History of Soul Music


Soul music is a combination of gospel music and Rhythm and Blues or R&B. And it all began in the United States during the late 1950s. It may seem that soul has a lot in common with R&B, but if you will listen closely, soul has a greater emphasis on vocalists, it uses gospel-music devices, and it merges with religious and secular themes. Soul music originated in Memphis and it became widely known in the southern United States where most of its artists came from. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame describes soul as the music that came out of the black experience in America through the alteration of rhythm and blues and gospel into something secular satisfying and funky. With that being said, let’s take a look at the origins of Soul music.

Origins of Soul Music

More than any other popular American music genre, Soul is a combination and merging of previous styles of music and their substyles during the 1950s and 1960s. Generally speaking, the soul comes from a gospel or the sacred and the blues is profane. Blues was a musical style that mainly praised the bodily desire while gospel or soul focuses more on spiritual inspiration.

The term “soul music” in African-American jargon has associations with African-American pride and culture. In fact, in the 1940s and 50s, gospel groups used the word “soul” as part of their names. As performers and arrangers used techniques from gospel and soul jazz in African-American popular music during the ‘60s, soul music slowly transformed into an umbrella term for African-American music during that time.

When soul music became popular among white musical group, a new genre called “Blue-Eyed Soul” was made. In fact, an album by The Righteous Brothers was even entitled “Blue-Eyed Soul.” And artists such as Tom Jones and Dusty Springfield were sometimes called blue-eyed soul singers because they had a soulful nature in the lyrics and sound of their songs.

Soul music became more popular in the 1960s and it came to the point where it ruled the black music charts with artists such as James Brown and Aretha Franklin leading the charts.

Soul Subgenres

  • Detroit Soul or Motown

This subgenre has a strong rhythmic vibe and it was heavily influenced by gospel music. One distinctive sound of Detroit Soul or Motown is the hand clapping, powerful baselines, brass, vibraphone, and strings. Motown is also considered as the pioneering label of pop-soul which is a style of soul music that features raw vocals and toned-down subject matter that was intended for pop radio. Notable artists from this subgenre include The Jackson 5, Billy Preston, Stevie Wonder, and Diana Ross. Motown became popular in the 1960s and this style became smooth and glossier in the ‘70s which led to disco.

  • Deep Soul and Southern Soul

Deep soul and southern soul refers to an energetic and driving style that combines R&B’s energy with southern the United States gospel music sounds. A record label in Memphis, Tennessee named Stax Records developed a distinctive sound that featured vocals further back in the mix compared to contemporary R&B records by using vibrant horn parts in place of background vocals.

  • Memphis Soul

Stax Records and Hi Records were the ones who were responsible for producing a sultry and shimmering style of soul music called Memphis soul. This subgenre featured melancholic and melodic horns, drums, bass, and Hammond organ.

  • Blue-Eyed Soul

Blue-eyed soul is soul music that is performed by white artists and the meaning of this subgenre has evolved over the decades. In the 1960s, the term blue-eyed soul was associated with singers and artists who performed R&B and soul that was somewhat similar to the music that was produced and released by Stax Records and Motown Records. Bands and groups such as Van Morrison and Them, The Righteous Brothers, Spencer Davis Group, The Rascals, and The Grass are just some of the famous blue-eyed soul musicians that became popular in the 1960s. The name of the subgenre continued to be used in the ‘70s and ‘80s more particularly by the British media when they refer to a new generation of performers that adopted the elements of the Motown and Stax Records style and sounds. The term has also been applied to singers in other music genres that were influenced by soul music, artists such as Christina Aguilera, Adele, David Bowie, Hall and Oates, Adele, Frankie Vali, and Amy Winehouse were known as blue-eyed soul singers.

  • British Soul

During the early ‘60s, the soul scene slowly made its way around the United Kingdom particularly in Liverpool where there was an established black community from which singers like Steve Aldo and Chants came from. Soul has been one of the major influence on British popular music scene in the 1960s and it was able to influence bands of the British Invasion including The Beatles.

  • Neo-soul

Neo soul is a mixture of 1970s soul-style instrumentation and vocals with hip-hop beats, poetic interludes, and contemporary R&B sounds. This subgenre was established in the early 1990s and the term neo-soul was created by record label executive and producer Kedar Massenburg. Neo-soul features a heavy dose of Fender Rhodes over a grooving and mellow interplay between the drums with deep and funky bass.

Iconic Soul Artist

These are the singers and performers that will be remembered forever because of their contribution not just to soul music but to music in general.

  • James Brown

Soul music wouldn’t have been recognized in music today if it wasn’t for the talented James Brown. In fact, he is even dubbed as the Godfather of Soul because he was the first artist that took the details of African-American music and gave it a rhythmic euphoria that reverberated with a handful of R&B fans and was able to surpass race and color. Up until today, James Brown’s music continues to influence a new generation of artists.

  • Ray Charles

James Brown may be often attributed with the birth of the soul genre but it was Ray Charles who helped the genre be a viable chart maker. Ray Charles has placed over 14 straight singles in the R&B top 10 from his 1953 single entitled “Mess Around” to 1957’s “Swanee River Rock”. Ray Charles will always be remembered as the man who made soul the sound that it is today.

  • Little Richard

Little Richard was the man who was responsible for mixing the power of Rock and Roll with Soul. Little Richard along with James Brown helped bridge the gap between white and black America with the power of music. At first, Little Richard had some trouble putting his songs onto the charts and it was his song “Tutti Frutti” that opened the doors not only for his career but also to the generation of artists after him. Today, Little Richard is a member of the Grammy Hall of Fame, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Blues Hall of Fame.

  • Aretha Franklin

Considered as the most influential female soul singer of all time, Aretha Franklin made sure she left her mark on soul music. Hit songs such as “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”,

“Think”, and “Respect” are just some of her 112 Billboard chart-topping songs. She was also the first woman to ever been inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

  • Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye or also known as the man who made Motown Records a legend is known for his smooth tenor voice. He is responsible for the hit songs “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”. What’s amazing about Marvin Gaye is that despite how the times changed when the ‘60s gave way to the ‘70s, Marvin Gaye also changed with them. He was a versatile singer that told stories through his songs.

  • Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder started out a child star and in 1963, when he was just twelve years old, he landed his first hit single with the song “Fingertips”. Stevie Wonder’s music was filled with positivity and hope that made him one of soul music’s premier act. Some of Stevie Wonder’s greatest hits include “I Just Called To Say I Love You”, “Sir Duke”, and  “Superstition.” Up until today, Stevie Wonder is considered to be one of the music scene’s finest artists.

  • Smokey Robinson

Also known as Mr. Motown, Smokey Robinson was one of the leaders who created and crafted Motown Sound during the ‘50s and ‘60s. After having 26 top 40 hits with his band Robinson and the Miracles and produced other hit songs for Motown artists, Robinson decided to retire from music in 1969. But he made a solo comeback in 1973 creating some of the most classic soul songs such as “Cruisin”, “Ebony Eyes”, and “A Quiet Storm”.

Facts About Soul Music

  • Because of Motown, Detroit was known to be the center of the pop-oriented brand of soul.
  • Motown Records is the record label that was responsible for releasing a bunch of popular soul albums and songs during the 1970s.
  • Just like Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles was also blind. But his disability did not stop him from achieving his dreams and success.
  • During the 1960s and ‘70s, soul music embodied the spirit of social and political changed. In fact, this music genre helped paralleled the Civil Rights Movement.

Famous Soul Quotes

  • “You can’t base your life on other people’s expectations.” – Stevie Wonder
  • “Mama was my greatest teacher, a teacher of compassion, love and fearlessness. If love is sweet as a flower, then my mother is that sweet flower of love.” – Stevie Wonder
  • “I sing to the realists; people who accept it like it is.” – Aretha Franklin
  • “Being a singer is a natural gift. It means I’m using to the highest degree possible the gift that God gave me to use. I’m happy with that.” – Aretha Franklin
  • “I never wanted to be famous. I only wanted to be great.” – Ray Charles
  • “What is a soul? It’s like electricity – we don’t really know what it is, but it’s a force that can light a room.” – Ray Charles
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