Listen to this track by irreplaceable Queen of soul Aretha Franklin. It’s “Respect”, a huge hit for her as taken from her 1967 album I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You. This song, actually a cover version, helped to solidify her status as a giant of modern song.
When people think of this song today, it’s Aretha’s version that immediately leaps to mind, with the signature push-pull between her lead voice and those of her sisters backing her up. That’s a musical dynamic familiar to even the most casual listener by now. Even its writer Otis Redding, who was and is also a giant of popular song, agreed that Aretha Franklin took this song to another place. At his historic appearance at the Monterrey Pop Festival in the summer of 1967, he affectionately described it as “a song a girl took away from me”. It certainly captures the vernacular of the time with it’s “sock it to me!” and “take care of TCB!” exclamations being a real high point that helped to make this song what it is. Since, it’s become interwoven into pop culture with references to it being too many to count.
Culturally speaking, Franklin’s take on this song goes even further still even by virtue of the fact that she’s the one singing it. This is not only down to her identity as a woman, but specifically as a black woman. In an era full of conflict and in a society that was coming to a head where all kinds of social structures were concerned, this song is more than just a catchy hit single. It was, and still is, culturally resonant and downright important.
Listen to this track by soul music master architect and supernaturally gifted vocalist and songwriter Sam Cooke. It’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”, a B-side to his single “Shake” that would also become a celebrated civil rights anthem. The song would also appear on the 1964 album, Ain’t That Good News, his last album during his lifetime. The song would also appear posthumously on 1965’s Shake.
The sheer magnitude of this song is almost impossible to measure, with countless cultural associations, cover versions, samples, and all around influence attached to it. It’s almost impossible too to decide which aspect of that influence is the most significant. Maybe the most obvious one is the sheer rawness of expression it represents, written by a black man celebrated as a peerless artist in one context, from the perspective of one regarded as an object to be reviled in another; at a movie and going downtown, where someone keeps telling him not to hang around, knocked to his knees when he asks for help. Nineteen sixty-four is still not so far away from today, even if the rules have changed on the surface. People of colour are still treated as members of a mass, not as individual representatives of their own experience.
Coming from a pop singer like Cooke, this multilayered song was unexpected even by Cooke himself who purportedly received it fully formed and not sure what to do with it. Full of complexity, it did more than just call out a culture for its prejudice and cruelty. It had a pretty big hand in changing pop music itself, too. Read more
Listen to this track by five man Motown pop soul institution The Temptations. It’s “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)”, a smash hit single as taken from the group’s 1971 record The Sky’s The Limit. The song was a return to form for the group, hearkening back to their earlier Motown singles in the 1960s after a period of putting out records that featured a grittier and more updated sound. At the same time, this single was the end of an era, too.
A big part of this was the departure of lead singer Eddie Kendricks soon after this song was released, leaving the group to strike out on his own in the much the same way that his former colleague David Ruffin had done. This song was Kendricks’ swan song with the group, and he made it a doozy; a virtual solo performance with his fellow Temptations providing an empathetic Greek chorus behind a tragic narrative. Even his nemesis in the group at the time Otis Williams had to admit that Kendricks knocked it out of the park on this cut, one that would become one of their best-loved songs.
This tune would become a signature song for the Temps, and inspired a number of cover versions including one by the Rolling Stones that had that them covering a Motown hit well after their habit of doing so on one of their albums was long behind them. This song is notable for another reason, too; it’s emotional complexity as balanced with how relatable it is. Read more
Listen to this track by funk-soul giant and musical Godfather to soul and her many children, James Brown. It’s “I Got The Feelin'”, a key track as taken from the album of the same name, I Got The Feelin’ released in the spring of 1968.
This song was one of a few key singles that would help to establish James Brown as a true innovator. The year before, he’d released “Cold Sweat”, a song of such importance to so many musical streams down through the years and up until today that its value cannot be measured. It helped to open up several musical directions for everyone from seventies funk, to electro, and hip hop in the eighties and sampled heavily ever since. But it initially set James Brown and his band on a path to create some of his most memorable and musically innovative songs of his career, like this one.
Among the most important elements that this song builds upon is the idea of what a lead vocal means, and how traditional singing is adapted to a new paradigm that has less to do with literal meaning or even straight melody, and more to do with something that only the body can express. Read more
Listen to this track by Virginian singer-songwriter, record producer, arranger, and indie label-owner Michael E. White. It’s “Take Care My Baby”, a cut off of his 2015 platter Fresh Blood.
That’s right; I used the word “platter”. I suppose this is because of the distinctly old-school feel to White’s music, and his approach to making it. Forming Spacebomb records in 2011, the approach that sixties and early seventies soul labels took seems to have been a template. In part, this meant the formation of a house band to back incoming clients putting out their own records. Americana singer Natalie Prass was a recent recipient of White’s expertise with her record drawing comparisons with Dusty In Memphis. Yet, White’s first client was himself.
White’s musical interests are wide, playing in rock bands (The Great White Jenkins), and angular big band jazz ensembles (Fight The Big Bull) with aplomb. His success with his debut record under his own name Big Inner created yet another musical stream for him; silky soul music through an indie rock filter. This song in particular is full of orchestral grandeur that conjures the work of The Chi-lites, The Spinners, and The Delfonics. How did this music come out of a guy who kind of resembles Jesus’ bookish brother-in-law? Part of the reason may be that, like the gospel-blues singers of yesteryear, White and Jesus do have something of a history. Read more
Listen to this track by soulful R&B crossover hitmakers The Spinners, sometimes known as The Detroit Spinners. It’s “They Just Can’t Stop It (Games People Play)”, a hit single from their 1975 album Pick Of The Litter. The song was a hit on the pop and the R&B charts that year, with lots of AM radio play during the short time between the end of the classic soul era and the dawn of disco.
The Spinners came out of Detroit in the days before Motown was founded, and just before rock ‘n’ roll had united a common audience all over the country and the world. They had formed on the cusp of a new musical era, when all manner of gospel-based singing groups began to explore the idea of creating a secular version of church vocal music, later to be known as soul.
But, it would be the seventies in which they would make their biggest mark as a group by delivering the coveted crossover hit, and by exemplifying a new style of soul music altogether.
Listen to this track by Jamaican soul singer, reggae innovator and sometime actor Jimmy Cliff. It’s “Many Rivers To Cross”, a song of hardship and burden in a true gospel style as featured prominently on 1972’s The Harder They Come soundtrack.
This record is perhaps one of the earliest that served as a collection of songs featured in a movie that also turned out to be an essential addition to any respectable record collection while it was at it. It also had the distinction of having the star of the movie as one of the contributors to it; Jimmy Cliff himself. Read more
Listen to this track by legendary back-up vocalist phenomenon and vital solo artist in her own right Merry Clayton. It’s “Southern Man”, a song written by Neil Young and recorded by Clayton on her 1971 solo record Merry Clayton. The sessions were overseen by Lou Adler, and the material was sourced from some of the best writers of the era besides Young; Carole King, James Taylor, Leon Russell, and others.
A few years after this tune was laid down for her self-titled record, Clayton had been called on to sing on the answer song to this tune, that being Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” which chided Young by name on his criticism of southern life. But, the Skynyrd song fails to acknowledge in any distinguishable way that southern life for one is not the same life for another, depending on one’s background. The cultural weight and matters of historical record behind all of that is impossible to ignore. For Clayton, participation on that song rankled. But, as she said about the Skynyrd session in the excellent documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom, part of her calling when it came to civil rights was singing. So, she sang on the Skynyrd tune anyway, and “sang the shit out of it” with the boo-boo-boo backing vocal lines when governer George Wallace is alluded to in the song being among the stand out elements.
But, that session would be after she covered this Neil Young tune. In retrospect now that we’ve got both songs to listen to, Clayton twisted that dialogue back in on itself by doing a full on interpretation of “Southern Man” and transformed it while she was at it. Read more
Listen to this track by smooth pop-soul crooner with the sonorous baritone voice, Brook Benton. It’s “Rainy Night In Georgia”, his biggest hit and something of a return to the top ten for a stretch of time after his prime period from the early 1960s. It appears on the album Brook Benton Today, released in 1970.
The song was written by Tony Joe White in 1962 around the time that Brook Benton was having his greatest successes as a songwriter and singer with material of his own. The song is taken from White’s time as a truck driver for the highway department in the titular state, often finding himself working alone on lonely nights in the days before he found success as a songwriter and performer.
By the time Brook Benton recorded the song, he’d not had a hit for some time. But this one would take him to the top ten on both the pop charts as well as the R&B charts, and become one of his best-known songs.
This could be because of the supreme gravitas of what Benton brings to his performance with a signature baritone voice that blurs the lines between pop and soul. The emotional depth in his voice brings this song to life, suggesting a whole novel’s worth of drama underneath a nocturnal landscape of desolation, and raw human loneliness. And with that, it becomes something more than just a tale of one man’s lonely journey, and approaches something more universal. Read more
Listen to this track by Motown titan and smooth as silk soul-pop provider Marvin Gaye, along with his vocal counterbalance, and no slouch in the soaring vocal department herself, Tammi Terrell. It’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, a single from writing partnership and real-life couple Ashford & Simpson. The song was a top twenty hit single in 1967, released on the Tamla label, a sister label of Motown, eventually appearing on the Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell joint album United.
The song was thought of by its writers as being their golden ticket into the Motown stable, even turning down Dusty Springfield who wanted to record it herself. Ashford and Simpson held it back , and it was eventually offered as a duet to Marvin Gaye, and to Tammi Terrell who made it one of the most prominent songs of the Motown catalogue, and an important record of the whole decade. Later on, Diana Ross would record it when she split with the Supremes and went solo in 1970. It would be a number one hit, and become a signature tune for her.Yet, it’s the alchemy that the Gaye-Terrell version offers that makes this the definitive version of the song.
Terrell had signed with Motown at the tender age of twenty, after a short career of minor hits, and even a time at the University of Pennsylvania as a pre-med student. But despite the run of singles and albums she would have with Marvin Gaye as her singing partner, Terrell would face greater challenges of a more personal nature.