Sweet Soul Music
Arthur Conley co-wrote this song with Otis Redding and it’s a tribute to some of the early greats of Soul Music. The song’s melody (and words for that matter) borrowed heavily from the Sam Cooke song “Yeah Man” and a subsequent lawsuit brought by A.W. Alexander who managed Cooke’s songs after his untimely death, added his name to the song credits. The resulting song however was a huge hit for Conley and it reached #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and R&B Chart in 1967 and #7 in the UK where Soul Music was gaining popularity particularly amongst a subset of British youth known as the Modernists or Mods. The lyrics reference the co-writer Otis Redding, James Brown and songs by The Miracles, Lou Rawls, Sam & Dave and Wilson Pickett, some of the key figures in early Soul Music. “Sweet Soul Music” covered 30 times, The Jam (1977).
Soul music is a fusion of R&B, Gospel and Jazz. Known generally for it’s more upbeat tempo, it’s fun to listen to and great for dancing. Soul music can also be a bit more mellow and well, soulful. Lumped in with the catch all of ‘Rock & Roll’ in the early days many of the ‘Soul’ songs became iconic hits. It is another genre created from the Black American experience that gave expression to the Civil Rights movement and resonated with white audiences as well. It traveled very quickly into popular music. ‘Soul’ defined I think is somewhat elusive but nevertheless it would still dominate R&B and Pop charts alike in the early 60’s through to the early 70’s. It gave direction and purpose to Motown in Detroit but also spawned vibrant and identifiable locations; Memphis, New Orleans, Philadelphia and the Chicago Soul music scenes. Northern Soul, another sub genre is not from the Northern US as I’ve sometimes seen it described, albeit there was Soul music from there, the term and sub-genre derives from the music and dance movement in the British ‘Mod’ subculture as I’ve noted before, in Northern England.
I have mentioned many ‘Soul’ music artists in past posts, most namely Aretha Franklin, and it’s been clearly established she is one of the greatest voices in music and rightfully crowned the “Queen of Soul”. This song, written by Aretha Franklin and Ted White. “Dr Feelgood (Love Is a Serious Business)” was not a hit and was not released as a single far as I know, but it’s a fine demonstration of Soul music. As things often came down to, particularly in the early days of many genres we have an overabundance of easily recognizable male references in Soul music, as noted in my opening song. While Aretha makes up for a lot of ‘reference’ as she did perhaps over shadow some of her contemporaries, there are other great female Soul singers.
Regarding Motown, sometimes I forget that Diana Ross was really a Soul singer and not to be overshadowed by anyone. As her music with the Supremes and after was strongly represented on the Pop side of music, there were also identifiable Soul, R&B and later Disco releases. With the Supremes she had 12 #1 hits on Billboard Hot 100. Granted much of the music was ‘Pop Soul’ one of the dozen or so subgenres of Soul. After struggling to get a hit song in their first couple of years along came their #1 “Where Did Our Love Go” written by the main men of Motown ‘Holland, Dozier and Holland’. Later Ross would have many more hits as a solo artist as well as notable duets. Sometimes forgotten beyond “My Guy” (written and produced by Smokey Robinson) Mary Wells was the first big name female Motown artist, another great song “Two Lovers” also written by Smokey Robinson.
Another of the early names identified with the genre was Irma Thomas the “Soul Queen of New Orleans”. One of her biggest hits was “It’s Raining” written and produced by Allen Toussaint (credited to a pseudonym Naomi Neville). Also Ann Peebles, “Trouble Heartaches & Sadness” written by Ann Peebles and Don Bryant (1971), and Patti LaBelle “You Are My Friend” written by Patti LaBelle, Armstead Edwards and James “Budd” Ellison. I’ve blogged about Etta James who at the heart was a true R&B artists but her amazing soulful rendition of “At Last” warrants mention in this category as well.
While Ray Charles was a very diverse artist and not one to stick to any one single genre he is credited in great part with giving birth to Soul Music. Born September 23, 1930 in Albany Georgia he starting losing his sight at age 5 and was blind by age 7. Inspired by greats, Nat King Cole, Louis Jordan and Charles Brown he would pursue his passion for music. In 1956 Charles wrote and recorded “Hallelujah I Love Her So“, have a listen and you will hear the upbeat tempo and “Ain’t That Love” written by Ray Charles (1957) is another great demonstration of taking multiple genres and adding some new elements to give us a strong hint of turning the corner away from his Rhythm and Blues stylings. It’s not difficult to see where the label “Genius” came from so early in his career, a gifted piano player, singer and songwriter all while living in a sighted world. There is a future blog post to be titled ‘Ray Charles’ so I won’t go on other that to mention how he pushed past the racism he faced as part of his daily life and in the music business as well to give us the gift of his music.
“What’d I Say” would come out of doing some improv with his band in 1958 and after it’s release in June of 1959 it’s sexually charged lyrics would have it banned from Black and White radio stations and stores wanted to return the record to Atlantic. Charles composed a song with a combination of elements of Blues, Gospel and Jazz and added a Rumba beat, it would later be identified as ‘Soul Music,’ today we just call it ‘Soul’. It would overcome early rejections and become a huge hit and Atlantic Records biggest selling single to that date. Covered over 200 times; Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis – Special Guest Appearance by Norah Jones from a 2009 Tribute Album.
The “Godfather of Soul” as he was so called was James Brown. When Little Richard wrote “Please, Please, Please” on a napkin, Brown carried it around for a year or more and turned this phrase mostly just through his dogged determination, into a hit song reaching #6 on the R&B chart in 1956. The live performance of this song was a work in progress and not until he adopted the cape (inspired by Little Richard and the wrestler Gorgeous George) did the act become the an iconic part of the legend of James Brown. He would not have another hit song until he wrote the soulful ballad “Try Me” and it went to #1 on the R&B charts (1958). A controversial figure to be certain but his talent was undeniable and with 17 #1 Billboard R&B hits and numerous Hot 100 hits (I believe that none reached #1) he was a force for certain. He would move pretty solidly into and be a forerunner in the Funk genre in the early 1970’s.
I’ve dropped some names already at the beginning but the next name coming out of my mouth, metaphorically speaking better be Stevie Wonder. Signed to the Tamla label (the precursor to Motown) at age 11 he had his first hit at age 13 with a live recording of “Fingertips Part 2” in 1963. It was originally on his studio album ‘The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie Wonder’ released in September of 1962 as an instrumental piece but when the live improvisational vocal (known as Part 2) version on the ‘B’ side of “Part 1” was released a year later it went to #1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts. Apart from vocals Little Stevie Wonder played the bongos and harmonica, drums played by then session musician Marvin Gaye, bass by James Jamerson and Larry Moses. This song still blows my mind, this was destiny for him to become one of the most successful artists of the twentieth century. Another artist crossing and fusing genres and a true genius. Future blog post, yes!
Marvin Gaye would go from session drummer to writer, collaborator and recording artist during his career at Motown. His first solo song to come to national attention was written for him by the trio of ‘Holland, Dozier and Holland’. “Baby Don’t You Do It” which got him an appearance on American Bandstand in 1965. A great cover by Janiva Magness (2008). Future blog post, yes!
Another great already mentioned was Smokey Robinson who with the Miracles was signed by Berry Gordy to Tamla in 1957. Apart from a superb vocalist, instrumentalist and producer he was one of the finest songwriters in popular music. “You Better Shop Around” was the Miracles first #1 R&B hit and #2 on Billboard Hot 100 in 1960.
The list of early Soul singers is very deep and I will save them for a part 2 and feature some of the artists to come out of regional development which in turn gave us so many great subgenres of the music. For now I will finish the way I started with a song from my personal favorite ‘Soul’ singer Sam Cooke with his 1957 hit song “You Send Me“.
References: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page, Secondhandsongs.com, https://theknow.denverpost.com/2011/07/15/best-soul-singers/34923/, https://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2014/oct/08/diana-ross-the-supremes-10-of-the-best
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