If you’ve escaped the trash fire that was 2020 and have dedicated yourself to seeing that mess fade from your rearview mirror as fast as possible, I have some really good news: This summer offers some hip-shaking inspiration and what are likely to be pangs of nostalgia for some, and new revelations for many. This summer we’re getting a blast of soul!
What is soul music? The answer has many facets. Because one can talk about soul music as a natural outgrowth of 1940s and 1950s R&B. (I mean, it is R&B!) Or one might focus on the mostly Southern geography where its stars were born. We can speak about its deep connection to the Black church. The horrific realities of having to navigate through an inescapable racist culture form an undercurrent that’s always part of the history. Or we could simply fall back to the cliché that soul music embodies a special, emotional feeling. But, really, all great music is “a feeling,” isn’t it?
The closest I’ve seen to an answer to this deceptively simple little question is from Peter Guralnick’s splendid 1986 history, Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom. But you’d really need to take in most if not all 405 pages to appreciate the complications inherent in the term and the vicissitudes of its artists, not to mention the essential point that soul music in the 1960s and ’70s was a business. Those pages contain historical tidbits about, and tributes to, major and minor soul labels via interviews with some of their founders/owners and their producers. There are tales of the “house” bands and, of course, individual profiles of the greatest artists –- interspersed with an array of cool photos. There are lovingly-described details of the music of too many legendary hitmakers to name here, so I’ll just mention the stories of the “King of Soul” Solomon Burke, J.B. (of course), Al Green, Wilson “Wicked” Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Booker T. Jones, and the inimitable Otis Redding, as well as a veritable host of the less-celebrated but no-less-deserving and overlooked greats such as Joe Tex, O.V. Wright, and James Carr. (For an account of the sparring that took place between J.B. and Joe Tex that will bring you smiles, you should check out American poet Hanif Abdurraqib’s latest book, A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance. Hell, you should read the whole damn thing!) Every one of these folks loved their art form and worked mightily to perfect their respective acts, and they expected to get paid. Some did well, others not so much.
But I digress: In Guralnick’s view, soul music offers “something akin to the ‘knowledgeable apprehension’ in Alfred Hitchcock’s famous definition of suspense, that precedes the actual climax, that everyone knows is coming—it’s just nobody is quite sure when.” I love that description, because it works even if you’ve heard the song 10 times. “Shhh, here it comes, listen to this.” It might be a scream. It might be a moan. It might be some lovely harmonies. I’m talking about progenitors Ray Charles Robinson and Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson (all given their due in Guralnick’s book, not to mention he has an entirely separate tome devoted to Cooke’s bio.). But it’s not necessarily just the vocals. It might be great lyrics, a kick-ass guitar riff or a sparkling piano run, or a bridge full of ear-popping brass, or an irresistible rhythm. Or maybe it’s all that:
Thing is, the summer of 2021 means we’ve just passed the milestone 50th Anniversary of Marvin Gaye’s groundbreaking album What’s Going On, an unmatched (and unmatchable) work of musical genius that brought popular soul music to the fore of social commentary. Surely, Spike Lee was way ahead of the curve (as usual) when he centered the album in the soundtrack of Da Five Bloods last year.
Plus, it’s also the 50th Anniversary of Sly Stone’s head-turning There’s a Riot Going On. His tune “Family Affair” was the final #1 R&B single of the 1971 calendar.
Curtis Mayfield’s first live album after splitting from The Impressions, a double album titled Curtis/Live!, is officially 50 years old.
1971 was the year Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff founded Philadelphia International Records, the home of The O’Jays, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Patti LaBelle, Billy Paul, and Teddy Pendergrass, amongst a host of others. This year is slated to bring us a trove of commemorative box sets from Messrs Gamble and Huff’s brain child, both vinyl and CD.
The number one R&B single of 1971 was the great “Mr. Big Stuff” by Jean Knight. Al Green seduced us with “Let’s Stay Together” and “Tired of Being Alone,” Isaac Hayes cranked out “Theme From Shaft,” and James Brown blasted the nation with “Hot Pants (She Got To Use What She Got To Get What She Wants) (Pt. 1).” Stevie (no surname needed) reassured us “We Can Work It Out,” and the Staple Singers implored us to “Respect Yourself.” Ike and Tina rocked America with their sexy crossover “Proud Mary.” Bill Withers was on every station with “Ain’t No Sunshine.” “Want Ads” from Honey Cone also charted at #1 (“Wanted, young man single and free, experience in love preferred, but will accept a young trainee”). Bobby Womack offered up “That’s The Way I Feel About ‘Cha,” and, of course, Aretha Franklin belted out her classic super-groove, “Rock Steady.” And that’s just a smattering of the top 100 R&B singles for the year.
So, as we approach the 45th Anniversary of Stevie’s momentous Songs in the Key of Life, what makes the summer of 2021 stand out? We’re well-past the era of new soul music releases, and there are no soul music festivals to speak of on the concert calendar, but listen up, because starting this week:
The groove gets going with a taste of “contemporary” soul, My Life, the long-anticipated biopic of Mary J. Blige (starring Ms. Mary Jane herself) just dropped.
And within days, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s award-winning documentary of the series of shows that made up 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival, Summer of Soul, featuring Stevie (on drums!), B.B. King, Sly Stone, and many more will be available in theaters nationwide.
Last but not least, we get the big screen debut of Liesl Tommy’s Aretha bio pic, Respect, starring Jennifer Hudson in the title role.
This is a big deal, at least to me. I find myself genuinely excited about summer “coming attractions” for the first time in ages. This is crucial cultural history, created by true-blue HOF artists, front and center. And though these projects reflect upon the work of artists who necessarily were forced to come face-to-face with some of the most blatant aspects of American racism, and who struggled with and overcame sometimes tragic personal and family issues to achieve fame and success, they do promise some pure, joyous fun to behold. I hope you will take advantage and experience what the incomparable Me’Shell Ndegéocello is feeling when she sings,“I’m Diggin’ You (Like an Old Soul Record).” Let’s celebrate the opportunity to support the folks who’ve labored to bring these musical giants back to center stage.
*One last soul music treat I feel the need to share, even if it has zip to do with this summer, just because it’s so dope – turn it up!*
D’Angelo & Friends – Use Me