Why was Soul Music Created?
Soul music was created in the late 1950s from African American roots. As African Americans were barred from attending White churches, they built their own churches and sang Christian songs with African-American vocal styles and rhythms. Their gospel songs consisted of joyful, up-tempo beats, as well well as ones that express deep feelings such as yearning for God’s love.
Gospel music, combined with music from blues clubs and the street corners of the US, created soul music. Ray Charles and Sam Cooke laid the foundation of soul, secularising gospel songs with effusive vocals, stirring lyrics, and deep rhythmic feeling.
Early Soul Music
The upbeat gospel songs became up-tempo music with infectious beats while slow gospel songs became romantic music. Up-tempo gospel songs were given the makeover most notably by R&B artist Ray Charles. Most prominent is his 1954 song “I’ve Got a Woman (Way Across Town)”, a secular version of the old gospel song “I’ve Got a Savior (Way Across Jordan).
An example of a slow gospel song crossover to secular music is James Brown’s 1956 song “Please, Please, Please” - the original was a gospel song yearning for God’s love, but Brown changed it into a song about yearning for a girl.
Northern Soul Music
Up north in Detroit and Chicago, soul was catching on as Motown, named after Berry Gordy’s label Motown Records in Detroit, Michigan. His team of songwriters and artists created the “Motown sound” that young Americans were gravitating towards.
Motown's house band, the Funk Brothers were seasoned jazz musicians who made the rhythms of Motown songs easy for white listeners to hear and dance to. In addition, Diana Ross and The Supremes used girly pop-music voices instead of their natural bluesy voices to attract more listeners.
Motown recorded some of the best and most memorable artists such as Marvin Gaye, whose album “What’s Goin’ On” is regarded as one of the greatest pop music albums in history. The record company’s biggest star was Michael Jackson, who along with his siblings sang “I’ll Be There”.
Over in Chicago, Illinois, soul was developing into music for the civil rights movement. Curtis Mayfield wrote powerful songs about the problems faced by African-Americans such as poverty, racism, and injustice. His biggest hit “People Get Ready” is one of the greatest songs ever written.
Southern Soul Music
In the South, soul music was developed into a powerful style known as “deep soul”. Another smooth style emerged and was known as “Memphis South”, both of which were developed in Memphis, Tennessee. Stax Records produced deep soul with driving R&B rhythms. Stax’s biggest star was Otis Redding, whose strong vocals were perfect for up-tempo soul unsuitable for romantic soul ballads. His greatest hit was his last recording, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”.
Otis never saw the release of his greatest song as he was killed in a plane crash in December 1967, three weeks before the song’s release.
Hi Records produced some of the best beautiful Memphis soul music. Its biggest star was Al Green who had many crossover hits in the early 70s like “Let’s Stay Together”, and “Call Me”. Other famous soul artists from the South include Aretha Franklin, who transported female gospel sounds to soul music in the mid-60s. There was also Percy Sledge, whose 1966 single “When a Man Loves a Woman” became one of soul’s biggest-selling records.
Today’s Soul Music
Soul music led to the birth of funk and hip-hop. James Brown used soul rhythm to make dance music. Michael Jackson and Prince created new styles of pop soul and funk - when combined became R&B.
Neo soul and the smoother sounds of contemporary R&B continued into the 21st century. They are joined by retro-soul, made famous by Amy Winehouse’s album “Back to Black”. Her success led to the emergence of other artists such as Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley, and Michael Kiwanuka.
Today’s artists continue to innovate soul music - Abel Tesfaye (The Weeknd) and Frank Ocean began using both electronic and acoustic instruments to create moody beats over songs they created. Artists such as Solange, Beyonce, and Miguel have also been keeping soul music’s legacy alive today.
If you are interested to learn about soul music, playing the keyboard is one way to create rhythm and soul sounds. Digital keyboards can create a variety of sounds from other instruments. Check out our digital keyboard lessons