When Soul Music and Rock Shared the Top of the Charts
Call it serendipity. It took the sixties for the mass market to feel the rush of rock ‘n’ roll sung ‘gospel style.’
By the mid-twentieth century, popular music was rigidly divided by race. Black artists populated the “race” charts, which were later renamed Rhythm & Blues by enterprising Billboard reporter Jerry Wexler.
White artists dominated the pop charts in those days. Who could have predicted the electric guitar replacing Teen Idols and the Beatles changing everything?
There were notable exceptions. Rock ‘n’ roll pioneers such as Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, James Brown, Sam Cooke and Ray Charles each had loyal followings and for the most part hovered above the racial caste system.
Anyway, walls erected with racial intent are bound to fall. In the tumult of the 1960s, according to rock historian Robert Christgau, rock ‘n’ roll was made conscious of itself as an art form and called itself rock.
And soul music emerged from a synthesis of rhythm & blues, jazz, blues and gospel music to become a very acceptable form of black entertainment. Its package combined sharp dressing, slick horn arrangements, back-up harmonies and dance performances and especially pop-friendly rhythms and melodies. It dominated AM radio and high school dances.
According to AllMusic, “soul music was the result of the urbanization and commercialization of rhythm and blues in the sixties.”
Here are the Temptations performing “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” published by Homegrown Television via YouTube. The video is 2+ minutes.
It was during the mid-sixties that soul recordings crossed over into the pop charts in the US and elsewhere. Two of the reasons:
Black Power: At the height of the civil rights movement, white audiences became more receptive to black expression. It was a time of questioning authority. Soul artists responded in kind to the politicized clamor with songs such as the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”
The labels: Chicago’s Chess Records took good care of the blues. Rockabilly found a home in Memphis with Sam Phillip’s Sun label. Soul was lucky enough to have two powerhouse labels recording and promoting their artists: Atlantic Records and Motown. Atlantic’s VP Jerry Wexler (him again) had a gift for developing talent, like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. Here is Pickett’s “Land of 1000 Dances,” A live video from 1966 via YouTube:
Hall of Fame Bound
For evidence of the commingling of the two completely different musical genres, you can look no further that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Since its first induction class in 1986, which included the rock’n’ roll pioneers mentioned above plus Elvis and Buddy Holly, soul performers ruled the roost in those early days.
The class of 1987 included the Coasters, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Jackie Wilson.
Rounding the eighties, alongside the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan were the Drifters, the Supremes, Otis Redding, the Temptations and Stevie Wonder. Wilson Pickett had to wait until 1991.
Racial harmony is a precious commodity these days. Music always had dynamic healing power.