Explaining Grownup Music to Kids: Motown & the Rise of '60s Soul
Adam P. Newton recently became a father for the first time, so he has decided to explain the entirety of post-WWII Western pop music to his new daughter, "Fig"...one genre at a time.
What’s going on, Fig? Things are really heating up on the pop charts these days. This list is full of amazing songs by iconic singers and songwriters. And most of them were signed to the same few record labels — Motown, Stax and Chess. As we discussed earlier with the origins of rock and roll, the folks in the production booth, executive studios and songwriting carrels held more weight and influence than people recognized at the time. At Motown alone, you saw the vision of Berry Gordy Jr. lead his artists to great artistic successes, while the trio of Holland-Dozier-Holland penned hit after hit after hit.
It’s also important to understand how segregated the charts were at this time. If you turn on an “oldies” station today, you’ll hear all these songs combined with every other song we’ve discussed from this time period. But back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the pop, rock and R&B charts really didn’t mix — and it took an absolute runaway hit for an R&B track to really break into the pop charts. In short, we’re going to examine how soul and R&B came to life out of gospel and blues, and eventually had a huge impact on the evolution of pop and rock music. And while many of these artists had wildly successful careers well into the ‘70s, we’re only going to consider their tracks from the decades in question.
It’s impossible to understate the impact of Ray Charles on the music industry as a whole. He possesses a wide-ranging legacy as a performer, songwriter and musician, one that is felt to this day across rock, pop, R&B, soul, country and nearly everything in between. Hell, one of his most popular records was a collection of pop and country standards reinterpreted through his adept talents on piano. So, while we could chat about “Georgia on My Mind” or “Hit the Road, Jack,” I thought it apropos to introduce you to “I Got a Woman.” People of your parents’ generation will recognize the chorus hook as a sample used by Kanye West, but Charles’s original 1954 release was jam-packed with blues, jazz and big band, and it directly affected the growth of rock with its rollicking rhythm and fantastic raspy vocals.
We could have discussed this majestic voice in an earlier installment of the series, but I felt talking about her now made more sense. Mahalia Jackson might be the best gospel singer of all time — sure, her tremendous, booming alto was influenced by first-wave blues and jazz singers like Bessie Smith, but she chose a career that acknowledged the sensibilities of the blues but preferred songs with uplifting and encouraging lyrics. With a career that began in the late ‘20s, she affected a new generation of singers and performers with songs like “How I Got Over,” which she recorded in 1961 and performed in 1963 at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “March on Washington.” To listen to her is to experience an awe-inspiring combination of powerful vocals and mesmerizing stage presence.
The definition of a strong, independent woman in a male-dominated industry, James made her name with her bold voice and uncompromising attitude. She meshed so many styles with such seamless effort, as rock, blues, soul, R&B, doo-wop and more all fell under her spell. The bulk of her success that shot her to legend status came on Chess Records, a tumultuous situation brought to light with the 2008 film Cadillac Records (in which Houston native Beyoncé portrays James). Ultimately, while it would be nice to chat up the rollicking “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” or the sultry “I’d Rather Go Blind,” most people would point to “At Last” from 1961 as Etta’s signature song. She never had any need for extraneous vocal trills, over-the-top runs or unnecessary showing-off — just the power and clarity of her voice atop brushed drums and the warmth of an understated string section.
One of the groups to truly launch Motown into the stratosphere, The Marvelettes flirted openly with pop, soul and doo-wop during their ten-year run. They sang bouncy, piano-fronted tunes that could have easily fit with our early conversation about ‘50s pop music. For example, the group’s first and biggest hit was “Please, Mr. Postman." Released in 1961, it went to No. 1 on both the pop and R&B charts in the United States, a resounding musical victory for a quartet of African-American women and their label’s overall sound.
In an alternate reality, Cooke wouldn’t have died in 1964 at the age of 33. He would have lived a long and healthy life, and his passion for soul and R&B would have made an even deeper impact upon pop, disco and funk. His smooth and expressive tenor borrowed heavily from his gospel roots, and he was able to build upon that musical foundation as a singer and songwriter to wild success on the singles charts from 1957 to 1964. There are several tracks I could have selected to display Cooke’s pop smarts — “You Send Me,” “Wonderful World,” “Having a Party” and “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha” all come readily to mind — but “Twistin’ the Night Away” from 1962 best expresses his energy and sensibilities. You can hear the joy in his voice as hand-claps, tenor saxophones, plinking piano runs and shuffling drums simply encourage people to have fun and dance.
SMOKEY ROBINSON AND THE MIRACLES
Another of the initial breakout stars from Motown, The Miracles meshed R&B and gospel to great effect, especially in the call-and-response vocals between Smokey Robinson and the rest of the group. The act’s overall sound was sweet and sincere, focusing on lots of ballads and love songs of an earnest and believable nature. The band released one of its signature songs in 1962, “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” — it’s perfect for slow dances with its loping rhythm, warm backing harmonies, jazzy piano and guitar licks, and Smokey’s clear lead tenor.
BOOKER T & THE MG'S
Principally the house band for Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee, the MG's were such stellar musicians over a decade of compositions that Stax Records might not have had the same distinctive sound otherwise. Just listen to 1962’s “Green Onions” — a pure instrumental, this song has been covered, played and used as background music for a host of TV shows, video games and movies over the years. That walking bass line locks into place so smoothly with that glorious organ motif and those echo-drenched guitar licks, while the bluesy backbeat on the drums has been mimicked by all manner of pop, rock and hip-hop beat-makers for more than 50 years now. And all because a bunch of studio musicians wanted to have a bit of fun with a 12-bar-blues section they wrote in their spare time.
MARTHA AND THE VANDELLAS
My first exposure to R&B and soul as a kid came from this D-TV video from the early ‘80s showcasing “Dancing In the Street,” originally released in 1964 by Martha and the Vandellas. Sure, I was entranced by the mania of the cartoon snippets that changed every seven seconds, but I loved the music! The horns' counterpoint melodies and bright drumming were absolutely compelling, and they only served to complement the outstanding lead and harmony vocals. In general, this Motown group possessed such electric energy, as key cuts like “(Love is Like a) Heat Wave,” “Jimmy Mack” and “Nowhere to Run” all encouraged you to set your feet dancing!
DIANA ROSS AND THE SUPREMES
Technically, the group known as “The Supremes” had a longer run than it did with Diana Ross at the helm, but really, most folks only recognize tracks from Ross’s tenure in the ‘60s. Featuring a bevy of songs written for Motown by Holland-Dozier-Holland (I told you we’d see these names a bunch), the Supremes ran up a dozen No. 1 hits, making them the most successful vocal group of all time. Just check out this run of songs we could have talked about — “Baby Love,” “Where Did Our Love Go?” “Back in My Arms Again” and more — but I’ve always loved “Stop in the Name of Love” from 1964. Diana Ross’s crystalline soprano is so very enchanting as she calls out to a lover about to run out her door, but the song’s cadence, flow and chord progression are equally as arresting and magical.
According to an apocryphal tale from his signing to Atlantic in 1960, Burke initially coined the phrase “soul music” as a way to merge gospel and R&B without agitating his pastor and the leaders at the church he attended. What we do know for certain was that he remains one of the more under-appreciated artists of this era, despite his prodigious voice and songwriting acumen. He’s one of those artists who’ve made plenty of time-tested tunes, the sort that make you say, “Oh, I’ve heard that but I didn’t know who sang it!” For example, “Cry to Me” was a big hit in 1962, but it received new life as part of the Dirty Dancing sound track, while “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” was a modest hit in 1964, Wilson Pickett, the Rolling Stones and The Blues Brothers have since made more memorable versions. For my money, 1965’s “Got to Get You Off My Mind” stands as Burke’s best track, melding melodic pop sensibilities with a blues horn section and gospel-inflected background vocals to such swinging success.
Like many folks on this list, Pickett got his start singing in church and with gospel vocal groups. Yet he ran headlong into rock, soul and R&B when Little Richard hit the scene in the ‘50s. You can hear that influence in the high notes of his tenor, but the lower edges of his range embrace the rough and ragged tones of folks like Solomon Burke. What emerged was a rambunctious personality and frenetic presence all his own, one that the world enjoyed in the form of “634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.),” “Land of 1,000 Dances,” “Mustang Sally” and more. My favorite Pickett tune is “In the Midnight Hour,” which he wrote in 1965: a searing love song that trod the line between saccharine and ribald with ease, complete with a blaring horn section, thick bass runs and a sturdy kick-and-snare combination.
From here on out, few genres in our study won’t feel the impact of James Brown. From his songwriting acumen, fiery screeches and impassioned croons to his unabashed and electric showmanship, the “Godfather of Soul” helped birth funk, fueled R&B, and provided a range of dance moves to every subsequent generation of pop performers. It would be easy to mention “Papa’s Gotta Brand New Bag” or “I Got You (I Feel Good),” since the horn riffs and vocal wails are just about instantly recognizable, but “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” from 1966 always brings it home for me. The song possesses a simmering fury in the form of Brown’s soaring tenor atop a bed of warm strings, jazz guitar licks, and juicy horns — it’s pure fire.
THE FOUR TOPS
Hello, Motown! These talented gentlemen might have been one of the many groups recording for Berry Gordy throughout the ‘60s, but they also represent the apogee of fantastic pop songwriting from Holland-Dozier-Holland. Led by the luxurious baritone of Levi Stubbs, the Four Tops ran off a string of soulful hits featuring tight four-part harmonies, finger-snapping grooves and infectious energy. I thought about discussing upbeat zingers like “Baby, I Need Your Loving” or “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)”; I always preferred the proto-funk of “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” from 1966 with its inspirational lyrics, rich bass line and curious instrumentation (including flute and ghostly tambourine).
These guys slay, no matter which song I could choose. With roots in traditional doo-wop harmonies, The Temptations transcended the genre easily, conquered the R&B and soul charts throughout the ‘60s, and helped lay a strong foundation for the development of funk, disco and soul in the ‘70s. It would be easy to start with the iconic “My Girl” (look at those amazing outfits!) or “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” (or these excellent suits and dance moves!), but I’d rather talk about “Get Ready.” It was released in 1966 and written by Smokey Robinson for Motown, and the glistening falsetto of Eddie Kendricks provides the song’s main attraction, but I love how the pulse of the rhythm section combined with the driving low brass horn runs is overtly swinging and subtly sexy.
SAM & DAVE
You hear that opening guitar lick? It’s one of the most memorable intros from this entire era, and it welcomes “Soul Man,” a 1967 tune from Sam & Dave, another outstanding member of the Stax family. Written by Dave with Isaac Hayes (who we’ll meet when we discuss music of the ‘70s), the song ran roughshod over pop and R&B charts, topping even “When Something Is Wrong with My Baby” from earlier that year and “Hold On, I’m Coming” from 1965. Sam & Dave remain one of the most successful duos of all time, and you can hear their brand of soul music affect the Isley Brothers and The Commodores over the course of the following decade.
Probably the only singer in the American music canon who can compete with Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin did so by eschewing gospel music for soul to begin her career, but would return later to rave reviews. Aretha mixed vocal fireworks with verve, swagger and compelling lyrical themes right out of second-wave feminism to jaw-dropping results. While she could bowl over audiences with resplendent ballads like “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman” and “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Loved You),” I prefer the energy of cuts like “Respect,” “I Say a Little Prayer” and “Think.” On that latter cut (released in 1968), crisp drumming dances with stirring bass runs while blues guitar licks share space with a rich horn section — all while Aretha compels her lover to really consider his actions because she’s not going to put up with his shenanigans any longer.
Cards on the table? Marvin Gaye is easily my favorite singer on this list. His power and passion. That soaring tenor. His keen grasp of both songwriting and musicianship spanning several instruments and plenty of production credits. In a perfect world, his favorite duet partner — Tammi Terrell — would have her own entry in this list, as the two collaborated on such luminous tunes as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing, Baby” and “You’re All I Need to Get By.” In fact, Gaye almost quit music himself when Terrell passed away at age 24 from a brain tumor. Yet, out of all his chart-topping singles from the ‘60s, I will always come back to ’68’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” — that grooving bass line, lush string section, layered percussion and jazz guitar fills all stand in awe of the aching emotion ringing from Gaye’s voice.
Another fine singer who passed away far too soon, Redding was in many senses Cooke’s heir apparent as purveyor of fine soul music to the widest possible variety of potential audiences. His voice was raspy and gritty like Burke’s, while also possessing the ability to spit vocal fire when needed — as you hear during the climax of “Try a Little Tenderness.” And as you can hear on lush cuts like “These Arms of Mine” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” he loved a good ballad with searing emotional weight. But we should probably talk about “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” the song and album posthumously released in 1968. This sad and mournful tune sets his gorgeous croon with a complement by a bevy of horns, gentle acoustic guitar strums and percussive piano chords.
Up Next: Rock Grows Up and the British Invade.
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