African-American music, its roots derived from the worksongs of slavery days, is one of the key ingredients of popular culture. Blues and soul has a worldwide audience and appeals to people of every race, creed and colour. But it wasn’t always that way. Until 1949, when Billboard staff writer (and later legendary producer) Jerry Wexler coined the term ‘rhythm and blues’, black pop music was crudely labelled ‘race music’ and had a limited audience.
As Fifties turned to Sixties, the gospel influence became more pronounced and, with the rise of Motown to worldwide prominence, the term ‘soul’ became widely used. This was initially a descriptive term for secular music with a gospel tinge. Billboard adopted ‘soul’ as its specialist chart name in 1969, since when we’ve had ‘black’, ‘urban contemporary’ and, completing the circle in 1990, R&B.
In most cases, the men featured here were described as soul singers, while their female counterparts tend to wear a jazz or blues label. But as your ears will tell you, it’s all about the magic in the grooves, as seven-inch vinyl supplanted the old shellac 78s, that took this vital music across the world.
There are artists here whose fame will live forever – like James Brown, Smokey Robinson, Sam Cooke and Otis Redding – and others whose fame remains confined to enthusiasts.
There are those who, like Curtis Mayfield, Lamont Dozier and Stevie Wonder, proved themselves more than just singers by writing for and producing others. Mayfield was quick off the block with Jerry Butler, the Iceman, who left their group Impressions not long after 1958’s ‘For Your Precious Love’ but remained under Curtis’ creative wing.
Berry Gordy founded Motown in the motor city of Detroit, Michigan with the help of Smokey Robinson in 1959. Groups like the Miracles (fronted by Robinson) and Temptations world push the record label’s popularity forward in the forthcoming decade, but Jimmy Ruffin carved out a reasonable career on his own. Marv Johnson was another early solo discovery; ‘Come To Me’, co-written by Gordy, was a US Top 30 hit in 1959.
Atlantic and Stax were other labels to bring blues and soul to the waiting world. Sam & Dave and Wilson Pickett were among those who recorded at Stax’s converted cinema studios on the wrong side of Memphis, while Atlantic – run by the Ertegun brothers, Turkish immigrants Ahment and Nesuhi – owed much to Ruth Brown. Insiders nicknamed Atlantic ‘The House that Ruth Built’, alluding to the New York Yankees stadium which had owed a similar debt to baseball star Babe Ruth. Brown was the top-selling black female recording artist in the United States between 1951 and 1954.
While their careers peaked too early to capitalise on black music’s crossover to the lucrative mainstream, legendary names like Bessie Smith, Odetta and Billie Holiday are still invoked as among the all-time great interpretative singers. No less a man than Frank Sinatra said of Holiday that she was ‘one of the most important influences on American popular singing.’
Etta James, whose 1955 recording ‘W-O-M-A-N’ features on disc one, was a role model to Destiny’s Child singer Beyoncé Knowles. Indeed, the younger women played Ms James in a fictionalized account of the Chess Records story, Cadillac Records. The feisty Nina Simone was no pushover, either: she received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2000, but more importantly her voice and influence have resounded down the years.
Minister’s son Sam Cooke was an important early figure in the development of soul music. We feature ‘Wonderful World’, his tenth US Top 40 hit in 1960. Four years later he was shot dead, but his influence lives on in the likes of Rod Stewart, who idolized him and covered many of his songs live and on record.
Two decades after Cooke’s demise, Marvin Gaye, another of the singers he influenced, died in a similar firearms incident. A song he sings here, ‘Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home)’, had topped the UK chart the previous year of 1983 in the hands of British singer Paul Young. It’s not impossible a young musician hearing the original now could give it yet another perspective – the beauty of a great song is that it is truly timeless.
As long as Paul Young belts out his greatest hit, Lauryn Hill (in the Fugees’ ‘Ready Or Not’) raps about Nina Simone, and Beyoncé channels the late, great Etta James, the music on these discs will live on. Turn up the volume and celebrate with the first generation of soul brothers and blues sisters – characters who brought black music to the mainstream and blazed a trail so many have since followed to our great benefit.