Soul music combines elements from R&B and African-American gospel music. It is born from the spirit and the secular, having an emphasis on vocalists and making use of a traditional call-and-response between the lead singer and chorus, but instead of strictly spiritual themes, it melds those themes with desire and heartbreak. It began in the '50s with artists like Sam Cooke and James Brown. By the '60s there were more distinct regional sounds like Southern and Memphis soul and Chicago soul with those differences inspired by record labels like Stax, Atlantic, Chess, and Motown (Detroit soul).
Over the last several years there has been a renewed interest in classic soul. Revivalists like Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings and Leon Bridges are keeping traditional soul alive and other genres like hip-hop and pop are doing their best to pay homage to their soul influences. In addition to artists are the fans themselves. As vinyl consumers, our interest in analog is a reflection of our interest in authentic connections with music. And there’s nothing like listening to a classic soul record where you can literally feel how deeply the singers are connected with the songs they’re singing, how the rhythm sections keep time with the melody, helping it stay down-home or lifting it up sky high. To quote the opening lines of one of my favorite classic soul songs by Arthur Conley (co-written with Otis Redding): “Do you like good music? That sweet soul music?” If so, here are 10 classic soul records you absolutely need to hear.
Often credited as the inventor of soul music, Sam Cooke was already well-known in gospel music before embarking on a career in R&B and pop. He had a voice that was both warm and rough; smooth enough to sing Irving Berlin to bring in pop fans and hard enough to rock listeners with dance numbers like “Another Saturday Night.” Ain’t That Good News (1964) was the last studio album released before he died. Having recently negotiated a new contract with RCA, Cooke had more control in choosing the music he recorded and which backing musicians to use; this control results in one of his most critically acclaimed albums and signaling a more mature direction. Ain’t That Good News includes a mix of Cooke originals and covers, the most popular of which are “Another Saturday Night,” “Good Times,” “(Ain’t That) Good News,” and “A Change Is Gonna Come,” an anthem for the civil rights movement. It’s a polished effort, combining fun upbeat tracks with emotional ballads and closing with an Appalachian traditional. No matter what he was singing, Sam Cooke brought a soulful delivery that connected with teenage and adult audiences of all races.
Recorded at Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals and Atlantic’s New York Studios with a flown-in Muscle Shoals rhythm section, I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You was released in 1967 and with it Aretha Franklin finally proved she was indeed the star everyone thought her capable of becoming. “Respect,” written by Otis Redding, became her first number one pop hit, a feminist anthem that demanded respect from her man for all that she does for him. The title track has Franklin lamenting how much in love she is with a liar and a cheat and it’s a powerful combination of gospel and R&B about love in spite of betrayal. The b-side to the title track, “Do Right Woman – Do Right Man” was also a hit with its gentle plea for fidelity and loving. Throughout the album Franklin is at times gritty and soft, adding a subtle sexiness on tunes like “Dr. Feelgood (Love Is A Serious Business)” and the garage-soul rocker “Save Me” (hints of Them’s “Gloria” on this one). By the time album closer comes on (a cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”) you have been rebirthed by fire and come to worship at the altar of the Queen of Soul.
As soon as album opener “Land of 1000 Dances” starts with Wilson Pickett’s count-off and those horn blasts, you know The Exciting Wilson Pickett (1966) is going to be one of the most exciting and energetic soul albums you’ve ever heard. That song in particular was Pickett’s biggest hit, topping the R&B charts and cracking the top 10 on the pop charts. Pickett turns what had originally been a bluesy piano-based number, and later a popular song for garage rock bands to play at dances, into an all-out party song. In fact, the whole album (Pickett’s third album and second for Atlantic Records) is a toe-tapping foot-stomper, meant to get you out on the dancefloor. Influenced by rock 'n' roll and gospel music, Pickett developed a forceful style of singing that was nearly always belting out the lyrics, even on the slower numbers like “It’s All Over.” Recorded both at Stax Recording Studios and at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, the rhythm sections really let Pickett cut loose. In addition to “Land of 1000 Dances,” the album also includes other well-known Pickett hits like “In The Midnight Hour” and “634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.).”
Perhaps no group fused soul with rock better than Ike & Tina Turner, and there’s no better example of this than on 1971’s Workin’ Together, their first legit hit album since forming in 1960. Having been an opening act for the Rolling Stones in the U.K. and again a few years later in America, their explosive live shows connected with rock audiences. Their previous album, ome Together, had also featured versions of famous rock songs but it’s on Workin’ Together that they perfect their combination of traditional R&B with funk rock such as on the peace-loving title track and on “Funkier than a Mosquito’s Tweeter.” The album also has their biggest hit single, their well-known cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary,” in addition to other Ike Turner originals and some Beatles covers. If you are not familiar with Tina Turner’s early work, listen to this album. Her raspy voice and confident full-tilt delivery give just a hint of what their live shows must’ve been like. Some people like their soul music nice and easy but sometimes you just gotta have it “nice and rough.”
When someone asks for an example of Philadelphia soul, characterized by lush arrangements and often featuring strings, Spinners (1973) is one of the more popular choices. Their third album was a rebirth of sorts for the Spinners, a Detroit vocal group. Having toiled away at Motown Records for several years without any serious support from the label, they made the switch to Atlantic Records at the suggestion of Aretha Franklin. They went into Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios with well-respected producer Thom Bell, one of the creators of the Philly soul sound as producer/songwriter with groups such as the Delfonics and the Stylistics, and backed by Sigma Sound house band, MFSB. What resulted was vindication for the group, generating five top 100 pop hits, three of which topped the R&B charts. The album highlight is “I’ll Be Around” with its classic guitar riff and lead vocal by Bobby Smith; it’s a sophisticated song about a man knowing that his love is leaving him for someone else but promises to always be there if she changes her mind. Along with mid-tempo dance number “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love,” Spinners is a great mix of groove-based tracks and gorgeous ballads.
Are you ready for Star Time? Brace yourselves for one of the greatest live shows ever recorded, performed by the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown. As Brown was mainly focused on recording singles in the ‘60s, most of the albums from this period are hodge-podges of previously recorded material wrapped around whatever single was a hit at the time making Live at the Apollo (1963) his first significant album. Recorded in 1962 at Harlem’s famous Apollo Theater, it stayed on the album charts for 66 weeks! Brown financed the recording himself since the head of King Records refused and Brown was determined to showcase his live act. Brown and every Famous Flames bandmember was on his game that October night (they had to be or else Brown would fine them), whipping the Apollo audience into a rapturous frenzy in a blistering 30 min set beginning with “I’ll Go Crazy” and closing with their latest hit at the time, “Night Train.” Seriously, you guys haven’t heard anything until you’ve listened to the 10+ minute epic slow-burn ballad that is “Lost Someone.” Original pressings had this song split between the sides but more recent reissues have rearranged the tracklisting so that we can hear “Lost Someone” in its uninterrupted glory.
Sam and Dave are known as being one of the most successful soul groups and phenomenal live acts of the late ‘60s. Meeting and teaming up in the early '60s, Sam and Dave were signed to Atlantic Records and sent down to Stax Recording Studio in Memphis where things began coming together with their 1966 debut Hold On, I’m Comin’. With the songwriting help of Isaac Hayes (yes, that Isaac Hayes) and Dave Porter, along with Stax house bands Booker T. and The MG’s and the Mar-Keys, Sam and Dave charted with “You Don’t Know Like I Know” and had a monster hit with the hard-driving album opener, “Hold On, I’m Comin’.” The sexually suggestive nature of the refrain was known but they went with it anyway. Mostly singing dual leads, Sam taking the higher vocal range and Dave on the lower, they’re able to easily switch between soul rockers (“Hold On, I’m Comin’” and “You Don’t Know Like I Know”) and soulful yearning (“Just Me”). Hold On started a string of hit singles for Sam and Dave (as well as killer follow-up albums Double Dynamite and Soul Men) successfully bringing gospel-influenced call-and-response Southern soul to the mainstream.
The Supremes epitomized the Motown sound, which combined soul music with pop sensibilities. By the time I Hear A Symphony was released in 1966, the Supremes had already achieved mainstream success with the help of songwriting and production team, Holland-Dozier-Holland. After a previous single from 1965’s More Hits by The Supremes failed to break the top 10 in the pop charts, H-D-H were tasked with writing a whole new song to take the place of the next slotted single. Likely influenced by the success of the Toys’ “A Lover’s Concerto” which took a melody from classical music (a cover version appears on this album) as well as H-D-H’s own desire to experiment, the Supremes recorded “I Hear A Symphony.” It takes on the structure of a classical fugue, starting gently and having a repeating motif, and with each go-round there is a key change and added instrumentation, the ladies taking us higher and higher into the joyful bliss of being in love. It’s just about as perfect a pop song as you’ll ever hear. Along with “My World is Empty Without You” and a mix of originals and covers, the Supremes make a step toward a more mature sound and style.
Etta James began her career in a doo-wop girl group in the '50s, easily moving between R&B, blues, and rock, before signing to Chess Records where she incorporated more pop ballads and vocal jazz into her repertoire. But by the mid-'60s her career faltered and Chess sent her to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, looking for some of the same success that had come to Aretha Franklin. Tell Mama (1968) is a full-throttle return to her R&B and soul roots, skillfully supported by Fame’s rhythm section, where James is allowed to croon and growl, sweet talk and belt it out loud. James makes you feel it deep down in your guts, telling you it’ll be okay in foot-stomping hit song, “Tell Mama,” yelling to the world that all she needs is her man in “The Love of My Man,” taking on Otis Redding’s “Security” and proving that Etta James knows the blues in her co-written number, “I’d Rather Go Blind.” Tell Mama remains one of the greatest soul albums ever released by one of the greatest singers ever.
On Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul (1965), his third album, Otis Redding came into his own, establishing himself as the king of desperate, pain-ridden, and fiery Southern soul. Along with covers from the likes of Solomon Burke, Sam Cooke, the Temptations, and the Rolling Stones, Redding cooks his own hits with “Respect,” I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” and country-blues album opener “Ole Man Trouble.” Aretha Franklin made “Respect” her own but Redding’s original version is just as powerful, declaring he doesn’t care if his woman does him wrong as long as she gives him some respect when he comes home. My personal favorite is “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” There’s a rawness to this ballad that’s just awe-inspiring, where Redding starts off slow, laying bare his heart and by the end he’s screaming about how much he loves his woman. Otis Blue was recorded at Stax Recording Studios with backing from Booker T. and the MG’s, the Mar-Keys, and Memphis Horns along with Isaac Hayes on piano for good measure. Rarely can a studio performance capture the same kind of energy as a live performance but that’s exactly what Redding does, influencing artists in multiple genres from the Doors to Kanye West.
Marcella Hemmeter is a freelance writer and adjunct professor living in Maryland by way of California. When she's not busy meeting deadlines she frequently laments the lack of tamalerias near her house.
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