You Know You Got Soul
In the 1960s and ’70s, soul was a defining force in American music. The Northern industrial cities of Detroit and Philadelphia perfected the studio sound we’ve come to associate with Motown, while Stax Records introduced the world to Southern soul. As labels battled for radio dominance, marquee stars and session musicians were likewise up for grabs. This map explores soul’s early progression and its resurgence in recent years via reissue labels such as Numero.
Soul music represents a natural progression from R&B and gospel, with its influence reaching forward to funk and disco. Stax Records was one of the early commercial successes that helped determine what soul sounded like. Throughout the 1960s, Stax put out defining artists such as Otis Redding, Rufus and Carla Thomas, and Sam & Dave. The label “gave equal weight to vocal and instrumental tracks” in the studio, a testament to its R&B roots, and its music was always closely tied to the gospel tradition. Stax lost notoriety, however, as new genres became popular in the 1970s.
Though Stax has operated as a reissue label since 1982, it closed its production studios in 1975—just as Philadelphia International Records, leader of the emergent Philly Sound style, was quickly rising to new heights with releases from artists such as the O’Jays, Teddy Pendergrass and Patti LaBelle. Compared with Stax releases, Philly soul was lighter, more optimistic, often socially aware and frequently overtly sexual. The sound—the R&B and gospel influences of early soul mixed with “melodious harmonies backed by lush, string-laden orchestrations and a hard-driving rhythm section”—set the stage, or perhaps the illuminated dance floor, for disco.
At the height of the soul music craze, the physical space of the recording studio was a place of reverence. The studios at Stax Records and Motown were named Soulsville, USA, and Hitsville, USA, respectively—as if they were real American towns. Soulsville was originally a theater, with a high ceiling and long, heavy drapes, and its sloped floor provided a unique resonance: Because the floor and ceiling were not parallel, sound did not bounce at 90-degree angles. This all contributed to the deep, gritty, unpolished sound that became Stax’s signature. Hitsville, meanwhile, had been a photography studio, with a soft, unfinished wood floor that allowed for the spiking of camera equipment. Motown engineers used this to their advantage, nailing bass drums to the floor in optimal acoustic positions so they wouldn’t slide: Mere inches to the right or left could negatively affect the sound.
The two labels became industry giants as they learned continually from each other in their efforts to produce and market hit records. Stax was one of the first racially integrated businesses in the country, while Motown became known as the most successful African American–owned label of its time. Both Soulsville and Hitsville are now museums.
Freelance songwriters Leon Huff and Kenneth Gamble knew they had something special when, in 1969, both the Temptations and the Supremes recorded their song “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” for Motown. Also that year, Berry Gordy, Motown’s founder, signed the Jackson Five. The group became synonymous with the label, and the two literally became family when Jermaine Jackson married Gordy’s daughter Hazel. Though Motown was at the peak of its popularity in the late 1960s, Gordy later admitted that the Jackson Five were “the last big stars to come rolling off the [Motown] assembly line.”
In 1971 Huff and Gamble struck out to create their own label, Philadelphia International Records, producing what became known as the Philly Sound. Four years later, as Motown’s chart dominance declined, Huff and Gamble snatched up the Jackson Five. Only Jermaine remained with Motown—after all, what’s a son-in-law to do? Philadelphia International, under CBS Records, gave the Jacksons complete creative control of their music, whereas Gordy had not even allowed them to play instruments on their albums.
The Jacksons’ label jump was a sign of the times: If the 1960s belonged to Motown, the 1970s belonged to Philly. Except, of course, for Jermaine.
Soul music has been called gospel music with secular lyrics. In particular, Southern soul aligns closely with gospel, expressing themes of devotion and salvation, and speaking, as cultural historian Craig Werner writes, to the “burdens of life and the need to reach for something higher.” From Aretha Franklin’s empowering cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect” to Redding’s own heartbroken crooning behind determined horns on “Just One More Day,” the music triggers emotion on a spiritual level. Often raw and imperfect—as with the off-key horn section on Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman”— Southern soul sounds ardent, unflinching and genuine.
Motown’s Hitsville studio, in contrast, is often described as factory-like in its production, and the resulting catalog was meticulously honed with an eye toward mainstream (that is, white) appeal. But the Motown sound employed gospel’s call-and-response between the lead and backup singers, and provided a bridge to pop music with catchy tambourine rhythms and polished orchestral arrangements. In many ways Motown embodied the best of both worlds: Early Motown stars such as Smokey Robinson maintained soul’s swooning R&B doo-wop vibe, while later acts such as the Commodores became progressively funkier and more geared for the discotheque.
Tom Lunt, Rob Sevier and Ken Shipley—founders of Numero Group—look for history’s failures. For Numero’s Eccentric Soul imprint, they locate artists whose music was unappreciated in its time or lost over the years. Many of these artists also never received proper compensation for their work—an injustice Numero seeks to correct. But the careful art of revival is about more than music. Behind every successfully reissued Eccentric Soul LP, there is an untold story of struggle and disappointment from the soul era.
Music journalists Jason Perlmutter and Jon Kirby document the soul culture of the Carolinas, which survived largely through support from local record stores and live shows as opposed to radio play and national distribution. In 2011 Kirby joined Numero, which had recently resurrected obscure South Carolina soul acts Elijah and the Ebonites and the Sensational Five Singing Sons. The Sons’ gospel influence is so strong that their studio-cut single begins, according to Numero, as if they “had set up the gear in front of a congregation mere minutes before rolling tape”—a reminder that if one region of the U.S. is responsible for the largest trove of unheralded soul music, it’s the South.
When Stax Records closed its studios for good in 1975, 24-Carat Black, a group formed by veteran music producer Dale Warren, was left out in the proverbial cold. The young ensemble’s first album, an ambitious conceptual LP titled Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth (1973), had tanked. Now its second album, composed of orchestral love songs Warren reportedly had been working on for a decade, was permanently shelved. 24-Carat Black was finished.
Decades later, Ghetto was rediscovered, reissued by Stax and then widely sampled by contemporary hip-hop artists. The unearthed artifact just seemed to click with the new generation. But what about the second album, which had never seen the light of day?
Enter Numero Group, the acclaimed reissue label with a philosophy of archiving akin to the Smithsonian Institution’s. The label’s owners managed to get their soul-loving hands on the masters from the unreleased sophomore album and, in 2009, put out the surviving tracks under their Eccentric Soul imprint. For the reissue, Numero Group technicians painstakingly recovered six tracks from the 20-plus originals on the flaky, degraded reels of 24-Carat Black’s master recordings—as well as the story behind them, in the form of extensively researched liner notes, obscure images and video.