It all began with the blues. The music came from the Mississippi Delta and arrived in the big cities – Chicago, Detroit – when the workforce left the cottonfields and took jobs in the factories. After World War II the blues was an urban music and, when the electric guitar arrived, it plugged in to make itself heard.
Then blues merged with the vocal harmonies of gospel to become rhythm and blues. Ray Charles was among the protagonists, and it was his ‘sanctified singing’ of secular songs that crossed over to the mainstream. Berry Gordy was listening, and co-wrote songs for the likes of Jackie Wilson (featured here singing his ‘Lonely Teardrops’). Gordy’s next step, in 1959, was to found a record label in the motor city of Detroit, Michigan with the help of Smokey Robinson. Motown was born.
That wasn’t the end of the blues, of course. Over in Chicago Chess Records were very much a going concern. And like Motown, whose girl groups would be the backbone of their early success, the female of the species was making herself heard. Etta James was that woman.
‘At Last’, her contribution to our first disc, has appeared in at least three major movie soundtracks and remained a classic for half a century. It caused controversy in 2009 when former Destiny’s Child singer Beyoncé Knowles recorded a very faithful cover version, having played Ms James in the previous year’s fictionalized account of the Chess story, Cadillac Records. Etta had praised Beyoncé’s portrayal of her in the movie, but expressed understandable envy when Ms Knowles, not her, performed ‘At Last’ at an inaugural ball for President Barack Obama.
When it comes to female vocalists in the soul field, Aretha Franklin stands alone. Her second studio album for Columbia was ‘The Electrifying Aretha Franklin’, issued in 1962; ‘It’s So Heartbreakin’’ and ‘Just For You’ are the tracks featured here. And while Franklin did not find success with Columbia, singing in a bluesy/jazz-influenced style, signing with Atlantic in 1966 would put her career onto another plane.
Dionne Warwick owed her start to legendary songwriter Burt Bacharach, who used her on a demo for a new song – and when Scepter Records’ Florence Greenberg heard the singer, she was signed immediately. Dionne would leave Scepter for Warner Bros in the early Seventies but was already a major star.
When it came to solo male talent there was an abundance. Atlantic Records had Ben E King, Stax had Otis Redding and Motown had ‘Little’ Stevie Wonder. James Brown, on King Records, was a law unto himself, while Jerry Butler, the Iceman, was the former lead singer of Curtis Mayfield’s Impressions.
Minister’s son Sam Cooke was an important early figure in the development of soul music, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye among his ardent fans. We feature two of his big hits, ‘Cupid’ and ‘Chain Gang’, while Carla Thomas ‘I’ll Bring It Home To You’ was an answer record he penned to his own ‘Bring It On Home To Me’.
Male and female double acts tend to be family affairs. Ike and Tina Turner set the standard, but don’t forget Gladys Knight and her Pips – a brother and two cousins. The unrelated LaBelle sang about soul sisters in their most famous song, 1975’s ‘Lady Marmalade’; we feature the band here in their Sixties incarnation of Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles
Not all our brothers and sisters here were singers. King Curtis was a saxophonist, while Booker T and the MGs were one of the major instrumental acts of the Sixties, featuring organist Booker T Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Duck Dunn. They were also multi-racial, unusual in those days.
Guitarist Albert King played his Flying V left-handed and influenced a generation of players, notably Eric Clapton. John Lee Hooker was in his seventies when comeback album ‘The Healer’ revitalised his career in 1989 and went on performing into his eighties. His ‘Boom Boom’ has been covered by bands from the Animals to Bruce Springsteen.
The ability to write songs the world would want to play was shared by other blues greats on our compilation like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. And while BB King didn’t write ‘Everyday I Have the Blues’ (that honour falls to Peter Chatman, aka Memphis Slim), his languid 1955 recording sent it on its way to two Grammy Hall of Fame Awards.
King is still with us (at the time of writing), as is fellow blues-guitar legend Buddy Guy. The guitarist and singer was still happy to be on the road in 2010 at the tender age of 74, and was even singing about his great age. Acts as diverse as U2 and the Rolling Stones have feted King and Guy, and rightly so.
The definitions of blues and soul have been further muddied in the current century by the redefinition of rhythm and blues (R&B). While Motown diva Mary Wells would have been considered soul, modern-day counterparts like Beyoncé are R&B. But when the music is this good who’s going to split hairs? Enjoy these 50 classics from black music’s golden age.