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The Ultimate Guide to Soul

All about the music that brought R&B back to church


The Ultimate Guide to Soul


Soul was the sound of black music going back to its church roots after finding that Jazz and R&B had been co-opted by the mainstream music establishment and, in many cases, watered down. But the music that resulted was far from religious -- rather, it took the deep emotion present in black gospel, along with the vocal abandon, and attached it to everyday concerns. As such, it inevitably became the sound of black America rising in its civil rights struggle. That is, until the mainstream found a way to sell it, too.

Soul Music Pioneers

Having grown up singing in their church choir, and in some cases actual gospel groups, many African-American singers of the soul era were forced to choose between a religious and a secular career. Each found different ways around the problem.

The Elements of Soul A playlist of hit songs that traces the development of the genre from impassioned R&B into a thing all its own.
Ray Charles Brother Ray was arguably the first R&B star to secularize a religious hit, but he soon steered soul into unexplored areas of jazz, standards, and country.
Sam Cooke As one of the famed Soul Stirrers, Cooke was already a star in the gospel world when he took a page from Ray’s playbook and converted a religious standard into his first hit, “Wonderful.”
James Brown The Godfather of Soul was aptly named -- his 1959 smash "Please Please Please" set the bar for wild, pleading, deeply emotional rhythm and blues.

The Great Soul Singers

Whether singing about love, money, or both, the first generation of soul men and women found that the rawness of their groove often translated into the lyrics, resulting in emotionally complex and socially progressive hits.

Otis Redding Otis was the cornerstone of the famed Stax-Volt empire, and was able to handle gritty uptempo workouts, aching torch songs, and country-tinged weepers with his booming, crying voice.
Aretha Franklin One of the vocalists with the deepest connection to Gospel, Aretha’s no-nonsense approach to the subjects of love and sex, coupled with her stunning power and range, made her one of the great soul divas.
Wilson Pickett The Wicked Wicked one wasn’t as popular on the pop charts as some of his contemporaries, but that's only because his screaming brand of soul was so raw and intense it scared tamer listeners off.
Marvin Gaye Motown’s main male heartthrob was more into the Great American Songbook than the Dictionary of Soul -- until he was bold enough to find his own voice, and with it soul’s social conscience.
Al Green With a backbeat as raunchy as his delivery was angelic, Al defined early ‘70s Memphis soul, transforming it into a sweeter, softer, but still potent style that helped move the genre into the mainstream for good.

The Great Soul Labels

The empires built up around soul were sometimes ruled by the same men who’d made a fortune off of rhythm and blues, but increasingly, they were run and/or staffed by African-Americans with greater control over their destinies than ever before.

Motown The “Sound of Young America” was Berry Gordy’s specific attempt to integrate black music into the country's mainstream. It also solidified the soul genre as a haven for romantics and vocal groups.
Stax “Soulsville USA” was Memphis’ answer to Motown’s “Hitsville USA,” a grittier and funkier version that was relentlessly danceable and quintessentially Southern.
Philadelphia International This early-‘70s label was the home base of Philly Soul, a genre which sweetened soul and simplified its beat, paving the way for the eventual invention of disco.

Other Types of Soul

Memphis, Detroit, and Philly are recognized soul capitals, but as soul music became acceptable, its influence spread all over the map -- indeed, it soon began to cross color lines and Billboard charts.

Blue-eyed Soul It took many forms, but blue-eyed soul wasn't just about race. It signaled the crossover into pop, losing the grit but none of the emotion.
Country Soul Because country and R&B were already closely intertwined in the South, blacks and whites both found ways to combine c&w pathos with the heavy pain of soul.
New Orleans Soul
The New Orleans version of soul, as you might expect, was more relaxed and genial, sillier and more romantic at the same time.
Chicago / Uptown Soul Pop didn't corner the market in adult soul -- great artists like Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield knew how to sweeten the sound without losing the power.
Northern Soul More of a movement than a sound, the UK practice of revering obscure Detroit soul created a subculture that still exists today!

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