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Peter Guralnick has written that "Soul music is Southern by definition if not byactual geography." While the soul sound eventually spread to points as distant anddiverse as Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago, its historical and emotional corealways lay in its heady admixture of three southern musical forms: blues, gospel, andcountry. But equally important is the notion that soul musicits sparse eleganceand richness of imagery, the pain and feeling evident in its groovesis somehowrepresentative of something distinctly southern. Soul embodies the complexity andcontradiction of southern life: adversity, joy, hardship, determination, and loss. TheSouth is a place where things of great artistic worth seem forever in danger ofslipping away, where fine singers like Ruby Johnson burst upon the scene to releasea handful of classic records and then just as quickly fade out of sight, never to beheard from again. A desire to comprehend the sadness and mystery behind thisevanescence, accompanied by the longing to keep such great voices from disappearingforever, insures that one will always return to the South to grasp an understandingof soul's true heart.
The Memphis Sound
It can be argued that no city has played a more important role in the developmentof American popular music than Memphis. Strategically located north of New Orleanson the banks of the Mississippi River, this unique city has contributed to theevolution of gospel, blues, rock &roll, jazz, and soul in ways that are still beinganalyzed and understood. A trip to Memphis provides a fascinating glimpse into thecountry's musical past, although, like so much that is worthy in American culture,the beauty of Memphis's art has not always been appreciated, even by those wholive there (I'll never forget a visit when I made numerous attempts to ask Memphiansabout Rufus Thomas, one of their most legendary fellow residents, and receivednothing but blank stares). A rich musical scene has always thrived in Memphis,however, and by the end of the 1950s the city was developing a wave of talent thatwould eventually change the face of modern American music.
The most famous Memphis soul label, and the one with the most relevance forthis book, is Stax. Founded in 1959 as Satellite Records by Jim Stewart and EstelleAxton, a white, middle-aged brother-and-sister team with virtually no knowledge ofthe record industry, Stax in a few short years blossomed into one of the mostinnovative and influential record companies of the rock era. Almost by accident,Stax created a sound that would essentially define the southern brand of soul music:heavy percussion with strong backbeat, sparse but majestic guitar accompaniment,emotive playing on the Hammond B-3, and expressive, almost conversational hornlines. Key to Stax's success was its reliance on "head arrangements," arrangementsthat, rather than being worked out ahead of time, were created through collectivemusical input at the session itself. By the middle of the '60s, Stax had cultivated aroster of artists that included many of the great soul performers of the era: OtisRedding, Eddie Floyd, Sam and Dave, and Rufus and Carla Thomas. Thanks to thepresence of the studio's ace house band, Booker T. and the MG's (Booker T. Joneson organ, Al Jackson on drums, Donald "Duck" Dunn on bass, and Steve Cropperon guitar), Stax's sound was remarkably uniform and cohesive through the end ofthe decade.
By the early '70s, another Memphis label had started to give Stax serious competition.Surprisingly, Hi Records was founded first (in 1958) but had spent most of the'60s recording instrumentals, records that sold moderately well but were unable togive Hi the trademark sound it needed for serious recognition. That recognitionstarted to arrive around 1969, when Willie Mitchell, a producer, trumpeter, andarranger who himself had achieved a hit instrumental on Hi in 1968 with "SoulSerenade," began to take an active role in the management of the company. UnderMitchell's expert guidance, Hi produced an astonishing array of hits with its corestable of artists: Al Green, Ann Peebles, Otis Clay, Syl Johnson, and O.V. Wright.The deep, distinctive Hi sound was also featured on the records of non-Hi artists(such as Denise LaSalle) who leased Mitchell's Royal Recording Studio and musiciansfor one-off sessions.
Numerous smaller labels abounded in Memphis during the '60s and early '70s,such as Goldwax (home to soul cult-hero James Carr and underrated artists like theOvations and Spencer Wiggins); AGP (American Group Productions), which scoreda Top-30 R&B hit with the Masqueraders' "I'm Just an Average Guy" in i969;Sounds of Memphis, Home of the Blues, and XL. In addition, the American RecordingStudio (led by producer/writer Chips Moman) produced a steady streamof hits on a wide variety of artists throughout the late '60s: Elvis Presley, DustySpringfield, Neil Diamond, and Dionne Warwick all recorded albums there. By thelatter half of the '70s, however, the recording scene in Memphis declined as theincreasingly consolidated, corporate nature of the music industry made it difficultfor small labelsthe lifeblood of the Memphis R&B and soul industryto stayafloat. One of the only studios in Memphis to continue producing hit records duringthe late '70s was Ardent, a high-tech recording facility frequented by artists such asZZ Top, Isaac Hayes, and (during her tenure with ABC Records) Denise LaSalle.Things didn't really start to turn around for the city until the early '90s, when anumber of excellent releases such as Ann Peebles's 1992 Part Time Love (on Rounder,one of the contemporary labels most devoted to the continuing development of soulmusic), Charlie Rich's Pictures and Paintings of the same year, and B.B. King's acclaimedBlues Summit in 1993proved that Memphis soul was as vital as ever and here tostay.
The Muscle Shoals Sound
While Stax Records in Memphis was developing into a national force in African-Americanpopular music, another soul sound was brewing not far away in northernAlabama. Unlike Memphis, the four towns collectively known to soul fans as "MuscleShoals" (Florence, Sheffield, Tuscumbia, and Muscle Shoals itself) did not beara rich musical heritage, although both W. C. Handy and Sun-founder Sam Phillipswere originally from Florence. An active country publishing scene developed in thearea during the '50s, however, attracting a large number of songwriters, performers,and industry hopefuls.
One of these hopefuls was Alabama native Rick Hall, who (along with futurecountrypolitan producer Billy Sherrill and local song publisher Tom Stafford)founded the Fame (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) studio in i959. Achievingits first big R&B hit in 1962 with Arthur Alexander's "Anna (Go To Him)," Fameby the middle of the decade had developed into a nationally-recognized soul hotspot.With its crack house rhythm section (drummer Roger Hawkins, keyboardistSpooner Oldham, bassist David Hood, and guitarist Jimmy Johnson) providing ahot, danceable sound, Fame's recordings were every bit as unique and influential asthose of Stax. By the end of the '60s, singers such as Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin,Etta James, Laura Lee, and Arthur Conley had all benefited from the studio's expertguidance.
Key to the success of both Fame and Stax was Atlantic Records, the legendaryNew York R&B label, which not only sent many of its artists to Memphis andMuscle Shoals to record but also entered into distribution agreements with bothlabels. This arrangement was part of Atlantic's larger commitment to the promotionof southern soul, having recognized its commercial potential as early as Carla Thomas's"Gee Whiz" on Satellite in late 1960. Atlantic also released all of Percy Sledge'sbiggest hits (which had been recorded at another Muscle Shoals-area studio, Quinvy)and continued to work with the Fame rhythm section after it defected in i969 toform its own studio, Muscle Shoals Sound. Muscle Shoals Sound was an immediatesuccess: by the early '70s, it had become even more active than Fame, with artists asdiverse as Willie Nelson, Cher, and Millie Jackson making trips there to capturesome of that Muscle Shoals magic. Both studios have continued to operate over theyears, although Rick Hall now focuses primarily on country music. Muscle ShoalsSound, currently owned by Malaco Records of Jackson, Mississippi, was particularlyactive during the '80s and '90s. Virtually all of Malaco's artists, among them DeniseLaSalle, Johnnie Taylor, Little Milton, Dorothy Moore, and Bobby Bland, haverecorded there, and in 1992 legendary Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler selected thestudio for his second collaboration with Etta James, The Right Time.
Although stylistically more diffuse than the Memphis Sound, the soul musicproduced in Muscle Shoals shares the same gospelized flavor. On ballads, the churchconnection is particularly evident, the frequent use of the Hammond B-3 and thecall-and-response stylings of backup singers lending the slow numbers a heart-tuggingsense of drama. It could hardly be argued that the latter-day Muscle Shoalsrecordings on Malaco are imaginative (a complaint voiced by Denise LaSalle), butfew soul records during the late '80s and '90s were more poignant than DorothyMoore's "It's Rainin' On My Side of the Bed" (1992) and Johnnie Taylor's "WithoutYou" (1989). If Malaco sticks to what it does best, it's clear that Muscle Shoalswill continue to be a vibrant force in the soul music of the twenty-first century.
Excerpted from Ladies of Soul by David Freeland. Copyright © 2000 by University Press of Mississippi. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.