“We want these words, Tender and bold, They don't have to be strong, Just give us a whole lot of soul.” -Aretha Franklin, “A Little Bit of Soul”
With the recent passing of Aretha Franklin—the undisputed Queen of Soul—still fresh in our minds, there’s no better time to revisit the genre, an endlessly regenerating wellspring born from the promise and strife of mid-century America but now loved the world over. We’re talking, of course, about soul music.
“Soul” means many things. It can refer to the undying or essential element of a living being, an immutable quality surviving beyond the physical realm. Or one might say it’s an expression of the eternal desire to transcend this plane of existence, one which for most of human history has been, shall we say, “less than peachy” for much of the population.
To touch on the divine is a lot to ask of any piece of music, so thankfully, it’s easier to define “soul” in strictly musical terms: A hybrid of gospel, rhythm and blues, and jazz that arose in late-50s African-American communities, reaching the peak of its popularity about a decade later.
Still, that aspiration to express something universal, timeless and profound is a hallmark of soul music, and it’s one of its essential qualities. While not every piece of music that aims for that high mark qualifies as “soul”—and certainly not every “soul” song actually attains it—it’s one of the reasons that, 60-odd years after its inception, the genre is alive and well, and still turning fresh ears on to its life-affirming power.
One Foot in the Street, The Other in the Church
In many regards, soul music is more than anything a hybrid of two perspectives: The churchgoing and the secular. While the blues and R&B of the ‘50s were largely concerned with very earthbound matters—namely themes like love, sex and the search for happiness, if only the temporary one afforded by alcohol or drugs—it was the combination of these everyday subjects with the urgent delivery, call and response vocals—think pastor and flock—and yearning for a deeper freedom that gave birth to soul music.
It’s no surprise that many of the greatest proponents of classic soul began their musical careers in church, often at a young age. Aretha Franklin was already singing in Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church, where her father was pastor, around the age of ten. Sam Cooke, along with several siblings, was one of the Singing Children, a vocal group managed by their father, the reverend at Christ Temple Church in Chicago Heights.
But it would largely fall to Ray Charles, an astonishingly talented artist equally versed in the piano repertoire of J.S. Bach, Mozart and Beethoven as in Baptist hymns, to tie the churchgoing and secular worlds together. His first single to hit the #1 spot on the Billboard R&B charts, “I’ve Got a Woman,” borrowed heavily from the Southern Tones’ “It Must Be Jesus,” a song Charles had heard on the radio while touring the Southern United States.
In lifting so explicitly from gospel, Charles created a template many artists, both African-American and white, would employ to great success. Soon Sam Cooke, already a bona fide sex symbol on the gospel circuit—incompatible though those two may sound—was doing the same thing, reworking “Wonderful” (as in: “The Lord is…”) into “Lovable” (as in: “My girl is...”). Though it was released under a pseudonym, no one who’d ever heard Sam Cooke sing was fooled, and soon he turned his considerable abilities towards purely pop ventures, earning some 30 Top 40 hits in the remaining years of his tragically short life.
Cooke’s change of focus had a direct impact on the young Aretha Franklin, who was friendly not only with the charismatic performer but with the Staple Singers, a group whose story we’ll return to later.
After years of touring the gospel circuit, including travels with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Franklin released her first secular album in early 1961 on the Columbia label. She’d rack up a string of successes there, in the process doing much to further cement soul music’s place in the pop charts. But it was with her 1966 move to Atlantic Records that Franklin entered her most fertile and productive period. Hits like “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman” and most of all her cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect”—in her hands, a show-stopping anthem both for civil rights and for feminism—made her a household name.
The Staple Singers deserve mention here, not only for their superb and deeply affecting musical contributions, but for their unique take on the thorny question of how to blend gospel and pop genres. A family affair under the leadership of father Roebuck “Pops” Staples, the group began performing in Chicago churches in 1948 and cut many acoustic folk-gospel records for various labels throughout the 1950s and early ‘60s.
After signing with Epic Records in 1965, the Staple Singers took a more pop-oriented approach, adding an electric band highlighted by Pops’ spiky Fender guitar stylings. But unlike many of their contemporaries, the group plied their own particular style. Distinct, very Southern, rural and determinedly spiritual, the Staple Singers focused on “message” songs: “Freedom Highway,” “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)” and “Long Walk to D.C.” being standout examples. Even when they turned to a more contemporary funk and dance sound after signing with Stax Records in 1968, the group remained true to their convictions, a quality evident in daughter Mavis Staples’ more recent outings with younger artists like Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.
Soul Today: Timeless Yearning or Mere Retro Flavor?
Like most genres popular in the 1960s, soul largely faded from the limelight as the groundswell of energy behind the social justice and equal rights movements morphed into the largely self-focused themes of the 1970s. Some established artists, such as James Brown, turned to more current genres in an effort to refresh their sound. More often than not, the results were less than stellar.
But as is so often the case, a dedicated core of purists sharing coveted 45s and homemade cassette compilations kept the genre alive. Much of the credit goes to England’s Northern Soul scene, a loose-knit and diverse universe of underground clubs, DJs and house parties dedicated to the classic American records of the soul era.
Before too long, aficionados—or in many cases, their children—found inspiration in those now-ancient records. Born in 1983, Amy Winehouse and producer Mark Ronson leaned heavily on classic soul as the bedrock for her blockbuster second album, Back to Black, which earned her the distinction of being the first British woman to win five Grammys on a single night. An important element in the record’s success was the use of the Dap-Tones, a Brooklyn band of neo-soul purists, who gave it an authenticity and grit often lacking in modern stabs at the genre. And more recently, Leon Bridges has made serious waves with a stripped-down sound that hearkens back to long-gone performers like Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and the Staple Singers.
Like the Dap-Tones, Bridges’ presentation is unabashedly retro, raising an intriguing question. Would his material—emotionally resonant, powerful stuff by any standards—be as powerful were it wrapped in a more modern-sounding package? For that matter, would it still be called “soul music”?
The answer may depend more on your personal taste than on any strict musicologist’s definition. But we’ll go out on a limb here and say: “Definitely.” For as one particularly elegant explanation defines it, soul music—no matter who’s performing it—is simply an expression of the African-American experience in all its diversity, difficulty, struggle and beauty.
Conceivably, soul music—or something like it—could have come from anywhere. But in practice, it tells a very American story, one that resonates in hearts all over the world. And no matter what trappings or style it comes dressed in, it’s likely to endure for many generations to come.