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Soul Facts
Genres > soul 
Soul  Analysis

About Soul 
James Brown likes to call himself the Godfather of Soul, but Ray Charles is the man who made soul music what we know today. Charles fused all sorts of influences – jazz, blues, gospel, even a bit of country – to come up with the classic soul sound.

His gospel-powered performances for Atlantic Records, with their unrestrained cries and euphoric shrieks borrowed from church, have provided a template for soul singers ever after. The key moment in the evolution of soul is often regarded as his 1955 hit "I've Got A Woman", where all his musical influences seemed to fall into place.

As a result of Ray's fusion of gospel, jazz and rhythm and blues a series of artists – Sam Cooke, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin among them – converged under the banner of Atlantic's record label and, quite without realising it, invented soul.

This was pop music borrowing the hysteria from sanctified church services and applying it to more sensual themes. Often, the music's church influences would be even more pronounced – Percy Sledge's "When A Man Loves A Woman", has obvious religious and classical undertones with its Bach-like organ line. Soul artists sung messages of painful sincerity and personal redemption – sacred music made secular.

But, of course, the blues were another direct influence on the sound of soul. A call and response technique would often be used between the singer and backing vocalists or band, like James Brown.

And, as in rhythm and blues, the tempo was less frenetic than the swing of rock 'n' roll, more of a medium-swaying tempo to allow for sensuousness. There was a solid four-to-the-bar beat and the incessant repetitive rhythms became collectively referred to as a groove.

Groove is perhaps the key to black music - particularly at that time. A specially designed rhythm would be designated to each instrument in the rhythm section (consisting of drum kit, bass and piano). James Brown who would often perform entire ten-minute numbers repeating the same groove all the way through took this musical approach to the limit, pioneering a style known as funk.

The horn sections - sax, trumpets and trombones - were almost mandatory and were given a tight repetitious groove which produced a characteristic sound of controlled energy, like a coiled spring. It was also the horn section that really helped differentiate soul from its budding counterpart, rock, which was more guitar-based.

The heart of soul was of course the vocals. Most borrowed from the gospel style in their vocal techniques. In fact Al Green and Aretha Franklin were both children of pastors. The range of emotional expression could be very broad by contrasting a smooth or plaintive vocal with harsh and rasping tones. Extra intensity was achieved with spontaneous whoops, shouts and even groans. Melisma, a cascading of notes on a single syllable, was another technique borrowed from gospel.

It was with Motown that soul truly entered the pop vernacular. Berry Gordy's label continued to evolve the sound so that it appealed to the entire population. The sound was joyous, uplifting and confident. With this blend of gospel piano, percussion, brass and strings the Motown sound – and acts like The Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and The Four Tops – were rarely out of the charts.

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