Clip: Bill Friskics-Warren on the re-emergence of soul
What's Going On? Everything Soul Is New Again
By BILL FRISKICS-WARREN
Published: February 4, 2007
SOUL music has been making quite a comeback of late. Stax Records,
once home to the gritty sounds of Otis Redding and Booker T. & the
MG's, was revived last year, with Isaac Hayes, the best-selling artist
in the label's history, again on its roster. Motown, Stax's slick
Northern contemporary, is evoked in the movie "Dreamgirls," an
adaptation of the thinly veiled musical about its most famous female
singing group, the Supremes.
The last few years, meanwhile, have seen the re-emergence of a number
of singers who first made their mark during soul's heyday in the
1960s. Solomon Burke, Irma Thomas, Mavis Staples, Candi Staton, Bettye
LaVette, Sam Moore and Howard Tate have all released acclaimed albums
of new material after laboring more or less in obscurity for decades.
This renaissance has yet to translate into big sales or airplay for
any of them, but both Mr. Burke and Ms. Thomas are among the nominees
at the 49th annual Grammy Awards next Sunday.
Many of the contemporary pop and R&B acts among this year's Grammy
nominees — including John Legend, Gnarls Barkley and Corinne Bailey
Rae — are also drinking from the wellspring of classic soul music.
Some, like the British revivalists James Hunter and Joss Stone, are
updating the styles of their forebears. Others, like Beyoncé and Mary
J. Blige, work more in a neo-soul vein, employing studio musicians and
samples of older recordings to create a new hybrid.
Of course the myriad tributes to the Godfather of Soul, James Brown,
who died on Christmas, have also put soul on the radar. And the
performances of recent "American Idol" standouts like Taylor Hicks,
Ruben Studdard and Fantasia further illustrate the reach of the music.
Swatches of vintage soul have galvanized some of the most indelible
hip-hop albums of the last few years, from Ghostface Killah's
"Fishscale" to Kanye West's "Late Registration." Even Chan Marshall,
the indie-rock favorite who performs under the name Cat Power, went
searching for soul in 2006, making a record with members of the
Memphis rhythm section that played on Al Green's signature hits. More
than at any time in recent memory soul music's pressing syncopation
and stirring hollers are churning within the popular mainstream.
"It's coming at us from so many different angles right now," said
Craig Werner, the author of "Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha
Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul"
(Crown). "It's coming out of the hip-hop world. It's coming out of the
R&B world. You're hearing it in pop music too. No matter which vector
you're following, you're winding up with soul music."
Doyle Davis, the managing partner of Grimey's New and Preloved Music,
an independent record store in Nashville that stocks a wide selection
of soul CDs and LPs, attributes the resurgence to a renewed hunger for
authenticity. "People have been fed prefab music for so long that it's
starting to resonate with them that it's not real," he said. As
D-Funk, Mr. Davis also spins old-school soul and funk records on his
long-running show on Vanderbilt University's FM station, WRVU.
Matt Abels, one of the producers of "What It Is! Funky Soul and Rare
Grooves," a four-CD box released by Rhino Records last year, echoed
Mr. Davis's assessment. "Electronica came along and gave soul to the
machines, but now people are coming back and saying they want real
soul played by real musicians," Mr. Abels said. "People want that
smoky feel again."
Terms like "real" and "authentic" are slippery, and studio mavens like
Prince Paul and DJ Shadow have been making soulful music for years.
Still, Mr. Abels and Mr. Davis are on to something, said Mr. Werner,
the chairman of the department of Afro-American studies at the
University of Wisconsin, Madison.
"People want something that sounds authentic, which I think to them
means something that's not being designed, something that's not being
distanced by advertising images or forced into a mode," he said. "I
hear that from my students all the time. They hate anything that
sounds mechanical or processed. They feel like there's an immediate
response to experience in soul music. They hear it and say, 'Yeah,
that's what's adding the flavor to the hip-hop cuts.' "
The flavor of which Mr. Werner's students speak enlivens numerous
records nominated for Grammy Awards this year. John Legend's "Save
Room" draws on the simmering arrangement of "Stormy," a 1968 hit for
the pop-soul combo the Classics IV. "Crazy," a crossover smash for the
unclassifiable duo Gnarls Barkley, could pass for a D.J.-tweaked
outtake from Sly & the Family Stone's 1973 album, "Fresh." Ne-Yo's "So
Sick" and Ms. Bailey Rae's "Put Your Records On" display an affinity
with the lyrical balladry that Stevie Wonder perfected on '70s
touchstones like the album "Talking Book."
Other nominees have gleaned soul flavor from more out-of-the-way
places. Christina Aguilera's "Ain't No Other Man," an entry in the
best female pop vocal category, samples the Moon People's "Hippy,
Skippy, Moon Strut," a quaking, horn-driven obscurity from 1969. On
"Suga Mama" from the album "B'Day," Beyoncé, who also stars in
"Dreamgirls," interpolates the gutbucket guitar lines and twitching
break beat from Jake Wade's late-1960s rarity "Searching for Soul."
A few years ago records like those were the province of collectors,
the so-called crate diggers who scoured the bins of thrift shops and
used record stores for 45-r.p.m. singles that few outside a hermetic
circle of cognoscenti had heard. Now, thanks to digital advances and
the Internet, the music is at the fingertips of more than just D.J.'s
and producers. Blogs like soul-sides.com post MP3s of rare soul and
funk recordings that anyone can download. And for just $2.49 cellphone
users can download a ring tone of the hook from Mr. Wade's
long-out-of-print "Searching for Soul" from ubiquity.indieringers.com.
"The Internet has really opened things up," Mr. Abels said. "I think
we're going to start hearing this music more in movies and on TV. It
sets a certain mood."
An expanding audience for soul concerts, especially among younger rock
fans, is contributing to the music's revival as well. "People love the
messiness of live music," Mr. Werner said. "They love that sense that
the players are actually listening to each other and that everything's
not all preplanned."
For Mr. Davis, "It's not the same as seeing the latest buzz-band rock
band come and perform their album that just got a rave on Pitchfork."
"You see the indie-rock kids who, if they were at the Sufjan Stevens
or Iron & Wine show, would be completely reverent, stroking their
beards or whatever, and here they are dancing with giant grins on
their faces," he continued. "I call those epiphanous musical moments.
When you go see Bettye LaVette, you have that."
When Ms. LaVette, now 61, takes the stage, she's the picture of
elegance and athleticism, strutting and shouting for two solid hours
in heels and an evening gown. During one electrifying show last year
she danced and sang her way through the crowd, parting the sea of
onlookers as one enthralled fan knelt before her.
Ms. LaVette hasn't exactly been out of circulation. Like any number of
her contemporaries who first rose to prominence in the '60s, she has
continued to perform for those audiences that will have her, many of
them overseas, where enthusiasm for the music has not wavered. Lately,
though — and largely on the strength of the reviews of her 2005 album,
"I've Got My Own Hell to Raise" — she's been playing to indie-rock and
jam-band fans in rock clubs and at festivals like Bonnaroo.
"Most of the people who are coming to see me now had never heard my
music, let alone heard of me," Ms. LaVette said by phone from her home
in East Orange, N.J. "But I've kept myself healthy, and because this
new group is so curious, they keep coming back."
Still, Ms. LaVette's records, and those of her rejuvenated peers, are
not being played on contemporary hits radio the way they were in the
'60s. Nor are their sales anywhere near the platinum reaches of those
generated by albums released by present-day stars like Beyoncé and
Mary J. Blige. The fragmentation of pop culture and the premium that
radio and video programmers place on younger performers doubtless have
something to do with that. Whatever the reasons, classic soul's lack
of airplay is causing some to question whether the music is enjoying
as vigorous a renaissance as many people believe.
Isaac Hayes, who is working on a new album for Stax, which the Concord
Music Group resurrected in time for its 50th anniversary this year,
said soul would have a higher profile were it not for a generational
bias in mass media. "Mary J. Blige's music is based on our music," he
said, "but Mary J. Blige is closer in age to young people than we are.
That's what it is. But I think the gap's closing. All I can say is
just keep your ears open."
Soul music's current vogue cannot be chalked up simply to a wave of
baby-boomer nostalgia. Many coming to the music for the first time
aren't old enough to remember Mr. Hayes or his peers. For these
younger fans, Mr. Werner said, "it's not a matter of wanting to go
back to something" so much as "a case of wanting to establish
communication with something that is, if not quite lost, then at least
subdued in the culture right now."
"People are hearing that something in the samples on hip-hop records,"
he said. "They're hearing it in the music in the background of those
horrible advertisements that co-opt all of the songs that we love. But
even there I think they sense something. They sense an alternative to
the commodification — the thingification, as Martin Luther King called
it — of our humanity."
For further evidence of how durable and elastic that message is,
there's the Dirty Dozen Brass Band's reimagining of Marvin Gaye's
"What's Going On" as a response to what has happened in New Orleans in
the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Soul music, which dates back to when Ray Charles and Sam Cooke started
mashing up gospel and R&B in the '50s, has never really gone away.
"There's always been this ebb and flow," said Michael Gray, one of the
curators of a current exhibition on Ray Charles at the Country Music
Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. "What's changed is what's
happening in the culture and the music industry. Platforms are being
created to promote these artists."
Mr. Werner agreed. But he also cited a "deeper response."
"This isn't just a revival," he said. "This is people like Anthony
Hamilton, John Legend and Cee-Lo" — of Gnarls Barkley — "who have
heard the music and made it their own. That's what the best music
does. It understands that it is part of a tradition but that it's not
recreating the tradition. It's asking itself, 'What does this wisdom,
what does this humanity, have to tell us about the world we're in