9 Soul Music

Soul Music

Soul music has its roots most firmly implanted in gospel music, both in lyrical content (messages of love and relationships, though not necessarily spiritual) and especially in the emotional and embellished vocal style. Like Gospel, Soul vocal styles incorporate many notes per syllable in an embellished and improvisational approach. The lyrical content, with roots in Gospel, was intertwined with the civil rights movement, singing of equality, love, and respect for your fellow human being.

The soul styles of the northern and southern USA had differing qualities. Southern styles often had a gritty and energetic vocal quality, and the instrumental playing was usually intense and energetic. Northern styles would usually had a more refined sound with improvisation and embellishments less pronounced. One possible reason for this is that gospel singing varied from church to church and region to region, developing in isolation without the aid/influence of radio.

Atlantic Records

Image of Atlantic Records Logo with red text. The logo includes a red circle with the word "Atlantic" inside of the circle.
Figure 9.1 Atlantic Records Logo.

Atlantic Records was formed in 1947 and was largely responsible for the success of soul artists like Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and others. Later on, Atlantic would distribute recordings from a very diverse group of artists. But early on they were best known as a primary distributor of soul music. Atlantic’s recording studio was in New York but they would move artists to different studios (such as Stax studios in Memphis using Booker T and the MGs) depending on what kind of soul music they wanted to produce.

Ray Charles

Black and white photographic image of Ray Charles sitting in a suit next to a piano wearing sunglasses.
Figure 9.2 Ray Charles.

Ray Charles – (1930–2004) Blind since the age of 6, Ray Charles nevertheless learned piano, trumpet, saxophone, and clarinet. He also learned to read and write music in braille as well as studying composition. Charles never actually sang gospel in church, but incorporated it into his rhythm and blues music. He was unique in his ability to synthesize country, jazz, rhythm and blues, blues, and gospel, sometimes using the story line lyrics of country and even recording albums of country covers.

Charles spent a few years starting in the late 1940s performing around the country with his group the McSon Trio. The group made their first recordings in 1948-49. Charles was eventually signed to Swingtime Records, and later Atlantic Records where he had his first great commercial success. Songs like “I’ve Got a Woman” (1954) provided Charles with radio play and wide exposure, and he quickly became one of the best known names in Soul. By 1959, Charles’ reached a new commercial high point with the single, “What’d I Say?” which became a top 10 hit on the pop charts. “I’ve Got a Woman” and “What’d I Say?” are examined in more detail below in Listening Examples 9.1.

In 1962, Charles released his groundbreaking album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music where he integrated the sounds of soul and blues with country and folk music in a revolutionary way. He blends the song forms and melodies of country and folk with stylistic norms from soul such as embellished vocal melodies and uneven beat subdivisions from blues.

Otis Redding

Black and white photographic image of Otis Redding.
Figure 9.3 Otis Redding.

Otis Redding (1941–1967) was the biggest selling singer at Stax records whose emotional vocal style was a mixture of the rock aggressiveness of Little Richards and the smoother gospel style of Sam Cooke. He was also a hit songwriter, writing many of his own songs including “Respect”, the song that became best known in the version recorded by Aretha Franklin. Redding used gospel techniques like melismas that built tension, and put on energetic live performances as evidenced by the album Live in Europe from 1967 which includes a high-energy version of his hit “Can’t Turn You Loose” (1965) and an intense, soul-infused cover version of “Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones. He died in a plane crash in 1967, only 3 days after recording what would become his biggest hit, “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”, co-written with Steve Cropper. More on that song in Listening Examples 9.1 below.

Aretha Franklin

Black and white photographic image of Aretha Franklin in a floral top.
Figure 9.4 Aretha Franklin.

Aretha Franklin (1942–2018) was one of the most influential and well known soul singers in American popular music. The daughter of a minister, Franklin spent her youth singing gospel music in her father’s church. In her teens she began traveling to other churches and concert halls, performing and meeting gospel singers like Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke, and others.

She moved to New York at age 18 to sing secular music like the blues. She was encouraged by producers to tone down the gospel influence for a more restrained approach. This changed in 1966 when Franklin was signed to Atlantic records and was encouraged to put that energy and emotion back into her music. At Atlantic Franklin had many hits including “Respect” (1967) which was No. 1 on both the pop and Rhythm and Blues charts.

“Respect” (Found in Listening Examples 9.1) was written by Otis Redding, but Franklin’s version became even more popular than Redding’s. The lyrics gained new meaning when sung from a female perspective. Initially a song about a troubled relationship between two people, Franklin’s version of “Respect” became an anthem for gender equality at a time when the discrepancy between males and females was heavily in the advantage of the male. The use of the horn section is apparent, and the vocal style of Franklin is reminiscent of the style of gospel singers like Mahalia Jackson and the blues styles of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. The form is comprised of an instrumental opening, three vocal sections (A section), an instrumental section (B), another A section, the C section ( the R-E-S-P-E-C-T breakdown), followed by a fragment of another A section.

Listening Examples 9.1

Ray Charles: “Confession Blues” (1949) is Ray Charles’ first recording and features the McSon Trio. Listen to the lyrics and try to identify the form. Stylistically, what does this song closely resemble?

Ray Charles: “I’ve Got A Woman” (1954) was an early hit song by Ray Charles. Lyrically, it is a reflection of attitudes on gender roles in the 1950s with lines like “She’s there to love me, Both day and night. Never grumbles or fusses, Always treats me right. Never runnin’ in the streets, Leavin’ me alone. She knows a woman’s place, Is right there, now, in her home“. Lyrics here: I Got a Woman Lyrics It presents the listener with an interesting hybrid form, blending elements of 12-bar blues form with and overall AABA structure. The A sections use elements of the AAB lyrical scheme, but bring back the A line one more time after the B line, such as the following from the first A section:

A – Well, I got a woman, way over town, That’s good to me, oh yeah

A – Said I got a woman, way over town, Good to me, oh yeah

B – She gives me money when I’m in need, Yeah, she’s a kind of friend indeed

A – I got a woman, way over town, That’s good to me, oh yeah

Ray Charles: “What’d I Say?” (1959) was a No. 1 hit on the rhythm and blues charts and No. 6 on the pop charts. The single release included two separate versions on each side. Side A was a standard rhythm and blues version with Charles accompanied by a band, while side B features a soul version with call and response between Charles and a gospel-style vocal group as well as Jazz styled nonsense syllables. Formally, it is a 12-bar blues that incorporates “stop-time” where the bass and drums will cut out and let the electric piano play solo for a brief period.

“Careless Love” is a traditional country/folk song  reinterpreted by Charles with gospel-style vocals and a horn section, taken at a slow tempo reminiscent of brooding blues songs by performers like B.B. King. It was released on Charles’ album “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” (1962).

Otis Redding: “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding. I play the chords to an entire section of “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” (including the short intro). Notice how many chords are being played as opposed to a form like 12-bar blues. There are five different chords being played multiple times (compared to 3 in 12 bar blues form) and the entire section is 16 bars long.

Aretha Franklin:

Sam Cooke

Black and white photographic image of Sam Cooke in a white shirt and black pants. He is seated away from the camera with his head turned looking back at the camera.
Figure 9.5 Sam Cooke.

Sam Cooke – (1935–1964) was the son of a Baptist minister, surrounded by gospel music as a child. He began working as a professional singer in 1951 taking the lead vocal duties in the gospel group, the Soul Stirrers. In 1956 he left the Soul Stirrers and branched out into secular music, releasing “You Send Me” in 1957, launching a pop music career in which he would blossom into a hit songwriter. When listening to “You Send Me” in Listening Examples 9.2 below, notice how Cooke embellishes certain syllables with many notes in an improvisation style. Formally, there are two contrasting sections that make up the entire piece; the A section (“You Send Me…”etc), two B sections (“At first I thought it was infatuation…”) incorporated in between, and it it is laid out as follows: AABAAABA. Cooke takes some gospel influenced improvisational liberties during the 4th and 5th iterations of the A section.

Cooke’s recorded output was often smooth and pop-friendly. Songs such as “Cupid”, “Chain Gang”, and “Twistin’ the Night Away” were generally toned-down, and the gospel vocal embellishments are rare (“You Send Me” is an exception to this generalization). By contrast, the 1963 live recording Live at the Harlem Square Club showcased a looser, more raw Sam Cooke; high energy, heavily embellished vocal melodies, and an almost scream-like vocal timbre. Cooke was tragically shot and killed under mysterious circumstances in 1964.

James Brown

Black and white photographic image of James Brown in an open shirt with his chest exposed singing into the microphone.
Figure 9.6 James Brown.

James Brown – (1933–2006) Began performing as a child dancing on the streets for tips to save money for his aunt who was left to raise him after his parents left. Brown learned to sing gospel in a local church, and joined a gospel group in his twenties, becoming the lead singer. A change to secular music brought a name change to the Famous Flames.

Brown had his first hit with “Please Please Please” (1956) as the leader of the Famous Flames. The music featured a triplet pattern in the piano common in gospel and doo wop (dividing the beat into 3 parts instead of 2 parts) and doo wop-style backing-vocals (featuring nonsense syllables and echoes of the lyrics).

The stage act developed by Brown became legendary, with dramatic and intense vocal embellishments and complex dancing including dance steps, the splits, and drops to his knees. His vocal sound had a large expressive range: it could be soft and tender, or aggressive and growly like Little Richard. He also gave vocal cues to his band; each time he gave a certain “call”, horns or backing vocals would respond with a riff or short vocal phrase.

By the 70’s his music developed to include high energy funk alongside his earlier rhythm and blues. Brown developed drug problems (he had long been anti-drug), and these drug problems resulted in domestic violence charges and other legal troubles in the late 80’s that landed him in prison for two years. Nevertheless, he was popular with fans of rhythm and blues and funk his entire career.

Stax and Volt Records

Black, white, and red Stax logo. Stax is written in lowercase bold red letters. There is a hand snapping in black and white.
Figure 9.7 Stax Logo.

Stax records (and its subsidiary, Volt) became the starting point for many soul artists’ careers. Based in Memphis Tennessee, this company attracted performers of Memphis Soul, a brand of soul music that combined the energy of Little Richard with gospel based singers like James Brown. The records that came out of Stax were often consistent because the studio group, Booker T and the MGs, played on many of the records. The group was named after their organist/arranger Booker T. Jones. They were also creatively involved in the songwriting and arranging process. In particular, guitarist Steve Cropper was a songwriter that co-wrote many hit songs at Stax with artists like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett.

Wilson Pickett (1941-2006) Singer who began working at Stax, co-wrote “In the Midnight Hour” with Steve Cropper, became a No. 1 hit on the Rhythm and Blues charts in 1965. Cropper was an important songwriter for Stax. “In the Midnight Hour” used a parallel movement where multiple horns playing lines that move higher or lower in tandem, that became a signature sound of Memphis soul known as the “Memphis Horn Sound”.

Exercise 1

The first part of the article linked provides a short background into Berry Gordy and Motown. Later it contains a detailed analysis of some of the rhythmic characteristics of the Soul music from Motown and how these rhythms led to funk music. This analysis is, in part, a response to critics who were disapproving of the repetitive nature of popular music styles that didn’t fully comprehend it’s subtlety and nuance. Please read pgs. 1-5 (short bio of Gordy and Motown) and “Theorizing the Groove”, pgs. 14-20.


Listening Examples 9.2

Sam Cooke:

James Brown:

  • “Please Please Please” live from the TAMI show in 1964. Notice the theatrical style of Brown as he performs the famous “cape routine”. The routine goes as follows: He performs in such a passionate way that he collapses from exhaustion and is assisted offstage by a bandmate, but as he’s being led off he has a change of heart. He throws the cape off his back and hobbles back to the microphone to finish the song. He repeats this a number of times, and the audience goes wild each time! Formally, the song uses a relatively new (for us) song form: Repeated A sections. This form allows for James Brown to improvise musically and theatrically over top of the form as it simply cycles the same music over and over.

Wilson Pickett:

Motown Records

Image of Motown Record Logo featuring a black and white "M" with thick black lines.
Figure 9.8 Motown Records Logo.

Motown was a record company that created a specific brand of soul music (known aptly as “Motown”) that sought to gain the respect of white audiences for African Americans, not simply acceptance of the music. Motown represents the northern variety of soul music with it’s emphasis on refined imagery and arrangements.

Founded by songwriter Berry Gordy Jr. (born 1929) who named Motown after Detroit which is known as the Motor City. Motown artists sang of love and other subjects that a broad spectrum of humanity could identify with. With Motown one can see many No. 1 hits in both the Pop and R&B charts.

Gordy emphasized a sophisticated, refined image for his performers. Performers were molded through training in ‘sophisticated’ ways of walking, speaking and dancing. Musically, producers at Motown used refined background arrangements including orchestral strings, jazz bands, and other instruments. Compared to the singers at Stax records, Motown singers sang in a polished and conservative style. Blue notes and improvisational gospel-style singing were rarely used, and the music was often aimed specifically at a white audience. To draw listeners in, Motown producers often used catchy, repetitive rhythms and bass lines. Gordy, for the most part, had complete control over the artists working at Motown, and very few were in control of their own work.

The Funk Brothers

The regular studio group for Motown records was the Funk Brothers. This group was unique in that they had a background in jazz and rhythm and blues and had highly developed instrumental skills. Like Stax records with Booker T and the MGs, Motown recordings with the Funk Brothers feature more active contributions from the studio band than most other studio groups, many of whom were there simply to provide straightforward background music for the singers.

The Funk Brothers used three guitarists, each with their own role and style. Robert White played full chords on the beats with a warm tone, Eddie Willis played blues-styled melodic fills, and Joe Messina would stress the backbeat (beats 2 & 4) with bright percussive chords. Bassist James Jamerson played walking bass lines on his electric bass guitar with chromatic notes and syncopated rhythms instead of the usual overly simplified bass patterns. Earl Van Dyke was the leader and keyboardist, often playing a grand piano. Organ, horns, vibraphone, and other percussion instruments were often incorporated into the texture.

Smokey Robinson

Black and white photographic image of Smokey Robinson and Miracles. There a four men in suits leaning in together looking at the camera.
Figure 9.9 Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.

Smokey Robinson – (Born 1940) Singer and highly successful songwriter. Robinson and his group, The Miracles, were one of the first groups signed to Motown by Gordy who was most impressed with Robinson’s songwriting abilities. Robinson wrote songs for Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, and other groups at Motown. In addition to his song-writing duties he produced many of Motown’s recordings and eventually became the vice-president of Motown.

The Temptations

Black and white photographic image of the Temptations. There a five men in matching suits dancing together in synchronization. They have their left feet raised and the left hands pointed out towards the camera.
Figure 9.10 The Temptations.

The Temptations were an all male group, and were one of the most popular on the Motown label. Smokey Robinson was their primary songwriter for their early hits. He also produced many of their recordings including “My Girl” (1965) which Robinson co-wrote, becoming one of their biggest hits. It used a polished and lush background with a variety of instruments including orchestral brass and strings, similar to a Phil Spector recording. It reached No. 1 on both the Pop and Rhythm and Blues charts.

The Temptations’ sound changed over the years, and as the lineup was constantly changing, so was the lead vocalist. Up to 1965, the lead vocalist was a tenor (higher-range male singer) named Eddie Kendricks, but starting with “My Girl” it became baritone (lower-range male singer) David Ruffin. In the later 1960’s Ruffin left the group and Norman Whitfield became their producer. With Whitfield, their sound evolved into the funk stylings of James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone.

The Supremes

Black and white photographic image of the Supremes. There are three women in matching dresses dancing together in synchronization. The background looks like a graphic image of city scape.
Figure 9.11 The Supremes.

The Supremes were one of the most popular girl groups at Motown, led by lead singer Diana Ross. Their refined sound and image was characteristic of Motown groups, and they were highly successful, appealing to more mature audiences. Most of their hits were written by the song-writing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland. The songs from this team often featured a “hook” (a simple and very catchy melody) over and over again. The form of these songs often followed a format of “Repeated A Sections” that would reenforce these melodic hooks. Put simply, a section of music is repeated over and over, while the lyrics would change

Stevie Wonder

Black and white photographic image of the Stevie Wonder wearing sunglasses and singing into a microphone.
Figure 9.12 Stevie Wonder.

Stevie Wonder – (Born 1950) Began his career as a child. At age 13, he already had his first hit song (Motown’s second hit) “Fingertips (Part II)” in 1963. It reached No. 1 in both the Rhythm and Blues and Pop charts. Born blind and singing with a gospel-styled voice, he became known as a child prodigy and a young Ray Charles. Wonder learned many instruments as a child including harmonica, percussion, and piano.

When he turned 21, Wonder renegotiated his contract with Motown and gained complete control over his recordings, something that most Motown artists would never have. This period marked a significant change in his music that saw him embrace funk, gospel, and jazz, as well as Latin and African rhythms.

The “classic period” of Wonder’s music began with Music of My Mind (1972) and culminated with Songs in the Key of Life (1976). This period saw Wonder embrace new music technology such as synthesizers.

Jackson 5

Black and white photographic image of the Jackson 5 singing in action. All of the members have afros. Two hold electric guitars. Several hold microphones.
Figure 9.13 Jackson 5.

When Stevie Wonder grew out of the child star image, Berry Gordy Jr. began looking for another similar performer. He found what he was looking for in Michael Jackson (1958-2009) and his brothers. The group became the Jackson Five. Gordy and Motown writers created songs that fit the youthful image and would attract the attention of teens and preteens. These young fans became the Jackson 5’s primary audience.

The Jackson’s father had been their manager and remained so when they signed to Motown. However, he was denied complete control the way Stevie Wonder had and so he moved the group to a different label. Later on, Michael Jackson had an enormously successful solo career after leaving the group.

Listening Examples 9.3

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles: In “You Really Got a Hold on Me” the triplet-pattern (three accents per beat) in the piano and the drums are very common in Soul music and pop music in general around this time. Notice the use of “stop time”, reminiscent of early rock and roll, during the section where Robinson sings “Hold Me! Hold Me! Hold Me!” etc. Also, the song features the relatively new form (see ch. 8) called verse-chorus form.

The Supremes: “Where Did Our Love Go?” became The Supremes’ first No. 1 hit on the pop charts. The music resonated with Americans struggling to understand the JFK assassination, the Cold War, and the emerging Vietnam War. Formally, the songs is simple; 16-bar A sections repeated over and over until the song fades out, also known as Repeated A sections. The chord sequence consists of 5 chords that continuously repeat over each A section throughout the song. The “hook” featured in this song is the vocal melody that continually repeats over every A section throughout the entire song (with the exception of a brief baritone saxophone solo). Try listening to the entire song and see if the vocal melody gets stuck in your head (“Hooked”).

The Temptations: “My Girl” Uses a new song form. Look at the lyrics here: My Girl – Lyrics What form is it?

Stevie Wonder: A young Stevie Wonder plays “Fingertips” showcasing his skill as a performer and harmonica player. “Sir Duke” uses complex chord changes from jazz, long complex gospel/soul/blues style melodies influenced by in part by African music, horn sections, electric instruments, and funk grooves inspired by artists like James Brown. The “Duke” would be Duke Ellington, and the song is a celebration of music history and the important figures that have contributed to a positive evolution of music. Finally listen to “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” live (1973).

Jackson 5: “I Want You Back” was the debut and first hit by the Jackson Five, reaching No. 1 on the pop charts.


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Popular Music by Todd Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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