(Soundbite of song "Soul Finger")
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Oh, yes, that bass, those horns; it's the unmistakable sound of Memphis soul courtesy of the Mar-Keys. They've charted with that hit, "Soul Finger," in 1967. It is one of dozens of soul and R&B hits from that historic summer when we first bowed to the queen of soul and broke out in a cold sweat with Brother James. Its significance in American pop culture has spawned several retrospectives this summer, from the Whitney Museum of Art in New York to an entire issue of Rolling Stone magazine. They called it the "Summer of Love" but we prefer to revisit it as the summer of soul, music that's hot buttered not groovy, songs that made up the soundtrack to a period of racial and political change that still resonates.
Joining us now for the first of our series on the Summer of Soul 67 is Duke University professor Mark Anthony Neal. He is author of "Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation" among others. He joins us from the campus of Duke University in North Carolina. Welcome.
Professor MARK ANTHONY NEAL (Duke University; Author, "Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation"): Hey Michel. How are you doing?
MARTIN: Great. Why do you think some of these big retrospectives from the Summer of 67 focus on more of the hippie sound like Jefferson Airplane or The Grateful Dead or some of the San Francisco bands? Lots of black artists were doing great things in that period.
Prof. NEAL: You know, I think it's just the history of the time, the connections between what's happening in Iraq, of course, and the Vietnam War. And I think so many of our memories, particularly as has been presented in film, has been around, you know, the hippie culture of the moment. But it clearly, you know, soul music and black folks were very prominent, you know, to what was happening during that incredible summer.
MARTIN: And, of course, you know, Dionne Warwick, The Supremes all had major hits in very quick succession between, say, June and September. But we need to start off with the queen.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. NEAL: Yes.
(Soundbite of song "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You")
Ms. ARETHA FRANKLIN (Singer): (Singing) I ain't never, never, never loved a man the way that I love you."
MARTIN: Aretha, of course, needs no introduction, the queen of soul. Why do you think this was such a fertile time for artists like Aretha Franklin, for artist like Dionne Warwick?
Prof. NEAL: Well, in the case of Aretha Franklin in particular, I mean, we had a moment where really what I would call the black church aesthetic was being mainstreamed into American culture. She had just left Columbia the year before, signed with Atlantic. She was working with these great producers and musicians, many of them from the South (unintelligible). And it gives her sound the kind of bottom that allows her to really explore her gospel roots and her sensibilities towards blues and, you know, her own song writing capability.
And literally, she just explodes. I mean, it's difficult to think of 1967 as not just simply the year of Aretha, because that she released the album "I Never Loved a Man" and nothing was ever the same again. By 1968, you know, she was like the most popular black woman ever. So she could really go from one sound over to another fairly seamlessly and always maintaining this kind of gospel sensibility about it.
MARTIN: And while we're talking about genre, can you help us with - the distinction is always clear to me. What's the difference between rhythm and blues and soul? Is there a difference, or does it matter?
Prof. NEAL: Well, when you talk about rhythm and blues, you're talking about, you know, basically blues chords that were given a very hard rhythmic background. When you think about the music of, like, Charles Brown in the late 1940s, when you think about Ruth Brown as a great example of this. I mean, that's rhythm and blues music.
What you have with soul is really the element of the introduction of gospel music and spirituals. I mean, when you think about Ray Charles, the things that Ray Charles did was that he took traditional rhythm and blues music and infused it with a gospel sensibility so that you when you heard soul music, it clearly had a kind of spiritual aspect of it that made, you know, even as a secular music, it gave it a certain kind of sacred, you know, context because of the infusion of the gospel situation.
MARTIN: But that infusion of soul - the sacred and the secular - doesn't always please everyone. And I wondered whether soul was every, you know, controversial, sort of considered just too gritty or taking kind of sacred themes and applying it to a secular purposes not - (unintelligible) blasphemous even, really?
Prof. NEAL: I mean for those early generation of innovators, I mean, Ray Charles got criticism for that all the time. You know, "I Got a Woman" was based on a gospel song. And when Sam Cooke really opened the floodgates and he leaves the Soul Stirrers and he makes that transition into a pop singer and brings the gospel sound to it. And once he successfully made that transition, it made it so much easy for so many folks after him, including Aretha. You know, Sam Cooke was one of her mentors.
And the reason why I think it's ultimately important, you know, no matter how folks felt how blasphemous it was for folks essentially to be singing secular gospel music, is that it really helped, given the (unintelligible) particularly around civil rights, it really helped introduce the black church experience and the black church aesthetic to a mainstream audience. I think it's almost impossible to think about Martin Luther King really kind of demanding for a kind of moral response to what was happening politically at the time and not hear soul music somewhere in the background as part of that process.
MARTIN: And the lyrics are a part of that too, right?
Prof. NEAL: Well, actually…
MARTIN: Not just the - the sound…
Prof. NEAL: This idea, on the one hand, is about uplift. You know, spiritual uplift and physical uplift. I mean, even in the case of Aretha and the tracks like "Respect." You know, when that one (unintelligible), she's essentially singing to her man, but it took on this greater meaning. And when she stops and spells out respect…
Prof. NEAL: And I mean, it's literally like this kind of demand for it.
MARTIN: Okay. I think we need to hear it.
(Soundbite of song "Respect")
Ms. FRANKLIN: (Singing) R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to me. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Take care, T-C-B.
MARTIN: You know what I think? If black girls had bar mitzvahs, this would be played at them.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: I mean, it's like a rite of passage that you - you know, at some point, you will learn respect and it will mean something to you, you know, like…
Prof. NEAL: Yeah. No disrespect to the legacy of someone like Nina Simone, who really was also on the frontlines of the civil rights movement. Aretha Franklin's music is just like the soundtrack of the civil rights movement. I mean, there's no way to get around that.
MARTIN: If you're just tuning in, I'm talking with pop culture expert Mark Anthony Neal about the summer of 1967 - the Summer of Soul. Which of the lesser-known hits, would you say, showed this artistic turning point, this changed and sort of black identity? We were talking earlier about a Supremes song that some people find surprising. You want to talk about that?
Prof. NEAL: Yeah, "Reflections." And, you know, folks, you know, by 1967, Motown has already under siege with this kind of critique that it's not fully representative of, you know, what keeping-it-real blackness would be in 1967. I mean, Berry Gordy was very clear that he was trying to sell black pop music to a young white audience, that he wanted his artists to be able to go to places like Las Vegas and the Tropicana and be as successful in those spaces as they were, you know, back in Detroit.
So he's very clear about his motivations. And very often it was really the artist who had to deal with those criticisms in terms of the kind of music they'd make and the way that they dress. And the Supremes, particularly Diana Ross, were a particular target.
But, you know, when you listen to a song like "Reflections," I mean, the reason why it's so brilliant is because, you know, it dared to take soul music and push the boundaries of it. So I think it reflects a moment where black folks are really beginning to be much more comfortable in expanding the notions of what black identity could be.
And I think a song like "Reflections" just get, you know, literally reflects, you know, that kind of sensibility.
MARTIN: Okay, let's hear it.
(Soundbite of song "Reflections")
Ms. DIANA ROSS (Singer): (Singing) Through the mirror of my mind time after time, I see reflections of you and me. Reflections of the way life used to be. Reflections of the love you took from me. Oh…
MARTIN: Now thinking about this, I'm not quite sure I call it a lesser-known hit, because I think that that is - maybe it's one of those songs, maybe it's one of those pieces that has gotten more appreciation over time. Like one of those Capra movies that was sort of a so-so hit over time but that we have to watch every year. How do you think different parts of the country influenced the artist's perspective at this time?
Prof. NEAL: You know, first of all, many of these labels - Motown would be an exception - but a lot of these labels didn't have national distribution. So if songs that were hits very often were really just regional hits. There was stuff that you heard on the East Coast that you didn't hear on the Midwest, and stuff that you'd hear in the Midwest you wouldn't hear out, you know, in California, et cetera.
So, I think the artists were very clued in to the regional dynamic of the music and they represented for where they were locally.
MARTIN: Well, what about like Stax?
Prof. NEAL: Like Stax. I mean, definitely when you think about what's happening with a label like Stax and whole idea of the Memphis sound. And very often, I think, unfairly the Memphis sound was juxtaposed through the Motown sound, you know, one being more grittier and truthful, and the other one being more polished in a certain common sense of the word. I really think that's unfair in some ways.
I mean, when you think about Diana Ross, for instance. I mean, she grew up in the projects of Detroit, you know, so she was just as gritty, you know, in many ways, you know, as, you know, at least in terms of where she grew up in her environment as many of her counterparts were, you know, coming from the Deep South.
But I think you clearly hear in the Deep South this kind of moment, you know, where black folks are coming to voice out in that particular period of time politically. I mean, it was a very different political terrain, obviously, in the South than their was up North. And I think their music reflects some of that difference.
MARTIN: Yeah, Stax was responsible, Stax in Memphis was the label that's credited with what's called a hot-buttered soul. I wonder whether that has its own kind of politics to it.
Prof. NEAL: I mean, Isaac Hayes and David Porter, you know, were responsible, particularly in the late '60s, for a lot of that sound. I mean, this is before, you know, we get to know Isaac Hayes as Black Moses. And for the soundtrack of "Shaft," I mean, he basically is this incredible songwriter and producer working with David Porter. And they really did help craft this notion of a hot-buttered soul.
MARTIN: Can you think of a cut from that period that we could play?
Prof. NEAL: I think that you think of the music, for instance, of Sam and Dave.
MARTIN: Okay, I think we need to hear it.
(Soundbite of music)
SAM AND DAVE (Musical Group): (Singing) Soothe me, baby. Soothe me. Soothe me with your kindness. Though you know your powerful love is soothing to me.
Prof. NEAL: This is just really, on the one hand, it's very much party music, you know, it's a kind of music that you would put on while you have that plate of potato salad and collard greens and fried chicken. And you're not trying to put on airs, right? You're just trying to be yourself. And I think this music speaks to a kind of, again, this kind of comfort zone for black folks.
You know, after so many years of having to negotiate a final line of how to present themselves in public, you know, and how to present themselves, you know, in the face of white folks, you're starting to see this younger generation that's really just comfortable being themselves, and the music was a reflection of that.
MARTIN: Do you see any through line from the Summer of Soul to hip-hop today?
Prof. NEAL: I think absolutely. I mean, in terms of what was happening politically, this is really the first generation of black performers who could really speak explicitly to what was happening politically. I mean, the year after '67, by 1968, '69, you have black artists who were just very explicit about political realities of black life in this country that really - you know, 20 years before, artists really couldn't do that without, you know, really being punished in certain kinds of ways.
And you think about the reaction to Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," you know, 30 years earlier. And the problems that Nina Simone had, you know, just in the earlier part of the 1960s for a track like "Mississippi Goddam." (unintelligible).
MARTIN: Well, for those who don't know, they couldn't get the records played, which means they couldn't get work, right?
Prof. NEAL: Exactly right. You know, in some ways they were blacklisted, you know, in terms of some of the clubs they had been comfortable going to before then. And I think the terrain had changed by that, you know, by the late 1960s when you see the explosion of Sly Stone.
You know, the perfect culmination of this, of course, is Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" in 1971. So, I think, you know, this kind of music really becomes a template for hip-hop, you know, particularly in the late '80s when hip-hop becomes very politicized through Public Enemy and KRS-One and groups like that.
That they really did look back to the music of the late 1960s soul music as kind of a template for what you could say and what you couldn't say in your music. And then, obviously, they're also sampling these songs, you know, at the same time.
MARTIN: Well, Mark, we only have time now to skim these topics, but we are going to take a closer look at more of these hits next time. Thanks for being our guide for our Summer of Soul tour.
Prof. NEAL: Well, thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Mark Anthony Neal is professor of black popular culture at Duke University. He joined us from the campus studio in Durham. We'll visit with him again next week. Mark, what should we end on? What do we need to hear as we say goodbye?
Prof. NEAL: You know, that should be great to hear Linda Jones' "Hypnotized."
(Soundbite of song "Hypnotized")
Ms. LINDA JONES (Singer): (Singing) Hypnotized. Hypnotized. You got me hypnotized…
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