Soul music: a compelling, distinct, and dynamic kind of music very popular in the 1960s. Here’s a good example:

Originating in the African American community throughout the United States, soul combines elements of rhythm and blues, gospel, and jazz. Ray Charles and Sam Cooke were two well-known pioneers, and another was Solomon Burke, who was central in bridging R&B and soul. Here he is in 1961:

  • Cry To Me, Solomon Burke          

Frankly, I don’t think you really have to define soul music. Just listen to it and you’ll figure it out. What you hear is a musical style marked by searing vocal intensity, use of the church-rooted call and response, and a lot of melisma (the stretching of a note). You’ll also experience a tremendous amount of honesty, joy, and pain. Here’s Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters from 1963:

  • Cry Baby, Garnet Mimms          

Soul got started in the early sixties and peaked from 1965 to 1968. One of the major players was Stax Records, in Memphis, Tennessee. Except for Motown, Stax was the most popular and prolific label of all time. Their house band was Booker T. and the M.G.s, who provided gritty, raw, stripped-down soul music. The M.G.s had a 1962 hit with Green Onions. In ’63 they backed up a fledgling Otis Redding, and in 1965 provided Wilson Pickett with his first major hit. Listen for Al Jackson’s solid drumming and Steve Cropper’s rhythm guitar work, not to mention the horns:

Geographically, soul music had its various styles in various parts of the U.S.: Stax Records in Memphis, Fame Records and Muscle Shoals in Alabama, Chess Records and Vee Jay Records in Chicago, TSOP in Philadelphia, Atlantic in New York, Minute and AFO Records in New Orleans, and of course Motown in Detroit. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Georgia. After all, that’s where James Brown—the Godfather of Soul—and his Famous Flames emerged with a new beat and live performance that shook the mid-sixties.

What was coming out of Chicago in 1965 was soul that was a lot cooler that that from the South. One of the biggest soul hits of the decade was provided by Fontella Bass. The drums on this track were played by Maurice White, later to drum for Earth Wind and Fire. Minnie Ripperton sings in the background:

Probably the most sincere soul record from the sixties came out in March 1966, when former hospital orderly Percy Sledge signed with Atlantic Records, and he (and session musicians known as The Swampers) produced a song that went on to dominate the charts. His inspiration came when Sledge’ girlfriend left him just as he was laid off from a construction job. This is one powerful piece. Listen to drummer Roger Hawkins (you can hear The Swampers again on Aretha Franklin’s Respect):

The Queen of Memphis Soul, Carla Thomas, was the daughter of soul singer and R&B artist Rufus Thomas. She caught the ear of Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records in 1960 when she recorded Gee Whiz, and had several hits of her own in the ’60s, including duets with Otis Redding. Later, Thomas joined Stax Records, owned by Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton, who recorded Thomas in 1966 in the Stax Movie Theater/ Studio with Booker T. and the M.G.s backing her up:

Motown’s catalog is too extensive to go into here, except to mention that the record company’s session group, The Funk Brothers, played (as they often did) on somebody else’s record. The Brothers—defying Berry Gordy—played behind Jackie Wilson, Edwin Starr, and a group known as The Capitols, who charted Number Seven in the summer of ’66:  

At the same time Cool Jerk was making a splash, a fellow born in New Orleans and named Bobby Moore was making his own music. While in the Army, he and his band opened for Ray Charles and Sam Cooke. In 1966, Moore and The Rhythm Aces, recording at Fame Studios in Alabama, sold more that a million copies of the following record. What amazes me is that you have Black artists being supported by white musicians at a time when civil rights were under fire: could soul music be responsible for this kind of harmony?

One of my favorite soul numbers, by a belter named J.J. Jackson, came out twice—in 1966 and 1969. Jackson, who started out as a songwriter and arranger—helping to produce other artists’ hits—was also a talent scout for Motown in New York. He wrote and performed this song:

In 1959 Eddie Floyd founded the Detroit group The Falcons, who had what I think is the first soul record, You’re So Fine. Wilson Pickett would also join the group. Floyd (who is still performing today) became a stalwart star on Stax, and hit it big in 1966 with a tune backed again by Booker T.:

Without doubt, the most famous soul performer we’ll talk about here is Aretha Franklin, who began her career as a child singing gospel at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit where her father, C.L. Franklin, was a minister. At age 18 she got a contract with the prestigious Columbia label, where for the most part she was recording pop standards and not utilizing her talents. That was until 1966, when her Columbia contract expired and Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler signed her. That’s when Aretha became the Queen of Soul.

Respect was backed by the Muscle Shoals rhythm section and recorded in New York. From that point on, Franklin, an incredible vocalist and pianist, was considered one of the hundred greatest artists of all time, selling well over 75 million records. She had two sisters, Carolyn and Erma, who also recorded on their own. It was Janis Joplin who discovered this song:

A dancing and singing duo helped put Stax Records on the map. They first appeared in 1965 and in 1966 they recorded a giant of a tune called Hold On I’m Comin‘ among other hits. As soul was peaking towards the end of the decade, Sam Moore and Dave Prater announced to the world that they were Soul Man, backed by Donald Duck Dunn on bass, Al Jackson on drums, Steve Cropper on guitar, and Booker T. Jones on organ. Again, pay attention to the horns:

If I were to tell you our next artist is Alfred Jesse Smith, you wouldn’t know who I’m talking about. He is known for having only two soul-oriented hits in the summer of 1967, the first a novelty number called The Oogum Boogum Songand the second perhaps a little more popular, with a title that is not actually in the song—the chorus repeats the phrase “just gimme some kind of sign girl.” I never cared. It’s one of my favorite soul songs:

The most experienced entertainer we’ll discuss here is Etta James, born Jamesetta Hawkins in 1938. She performed in various genres including blues, R&B, soul, rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, and gospel. She began her career in 1954, was discovered by bandleader Johnny Otis, and had hits like The Wallflower and At Last among many others. Later in her career she faced a number of challenges, including heroin addiction, physical abuse, and incarceration before her comeback in the ’80s. Her giant soul hit was backed by The Swampers in the fall of 1967:

One of the greatest singers in pop music and a seminal artist in soul music and R&B Otis Redding was born in 1941 in Georgia. His life was cut short by a plane crash on December 10, 1967 when he was 26 years old. He grew up as a performer and musician, playing with Little Richard’s band The Upsetters. Guess who influenced him? He joined Stax in 1962 and had his first hit: These Arms of Mine. Throughout the ’60s, Redding recorded many ballads, and began getting attention from white record buyers after his appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. By the time of his death, everybody knew who he was.

One of the best soul singles of the decade came from a guy who had a long list of hit records over 20 years. Tyrone Davis was really hot when he recorded this 1968 smash. What to listen for? The electric guitar, the horns, the drums, and the rhythm—not to mention the lyrics:

In 1968 a disciple of soul artist Sam Cooke recorded one of Stax Records’ biggest sellers:

It is at this point that soul music starts to wane, due to Otis Redding’s death, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the rise of funk and psychedelic soul thanks to artists like Sly and the Family Stone. I have to think what made soul music so great was its honesty, commitment, and feeling that you get from no other type of music. It sought freedom during a time where there was anything but.

:: King Harris