of feeling. Alongside jazz, it is one of America's most original contributions to world culture.

If defining soul music proved elusive, its origins were not. Soul music emerged during the 1950s as a cross between rhythm and blues and gospel music. Soul music combined the Saturday-night sinner and the Sunday-morning repentant into one person or one song, just as they existed in real life. In combining the R&B themes with gospel elements (call-and-response singing, close harmonies, and themes of celebration, loss, and longing), early soul artists often secularized gospel tunes by changing key words: the gospel song "Talkin' 'Bout Jesus" became "Talkin' 'Bout You"; "This Little Light of Mine" became "This Little Girl of Mine"; "I've Got a Savior" became "I Got a Woman." This transition reflected changes occurring in the black community after World War II as more and more black Americans moved from the rural South to the urban North. Early arrivals in the North had created R&B music in the mid-1940s as an expression of the new realities of life in these urban neighborhoods. Later, as more Southern blacks poured into these communities, they brought with them elements of Southern gospel music. Both musical forms coexisted as separate expressions of black life. They soon crossed, however, producing what became soul music.

The acknowledged father of this cross was Ray Charles. All of the secularized gospel songs mentioned above were hits for Charles in the mid-1950s. Born in 1930 in Albany, Georgia, Charles moved to Seattle as a teenager and emerged in the late 1940s as a Nat "King" Cole-style crooner playing local clubs such as the Rocking Chair and the Black and Tan. There he caught the attention of Swingtime Records, one of the early black-owned R&B recording companies, and he released a number of blues and Cole-inspired tunes, among them "Kissa Me Baby" and "Confession Blues." Moving to Atlantic Records in 1952, Charles began developing an earthier style that he picked up working with blues musicians Guitar Slim and Lowell Fulsom. At Atlantic, he began to combine blues elements with gospel stylings he had picked up as a child in Georgia. That style became the basis for soul music and provided Charles with a string of hits during the 1950s, including "Lonely Avenue," "I Got a Woman," "Hallelujah I Love Her So," and perhaps his biggest hit, "What'd I Say," which combined a gospel call-and-response segment between Charles and his backup singers, the Raelettes, moans that could easily have come from either the bedroom or the pulpit, and a driving R&B band.

Following close on Charles's heels was Sam Cooke, who had come to prominence as the lead singer of the gospel group the Soul Stirrers before developing a more pop-oriented soul style which brought him such hits as "You Send Me," "Twistin' the Night Away," and "Bring It on Home to Me." Jackie Wilson similarly had started out in a vocal group, the Dominoes, before forging a driving pop-soul style with such songs as "Reet Petite," "Lonely Tear-drops," and "Baby Workout." While Charles's music maintained a close connection with the raw elements of R&B music, Wilson and Cooke moved the R&B and gospel marriage closer to the realm of pop.

It took three record companies to bring soul into the mainstream. They were Atlantic Records in New York City, Motown Records in Detroit, and Stax/Volt Records in Memphis. While numerous smaller labels made invaluable contributions to soul music, these three labels were responsible for some of the most explosive soul music of the 1950s and 1960s. Most of the major talents in soul music, with some very notable exceptions, were on these three record labels. And, while there were major individual talents on each label roster, each company managed to build a unique sound that identified each artist with his or her particular label.

Herb Abramson and Ahmet Ertegun formed Atlantic Records in 1947. Their initial releases were in the jazz vein, but they moved into R&B in 1949 and became one of the dominant independent record labels in that field in the 1950s due to their successes with such R&B artists as Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, Joe Turner, LaVern Baker, the Clovers, and others. With the success of Charles's records in the emerging soul style, Atlantic moved even further into soul music. In the early to mid-1960s, Atlantic had soul hits with The Drifters' "Up on the Roof," "This Magic Moment," and "Save the Last Dance for Me"; Ben E. King's "Stand by Me" and "Spanish Harlem"; Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman"; Wilson Pickett's "Land of 1000 Dances," "Mustang Sally," and "Funky Broadway"; Don Covay's "Seesaw"; and Solomon Burke's "Just out of Reach." Atlantic's major sound innovation was to bring soul "uptown" with a more polished, professional sound accomplished by adding string arrangements and by using professional Brill Building songwriters.

Atlantic's biggest success, however, came in 1967 with the discovery of singer Aretha Franklin. Franklin was the perfect embodiment of soul music, combining a strong background in church music (her father, the Reverend C. L. Franklin, was the well-known minister of the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit) with the depth of feeling and style required to take her gospel training to the secular music world. She had first signed with Columbia Records in the early 1960s, where she attempted to become a pop/soul singer in the Sam Cooke style. Her records in this vein fared poorly, and when her contract with Columbia expired in 1967, producer Jerry Wexler signed her to Atlantic. There, Wexler took Franklin to Rick Hall's Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where he had had success remolding Wilson Pickett's sound. Hall's Muscle Shoals, with its combination of black and white Southern musicians, was developing a reputation as a hotbed of soul music, a place where the all-important feeling necessary in soul music seemed to come out more readily. There, Franklin remade her sound, letting her gospel roots come out. She debuted on Atlantic in 1967 with the album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, which went to number two on the album charts that year. Both the title song and Franklin's cover of Otis Redding's "Respect" went to number one on the R&B charts that year. The album also contained "Do Right Woman—Do Right Man," "Baby, Baby, Baby," and "Save Me," all of which have become soul classics. Franklin released two more records in the space of a year, unleashing such hits as "Baby I Love You," "Chain of Fools," and the smash "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," a top ten hit on both the pop and R&B charts. These releases earned Franklin the undisputed title of "The Queen of Soul" and cemented Atlantic as the home of some of the most powerful soul music ever produced.

Songwriter, producer, and one-time record shop owner Berry Gordy, Jr. founded Motown Records in 1960 in a simple white bungalow at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, Michigan. Gordy had successfully written and produced songs for Jackie Wilson ("Lonely Teardrops") and Barrett Strong ("Money") during the late 1950s that drew upon Ray Charles's innovations in fusing R&B and gospel styles. In 1960, Gordy moved from independent producing (where he would lease songs to other labels) and began his own label, Tamla, which later became part of Motown. In Motown, Gordy put together a songwriting/producing/recording formula that would sell more singles by the end of the 1960s than any other company. He did this with what resembled assembly line production, and Gordy referred to his role as "quality control." First, he assembled a team of crack songwriters and producers, including Smokey Robinson and the team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland, who wrote one hit after another for Gordy. Next, he put together a house band that included Benny Benjamin on drums, Joe Messina on guitar, James Jamerson on bass, Earl Van Dyke on keyboards, and other regulars. Together, the songwriting, production teams, and house band established a signature style that was unmistakable. Then, drawing from the rich local talent of Detroit, Gordy assembled or signed vocal groups or individual singers to record the songs.

Part of Gordy's gift lay in transforming raw street talent into a polished musical product, which he did using this assembly line process and his eye for promising young talent, calling Motown the "Sound of Young America." Motown's roster of stars included the Supremes ("Baby Love," "You Can't Hurry Love," "Love Child"), Marvin Gaye ("I Heard It through the Grapevine," "Pride and Joy"), the Four Tops ("Standing in the Shadows of Love," "Bernadette," "Reach out I'll Be There"), the Temptations ("My Girl," "Ain't Too Proud to Beg"), Mary Wells ("My Guy"), Martha and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles ("I Second That Emotion," "The Tracks of My Tears"), the Marvelettes, Jr. Walker and the All-Stars, Stevie Wonder ("Uptight," "Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I'm Yours," "For Once in My Life"), and Gladys Knight and the Pips, among many others. Motown's nationwide success with this formula lay in the ability of its music to resonate in both the black and white communities, and many of the above hits topped both the R&B and Pop charts throughout the 1960s. From the very beginning, for commercial reasons or otherwise, Gordy followed an integrationist approach, and his success pushed the soul music created at Motown closer and closer to the larger pop realm.

Although Gordy's formula was responsible for most of Motown's success, in the later 1960s and early 1970s, a few of his early artists began to break out of the Motown formula, maturing musically to create very personal, signature styles all their own. The two most prominent and unique were Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Gaye broke out of the Motown mold in a decisive way with the topical album What's Going On in 1971: both its title track and "What's Happening Brother" addressed the war in Vietnam, "Mercy Mercy Me" the environment, and "Inner City Blues" the urban crisis in America's ghetto communities. Wonder became a musical force unto himself with a string of important albums in the early 1970s on which he wrote and sang all of the songs and played most of the instruments. Included in albums such as Innervisions, Talking Book, Fulfillingness First Finale, Music of My Mind, and his double-album opus Songs in the Key of Life, Wonder scored huge hits with such songs as "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," "Isn't She Lovely," "I Wish," and "Superstition." His songs also often took a topical turn, with such songs as "Living for the City" and "Village Ghetto Land" on urban problems, and "Too High" on drug addiction. "Higher Ground" was an exhortation for black self-empowerment, and "You Haven't Done Nothin"' a larger critique of the white power structure. The classic Motown era ended after 1971 when Gordy moved the company to Los Angeles and gave up direct hands-on control over studio production. With those changes, the trademark sound disintegrated.

If Atlantic and Motown defined soul in the urban North, Memphis's Stax/Volt Records, during its classic period from 1960-1968, virtually defined Southern soul, a sound at once relaxed and easy yet filled with musical tension that left listeners begging for more, which became as easily recognizable as the Motown sound. Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton founded Satellite Records in 1959, changing the name to Stax by 1961 (Volt Records was a later subsidiary), and began to record local black musicians, eventually establishing a studio in an old Memphis movie theater at 926 E. McLemore Avenue. Among their first recording artists were local DJ Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla. Carla Thomas scored an early hit in 1960 with "Gee Whiz," which reached the top ten on both the R&B and Pop charts. Stax's next hit was "Last Night," an instrumental number by the Mar-Keys that featured a unique combination of organ, guitar, and horns that would become the hallmark of Stax/Volt's sound. Although not quite as tightly run as Motown, Stax/Volt did employ some of the same techniques. The instrumental band Booker T. and the MGs became in essence Stax's house band in addition to scoring numerous hits on its own such as "Green Onions" and "Time Is Tight." Stax also benefited from a core group of songwriters and producers, most prominent among them David Porter and Isaac Hayes, who wrote many of Stax's great hits, including "Hold On! I'm Comin"' and "Soul Man" by Sam and Dave and "B-A-B-Y" by Carla Thomas. A number of Stax/Volt's stars were also writers, including Eddie Floyd, who cowrote his own hits "Knock on Wood" and "Raise Your Hand," among others. Even more prolific was MG guitarist Steve Cropper, who, in addition to playing guitar on many Stax/Volt records, also cowrote many songs with other Stax/Volt artists, including the best selling Stax/Volt single of all time, "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay," with Otis Redding. Like Aretha Franklin at Atlantic, Redding was far and away Stax/Volt's greatest star, and one of the most distinctive soul singers ever, with a powerful, raw, emotional style that seemed to wring every bit of feeling from every note of a song. A prolific songwriter as well, Redding had some of Stax/Volt's biggest hits, including "Respect," "Try a Little Tenderness," "These Arms of Mine," "Mr. Pitiful," "The Happy Song (Dum-Dum)," and literally dozens of others before his untimely death in a plane crash in December 1967.

Stax/Volt continued after the death of Redding, but things were never quite the same. Despite a number of hits in the 1968-1972 period, Stax declined with the dissolution of Booker T. and the MGs and the loss of its deal with Atlantic Records, which had given Atlantic distribution rights to Stax's recording, since the early 1960s. With the breakup of that deal, Atlantic took Stax's biggest sellers, the Otis Redding and Sam and Dave catalogs, which were in many ways the heart of the Stax/Volt empire. These problems slowly eroded Stax's signature style, and the company folded in bankruptcy in 1975.

While the artists on Atlantic, Motown, and Stax/Volt did much to define soul music in the 1960s, the genre's most distinctive, and perhaps most influential, innovator came not from these three labels but in the person of Augusta, Georgia's James Brown. Born in 1933, Brown emerged as an early R&B/soul singer in the mid-1950s with such hits as "Please, Please, Please," and "Try Me." He scored more hits in the early 1960s, but his heyday came later in the decade when he diverged from more standard soul forms to fashion his own brand of soul/funk, a harder-driving, more intense and powerful sound that came through on such songs as "Cold Sweat," "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine," and "I Got You (I Feel Good)." Brown also made powerful statement songs during the heyday of black power, including "Say It Loud—I'm Black and I'm Proud," "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door I'll Get It Myself)," "Get Up, Get into It, and Get Involved," and "Soul Power." Brown's stylistic innovations in soul music influenced the development of both funk music in the 1970s and rap music in the 1980s.

Although great soul artists such as Al Green, the Staple Singers, Curtis Mayfield, the aforementioned Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, and many others continued to record soul music, the classic soul era ended in the mid-1970s as black music fragmented into such styles as disco and funk, which emphasized dance rhythms over well-crafted singing and songwriting. The great record labels that had acted as important conduits for soul music had moved in other directions as well. Atlantic moved more toward rock acts, Motown left for Los Angeles, and Stax/Volt fell apart in financial trouble. In terms of style, the connection to gospel music that was such a hallmark of soul became less influential in black music generally, and soul evolved into a more homogenous sound known as "urban contemporary" music.

—Timothy Berg

Further Reading:

George, Nelson. The Death of Rhythm and Blues. New York, Plume, 1988.

Guralnick, Peter. Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom. New York, Harper & Row, 1986.

Haralambos, Michael. Right On: From Blues to Soul in Black America. New York, Drake Publishers, 1975.

Hirshey, Gerri. Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music. New York, Times Books, 1984.

Miller, Jim, editor. The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. New York, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1980.

Shaw, Arnold. The World of Soul: Black America's Contribution to the Pop Music Scene. New York, Cowles Book Company, 1970.

Szatmary, David P. Rockin' in Time: A Social History of Rock-and-Roll. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice Hall, 1991.

Various Artists. Atlantic Rhythm and Blues: 1947-1974. Atlantic Recording Corporation, 1985.

Various Artists. Beg, Scream, and Shout!: The Big Ol' Box of '60s Soul. Rhino Records, 1997.

Various Artists. The Complete Stax/Volt Singles, 1959-1968. Atlantic Recording Corporation, 1991.

Various Artists. Hitsville U.S.A.: The Motown Singles Collection, 1959-1971. Motown Records, 1992.