The following is based upon my personal knowledge, personal research and personal experiences
I will preference my comments by stating that I have been in and around music for the past forty years and I am also a musician. I enjoy listening to all types of music, but I will readily admit that the fire in my musical heart is fueled by, what I call, “the real Soul and R&B” from back-in-the-day. I witnessed its evolution and “almost demise” and I now sense the resurgence of this great art form.
Soul and R&B
In the mid-1950s the term rhythm and blues, R&B, was adopted by the music industry for music intended for the African American audience; with the gradual disappearance of racial barriers, the Chicago blues style began to seem less a vital form than a folk tradition, while the gospel style was transformed into the soul music of vast appeal. Soul music is a combination of R&B and gospel, and began in the late 1950s in the United States. Soul differentiates from R&B because of Soul’s use of gospel-music devices, its greater emphasis on vocalists and its merging of religious and secular themes. Soul traces its roots to four different sources: racial, geographical, historical and economical factors. Generally speaking, Soul comes from a mixture of the sacred (i.e. gospel) and the profane (blues). Blues mainly praised fleshly desires, whereas gospel was more oriented toward spiritual inspiration. Soul music exploded in the 1960s and ruled the black music charts throughout the decade, and inspired many other music styles. Although Soul’s popularity has declined over the years, its impact and influence still lives on.
Back in the 60’s, in Boston, the social climate was tense, at best, due to the atmosphere of segregation, prejudice, integration, etc. The call from many corners was for us, as a people, to “reclaim our true heritage” and our rights; socially and politically. However, there were also small sections who were calling for the right to showcase the musical talents of many of the groups from that period. Music, Soul and R&B in particular, was utilized as “an escape” from the negativity of the time. This “atmosphere” was carried over to the radio stations as well and, from what I personally recall, there was only one radio station here in Boston that even played or featured Soul or R&B. The station was only licensed to broadcast until 6:00 p.m. or “from sun up to sunset”. That was 1090AM WILD radio. As a teenager I recall the DJ at the time, Wildman Steve (Steve Gallon) doing his thing and I remember hearing those melodies, harmonies, and lyrics. I also remember a “feeling” and being able to relate to it all in one way or another (at least until sundown). Of course the “mainstream” artist’s records were played most of the time but every now and then you would hear a song that immediately grabbed your attention. For example; although they were originally ‘connected’ with Motown, a group named The Monitors (aka “The Majestics”) recorded a song entitled “Say You”, between 1962 and 1964, which was later ‘given’ to the Temptations (around 1965). Then there was a slow song that was played at every house party; where the inside was dark, the light bulbs were red, and you knew who you were talking only because you recognized the voice; “Sad Girl” originally recorded by The Midnighters (Hank Ballard was a member) and by a few other groups during the late 60’s and early 70’s.
Of course the artists from Motown were always heard but other artist like The Impressions, Ruby & The Romantics, The Miracles, Barbara Lewis, Fontella Bass, The Four Tops, Hank Ballard, The Marvelettes, and others were also played and left a lasting impression (no pun intended). The music reflected every emotion experienced during that time, from “sadness to gladness”. A close friend of mine and I were recently discussing this topic and we both agree that, although some of today’s music is not bad; the majority of these songs today are not defining nor romantic. And they seem to deny us the message of beauty, tenderness, respect and warmth.
I can recall sitting in my room on a hot summer day and listening to the music on the radio. I can still here the intro’s, the arrangements, and probably the best ‘musical sound’ in the universe; the Hammond B3 and Leslie speaker combo. Now don’t get me wrong, I loved all of the instrumentation but there was just something special about that sound; it was haunting, alluring, mystical, and magical. A couple of songs where the B3 and Leslie stood out. One was Barbara Lewis’ “Hello Stranger”. The instant it started your ears perked up and you knew.
Fontella Bass – “Rescue Me” – Checker
The Marvelettes – “When You’re Young And In Love” – Tamla
The Lovelites – “How Can I Tell My Mom & Dad?” – Uni
The Monitors – “Say You” – V.I.P.
Maxine Brown – “Oh No, Not My Baby – Wand
Brenda & The Tabulations – “Dry Your Eyes” – Dionn
The Rolitas – “Mythical Lover – (Unknown label)
Candy & The Kisses (formerly The Symphonettes) – “After I Cry” – R&L Records
The Elgins – “Darling Baby” – VIP
The Formations – “At The Top Of The Stairs” – Mojo
Carla Thomas “ Baby” – Atco
The Precisions – “Why Girl” – Drew
Positive Change – “Blind Over You” – Fortress
During the turmoil of the 60’s and 70’s there was always one way to escape…..the music. You could sit back, relax, put on a 45 or album, sing along, and just plain feel good. It allowed you to actually relate to the situation expressed by the lyrics of the song. If you felt ‘down’ you could think about the girl (or guy) who lived down the street. You know, the one you saw every day but never approached. Or you could listen to one whose lyrics reflected the way you felt about that special someone and then pick up the telephone and call him (or her). Most of the Soul and R&B lyrics from the 60’s to middle 70’s focused on feelings, emotions, wants, needs, social issues, and love. From the titles alone you immediately knew what the song was about and what feeling or emotion was involved.
Our Day Will Come – Ruby And The Romantics – (hope)
Baby It’s You – The Shirelles – (love)
Sad Girl – The Midnighters – (redemption)
Does Your Mama Know About Me? – The Vancouver’s – (social)
These songs, these lyrics, and many like them have a way of “hanging on” because, though the times were rough, the messages they sent were easy to relate to. And it was at a time when “most” young hearts were true and free. Music is a universal influence; not only for those who practice it but for all who listen as well. And back-in-the-day I was encouraged to do more than just “watch and listen”. One afternoon (around 1971 or 72) a friend of mine and I were talking as we walked around downtown. He mentioned to me that there was a concert, around 7:00 p.m., on the Boston Common and there was a band called “Earth, Wind & Fire” performing. That was at a time when, though there was still some tension, people who did not know one another could come together and simply “enjoy”.
Well I had heard some of their music on the radio and figured what the hell. As we approached the area I saw the big sign that read “Concerts On The Common – Earth, Wind & Fire”. I walked up to the turnstile, gave the person five dollars and entered where I immediately saw a few hundred folding chairs, a grassy area behind them with people who had already spread their blankets, and a huge stage. As we took our seats (somewhere about the sixth row) I remember looking at all of the speakers, lighting, and instruments. The musicians walked onto the stage and took their places.
Then the MC announced over the PA; “Ladies and gentlemen welcome to Concerts On The Common. Tonight we present for your entertainment….Earth, Wind and Fire”. As the intro was played I recognized it as their song “Power”. I saw one of the musicians (Maurice White) holding what looked like a square box in his hands (the Kalimba) and as his fingers moved over it on of the most beautiful sounds I have heard came through the huge speakers. You could feel the energy building along with the intro and as they broke into it I watched this guy playing bass guitar suddenly run across the stage. All the while smiling and constantly moving, playing, and simply “energized”. He was the reason, right then and there; I decided my instrument of choice was the bass guitar. That man was Verdine White and to this day he displays that same enthusiasm. The energy, charisma, and sheer talent I was watching were nothing less than an inspiration for me. and after going through several people finally formed our band. It was named “Blood, Earth, and Man”. It was during the time of social and musical awareness for Black people in the U.S. and the named reflected the colors of the time; Red, Green and Black. After almost a year I was finally able to buy my first “real” bass guitar. We played at all of the local neighborhood clubs and one club that, at the time, catered mostly to “other bands”. That was Katy’s, where such acts as Dr. John, Carol King, etc., played. We had a couple of personnel changes during this time and even came up with a few originals of our own. One I wrote was entitled “Funkin’ Right”. We were also invited to perform “live” on one of the local college radio stations and received excellent feedback. I rewrote “Funkin’ Right” and after the demise of the band I found out that it was “claimed” by others. Rather than get angry I allowed it to inspire me more and to educate myself about the “business”.
Blood, Earth and Man (me on the far left) Blood, Earth and Man (me 2nd from right) (at The Skycap) (Playing the band’s set at Lane’s Lounge)
Why???? And Where Did Soul Go?
Out of the many reasons I believe (my personal opinion) may have contributed to the “obscurity” of so many talented R&B and Soul artists and Soul Music, a few are:
1. The music charts at the time reflected the “social climate” and therefore you had different charts based upon “who” the artist was and “what” (race) the artist was
2. With many artists back then the injustice was for their talents not to have been “pushed” by the record companies
3. Many songs that should have been on the Soul/R&B charts were categorized as “Doo-Wop” and were never played by Soul/R&B radio stations
4. Many Soul and R&B artists opted to go “overseas”
Throughout the 60’s and 70’s very few talented R&B and Soul artists made the music charts. Even though there was an “R&B/Soul Music” chart these artists never made it. During this time it was the record companies who actually controlled the industry (a topic for another day).
Soul music was enabled by the commercial boom of what was termed “race” music, that had led to the creation of channels and infrastructures run by Black entrepreneurs for Black artists. This class of Black entrepreneurs hired and trained a generation of session musicians, producers and arrangers (not to mention songwriters) who were specifically meant to serve the needs of Black music.
Soul music retained its vocal-drive image, typical of all pop music, but, like so much pop music, its hits became increasingly dependent on the skills of the arrangers and producers. Soul music began a transition from a “vocal” style into a “sound” style. This took place mainly in four cities: New York, Memphis, Detroit, and Philadelphia. And it corresponded with four independent labels: Atlantic (founded in 1947 by songwriter Ahmet Ertegun), Stax (founded in 1959 by Jim Stewart), Tamla – Motown (founded in 1959 by Berry Gordy), and, later on, International (founded in 1971 by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff).With the music of Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul (1969), Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On (1971), Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly (1972), and Stevie Wonder’s Music Of My Mind (1972), Soul music had recognized its crisis, and entered a new era. Instead of the assembly-line method and the song format of the early era, the new era valued an author-oriented approach. Meaningful lyrics, and the’ suite’ format. However, the 1970s were a decade of steady decline for Soul music.
First it was Funk music that reduced the market for Soul musicians (and, in fact, many of them simply adopted funk). Then it was Disco music that made Soul music sound antiquated as party music. Finally, Hip-Hop and Rap music introduced a completely new example (both vocal and rhythmic) for Black music.
Now there is a silent cry from all over for the type of music that does not degrade women, race, ethnicity, promote violence, and etc. People are at the point where they no longer want to listen to music whose lyrics “attack”. The rebirth of Soul is evident in today’s music where “the spoken words” of mainstream Hip-Hop and Rap are backed up by ‘samples’ from “back-in-the-day”.
I sit here smiling because, as obvious as it is to me, and to those of all ages (including a large number of younger people, from 15 to 25, I have personally spoken to) “real” Soul music is making a strong comeback. Many “unknowns” from the past are resurfacing and are dedicated to bringing back “Soul” as it should be. Also, many up-and-coming “unknowns” are adopting the true spirit of Soul and are now helping with its rebirth.
Although there is definitely a ‘silent demand’ for Soul music “as it should be” this world-wide ‘rebirth’ of Soul can easily come to fruition by;
1. Having more airwave radio stations and internet radio stations concentrate on the true meaning of Soul by reintroducing the music, playing the music, and truthfully educating the listeners about the music.
2. The “unknowns” (those unjustly ignored by record companies) have to reintroduce themselves and their music to the world.
3. Up-and-coming “unknowns” should utilize the independent labels to push real Soul to radio stations and internet radio stations.
4. Listeners and lovers of this music must get behind (and stay behind) programs we used to have or may still have, I.e. (Quiet Storm and The Time Tunnel) and have/had………….(Soul Discovery). It’s entities like these we need and rely upon to pass on a tradition of a true musical ‘art’ form. Radio stations and record labels, like any other viable business, can only operate based upon the demand of its customers (listeners). Bring It Back!!!!!!