Sweet Soul Music

Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom


By Peter Guralnick

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A gripping narrative that captures the tumult and liberating energy of a nation in transition, Sweet Soul Music is an intimate portrait of the legendary performers–Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, James Brown, Solomon Burke, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, and Al Green among them–who merged gospel and rhythm and blues to create Southern soul music. Through rare interviews and with unique insight, Peter Guralnick tells the definitive story of the songs that inspired a generation and forever changed the sound of American music.


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Introduction: Soul Serenade

Off to church. (Val Wilmer)

THIS IS A STORY FIRST AND FOREMOST. IT IS THE story of a particular kind of music, but I hope it is more than that. I started out more than four years ago with the idea of writing a book on Southern soul music in the '60s, a companion volume to my two earlier books, Feel Like Going Home and Lost Highway, and the last installment in a trilogy covering my three great musical loves—blues, rockabilly/country, and soul. I wanted to write a different kind of book this time, though, tending more toward narrative than toward profile, and while I recognized the impossibility of telling the whole story (Who can ever do that—who would ever want to do that? As Mark Twain once wrote, a real biography is impossible because "every day would make a whole book—365 books a year."), I wanted to present as convincing a portrait of a musical movement and a social milieu as could be deduced in retrospect. In the course of researching the book I interviewed well over a hundred people and traveled from Los Angeles to Mississippi, from Georgia to New York, Alabama, Philadelphia, and Tennessee. The weight of the subtext, I hope, reinforces the narrative, because however comprehensive this book may seem, however tangled its chronology and extended its text, it represents only a minuscule portion of the time that I spent with label owners, producers, booking agents, record store operators, disc jockeys, and managers, as well as the artists themselves. And I hope it reflects my disinclination to understand things too quickly, because there is no question in my mind of the education that I got, an education in an aspect of Americana and a facet of American business that, despite my longtime exposure to the music industry, I had never really scrutinized before. I met some of the greatest characters and made some of the closest friends (often one and the same thing) that I have ever known. And I had most of the preconceptions with which I came to the writing of this book turned almost totally upside down.


Southern soul music developed out of a time and a set of social circumstances that are unlikely to be repeated. I suppose I should make it clear from the outset that when I speak of soul music, I am not referring to Motown, a phenomenon almost exactly contemporaneous but appealing far more to a pop, white, and industry-slanted kind of audience. (Motown's achievement, said Jerry Wexler, vice-president of Atlantic Records and chief spokesman for the rival faction, was "something that you would have to say on paper was impossible. They took black music and beamed it directly to the white American teenager.") What I am referring to is the far less controlled, gospel-based, emotion-baring kind of music that grew up in the wake of the success of Ray Charles from about 1954 on and came to its full flowering, along with Motown, in the early 1960s. It was for a considerable length of time limited almost exclusively to a black audience which had grown up on the uninhibited emotionalism of the church and to a secret but growing legion of young white admirers who picked up on rhythm and blues on the radio and took it as the key to a mystery they were pledged never to reveal. In the beginning, like rock 'n' roll, it was an expression of rebellion, or at least of discontent, and Ray Charles's transformation of dignified gospel standards into cries of secular ecstasy came in for a good deal of criticism at first, mostly from the pulpit. Once it emerged from the underground, it accompanied the Civil Rights Movement almost step by step, its success directly reflecting the giant strides that integration was making, its popularity almost a mirror image of the social changes that were taking place. When Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman," a pure example of Southern soul emotiveness if ever there was one, made the top of the pop charts in 1966, it seemed almost as if the mountain had been scaled. Here was a song uncompromised, I thought at the time (many thought at the time), by concessions to the marketplace, unbleached and unblemished by the endearing palliatives which Motown always brought to bear, an expression of romantic generosity and black solidarity (I thought again). I didn't even like the song all that much, but I took it as a harbinger of a new day, when a mass audience could respond to black popular culture on its own terms.

Black Wall of Pride, Atlanta, 1973. (Val Wilmer)

Similarly it seemed no coincidence that when the height of the Movement was past, when the certainty of forward motion and the instinctive commonality of purpose that marked that brief period were called into question by the death of Martin Luther King, the soul movement, too, should have fragmented, the good feeling clearly engendered by the music should have fled, and the charts should have been virtually resegregated, with funk and disco and then rap music rendering themselves as inaccessible, and ultimately as co-optable in turn, as rhythm and blues once had been. Soul music, then, was the product of a particular time and place that one would not want to see repeated, the bitter fruit of segregation, transformed (as so much else has been by the encompassing generosity of Afro-American culture) into a statement of warmth and affirmation. This was the backdrop for the evolution of soul, an exciting time, a dangerous time, a time of exhilarating self-discovery. That is the historical context.

Here is what I thought soul music was when I first started writing this book. "Soul music," in British writer Clive Anderson's orthodox and not imperceptive formulation, "is made by black Americans and elevates 'feeling' above all else. It began in the late fifties, secularized gospel embracing blues profanity, and dealt exclusively with that most important subject, the vagaries of love. The sound remains in church. More often than not soul is in ballad form and employs certain gospel and blues techniques—call and response patterns, hip argot and inflection, melismatic delivery. It is a completely vocal art…. Soul assumes a shared experience, a relationship with the listener, as in blues, where the singer confirms and works out the feelings of the audience. In this sense it remains sacramental."

I think that would serve as a pretty fair summary of my own more basic assumptions. Not that I was entirely without exposure to nonacademic reality. With my friend Bob Smith I saw every blues act that came to town, and when we were both sixteen, we saw Ray Charles for the first time singing his new hit "What'd I Say" at Boston's Jordan Hall. From early 1964 on, under the prodding of another friend, John Grahm, I must have gone to every major soul revue, every Summer and Winter Shower of Stars that Boston's soul station WILD put on. John and I saw Solomon Burke and Joe Tex and Garnet Mimms and James Brown and Otis Redding—we saw most of the people I am writing about in this book, in fact, many of them several times and often close up in the little clubs that John introduced me to when we were both around twenty. The first story that I wrote for Rolling Stone in 1968 was an appreciation of Solomon Burke, and one of the earliest pieces I wrote for the fledgling Boston Phoenix was a description of the spectacular nature of James Brown's stage show in January of 1967.

I mention all this not merely to cite my credentials but also to downplay my pretensions to scholarly objectivity. I went to the shows, it is true, along with the requisite handful of white spectators, and like Mick Jagger in England, Mitch Ryder in Detroit, Peter Wolf in New York, or writer Joe McEwen in Philadelphia, I was enthralled. I would not want to say that I immediately grasped the reality. Certainly I wasn't seeing any more of the behind-the-scenes action than any other fan. But more to the point I took the shows as an opportunity for romance in which the impossible grace of the dancers was outweighed only by the exotic allure of the setting. To me soul music was black power. To me soul music was a kind of revolutionary statement of purpose, a bold departure from the rhythm and blues which had preceded it, and (here is where I think I got it most wrong) a kind of separatist, almost Garveyite statement of black pride, a championing of "roots" long before the formal concept became popular, whose adoption by whites only symbolized the goodwill and innocent expectations that the Movement engendered. My thinking along these lines was further reinforced by such statements of social purpose as "We're a Winner" (the Impressions), "I'm Black and I'm Proud" (James Brown), "I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to Be Free)" (Solomon Burke), and "A Change Is Gonna Come" (Sam Cooke), and to this day I have no doubt that the rising tide of expectations and the emergence of new opportunities were a major part of the story. But it was not the whole story, any more than the whole story of rock 'n' roll was freedom and a rejection of the mood of white middle-class Eisenhower America.

I came face to face with the disparity between theory and reality almost as soon as I started my interviews for the book. Soul music, declared Jerry Wexler, who in his position as vice-president of Atlantic Records had recorded most of the great soul singers of the '60s and many of the outstanding r&b singers and groups of the '50s, was no more than "a rubric… a semantic fabrication. It was just a stage of the music, and it evolved to a certain point. It was rhythm and blues."

It was rhythm and blues. Right away my whole theory was blown out of the water. To me there had existed a sacred distinction between soul and rhythm and blues. Soul was honesty and truth and anguish and, as I say, soul-baring. Rhythm and blues, a genre with which I was also entranced (but for different reasons), was more of a contrivance—honking saxes and double entendres and screaming singers and pounding rhythms. Well, that's how much I knew. When I went to Macon for the first time and Otis Redding's brother, Rodgers, introduced me to Otis's widow, Zelma, he recommended me by saying, "He's a real r&b fan." Over and over again I came up against the fact that no distinction was made: all the singers that I was writing about had their roots in the '50s; the designations were in a sense the invention of critics and anthologists.

Well, all right, I could accept that. But soul was at least a clear expression of black solidarity; it expressed the "inchoate hopes of a noble people" (I might very nearly have written that), didn't it? When I earnestly sought out Julian Bond, the former SNCC leader who had written poems inspired by Ray Charles and Charlie Parker, he didn't exactly dismiss my ideological thesis, but he didn't really confirm it, either. Music may well have been important to his emerging sense of racial identity, he said, but like any other teenager, he "romanticized singers, especially Ray Charles. Rhythm and blues was looked down on. It was low-class music, it was wild music, it was sexual music, it was 'dirty' music. So far as we were concerned, it was the most glamorous life in the world. Now I know different, of course, but this was heaven to me back then." From the time that I myself first went to Memphis in the fall of 1980, the picture that I got of the Stax Record Company, and then of the recording scene in Muscle Shoals, as well as the emergence of Otis Redding from the provincial reaches of Macon, Georgia, showed not so much the white man in the woodpile, or even the white businessman capitalizing on social placement and cultural advantage to plunder the resources of a captive people, as the white partner contributing as significantly as his more prominent—more visible certainly—black associate. I don't mean to make too much of this, because partnership is a self-evident concept, it is the whole point of integration, after all; I was simply not prepared to see it happening here. Perhaps because a working union of this sort is so rare, perhaps because of my own cultural and political preconditioning, it took me a while to come to grips with the nonideological complexion of reality.

Finally, I entered into the writing of this book with what I think was the common misperception that soul music was a phenomenon that existed outside of what we generally view as "the music business." Southern soul, after all, like blues and rhythm and blues and rockabilly before it and rap and beat music after it, was a product of the independents, men and women who had circumvented the stranglehold that the major labels like Columbia, Decca, RCA, and Capitol had on the marketplace by discovering not a new music but a new market. Rhythm and blues was dismissed disparagingly in the '40s as "race music," country and western as "hillbilly," and while each music had its legitimate audience, the majors were in most instances reluctant to service it. Success in these fields was wide open, then, to the independent operator and entrepreneur, and the independent was in most cases someone who loved music, an old radio hand like Sam Phillips (the man whose Sun label gave birth to Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and rock 'n' roll), a collector like Ahmet Ertegun or Herb Abramson (who started Atlantic Records in partnership), a musician like Jim Stewart (founder of Stax), a certified hipster like Jerry Wexler. Whatever their backgrounds, though—and the biographies of some of the other independents include such diverse occupations as shellac manufacturer, nightclub operator, mambo instructor, gumball machine distributor, and small-time gangster—whatever their passion for the Life and the music, their primary motive was to make money. Elementary as this lesson may sound, it took me a while to put into perspective what must have been obvious to someone like Jerry Wexler from the first: that soul music, far from taking place in a vacuum or developing an aesthetic in splendid isolation from other more corrupt and hybridized strains, was in fact developing in tandem with rock 'n' roll and country music, was competing, really, for the same dollar, could never give up the hope of transcending its parochial origins and breaking into the pop marketplace. Categories, it is said, are made for critics, and I have always believed this, but it took me almost two years of traveling around the country and interviewing industry figures as well as soul artists before I came to the realization that the story I was telling was as much the story of a business as it was the story of a music. Indeed, in many ways the story of soul music represents both the triumph and the tragedy of the free-enterprise system; the process of cross-fertilization by which soul music came to exist and influence in its turn the entire spectrum of American music was no more an accident than the invention of the Model T. As Jerry Wexler said in 1979 in a moment of somewhat glib self-doubt, "Just as it is with literature, where Faulkner remains on the library shelves while Jacqueline Susann hits the charts, it's the same with records. Each company must do its best to fill the pulsating needs of mediocrity in order to maximize its potential for success. We might as well be selling hubcaps."


This is what I mean today when I am talking about soul music. Soul music is Southern by definition if not by actual geography. Like the blues, jazz, and rock 'n' roll, both its birth and inspiration stem from the South, so that while Solomon Burke, one of the very greatest of soul singers, is a native of Philadelphia, and Garnet Mimms, a little appreciated but nearly equally talented vocalist, made many of his recordings there, the clear inspiration for the styles of both is the Southern revivalism that fueled such diverse figures as Elvis Presley and Hank Williams on the one hand, Little Richard and Ray Charles on the other. I do believe there's a regional philosophy involved here, too, whether it's the agrarian spirit cited by Jerry Wexler ("There was always this attitude, 'Oh, man, we're gonna lose our soul if we do that. We're not gonna let machinery kill our natural Southern thing.'"), or simply the idea that Dan Penn, the renegade white hero of this book, has frequently expressed: "People down here don't let nobody tell them what to do." Unquestionably the racial turmoil of the South was a factor, and the rapid social upheaval which it foreshadowed; in fact, the whole tangled racial history of the region, the intimate terms on which it lived with its passions and contradictions, played a decisive role in the forging of a new culture, one which the North's polite lip service to liberalism could never have achieved. Ultimately soul music derives, I believe, from the Southern dream of freedom.

Garnet Mimms, 1967. (Cliff White/Courtesy of Bill Millar)

It is not, however (contrary to most received opinion), a music of uninhibited emotional release—though at times it comes close. What it offers, rather, is something akin to the "knowledgeable apprehension," in Alfred Hitchcock's famous definition of suspense, that precedes the actual climax, that everyone knows is coming—it's just nobody is quite sure when. Soul music is a music that keeps hinting at a conclusion, keeps straining at the boundaries—of melody and convention—that it has imposed upon itself. That is where it is to be differentiated from the let-it-all-hang-out rock 'n' roll of a cheerful charismatic like Little Richard, who for all the brilliance of his singing and the subtleties of which he is capable, basically hits the ground running and accelerates from there. It is to be differentiated, too, from the cultural refinements of Motown, which, with equal claim to inspiration from the church, rarely uncorks a full-blooded scream, generally establishes the tension without ever really letting go, and only occasionally will reveal a flash of raw emotion. This is not because Motown singers were not equally talented or equally capable of revealing their true feelings; it is simply that Motown was an industry aimed specifically at reaching the white market, and every aspect of that industry was controlled, from the grooming and diction of its stars to the subtlest interpolations on its records. Southern soul music, on the other hand, was a haven for free-lancers and individualists. It was a musical mode in which the band might be out of tune, the drummer out of time, the singer off-key, and yet the message could still come across—since underlying feeling was all. Feeling dictated the rhythm, feeling dictated the pace; that is why soul music remains to this day so idiosyncratic a domain. One of the most common fallacies of a post-apocalyptic age such as ours is that there is no room for anything but the dramatic gesture; modulation is something as unheard-of as self-restraint. Soul music, which might in one sense be considered a herald of the new age, knew differently in the 1960s, and among the most surprising aspects of going back and listening to the music today—among its most enduring qualities—are the quiet moments at the center, the moments of stillness where action stops and "knowledgeable" anticipation takes over. Think of the great screams you've heard from everyone from James Brown to Wilson Pickett; think of the fervor of Solomon Burke's or Joe Tex's preaching on subjects as far removed in substance and seriousness as "skinny legs and all" or the price that love can exact. In gospel music, the progenitor of the style, a singer is often described as "worrying" the audience, teasing it, working the crowd until it is on the verge of exploding, until strong men faint and women start speaking in tongues. This is commonly referred to as "house wrecking." In soul music, perhaps the last of the great vocal arts, there is this same sense of dramatic structure, even if the message does not always provide the same unambiguous release. "I feel like I want to scream," James Brown announces over and over again, borrowing an age-old gospel technique. "I feel so good I want to scream," he declares, testing the limits to which the tension can be extended and in one famous recorded passage going past them as a voice from the crowd yells back, "James, you're an asshole." Over and over again the soul singer, like his gospel counterpart, begs for complicity. "Let me hear you say yeah," he implores, taking directly from the church. "There's just one more thing I want to say," he declares, just waiting to be invited to say it. "Can I get a witness?" becomes the rhetorical question—secular and ecclesiastical—of the age.

All this is merely testimony to the indisputable bond between technique and feeling, Southern soul music and the church. What is not so readily appreciated, perhaps, is the extent to which soul, once its gospel origins are gotten past, is a self-invented music—not so much in its form (which, like that of every great American folk music, is an amalgam, a hybridization of various strains that have gone before) as in its evolution on record. For soul was to a large extent a tale of three cities—Memphis, Macon, and Muscle Shoals—each of which grew up as an isolated regional outpost as far from the studio system of the majors in spirit as it was in geography and almost equally removed from any real awareness of the achievements of its fellow satellites. Southern soul music, as it evolved in the studio, was very much a homemade art (this was perhaps its one clear distinction from rhythm and blues), little dependent on direct models because direct models were not close at hand, little aware of history because history had not yet been written. The singers, it is true, had their parts down pat; they simply modeled themselves on the gospel stars. But the musicians, the writers, the producers, the managers, the engineers—the whole apparatus of the so-called recording industry—were forced to define themselves and their roles as they went along, were thrown back on their own resources. Perhaps this was to some extent a function of provincial xenophobia; if the United States was isolationist by inclination, the South remains the last bastion of true populism and regionalism triumphant.

Jerry Wexler and Wilson Pickett. (Courtesy of Jerry Wexler)

But it was not simply the South. The recording industry itself was still in the process of self-definition, and soul music—black music in general—remained the Wild West of the music territory. "We didn't know how to make records," Jerry Wexler has said of his own celebrated start in the record business with Atlantic in 1953. "What the hell did we know then?" Jim Stewart and his sister, Estelle Axton, had scarcely listened to black music when they started recording it at Stax; the closest that Rick Hall, founder of the Fame Recording studio and label in Muscle Shoals, had come to the music industry was a little studio lined with empty egg cartons over the City Drugstore in Florence, Alabama. Phil Walden, a recent graduate of the Sidney Lanier High School in Macon, Georgia, plotted with Otis Redding, a dropout from Lanier's black counterpart, how they were going to crack the great world of entertainment without knowing any more about it than you could pick up from agents' handbills. Dan Penn, a brash young white kid from Vernon, Alabama (population: 1500), had never seen any of his heroes (Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Bobby "Blue" Bland) sing when he started traversing the Alabama-Mississippi countryside in a made-over hearse, putting on an act in which he imagined himself to be "Bobby 'Blue' Penn." Each region, each studio, developed its own distinctive approach, piecing together the hard-won lessons until a recording philosophy was evolved, improvising a system of on-the-spot, "head" arrangements (necessary in the absence of reading musicians) that, whatever its simplicity, impressed Jerry Wexler so strongly that he would say in retrospect, "We didn't really learn how to put a record together until we worked with the Stax and Muscle Shoals people." And this from the man on whom "the Stax and Muscle Shoals people" modeled their whole operation once he had sought them out, whom they revered for his track record and producing expertise!

The one other irreducible component of Southern soul music was its racial mix, and here, too, opinion remains divided about its precise significance. To some it is just one more variation on the old racist story: black workers, white owners. I have spoken earlier of my own confusion and my ultimate conviction that here was a partnership. But it was a partnership with a difference: the principals brought to it such divergent outlooks and experiences that even if they had grown up in the same little town, they were as widely separated as if there had been an ocean between them. And when they came together, it may well have been their strangeness to each other, as well as their familiarity, that caused the cultural explosion.

There are other, more prosaic ways of looking at this affiliation. Idealistically, of course, it did bear out the promise of integration, and one participant after another—black and white—has credited the partnership as evidence that the American dream can work, has laid the success of soul music to "blacks and whites working as a team." On a slyer level black DJ Hamp Swain (the original discoverer of Otis Redding and a prominent Macon bandleader in the mid-'50s) has cited his "secret audience": "In my early days in radio I would think that fifty percent of my audience was white—high school kids who were crazy about r&b music. At the shows they could sit upstairs and watch the black kids downstairs having a good time dancing. They just had to sit up there and watch." Soul music, Swain implies, was born when the white kids finally came down and participated. Even more circuitously Jim Dickinson, a white Memphis musician with a singularly iconoclastic point of view, saw white musicians as a necessary ingredient in the mix simply because they would take more abuse in the studio than their black counterparts. Perhaps because there was less at stake in the way of pride or place, "the white musicians would just sit there and not say anything."

Whatever the true story—if there is a true story—one fact is clear: blacks and whites brought very different backgrounds and offered very different contributions to the music itself. Blacks, of course, were the stars. There were no white soul singers, with the marginal exceptions of the Righteous Brothers or Wayne Cochran or a one-shot success like the Magnificent Men, and if a singer-songwriter like Dan Penn played a role similar to Fletcher Henderson's in the Benny Goodman sound, like Henderson he remained for the most part entirely in the background. The quality that other white musicians like Steve Cropper and Jimmy Johnson—primarily rhythm


  • "The best history of '60s soul music anyone has written or is likely to writer, but it is much more than that....A classic."—Robert Palmer, New York Times
  • "A welcome exploration of one of the richest veins in American popular culture....It is Peter Guralnick's considerable accomplishment...to have compellingly recalled this movement, with all its glories, eccentricities, and spiky contradictions....This is a terrific read and an important book."—David Armstrong, San Francisco Examiner
  • "The definitive history....Guralnick makes his point without preaching....Sweet Soul Music is at once a scholarly work and a whole lotta fun."—Daniel Brogan, Chicago Tribune
  • "Buy this book! In years to come it will seem like a bargain compared with all the wonderful records which you will have to buy after reading the vivid accounts of Sweet Soul Music."—Elvis Costello

On Sale
Dec 20, 2012
Page Count
384 pages

Peter Guralnick

About the Author

Peter Guralnick’s books include the prize-winning two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love; an acclaimed trilogy on American roots music, Feel Like Going Home, Lost Highway, and Sweet Soul Music; the biographical inquiry Searching for Robert Johnson; and Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke. Guralnick won a Grammy for his liner notes for Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club, wrote and co-produced the documentary Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll, and wrote the scripts for the Grammy-winning documentary Sam Cooke/Legend and Martin Scorsese’s blues documentary Feel Like Going Home. His 2015 book Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll was a finalist for the Plutarch Award for Best Biography of the Year, awarded by the Biographers International Organization. His most recent book is Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music and Writing.



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