Soul is a kind of African popular music which originated in the late 1950s USA, and later developed, influencing many other musical genres, such as hip-hop and contemporary R&B.
Soul music is a mixture of gospel, born in Afro-American communities after (even though slavery in the USA ended in 1865) they were banned from white churches, and R&B. Taking after elements of both genres, soul was characterized by the extreme vocal intensity, complex melismas and praises for fleshly desire typical of the blues, as well as the distinctive call-and-responses of church gospels, which expressed devotion towards spiritual inspiration.
The very first soul songs were created in the mid ’50s, when R&B artists like Ray Charles and Sam Cook started to change typical gospel chants into secular songs by rewriting their lyrics, transforming them in love ballads, or meaningful protest songs against racism, discrimination and other social, cultural and political issues. Said songs could be divided in two categories, as they usually were either very up-tempo and joyful, like Ray Charles’ “I’ve Got A Woman (Way Across Town)”, or slower and smooth like James Brown’s “Pleas, Please, Pleas”.
Both of them were altered, so to change their original religious message: in fact, both Charles’s 1954 remake of “I’ve Got A Saviour (Way Across Jordan)” and Brown’s 1956 version of his song had been transformed from tributes towards the love of God into powerful love songs. This was of great inspiration for many artists, as, while the civil rights movement started to grow stronger in the ’60s, musician used this system to support their cause: Sam Cooke, who in 1964 applied the same method, turning “A Change Is Gonna Come” (originally a gospel) into a hymn against racism, and Brown released “Say It Loud-I’m Black And Proud” in 1968, in which he honoured is culture and condemned discrimination.
During the ’60s and ’70s, soul music developed, dividing itself into what are commonly referred at as Northern Soul and Southern Soul.
Northern soul mainly developed in Detroit and Chicago, where it took the name of Motown. Although Motown is often classified as a separate musical genre, it’s actually part of soul music; it originated in Detroit, Michigan in 1959, when Berry Gordy started Motown Records. The “Motown sound”, created by Gordy’s singers and songwriter, quickly raised in popularity among American youths, as it consisted in pop-soul songs, characterized by their upbeat rhythm, extremely easy to dance to, even for white listeners, as it featured the use of tambourines and rhythmic guitar on the second and fourth beats of each bar. Motown Records produced many hits, and managed many notorious names such as Diana Ross and The Supremes, whose style was girly and pop oriented, as well as Etta James, who became a celebrity thanks to her “I’d Rather Go Blind”. Other notorious names within the Detroit scene were Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, but Motown biggest act were by far the Jackson 5, who in the ’70s gained their status as the best Motown group of ever, who featuring an 11-years-old Michael, were known for incorporating elements of classical soul in their sound, and releasing many successful hits like “Who’s Loving You” and “I want you back”. But while in Detroit Motown was the predominant styles, Chicago, Illinois, saw the raise of a different kind of soul, largely influenced by the civil rights movement, and was known for its powerful ballads addressing the many struggles African American were going through (racism, discrimination, poverty·). The principal voice behind these protest songs was Curtis Mayfield, who in the early ’60s became one of the movements spokesmen, and released many hits, like “Keep on Pushing”, “We’re a Winner” and his biggest hit “People Get Ready”, which to date remains on of the greatest songs of the period: the song, which seems to have a predominantly religious meaning, actually addresses the many social and political issues of the time.
Memphis, Tennessee, in the other hand, was the home of the so called Southern Soul, which further developed two different sounds: deep soul, produced by Stax Records, and known for being powerful and dynamic, and Memphis soul, produced by Hi Records, and characterized by its deep and smooth sound. Deep soul was easy recognizable due to its mainly R&B influenced rhythms and funky riffs (usually played by horns), and became popular through the notorious name of Otis Redding, Stax’s biggest artist, who thanks to his incredible versatility was able to perform both romantic soul ballads and up-tempo hits. The Memphis soul, instead, was characterized by a much more funkier sound, which was enhanced by the featuring of strings, horns and backup vocals to create a three-dimensional effect; its biggest act was Al Green, whose style was influenced by the gospel-soul classics. However, the biggest name of the Southern soul scene remains Aretha Franklin, who, with her powerful and versatile voice, and incredible skills, opened the doors to the musical industry to many (especially black) women. With her powerful hits, Franklin became in fact one of the strongest voices of both the Second Wave of feminism and female gospel, as she loudly spoke the ’60s and ’70s women’s dissatisfaction with their role in society, and with the release of “Respect” in 1967, which made her terribly avant-garde at a time where the concept of men being more important than women was still deeply rooted within society, she directly addressed issues such as equality in both the house and work environment.
Unlike many other musical genres, soul never declined, as it developed evolving into other kinds of music, including funk, which originated with singers such as James Brown mixing soul’s rhythmic grooves to faster beats and tempos, as well as hip hop, which began with DJs rapping over soul and R&B bases. Also, instead of dying after approximately a decade, soul spread from the USA to Great Britain, where artists like George Michael became some of the biggest name of soul during the ’80s. Other influential musicians of that era included Michael Jackson (now solo) and Prince, who maintained soul alive even though it was now formally marketed as R&B. Towards the early ’90s, singers like Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige and Mariah Carey signed the evolution of soul into a more commercial genre called contemporary R&B, and in ’98 Lauryn Hill released her famous album “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”, which was a mixture of soul and hip-hop, characterized by funky and up-beat rhythms and powerful vocals. Both of these styles developed in the 21st century, which saw the creation of two other styles originated by soul music: retro soul, which became insanely popular thanks to Amy Winehouse incorporating the ’60s soul to her jazzy sound, and alternative R&B, which can be recognized in the work of artists like The Weekend, who fused both acoustic and electronic instrument to create glum beats. Although these two subgenres are very different from each other, they both treat themes such as toxic relationships, addiction and depression. Other notorious names of contemporary music who can be linked to soul music include Janelle Mon?e, with her quirky style and Beyonc?, whose extreme vocals and powerful attitude gained her the title of “Queen B”.