Southern Soul

The soul music that emerged from the Southern states of the USA, especially Memphis, Tennessee and Muscle Shoals, Alabama, has a particular flavour and style — raw, direct, honest, expressive — that is distinct from the accessible, refined, cross-over pop-soul of Motown, or the slick, orchestrated ‘soft’ soul of Chicago.

Memphis was home to Goldwax Records where deep soul legends like James Carr and O.V. Wright recorded, as well as Hi Records where Willie Mitchell produced artists like Ann Peebles and Al Green. The biggest Southern soul label Stax, also based in Memphis, released music from Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave and more. Stax house band Booker T & the MGs and horn ensemble the Memphis Horns were central in shaping the character of Southern soul, along with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section from FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) Studios, who also played on many Stax hits and recorded with artists like Redding, Pickett, Solomon Burke, Joe Tex and Eddie Floyd. The Muscle Shoals band also played on Aretha Franklin’s string of seminal sixties soul albums, as well as music from pop/rock artists like The Rolling Stones, Paul Simon and Joe Cocker

Southern soul is generally thought of as rawer, more authentic and more immediate than its Northern counterpart, and no doubt the sixties output of labels like Stax or Goldwax were generally more hard-driving, gritty and unembellished than that of Chicago’s Curtom or Motown in Detroit. But that’s not to say Southern soul is less sophisticated. It’s direct, honest music, but Southern soul isn’t just about a down-home country feel — in his epic history of Southern soul, Sweet Soul Music, writer Peter Guralnick notes that the genre arose in a particular time and set of circumstances, the end product of “the bitter fruit of segregation transformed into a statement of warmth and affirmation,” a description you’ll find hard to beat. 

It developed in relative isolation, at least in terms of being far from the major urban centres of the music business and was in many ways a cottage industry, peopled with freelancers. Southern soul was also influenced by country music, and white musicians played a substantial role in its development. These factors resulted in a particular musical aesthetic that centralised authenticity above all else and that gave free rein to expression. Southern soul’s musical DNA insisted on a core genuineness, in the playing, production and performance, that would entertain no artifice and that was in no hurry to adopt new musical styles or embrace new musical technology. 

While other late 60’s/early 70’s soul artists were pushing forward with social commentary lyrics, wah wah guitars, synths, extended vamps and incorporating jazz or Latin influences, Southern soul took an unhurried, more conservative approach to its development. In fact, that un-hurriedness could be seen as a defining characteristic of much of Southern soul, a genre that could be slow and brooding or high-tempo and steaming, yet somehow often seemed inherently laid back, as though the simmering Southern temperatures had forged a distinctly relaxed musical aesthetic.

All this is not to say that Southern soul didn’t progress. By the early seventies, the Hi label had perfected a cleaned-up take on the genre — typified by Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together — with muted drums, sweet strings and an up-close production where every single musical element is clear in the mix. 

In the decade that Southern soul peaked — broadly speaking from the mid-sixties to mid-seventies — the genre made a significant musical journey, from the greasy, gutbucket grooves of Otis Redding’s Stax recordings and Aretha’s church-influenced classic album run, to Al Green’s soft, accessible, intimate recordings. In the process, Southern soul gave us a catalogue of songs both warm and joyful and deep and mournful, an embarrassment of musical riches containing some of the most welcoming but also most uncompromising black music of the twentieth century.

Don't You Ever Get Tired Of Hurting Me? cover

The second album from one of soul music’s gentlest and most sensitive singers is a great example of Southern soul with a country tinge, the fatback drums and unison horn lines complimented by downhome piano and twanging guitar. Swann was a soul singer whose restraint and control meant that when she did let rip it was that much more affecting and every performance here is textbook, yearning, sweet Southern soul. 

Straight from the Heart cover

From the moment the opening guitar lick locks in with the big horn lines and uncomplicated drum beat you know you’re in Southern soul territory. Produced by Willie Mitchell with the Memphis Horns in attendance, Peebles is in fine, raw, earthy form over the mid-and-uptempo tracks here which are all solid, early 70s Memphis fare: chunky horns, choppy guitar, church organ, blues piano and a swinging rhythm section. Peebles could exhort, scream or whisper with equal emotion, generally presenting a sassy, assured, powerful persona and she delivers heartbreak and redemption here with equally consummate ease.

Gets Next to You cover

Al Green’s 1971 third album is easily his funkiest outing, full of hot, steaming swamp grooves and that laid-back languid southern funk all defined by his distinct, yearning vocals. It’s mostly slow-paced, but even when they up the tempo, the music is played unhurriedly, as though the hot Memphis temperatures shaped how the musicians played. It’s an album that compares well to the ’71 output of contemporaries like Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, and Marvin Gaye, a genuine slice of weighty Memphis swamp funk. 

Soul Men cover

Kicking off with their signature song ‘Soul Man’, Soul Men delivers an album filled with brass-laden, chunky Southern soul, peppered with some intense, deep ballads. Booker T & the MGs and the Memphis Horns are in prime form, turning out a tight, lean, strutting and highly effective soul backing and Sam & Dave never miss a chance to shout, scream and testify, in-between their harmonising with each other. It’s big, brash, unashamedly southern-fried soul. 

The Queen Alone cover

Carla Thomas’s second album on Stax was a slightly tidied-up take on Southern soul, with a clean sound and sweetening strings creating a nice blend of slick Detroit production values and down-home Southern realness. Tracks like ‘I Want To Be Your Baby’ are sultry, urbane and extremely pretty, with more in common with artists like Dionne Warwick, but there’s still some country grit here too in tracks like ‘Lie To Keep Me From Crying’ or ‘Stop Thief.’ Strong material, played superbly, sung wonderfully. 

Too Many People In One Bed cover

The 1970 sole album release from Phillips was produced and co-written by legendary Jerry ‘Swamp Dogg’ Williams Jr. and is mostly mid-tempo, brass-led country funk and Southern soul. Phillips’ superior take on The Supremes’ ‘Someday We’ll Be Together’ takes it to church, adds some wickedly funky bass and drums and with Swamp Doggs’ soaring strings elevates it into a deep soul anthem. There are some devastating ballads on here too with Phillips’ voice, not a million miles from that rawness you get from Lyn Collins and Ann Peebles providing some genuinely beautiful moments.

Tell Mama cover

Chicago singer Etta James hooked up with the Muscle Shoals rhythm section in 1968 and produced this Southern soul classic. The title track is just pure high-octane sixties soul energy, followed by her gorgeous take on classic torch song ‘I’d Rather Go Blind,’ and the rest of the album moves similarly between funky countrified up-tempo tracks, unembellished bluesy soul and killer ballads.

Sweet Southern Soul cover

Another Muscle Shoals classic, this time from pianist and singer Lou Johnson, Sweet Southern Soul features a big, widescreen production, blending country-soul with a gospel feel and plenty of blues. Put together with a production/musician dream team and a suite of quality songs, it’s a cohesive whole despite the wide variety of material and it’s just another one of soul music’s mysteries why Sweet Southern Soul is not better known. 

The Exciting Wilson Pickett cover

Recorded at the Stax studio in Memphis and then at the Fame studios in Muscle Shoals after the infamously feisty Pickett was banned from Stax, this contains a clutch of his sixties hits including his best known ‘Midnight Hour.. ‘The Exciting…’ is earthy, hard-rocking and swinging R’n’B/soul, with hints of blues in the piano and guitar, the rhythm section up front in the mix and all with Pickett’s raw, raspy vocals testifying throughout. Superb southern soul from one of the genre’s most uncompromising artists. 

A Man Needs A Woman cover

Carr’s second album for Goldwax is an exemplar of deep, smouldering Southern soul, a mix of uptempo R’n’B/soul grooves and tear-jerking ballads, authentic, raw and emotive, with one foot in the church and the other in the bar at 2 am. An extremely talented singer, Carr never reached his potential due to mental health problems, giving his small body of work even more poignancy. Contains his most well-known track ‘The Dark End of The Street,’ a piece of music that retains its substantial emotional punch several decades on from its recording. 

Hold On, I’m Comin’ cover

Superb Memphis soul album from ‘Double Dynamite’, warring vocalists Sam & Dave. The anthemic title track — the result of a conversation between songwriters Isaac Hayes and David Porter while the latter was in the toilet — epitomises that swaggering, unembellished, Stax soul sound and they continue this aesthetic through the rest of the album. Album highlights include their show-stopping hit ‘I Take What I Want’ and the smouldering, stripped back ‘Don’t Make It So Hard On Me Baby,’ a track graced with possibly the finest snare sound on a mid-sixties soul record. 

This Girl's In Love With You  cover

The opening track on Aretha’s fifteenth album from 1970 is a gospel-flavoured take on Dusty Springfield’s ‘Son of a Preacher Man,’ her church-piano playing and soaring vocals setting the mood for what follows. Pure, high-emotion, faithful Southern Soul, which includes goosebump-inducing covers of ‘Let It Be’ and ‘The Weight’ and an entirely transformed ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ At times slow-burning, at times full-throttled and sanctified, ‘This Girl…’ is comparable to Aretha’s peak-sixties albums. 

I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You cover

It’s difficult to write about Aretha’s 1967 album, her tenth, without descending into hyperbole. After five years of floundering at Capital reinterpreting standards, in some ways this is the first true Aretha Franklin album. Impeccably backed by the Muscle Shoals band, it is a soul music classic, one of the strongest in the canon, but it also transcends genre. The moments of spine-tingling beauty are countless, the hits keep coming; it’s a genuine thing of beauty. 

Let’s Stay Together cover

Home of Green’s biggest hit, the timeless ‘Let’s Stay Together,’ and the heartbreaking string-fest of his cover of the Bee Gees ’How Can You Mend A Broken Heart,’ this album is a slightly slicker outing than ‘Al Green Gets Next To You’ with more orchestration, cleaner production and less funk. His soul music contemporaries maybe have been experimenting with wah wah guitars, early drum machines, synths and social commentary, but Green was happy to deliver a set of sweet, unhurried love songs and ruminations on heartbreak; a smooth version of Southern soul, arranged to perfection by Willie Mitchell. 

I’m Just a Prisoner cover

Before ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ and ‘You’ve Got The Love,’ Alabama singer Candi Staton recorded three fine Southern soul albums for the FAME label, with the first, ‘I’m Just A Prisoner,’ dropping in 1970. Featuring some seriously gritty, homey funk with plenty of blues influence along with a clutch of smouldering torch songs, the quality is consistent throughout as are Staton’s fervent vocals. 

Otis Blue cover

The 1965 third album from Redding, ably backed by Booker T & the MGs, the Memphis Horns and Isaac Hayes on piano is perhaps the definitive mid-sixties southern soul album. Made mostly of cover versions, Otis Blue is a genre-defining masterwork, a musical alchemy that blended R’n’B, blues and gospel into a template many would emulate. Listen to the dynamic peaks and troughs in both the musical accompaniment and Redding’s vocals on, for example, ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’ to hear Southern soul perfection. 

Fly Me To The Moon cover

The album debut from songwriter, guitarist and singer Bobby Womack, produced by Memphis’ legendary Chips Moman, was mostly written by the singer and features plenty of driving, gutbucket Southern soul with occasional restrained orchestration and deft guitar work from Womack. Aside from his originals — Womack was a talented and in-demand songwriter who’d written many of Wilson Pickett’s hits — Womack was a talented reinterpreter of others’ material and his cover of ‘California Dreaming’ here is sublime. 

Aretha Now cover

A record equally full of joy and melancholy, this is peak-Aretha in the middle of her late sixties purple patch. The album delivers a mix of gospel-flavoured R’n’B rockers and sweet soul peans to love, with Aretha swooping between effortlessly testifying and more introspective, sensitive vocal performances. Heavyweight session musicians, great choice of material and that unmistakable voice — solid gold soul. 

Total Explosion cover

By the time Syl Johnson put out his ‘Total Explosion’ album in 1976, disco was fast taking over black music, but this is pure, unadulterated, countryfied Southern soul, the addition of some funky clavinet and occasional wah wah guitar the only concessions to the changing times. It’s extremely funky, with Johnson’s harmonica giving it a still more down-home feel. Swimming against the musical tide, ‘Total Explosion’ was an out of time album, but is a great example of gutsy, bluesy, late-period Southern soul. 

I Love the Way You Love cover

Best known for her funky-soul hit ‘Clean Up Woman’ which is included here, Betty Wright’s second album might be her finest. Eleven songs of melancholy ballads, slinky mid-tempo soul and wah wah funk, much of it in a musical sweet spot where highly orchestrated arrangements meet gutsy Southern soul. There’s some dance floor-targetted funk on here along with several string-soaked lost-love heartbreakers. A sophisticated and highly enjoyable take on Southern soul.