Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



A genre in black American popular music which, with the black pop of Motown, dominated both pop and R&B charts to the extent that Billboard's R&B chart was abolished for 14 months in the early '60s: for the first and only time blacks and whites were buying the same records (when the black chart was restored it was called the soul chart). Ray Charles was the first soul artist, bringing the passion and vocal techniques of black gospel music (especially the vocal ornamentation called melisma) to rhythm and blues: he sang secular songs in a 'sanctified' manner, considered scandalous in some circles. Black rockers such as Little Richard did the same thing with more frenzy, which was an exciting novelty to white teenagers, unfamiliar with black gospel music. Sam Cooke was the first pop star to come directly from black gospel music (had many fans as lead singer of the Soul Stirrers); his 'You Send Me' (no. 1 pop hit '57) is the real beginning of the soul era, an excellent example of melisma, but subsequent hits saw his style watered down in the studio: black audiences knew who he really was. James Brown on King in Cincinatti was unique, and began crossing over to the pop chart '58.

The soul era began when the Satellite label was formed in Memphis '60 by Jim Stewart (b 29 July 1930, Middleton TN; d 5 December 2022, Memphis) and his sister Estelle Axton (d 24 February 2004 aged 85) to record local talent; first hits were by Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla '60, but Otis Redding was their biggest home-grown success; the name changed to Stax because there was already a Satellite label on the West Coast, and they soon made a distribution deal with Atlantic. Fame Music in Muscle Shoals soon followed, and Jerry Wexler sent Atlantic artists south to record. The Stax house band began when the Royal Spades, a local white R&B group, became the Mar-Keys, then Booker T and the MGs, plus the Memphis Horns (Packy Axton, Wayne Jackson [b 24 November 1941; d 21 June 2016] and Don Nix); Chips Moman was a young producer who soon started his own studio; Isaac Hayes and David Porter soon wrote songs for Sam and Dave. Muscle Shoals is reclaimed land, across the river from Florence, Alabama; Fame Music was started in a room above a drugstore by local eccentric/visionary Tom Stafford with young producers Rick Hall (who built the studio: b Roe Erister Hall, 31 January 1932, Tishomingo County MS; d 2 January 2018, Muscle Shoals) and Billy Sherrill (later the most successful producer of country music of his era), keyboardist Spooner Oldham, vocalist Dan Penn (a white kid who sang more black than Elvis Presley ever did), songwriter Donnie Fritts all hanging around: among their first hits were Arthur Alexander's. The phenomenon that actually caused the soul explosion was black artists like those named above plus Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex, Percy Sledge, Ben E. King, William Bell, Solomon Burke and others recording in these small studios run by white amateurs, backed by integrated groups of young Southern musicians of great talent who were steeped in the appropriate style: at a time when singers and musicians still could not eat lunch together in local restaurants they created a fusion (by accident, the only way true fusions in music ever happen) which captured the hearts of a whole generation.

The golden age of soul is usually agreed to have ended on 4 April 1968, when Martin Luther King was murdered: there was unmistakable hostility in black neighbourhoods all over the USA and Stax had to close for a while because the staff couldn't go to work. At the '68 convention in Atlanta of the National Association of Radio and Television Announcers (NARTA) Wexler was hanged in effigy, several people were beaten up and others were said to be carrying guns. The truth was that despite the complete triumph of black input into the pop charts, black artists and businessmen (with the unusual exception of Berry Gordy at Motown) still did not have the personal success they deserved, having to curry favour with the white establishment. (This had not changed in the '80s, when black artists said of the major labels that 'If you're not Lionel Richie, they don't want to know,' which is why the jazz community took matters into its own hands: see Jazz, AACM etc.) The Civil Rights era at the same time as the golden age of soul music saw the end of legally-sanctioned segregation, but it will take lifetimes to undo the effects of 300 years of racial oppression.

Meanwhile the magic wasn't quite over yet. Moman opened his American Sound studio in Memphis, with his 827 Thomas Street Band: Tommy Cogbill on bass, Reggie Young on guitar, Gene Chrisman on drums, Bobby Emmons on Hammond B3, Bobby Wood on piano and string arranger Mike Leech, who played bass when Cogbill was producing. Cogbill and Moman had played on the Aretha Franklin hits that established her as the Queen of Soul; Chrisman had worked for Sam Phillips at Sun; Emmons and Young had played in the Bill Black Combo (on Dusty Springfield's 'Son Of A Preacher Man' Young used the same guitar that Scotty Moore had played on Elvis Presley's first hits) and were lured away from Royal Recording, where they'd played in the Hi Records house band. The arrangements were always heads; they just played until the groove was right, and in a three-year period at the end of the decade they cut 162 US chart singles, with King Curtis, James Carr, the Box Tops, Wilson Pickett, the Sweet Inspirations, Neil Diamond, Elvis Presley and many more; when Moman moved the studio to Atlanta '72 the era was well and truly over. When Les Back for Mojo magazine asked them about 'the Memphis thing', Young said, 'It's nothin' planned ... It's just the soulful thing that's all over Memphis.' Emmons said it was 'the right combination of rich and poor, black and white, friendly and ornery'.

The participants in the glorious accident that had occurred in Memphis and Muscle Shoals went their various ways, but the classics that were recorded are still selling and still tingle the spine of the listener. Arnold Shaw in his Black Popular Music In America '86 pursued the theory that rhythm and blues was the thesis, soul and Motown pop the antithesis, and their absorption by the white music business the synthesis: 'blue-eyed soul' was the name given to the music of whites such as the Righteous Brothers, who successfully learned the lessons of soul; Steve Winwood's success at the Grammy awards '87 was another fruit of the soul era. 'Northern soul' was a brand of white pop from northern England which takes some cues from the great black music of the recent past rather than from the sterile posturing that takes place in London TV studios, while dance floors in British clubs were dominated by black music, with its heavy inheritance of soul. Soul carried on: Al Green came from the church to become one of the great artists of the '70s (on Memphis's Hi label), then went back to it; 'sweet soul' is the term applied to the gorgeous singing of black romantics like Peabo Bryson; Al Jarreau's albums were overproduced, like most albums in the '80s, but he had soul in his voice. The generation that later ran the advertising, film and record industries knew how great the soul classics were; the decades have been marked by constant reissues and compilations, and by the use of the style and even the original recordings in TV adverts. The original soul music was a trademark of good taste, but then began to be used carelessly, as in the hilariously bad music for the feminine hygiene product Bodyform on UK TV in the '90s, and before long half the jingles on TV featured phoney melisma.

Peter Guralnick's book Sweet Soul Music '86 is a masterpiece, and Barney Hoskyns's Say It One More Time For The Brokenhearted '87 makes the excellent case that Southern soul and country music are two sides of the same coin: the influence has always been both ways; it is impossible to imagine how much richer American music could have been if it hadn't been for the heartless lie of racism. Penn's solo Nobody's Fool '73 was reissued '97 on Repertoire; it had been followed 20 years later by Do Right Man on Blue Horizon. Penn and Spooner Oldham appeared as a duo '96 in an NYC church, their laid-back magic intact. See also the entry for Atlantic Records.