Soul Sides: A Love for Soul Music

Oliver Wang is the curator of Soul Sides Volume 2: The Covers, a collection of rare and new R&B interpretations of classic soul. Wang talks about his love for soul music and the stories behind the album.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: a new line of sympathy cards for the whole spectrum of life's setbacks. But first, let's play some new music.

(Soundbite of song, "Fever")

Ms. SHARON CASH (Singer): (Singing) You give me fever when you kiss me. Fever when you hold me tight. Fever in the morning, fever all through the night.

MARTIN: That was "Fever". Obviously, not a new song but maybe you haven't heard Sharon Cash singing it before. We found her song in her new album called "Soul Sides Volume 2: The Covers". "Soul Sides" is part of larger project of Oliver Wang. Wang is an assistant professor of sociology at Cal State Long beach. And for years, he's been running the Soul Sides audio blog. "Volume 1 of Underground and Rare Soul" was released in 2005. Volume 2 is just out, and Oliver Wang joins us now from NPR West.

Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

Professor OLIVER WANG (Sociology, Cal State Long Beach): Yeah. My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: How did you get into this?

Prof. WANG: I'm…

MARTIN: I mean, honestly, come on, really. This is, like, a mix tape, right?

Prof. WANG: Yes. It really is.

MARTIN: Like what you'd make for your friends.

Prof. WANG: Sure. Sure.

MARTIN: But your friends are, like, lots and lots of friends, and now it's a beautiful, beautiful album.

Prof. WANG: Well, I mean, I think the mixed tapes a great analogy, and it really reflects the fact that, you know, I started deejaying back in 1993, and have been music journalist since 1994. And I'm also a music scholar in my professional life, and so I've been running Soul Sides the audio blog now for - since about 2003. And I was approached by Kevin Drost at Jealous Records in New York City who says, listen, you already put this music together for your audio blog. How about putting together a similar concept for an album? Clearly, it worked out well enough that we managed to survive to volume 2. You know, the theme for volume 2 is that it's all cover songs.

MARTIN: It seems like with cover songs, there's always this question of whether musicians are being less original than they could be, or are they, I don't know, taken the lazy route out.

Prof. WANG: Sure. The reason why I love covers, and this has been something I blogged about many times, and I've actually had - long before "Soul Sides Volume 2" ever came out, I put together my own mix tape of just covers. And what I like about them is that they blend a hint of the familiar. In other words, we recognize the covers because we know the songs, but they're done in a new - from a new approach, and hopefully, in a creatively new approach. So it gives it a different spin. So you have this blend of something that you know, on one level, you know, the lyrics to, maybe. But it's being presented to you in a whole different fashion, and that's what I really love about cover songs, is their ability to have that kind of balance.

MARTIN: Let's talk about some of the choices for the album. Listen to this.

(Soundbite of song, "I Want to Hold Your Hand")

Mr. AL GREEN (Singer): (Singing) Oh, yeah, I tell you something, girl. I think, I think you understand and when I, well, I say that there's something to you. I want to hold your hand. I got to hold your hand, baby. I got to hold your…

MARTIN: Al Green, singing a Beatle song.

Prof. WANG: Yeah, you can't see it right now, but I'm actually - every time I hear that song, I can't help but lip-sync to.

MARTIN: Are you kidding me? What do you think I'm doing? What do you think I'm doing?

Prof. WANG: Exactly. There you go.

MARTIN: I'm hitting my - I hit my cough button so you couldn't hear me sing, because you don't want to hear me sing. Why did you pick this one?

Prof. WANG: For one thing, I'm a huge Al Green fan, and I discovered this song, sort of, later on. It's in my discovery disc catalog. And what makes it interesting is it was the very first single that Al Green recorded with Hi Records, produced by Willie Mitchell, which is the label that he really became Al Green in terms of - became a national star. And it was the very first single he recorded for them, but it was a flop. It really didn't go anywhere. I guess people weren't ready to hear a Southern soul version of a Beatles song. And as a result, that song never made it onto any album.

MARTIN: That's crazy.

Prof. WANG: Yeah.

MARTIN: How'd you find it?

Prof. WANG: I think it actually came out on a later compilation that was designed to look at, sort of, unreleased or rare Al Green songs. And I was instantly taken with it. I mean, with such a great version of that Beatles song, and the way that Al Green is Al Green on it, I think was just fantastic.

(Soundbite of song, "I Want to Hold Your Hand")

Mr. GREEN: (Singing) I want to hold your hand. I got to hold your hand, baby. I want to hold your - I got to (unintelligible) now…

MARTIN: It's definitely a, you know, head rocker in the car, you know?

Prof. WANG: Yeah.

MARTIN: You will draw attention driving down on the street listening to that. But, listen, you follow it by something very different. Let's play a little bit of that.

(Soundbite of song, "Home Is Where The Hatred Is")

Ms. ESTHER PHILLIPS (Singer): (Singing) Don't be walking through the twilight. I'm on my way home. I left three days ago. But no one seems to know I'm gone. Home is where the hatred is. Home is filled with pain. And it may not be such a bad idea if I never, never went home again.

MARTIN: Some pretty intense lyrics there.

Prof. WANG: Well, this is Esther Phillips covering Gil Scott-Heron's song, "Home is where the Hatred Is". And what's really remarkable and credible about both songs is it's a song about addiction. Not just metaphoric addiction, but also literal alcoholism and drug abuse. And both Gil Scott and Esther Phillips - especially Esther Phillips whose whole, sort of, life story and career is actually quite tragic because of her problem with addiction.

The fact that she would choose this Gil Scott Heron song of all them - of his massive catalogue to cover - really says a lot about her really expressing something that is incredibly personal, which is about her own demons. And so listening to the song and knowing about that back history, you realized how much more poignant it is, in terms of her speaking, not just this sort of abuse and addiction, you know, as a social problem, but she's really speaking from her own experience as well.

MARTIN: Now, Oliver, would it be rude of me to point out that you're not black?

Prof. WANG: No, I think that would be an observant point.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: So does anybody find it odd or intriguing that you, as an Asian-American man, and not just - you know, a scholar, you know, you've got a Ph.D., you're a professor and all that - that you're sort of deep into soul music?

Prof. WANG: If someone finds that unusual or at least worth noting - yeah, I think that's valid, perhaps. But for me, it's not something that I'm that self-conscious about. When I'm listening to this music, I'm really listening for the music. And I understand sort of the historical circumstances in which this music is emerging from, and as someone who studies race and thinks about the ways in which race and racism works in society, it actually makes that music all the more poignant to understand the relationship between, let's say, a song like Sam Cooke's "Change is Gonna Come" in the civil rights movement in what's going on in America during that time. So it actually enriches my interest in those things.

MARTIN: What's your definition of soul music? What makes soul soul?

Prof. WANG: Oh, you know, this is going to be a copout except, I think it's true - ultimately, you know soul music when you hear it.

(Soundbite of song, "Che Che Cole")

MARTIN: What about "Che Che Cole"? That's - it's a - why is that a soul song?

Prof. WANG: I think that song is for a variety reasons. The original "Che Che Cole" was done by Willie Colon, the salsa artist. And Willie Colon comes out of this moment in New York-Puerto Rican history, where Latin music and soul music have merged and now become, you know, quite miscegenated. And the song gets covered by Antibalas, which is another New York group an entire generation later, which are these people who are paying homage to Feli Kuti and other Afro-beat artists. It just seemed like a really fantastic collision. And to me, that's part of what soul does well, too, is to really bring together and embrace a very wide array of different kinds of musical and cultural influences.

(Soundbite of song, "Che Che Cole")

ANTIBALAS (Music Group): (Singing in Spanish)

Prof. WANG: If I could just add, I mean, the other thing, too, is that is that's a very funky song. And you don't get to funk without talking about soul first.

(Soundbite of song, "Che Che Cole")

ANTIBALAS: (Singing in Spanish)

MARTIN: Why do you think this particular music speaks to you so deeply?

Prof. WANG: Well, I think like a lot of folks in my generation, especially those who came up into music through hip-hop, you know, so much of hip-hop depends on recycling and picking from soul music of the past. I mean, that's the template. That's the bedrock of so much of hip-hop's production. And through being a fan of hip-hop, I was always curious. Okay, I know that they're sampling something from the past, be it from James Brown or from Barry White or from whoever. Let me see what it is about that music that today's producers find so intriguing and enthralling.

You know, these are the records that they grew up and found in their mother's and father's record collection in their basements and what not. What is it about those songs and those artists that they find so compelling that they want to recycle them into the present? And so I really went through hip-hop backwards into soul music and, I think, discovered those same kind of qualities, the richness, the textures - and really, at the very heart of it, just the emotional appeal of soul music in terms of this incredibly emotionally expressive style of singing and the use of rhythm to really bring those kinds of feelings of both sadness and happiness and excitement and sexuality and passion - all of these things out into surface.

MARTIN: Do you have a favorite track on this album? And I realize that might be like asking which of your kids is your favorite, but do you have one?

Prof. WANG: I have a couple, I would say. I mean, the Al Green one, certainly. The Donovan Carless song, which ends the album - it's a cover of William DeVaughn's "Be Thankful For What You Got," which especially on the West Coast is sort of this really classic soul and summer anthem, really. And there's something about hearing a reggae version of that song which is absolutely perfect.

(Soundbite of song, "Be Thankful For What You Got")

Mr. DONOVAN CARLESS (Singer): (Singing) Though you may not drive a great big Cadillac.

Prof. WANG: I never, never get tired of this song. It's so easy to end with in that way.

Mr. CARLESS: (Singing) Diamonds in the back, a sunroof top. Digging the scene with a gangsta lean. Diamonds in the back, a sunroof top. Digging the scene with a gangsta lean.

MARTIN: Oliver Wang is an assistant professor of sociology at Cal-State Long Beach and a curator of "Soul Sides Volumes 1," and now two, as well. Thank you so much, Professor Wang. And thank you for your album.

And let's say goodbye to "Be Thankful For What You Got."

Mr. CARLESS: (Singing) Diamonds in the back, a sunroof top. Digging the scene with a gangsta lean. Diamonds in the back, a sunroof top. Digging in the scene with a gangsta lean. Diamonds in the back…

MARTIN: For more on Soul Sides, you can check out our Web site at npr.org/tellmemore.

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