I was a fan of “soul music” long before I knew it, for the simple reason I’d never heard that term then. Instead, it was all part of rock n roll, of which I was a rabid fan.
In 1956 Elvis jump-started my fanhood, and by ’57 Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard cemented it. After that, I was overwhelmed by group after group, all of them in the hopper together, none of them separated by race or ethnicity or much of anything else. Later of course it was referred to as “R and B,” or sometimes “old school.”
The soul singers I remember from then are groups like the Drifters, the Platters and the Coasters. Solo artists were Tommy Edwards with “It’s All in the Game;’ Jackie Wilson with “Lonely Teardrops,” and James Brown with “Night Train.” Later on came Barbara Lewis, Mary Wells, and Ben E. King, and of course the girl groups, among them the Ronettes, the Chiffons, the Teddy Bears, the Shirelles, and the Marvelettes.
Then in 1964 the world — and not just the teen world — got turned on its head when the Beatles invaded. They were adored, envied, condemned, excoriated — you name it — according to who was either their fan or their Grand Inquisitor. But negative reviews didn’t matter because, first, The Boys were adored by teens who didn’t give one tiddly-doo who disliked them. And second, even the bad reviews and outrage over their hair, their accents, their lyics and their Svengali-like corruption of the Flower of American Girlhood, just kept them in the limelight even more.
But here’s a point of interest I don’t think many people know: In their first two albums, a bunch of their songs were written NOT by them, but by the writers of soul classics. And they were sung by soul singers. There were “Chains,” sung by the Cookies; the Isley Brothers’ classic, “Twist and Shout,” “Roll Over, Beethoven” by Chuck Berry, and, “Long Tall Sally” by the Macon Wildman himself, Little Richard. Then there’s “You Really Got a Hold on Me” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and “Please Mr. Postman,” sung by the Marvelettes.
I don’t know if the Beatles’ showcasing those tunes had anything to do with the explosion of soul music, but I do know it happened. And in that explosion, I was swept away in three separate episodes.
The floodgates open
The first was the winter of ’64-65.
As I said, I’d never seen soul music as a distinct genre of rock, but that winter I couldn’t see it as anything else. There were three powerhouse studios of soul music — Motown, in Detroit; Stax, in Nashville, and Muscle Shoals in Alabama.
Everyone knows of Motown, and most of us know its all-stars. Among them are, The Jacksons, The Temptations, the Miracles, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Chi-Lites, the Isleys, Martha and the Vandellas, the Supremes, Junior Walker, and on and on.
Stax’s stars were Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Booker T and the MG’s, Eddie Floyd and Carla Thomas and her father Ike, of “Walkin’ a Dog” fame.
Finally, some of Muscle Shoals’ big shots were Aretha Franklin’s early stuff, Wilson “Wicked” Pickett, Percy Sledge and Clarence Carter.
Of course back then, I didn’t know any studios other than Motown, but I knew the groups as they came out with one hit after another. Or as it seemed to me, they came out with a bunch of hits at the same time. From those Glory Days of ’65 I remember “Shotgun,” “Nowhere to Run,” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “My Girl,” “I Can’t Help Myself,” “In the Midnight Hour,” “Stop, in the Name of Love,” “A Change is Gonna Come,” “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You),” “Baby, I’m Yours,” “Nowhere to Run,” and last but hardly least, “1-2-3.” (Just for giggles, I left out the singers’ names because I thought you might like to see if you can remember them).
Oh yeah, and in the fall of ’64 was the maiden voyage of THE greatest blue-eyed soul group, The Righteous Brothers, with their hit “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.”
He had it all goin on
The second soul music landmark was in 1971 when Marvin Gaye released the album “What’s Going On.” It was a total departure from anything I’d ever heard from R and B, both in terms of music and message. Of course, Marvin Gaye had been an R and B stalwart for years, and was famous for his solo stuff, as well as his working with female partners, Mary Wells, Kim Weston, and Tammy Terrell. But “What’s Going On” defied categorization. I don’t know what was done technically in the studio, but the music was simply other-worldly, not at all like ANY music I’d been listening to.
And the message? It was anti-war, anti-trashing, anti-violence — relevant during that time of upheaval, and at least as relevant today. It was so ground-breaking that Berry Gordy, Motown’s major domo, didn’t want to produce it because it was a protest song, and Motown’s stock in trade was romantic stuff. Gordy was afraid it would alienate Gaye’s, and Motown’s, fans. So Marvin Gaye produced it himself and it became a huge smash hit. And rather than lose any fans, it gained a whole bunch of them. If you don’t know the album, you might want to give it a listen. And if you do know it, you might want to freshen your memory… and feelings.
The Revue of revues
My third and most vivid soul music experience was again in 1965 — in July to be exact, in New York City. I had the rare and amazing pleasure of seeing one of the the Motown Revue’s touring troupes at the Apollo Theater.
That summer I had the joy of working on the Bronx’s only beach Orchard Beach. I got the job through literal nepotism — my uncle worked for the NYC Dept of Parks and he had the connections to get me the job, which lots of kids wanted because it paid a lordly wage. I don’t remember the official job title, but we called ourselves Crap Pickers, because that’s pretty much what we did, figuratively … and sometimes literally. We each wandered around with a huge canvas bag and a stick with a nail at the end, spearing up whatever the denizens of that fine borough saw fit to leave in the sand.
Anyhow, one guy I worked with, Sam Cunningham, became my best work pal and we hung out on our days off. One day during lunch he told me about the Motown Revue and asked me if I wanted to go with him and his cousin. He didn’t have to ask twice.
The revue had a week run and while I don’t remember which night we went, I do remember the house was packed to the rafters, where our seats were, but we could still see the stage fine. Now, catch this for the lineup: The Velvelettes, the Spinners, Brenda Halloway, the Contours, Stevie Wonder, and the headliner, Martha and the Vandellas.
If I had to use one word to describe each act it is Fabulous. They had everything going on — the singing, the choreography, the crowd-pleasing. While Martha and the Vandellas were listed at the top of the bill, Stevie stole the show.
Back then, he was still Little Stevie, and all of 15 years old. But his age belied his talent. His big hit at that point was Fingertips, which he sang, accompanying himself on bongos and harmonica. Then he did a full drum solo. Then he tore up a bunch of tunes on the piano, and simply stormed the house. Chronologically, he may have been a kid, but musically he was a giant.
Martha and the Vandellas closed the show, and following Stevie, you can bet they had their work cut out for them. They also acquitted themselves admirably.
It’s been a long time since that show and I can remember only two specific things about it.
One is the admission price, which was $2.50, including a Steve Reeves movie.
The other is I’ve seen dozens of concerts and hundreds of performers since then, but I never again saw that much talent on one stage at one time.