SOUL CONDUCTOR: Don Cornelius, dead at 75, transformed American culture with 'Soul Train.'
“Peace, Love, and Soul.”
That’s how he used to bid us adieu at the close of every show, that bespectacled man with the velvety voice and cool disposition. The apparent suicide death of Soul Train creator and host Don Cornelius caught us all off guard, while immediately transporting us back to those more soulful days of yesteryear — pre-MTV days, when the music wasn’t just an afterthought but the main event.
We tuned into Soul Train each week to see our favorite soul and R&B stars, sometimes for the very first time. (The four sisters of Sister Sledge looked as cute as they sounded, and imagine my shock as a 6-year-old to discover that Elton John was white!) But we mostly showed up for the array of colorful dancers — to check out their moves, to see what they were wearing, and to imagine ourselves right there with them. We knew that if we didn’t see any other black images on TV all week, we could at least see ourselves on Soul Train every weekend. Don Cornelius, the radio-deejay-turned-television-impresario, gave that to us — a refuge for African American pride and empowerment disguised as a TV dance show.
In honor of Mr. Cornelius, we asked our UrbanFaith columnists and regular contributors to share their favorite memories of Soul Train. Check out their reflections below the video, and then share yours in the comments section. — Edward Gilbreath, editor
MEMORIES OF ‘SOUL TRAIN’
It was soon proven otherwise, but Don Cornelius through Soul Train, told me I was a good dancer. Every Saturday morning after cartoons went off, feeling like a grownup, I’d tune in to move to the music any kind of way just like the Soul Train dancers. Going down the Soul Train line, some of them looked so crazy. But at home, bounding through an imaginary line of people, so did I. Don Cornelius made it cool to love music enough to dance no matter what. By the time I came along, his ’fro wasn’t as big, but the cool he carried was bigger than life. And I felt just as hip rhythmlessly dancing with my own portion of soul. — DeVona Alleyne, staff editor and contributing writer
I am very saddened by the death of Don Cornelius, a black legend! Back in the ’70s and ’80s before the dominance MTV or BET, there were very few outlets to see my favorite R&B acts like Michael Jackson, New Edition, or DeBarge perform on television. Since my parents were pretty conservative at the time, I wasn’t allowed to watch Soul Train but as a lifelong R&B and pop culture aficionado, I found ways to watch this great show without “technically” breaking the rules. I wasn’t allowed to go inside of childhood friends’ homes either unless my parents knew their parents. I remember I had one friend who allowed me to literally sit on the pavement outside of her apartment. We would speak to each other through the open window, and if she happened to have Soul Train on the television behind her, who was I to say what she could watch inside her home? I remember that one light-skinned woman with extra long black hair that whipped around her body (pre-Willow Smith) as she danced on what seemed like nearly every episode for years! I couldn’t wait until I got a perm so I could whip my hair around like that! A towel wrapped around my head sufficed until I finally got a perm. I remember all of the fresh dance moves that would not be duplicated on American Bandstand, even though I was a fan of that show too. Simply put, there was nothing else like that show at that time, an oasis of black grooves and moves in a desert of white programming. RIP Don Cornelius … —Jacqueline J. Holness, contributing writer
I’ll never forget Soul Train, from the chugging train at the intro to the various incarnations of the Soul Train dancers. Don Cornelius made this show an institution that definitely shaped the culture and gave us memorable performances on the stage and dance floor. — Dr. Vincent Bacote, contributing editor
Being in a military family, every so often we’d get stuck in the boonies with no television we could relate to. When my dad got orders to a big urban city, we kids were ecstatic. It was my job to watch my younger siblings on Saturdays while my parents worked, and at the time when I announced SOUUULLL TRAINNNN is on, my brothers and sisters would run from outside like they’d lost their minds. Oh, and then the party was on. We bumped, spanked, wormed, or whatever the latest dance craze was, along with the hippest kids in America. If there had been just two or three more of us, we could have formed a Soul Train line right there in the living room. It grieves me to know that Don Cornelius couldn’t find another way; which serves to remind us that we must get the word out about the only One who can bring us out of our troubles, the only One Who can bring us out of the lies that Satan tells us when we see no way out. There is a world of hurting people who don’t really know Him. Someone needs to tell them. We need to tell them. — Wanda Thomas Littles, contributing writer
Despite being a child of the late 70s and 80s, I didn’t have many actual experiences of watching Soul Train. Most of my memories regarding Soul Train were at various school dances and wedding receptions growing up, when folks would start up “the soul train line” and line up to cut a step. Most of the influence of Soul Train I witnessed were in derivative television shows (like Solid Gold), subtle homages (like when Theo and Cockroach fought over who was getting into Dance Mania) or actual parodies (like In Living Color‘s “Old Train” sketch). Still, I got a little misty when I got the news of Don Cornelius’ passing. No one will ever really replace him and what he meant to the black community. — Jelani Greenidge, columnist
As a girl growing up in small-town New Jersey in the 1970s, my primary exposure to black culture was Soul Train, and oh how I loved Soul Train! It was sandwiched between Saturday-morning cartoons and Saturday-afternoon roller derby on our television station. It never occurred to me that by introducing me to some of that era’s best music and most accomplished musicians, Don Cornelius was drawing me into a richly textured world that was not available to me then. I just knew I loved hearing his smoky voice and dancing to the sounds of soul. It saddens me deeply to learn that, like my son, this gifted man apparently died by suicide. I’m reminded that depression and despair don’t only visit the downtrodden, but even the most accomplished among us. My thoughts and prayers are with his family. — Christine A. Scheller, news & religion editor
I remember the Jackson 5 barely had enough room to dance on that stage. Fans could literally touch Marvin Gaye as he sang (and they did). You could feel the sweat dripping off of Barry White’s collar. This was Soul Train, Black America’s debutante ball. As a child it always felt RAW, like a grown-folks party that I could only watch from the stairs. It seemed fun enough, but in reality Soul Train was about rebellion: finding a way to create in the midst of the chaos of injustice. Black people were thrown into America’s basement, and Don Cornelius found a way to host a house party there every Saturday. It remains our challenge to find hope in the midst of great darkness; to dance when the forces of life threaten to steal all rhythm. And when I look at black music today — videos that portray the worst potentialities for our young men and women, dancing that has turned into “Sex Lite,” and artists that lack intimacy and authenticity — we need not ever forget Soul Train. The truth is, we need it back. Thank you Don Cornelius, from the little boy who watched your party from the stairs. — Julian DeShazier, contributing writer
Sitting in my parents’ living room, the back of my legs sticking to the plastic covering mom’s gold velvet couch, the funky music from the Jacksons, the Sylvers, and Joe Tex would blare from the black-and-white screen. I would fix my eyes on the Afro puffs, braids, wide brim hats and bellbottoms, imagining their psychedelic colors (mom and pops did eventually get a color TV) as they danced the funky chicken or the robot. As Jermaine sang, they would be “movin, she’s groovin. Dancin’ until the music stops now, yeah” down the Soul Train line. My older sister and brothers would bust all the moves, blocking my view of the TV along the way. But back then, when you were the baby brother, you just kept quiet and thankful that they let you hang out with them on Saturday morning. We were raised in a 12th floor apartment in The Tilden Houses (The Projects) in Brownsville, Brooklyn (NY). Watching Soul Train was more than a temporary escape from what was immediately outside the door, down an elevator that often stuck, or the stairwell that was owned by depressed brothers and sisters high on dope. Soul Train was a weekly, encouraging dose of positive black life, of people who were happy, talented, and free. And they looked like me. Mr. Cornelius, you did a great thing, sir. I pray that your soul has found the peace that you wished for us all. — Wil LaVeist, columnist
Those time-honored words have emanated from the pews of black churches in America for decades. They are often uttered by the congregation in response to what is being presented from the pulpit or the altar. Depending on the deliverer, the inflection of his voice, and the temperament and maturity of the one for whom the words are meant, the phrase can take on a couple of different definitions.
The first part — “That’s alright now” — can either be considered a show of affirmation (a sort of verbal cosign), or it can come as an encouraging, nonjudgmental admonishment.
The second part — “take your time” — can either be a plea for one to slow down so that the congregation can savor what is being offered or it could be a gentle nudge coaxing one to slow down and take corrective measures as they may indeed be heading in the wrong direction.
One part of the church service where these words are often heard is the music ministry. From the first note belted by their beloved black church soloist, parishioners can be heard heralding choruses of “that’s alright, nows” and “take your times,” reveling in the sweet spirit that the note is invoking. The phrase can also be heard when the children come forth to make a joyful noise that is sometimes as equally proportioned with noise as it is with joy. When a young soloist or instrumentalist comes to present their weekly or quarterly musical offering, their presentations are usually far from flawless. To these young pieces of artistic clay, the choruses of “that’s alright nows” and “take your times” are welcome words of encouragement.
The youngster is usually keenly aware that their offering isn’t the most polished or pristine, but after hearing those words they are encouraged to not only continue but to persevere and strive to get better. These youngsters and their accompanying church families aren’t the only ones who have benefited from these words as it relates to the ministry of music.
The Crisis in American Music
Historically, the music charts have reaped the rewards of musicians who have cut their artistic teeth in the black church. Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, and countless others got their start singing and playing before a black congregation. As a matter of fact, a significant number of black musicians have received part if not most of their early music training in the church. The black church has traditionally been both a training and proving ground for musicians. I would go so far as to say that all American music can trace its roots to the Negro Spiritual, and as such all American music and musicians in essence owe an artistic debt to the black church.
Let’s be honest, the majority of artists that occupy the top of the R&B and hip-hop charts today are not musicians at all. Most can’t play an instrument, and in the unusual case that they can, it’s often mediocre at best. A computer program, not a human being, is producing most of the music that we hear today. Why is this?
One of the main reasons is a lack of training. I believe that the lack of music training and the resulting lack of trained musicians in the black community today can be traced back to the failures of two institutions: public schools and the black church. We are painfully aware of what has transpired in American public schools. Dwindling resources, lack of funding, and shifting priorities have all but removed music and instrumental training from many public schools, especially those located in under-resourced urban communities.
And what does the black church have to do with the lack of trained musicians in the black community today?
Aside from the obvious benefits of exposing young people to a variety of different musical styles in worship, the church also can provide young musicians with the opportunity to hone their craft on a weekly basis in a nonjudgmental environment that offers unconditional encouragement. But sadly, today’s churches are offering fewer opportunities for young people to develop their musical skills.
Look around your average black church today and count how many “musicians” are actually playing on Sunday morning? Of those musicians, how many are under the age of 18? How many are playing traditional acoustic instruments where the musician himself is instrumental in making the sound? In fact, how many of today’s churches even have an acoustic piano?
Are you getting the picture? Now contrast that to a picture of the black church of yesteryear that spawned Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin.
Technology, the changing landscape of popular music, and the scarcity of qualified musicians coupled with supply and demand are responsible as well. With the advent of digital music technology record companies and churches alike have found it economically advantageous to pare down the size and scope of “the band.” In the digital realm, one person can now do what used to take a team of people. Churches are now able to get the same sound from fewer musicians or no musicians at all through the use of digital instrumentation or digital tracks. This pervasive digital sound that permeates the R&B, hip-hop, and now the gospel music scenes can place a tremendous amount of pressure on churches to acquiesce to this standard in an attempt to stay relevant and meet budget.
Adherence to this new standard is not necessarily conducive to the development of a high level of musicianship and has resulted in fewer qualified musicians with the chops necessary to be effective in a dynamic church-music environment, which is why many of these coveted few musicians are being constantly shuffled from church to church, usually to the highest bidder.
The Church’s Responsibility
Now, let’s make it personal. Does your church provide opportunities for young soloists to share their gifts during the service at events other than the annual Christmas program?
When the black church gets back to its roots and recommits itself to sowing the seeds of training young musicians vocally and on traditional instruments, then I assure you that the church, the black community, and even the music industry will reap the benefits. No other institution can do a better job of providing children and teenagers with an opportunity to develop artistically, in an environment that gives them the foundation of encouragement needed to foster greatness.
We would all be closer to achieving greatness in whatever our particular pursuit in life may be if we had a regular opportunity to practice it and if we heard the words of folk who love us encouraging us when we mess up.
“That’s alright now, take your time!”
For the sake of today’s youth and the generations to follow, we should relish the privilege of sharing that advice every chance we get.
Late last month, The Misfit Tour, featuring Christian Hip-Hop′s biggest artists stopped in
Chicago. We caught up with heavyweights like The Ambassador, Da′ T.R.U.T.H., Mali Music and more, backstage for exclusive interviews. The term “misfit” isn′t just for
show. Several artists have raw stories of scandal that have been made quite public recently,
but they are back with a battle cry of redemption and they are recruiting soldiers left on the
field. Watch the video below!
Music video featuring Ambassador, Sean Simmonds, Da′ Truth, Mali Music and more below!
Forty years ago this week, more than 400,000 concertgoers gathered on the muddy grounds of a 600-acre dairy farm in upstate New York to celebrate what was billed as “three days of peace and music.” The Woodstock Music & Art Fair transformed the way we think about popular music and youth culture. In fact, it became an emblem of the counterculture movement of the 1960s.
The past week has been filled with observances of the music festival’s anniversary, an “acid trip” down memory lane for many baby boomers. And next week the celebration continues with the release of Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, a cinematic tribute to that legendary gathering.
In a turbulent era that found the nation reeling from its involvement in the Vietnam War — a period that was just a year removed from the shocking assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy — Woodstock represented the power of unbridled hope, freedom, and youthful exuberance. Of course, it also represented that great American trinity of “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” — with newly embraced freedom also came the collateral damage of hedonistic living.
Out of all the acts that performed during Woodstock — artists like Janis Joplin, The Who, Santana, and Joan Baez — arguably none has become more identified with the event than Jimi Hendrix, whose two-hour set actually took place on August 18, after the music festival was officially over. Rain and technical snafus had pushed his performance to early that Monday morning. With only an estimated 80,000 people remaining to witness it, Hendrix delivered one of his most stirring performances.
If anyone could make his guitar weep, it was Jimi Hendrix. He made it sing — in ecstasy and sadness. He made sounds that had never been heard before. It’s no wonder that, in 2003, Rolling Stone ranked him as number one on its list of “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.”
Hendrix, who was a lefty, taught himself to play a Fender Stratocaster upside down, so that his right-handed guitar could be played left-handed. He experimented tirelessly with amplified feedback and unorthodox chord structures, while incorporating blues, jazz, funk, and his own electrified brand of psychedelic rock into a sound that has influenced virtually every rock guitarist since (not to mention urban funk and pop artists such as George Clinton and Prince).
Hendrix achieved worldwide fame following his performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Two years later, he headlined Woodstock, where he played his enduring version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Through his blistering, sonic barrage, you could actually hear “the bombs bursting in air” and see “the rockets red glare.” And, with it being the era of Vietnam, he even threw in a few notes of “Taps” to keep things interesting.
Sadly, Hendrix died a little over a year later, in 1970, at age 28 from an apparent overdose of sleeping pills and alcohol. He was famously ensnared by the destructive lure of alcohol and drugs, and is counted among a number of tragic and untimely deaths from that late-’60s/early-’70s era. But his impact on music is undeniable.
What’s more, Hendrix’s very presence at Woodstock (along with other artists of color like Baez, Richie Havens, Carlos Santana, and Sly & the Family Stone) put forth a visible declaration of the way that art and pop culture could transcend and overcome even our most entrenched social divisions. Martin Johnson’s retrospective at TheRoot.com offers a great summation of Hendrix’s appearance at Woodstock and the importance of his legacy.
Of the songs he left behind, one of my favorites is “Night Bird Flying” from The Cry of Love (1971). This was the first recording released after his death. The first song on the album is called “Freedom.” It’s a word that can describe different types of liberation. Being set free from vice may not have been the primary meaning, but it’s a desire that he probably felt.
The struggle to be free may be what gives rise to songs like “Night Bird Flying.” It’s an amazing confluence of expression and sound.
She’s just a night bird flyin’ through the night
She’s just a night bird making a midnight, midnight flight
Sail on, sail on
For me, in the early ’70s, “Night Bird Flying” became an expression of the spiritual peace that eluded me, despite my efforts to find satisfaction in other things. It gave voice to a feeling of estrangement. I remember being a restless teenager, returning home from a Hawaiian vacation with my family. During the trip, I had a falling out with my younger brother. It grieved me. On the flight back, I sullenly sat apart from the rest of my family members. Few things are as troubling as the feeling that you are at odds with someone, especially a member of your own family.
Alone in my grief, I thought of Hendrix’s song. How I yearned for a better day. Would it ever come?
I remember the telling photograph that was taken on one of the Hawaiian Islands. My whole family was arrayed in Hawaiian shirts while I leaned away from them in my T-shirt that, on the back, displayed images of cannabis and a water pipe. The shirt’s lettering boldly proclaimed: “Smoke It!” In contrast to the scowl on my face, my siblings smiled in a way that showed they still had an innocence that would be lost when they eventually followed me into using drugs.
Though getting high brought me temporary relief, I was a troubled soul. It was no less so as I sat on the plane and felt the loneliness of separation. Listening in my mind to the Hendrix song made me want to soar like some mythical night bird. In the midst of trouble, the psalmist David longed for wings that he might take flight and find relief in some place of refuge. “Oh, that I had wings like a dove!” he wrote. “I would fly away and be at rest; yes, I would wander far away; I would lodge in the wilderness; I would hurry to find a shelter from the raging wind and tempest” (Psalm 55:6-8, ESV).
I wonder if Hendrix felt a longing like this. He may not have known what it was, but it could have been what made his guitar an expression of his desire. The sorrow of not finding the true freedom that he sought seemed to seep into his music.
In a Christianity Today article entitled “Learning to Cry for the Culture,” singer and writer John Fischer observes that evangelical philosopher Francis Schaeffer’s most crucial legacy was tears. He writes, “Schaeffer never meant for Christians to take a combative stance in society without first experiencing empathy for the human predicament that brought us to this place.” Rather, he advocated understanding and empathizing with non-Christians instead of taking issue with them. He believed that “instead of shaking our heads at a depressing, dark, abstract work of art, the true Christian reaction should be to weep over the lost person who created it.” Fischer concludes his article by saying, “The same things that made Francis Schaeffer cry in his day should make us cry in ours.”
In A Sacred Sorrow, Michael Card reminds us that the Bible is full of lament — people of faith, including Jesus, giving voice to the sorrow and anguish that fills their hearts. It’s a means of staying connected to God when the world is not as it should be. It’s the mourning that Jesus commends.
I have a lot to learn about this, but I desire to be more compassionate. Jesus was moved with compassion when He saw the throng of people that had gathered in a remote area to hear Him. They were “like sheep without a shepherd.” In fact, they probably looked a lot like the multitude of hippies gathered at Woodstock. Jesus welcomes them all, and feeds them both physically and spiritually (Mark 6:30-44).
As contemporary followers of Jesus, we also have an opportunity to show compassion to those who are searching, those who are lost.
I feel sad knowing that Hendrix felt conflicted at times as we all do. I don’t imagine that he found the freedom that he yearned for. I wouldn’t pretend to know. But I do know that the longing in his music was so deep that I can hear his discontent over his present circumstances, his reaching out for something more. Thus I lament for Hendrix:
You were among the greatest of your generation.
You achieved heights that few know.
Through your guitar,
you sang and wept,
laughed and mourned,
danced and lamented.
You kissed the sky, but your wings were broken.
You could not reach what you longed for.
As we remember Woodstock this month, I’m also remembering the multitude of young people who gathered at that muddy farm. Many of them, now 40 years older, are probably still yearning for something more. We can celebrate the excitement and history of that phenomenal event that forever changed popular culture. But I also want to say a prayer for those restless souls who are still searching, who are still longing for true peace and love.
The 1960s and early ’70s witnessed two record companies with integrated ownership, integrated executive leadership, and integrated house bands vying to be recognized as the epicenter of the burgeoning soul/rhythm-and-blues movement in popular American music. Like prize fighters battling it out in the ring, these two giants released hit after hit, and helped define a generation.
As a young person growing up in an all-white rural town in a virtually all-white county, attending an all-white school system, I listened to the artists who recorded on those twin towers of soul — Motown and Stax.
Back then, the music coming out of Detroit and Memphis gave me a window into a mysterious, other-worldly culture. Listening in late at night, when the radio signal came in with clarity, I heard music that was simultaneously gospel-tinged and yet sensual (Marvin Gaye’s “if the spirit moves you, let me groove you good, let your love come out”); at once similar to my own teen experiences (the Supremes’ hand-clapping, bubble-gum refrain of “baby, baby, where did our love go?”) and yet very different (Isaac Hayes’ hip, urban private eye known as “Shaft, John Shaft”); at once mindlessly sweet (Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour, pretty little girl that I adore”) and yet powerful social commentary in a way that began to raise my awareness of contemporary issues — particularly the Vietnam War and police brutality (Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and its line, “war is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate”) and the inequality of the races nearly two decades after the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision (Wonder’s civil rights classic “Living for the City” and its re-enactment of New York police brutality with the memorable, barked line, “Get in the cell, n—–! ).
Until I left for studies at a large, multicultural, multiethnic university in 1979, virtually my entire view of the African American experience came through music, and most of it was from Motown and Stax.
In his book Souled American: How Black Music Transformed White Culture, journalist Kevin Phinney suggests that soul and rhythm-and-blues music like that of Motown and Stax actually changed white American culture and race relations. Bill Withers, himself a soul/R&B artist with chart-topping hits like “Lean on Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” to his credit, critiqued Phinney’s thesis by saying that “race is too serious an issue to be discussed under the auspices of something as narrow as music….” On principle, Withers refused Phinney’s request for an endorsement of the book.
Bill Withers may or may not be correct. But at the very least, the music helped expand the narrow borders of my world. In the process, it prompted me to consider new vistas regarding race, religious faith, and sexuality — three topics that one did not talk about in my rural Indiana home. All three were seamlessly woven together in the music coming out of Detroit and Memphis and into my bedroom, into my world.
In their heyday, Stax and Motown were a formative part of American culture — both black and white. But their artists were not the first to have an impact. Indeed, journalist and filmmaker Nelson George traces the initial soul/R&B spark that Motown and Stax would ignite into a pop culture flame to an artist who never recorded for either label — Ray Charles.
But my appreciation for Ray Charles came much later. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Stax and Motown — Detroit and Memphis — carried the message my way.
Stax Records: Soulsville U.S.A.
Though neighboring Nashville had its country and western division of Capitol Records with Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, among other artists, on its roster, Memphis had Stax Records with Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave, and the Staple Singers. Booker T. and the MGs, who scored major hits with the instrumental “Green Onions” and “Time is Tight,” served as the integrated house band for much of the Stax catalog, laying down grooves with a distinct horn section, strong bass lines, and out-front organ solos.
Founded by a white country fiddler and banker named Jim Stewart and his sister, Estelle Axton, in 1958, Stax was originally called Satellite Records. After spending its first year in a garage studio about 30 miles outside of Memphis, Stewart — by then working his primary job as a banker in the city making $350.00 a month — signed a $150.00-a-month lease on the former Capitol Theatre at the corner of College and McLemore in a neighborhood that was turning from white to black.
For two decades, the Stax catalog of soul and rhythm-and-blues music was recorded at the sloped-floor studio that became known as “Soulsville U.S.A.” in obvious juxtaposition to Motown’s “Hitsville U.S.A.” nomenclature, which was affixed atop its studio and office building at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit.
In his book Just My Soul Responding, on the connections between rhythm-and-blues music, black consciousness, and relations between the races, Brian Ward gave his take on the impact of Stax, particularly during the 1960s as tensions mounted in Detroit, Newark, Watts, and beyond:
During the 1960s, many blacks within the industry and beyond it continued to see southern soul as both an occasion and a mechanism for promoting greater racial tolerance, respect and understanding. Al Bell, the black Stax songwriter, executive and later president, clearly believed that the label’s biracialism carried great symbolic significance, even into the heart of the black power era.
In A Change Is Gonna Come, author Craig Werner also used the popular music of the 1960s and early ’70s to explore the social transformation of that period. But rather than rehearse the massive popularity of Motown in the north, he focused on Southern soul as embodied in the music recorded at Stax.
“Part of the black community’s broader struggle to redefine the ground rules of American society, the dissonant harmonies emanating from Memphis drew on and spoke to the beloved community,” Werner writes. “Like gospel, Southern soul spoke to the burdens of life and the need to reach for something higher. The rough edges reflect something fundamental about life in a place where rednecks and the children of the ghetto shared enough of a common culture to challenge everything they’d been taught about race. It wasn’t smooth, but neither was the life outside the studio. And, for a while, there was reason to think that the dialogue that began in Memphis might spread across the world.”
Otis Redding was Stax’s first true superstar with hits like “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Respect,” and the posthumously-released “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”
Redding’s death in a plane crash near downtown Madison, Wisconsin, in 1967 signaled the end to what Bowman considers Stax’s first life and, indeed, some feared the label would cease to exist without its signature artist. But other forces, including former Stax session musician Isaac Hayes — arguably the label’s final superstar — and the Staple Singers, a Chicago family gospel group–stepped into the gap. Hayes had huge crossover hits including “Theme from Shaft,” and the Staple Singers scored with “Let’s Do It Again,” “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There.”
Like Marvin Gaye’s 1970s music, “I’ll Take You There” combined spirituality and social protest, and it is one of the more memorable tunes from my own adolescence.
In Rob Bowman’s corporate biography of Stax, Mavis Staples said, “The songwriters at Stax knew we were doing protest songs. We had made a transition back there in the sixties with Dr. King. We visited Dr. King’s church in Montgomery before the movement actually got started. When we heard Dr. King preach, we went back to the motel and had a meeting. Pops (Staples, her father) said, ‘Now if he can preach this, we can sing it. That could be our way of helping towards this movement.’ We put a beat behind the song. We were mainly focusing on the young adults to hear what we were doing. You know if they hear a beat, that would make them listen to the words. So we started singing protest songs. All those guys were writing what we actually wanted them to write. Pops would tell them to just read the headlines and whatever they saw in the morning paper that needed to be heard or known about (they would) write us a song from that.”
Mavis Staples’ comment about “I’ll Take You There” and other Stax classics serves as a clear reminder of the difference between “Soulsville U.S.A.” and its northern counterpart — “Hitsville.” Until Marvin Gaye leveraged his superstardom and demanded the release of the anti-Vietnam War concept album What’s Going On over his label owner’s strenuous objections, Motown was not concerned with contributing to the movement as much as selling “45” records and Motown Revue concert tickets — primarily to white teenagers, like me.
Motown: Hitsville U.S.A.
If, as Mavis Staples has said, Soulsville U.S.A. was putting words from the day’s headlines into song, Hitsville U.S.A. was more of a mass production assembly line.
Though Chicago had the Chess brothers’ record company on South Michigan Avenue with the inimitable Chuck Berry, among others, in the label’s fold, Detroit had Motown Records with Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, and Stevie
Started in 1959 by Berry Gordy Jr., with just $800 in assets and a dream, over the course of the next 13 years Motown became enormously successful — and its name became a synonym for Detroit. Gordy, a former Ford Motor Company employee, believed that music could, similarly, be organized and automated for efficiency and quality.
As journalist Elvis Mitchell has written, “Gordy was out to carve a niche for himself. Motown made Detroit a lightning rod for potential and promise, where the level of competition pushed everyone to their best. We can’t actually say what Gordy’s goal was but the accomplishment is undeniable: he turned Detroit into a Mount Rushmore of popular culture with his bare hands.”
Nelson George thinks he does know what Gordy’s goal was.
In his book The Death of Rhythm & Blues, George wrote that Motown promoted its founder and president as an “affirmative, unthreatening symbol of black capitalism, one as acceptable in the New York Times as on the cover of Ebony. In his rare public statements and in all Motown promotional materials, Gordy clearly stated that his goal was to buy into mainstream standards. He was amassing wealth and expanding his operations — a sure threat to insecure whites — but his message was, ‘Don’t worry. I just want to be like you.'”
In his pursuit of becoming just like his white counterparts at Columbia Records in New York or Capitol in Los Angeles, Gordy hired choreographers and tailors; he sent Diana Ross, among others, to “manners” courses or finishing schools to refine their dress, their movements, and their speech. After floundering with a number of records that didn’t crack the Top 40, the Supremes, with Diana Ross as Gordy’s hand-picked centerpiece of the trio, would by the mid-1960s supplant Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and The Four Tops to become Motown’s best-selling act.
Gordy had, in fact, reached his goal. In 1968, the year that Dr. King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, five of the top ten hits on the pop charts carried the ubiquitous blue and silver logo of Motown Records.
“Before Motown, the music business relegated most of the great black artists to second-class citizenship,” former NBC newsman Tom Brokaw writes in his best-selling book Boom! – Voices of the Sixties. “They played in out-of-the-way clubs in black neighborhoods, recorded on little-known labels, and were featured on stations at the far end of the dial. Gordy and Motown changed the place of black music in America by dressing it up (critics would say whitewashing it) with simple, emotional lyrics and sweet harmonies performed by artists who were carefully groomed and coached to cross over to the white audience of record buyers and radio listeners, without losing standing with their black base. Equally important, he made a black-owned company into an American entertainment colossus.”
Why the Music Matters
In the 1960s and early to mid-1970s, during the heyday of Motown and Stax, I’d not yet read a book by Dr. King or Malcolm X, by Andrew Young or Ralph Abernathy, by Cornell West or George Yancey. Those readings would come a decade later.
But like many of my generation, I had listened to the music.
Music was my “book” in the 1960s and early to mid-1970s. Through the volume written at Motown, I had been given an image of African Americans more refined, more polished, and more skilled as musicians than any white person or white artist I had encountered. Motown countered the popular images found on television of the day, offering more of a “Sidney Poitier To Sir With Love” model rather than a “Redd Foxx Sanford & Son” stereotype. Through the volume written at Stax, I had a sense that prejudice and discrimination — I would likely have called it bigotry — were alive and well in the world and the voices coming out of Memphis and, occasionally, Detroit were onto something that needed to be heard.
The Motown and Stax songs informed my experience, expanded my borders. There was power in the music. I’m convinced there still is.