Skip to content

A brief history of soul music

Appearing in the United States at the end of the 1950s, soul music is a musical movement that marked the 20th century, quickly spreading across the Atlantic to be heard around the world. More than music, it was a way for the Afro-American community to assert its identity and spirituality in a country deeply marked by racism and segregation.

Soul was born initially from the musical evolution of rhythm and blues, and has the particularity of being freer in its structure, adopting a more “funky” musicality but it is above all a return to the sources from which it comes: gospel music. It was Ray Charles who mixed his passion for gospel with the jerky rhythms of rhythm and blues to give birth to soul. But the one who will be considered by many as the real founding father of soul is none other than Sam Cooke, who will lay the foundations of this movement and enter into legend with his famous music. A change is gonna come, discussing the conditions of African Americans in the United States, their uprooting and rejection, affirming that change is underway. Sam Cooke will be shot at 33, a few months after writing this title. This music, as well as the tragic death of its author, reflects very well why this musical movement is closely linked to the historical context in which it was born. He was for a whole people, despised and rejected, the reflection of the hope that a change was going to take place. Unfortunately, this glimmer of hope was short-lived due to the tragic events of the African-American civil rights movements culminating in the death of Martin Luther King. If Soul sought precisely to seduce a white audience in order to somehow bring about a reconciliation between the two communities, funk, born of this rupture, will put forward a music which draws its sources from its African roots proudly affirming its origins and culture.

But fully understanding the history of soul music requires some notions of geography. For years, two labels have been built on a musical and marketing opposition. To the north, Motown, created in 1959, which earned Detroit the nickname “Hitsville”. At the same time was born, in Memphis, the southerner: Stax Records. The stars of Motown sing an RnB which wants to be accessible, aiming at a white audience, with artists like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Diana Ross… While the Stax defends crooners and deep soul coming from gospel, aiming a black audience, with artists like Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Rufus Thomas…

These two labels will allow the growth of the movement and its popularity in the eyes of the general public. The movement will thus quickly spread to other large American cities such as Chicago, New York, with the legendary Atlantic records, or even Philadelphia which will produce artists with varied sounds and will see the birth of funk and disco trends. The appearance of these new musical currents will lead to a decline in soul music in the mid-1970s.

In the early 1980s, new artists renewed the genre, like Michael Jackson with off the wall, Rick James, or even Prince. They definitely popularize soul. Subsequently, by sampling the standards of the 1960s and 1970s, rap will contribute to a new popularity of soul music. Some groups will go further and merge soul, rap and pop music, to give birth to a neo soul (or nu soul) in the second half of the 1990s such as D’Angelo, De La Soul, Erykah Badu…

In the 2000s artists will reconnect with a classic soul returning to the original roots of this music with in particular, Lee Fields, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Charles Bradley and Amy Winehouse.

Many artists still perpetuate today this musical style which will have been able to cross the generations and leave its mark on the modern musical world, also showing us that the change so hoped for by Sam Cooke has not completely taken place and that the road is still long.

Here is a playlist of some cult songs for the curious:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.