The History of Soul


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SOUL MUSIC - historical and political review

More than any other genre of popular american music, soul music is the result of the combination and merging of previous styles and substyles in the 50's and 60's. Broadly speaking, soul comes from gospel and blues, two afro-american musical styles. Blues was mainly a musical style that praised the fleshly desire whereas gospel was more oriented toward spiritual inspiration. This opposition which gave birth to soul will reveal its wide ranging and immensely diverse style that we found in the passion, pride and optimism that performers rarely showed so strongly.

Not only was soul performed by black musicians, it also gradually came into white musical groups and was then called "blue eyed soul". Soul music ruled the black musical charts throughout the 60's and even if it began to splinter apart at the end of the 60's, it pervaded and inspired many other music sytles such as current pop music, and funk. In fact it never went away, it simply evolved.

Thus an historical and social study of this phenomenon is necessary. We will try to examine the situation of the blacks at the middle of the century to try to untangle the complex roots of soul. A musical presentation will then follow to point out the main characteristics of soul and allow you to listen to this mesmerizing and so gritty music that soul is.



1. Black music in America: a summing up of the middle of the century context

The time of slavery in the US, this period of over 200 years which was abolished (13th Amendment) after the Civil War (1861-65) is too strong for the black community to forget, despite the 14th and 15th Amendment which gave them the Right to Vote and the American citizenship. And indeed the integration of the blacks in essential parts of the american society had hardly progressed by the end of the Second World War. The blacks kept on living together and created their own institutions to respond to their own needs. One of the most powerful institution was the religious one. Besides, new churches emerged like Jehovah' witnesses, God's Church or the 7th day adventist. Some blacks even came to the "Nation of Islam" and formed the Black Muslims (Malcom X was a one of their most famous members), lead by Louis Farrakhan. Their political and solical ideas attracted thousands of blacks who feeled apart from the American way of life. Black artists were still financially helped by the American Church, and other institutions helped them for their careers (YMCA, YWCA, etc...). Blacks began to publish their own newspapers and some big towns even had their radios and TV channels only intended for blacks. At the middle of the century, blacks were more and more withdrawing of the society to form a solid and uniform black community.

But during the sixties, also called the civil rights decade, and under the pressure of anti discrimination organizations such as National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Urban League, and as the result of the activism of black leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., democratic administrations of John F. Kennedy passed civil rights acts to promote integration (1964-65): discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race, sex, religion, or national origin was declared illegal. The Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968, intended to make residential integration more of a reality. In 1971 a system of busing students between black and white schools began. All of these reforms and acts wouldn't have been passed without a very strong black revolution which began in 1955. The acts about civil rights that had been passed between 54 and 57 were not efficient enough to loose the whites' resistance against any change. After a racial occurrence in a Greensboro restaurant, "sit in" demonstrations started upconsisting of blacks sitting in places they had not the right to sit before. These occurrences were also supported by whites. And they began to sing "we shall overcome", a traditional gospel...

2. The birth of soul

Since 1940, jazz music had begun to evolve and to split into many other styles, but the main idea was to look for a more dynamic music. At the same time, records intended for blacks, also called "racial records" shifted to the label "Rythm and Blues" (R&B). A new generation of blues musicians went onto the scene. Most of them sung Gospel songs and were bound to become active members of soul, as R&B grew into soul.

Soul music can find its roots in 4 different sources: racial, geographical, historical and economical. R&B was exclusively played by black muscians for black audiences. Like urban blues which has its craddle in Chicago, soul music was born in Memphis and more widely in the southern US where most artists come from. According to Peter Guralnick: "Soul is the expression of a black solidarity, of the pride of a nation who wanted to end up with these centuries of segregation and who had found in these chants the practical means to claim its identity and spirituality."

Pioneer musicians in the domain of soul are Ray Charles who first merged Gospel and R&B, James Brown considered as the Soul Brother #1, and Sam Cooke.

3. The end of the racial enclave

Paradoxically, at the end of the 50's the interest of the whites for black music grew fastly, suprising almost every records company. Young whites had discovered blacks music with singers like Elvis Presley and Bill Halley. They progressively demanded the original versions, sung by black musicians. The influence of R&B thus became stronger for commercial interests. Guided by his intuition and the then trend, Berry Gordy founded the Motown label, one of the first records compagny owned and managed by a black. Motown knew an unbelievable success and it was the most successful independent label of its era. The Stax label of Memphis also was influential. They both set a level of instrumental discipline and virtuosity that remains among the benchmark standards of musical excellence in contemporary popular music.

Soul was so a varied and nationwide phenomenon, not pigeonholed into certain regional style or school of music. Performers had a career which often grew enormously.


for more information about soul music go to Soul by Richie Unterberger or to Stax/Volt and the Sound of Memphis Soul by Richie Unterberger. You have the possibility to click on the links presented below to know more about a musical style or a particular artist.


'50s R&B Through Soul and Funk to '90s Dance-Pop

'50s R&B (early soul Performers)

James Brown Ray Charles Sam Cooke Charles Brown T Bone Walker Louis Jordan Bill Dogget
'60s Soul

James Brown Otis Redding Sam & Dave Wilson Pickett Aretha Franklin Al Green The Temptations Fats Domino

Late '60s Funk

James Brown Sly & The Family Stone
'70s Soul

Curtis Mayfield Isaac Hayes The Chi-Lites The Stylistics Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes The O'Jays The Spinners Rufus
'70s Funk

Funkadelic Parliament George Clinton Bootsy Collins
Disco (Mid-to-Late '70s)

Chic Donna Summer Bee Gees Sister Sledge Gloria Gaynor






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