In this month's FM2U, we're going to talk about American Soul music, a rich and deeply rewarding subject for music fans and pop culture history buffs alike. There are several distinct locations in the USA associated with the birth of "soul" music (although the real atlas of this style would include dozens of locations). Detroit, Michigan (Motor City, also known as "Motown"), New York as the birthplace of Atlantic Records (one of the greatest independent record labels in history), New Orleans, Macon, Georgia (home to both Little Richard and Otis Redding, double dynamite! And a little bit down the road... JAMES BROWN!), Chicago, Illinois with it's blues influence from the incredible Chess Studios, and then later, as the 60's drew into the 70's, Philly Soul. But for me, most importantly, Memphis Tennessee, Stax Records, and 150 miles south, Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The importance and wide ranging influence of this uniquely American music CAN NOT BE EXAGGERATED! It's all in there: blues, jazz, country, folk, but especially GOSPEL. The roster of soul artists who came up through gospel performance is impressive. Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Johnnie Taylor, on and on... Southern gospel can arguably be said to be the basis for southern soul music. The music, style, and technique were exactly the same. Except rather than being about Jesus, the singers sang about their "baby". This gospel based soul dominated up until about the time of the tragic assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When the more secular "funk" of artist like James Brown began to eclipse the old style, which had always vaguely maintained the goal of "crossing over" to include the white audience with the extra economic benefits of that market. Remember, America was a strictly segregated nation in this era. However, studios like Stax in Memphis, Fame Studios down in Alabama, and Atlantic and Chess in NY and Chicago paid no heed to this social inequity. White and black artists mingled and mixed quite freely (often courageously in the face of STRONG local political opposition). From this historic movement, came a sound that could scarcely be denied. Like warming up to the fire on a cold winter's night, or a long cool drink of water on a sun baked afternoon, soul music seemed to make life just... better, somehow. It fed the soul, mind and body easily, with little effort from the listener save allowing himself to be carried away with a natural, seemingly effortless groove. Much like the later 60's counterculture "hippie" movement, this brave social experiment broke all the rules. White musicians backing black singers. Northern record executives coming down south to make hits below the Mason-Dixon line, poor kids from the projects (with giant talent) coming right in off the street and becoming names like Diana Ross, Isaac Hayes, and Otis Redding. It was a golden moment in American pop culture, not likely to be repeated. It was also a huge influence on the "British Invasion" of the 60's when bands such as The Beatles, The Yardbirds, and especially, the Stones and The Animals, recycled this music back to an unwitting white audience in this country. generously and eagerly citing their soulful American inspiration. Although, ironically, pushing them off the record charts for a few years. Some forever...
For those interested in the subject, I'd like to recommend ANY writings by author Peter Guralnick. As gifted a music writer as we've ever read. But, on this topic, his book Sweet Soul Music is highly recommended and should be on every music fan's bookshelf. To my ears, the Stax, Memphis and Muscle Shoals (and by association, Atlantic Records) were the very heart and soul of it all. Much less contrived and much more down home than the cosmopolitan supper club soul of Motown (although it must be said, Berry Gordy achieved, and certainly deserved his astronomical success at Motown. It's brilliant stuff!). Motown was crafted to be slick, polished, and once again, appeal to a white audience also. Stax and Muscle Shoals, in the words of one time Stax studio head Al Bell, just "let it happen". Whatever it was, it was. However it came out, that's what you heard on the radio. And the results were mind-blowing. Booker T. and the MGs, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, Aretha Franklin, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Isaac Hayes, Johnnie Taylor, and like a shining star, the late, great, Otis Redding, who very shortly before his death in a plane crash in 1967, recorded the immortal Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay. This song was written by Otis shortly after his legendary performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in California (which also introduced America to Jimi Hendrix and The Who) and reflected his impressions of this new, young (white) audience who had so joyfully embraced him there. The song met with some opposition at Stax because it was "different". However Otis, with the support of the brilliant Stax houseband, The MGs, pushed it through and Otis achieved the only #1 pop chart (as opposed to the r&b chart) topping record of his career. Yes, Otis was poised to take soul music to a completely new place at the time of his untimely death, which combined a few months later with the murder of Dr. King, effectively brought this first phase of artistic co-operation and triumph to an early end. People became suspicious of each other, black and white, north and south, wealthy and struggling. A fragile coalition started to unravel. And soul music, although continuing to grow, impress, and thrive, would never (at least for me) be quite the same again. This incredible moment in music history, for better or worse, could only have happened right here in America. And in a true sense, it's something of which we should all be every proud. Like jazz, country, and gospel before it, soul is strictly American through and through. Drive to Memphis, see it, hear it, taste it. Start from here: pick up Peter Guralnick's book Sweet Soul Music and be prepared to relive a ton of great music (and probably drop some bucks adding it to your collection). In the words of soul raver Arthur Conley, "Do you like good music? SWEET SOUL MUSIC!" As always, this is just a starting point and an introduction. Enjoy the ride!
The Complete Stax / Volt Singles Vol. 1-2-3 "It's all right here! Get ready to go straight to the deep end with a life changing musical experience. You'll probably crave some bar-b-que pretty quickly!"
Other books by Peter Guralnick:
Lost Highway / Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians "Great chapters on some incredible artists incl. Ernest Tubb, Waylon Jennings, Howlin' Wolf and Merle Haggard"
I Feel Like Going Home / Portraits in Blues and Rock and Roll "More of the same excellence from Pete, but especially good renderings of Jerry Lee Lewis and one of my all time under-rated favorites, Charlie Rich (who still waits to be fully appreciated)"
Dream Boogie / The Triumph of Sam Cooke "Sam was light years ahead of his time..."
Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love " Parts 1 and 2 of an unbelievable portrait of Elvis Presley. Like nothing you've ever read before"
All are in print and available through Amazon.com.