Soul music is built on the back of the little guy. As I’ve mentioned before in this column, most of Motown’s classics were recorded by a group of little-known musicians called the Funk Brothers. They put together the backing music for almost all of the record label’s hits—in fact, according to the documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” they have between them more number 1s than the Beatles, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, and the Beach Boys combined. Other soul labels worked in a similar way. For example, Stax Records employed Booker T and the M.G.’s as their studio band, where they recorded songs for the likes of Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, and Sam & Dave.
All these grooves had to come from somewhere, however. Most of these musicians got their start playing in blues bars and jazz clubs before being scooped up by scouts for the record labels. And even though these guys wound up playing pop music, they remained jazz and blues musicians at heart, and their musical sensibilities shaped the future of the genre. In a very real sense, soul’s distinctive sound is a result of the combination of the jazz and blues training of the studio musicians, the gospel records that the singers grew up listening to, and the business savvy of the label owners. Despite the rigidity of the soul genre—dictated as much by the demands of AM radio as by the musical tastes of the artists—the musicians occasionally slipped a little of their old selves into their work. Sometimes, probably when the studio execs were out of the office, the band got to record songs that sound a little more blues than soul.
Case in point: Don Bryant, who spent most of his time at Memphis-based Hi Records writing hits for other people—including his future wife Ann Peebles and Al Green—finally got his shot at the big time in 1969. Unfortunately, the album he recorded, called “Precious Soul,” sank to undeserved obscurity almost immediately after it was released. The tenth track on the record is a funky number called “She’s Looking Good,” originally made popular by Wilson Pickett. The song is based around a pitter-patter drum beat and features a guitar line more reminiscent of a fast Chicago blues than a downtempo Memphis sound, but then starts to sound more like a classic southern soul song as the horns blast out a pretty standard line.This sound is enhanced by Bryant’s powerful voice. It has the impressive range and heart-stopping, gospel- influenced wails used by singers across the genre. However, every time the song seems to be drifting towards a normal sound, the guitar bursts in, playing a pentatonic riff full of flat thirds and blues notes, just as a reminder of what the guitarist is capable of. The result is an interesting pull built into the track. It is very much a classic soul song in its construction and orchestration, but with an edge that looks back to the genre’s roots.
“She’s Looking Good” handles this dichotomy extraordinarily well. At no point does the song feel disjointed, nor do any of its constituent parts seem out of place. Given the history of both the artist and the record label, which worked with local blues and rockabilly artists as well as soul, this shouldn’t be surprising. The musicians who defined soul as a genre were actually working within a pre-existing framework. They were raised on blues, gospel, and jazz, and they incorporated all of these styles into the pop music that they were creating. When we look back at the sounds made in the past, we tend to both simplify and glorify the artists we revere. Musicians like Don Bryant and the Hi Rhythm Section that supported him were certainly incredibly talented, but they didn't really invent anything. “She’s Looking Good” sounds like a fast blues because in a lot of ways it is a fast blues, just in a different form. The genius of soul musicians was found in how they recombined pre-existing themes and in the process made something wonderful.
—Columnist Noah S. Guiney can be reached at email@example.com.
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Harvard Today: Nov. 26, 2013