A Soul-Sides/MAN Black History Month Collaboration
Written by Mark Anthony Neal
The thing that has always struck about the Soul music of the late 1960s and the 1970s was not simply that some of it aimed to be political but that this was music that took seriously the challenges of being black in America.Â When cats werenâ€™t being â€œblack and proudâ€ that needed to find ways to pay the bills, keep the peace at home, provide for aging elders, do the laundry, toss jacks with the babies on the floor and any number of things that make for the everyday that is this thing called life..Â Itâ€™s not that this era had its lack of party and bullshitâ€”can Rufus Thomas get some love?â€”but the music of this era simply had a gravitas about it. This was music that was a product of an era that was largely unprecedentedâ€”some semblance of social justice for the former shackled and enslavedâ€”where folk could really take the time to imagine a life well lived.
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1. Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway: Be Real Black For Me
From Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway (Atlantic, 1972)
Culled from their first full-length collaboration Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway rings like the Breaking Bread tome that Cornel West and bell hooks would craft nearly two decades later.Â Just some grown ass folks talking about some grown-ass ish.Â Though some might read â€œBe Real Blackâ€ as some essentialist trap that discourages inter-racial relationships on the one hand and then ups the ante on â€œrealâ€ blackness on the other, the emphasis here is on the â€œbe realâ€â€”the blackness was assumed. Flack went on to become a major star in the years after this recordingâ€”on par with Carole King and Joni Mitchell in that singer-song-writer senseâ€”and Hathaway, unfortunately became another entry into the Soul-Man tragedy.
2. Stevie Wonder: Heaven Help Us All
From Signed, Sealed, Delivered (Tamla, 1970)
Innervisions, with the brilliant â€œLiving for the Cityâ€ was seen as the great breakthrough in Stevie Wonderâ€™s political consciousness, but the seeds were already thereÂ on discs like Music on My Mind, Talking Book and even Signed, Sealed and Delivered, which is where â€œHeaven Help Us Allâ€ is drawn from.Â Recorded during the midst of the madness that was the late 1960s and early 1970s, Wonder pleads the cause for all involved, especially the people with â€œtheir backs against the wall.â€Â Brilliant in its simplicityâ€”majestic for its insightâ€”Wonder delivered a prayer in what would be the opening salvo of what would become one of the most extraordinary commercial and critical runs ever experienced by a pop artist.
3. Esther Phillips: Home is Where the Hatred Is
From From a Whisper To a Scream (Kudu, 1972).
Also on Home Is Where the Hatred Is.
The song isÂ Gil Scott-Heronâ€™sâ€”an unfortunate premonition to the illicit drug dramas that would dog hip-hopâ€™s god-father griot for years to come.Â Esther Phillips knew quite a bit about those dramas having been on the road since she was a teenager in the late 1940sâ€”Itâ€™s like Phillipsâ€™ version ofÂ â€œHome is Where the Hatred Isâ€ gets at a core that Scott-Heron wasnâ€™t even ready to deal with.Â Always well regarded by serious fans of rhythm and blues, Phillipsâ€™sÂ CTI recordings in the 1970s, including From a Whisper to a Scream, where â€œHomeâ€¦â€ is taken from, helped introduce her to a broader audience.Â And of course it helped that her version of â€œHomeâ€¦â€ sounds like the soundtrack to a Blaxploitation film yet to be made.
4. Aretha Franklin: Precious Lord/Youâ€™ve Got a Friend
From Amazing Grace (Atlantic, 1972)
Aretha Franklinâ€™s Amazing Grace is a singular achievement: a pop-diva at her peak, the Queen of Soul in full regalia, taking her loyal subjects back to her rootsâ€”and indeed the roots of the revolutionâ€”not on the industryâ€™s terms, but in the spirit of folk like the ailing Clara Ward (who sat in a front pew) and a still-on-his journey Thomas Dorsey.Â It was Carole King who helped Ms. Franklin achieve cross-over success via the memorable â€œNatural Womenâ€, but in â€œthis house, on this morningâ€ Ms Franklin wanted folk to remember that she was a product of â€œthis houseâ€ and the music that is still its foundation even as it brings the house down every Sunday morning.Â So â€œPrecious Lord/Youâ€™ve Got a Friendâ€ brings Carole King in conversation with Thomas Dorsey (the once and famous â€œGeorgia Tomâ€) and it a quintessential American moment.
5. Isaac Hayes: They Long to Be (Close to You)
From Black Moses (Stax, 1971)
And he parted the Soul Seasâ€¦Too often though, folk reduce Isaac Hayesâ€™s legacy to the Shaft soundtrack and yeah thatâ€™s a hell of a legacy, one that earned the man an Oscar.Â Before Shaft Hayes genius was already established on recordings like Hot Buttered Soul and â€¦To be Continued.Â Anticipating folk like Gene Page, Barry White, and Paul Riser, Hayes in the late 1960s and early 1970s laid down the foundations for what could only be called Symphonic Soul.Â And then at the height of his fame he made his biggest cultural statement: Black Moses, a double-album dissertation on the sound of Soul and one that we too often forget when the conversation turns to Stevie Wonderâ€™s Songs in the Key of Life or Princeâ€™s Sign oâ€™ the Times. So Hayes takes the wonder-ist (as in the bread) of white-bread popâ€”the Carpenterâ€™s â€œThey Long to Be (Close to You)â€”and transforms it into nine-minutes of Memphis drenched sunrise, replete with beats that crate-diggers would be mining for decades after.
6. The Isley Brothers: Get Into Something
From Get Into Something (T-Neck, 1970)
Mr. Biggs (aka Ronald Isley) is just one of the manifestations of the Brothers Isleyâ€”a natural progression from the baby-making era of â€œBetween the Sheetsâ€ (1983) and â€œSpend the Nightâ€ (1989). Somewhere around 1975 the Brothers Isleyâ€”who have been doinâ€™ thisÂ thang for damn near 50 yearsâ€”found their niche, clichÃ© as it may be, in smooth grooves like â€œFor the Love of Youâ€, â€œVoyage to Atlantisâ€ and â€œFootprints in the Darkâ€. For those who werenâ€™t down with the brothers from the T-Neck days (and before) the 3+3 era of â€œThat Ladyâ€ and â€œSummer Breezeâ€ is nothing short of foreign concept; The Brothers Isley as rockers?Â For my money it was that period between â€œItâ€™s Your Thangâ€ (their breakthrough single from 1969) and 3+3 that was most interesting as you can literally hear the brothers push the boundaries of expectation. And thus you get the 7-minutes of sipping-syrup funk that is â€œGet Into Somethingâ€ decades before DJ Screw drips off the lips of the H-Town faithful.Â â€œGet Into Somethingâ€ captures that moment when there is nothing but expectation and little care about what it was supposed to look likeâ€”just get into sumthinâ€™.
7. Billy Paul: This is Your Life
From Going East (USA Philadelphia Int’l, 1971)
Jimmy Webbâ€”he of 1960s white-bread complexity–wrote the song.Â I first heard the song via a version by Norman Connors sung so sweetly by Eleanor Mills.Â I first heard Billy Paulâ€™s version on MLK Day (â€˜86â€™ or â€™87) when â€˜BLSâ€™s Franklie Crocker (the â€œChiefâ€ Rocker) mixed the songâ€™s intro behind the oratory of MLK.Â It would be years before I would track down the vinyl to Going East (1971)â€”a gem of an album Paul released before the soiree with â€œMrs. Jonesâ€.Â Paul is pictured with the still lovely Nancy Wilson on the back jacket of Going Eastâ€”it was meant as an introduction of sorts. Tracks like â€œLove Buddiesâ€ (a real â€œQuiet Stormâ€ classic), â€œThereâ€™s a Small Hotelâ€ and the aforementioned â€œThis is Your Lifeâ€ captured Paul in his element
8. The Emotions: Peace Be Still
From Wattstax (Stax, 1972)
The Emotions were one of the many acts invited to perform at Wattstax, but due to scheduling conflicts the trio was forced to perform in a local church in Watts. â€œPeace Be Stillâ€ was a composition written by the legendary James Cleveland, who was at the peak of his fame and influence when The Emotions took on his baby. Though Cleveland wasnâ€™t exactly long-in-the-tooth this performance has the feel of the passing of a torchâ€”the old guard of the Civil Rights era giving way to the first generation Soul Babies.Â The â€œCountry Preacherâ€ (Rev. Jesse Jackson) can be heard in the background throughout grunting and groaning encouragement to the sisters.Â It would be a few years before The Emotions would have any real commercial success, via â€œThe Best of My Loveâ€ (1977) and their galactic collaboration with Earth, Wind and Fire on â€œBoogie Wonderlandâ€ (1979).Â