If the best white soul fuses tact and fervor, George Soulé’s Take a Ride might exemplify the genre. Cut in Nashville with producers Mark Nevers and Jeb Loy Nichols, Take a Ride is Soulé’s first full-length record, and reveals him as a masterful singer and songwriter. He’s an unjustly neglected figure whose contributions to soul equal those of far more celebrated artists.
A native of Meridian, Miss., the 61-year-old Soulé is perhaps best known for his 1973 single, “Get Involved.” Written by George Jackson and produced by Rick Hall, it’s a pivotal performance—one of the toughest and most elegant songs to emerge from Hall’s Fame Studio in Alabama. “Get Involved” was a Top-40 R&B single, but Soulé made his reputation as a songwriter, penning early-’70s hits like Carl Carlton’s “Can’t Stop a Man in Love” and Brook Benton’s “Shoes.”
Take a Ride reprises Soulé’s classic songs, including “Shoes” and “I’ll Be Your Everything,” a 1974 Percy Sledge hit. He does a fine turn on Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham’s “Come On Over,” and turns Nichols and Wayne Nunes’ “Find the Time” into a shimmering piece of post-’70s soul, complete with blaxploitation guitar. Soulé’s facility with all kinds of material is remarkable: his warm tenor suggests champagne and bittersweet chocolate, and his phrasing is rhythmically acute.
Although it was cut quickly, Take a Ride sports plenty of detail. Greg Cartwright’s guitar gives “Shoes” just the right touch of woozy authority, while Tony Crow proves a marvelously subtle pianist during the end of “My World Tumbles Down.” In fact, Cartwright, who has done fine work with Memphis band The Oblivians and his current group, Reigning Sound, might be the secret hero of the record. His guitar playing splits the difference between soul and garage-band, and completely avoids any retro connotations.
Soulé’s reading of Cartwright’s “Wait and See” illustrates the record’s virtues. A classically constructed pop-gospel ballad in 6/8, it begins as if in midair and remains weightless throughout. “My face, tired and old / My secondhand shoes, filled with holes / And this heart is filled with love for you,” Soulé sings. With its combination of delicacy and grit, “Wait and See” could hardly be sung more effectively, and makes a suitable companion piece for the punning “Shoes” and its great line, “That woman done put a hole in your soul.”
Elsewhere, Soulé sounds eternally youthful on “Something Went Right” and righteously angry on the remake of “Get Involved.” Lloyd Barry’s horn arrangement drives “My World Tumbles Down,” while “Bend Over Backwards” features a phased-out guitar part. Nevers’ production works off the conventions of classic soul records like Bobby Womack’s “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” without putting its borrowings into quotation marks, so that the title track sounds both modern and pleasantly anachronistic.
Still, it’s a singer’s record. Soulé can charm with the simplest gesture, as on the “Ah, baby” that opens “Something Went Right,” or the way he suggests pain with the line, “Can’t think of yesterday, ’cause yesterday has gone.” As do the finest soul singers, Soulé possesses a superb sense of drama, and he sings around the beat, not in opposition to it.
If the record has a fault, it lies in its unfashionable equanimity. Soulé might well be a neglected artist, but he never makes a false move motivated by remorse or self-pity. Take a Ride sneaks up on you, and has a sweet spirit. You get the sense of a man’s life laid out for all to see, with no little attention to craft. It implies that detachment is essential to an expression of the fervor that drives any soul music worthy of the name.