Popular music was knocked back on its ear in 1969. There was an explosion of new sounds and directions that year, which saw new releases The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, The BeeGees, The Beach Boys, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Chicago, etc. and etc.
What made it such a memorable year was the diversity of music. Unlike later years, when one style of music seemed to dominate the charts, 1969 yielded a crop of highly diverse offerings. One the most original sounds arising in that year was “soul music.” Growing out of ancient roots, it was just starting to blossom. Eventually, it would develop numerous branches that would yield some of the best music in American.
A year ago, at the Monterey Pop Festival, The Who exploded smoke bombs and demolished their instruments onstage. Jimi Hendrix, having made a variety of obscene overtures to his guitar, set fire to it, smashed it, and threw the fragments at the audience. But “the most tumultuous reception of the Festival,” according to one journalist, went to Otis Redding and the Mar-Keys, all of them conservatively dressed and groomed, who succeeded with nothing more than excellent musicianship and a sincere feeling for the roots of the blues.
In examining Soul Music, the Post chose to focus on the pivotal role played by the Memphis music industry.
All over Memphis the boom is on: New recording studios are being built, and old studios are being expanded to meet the growing demand for the “Memphis Sound,” which everyone wants his recording to have. And in the traditional recording centers of New York, Los Angeles, and the old Tennessee rival, Nashville, the signs of Memphis’s musical renaissance are being read with some unease; for, down among the magnolias and the cotton bales, this strange and unprecedented combination of farmers, businessmen. dropouts, day laborers, shoeshine boys and guitar pickers is making Memphis a new center of the pop-music industry. The recording industries of New York, Los Angeles, and Nashville are all much bigger; Memphis is probably a distant fourth. But Memphis has lots of hits. Recently, on a just-average week, 15 of Billboard’s Top-100 pop records and 16 of the magazine’s Top 50 rhythm-and-blues recordings were Memphis products.
There are many explanations for Memphis’s musical success, but they all boil down to that one word: Soul. Bob Taylor, vice president of the American Federation of Musicians’ Memphis chapter, says, “We don’t have the world’s best musicians, or the greatest recording equipment. But one thing the music of Memphis does have is the ability to communicate to the listener a sincere, deep feeling. You can’t listen to a Memphis record without responding to what the musicians felt when they made it. You have lo, al the very least, tap your foot.”
At the Stax/Volt studio, which produces many Memphis hits, songwriters Isaac Hayes (at piano) and David Porter pursue a song they hope will be as big as their Soul Man and Hold On, I’m Coming.
Across the country, “soul” has become synonymous with “black”—as in “soul brother.” But in Memphis those who “have it” will tell you that soul is not the exclusive property of any one race. Nor, in spite of soul music’s origins in rural poverty, does it belong to any one economic class. It might have at one time, but it has become too prosperous for that. There are too many poor country boys with Rolls-Royces and matched sets of Cadillacs…
Memphis’s special affinity for soul comes from its very special history. The soul sound was born from work cries and field hollers in the lonely stretches of the Delta, and established permanent residence in Memphis after 1862, when the Federal army, having subdued the city, made its headquarters near Beale Street. The Negro population of the city consisted mainly of former slaves who felt they had good reason to fear the local whites, and therefore stayed as close to Federal headquarters as possible. After the war many Negroes came in from the country, trying to find their families. There were only about 4,000 Negroes in Memphis in 1860, but by 1870 there were 15,000. Beale Street, now a faded jumble of pawnshops, liquor stores and pool halls, was then the toughest street in the toughest town on the Mississippi River, and it attracted the Negroes, according to one historian, “like a lodestone”…
The first blues record was cut in 1920 at the Okeh Recording Company in New York. Mamie Smith’s version of Crazy Blues sold for months at the rate of 7,500 copies a week, and soon Memphis was overrun with record representatives. They did a brisk business with records by the Memphis Jug Band, the Beale Street Sheiks, Furry Lewis, and Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers…
The music business in Memphis did not revive until after the war. Another generation of blues men was on hand, most of them, as before, from the Delta. They played amplified instruments, and their newly added, heavy back beat caused the music of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf to be called rhythm and blues. It was louder than the old blues, and it had more rocking rhythm, but its lyrical content was about the same—short phrases, pithy and sentimental, often with strong sexual imagery, viewing life and love from the bottom of society…
One of the most active early rhythm-and-blues companies was Sam Phillips’s Sun Records. Phillips had been a disc jockey for years on the Dust Bowl circuit, and became a record producer to cash in on the appeal R & B had for white teen-agers. But he did not intend to stop there: “I saw that if a person could get a combination of Negro spirituals, rhythm and blues, and hillbilly or country music—not just an imitation but with feeling and fervor and soul, like the Negro singers have, and the true country singers, too—well, I could really do something.”
Anyplace but Memphis, finding such a combination would have required a miracle. All Phillips had to do was wait. One day a truck driver from the Crown Electric Co. came in to Sun Records. “His hair was down almost to his shoulders. He had a real beat-up guitar” — and his name was Elvis Presley.
According to the author, Phillips and Presley became early contributors to Soul Sound by combining “the music of the country whites with rhythm and blues, ending segregated music.”
As one contemporary soul musician has said, “Country-and-western music is the music of the white masses. Rhythm and blues is the music of the Negro masses. Today, soul music is becoming the music of all the people.”
NOTE: As you’ve probably noticed, old articles from the Post freely use the term “Negro” when referring to Black Americans or African-Americans. (They will even use the term when race is not essential to the story.) The Post’s editors of 1969 considered the term a fair and enlightened alternative to unapologetic racist terms still being used by some publications. In reprinting old articles in the Post, I have considered replacing the term “Negro” with “Black” or “black American,” but I’m not sure I’m making matters any better. I would appreciate any input from our readers on whether to keep the historical term or replace it with something less dated and obtrusive.
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The News of the Week can be read every Friday. Bob Sassone rounds up the week's news in pop culture, books, food, technology, health, and current events, looks back at important moments in history, and gives a preview of upcoming holidays and events.