Carleen Anderson narrates a three-part series telling the story of how soul music emerged from the world of gospel in the early 1960s to deliver an assertive, integrated vision of black America during the civil rights era, presided over by its own king and queen, Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin.
From the 17th century, slavery drove the economy of the American south for 200 years. Slavery was finally abolished in 1863, but its gospel tradition lived on. As the black American church grew in strength and popularity, so did its singers. A network of black performers and venues emerged known as the gospel highway and in 1950s- in living memory of the Emancipation Proclamation- saw the emergence of soul music’s first generation of stars. Soul came from a higher place, but it would land in the carnal world of Rhythm and Blues. Ray Charles’s What’d I Say crystallised soul, combining Saturday night R&B with Sunday morning call and response.
With contributions from Mavis Staples, Candi Staton, Duke Fakir, Martha Reeves, Mary Wilson, Otis Williams, The Holland Brothers, Clarence Carter, Al Bell, Steve Cropper and Spooner Oldham. Expert analysis from Mark Anthony Neal, Nelson George and Emily J Lordi.
Part 1: Amazing Grace
Travels through the south from Muscle Shoals in Alabama (Aretha, Clarence Carter, Mavis Staples) to Stax in Memphis (Booker T and the MGs, Otis Redding), taking a detour north to Detroit, to argue that Motown’s most soulful achievement was to show the whole world a successful, sophisticated image of black people at a time when Motown musicians themselves were subject to the same treatment as any black American.
Part 2: Say It Loud
In the late 60s and early 70s, black America went to war. Inequality, poverty and racism fanned the flames of radical black politics and a harder soul sound: Isaac Hayes, James Brown and the Whitfield-and-Strong-era Temptations. It was the best of soul, it was the worst of times.
1967 was no summer of love for black America. The Detroit riot was one of 159 uprisings across America. When Martin Luther King was murdered the following year in America’s other soul city, Memphis, a tipping point was reached. America burned while James Brown wrote Say It Loud, risking it all to speak out. Stax Records went from being a label built around an integrated house band to become a black-centric business spearheaded by Isaac Hayes’s expansive, flamboyant soul symphonies.
Meanwhile, in Detroit, The Temptations tackled socially aware subjects like the Detroit riot and absent fathers, while Marvin Gaye conceived the epic What’s Going On. This episode also looks at the revolution of black heroes in cinema, inaugurated by Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, a film that led to the blaxploitation genre – a creative sideline for civil rights soul heroes like Isaac Hayes (Shaft) and Curtis Mayfield (Superfly). The film culminates with the Wattstax festival, 1972’s black Woodstock – a truly redemptive and soulful image of the black inner city.
Part 3: Sweet Love
How, in the 70s and 80s, a second coming of soul men, led by Teddy Pendergrass, Marvin Gaye and Luther Vandross, offered a black female audience slow jams and sexual healing.
In the early 70s, Memphis was the capital of gospel-infused soul music, thanks to two key labels. One was Stax, the other was Hi Records – a high church of soul presided over by Al Green whose Let’s Stay Together pre-figured a new type of soul man, one who would come to dominate the 70s – a sensitive lover man.
In Philadelphia, a new record label was born that would also soften soul’s hard edges. Philadelphia International Records was home to Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, from whose ranks Teddy Pendergrass would emerge. PIR was also home to the O’Jays, who embodied Philadelphia’s message of love and togetherness.
Fresh from the monumental success of What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye went to work on his follow-up, shifting focus from the streets to the bedroom with Let’s Get It On. Bedroom soul was also epitomised by the sensitive, thoughtful Barry White, whose deep baritone put both black and white audiences in the mood.
In the mid-70s, disco became a lucrative sideline for female singers who delivered first-hand songs about love, loss and empowerment such as Candi Staton’s Young Hearts Run Free, whilst Millie Jackson did what the soul men did, only more so, telling it like it was.
This episode also looks at the Quiet Storm radio format, conceived by billionaire entrepreneur Cathy Hughes, targeted at a black female audience. The title was borrowed from Smokey Robinson’s 1975 album of laid-back soul ballads, and the genre helped make stars of artists such as Peabo Bryson, whose smooth ballads led the listener discretely to the bedroom door.
The tragic death of Marvin Gaye, on the back of his biggest success – Sexual Healing – and the paralysis of Teddy Pendergrass seemed like bad omens for soul in the 80s. But one artist filled the gap. New York-born Luther Vandross started out as one of the most in-demand backing vocalists before redefining soul with Never Too Much. Luther may have been the 80s soul king, but he did not rule alone. Anita Baker was the queen. Her 1986 hit album Rapture pursued a similar, contemporary yet retro take on soul.
However, Luther couldn’t hold back the tide forever. The birth of hip hop as a political force and the arrival of MTV closed the door on soul, ushering in a new era for black music. The soul epoch may have been over, but the music never went away and, from time to time, it resurfaces in all its glory.