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 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 message music maven and one-time Staple Singer Mavis Staples. It’s “Fight” a brand new single as taken from her 2015 EP Your Good Fortune. The EP was produced by none other than Anti-Records labelmate Son Little, also an artist with a feel for music with a message. This song is a kind of artistic mobius strip, with one artist who followed in the footsteps of another making footsteps of his own for her to follow. Saying that, there is more than just a turnaround between two artists with a similar set of motivations.
“Fight” seems to capture the anger related to any number of systemic aggressions against black people specifically and poor people in general as perpetrated by those who’s job it is to protect them. These events have alerted us to a social crisis that is not isolated to a few areas in our society. Songs about struggle and rage are appropriate in 2015 to say the least. I think essential may be the more precise word.
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 impressionistic blues and soul proponent for the 21st century, Son Little. It’s “Cross My Heart”, his initial foray into a new musical milieu under this new moniker in November of 2013. His birth name is Aaron Livingston, known for projects under that name in collaborations with Rjd2 and The Roots.
The evocation of the blues is palpable here on his first single under the Son Little banner, and for more than the standard and purely musical reasons, although this song departs from that template too. For many, the blues is not so much a musical form as it is a spiritual state, and a connection to a shared history that is less joyous than even the best in a musical genre has shown us.
At the root, and established before the branches of rock and soul music were cultivated , the blues has always been about pain and dehumanization, and the raw expression in reaction to those. That’s what Son Little hooks into here.
Yet, somehow this is not about some scholarly recreation of classic blues or soul. There are greater depths to be discovered here.
Listen to this track by Stax staffer, soul music innovator, and future South Park cast member Isaac Hayes. It’s “Walk On By”, Hayes’ expansive interpretation of the Bacharach-David pop hit that appears on 1969’s Hot Buttered Soul.
Hayes had been a stalwart songwriter at the Stax label, penning many hits for resident artists, most notably Sam & Dave, and their song “Soul Man”. But, the time between that song and the end of the decade was a wide one. A lot had changed. One important thing that had shifted was the standing relationship between Stax and Atlantic, the latter of which had distributed the former’s catalog from 1965. Atlantic had claimed Stax’s output when it in turn was bought by Warner in 1968 as per the contract signed by Stax founder Jim Stewart when the distribution deal was initially struck. The requirement to back-fill Stax’s offering with new work was suddenly a vital priority. It was the end of an era, and the beginning of a new one.
How did this turn of events help to establish Isaac Hayes as a soul music icon, a status that lasted over a forty-year career as a solo artist? Read more
Listen to this track by Motown wunderkind and soul pop auteur Stevie Wonder. It’s “I Believe (When I Fall In Love With You It Will Be Forever)”, the closing track of his 1972 record Talking Book.
That album was almost dead center in the inarguable purple patch of records Wonder would create in the early ’70s, wedged between Music Of My Mind, and Innervisions, while still managing to rival those albums as among the best examples of his work. And this was a highlight among highlights, with a co-authorship by Yvonne Wright, his then sister-in-law.
The song would be covered by a wide range of artists on the pop spectrum, from Peter Frampton, to Art Garfunkel, to George Michael, to Petra Haden, to Josh Groban. This could be because it’s one of those sweeping pop songs, full of the glory of idealized love, with plenty of room for singers to stretch out their chops.
But, there’s more to this tune then being a showstopper, which it is of course. Read more
Listen to this track by Duchess of Soul and sisterly presence to the Queen (but definitely her own woman), Erma Franklin. It’s “Piece of My Heart”, a 1967 single that would be more famously associated with Janis Joplin by the next year.
The song is by big time R&B writers and producers Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns and put out on Shout Records as a vehicle for Erma Franklin. The song would later become something of a late-20th Century standard with versions by Dusty Springfield to Sammy Hagar (?!), Faith Hill, to Joss Stone.
But, Erma Franklin recorded it first, setting the stage for the song’s long life in various annals of the pop charts.Not only would this tune be an R&B hit. It would help to shape the way songs were sung in general, in soul music, and in rock music, too.
So, what distinguishes Erma’s version? Read more
Here’s a clip by new-school by way of old-school soul singer, and sometime hip-hop DJ in another life, Mayer Hawthorne. It’s “Maybe So, Maybe No”, a single from his debut 2009 record A Strange Arrangement, put out on indie label Stone’s Throw records.
The head of that label, one Peanut Butter Wolf, signed Hawthorne after hearing two songs from Hawthorne’s selection of demos, both songs sounding like tracks from the classic soul period immortalized between 1964 to 1974. This era is a common hunting ground for hip hop DJs looking for obscure samples to use in their work.
His efforts were fueled by his genuine love of music from this classic period, and aided by his Detroit-born parents who bought him 45 RPM soul records as gifts from the time he was a kid growing up in nearby Ann Arbor. This amassed library of soul singles enabled a love for the sound of vinyl records in general. As a result, his career as a DJ was ignited.
But, how did this guy also become a straight up soul singer, and one of this calibre, as well as a hip hop DJ? Well, this is where thinking of musical evolution in a linear way can trip you up. Here’s what I mean. Read more