by Mark Naida
There is a hole cut out of the ceiling on the second floor of a normal-looking house off of Woodward Avenue in Detroit, Michigan. This hole opens up a converted second floor bedroom into a cavernous attic. The echoes of the greats have swirled and beat their way into the thinly insulated attic walls. If you stand under this hole quietly, you can hear the unrestrained runs and unrehearsed takes of “when I die and am laid to rest” resonate and cut through the house’s silence. This is Hitsville, U.S.A. The weight of standing underneath this cutout, under which the likes of Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, and The Supremes once sang, is suffocating. But if a song is sung into this attic, passionately and without caution, soul singing endures.
To define soul music would be to diminish its existence. It is a vocal style, old school pop relying on horns to carry the melody with guitar following as a base, not as a focal point; it is modern America’s indigenous music, the new Gospel. After Dizzy Gillespie and the jazz greats, music was just not soulful without an impassioned singer. We have been bred to feel the passion in a voice. Passion, a hunger which craves deep personal connection, is the one aspect that may best define soul music. It is the shake and rattle of the artist’s voice, their pain breaking through at each frequency eliciting a base lizardly reaction, and the antediluvian response caused by the resounding echoes of ancient tribal chants and gospel hymns. And there have been moments when this aboriginal connection was captured. There are the mythic recording sessions of James Brown, Otis Redding, and Aretha Franklin who moved the spirits of every listener with tears and gooseflesh as the poetry fought its way out of them through vibrating chords and tears, a few moments embodying soulfulness by fighting for another octave, sharing tears in exquisite silence, and giving sincerity as a gift to the listener. The recording of James Brown’s “Live at the Apollo” is almost a spiritual artifact. It is a record of a man laying out all he had for his audience, his fraying falsetto, his dance moves so loud they can be heard. His moaning passes forced the redefinition of English lexiconical superlatives as well as the creation of such epithets as “the Godfather of Soul”, “Mr. Dynamite”, and “the Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” which only begin to describe how good he was. In fact, James Brown was seemingly so superior that superlatives no longer operated in his presence. He was the first man so good he was “bad”. This description he later used to produce his hit “Super Bad” which contains the lines “I got somethin’ that makes me wanna shout / I got somethin’ that tells me what it’s all about / Huh, I got soul and I’m super bad.” And if James Brown made a career of being bad, some lesser known artists, like Merry Clayton, found a single moment that meant just as much. The cracking, feral pass on The Rolling Stones’ iconic “Gimme Shelter” howled by the sixties backup singer is not only bone chilling – it is momentarily lobotomizing. Clayton needed only two takes to sing one of the most haunting passes, shrieking out an unimaginably powerful and faint top octave “just a shot away” that leaves Mick Jagger speechless to this day. These iconic moments are a history of the mastery of human connection – of the voices crying out in the wilderness. There is a point during listening to soul music when the listener’s cheeks prick like melting icicles, face awash with heat and emotion.
These musicians are not exceptional people; they are from the cotton fields, from the church, the river, the leeward places. These soul singers are a dying breed, made exceptional by their ability to give themselves to something so as to embody it. Their poetry is not in lyric, but in sound and static. Percy Sledge, whose “When a Man Love a Woman” is perhaps the most recognizable if not the purest soul recording ever, when asked about his origins said, “[I was] 10 years old, singing my songs in the fields, picking and chopping cotton. And my boss man tells me one day, he said, ‘Perce?’ He said, ‘That voice that you use comin’ out of your throat, the whole world is gonna hear one day.” Each boll of cotton, back-of-the-neck-cool-towel, and heartbreak led to the cultivation of a voice that would shake modern music. The story of soul music is that of the marginalized, the backwater, the east siders who sang like they had no choice. These musicians learned by listening and creating a new oral culture of soul standards, vocal techniques, and ballads unmistakably and unabashedly American, telling the history of culture’s other half.
Soul music tells the story of mid-century America. One album, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” went so far as to encapsulate life in early 1970s America in forty minutes through heartfelt ballads and socially sensitive lyrics. The title track contains the poignant lines of protest:
We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today.
Soul music’s ascendance even echoes the story of American secularization. Ray Charles’ song “I got a Woman” inverted the dusty old bones of Gospel music to sing about sexuality and the reality of love found on the road, in cheap motels and the back of smoky buses. This song scandalized the Gospel world through the reappropriation of the spiritual into the secular while essentially spurring the creation of both the R&B and the Soul music movements as we know them today. Soul music can also help to trace American linguistic history with its rampant use of imperfect and realistic language such as James Brown’s “get on up” and the sweet barrage of Otis Redding’s “got ta”s in his monolithic “Try a Little Tenderness.” Even the simple change from “ing” to “in’” such as in “feelin’” marks a change in the English language. These small colloquial expressions have contributed to the development of an entire Hip-Hop/Soul/R&B lexicon which has informed modern English language use, syntax, and expletive use. Historically and linguistically, Soul music is of the utmost importance.
This type of music is tangible, requiring real instruments and training, and is performed live as it was recorded. It is honest, primitive, carnal, nourishing, cathartic. To contrast the musicianship of these artists with that of modern phenomenons such as Drake and Fetty Wap is to compare a sweat stained stage with the altogether confusing phenomenon of a concert in which Drake listens to blank faces and waving arms screaming his lyrics to him. This is not to say that these musicians lack merit; rather, it is imperative that the realization is made that they are giving less of themselves to their listeners.
The world is lonesome for her vocal heroes and their long settled echoes.
But soul music is not dead. Leon Bridges, that deep, deliberate Texan voice like B.B. with a recycled high-waisted cool, made listeners think he was revolutionary. In fact, he just came to resurrect the soul ballad with a guitar and some style. Trumpeting out of the deep South, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, whose singer, Paul Ackley, may be the most talented vocalist of our generation, gives hope to sweater-wearing parents whose children will once again wonder why their hearts ache as they press their ear against the record player.
So go to Memphis, go to Detroit, Sun, Stax or Hitsville U.S.A., anywhere where the soul resonates. Those places where skill means little and heart is measured in decibels and affectation. Those places where sweat is obligatory and hips move hard and slow as the women do the two step. Those places where singers recorded live in echo chambers like they were choir lofts, where they wailed into ancient microphones like they were singing into the beyond. Find their voices, their songs, their soul.
Mark Naida is a sophomore studying French and English.