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By David Whiteis
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
Part I Deep Blues, Deep Soul, and Beyond The Roots and Development of Southern Soul-Blues
The precise genesis of the term soul music is somewhat difficult to delineate, but soul, as a secular expression, arose in the mid-twentieth century to symbolize the identity movement that came to life during the postwar years and eventually transformed African American cultural politics. Early on, at least, the concept of "soul" embraced a heritage that had been shaped by history and values of which the blues were an integral part.
"Man, colored people must be somethin' else," author Claude Brown remembered hearing young Harlemites say in the early 1950s. "All those years, man, we was down on the plantation in those shacks, eating just potatoes and fatback and chitterlin's and greens, and look at what happened. We had Joe Louises and Jackie Robinsons and Sugar Ray Robinsons and Henry Armstrongs.... Negroes are some beautiful people."
"That was the coming of the 'soul' thing," Brown continued. "'Soul' had started coming out of the churches and the nightclubs into the streets. Everybody started talking about 'soul' as though it were something that they could see ... a distinct characteristic of colored folks."
Although Brown himself seemed ambivalent about some of the more atavistic elements of this "distinct characteristic" (elsewhere, he disparaged his parents' generation of southern emigrants as "big-city backwoods people"), he also recognized how such shared heritage could represent a continuum of strength and survival worth celebrating: "[Y]ou felt as though you had something strong in common," he wrote. "I suppose it's the same thing that almost all Negroes have in common, the fatback, chitterlings, and greens background.... Everybody was really digging themselves and thinking and saying in their behavior, in every action, 'Wow! Man, it's a beautiful thing to be colored.... Look at us. Aren't we beautiful?'"
In music, these values were often exemplified by the dual (if sometimes conflicting) aesthetics of blues and gospel. According to most accounts, "soul" was first used as a musical adjective when the style known as "soul jazz" evolved out of hard bop in the 1950s and early '60s at about the same time as the word was insinuating itself into African American vernacular as a symbol of ethnic pride. Hard bop itself had been at least partly a reaction to what some saw as latter-era bebop's tendency to value technique over emotion (in contrast to early bebop, which bristled with both musical and emotional militance). Hard boppers like trumpeter Clifford Brown, drummer and bandleader Art Blakey, saxophonists Hank Mobley and Johnny Griffin, and trumpeter Lee Morgan grafted the technical dexterity of bebop onto melodic, chordal, and rhythmic frameworks that often invoked the perfervid emotional intensity of a Sunday service along with elements of blues and what was then called rhythm and blues (small-group "jump blues" à la Louis Jordan).
Soul jazz took things even deeper into the alley behind the church. Stripping the music down to its harmonic basics, soul jazz players often incorporated contemporary pop and R & B songs in their set lists along with funk-seasoned originals. Their music came to emphasize groove over melody, and it toughened hard bop's already aggressive thrust with a streetwise, bluesy hipness. The aesthetic dichotomy between this music and its more sophisticated counterparts—cool jazz (abstract, emotionally distant), the so-called Third Stream jazz of ensembles like the Modern Jazz Quartet (more European than Africanist in its counterpoint structure, "bourgie" in both affect and effect)—was often reflected in the demographics of its listeners. As jazz historian Scott Yanow has put it: "While many young jazz musicians were attempting to redefine jazz as an 'art form' suitable for concert halls, soul jazz thrived in small black bars and clubs." Artists such as pianist Horace Silver, erstwhile Ray Charles saxophonists Hank Crawford and David "Fathead" Newman (to say nothing of Brother Ray himself), Gene Ammons, Stanley Turrentine, and organists Jimmy Smith and Shirley Scott were among those who codified the soul jazz style. Smith, in fact, almost single-handedly made the organ combo the prototypical soul jazz unit with his 1950s-era recordings for Blue Note.
In rhythm and blues, meanwhile, a similar "Saturday night"/"Sunday morning" fusion was occurring. And at least at the beginning, it was less a reaction against the blues tradition than a modernist updating of it. In fact, what came to be known as "soul music" arose largely out of what was seen by many at the time as a blues-fueled assault against the very bastions of mainstream respectability, both black and white. One night in 1954, Ray Charles and trumpeter Renald Richard were riding though Indiana when a gospel song, most likely "It Must Be Jesus" by the Southern Tones, came on the radio. Charles and Richard began riffing, playfully tossing secularized versions of the lyrics back and forth—"I got a woman!" "Yeah, she lives across town!"—and before they knew it, they had a song. In November, Charles and his band cut "I've Got a Woman" in the Atlanta studios of Georgia Tech radio station WGST.
Apocalyptic in every sense of the word, "I've Got a Woman" initially brought the wrath of both God and man down on Ray Charles's head. preachers denounced it as sacrilege; even some blues people were shocked (no less an authority than Big Bill Broonzy sniped, "He should be singing in church."). But it spoke to something deep and affirming in listeners, especially during a time when racial pride and empowerment (i.e., "soul") were burgeoning sentiments in the African American community.
The record hit the R & B charts in early 1955 and peaked at No. 1; charles followed it up with similar updatings of spiritual themes—"This Little Girl of Mine" ("This Little Light of Mine"), Doc pomus's "Lonely Avenue" ("I've Got a New Home"), "Leave My Woman Alone" ("You Better Leave That Liar Alone")—as well as equally fervid but less churchy outings such as "Drown in My Own Tears" and flat-out barn burners like "Swanee River Rock (Talkin' Bout That River"). In 1959, he sealed the deal for all time with "What'd I Say," a paint-peeling ode to raw libido on which his backup vocalists, the Raelettes, panted and mewed their way into realms of orgasmic ecstasy that had seldom been approached on record, let alone radio, before then.
Movin' on Up
After Ray—the deluge. By the time "What'd I Say" hit the charts, the new gospel-blues had become a mainstream popular music. Artists like Bobby Bland, Jackie Wilson, Etta James, and Little Willie John, to name just a few, were filling the airwaves and nightclubs with sounds and emotional exultation that had previously been considered proper only in a religious setting, often grafted onto lyrics that might previously have been heard only in a juke joint.
Contrary to the misgivings of some of its critics, though, soul music always kept at least one foot in the church. In performance, both Ray charles and the soul artists who followed in his wake employed time-tested gospel techniques—call-and-response, the interweaving of sung and spoken texts, carefully choreographed emotional trajectories from intimacy to ecstasy—to get the house. (Bobby Bland adopted his famous "squall" directly from the Rev. c. L. Franklin's recorded sermon "The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest."). Most soul singers got their start in gospel; some—Sam cooke, Johnnie Taylor, O. W. Wright, and Aretha Franklin, to name just a few—were gospel celebrities before they crossed over into secular music. Although many shied away from maintaining both their secular and religious musical vocations, others continued to cross over, back and forth, throughout their careers. Their musical personas and lyric messages often reflected this; inspirational and even devotional songs have been common in soul music almost from the beginning.
And it wasn't only about spirituality. As raw as it might still sometimes get ("soul music," as peter Guralnick reminds us, "could stink as bad as the nastiest blues"), soul evolved during a time, and at least partly in a milieu (urban and/or northern), characterized by burgeoning middleclass aspirations in the African American community, especially among the youth. What this meant was that by the early 1960s, the music that had been inspired by Brother Ray's chitlins-and-blues-drenched "I've Got a Woman"/"What'd I Say" continuum had become associated with values that seemed, at least on their surface, to represent a new and respectable (if no less celebratory or hip) alternative to the blues.
"In the stuff I was writing," Motown's Smokey Robinson has said, "there was pain, but there was hope, which the blues didn't have." Motown, of course, is known as the label that took soul out of the 'hood and into the 'burbs, as opposed to the ostensibly rawer and more heroically proletarian southern "deep soul." But down South, a lot of soulsters were pretty much in agreement with Smokey. At Stax in Memphis—"Soulsville, U.S.A."—songwriters Isaac Hayes and David porter remained true to the traditional blues trope of lamenting hard times but also echoed Robinson's stated determination to convey "hope, which the blues didn't have" when they created a country-born, hard-loving "Soul Man" who could boast, "Got what I got the hard way" and then vow to "make it better each and every day."
"We wanted to philosophize on the blues," said another Memphian, Roosevelt Jamison, composer of O. V. Wright's deep soul classic "That's How Strong My Love Is" and mentor/manager of the brilliant but troubled vocalist James Carr. Jamison emphasized that both he and Wright wanted to "get away from that gutbucket stuff, that really wasn't very good music in our opinion. Many of our songs had some flavor of God in them, to where you could feel the sacredness."
That's not to say there was nothing rebellious or transgressive about the new music. The tone, however, had changed, and the message had been reshaped. Soul came of age along with the Black Freedom Movement; like the movement itself, soul forged a message that urged both personal striving and social liberation, linking individual betterment with the uplift of "the race." (Curtis Mayfield's creations, both for the Impressions in the 1960s and for himself as a solo artist later on, exemplify this melding of righteous protest with moral and social improvement.) Even James Brown, "Soul Brother No. 1," whose music and persona helped define urban street culture in the '60s just as hip-hop would do thirty years later, endorsed black capitalism as his preferred vehicle for liberation ("I used to shine shoes in front of a radio station. Now I own radio stations. You know what that is? That's Black Power"), and he eventually embraced such figures as Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon as heroes.
This point was missed by some white counterculturists, who saw in soul music's uninhibited sensuality and emotional expressiveness a rejection not merely of oppression and the legacy of slavery, but of conventional middle-class aspirations, if not propriety itself (a faux nihilism that many had read into the blues as well). But that was a misunderstanding on the part of privileged youths who could afford to scoff at the sedate lifestyles and comforts that poor and minority kids had only recently begun to even dare dream of acquiring. "Some young white folks," mused Joe Brown, James's father, "run away from America. They ashamed. Black folks, they run all over, up North, everywhere, tryin' to get into America."
It was an America far removed from the cultural and class values the blues now seemed to represent. "We used to laugh at the blues," Chicago doo-wop veteran Maurice Simpkins asserted. "We were going to school every day and these blues singers hadn't even gone to grammar school."
From today's perspective, however, it's apparent that soul was less a rejection of the earlier blues aesthetic than a savvy updating of it. In fact, in many ways the "soul" movement honored roots much deeper—and extending much father back into history—than even many of its own advocates acknowledged at the time. By seeming to violate the long-standing theological/ideological divide between the sacred and the secular, Ray charles and his followers weren't just throwing down a challenge to "bourgie" primness, they were throwing down a challenge to the Eurocentric cartesian dualism that whites had attempted to impose on Africans since the dawn of slavery.
"It's All Blues if It Comes from the Heart"
The blues is rooted, in its deepest essence, in a tradition in which spirit and flesh mingled closely together: dance, rhythm, melody, and prayer—body and soul—interwove into a single celebration. Within this context, many of the dualisms taken for granted in the Western cultural worldview—"individual" versus "collective"; "serious" versus "playful"; "supernatural" versus "worldly"; "spirit" versus "flesh"—were not so sharply drawn. Carnality did not, in and of itself, represent an oppositional force against the holy or the good, a religious ritual of ecstatic transcendence incorporated many of the same elements as its secular counterpart, and vice versa. "I've Got a Woman" and the soul music that followed simply reaffirmed (or perhaps finally admitted) this connection. As Mark Anthony Neal has pointed out, the art of a soul singer like Aretha Franklin "constructed blackness as a medium for the black church tradition, and vice versa.... [H]er ability to secularize her gospel training [was] an exchange that travels both ways and reflects the broad and diverse sensibilities of the African-American diaspora."
At the same time, the blues as a musical idiom—again, contrary to stereotype—was never entirely repudiated. Some of soul's most important hits—Aretha Franklin's "Dr. Feelgood," Wilson Pickett's "Mustang Sally," any number of James Brown's dance-groove anthems—were structured on the twelve-bar blues form. Moreover, straight-ahead blues singers such as B. B. King, Albert King, and Little Johnny Taylor continued to enjoy R & B chart success during and after the soul era, and their recordings increasingly featured the same kind of hard-booting horns and funk-flavored rhythm lines that characterized the music of soul stars such as Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown.
In retrospect, then, it seems clear that many of the commonly accepted dichotomies between blues and soul, valuable though they may have been to both critics and demographics-savvy marketers, represented ideology more than aesthetics—and that in many ways, they still do. When Stax, the label that virtually created deep soul in the 1960s, closed its doors in 1975, its sound had evolved into diverse and apparently contradictory, but actually complementary, directions. Stax didn't just popularize soul music during its run; it also played a major role in keeping the blues contemporary—or, more accurately, Stax helped blur the distinction between "soul" and "blues," a blurring that set the stage for the hybrid called "soul-blues" to assert itself among fans of both genres in the wake of Z. Z. Hill's early 1980s hit.
At Stax, veteran bluesman Albert King's smoky baritone and taut, string-bending guitar style garnered him eleven chart hits between 1966 and early 1974. Johnnie Taylor, though known as a soul man throughout most of his Stax tenure, was almost as successful with blues or blues-based material ("I Had a Dream," "Steal Away," "cheaper to Keep Her") as he was with soul testimonials like "Who's Making Love." And, as Sam & Dave's "Soul Man" exemplified, the prototypical soul stance of hard-won triumph charged with hard-loving sexual prowess ("comin' to you on a dusty road / Good lovin,' I got a truckload") was rooted in imagery and mythos closely related to long-standing blues themes.
Meanwhile, though, Stax had begun to seek a more sophisticated alternative to what president Al Bell sometimes referred to as "that 'Bama music." "Soul Man" co-writer Isaac Hayes's landmark Hot Buttered Soul Lp in 1969 and his Grammy Award-winning Shaft soundtrack two years later helped set the new tone with their extended cuts, jazz-funk stylings, and overall feel of hip urbanity. Arrangements at Stax (strings, background vocals) became lusher; in the wake of its falling-out with Atlantic, which had handled its distribution until 1968, and then the demise of Booker T & the MGs in the early '70s, Stax began to rely more heavily on outside studios, session musicians, and songwriters. The result of all this, as historian Rob Bowman has suggested, may well have been that by the late 1960s "the idea of a readily identifiable [Stax] sound was beginning to recede into history." The upside, though, taking the long view, was that a lot of stereotypes and purist ideologies had to do the same thing. The definition of soul authenticity began to loosen; the citified, street-savvy John Shaft and the brokenhearted California dreamer fleeing a doomed relationship in Hayes's epic reading of "By the Time I Get to phoenix," by their very appearance in songs on the Stax label, were revealed as soul brothers with roots as deep and down-home as the titular "Soul Man" of Sam & Dave's hit.
Excerpted from Southern Soul-Blues by David Whiteis. Copyright © 2013 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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