Listen Live
97.9 The Box Featured Video

soul (Middle English, from Old English sawol) – 1. the animating and vital principle in human beings, credited with the faculties of thought, actions and emotion and often conceived as an immaterial entity. 2. a sense of ethnic pride among African-Americans, expressed in areas such as language, social customs, religion and music.

In the mid-to-late Fifties, rhythm and blues was essentially “taken over” – re-routed from its original status as the popular music of African-Americans– to become the popular music of the whole world, with a new name: rock and roll.  Around that same time, a distinctly black music genre evolved, borrowing heavily from the music of the African-American church.  Soul music was a blending of the vocal techniques, chord progressions and call-and-response patterns of gospel, with the blues of R&B. It’s no coincidence that one of the first great voices of soul music came from the gospel world.  Sam Cooke, son of a Baptist preacher, born in the Mississippi Delta and raised in Chicago, was the first huge star of gospel music. His gospel fans were outraged when he abandoned the Soul Stirrers gospel group in 1957 to sing “the devil’s music.”  Cooke went on to become the first star of the emerging soul style.  Cooke wrote one of the first overtly political songs of the genre, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and was an entrepreneur, starting the SAR record label. SAR released records by the Soul Stirrers, Johnnie Taylor, and the Valentinos, a quintet of gospel-singing brothers named Womack from the Fairfax neighborhood of Cleveland. Lead singer Bobby Womack went solo and became a soul star in his own right.

Aretha Franklin’s style of soul is representative of the Atlantic Records sound, which ran the gamut of all the distinctive regional styles that emerged in soul’s mid-Sixties heyday. Atlantic was an early soul pioneer, starting with the genius of Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, and of course, the “Queen of Soul,” Aretha Franklin.  The regional styles included gritty, earthy Memphis soul –represented by the work of artists like Al Green, Rufus Thomas, and Luther Ingram. The silky-smooth Chicago and Philadelphia sound included Chi-town’s Impressions, Jerry Butler and the Chi-Lites, and Philly’s unmatchable production team of Gamble and Huff, who brought us the Spinners, Stylistics, O’Jays and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.  Detroit soul, associated primarily with the artists of Motown Records, like the Temptations and Supremes, became “the sound of young America,” in the words of the Motown company slogan.

One primary impetus in the development of soul music was the growth of the civil rights movement.  Love and human relationships were the overriding themes of much earlier African-American music, and soul singers certainly covered that territory.  But the power, urgency and prescience of soul music developed when artists strayed from the relative safety of romance and addressed social injustice, racial pride, black militancy and protest.  Peter Guralnick, music scholar and author of Dream Boogie:The Triumph of Sam Cooke, says that the development of soul music paralleled the civil rights movement stylistically as well as chronologically, “emerging with stealth at first, slowly gathering strength, learning to assert itself without apology, then [was] forced to retrench in the face of a series of traumatic events and jarring disappointments.” As the end of the Sixties approached, soul music made way for a more militantly Afrocentric genre of black music, funk. The assassinations of our leaders, the inferno of our neighborhoods and the disillusionment brought on by failures of the civil rights movement called for a different sound, and the shape of black music was changing, yet again.

— Meredith Rutledge for the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame

RELATED: The Slavery Years: 1619 – 1864

RELATED: Africa: The Genesis Of Black Music