In 1972, with Marvin Gaye’s release of the landmark anthem “What’s Going On?”, soul music died.
For a decade soul music had shared the top of the American charts with the Beatles and the Stones — The Beach Boys were deluged by the tidal wave of British acts crossing the Atlantic, while Elvis was sinking to the bottom. Yet the Beatles, when they started, were barely more than a group of white Englishmen trying to sound like black Americans – but were nothing like the original soul brothers and sisters, like Ray Charles – who took a slight ideological turn with Modern Sounds in County and Western Music but came back – or James Brown, rightly or wrongly named “the godfather of soul,” or Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Curtis Mayfield, Wilson Pickett, Nina Simone – the high priestess of soul — Sam and Dave, Otis Reading.
The Motown sound was great, the Temptations and the Supremes and the Miracles and the rest, but there was something about many of their chart-topping songs that didn’t seem to be quite as purely soul. Maybe it was the violins or the harps or the glockenspiel or the tympani or whatever other orchestral instruments they sweetened the songs with, but it seemed more like pop. Not that the Motown players didn’t kick it out sometimes – the bass player James Jamerson laid down some of the most soulful and memorable bass lines in the history of recorded music.
Meanwhile, the musicians on the Stax label, playing behind sweet soul Otis Reading and wicked, wicked Wilson Pickett, had it going in a different direction. Who would have guessed that the same guys who put out the flacid instrumental “Green Onions” would be the ones laying down the trance-inducing burn and churn on Otis’s “Respect” or Wilson’s “Midnight Hour?” And what was even more suprising was that the band was integrated, half black and half white. Booker T. Jones, the keyboardist, and Al Jackson, Jr., the drummer, were both black, while the bass player, Donald Dunn, and the guitarist, Steve Cropper, were both white. In fact, it was Steve Cropper who wrote some of the signature soul tunes of the time – incredibly, this skinny ass white boy wrote “Knock on Wood” and “Mr. Pitiful” and “Midnight Hour.”
Soul music reached the stratosphere in 1967, the year Aretha Franklin exploded on the scene – and soul had a bone fide queen. She ripped through “I Never Loved A Man,” Otis’s “Respect,” “Baby I Love You,” “Chain Of Fools” and Carole King’s “A Natural Woman” all in one year, all in 1967. Fontella Bass may have been first up, blusier and more soulful – “Rescue Me” was a knock-out – but when Aretha stayed away from the pop tendencies and let the soul lead the way, no one else could keep up.
But with the release of “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye in 1972 came a new urgency not only to Motown but to African American musicians everywhere, based in an expanded social consciousness and a need for action. Suddenly the lyrical frivolity of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” seemed irrelevant to the times.