Soul music is an offshoot of rhythm and blues plus vocal stylings borrowed from gospel. Its roots lay in the 1950's R&B of Ray Charles, James Brown, and Sam Cooke, who took gospel-leaning vocals and applied them to secular material. Soul developed independently in several cities, notably New York (home to Atlantic records), Detroit (home to Tamla/Motown), Memphis (home to Stax/Volt), and Philadelphia (home to Philadelphia International). Each region had its own distinct style and approach.
In New York, the music remained close to its R&B roots, and featured hard, up tempo arrangements. In Detroit, soul leaned more in a gospel direction vocally, and borrowed a little from rock 'n' roll; the productions tended to be busy, wall-of-sound type affairs with horns and strings. Memphis soul was grittier, relying more on syncopated rhythms, raw vocals, and very brassy horns. Philly soul, the last to develop, was noted for its smooth vocal interplay and updated Motown style arrangements.
Soul's heyday was from about 1960 through 1975. During that period, soul music was enormously successful, reliably topping the charts in America; during the British Invasion, only American soul managed to compete on the charts with the British rock and pop acts. The New York and Detroit schools of soul were in full swing by the mid 1960's; Memphis soul reigned during the mid-60's to early 70's; Philly soul was a mainly early 70's phenomenon.
Several key soul labels, including Motown and Philadelphia International, were black owned and operated and maintained their own stables of songwriters, producers, arrangers, and session men, many of who contributed anonymously to the biggest hits of the day. Soul music was initially made by black artists for black listeners, but quickly found its audience widely integrated; as a result, soul's ascendancy coincided with the civil rights movement, and became something of a symbol of the black struggle, despite the music's generally non-political subject material.
As the 60's wound down, soul began to splinter in several directions. James Brown and Sly Stone took the essential elements of soul and tightened the rhythms, which helped point the direction towards funk in the 1970's. Soul music also underwent a psychedelic era in the late 60's; artists like the Chambers Brothers, Rotary Connection, and the Temptations specialized in a soul music that borrowed distorted instrumentation from psychedelic; this also became a component of funk. They tight rhythms of Philly Soul eventually helped inform disco music of the late 70's.
Traditional soul has largely vanished in the intervening years, although its influence continues to be felt in contemporary R&B.
1. James Brown: I Got You (I Feel Good) It's hard to call this the signature tune from the Godfather of Soul, since he has so many other candidates for that title, but it certainly is one of his most enduring hits. It was his first real crossover hit to date when it was released in 1965, reaching #3 on the pop charts, although Brown had already amassed a long string of hits on the Black charts dating back to 1959. The song originally appeared in the movie Ski Party, a Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello vehicle; brown also did it on the TV show Where The Action Is. When taped recordings of these versions started getting played on the radio, Brown re-entered the studio and laid down his definitive version. While Brown has been universally acclaimed for his enormous contributions to soul music, it's worth noting that he was a controversial figure at first; there were those who objected his approach, which devalued instrumental virtuosity in favor of the beat. With this single, he won over all his detractors.
2. Marvin Gaye: I Heard It Through The Grapevine Motown's 60's legacy is so rich that it's impossible to cherry pick a handful of songs to include on this list without neglecting to include some major ones. No list could be complete without this number however, a #1 hit in 1968, and arguably the high point of Gaye's largely successful career. One of the most anguished vocals ever set to music, it's a paranoid tune of infidelity underscored by the voodoo rhythms and whispery backing vocals. Composed by Motown pros Barrett Strong/Norman Whitfield, the song not only was one of the biggest hits of the decade, it continues to appear in films, commercials, and TV programs. Gaye died of gunshot wounds in 1984, following an altercation with his father.
3. Ben E. King: Stand By Me King had been a member of the late-era Drifters before embarking on a solo career in 1961, scoring first with the Latin-tinged "Spanish Harlem", and then with "Stand By Me". Written by King with Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller, the song has a timeless quality, and is particularly notable for King's smooth, sophisticated delivery and its insistent bass. The song reached #1 on the Black charts and #4 on the pop charts in 1961. In 1986, the song was used as the theme to the Rob Reiner film of the same name, and managed to reach the top-10 again, peaking at #9. King continued to chart singles on the Black charts right through 1980, although he never had the crossover success of his first two hits again. In recent years his activity has slowed considerably, although he still records, occasionally with jazz musicians.
4. Aretha Franklin: Respect Quite possibly the most successful female vocalist of all time, Aretha Franklin's chart success is nothing short of remarkable. She charted precisely 100 singles between 1961 and 2004, including an incredible run at Atlantic records in the 60's and 70's that saw her routinely make the top-10 nearly every time out. "Respect" was her biggest hit of all, written by Otis Redding and recorded with the Muscle Shoals rhythm section. It went straight to #1 in early 1967. Her sister and collaborator Carolyn Franklin is credited with coming up with the "sock it to me" bridge. In addition to her undeniably great voice, she was also a pretty good player at the keyboards.
5. Sam and Dave: Soul Man Samuel Moore and David Prater specialized in a gritty, horn-driven soul in the late 60's and scored a #1 Black/#2 Pop hit with "Soul Man" in 1967. In tandem with the behind-the-scenes help of songwriting/production team Issac Hayes and David Porter, Sam and Dave's brand of soul music was gospel inflected but wholly secular, often laced with double entendre. It also benefited from the Stax house band, Booker T. & The MG's. Reliable hitmakers for Stax in the late 60's, their career suffered when Stax spun off from parent company Atlantic in the late 60's, depriving them of the MG's and Hayes/Porter since they were formally signed to Atalantic, not Stax. In 1970, the duo disbanded, but reunited several times thereafter. They did see a resurgence of interest after their music appeared in the movie The Blues Brothers, but were unable to revive their careers. Prater died in 1987, a year after he was arrested for selling crack to an undercover policemen.
6. Stevie Wonder: Uptight (Everything's All Right) Born in Saginaw, MI, in 1950, Stevie Wonder (Steveland Hardaway Judkins) was a child prodigy, playing piano at the age of four. Discovered by Ronnie White of the Miracles, Wonder was signed to Motown where he released two albums in 1962, at the age of twelve, and scored his first hit with "Fingertips Pt. 2" However, he was unable to follow up that early success, and Motown considered dropping him. Fortunately, they didn't, and in 1965, the fifteen year old co-wrote "Uptown (Everything's All Right)" a deceptively mature sounding piece of work in a traditional Motown vein, which reached #3 in 1966. From this point forward, Wonder continued to have hits, and ultimately became one of the essential black performers of the 1970's.
7. Al Green: Let's Stay Together Al Green was probably the greatest soul singer of the 1970's, who bridged the gritty deep soul of the South with the smooth soul of Philadelphia. Green's success, primarily with Hi Records, not only influenced many other soul singers of the 1970's, it also helped inform the stylings of successful veterans, Marvin Gaye among them. Green's vocal style was heavily gospel-influenced; Green had been a member of a variety of gospel groups since the mid 1950's. "Let's Stay Together" is his signature tune, a #1 in 1972, and one of a long string of 70's hits. In 1974, following an incident where his former girlfriend assaulted him and shot herself with his gone, Green entered the ministry. His music became religious, although he continued to dabble in R&B for awhile, and his hits dreied up by the end of the decade.
8. Junior Walker: Shotgun When thinking of Motown, one usually recalls the stars; Marvin gaye, Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, The Temptations. However, a big part of their records was the excellent musicianship of the session players, many of whom remained in anonymity their whole careers. One of the few instrumentalists who became a star in his own right was saxophonist Junior Walker. Not a great vocalist, his records instead were great for their gritty adaptation of jump blues conventions and R&B. "Shotgun", from 1965, was the best and biggest hit from Junior Walker & The All Stars; legend has it that Walker had only sung on the record because the real vocalist hadn't shown up at the sessions, and that Walker himself was surprised his vocal take was released. Walker charted 20 singles from 1965-1972, and also had a minor disco hit in 1979. He died in 1995.
9. The Spinners: I'll Be Around The Spinners were one of the definitive Philly Soul groups of the 1970's, although their roots lay in Detroit. Originally a Motown act, the label never really gave them much support, and they never managed more than a handful of semi-hits. The label dropped them, but the group, led by new singer Phillipe Wynne, got a deal with Atlantic, where they worked closely with producer Thom Bell. "I'll Be Around" was their first hit for their new label, reaching #1 on the Black charts, and #3 on the pop charts. The Spinners' cool vocal stylings returned them to the upper reaches of the charts regularly through "The Rubberband Man" in 1976; in 1977 Wynne left the group (he died in 1984), and their sales declined. Versions of the Spinners appear on the oldies circuit to this day.
10. The O'Jays: Back Stabbers Rivals with the Spinners for the crown of greatest Philly Soul group of the 70's, the O'Jays perhaps better represented the style; smooth multipart vocals, a moderate funk to the instrumentation, strings, sometimes horns. The O'Jays collaborated closeld with the production/songwriting team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. One of the longest lived soul groups of all, the O'Jays first chart single was in 1963; they were chart fixtures through the 1980's, and have continued to make chart appearances on the R&B/Hip Hop charts to the present day. Their classic period lasted from 1972-1980. "Back Stabbers" from 1972, remains a classic, with its paranoid vibe and poignant message, it was a sign of the times for early 70's black America. It peaked at #1 on the Black charts, #3 on the pop charts.
11. The Temptations: Papa Was A Rolling Stone The most progressive of Motown's acts, the Temptations began life as Motown's premiere male vocal act, known for their lush harmonies and choreographed stage act. As the late 60's approached, the Temptations' albums became templates for the experimentation of producers Norman Whitfield and Brian Holland; their music developed an edge that shifted from sweet soul to psychedelic to harder edged funk. In the early 70's, the band's lineup changed dramatically; original members Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams left the group, Williams to commit suicide in 1973. Damon Williams and Richard Street replaced them, and the Temptations continued to chart through the 70's and 80's, including the classic #1 single from 1972, "Papa Was A Rolling Stone", an urgent number with funk undertones.
12. The Delfonics: Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time) The Delfonics chart supremacy was fairly short-lived, from 1968-1971, but they are remembered as one of the first groups to record in the classic Philly Soul style, under the guidance of producer/arranger Thom Bell. The trio consisted of brothers William and Wilber Hart and high school friend Randy Cain had sung together since the early 60's as teens, and had a complex and smooth vocal style that was a natural fit for Bell's lush production. "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)" is their most gorgeous song, featuring a slow sensual tempo and a shimmering production, including a sitar, it reached #3 on the Black charts and #10 on the pop charts in 1970. The song also became a recurring plot device in the 1997 Blaxploitation tribute, Jackie Brown.
13. Percy Sledge: When A Man Loves A Woman Along with "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" and "Stand By Me", "When A Man Loves A Woman" is perhaps the best remembered soul song of the 1960's. Sledge infused the song with a trembling, pleading edge he brought to all of his material; the song was a towering #1 hit in 1966. Recorded with members of the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, the songs instrumentation is tight. The horn section on the recording was included by mistake; deemed slightly out-of-tune it was re-recorded, but the wrong recording was used for the pressings; the vaguely off-kilter sound of the horns lends the song some additional resonance. Sledge could never follow up its success, but he did place 13 singles in the middle of the charts through the early 70's.
14. Otis Redding: I've Been Loving You Too Long Otis Redding was a performer in the "deep soul" style, a Southern soul variation featuring gritty vocals (as opposed to the smoother northern styles), big horn-dominated arrangements, and a heart-wrenchingly emotional delivery. His influence on an entire generation of performers was vast, he also gained a rock audience via his showstopping perfromance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, where his "I've Been Loving You Too Long" was the greatest moment. The Rolling Stones also covered two of his songs, "That's How Strong My Love Is" and "Pain in My Heart"; Redding reciprocated by covering "Satisfaction". despite this, he never made big inroads on the pop charts; "I've Benn Loving You Too Long" was the biggest pop hit of his lifetime, peaking at #21. Redding was killed along with four members of his backing group, the Bar Kays, in a plane crash in December 1967. "Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay", released in 1968, became the first posthumous #1 single of the rock era.
15. Bill Withers: Ain't No Sunshine Bill Withers differs from the other names on this list in that his music wasn't band-oriented or vocal-group oriented; he was primarily a singer/songwriter, and his music is in the singer/songwriter tradition. However, his soul credentials are real; Stax house band leader Booker T. produced his first record, which included "Ain't No Sunshine", a mournful lament famous for its repetition of the phrase "I know"; the song made the top-10 on the Black, pop, and adult contemporary charts. Withers had a number of good hits throughout the 70's, including "Lean On Me" and "Just The Two Of Us", but by the 80's his hits had dried up. He still remains semi-active today.
16. Curtis Mayfield: Freddy's Dead One of the central figures in the history of soul, Curtis Mayfield first enjoyed stardom as leader of the Impressions in the 1960's; in the 1970's his solo career was groundbreaking and pioneering; he is another who was on the cusp of soul and funk. He also wrote his own material at a time when most soul performers didn't, and was an outspoken speaker for black empowerment. An excellent guitarist, a creative arranger, a shrewd producer, Mayfield was the whole package. He left the Impressions in 1970 after a string of hits for a solo career; his first big solo breakthrough was on the soundtrack for the 1972 Blaxploitation flick Superfly. "Freddy's Dead" is the theme song; a cautionary drug tale with a sinewy groove and Mayfield's breathy, falsetto vocal, wah-wah guitar, and Latin percussion.
17. Sam Cooke: A Change Is Gonna Come If James Brown is the godfather of soul, then Sam Cooke is the grandfather of soul. No disrespect to Brown, but it was Cooke who truly invented soul music in the mid-late 1950's and achieved an instantly integrated audience with it. Cooke was also important as one of the first black performers to become an entrepreneur, forming a record label and publishing company. He was engaged in the issues of the day and spoke about them. His biggest influence was probably the Ink Spots, whose silky vocal style he imitated on his first breakthrough single "You Send Me" a massive #1 in 1957. His other major influence was gospel music; he had been a member of the seminal gospel group The Soul Stirrers from 1950 to 1956. His solo career was hugely successful; from 1957-1964 he managed 23 top-40 singles. Cooke was killed in 1964 when he was shot during a murky incident at a Los Angeles motel in 1964. "A Change Is Gonna Come" was released posthumously in 1965 and was his most political statement ever; it was also the perfect synthesis of his styles into a unique soul style. His loss was tremendous.
18. Ray Charles: What'd I Say Along with Cooke and Brown, Ray Charles was also one of the original innovators who developed the traditional soul sound. He was the first to merge hard rhythm and blues with gospel; to which he'd also add elements of jazz and blues and eventually country. Charles didn't break through with white audiences at first; he had nine top-10 Black singles before he made inroads on the pop charts in 1957. "What'd I Say" was his big crossover from 1959; #1 on the black chart, #36 on the pop charts. It's an ambitious number, based on a raucous r&b groove with a call-and-response vocal; at 6 and a half minutes, it was split on the single. From this point forward, Charles' career was assured; he remained active until his death in 2004.
19. Ike and Tina Turner: River Deep Mountain High Husband-and-wife team Ike and Tina Turner rang up 24 chart entries from 1960-1975, many of which were only moderate hits, but they achieved superstar status on the strength of their live shows, which starred Tina Turner's soulful vocals and featured her great legs, in addition to gritty backing from Ike and the band and careful choreography. Ike Turner's musical career dated all the way back to the Kings of Rhythm in the late 1940's; their single, "Rocket 88" from 1951, is sometimes called the first rock 'n' roll song ever, although it was credited to Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats, since Brenston sang the vocal. In 1966, the duo was approached by Phil Spector, whose career was starting to slip precipitously. With Spector producing, they recorded this thunderous piece of dense wall-of-sound soul, a masterpiece of the 60's. Unfortunately, it failed to sell, a grave disappointment to Spector, who never really recovered.
20. Carla Thomas: B-A-B-Y Stax artist Carla Thomas was referred to as the Queen of Memphis soul, and had a good run of chart singles from 1961 through 1970. "B-A-B-Y" was her biggest and most memorable, produced by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, who wrote it. Released in 1966, it reached #3 on the Black charts and #14 on the pop charts. Never quite as successful commercially as the biggest male stars, Thomas was blessed with a distinctive voice and good material. Unfortunately, after her chart run ended in 1970 she has worked only very infrequently. Her most recent release was a live album in 2002.