Soul music (often referred to simply as soul) is a popular music genre that originated in the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It combines elements of African-American gospel music, rhythm and blues and jazz. Soul music became popular for dancing and listening in the United States, where record labels such as Motown, Atlantic and Stax were influential during the Civil Rights Movement. Soul also became popular around the world, directly influencing rock music and the music of Africa.
According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, soul is “music that arose out of the black experience in America through the transmutation of gospel and rhythm & blues into a form of funky, secular testifying”. Catchy rhythms, stressed by handclaps and extemporaneous body moves, are an important feature of soul music. Other characteristics are a call and response between the lead vocalist and the chorus and an especially tense vocal sound. The style also occasionally uses improvisational additions, twirls and auxiliary sounds. Soul music reflected the African-American identity and it stressed the importance of an African-American culture. The new-found African-American consciousness led to new styles of music, which boasted pride in being black.
Soul music dominated the U.S. R&B chart in the 1960s, and many recordings crossed over into the pop charts in the U.S., Britain and elsewhere. By 1968, the soul music genre had begun to splinter. Some soul artists developed funk music, while other singers and groups developed slicker, more sophisticated, and in some cases more politically conscious varieties. By the early 1970s, soul music had been influenced by psychedelic rock and other genres, leading to psychedelic soul. The United States saw the development of neo soul around 1994. There are also several other subgenres and offshoots of soul music.
The key subgenres of soul include the Detroit (Motown) style, a rhythmic music influenced by gospel; deep soul and southern soul, driving, energetic soul styles combining R&B with southern gospel music sounds; Memphis soul, a shimmering, sultry style; New Orleans soul, which came out of the rhythm and blues style; Chicago soul, a lighter gospel-influenced sound; Philadelphia soul, a lush orchestral sound with doo-wop-inspired vocals; Psychedelic soul, a blend of psychedelic rock and soul music; as well as categories such as Blue-eyed soul, which is soul music performed by white artists; British soul; and Northern soul, rare soul music played by DJs at nightclubs in Northern England.
Soul music has its roots in traditional African-American gospel music and rhythm and blues, and the hybridization of their respective religious and secular styles, in both lyrical content and instrumentation, that began to occur in the 1950s. The term soul had been used among African-American musicians to emphasize the feeling of being an African-American in the United States. According to musicologist Barry Hansen:
Though this hybrid produced a clutch of hits in the R&B market in the early 1950s, only the most adventurous white fans felt its impact at the time; the rest had to wait for the coming of soul music in the 1960s to feel the rush of rock and roll sung gospel-style.
According to another source, “Soul music was the result of the urbanization and commercialization of rhythm and blues in the ’60s.” The phrase “soul music” itself, referring to gospel-style music with secular lyrics, is first attested in 1961. The term ‘soul’ in African-American parlance has connotations of African-American pride and culture. Gospel groups in the 1940s and 1950s occasionally used the term as part of their name. The jazz style that derived from gospel came to be called soul jazz. As singers and arrangers began using techniques from gospel and soul jazz in African-American popular music during the 1960s, soul music gradually functioned as an umbrella term for the African-American popular music at the time.
Important innovators whose recordings in the 1950s contributed to the emergence of soul music included Clyde McPhatter, Hank Ballard, and Etta James. Ray Charles is often cited as popularizing the soul genre with his string of hits starting with 1954’s “I Got a Woman”. Singer Bobby Womack said: “Ray was the genius. He turned the world onto soul music.” Charles was open in acknowledging the influence of Pilgrim Travelers vocalist Jesse Whitaker on his singing style.
Little Richard (who inspired Otis Redding) and James Brown were equally influential. Brown was known as the “Godfather of Soul” and Richard proclaimed himself the “king of rockin’ and rollin’, rhythm and blues soulin'”, because his music embodied elements of all three, and because he inspired artists in all three genres.
Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson are also often acknowledged as soul forefathers. Cooke became popular as the lead singer of gospel group The Soul Stirrers, before controversially moving into secular music. His recording of “You Send Me” in 1957 launched a successful pop career, and his 1962 recording of “Bring It On Home To Me” has been described as “perhaps the first record to define the soul experience”. Jackie Wilson, a contemporary of both Cooke and James Brown, also achieved crossover success in 1957 with “Reet Petite”, and was particularly influential for his dramatic delivery and performances.
Writer Peter Guralnick is among those to identify Solomon Burke as a key figure in the emergence of soul music, and Atlantic Records as the key record label. Burke’s early 1960s songs, including “Cry to Me”, “Just Out of Reach” and “Down in the Valley” are considered classics of the genre. Guralnick wrote:
“Soul started, in a sense, with the 1961 success of Solomon Burke’s “Just Out Of Reach”. Ray Charles, of course, had already enjoyed enormous success (also on Atlantic), as had James Brown and Sam Cooke — primarily in a pop vein. Each of these singers, though, could be looked upon as an isolated phenomenon; it was only with the coming together of Burke and Atlantic Records that you could begin to see anything even resembling a movement.”
Ben E. King also achieved success in 1961 with “Stand By Me”, a song directly based on a gospel hymn. By the mid-1960s, the initial successes of Burke, King and others had been surpassed by new soul singers, including Stax artists such as Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, who mainly recorded in Memphis, Tennessee, and Muscle Shoals, Alabama. According to Jon Landau:
“Between 1962 and 1964 Redding recorded a series of soul ballads characterized by unabashedly sentimental lyrics usually begging forgiveness or asking a girlfriend to come home…. He soon became known as “Mr. Pitiful” and earned a reputation as the leading performer of soul ballads.”
The most important female soul singer to emerge was Aretha Franklin, originally a gospel singer who began to make secular recordings in 1960 but whose career was later revitalised by her recordings for Atlantic. Her 1967 recordings, such as “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”, “Respect” (originally sung by Otis Redding), and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” (written by Chips Moman and Dan Penn), were significant and commercially successful productions.
Soul music dominated the U.S. African-American music charts in the 1960s, and many recordings crossed over into the pop charts in the U.S. Otis Redding was a huge success at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. The genre also became highly popular in the UK, where many leading acts toured in the late 1960s. “Soul” became an umbrella term, used to describe an increasingly wide variety of R&B-based music styles — from the dance and pop-oriented acts at Motown Records in Detroit, such as The Temptations, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, to “deep soul” performers such as Percy Sledge and James Carr. Different regions and cities within the U.S., including New York City, Detroit, Chicago, Memphis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Muscle Shoals, Alabama (the home of FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios) became noted for different subgenres of the music and recording styles.
By 1968, while at its peak of popularity, soul began to fragment into disparate subgenres. Artists such as James Brown and Sly & the Family Stone evolved into funk music, while other singers such as Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and Al Green developed slicker, more sophisticated and in some cases more politically conscious varieties of the genre. However, soul music continued to evolve, informing most subsequent forms of R&B from the 1970s-onward, with pockets of musicians continuing to perform in traditional soul style.
1970s and later
Later examples of soul music include recordings by The Staple Singers (such as I’ll Take You There), and Al Green’s 1970s recordings, done at Willie Mitchell’s’ Royal Recording in Memphis. Mitchell’s Hi Records continued in the Stax tradition of the previous decade, releasing a string of hits by Green, Ann Peebles, Otis Clay, O.V. Wright and Syl Johnson. Bobby Womack, who recorded with Chips Moman in the late 1960s, continued to produce soul recordings in the 1970s and 1980s.
In Detroit, producer Don Davis worked with Stax artists such as Johnnie Taylor and The Dramatics. Early 1970s recordings by The Detroit Emeralds, such as Do Me Right, are a link between soul and the later disco style. Motown Records artists such as Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson contributed to the evolution of soul music, although their recordings were considered more in a pop music vein than those of Redding, Franklin and Carr. Although stylistically different from classic soul music, recordings by Chicago-based artists are often considered part of the genre.
By the early 1970s, soul music had been influenced by psychedelic rock and other genres. The social and political ferment of the times inspired artists like Gaye and Curtis Mayfield to release album-length statements with hard-hitting social commentary. Artists like James Brown led soul towards funk music, which became typified by 1970s bands like Parliament-Funkadelic and The Meters. More versatile groups such as War, the Commodores, and Earth, Wind and Fire became popular around this time. During the 1970s, some slick and commercial blue-eyed soul acts like Philadelphia’s Hall & Oates and Oakland’s Tower of Power achieved mainstream success, as did a new generation of street-corner harmony or “city-soul” groups such as The Delfonics and the historically black Howard University’s Unifics.
The syndicated music/dance variety television series Soul Train, hosted by Chicago native Don Cornelius, debuted in 1971. The show provided an outlet for soul music for several decades, also spawning a franchise that saw the creation of a record label (Soul Train Records) that distributed music by The Whispers, Carrie Lucas, and an up-and-coming group known as Shalamar. Numerous disputes led to Cornelius spinning off the record label to his talent booker, Dick Griffey, who transformed the label into Solar Records, itself a prominent soul music label throughout the 1980s. The TV series continued to air until 2006, although other predominantly African-American music genres such as hip-hop began overshadowing soul on the show beginning in the 1980s.
As disco and funk were dominating the charts in the late 1970s and early 1980s, soul went in the direction of quiet storm. With its relaxed tempos and soft melodies, quiet storm soul took influences from soft rock and adult contemporary. Many funk bands, such as Con Funk Shun, Cameo, and Lakeside would have a few quiet storm tracks on their albums. Among the most successful acts in this era include Smokey Robinson, Teddy Pendergrass, Peabo Bryson, Atlantic Starr, and Larry Graham.
After the decline of disco and funk in the early 1980s, soul music became influenced by electro music. It became less raw and more slickly produced, resulting in a style known as contemporary R&B, which sounded very different from the original rhythm and blues style. The United States saw the development of neo-soul around 1994. Mainstream record label marketing support for soul genres cooled in the 2000s due to the industry’s re-focus on hip-hop.
Notable record labels and producers
Berry Gordy’s successful Tamla/Motown group of labels was notable for being African-American owned, unlike most of the earlier independent R&B labels. Notable artists under this label were The Supremes, The Temptations, The Miracles, the Four Tops, The Marvelettes, Mary Wells, Jr. Walker & The All-Stars, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell, Martha and the Vandellas, and The Jackson Five.
Hits were made using a quasi-industrial “production-line” approach. Some considered the sound to be mechanistic, but the producers and songwriters brought artistic sensitivity to the three-minute tunes. Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland were rarely out of the charts for their work as songwriters and record producers for The Supremes, the Four Tops and Martha and the Vandellas. They allowed important elements to shine through the dense musical texture. Rhythm was emphasized by handclaps or tambourine. Smokey Robinson was another writer and record producer who added lyrics to “The Tracks Of My Tears” by his group The Miracles, which was one of the most important songs of the decade.
Stax Records and Atlantic Records
Stax Records and Atlantic Records were independent labels that produced high-quality dance records featuring many well known singers of the day. They tended to have smaller ensembles marked by expressive gospel-tinged vocals. Brass and saxophones were also used extensively. Stax Records, founded by siblings Estelle and James Stewart, was the second most successful record label behind Motown Records. They were responsible for releasing hits by Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, The Staple Singers and many more. Ahmet Ertegun, who had anticipated being a diplomat until 1944 when his father died, founded Atlantic Records in 1947 with his friend Herb Abramson. Ertegun wrote many songs for Ray Charles and The Clovers. He even sang backup vocals for his artist Big Joe Turner on the song, “Shake Rattle and Roll.”
Detroit (Motown) soul
Dominated by Berry Gordy’s Motown Records empire, Detroit soul is strongly rhythmic and influenced by gospel music. The Motown sound often includes hand clapping, a powerful bassline, violins and bells. Motown Records’ house band was The Funk Brothers. AllMusic cites Motown as the pioneering label of pop-soul, a style of soul music with raw vocals, but polished production and toned-down subject matter intended for pop radio and crossover success. Artists of this style included Diana Ross, the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, and Billy Preston. Popular during the 1960s, the style became glossier during the 1970s and led to disco.
Deep soul and southern soul
The terms deep soul and southern soul generally refer to a driving, energetic soul style combining R&B’s energy with pulsating southern United States gospel music sounds. Memphis, Tennessee label Stax Records nurtured a distinctive sound, which included putting vocals further back in the mix than most contemporary R&B records, using vibrant horn parts in place of background vocals, and a focus on the low end of the frequency spectrum. The vast majority of Stax releases were backed by house bands Booker T and the MGs (with Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, and Al Jackson) and the Memphis Horns (the splinter horn section of the Mar-Keys, trumpeter Wayne Jackson and saxophonist Andrew Love).
Memphis soul is a shimmering, sultry style of soul music produced in the 1960s and 1970s at Stax Records and Hi Records in Memphis, Tennessee. It featured melancholic and melodic horns, Hammond organ, bass, and drums, as heard in recordings by Hi’s Al Green and Stax’s Booker T. & the M.G.’s. The latter group also sometimes played in the harder-edged Southern soul style. The Hi Records house band (Hi Rhythm Section) and producer Willie Mitchell developed a surging soul style heard in the label’s 1970s hit recordings. Some Stax recordings fit into this style, but had their own unique sound.
New Orleans soul
The New Orleans soul scene directly came out of the rhythm and blues era, when such artists as Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Huey Piano Smith made a huge impact on the pop and R&B charts and a huge direct influence on the birth of Funk music. The principal architect of Crescent City’s soul was songwriter, arranger, and producer Allen Toussaint. He worked with such artists as Irma Thomas (“the Soul Queen of New Orleans”), Jessie Hill, Chris Kenner, Benny Spellman, and Ernie K. Doe on the Minit/Instant label complex to produce a distinctive New Orleans soul sound that generated a passel of national hits. Other notable New Orleans hits came from Robert Parker, Betty Harris, and Aaron Neville. While record labels in New Orleans largely disappeared by the mid-1960s, producers in the city continued to record New Orleans soul artists for other mainly New York City- and Los Angeles-based record labels—notably Lee Dorsey for New York–based Amy Records and the Meters for New York–based Josie and then LA-based Reprise.
Chicago soul generally had a light gospel-influenced sound, but the large number of record labels based in the city tended to produce a more diverse sound than other cities. Vee Jay Records, which lasted until 1966, produced recordings by Jerry Butler, Betty Everett, Dee Clark, and Gene Chandler. Chess Records, mainly a blues and rock and roll label, produced a number of major soul artists, including The Dells and Billy Stewart. Curtis Mayfield not only scored many hits with his group, The Impressions, but wrote many hit songs for Chicago artists and produced hits on his own labels for The Fascinations, Major Lance, and the Five Stairsteps.
Based primarily in the Philadelphia International record label, Philadelphia soul (or Philly Soul) had a lush orchestral sound and doo-wop-inspired vocals. Thom Bell, and Kenneth Gamble & Leon Huff are considered the founders of Philadelphia soul, which produced hits for The O’Jays, The Intruders, The Delfonics, The Stylistics, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, and The Spinners.
Psychedelic soul, sometimes known as “black rock”, was a blend of psychedelic rock and soul music in the late 1960s, which paved the way for the mainstream emergence of funk music a few years later. Early pioneers of this subgenre of soul music include Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, and Stevie Wonder. While psychedelic rock began its decline, the influence of psychedelic soul continued on and remained prevalent through the 1970s.
Blue-eyed soul is R&B or soul music performed by white artists. The meaning of blue-eyed soul has evolved over decades. Originally the term was associated with mid-1960s white artists who performed soul and R&B that was similar to the music released by Motown Records and Stax Records. The term continued to be used in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly by the British media to refer to a new generation of singers who adopted elements of the Stax and Motown sounds. To a lesser extent, the term has been applied to singers in other music genres that are influenced by soul music. Artists like Hall and Oates, David Bowie, George Michael, Christina Aguilera, Amy Winehouse and Adele are known as Blue-eyed soul singers.
Soul has been a major influence on British popular music since the 1960s including bands of the British Invasion, most significantly The Beatles. There were a handful of significant British Blue-eyed soul acts, including Dusty Springfield and Tom Jones. American soul was extremely popular among some youth sub-cultures like the Northern soul and Modern soul movements, but a clear genre of British soul did not emerge until the 1980s when a number of artists including George Michael, Sade, Simply Red, Lisa Stansfield and Soul II Soul enjoyed commercial success. The popularity of British soul artists in the U.S., most notably Amy Winehouse, Adele, Estelle, Duffy, Joss Stone and Leona Lewis, led to talk of a “third British Invasion” or soul invasion in the 2000s and 2010s.
The term neo soul is a marketing phrase coined in the early 1990s by producer and record label executive Kedar Massenburg to describe a blend of 1970s soul-style vocals and instrumentation with contemporary R&B sounds, hip-hop beats and poetic interludes. The style was developed in the early to mid-1990s. A key element in neo soul is a heavy dose of Fender Rhodes or Wurlitzer electric piano “pads” over a mellow, grooving interplay between the drums (usually with a rim shot snare sound) and a muted, deep funky bass. The Fender Rhodes piano sound gives the music a warm, organic character.
Northern soul and modern soul
The phrase northern soul was coined by journalist Dave Godin and popularised in 1970 through his column in Blues and Soul magazine. The term refers to rare soul music that was played by DJs at nightclubs in northern England. The playlists originally consisted of obscure 1960s and early 1970s American soul recordings with an uptempo beat, such as those on Motown Records and more obscure labels such as Okeh Records. Modern soul developed when northern soul DJs began looking in record shops in the United States and United Kingdom for music that was more complex and contemporary. What emerged was a richer sound that was more advanced in terms of Hi-Fi and FM radio technology.
Nu-jazz and soul-influenced electronica
Many artists in various genres of electronic music (such as house, drum n bass, UK garage, and downtempo) are heavily influenced by soul, and have produced many soul-inspired compositions.