Soul is where the rich African-American musical innovations of the early 20th century finally came gloriously together: the grittiness of the blues, the spiritual yearning of gospel, the swing of jazz, and the rolling grooves of R&B. In the hands of its greatest artists, soul music could be rough or smooth, sweetly romantic or fiercely political, dance music or protest music. Given the variety of sounds that went into the making of soul and its decades-long history, it’s sometimes hard to separate it from earlier styles like rhythm and blues, doo-wop, jump blues, and even rock ’n’ roll. But in many ways soul was truly born when vocalists like Ray Charles and Sam Cooke introduced the intensity and passion of gospel singing to secular music in the ’50s and ’60s.

Two rival labels defined the early, formative days of soul: Motown and Stax. Fueled by a stable of genius songwriters and influenced by the assembly-line efficiency of its Detroit hometown, Motown introduced acts like The Supremes and The Temptations, remaking soul music into undeniable pop. At Stax, based in Memphis, artists like Otis Redding and Carla Thomas pioneered the earthier and funkier sound of Southern soul, producing hits that were tougher but no less catchy. In the ’70s, the opulent orchestral arrangements and gliding rhythms of the Philly soul sound led directly to invention of disco, and the smooth, candlelit allure of Al Green and Bill Withers brought a new intimacy to the genre. The ’70s also introduced the world to the down-and-dirty dance music known as funk. No one figure was as crucial to the creation of funk as James Brown, a fearsomely powerful singer who stripped soul music to the bone and elevated the music’s interlocking, syncopated rhythm above everything else. Soul stars like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye embraced funk fully, producing some of their most adventurous work in the process, while the inimitably weird and wild Parliament-Funkadelic transformed funk into cosmic party music. Funk also proved to be soul music’s bridge to the future, and you can still hear its impact in contemporary hip-hop and R&B.



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