Sweet Soul Music
Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom
By Peter Guralnick
If you like good music....
I had a very musical upbringing. Oh, sure, I can't actually play any instrument well (although I've been known to carry a tune on the clarinet and the guitar from time to time). What I mean by musical upbringing is that music has always played an important role in my life and was a defining element of my personality through adolescence. It's still plays an important role in my life, as one can plainly see via the book choices I have made recently.
Spotlight on me, now.
My earliest recollection of music was my father's record collection. It was standard dad stuff like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Bobby Goldsboro and Neil Diamond with a smattering of good country and a smattering of bad rock (Fleetwood Mac?). It was an unfortunate collection in that it didn't adequately represent the depth of his commitment to country and western music.
I grew up listening to CFGM radio in Toronto while sitting in the backseat of my Dad's Cordoba. He used to sing along to Charlie Pride, Waylon Jennings, Charlie Rich and all the other classic country singers of the era. It was all too embarrassing for a kid who was sort of into Prince and Michael Jackson, but still listening to the odd Chipmunks LP.
My father also liked soul. I recall late night poker games at my house. The adults would listen to radio programs spinning old soul and country music. I fell asleep to the sounds of Motown and Stax long before I had any idea what those two words meant. I still have a soft spot for Diana Ross and Supremes for singing me to sleep at such a tender age.
As I grew up I, like so many other kids, rejected the music of my parents and moved onto things a bit more extreme. First metal, then classic rock, then hip-hop, folk, punk, reggae, alternative, indie, trip-hop, electronic and on and on. Each genre opening the door to new sounds and new ideas. I went through a serious, and entirely self-motivated musical education from the age of eight through college and beyond. I have become, over time, what I refer to as a music snob. I was so engrossed in the idea of listening to the music that I simply never got around to learning how to play the music. But I sure do have opinions on music. Woo-boy. Don't get me started.
But somewhere along the way (probably back in my deepest hipster-music snob days) I returned full circle to the country and western music and soul of my childhood. People say everyone eventually goes back to their roots. Well, I did with a vengeance and I've never looked back. I rediscovered Hank Williams and Willie Nelson, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding. I dug deeper and listened (really listened) to the likes of Joe Tex, Booker T, Gram Parsons and Ralph Stanley for the first time. I developed new appreciation for the work of James Brown, Aretha Franklin and George Jones. People I had roundly dismissed early on as "My Parent's Music." It was a homecoming of sorts. It was "my parent's music," and they, like so many other things, were right. It was a return to the scorching hot leather interior of my father's Cordoba. And while I love country and western music and northern soul, there has always been a special place in my heart for Southern soul.
Spotlight on Peter Guralnick, now.
Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom by Peter Guralnick is a wonderful behind the scenes look at the evolution, rise and eventual demise of Southern soul music. But it's so much more than that. It is a work five years in the making in which Guralnick traveled the length and breadth of America talking to the veritable who's who of soul music in Memphis and the south: Jerry Wexler, Ahmet Ertgun, Ray Charles, Joe Tex, Jim Stewart, Estelle Axton, Booker T, Steve Cropper, Solomon Burke, James Brown, Dan Penn, Isaac Hayes and on and on and on... Thank God he had the foresight to write this book in the early eighties when many of these people were still alive. The history is what makes this book important, but it's the stories that make it seminal.
What really struck me about the scene in Memphis and Alabama in the 1960s was the sense of togetherness and camaraderie among the company men, record producers, writers, musicians and singers. They were hanging out at the studios, making hit records, touring the country and repeating. Everyone was working for each other. Booker T and the MGs would do session work on an Otis Redding tune in the morning, cut their own record in the afternoon and play onstage with Rufus Thomas in the evening. The Memphis horns play on virtually every track ever produced at Stax but were also available to artists at Muscle Shoals and Atlantic. It was all more like family than a business (a fantasy that would nearly sink Stax in 1970, but that's another story). The story of southern soul is a story of a movement rather than simply a genre of music. This was something that could never, ever be recreated no matter how much talent you stuffed into a studio or on stage today. Something was happening and the music was the catalyst.
Spotlight on Otis Redding, now.
At the center of this movement was Otis Redding. His rise to fame and tragic death mirrored (or foretold) the rise and fall of southern soul. His success mirrored (or foretold) the rise and fall of Stax Records. Wile Guralnick seems tempted to hypothesize as to what might have happened had Redding's plane not gone down in northern Wisconsin he backs away from that ledge and let's it be.
Spotlight on Solomon Burke now.
With all due respect to Stax and Ray Charles, I especially enjoyed the stories about the Reverend Solomon Burke (aka The King of Soul... much to the chagrin of James Brown), one of the oddest characters in a genre stocked with odd characters. From his free popcorn giveaways to his recollections of playing a show for the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi (they thought he was white when they booked him) Burke is far and away the most engaging character in the book. Guralnick and Burke became fast friends during the writing process and it shows. I also enjoyed the various accounts of Aretha's disastrous recording session at Muscle Shoals and the constant political machinations between Memphis, Muscle Shoals and Atlantic Records.
But the book really culminated with the account of the demise of soul. Guralnick does a great job of recounting the events of 1968 through 1970 with an objectivity and clarity that another writer may not have had. It would be easy to place blame entirely on one event or one person (the death of Otis Redding, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the rise of black militancy, Atlantic Record's retreat from the south, the rise of guitar driven rock) but he doesn't. Every detail is chronicled but Guralnick refrains from making any judgment stating that he was simply a fan trying to make sense of a genre that came and went far too fast.
Sweet Soul Music is a must read for any fan of soul music. It really delves deep into the closed-off world that was southern soul (many of these guys hadn't even heard of the Beatles when they turned up on American soil, and most never bought into their sound. Hell, even Motown was too mainstream for many of them). It really was a community. small and tight-knit. But one that changed the face of music in the 1960s and beyond. Without Stax and Muscle Shoals there would never have been funk, modern R&B or hip-hop (at least not as we know it).
Anyway, if you like good music, that sweet soul music, Read this book, now.