Soul music is fundamentally rhythm and blues, which grew out of the African-American gospel and blues traditions during the late 1950s and early 1960s in the United States. Over time, much of the broad range of R&B extensions in African-American popular music, generally, also has come to be considered soul music. Traditional soul music usually features individual singers backed by a traditional band consisting of rhythm section and horns.
Music produced by white musicians which is stylistically similar to black soul music sometimes is called blue-eyed soul.
The development of soul music was spurred by two main trends: the urbanization of R&B and the secularization of gospel. Artists like Ben E. King, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and The Staple Singers mixed the passion of gospel vocals with the catchy, rhythmic music of R&B, thus forming soul in the late 1950s. Socially, the vast audience of white teens who had been listening to (primarily) watered-down, white covers of black R&B and rock hits began demanding records by the original black artists, such as Little Richard and Chuck Berry. By the late 1950s, this caused several record labels to seek out marketable versions of black music. The most influential labels were Stax, based out of Memphis, and Motown, based out of Detroit.
During the 1960s, soul music was popular among blacks in the US, and among many mainstream listeners throughout the United States and Europe. Artists like "Queen of Soul" Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and the "Godfather of Soul"James Brown have had enduring careers. Other prominent soul performers of the period were Bobby Bland, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Bobby Womack, Ike and Tina Turner, Etta James, Jerry Butler, Jackie Wilson, Sam and Dave, Percy Sledge and Joe Tex. Most blue-eyed soul artists, like the Righteous Brothers, achieved only short-term success. One notable exception has been vocalist Michael McDonald.
By the early 1970s, soul music had been influenced by psychedelic rock and other influences. The social and political ferment of the times inspired artists like Marvin Gaye (What's Going On) and Curtis Mayfield (Superfly) to release album-length statements with hard-hitting social commentary. Artists like James Brown led soul towards more dance-oriented music, resulting in 1970s funk bands like Parliament-Funkadelic, The Meters; and more versatile groups like War, the Commodores and Earth, Wind and Fire also became popular. During the 70s, some highly slick and commercial blue-eyed soul acts like Philadelphia's Hall & Oates achieved mainstream success, as well as a new generation of street-corner harmony or "city-soul" groups like The Delfonics and Howard University's Unifics. By the end of the 70s, disco was dominating the charts and funk, Philly soul and most other genres were dominated by disco-inflected tracks.
After the death of disco in the late 1970s, the popularity of soul music remained strong. Soul groups like the O'Jays and the Spinners turned out a series of hits. Solo crooner Luther Vandross and then superstars like Prince (Purple Rain) and Michael Jackson (Off the Wall) took over. With sultry, sexually charged vocals and danceable beats, these artists dominated the charts throughout the 1980s. Female soul singers like Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson gained great popularity during the last half of the decade; and Tina Turner, then in her 50s, came back with a series of hits with crossover appeal.
In the early 1990s, alternative rock, hair metal and gangsta rap ruled the charts, though New Jack Swing groups began to merge hip hop and soul. Boyz II Men was among the most popular of these groups, but quickly fell out of favor. Another popular, but short-lived group, with more pronounced R&B roots was Levert, whose lead singer, Gerald Levert, was the son of O'Jays lead vocalist Eddy Levert. During the later part of the decade, nu soul, which further mixed hip hop and soul, arose, led by Mary J. Blige, D'Angelo and Lauryn Hill.
Genres of soul
Blue-eyed soul: Performed by white artists, blue-eyed soul often is characterized by catchy hooks and sweet melodies. It arose from a mixture of Elvis Presley and Bill Haley-derived rockabilly and Dion and The Four Seasons-inspired doo wop; other performers include Righteous Brothers, Hall & Oates, The Rascals, Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, Dusty Springfield. David Bowie's Young Americans album is widely regarded as a late classic of the genre.
Detroit soul: Dominated by Berry Gordy's Motown empire, Detroit soul is strongly rhythmic and influenced by gospel. It often includes handclapping and a powerful bassline, and includes violins, bells and other untraditional instruments. Motown's house band was The Funk Brothers. Other performers: Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, The Marvelettes, Mary Wells, Diana Ross & the Supremes, The Four Tops; songwriters: Holland-Dozier-Holland
Memphis soul: Generally refers to soul produced at Stax records in Memphis. Stax self-consciously nurtured a distinctive sound, which included putting vocals further back in the mix than most contemporary R&B records, the use of horn parts in the place of background vocals, and a focus on the low end of the frequency spectrum. The vast majority of Stax releases were backed by house bands Booker T and the MGs (which included soul legends Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, and Al Jackson) and the Memphis Horns (the splinter horn section of the Mar-Keys), and the label counted Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, Rufus Thomas, William Bell, and Eddie Floyd among its stars. People interested in learning more about Stax's history and music are advised to check out Peter Guralnik's Sweet Soul Music (which also serves as a very poetic primer on Soul in general) and basically anything by Rob Bowman (who seems to have talked with nearly every still-living person who was connected with Stax).
New Jack Swing
Nu soul: Though usually said to have appeared in the mid-1990s, elements of nu soul, a mixture of soul-styled vocals with hip hop beats and rap interludes, first appeared in the late 1980s with artists like Keith Sweat, Alexander O'Neal and The Force M.D.s. During the early 1990s, En Vogue and Lisa Stansfield continued to bride the gap between New Jack Swing and nu soul, which were distinct genres by the time D'Angelo, Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill and Alicia Keys began massively popularizing the sound. Other performers: G.A.T., Jill Scott, LeVert, Jaguar Wright, Erykah Badu, Adriana Evans, Maxwell, India.Arie, Redmond; songwriters: Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis
Quiet Storm: Quiet storm is a broad category of R&B and jazz-based music that is mellow, laid-back and often romantic. Its name comes from an innovative radio show that originated at WHUR at Howard University in the mid-1970s, named after Smokey Robinson's hit single Quiet Storm. The genre achieved great mainstream success during the 1980s with artists like Luther Vandross, Anita Baker and Shade.
Soul was the term adopted to describe black popular music as it evolved from the 1950s into the heady heights of the 60s and through to the early 70s. There are those who saw it as simply a new term for Rhythm and Blues but this interpretation does miss one of the most important facets of the soul era - many of the great performers of the soul period did much to redefine R&B and black popular music in general, radically reinterpreting the sounds of the rhythm and blues pioneers. Critically many, though not all, found success with the white record buying public in a way that would have been unrecognised by the R&B pioneers of the 30s, 40s and even the 50s.Very simplistically put, if rock'n'roll can perhaps be seen as a white artist interpretation of rhythm and blues, then soul was quite clearly a return to the roots of black music - to the blues and in particular gospel and the church. The style retains similarities with the blues; the emotional honesty, the vocal intensity, the use of call and response. Ray Charles may well have been the first to secularise pure gospel songs, but it reached full maturation in the work of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. Atlantic Records were again at the fore of black music evolution, first producung Aretha in 1967 ('I Never Loved A Man') at the start of one of the greatest series of soul recordings of all time. But even before the work of Aretha, soul music had broken through in the work of a range of southern artists on southern oriented labels such as the legendary Stax Records.
Stax (based in Memphis) was built on an unshakable belief in the quality
of straight ahead soul. Singers of the stature of Otis Redding, Sam and Dave,
and the Staples produced vocal performances of such intensity they took you
straight back to the blues shouters of the 30s and 40s. Atlantic used southern
recording environments such as Fame Studios and Muscle Shoals to produce wonderful
material from the likes of Wilson Pickett and Solomon Burke as well as Aretha.
The arrangements were always relatively sparse and often spontaneous, with
incredibly strong horn lines supported by a rock solid rhythm section.
Other artists, frequently already successful, looked to the southern studios to regenerate their careers. Etta James recorded the great 'Tell Mama' in Muscle Shoals and Percy Sledge's 'When A Man Loves A Woman', recorded nearby in Sheffield, became the first southern soul song to reach number one on the straight pop charts (and has hardly been out of the charts since!!)
There were of course a number of different approaches to the soul musical
form and the Motown sound from Detroit has divided opinion and stimulated
debate amongst soul commentators and historians since the mid 60s.
It's lighter, more pop oriented approach and its determined effort to appeal to as broad an audience as possible have led many commentators to dismiss its output as the light, less authentic alternative to the Stax / Atlantic southern soul ideal. This is largely ill founded for two reasons, the most important of which is that alongside the poppier material from artists such as the Supremes the label produced artists and material with real gospel grit - the early Contours material, classic early Marvin Gaye, the superb vocal performances of the Temptations, it all goes straight back to the church and the gospel heritage. Motown was often regarded as inferior simply because it packaged its material so well, and in so doing managed to appeal to the white teenage audience as well as the traditional black market place.
The second reason? Take a listen to a Motown Box Set, especially the first six CD box set which covers the glory days of the label - incredibly high quality soul from start to finish, a huge variety of style and material, some of the best vocalists in soul music singing material from the finest songwriters!
Soul has become a permanent part of the language of American popular culture, although much of what it now defines has little in common with what's of interest to this site. The underlying virtues of the music described in the Primer are direct emotional delivery, a pride and artistic integrity, a feeling within the music which transmits itself to the listener - you can call it blues, R&B or soul, but it has to have those ingredients to truly succeed.
So, by and large, with a few notable exceptions, this is the music on which
the Primer concentrates. All of it glorious, in turn uplifting and heartwrenching,
sometimes beautiful or achingly sad. Always true to a spirit, an emotional
honesty, that is hard for other genres to match.
And there is plenty of it to be found in today's music scene. Don't be fooled into thinking that this music has no currency in the 21st century. There are any number of great artists flying the flag. It could be an original great such as B.B. King still producing the goods, others like 'Keb 'Mo imbuing the tradition with a modern feel and commercial sheen and some, such as Mighty Sam McClain, proving that high quality deep soul is still being produced and appreciated by the record buying public.
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