Everything is Propaganda: Motown, Stax & Soul Music

Columnist, Steve Flynn, discusses the era of Soul Music.

 

Attempting to define the impact that soul music can have on a lover of music is as arduous a task as trying to explain what exactly your soul consists of. The music, much like the soul that inhabits one’s flesh-coated skeleton, can reach the euphoric heights of the whimsical feelings of love, the lonesome and dark hours of despair and, of course, the incessant desire to just get up and dance. Soul music is pop perfection.

Many of the most beautiful voices in recorded history, rhythmic grooves so deep that you could fall into, and infectiously catchy choruses come from soul music, with many soul numbers containing that stroke of genius that allows even those least equipped with musical knowledge to instantly recognize the opening guitar riff for My Girl or the bass line, shaker and twinkle at the beginning of Stand By Me.

Given the political climate and social injustices that were occurring in 1960s America, soul was a platform for black and white people to unify, through the creation of the music, attending of the concerts or quite simply striking up conversation at their local record store. Soul music also provided a platform for women to emerge in a male-dominated music industry, from the chic girl next door look of girl groups such as The Supremes and The Ronnettes to the fur coat draped glamour of soul diva Aretha Franklin. At the heart of soul music in the 60s were two record labels who not only produced the prototype for pop music for the next fifty years, but who cast race aside and integrated in perfect harmony.

Berry Gordy, a young black man in times of racial turbulence in Detroit, acquired a loan from his family (a modest $800), and purchased a studio called Hitsville USA. Gordy’s ambition was to create the sound of young America, regardless of race, and to move away from the prescribed categorization of racial audiences that were present at the time. Motown was long-standing and the most successful African American business in the United States, achieving 110 top 10 hits between 1961 and 1971 with a roster boasting Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson 5 and The Supremes, as well as Motown vice president, Smokey Robinson.

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Behind the relentless Motown hits were a team of musicians and producers known as The Funk Brothers; a melody mafia who have played on more number one hits than Elvis, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys combined. The Funk Brothers’ headquarters was Studio A in Hitsville USA (affectionately dubbed The Snake Pit) where some of the world’s biggest chart toppers were conjured up using a range of innovative musical techniques while holding a simplistic mantra.

Many Motown records used two drummers playing simultaneously or else one overdubbing the other; ‘What’s Going On’ by Marvin Gaye, for example, used 3 drummers and other techniques such as the use of toy pianos and occasionally tire irons for percussion. At the heart of The Funk Brothers was James Jamerson, regarded by the likes of Paul McCartney and John Paul Jones as the greatest electric bass player of all time — essentially Jamerson is your favorite bassist’s favorite bassist.

Although they were the most successful band in the world in terms of the pop charts, the salaries they were paid from Motown were modest at best. It wasn’t until Paul Justman’s 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown that people could put a face to the many names within the band and hear first-hand the experiences live from the Snake Pit. Following this, The Funk Brothers were awarded a lifetime achievement award during the 2004 Grammy Awards.

 

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The counterpoint of Motown was the Memphis-based Stax Records, who were working under the same philosophy of racial integration, in terms of both target audiences and the musicians working with the label. The roster was equally impressive with such artists as Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, William Bell and Wendy Rene, to name a few.

Much like their Detroit-based contemporaries, the house band for Stax consisted of Booker T. & the M.G.’s, featuring band members both black and white. Originally labelled Satellite Records, recording a variation of blues, rock & roll and country at the Stax HQ with the recording studio upstairs, the bottom floor was used as an eclectic record store, allowing the staff at the label to see first hand what kind of records were selling, which reflected in the musical output. The record store became a hangout spot for young music lovers which also acted as an acid test of early Stax releases to gage their reaction.#

Unlike Motown, who would put many of their artists on review tours, Stax rarely employed this method of artist promotion. When they did in 1965 in Los Angeles, the infamous Watts Riots occurred the following day which was a sobering juxtaposition of an organization that prided itself on its racial integration on all levels and the palpable racial tensions that existed in the United States at this time. Many of the Stax artists became trapped in Los Angeles during what was the city’s worst case of public unrest for five days until the Rodney King riots, another racially-charged uproar against police brutality against African Americans.  
Picks of the Genre:

What Becomes of the Brokenhearted – Jimmy Ruffin: Never has melancholy took on a catchier form. A beautiful example of the art of music adding a sense of romanticism to lost love.

 

You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me – The Miracles: One of many Motown originals that The Beatles covered early-on in their career. Penned by Smokey Robinson, the encapsulation of wanting the one that you know will do you no good. The tastefully minimalist guitar riff is a staple for the habitual whistler.

 

I Forgot to Be Your Lover – William Bell: An opening guitar line that never fails to provide the familiar terrain of goose bumps.

My Lover’s Prayer – Otis Redding: The unmistakable howl from one of the finest voices in recorded music. The jewel of the Stax crown up until his untimely death just days after recording Dock of the Bay.