There is the old saying, “Never let them see you sweat.” Although the context is different, the “soul men” have never minded if you saw them sweat. In fact, they prefer that you did.
These gentlemen, who made a major and lasting impact on the music landscape, stood apart from the average R&B singer because they sang hard and from the gut.
They didn’t believe in sugar-coating their records and live performances in order to appeal to a broader, Whiter audience. Without a doubt they all had, or in some cases have, large White followings, but the attraction is that very rawness.
This week we are paying homage to some — notice we said some — of the greatest soul men in the history of the genre, a genre that is not currently in vogue but will always have a presence. The last young soul man was Gerald Levert.
Since the music and careers of James Brown, Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye have been documented on so many occasions, we are not including them. However, their spirits prevail throughout the story.
ONE OF THE strongest and most prolific soul men was singer, songwriter and guitarist Bobby Womack, whose recording history is awesome. His catalogue reads like an unabridged Dictionary of Soul. We cannot name them all, but savor these gems for a few minutes, and perhaps give them another listen: “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha” “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” “If You Think You’re Lonely Now,” “Lookin’ For a Love,” “More Than I Can Stand” and the duet with Altrina Grayson, “(No Matter How High I Get) I’ll Still Be Lookin’ Up to You.”
Wilson Pickett, who was born in Alabama but at one time lived in Detroit, was a master of the “soul scream.” When he would cut loose, and the music volume was up, the walls sometimes shook. Pickett launched his career with the Detroit-based group the Falcons and sang lead on one of their biggest hits, “I Found a Love.” But the urge to go solo was strong, so he moved on.
“The Wicked Pickett” etched a permanent spot in Black music history thanks to dozens of hits, including “In the Midnight Hour,” “Land of 1000 Dances,” “634-5789,” “Funky Broadway,” “Don’t Knock My Love” and “Engine Number 9.” THE TEMPTATIONS have always been a soulful act — although they can be soft and sweet too — but the key element in their soul mix was the great David Ruffin. He could wail, first in a lower range and then up into the stratosphere. Ruffin seemed to have joined the Temptations precisely at the right time.
“My Girl” gave the Temptations their first No. 1 hit, and from there it was a long ride on the hit express. Among the stops on that ride: “It’s Growing,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “I Wish It Would Rain,” “Since I Lost My Baby,” “(Loneliness Made Me Realize) It’s You That I Need,” “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep,” “(I Know) I’m Losing You” and “My Baby.”
Far less celebrated is the great Marvin Junior, lead singer of one of the longest-enduring groups in the history of popular music, the Dells. Most people do not know his name, but have heard his blow-theroof- off voice. It is a voice, in fact, that was a huge influence on Teddy Pendergrass, another great soul man.
The Dells began having hits in the mid- 1950s, but after signing with Chess/Cadet in the late 1960s, were elevated to a new level of popularity. That hit surge started in 1968 with “Stay In My Corner” and continued with “Oh What a Night” (both songs were remakes of their ’50s hits), “Always Together,” “There Is,” “I Can Sing a Rainbow/Love Is Blue,” “Give Your Baby a Standing Ovation” and “The Love We Had (Stays on My Mind).”
OTIS REDDING was about as pure as soul could get. He poured his heart into every song he sang. His fans could feel it every second on each record and every moment on stage.
Redding was one of the main reasons for the Memphis sound explosion that started in the early 1960s and carried over into the ’70s with an impact that still reverberates.
For Redding it all began with “These Arms of Mine.” No one, including the great Jerry Butler, had ever heard anything like it. Redding never let up: “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now),” “Try a
Little Tenderness,” “Mr. Pitiful,” “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa” (Sad Song),” the original version of “Respect” and more.
Ironically, Redding’s biggest hit, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” reached No. 1 after his passing.
Sam & Dave, also from Stax, were double dynamite, two for the price of one. Like Redding, they never held back, incorporating everything they learned in church into the R&B world. Sam Moore and Dave Prater benefited greatly from the songwriting and producing skills of Isaac Hayes and David Porter. People will never tire of “Hold On, I’m Comin’” or “Soul Man.” Also great: “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby,” “I Thank You,” “Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody” and “You Got Me Hummin’.”
CAN YOU think of a singer more soulful and powerful than Eddie Levert of the still-goingstrong O’Jays?
It is said that Levert could sing in a large auditorium without a microphone and still be clearly heard. On “Soul Train,” host Don Cornelius asked him how he could sing with such power. Levert jokingly attributed it to “eatin’ all those greens, cornbread and ham hocks.” The O’Jays have given us a cavalcade of great songs, including “For the Love of Money,” “Just Let Me Make Love to You,” “Back Stabbers,” “Love Train,” “Work on Me” and “Livin’ For the Weekend.”
Johnnie Taylor epitomized soul. He had made records before, with varying degrees of success, but he took off like a rocket in late 1968 with the No. 1 hit that everybody was listening to and singing along with, “Who’s Making Love?” Taylor, like any soul singer worthy of the title, got to the heart of any song he was singing, and applied that same passion and energy on stage.
That first smash was followed by a long string of successes, such as “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone,” “Disco Lady” (with its dance and sex connotation), “Take Care of Your Homework,” “I Believe in You (You Believe in Me)” and the somewhat sexist but funny “Cheaper to Keep Her.” And let’s not forget Solomon Burke, the big man with the big voice and personality.
Philadelphia-born Burke was not just a singer. He was also a preacher and a businessman, an entrepreneur who sold everything from “love potions” to food he prepared to artists on the road with him, especially when racism prevented Black people from being served in southern restaurants.
Anyone who doesn’t know what “soul” is need only to listen to some of Solomon Burke’s records. They have their pick from such essentials as “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” “Cry to Me,” “Got to Get You Off My mind,” “If You Need Me” and “Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye).” Thank God for the gentlemen of soul, the soul brothers, the soul men.