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The Evolution of Soul



If there would be a mother to numerous music genres, it would be Soul. Funk, dance music, hip hop and contemporary R&B are said to have evolved from Soul music. The African American community was disallowed in the churches built by the white Americans even after slavery was abolished. The artistically inclined community developed their own church music called ‘gospel music’.

They sang about god and their love for Him. Often the songs were up-tempo and joyful with peculiar African vocal styles accompanied by clapping and swaying to the beats. The slower ones spoke about their yearning for the lord. The joyful, up-tempo gospel songs became up-tempo soul songs, while slower gospel songs became romantic love songs but with a twist in the lyrics. While the gospel songs leaned towards the black community, soul music could be termed as ‘secular’.

The evolution of Soul Music

The genre was born from the blues clubs, churches and street corners of the US, with R&B and gospel styles in the background. Their fusion led to the creation of soul music. Ray Charles and Sam Cooke are credited with ‘secularising’ the genre with heartfelt vocals, gripping lyrics and rhythmic feelings. A classic example is the James Brown’s 1956 song ‘Please, Please, Please’ in which he changed a gospel song about yearning for God’s love into a song about yearning for a girl’s love.

Just like Brown, Cooke was also a gospel singer initially. His 1957 hit ‘You Send Me’ replaced Elvis’ ‘Jailhouse Rock’ to reach the top of the charts. His last song ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ in 1964 yearned for an end to racism, but before it was released Cooke was murdered in Los Angeles.

The most popular style of soul music in the early-60s was Motown’s pop soul. Berry Gordy Jr’s Motown Records started producing music like a factory. The Supremes, Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas and the Four Tops, all Motown artists, dominated the charts. Some of Motown’s best singles include ‘You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me’ by The Miracles, ‘Uptight (Everything’s Alright)’ by Stevie Wonder and ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ by Marvin Gaye. The record’s biggest hit featured a 11 year old Michael Jackson, as a part of the Jackson 5, on the song ‘I’ll Be There’.

The Aretha Franklin Influence

One of the quintessential album is Aretha Franklin’s 1967 ‘I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You’. The ‘Queen of Soul’ won 18 Grammy Awards, along with a lifetime achievement award in 1994. She was the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, in 1987, its second year.Franklin inspired generations of R&B singers, among them Natalie Cole, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Alicia Keys. Mary J Blige once described Franklin as ‘a gift from god’.

Curtis Mayfield and his group The Impressions developed a different style of soul music. After Curtis got involved in the civil rights movement in the early 60s, he began writing songs about the problems African Americans were facing, such as poverty, racism and injustice. His biggest hit ‘People Get Ready’ is regarded as one of greatest songs ever written.
Soul music of the 60s and 70s led to many other genres, including funk and hip hop. James Brown began using soul’s rhythmic grooves to make dance music which was eventually known as Funk Music. DJs started rapping over soul’s rhythmic grooves to produce a genre termed Hip Hop.


From then to now

Soul music as a genre never died nor went of fashion. It has its traces in almost all genres that have followed after it. George Michael and Sade had some of the biggest soul hits of all time in the 80s. Michael Jackson and Prince came up with new styles of pop soul and funk.

Soul and funk got termed as ‘R&B’ by the music labels. Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Mary J. Blige explored the new genre and sang record breaking hits. Lauryn Hill’s 1998 ‘The Miseducationof Lauryn Hill’ is considered as a masterpiece. The genre once again rose in popularity in mid 2000s when Amy Winehouse recreated the sounds of 60s soul on her Grammy-winning 2006 album ‘Back to Black’. Her success inspired singers like Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley, Leon Bridges and Michael Kiwanuka.

But will people who were raised on Sam Cooke be excited about Leon Bridges?

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