Soul Revival

 Otis

As the first decade of the twentieth century nears its end, a number of discerningly gifted young musicians find themselves held in sway by a sound once coaxed out of the back door of sanctified southern churches and pulled kicking and screaming into the national limelight some 40 years ago. Soul music, a term coined in the mid-60’s to describe a style of emotionally raw, southern-fried, groove-based music, is once again asserting its timeless influence in the charts and on the albums of some of the most critically acclaimed acts in the business.

Pioneered by a young Ray Charles in the 50’s and perfected by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave and others in the following decade, soul music in its earliest form was basically a secularized offshoot of the gospel hymns familiar to any church going African American of the time. In fact, many of the earliest soul music practitioners, such as Sam Cooke, began their careers as successful gospel performers. These artists quickly discovered that a few lyrical changes, switching “my God” to “my girl” for instance, and the addition of a skilled R&B drummer not only increased their earning potential but also opened up an entirely new world of creative possibilities.

Though performers such as Cooke and Ray Charles were openly criticized for their decisions to take gospel in a secular pop direction, by the mid-60’s a handful of small, independently owned studios across Alabama and Memphis had begun turning out music of staggering emotional power that combined the force of gospel with country harmonies and a swampy, guttural rock-based groove. Combined with the more refined approach of the music coming from Detroit’s Motown label, this music essentially owned the upper echelon of the charts throughout the 60’s.

While 70’s acts such as Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, and Ann Peebles managed to carry the soul banner throughout that decade, the 80’s and 90’s proved lean times indeed, as the rise of glossy, synth-based rhythms and pulverizing rock left little room for heartfelt sermonizing.

By the turn of the century however, the world’s musical psyche seemed to heave a collective sigh as both fans and musicians, grown weary of the synthetic drivel cluttering popular culture, discovered once again the earthy, raw-boned passion of a music that never truly faded from memory.

As I write this column, soul-influenced artists as diverse as Grammy winners  Amy Winehouse and Alicia Keys, gritty southern-noir rockers Drive-by Truckers, battle-scarred  veteran Bettye LaVette and retro-chic hipsters Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings are all either sitting comfortably on the charts or receiving rave critical reviews and drawing sell out crowds. Even critic darlings Radiohead, one of the most self consciously “modern” bands working today, has fallen under the music’s spell on their latest album, “In Rainbows,” pouring forth a symphony of pleading, space/soul rock that conjures the ghost of Otis Redding while harmonized vocals rise and ebb like a choir shouting from the basement of a storefront church at midnight.

These artists continue to make stubbornly individual, terrifyingly human music in the face of every trend to the contrary. Thanks to the CD reissue revolution, somewhere on the planet at this very instant an aspiring musician is hearing the artistry of Aretha, or Otis, or Brother Ray for the very first time. Though the production values and sound quality of these recordings stamp them as mementos of their specific time, the emotion buried deep within this music’s DNA is simply eternal. As long as musicians are willing to lay themselves on the altar and expose the very essence of their fears, desires and passions, music that speaks to the human condition in a creative way—true “music of the soul” — will never die.

 

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