Author: Giovanna de Faria Peru State College Soul’s Historical Context – Civil Rights Movement Because the history of Soul Music is paralleled to that of the African American Civil Rights Movement, it’s important to bring up a little bit of this very interesting socio-cultural-political movement that was the beginning of a permanent change in American society. During the post- WWII period, the United States went through a process of transformation.
Mechanization was becoming more common, especially in crop farms, and rural workers (who were mostly black) migrated to the urban areas of the country searching for work opportunities and a better life. Racial discrimination existed nationwide, stemmed from the slavery years, but it became more apparent once the presence of black people in the cities increased at a fast rate. Throughout the 1950’s, the black population tried to peacefully implement initiatives towards an egalitarian society, with no segregation.
There was a lot of resistance from the white population, who in its majority wanted to maintain the status quo. The racial segregation was so ingrained in society that blacks and whites wouldn’t “mix” in public spaces, such as buses, restaurants, schools, movie theaters and even grocery stores. Also, voting was made inaccessible (the “legal” term is Disfranchisement) to African-Americans, who were removed from voter registration by intricate laws, as well by intimidation from white conservatives. However, in 1954, a milestone was achieved; state-sponsored segregation in schools was ended by a Supreme Court ruling.
That was the first major step towards the integration of society, but unfortunately it would take a long time for desegregation to be accepted. The black youth was becoming more and more frustrated by the prejudice of whites. By 1960 many protests, marches and other nonviolent manifestations were abounding. During this time of bigger demonstrations for equal civil rights and increased African-American pride, soul music became more than “party music” for young blacks; it became a rallying flag for the Civil Rights Movement.
While never solely political in nature, soul music’s ascent in the pop charts came to represent one of the first (and most visible) successes of the civil-rights movement. (citation) Soul songs were rapidly adopted by civil rights advocates, and the genre developed with a great sense of achieving something greater than music – true freedom for African-Americans. Thus, songs that were adopted during protests and other manifestations were called “freedom songs”. Thy were sung by activists on the frontlines of the civil rights struggle, and hold an iconic place in the musical history of the Civil Rights Movement.
One of the most celebrated of the freedom songs was “We Shall Overcome. ” This song was adopted as a kind of unofficial anthem for the movement. It’s origin is uncertain, although some regard it as derived from an early gospel song, “I’ll Overcome Someday”, by African-American church minister and composer Charles Albert Tindley. (Citation) It reveals much about the improvisational and hybrid nature not just of African American musical culture, but also of the movement itself. The movement was extremely creative and adaptive.
For all of its spiritual energy, it was ultimately much less concerned with dogmatic notions of ideological or tactical correctness, than with trying to get the job of destroying segregation and disenfranchisement done. Much like the movement, black music was creative, adaptive, and eclectic. (citation) The Formation and Music Characteristics of Soul Soul music was born because of the innovations of a post-war generation of musicians who, essentially, turned Gospel into a secular kind of music.
Maintaining a “church like” experience, the solo singer suggested the minister role, and the backup chorus suggested the congregation role, in a call-and-response style characteristic of many Soul songs. Evolving from Rhythm and Blues, Soul has elements from Doo-Wop, Rock, Jazz and Blues. The key moment in the evolution of Soul is often regarded as Ray Charles’ 1955 hit “I’ve Got a Woman”, where his entire musical influences, even Country, seemed to fall into place. (citation) Other iconic precursors of Soul were Sam Cooke – his hit A Change is Gonna Come became “freedom song”, and Little Richard.
Soul music was enabled by the commercial boom of “race” music, that had led to the creation of channels and infrastructures run by black entrepreneurs for black artists. This class of African American entrepreneurs hired and trained a generation of session musicians, producers and arrangers, not to mention songwriters. Mo-Town Records Berry Gordy was the head of the first successful black-owned record label. Mo-Town was inaugurated in 1960 Detroit, Michigan. The city had the nickname “Mo-Town” because of its growing car industry.
Interestingly, Gordy seemed to have ruled Mo-Town much as a CEO of a big business corporation, adopting the principles of mass production equivalent to Detroit’s automotive assembly line, with the aim to sell as much records as possible (textbook citation) The Soul groups from Motown Records were carefully “tailored” by Gordy, who wanted to captivate white audiences as well. For this, he used some of the Pop-Rock commercial tools, such as “walls of sound” (rich orchestral backgrounds), using strings, saxes and brass.
Two important elements that stood out on Motown’s productions were strong solo melody and rhythm section. Some of the Soul groups that became very popular during the Motown era were: Martha and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye. All became part of what would come to be known as the “Motown Sound”. The Funk Brothers, whose electric bass player James Jamerson was considered one of the best, were the house band for Motown.
Smokey Robinson, who was also a songwriter and producer, said of Motown’s cultural impact: “Into the ’60s, I was still not of a frame of mind that we were not only making music, we were making history. But I did recognize the impact because acts were going all over the world at that time. I recognized the bridges that we crossed, the racial problems and the barriers that we broke down with music. I recognized that because I lived it. I would come to the South in the early days of Motown and the audiences would be segregated.
Then they started to get the Motown music and we would go back and the audiences were integrated and the kids were dancing together and holding hands. ” (citation -Ron Thibodeaux, “My Smokey Valentine”, The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, La. ), February 14, 2009. ) So what was the Motown Sound? Great melodies, lots of tambourines and hand clapping, blaring horns, interplay between the lead singer and his or her backup vocalists, driving bass lines and foot-slapping drum parts. Citation) Throughout the Sixties, Motown produced a catalog of songs that cannot be matched. Smokey Robinson’s You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me (1962), Heat Wave (HDH team’s hit written for Martha and the Vandellas), William “Mickey” Stevenson’s and Marvin Gaye’s Dancing in the Street, Tracks of My Tears (multiple award-winning and much covered love song introduced in 1965 by The Miracles), Where Did Our Love Go (HDH team for The Supremes), Stop!
In the Name of Love (written for The Supremes in 1965), Smokey Robinson’s and Bobby Rogers’ The Way You Do the Things You Do (The Temptations), Marvin Gaye’s How Sweet it is to be Loved by You and I Heard it Through the Grapevine, and so on. They were simple love songs that told simple stories, often in joyously happy or heartbreakingly sad ways. Berry Gordy decided to move to Los Angeles, to have a try on Hollywood productions. That was the beginning of the decline of the label.
As Gordy was preoccupied with producing Hollywood films to portray “his” music (he later released two films starring Diana Ross, Mahogany and the Billie Holiday biographical Lady Sings the Blues), Motown’s production team, the HDH, wasn’t satisfied. They saw a disparity between the success of their work and the level of their pay, so they left Motown in 1967. Around that time, Stevie Wonder turned 21 and took creative control of his music. Those were two huge losses for Motown. The 80’s brought Rick James and Lionel Richie and The Big Chill — a white, yuppie film with an amazing Motown soundtrack.
By 1988, Gordy had had enough. He sold the company to MCA. Southern Soul Atlantic Records, which had been a successful label since the early 1950’s, started using recording studios located in the south, like STAX, in Memphis, Tennessee. The sound of Stax, an elegant hybrid of Rhythm & Blues and Country & Western with simple arrangements and sober rhythms, was made of punchy horns section (two trumpets and two saxophones) and powerful rhythm section (groovy organ, staccato guitar, bass and drums). citation) The house band’s guitarist, Steve Cropper, was one of the most original guitarists of his time, whose stinging riffs bridged Country and Blues, joined saxophonist and keyboardist Booker Jones and drummer Al Jackson to form Booker T. & The MG’s, the house band for all Stax musicians. Among the classics created by this team were the similar instrumental shuffle Green Onion (1962), Carla Thomas’ Gee Whiz (1961) and B-A-B-Y (1966), Wilson Picket In the Midnight Hour (1965), Rufus Thomas’ dance novelties, such as Walking The Dog (1963) and Do The Funky
Chicken (1970), Otis Redding rewrite of Sam Cooke’s Yeah Man (that sounded like the label’s aesthetic manifesto), the hits for Johnnie Taylor, such as Isaac Hayes’ I Had A Dream (1967) and Who’s Making Love (1968), and those for Sam (Moore) and Dave (Prater), Hold On (1966) and Soul Man (1967), both composed by Isaac Hayes. Later in the 1960s, Atlantic began sending their singers to a new studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where Percy Sledge recorded the hit song When a Man Loves a Woman (1966), and Aretha Franklin recorded her album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You (with hit single Respect).
Aretha Franklin – The “Queen of Soul” “I’d like for you to receive the First Lady of Music, Miss Aretha Franklin! ”, Reverend James Cleveland introduces Aretha Franklin on her brilliant 1972 Gospel album Amazing Grace. Cleveland used “First Lady of Music,” rather than the more accepted “Queen of Soul,” her acknowledged nickname. For close to a 10-year span, Aretha Franklin was indeed the premier woman in music, and one of a very small number of true soul music giants. (citation) James Brown – The “Godfather of Soul”
Born into abject poverty in the segregated South, possessed of both immense talent and indomitable will, James Brown is one of a handful of twentieth century artists of whom it can truthfully be said that they changed music—not just black music, not just American music, but the sound of popular music around the world. In the 1960s, James Brown transformed Rhythm and Blues into Soul and Funk, and thereby laid the sonic groundwork for virtually all subsequent rhythm-based pop music forms. (citation)