Review 

Box sets from Rhino and Columbia Legacy

Box sets from Rhino and Columbia Legacy

Souled American

The soul era was a special time in this nation’s history, a period when the music of African Americans enjoyed unprecedented crossover appeal. Beginning in the late ’50s, then continuing into the ’60s and ’70s, the genre’s producers, composers, arrangers, instrumentalists, and performers forged a new genre by retaining the urgency and poetic frankness of the blues, the verve of R&B, and the spontaneous flair of jazz. To this mix, they added a fresh and vital emotional ingredient—gospel music’s search for salvation and transcendence.

Indeed, soul’s greatest artists were transplanted gospel vocalists who simply shifted the hollers, cries, shouts, and laments they’d sung in church to the secular studio. In its formative years, soul was a singles form, delivering short, gut-wrenching narratives to an audience hooked on transistor radios, AM outlets, and informal house parties. The lyric content alternated between traditional romantic fare, novelty/dance cuts, and topical political material that chronicled the nation’s civil rights struggles and the increasing turmoil within the black community. Later, the music evolved in response to sweeping changes like multitrack recording, FM stereo stations, the rise of the LP, and the emergence of disco.

The music reflected the backgrounds of its artisans; tunes from Memphis, Muscle Shoals, or New Orleans had a stark, down-home, country-tinged flavor, while those from New York, Detroit, Chicago, and Philadelphia offered sophisticated, jazz-based arrangements, lush backings, precise articulation, and sweeping orchestration. The most successful labels, Atlantic, Stax, and Motown, utilized topflight session musicians to forge an instantly recognizable company sound. While Atlantic and Stax favored an earthy, “deep” sound, Motown offered a lighter, more elaborate vocal presence, though one no less soulful. Other companies adopted variants of these two dominant motifs, creating music that at its best had an unsurpassed passion and fire.

Without a doubt, soul continues to capture the popular interest today. Decades after the music’s heyday, the use of sampling in rap has kept the soul groove alive, while oldies stations still pump out the hits of Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and many others. Countless reissues have kept the music in circulation, but two recent boxed sets represent perhaps the most important soul collections to be released in recent years.

The Big Ol’ Box of ’60s Soul (Rhino) is a six-disc collection featuring 144 songs culled from the genre’s heyday; it’s arguably the finest soul sampler/anthology ever assembled. Besides its outstanding packaging—which boasts a record carrying case similar to the ones that aficionados used to own during the ’60s—the set offers additional delights, among them a set of trading cards and an entertaining booklet that’s heavy on enthusiasm and light on analysis. Another collection, The Philly Sound: Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff & the Story of Brotherly Love (1966-1976) (Columbia Legacy), focuses on a more specific body of work, but it’s a no less important package. The three-CD set boasts a scholarly booklet, along with 48 selections from the label that helped soul make the transition into the ’70s. Both collections are superbly mastered, and together they serve as a vehicle for understanding a remarkable two-decade era in African American and American music history.

The Big Ol’ Box of ’60s Soul violates some basic rules of boxed-set procedure: The track listing doesn’t stick to strict chronological order, nor does it isolate songs by region or by label. While there are three main categories (Beg, Scream, & Shout), each of which is spotlighted over two discs, the selections are far more jumbled than is customary for a boxed set. This format actually works to maximum impact, revealing the diversity of sounds within the soul empire, despite the preponderance of horn sections, 2/4 rhythm, and three-minute recording times.

There’s minimal artist duplication; most acts, regardless of stature, are confined to one cut. There are a few exceptions, however, most notably Joe Simon (who contributes his remarkable 1969 cover of Harlan Howard’s “The Chokin’ Kind,” cut in Nashville for the Sound Stage 7 label, and “Drowning in the Sea of Love”) and the emphatic William Bell (featured both on “Private Number,” a duet with Judy Clay, and “Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday”). The anthology contains artists from soul factories such as Motown (Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Supremes, Four Tops, Jackson 5), Stax/Volt (Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Booker T. & the MGs), and Atlantic (Aretha Franklin, Solomon Burke, Clarence Carter, Ben E. King, Drifters). But there are also many long-forgotten gems on obscure labels such as Jestar (Bobby Patterson’s exuberant “T.C.B. or T.Y.A.”), D-Town (Lee Rogers’ slashing “I Want You to Have Everything”), and I.P.G. (Jay Wiggins’ mournful yet infectious “Sad Girl”).

From the jerk to the boogaloo, from sentimental tributes to angry denunciations, from novelty cuts to nationalistic propaganda, this set carries listeners through the ’60s in magical fashion, with numerous vintage cuts by males, females, combos, and vocal groups. Despite the occasional foray into pop—Dobie Gray’s “The In Crowd” and Dionne Warwick’s “Don’t Make Me Over” surely stretch the stylistic envelope—this collection can legitimately be dubbed the ultimate soul bonanza. If and when Rhino does a sequel, we can only hope the set will include songs from Laura Lee, Roscoe Shelton, The Temprees, R.B. Greaves, Doris Duke, and many others who didn’t make the cut this time around.

While The Philly Sound is a more restrictive compilation, it’s no less valuable. Producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, along with Thom Bell, got their start working in Philadelphia during the early ’60s; Gamble and Huff formed their first label, Gamble Records, in 1965, but they didn’t experience much success. After the label flopped, they began working as independent producers for Atlantic, Spring, & Neptune/Chess in 1967; their hits from this period, which include cuts by The Intruders, Jerry Butler, and Archie Bell & The Drells, dot this set’s first disc.

The pair’s production savvy emerges on these early recordings. For instance, on “Cowboys to Girls” and “(We’ll Be) United,” they devised melodies that the Intruders’ Little Sonny Brown, a notoriously bad, though striking, vocalist, could sing without going flat. With Jerry Butler, they penned “Only the Strong Survive,” which the suave singer introduced with moving narrative. Blue-eyed stalwarts The Soul Survivors traded shouts over the driving chorus of “Expressway to Your Heart,” while Dusty Springfield can be heard swaying and cooing on “Silly, Silly Fool” and Wilson Pickett can be heard screaming in characteristic fashion on “Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You.”

Gamble and Huff learned from their Stax, Atlantic, and Motown predecessors the importance of a sterling supporting cast; in time, they developed a stellar house band, which included drummer Earl Young, bassist Ronnie Baker, guitarists Norman Harris and Roland Chambers, and vibist Vince Montana. In the early ’70s, they adapted new musical developments used by Motown’s Norman Whitfield and Stax/Enterprise’s Isaac Hayes, both of whom began producing and writing lengthy material in suite form and began urging their acts to record more overtly political songs.

Gamble and Huff’s response to these developments, coupled with their desire to own a label once more, led to the formation of Philly International Records in 1971. They inked a deal with Columbia label head Clive Davis, under which Columbia handled distribution and marketing to mainstream (i.e. white) outlets, while Gamble and Huff supervised production, composition, and content, along with outreach to African American radio and media establishments. The bulk of cuts on The Philly Sound’s second and third discs represent the fruits of this pact.

With considerable assistance from longtime ally Bell, Gamble and Huff composed, arranged, and produced compelling, frequently provocative material that turned The O’Jays and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes into worldwide stars. They placed the O’Jays’ Eddie Levert and the Blue Notes’ onetime drummer Teddy Pendergrass in the vocal spotlight, relying on their charisma, explosiveness, and vocal range to turn such songs as “Love Train,” “Backstabbers,” and “For the Love of Money” (all O’Jays) and “I Miss You,” “The Love I Lost,” and “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” (all Blue Notes) into majestic, unforgettable epics. The arrangements offered rhythmically dynamic backing tracks that incorporated tasteful guitar riffs, Afro-Latin grooves, percussion, and vibes voicings and solos. Tunes also had extensive instrumental breaks and distinct sections, allowing easy editing for radio airplay, while extended or remixed versions filled dance floors in clubs.

As this anthology shows, Gamble-Huff didn’t click with every performer. Bunny Sigler, a multitalented artist, producer, and songwriter, could never equal the chart success of even the Intruders, let alone the O’Jays or Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, even though songs such as “Regina” are superbly performed. Despite their sales prowess, the instrumentals by house band MFSB still sound like dentist-office fare, while the Jacksons’ two outings, “Show Me the Way to Go” and “Enjoy Yourself,” are well-produced and competently sung, but utterly forgettable. Still, the best Gamble-Huff songs were anthems, and essential reminders that there was magnificent soul music in the ’70s, as well as the ’60s.

As both these collections suggest, soul music is a crucial part of American popular music, and its legacy will never be forgotten. Witness the countless film soundtracks and commercials that continue to incorporate snatches and snippets of Motown and Stax classics. Meanwhile, anthologies and books celebrating the era keep coming, among them Soulsville, Canadian author Rob Bowman’s extensive history of Stax, and Felix Hernadez’s Rhythm Revue, a new boxed set of 52 classics chosen by the celebrated New York disc jockey.

Though the era’s fashions and dances will probably never return, soul music, like all its other stylistic antecedents, will be with us forever. Thanks to The Big Ol’ Box of ’60s Soul and The Philly Sound, today’s listeners have the chance to find out just how magnificent this music sounded when it was in its heyday.

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