The history behind soul music - the precursor to modern R'n'B

The history behind soul music - the precursor to modern R'n'B

From Marvin Gaye to Adele, soul’s played a part in many a musician’s work


Ray Charles was a passionate pioneer of soul music.
Photo: EPA

Soul music has merged with many other genres since its beginnings in the 50s, fusing with styles ranging from blues and jazz, to hip hop and R'n'B. It continues to offer inspiration to artists today.

Influenced in the US by gospel, R'n'B, and jazz, soul provided a soundtrack to the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s, as it became synonymous with the African-American communities. The earliest pioneers of the genre were considered to be Ray Charles, as well as Etta James, and Bobby Womack. Other highly influential musicians spawned towards the end of the decade, most notably James Brown, Little Richard, and Jackie Wilson.

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The genre continued to grow in the early 60s with acts such as Aretha Franklin, Solomon Burke, Otis Redding, and Wilson Pickett all producing highly successful songs. It reached its peak audience, with frequently high charting artists still considered legends today, most notably Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and Al Green. Many released their music through either Motown Records or Atlantic Records, both of which were seen as instrumental in promoting soul.

As the genre continued to evolve in the early 70s, Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield began delving into heavier political lyrical content and smooth soul, while James Brown veered towards funk. Like country, soul was often associated with the South, and divided even further into smaller regions, with areas such as Detroit, Memphis, New Orleans, and Philadelphia all creating their own take on soul.

A TV series called Soul Train began airing, creating a platform for African-American musicians to be discovered by a wider audience. Although not exclusive to soul music, the show was incredibly popular and ran until 2006.

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Funk soon became its own phenomenon, along with disco, both which had more emphasis on fast-paced rhythms, and the appeal for down-tempo, melodic soul music began to decline.

While predominantly popular in the US, soul had also made its way into the British music scene too, albeit a lot more pop-oriented. The first acts in the 60s included Tom Jones and Dusty Springfield, before George Michael, Soul II Soul, and Simply Red reinvigorated the movement in the 80s.

As funk and disco lost its appeal in the 80s, soul moved towards R'n'B, and later saw the formation of neo-soul in the early 90s. In recent years, soul has been associated with acts such as Amy Winehouse, Paloma Faith, Adele, and Joss Stone, often branded as neo-soul, while in the R'n'B realm, soul can be traced in music by Kendrick Lamar, Thundercat, and Miguel.

Recommended listening:

Ray Charles – I Got A Woman
Aretha Franklin – You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman
Jackie Wilson – Reet Petite
Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On
James Brown – Get Up Offa That Thing
Amy Winehouse – Rehab
Thundercat – Lava Lamp

Recommended viewing:

Mr Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown

Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story

Standing in the Shadows of Motown

Recommended reading:

Nowhere To Run – The Story of Soul Music - Gerri Hirshey

Travelling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield - Todd Mayfield and Travis Atria

My Life with Earth, Wind & Fire - Herb Powell and Maurice White

Divided Soul – The Life of Marvin Gaye - David Ritz

Edited by Ginny Wong

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
What is ... soul?


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