RESPECT: An Interview with Jennifer Hudson

RESPECT: An Interview with Jennifer Hudson

RESPECT is the film adaptation of the life story of Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul. Aretha Franklin is known by many as the one of the greatest singers  and artists who ever lived. Her career spanned decades, crossed and dominated multiple genres, and garnered the most prestigious awards and honors. Her personal life was deeply complex, but her ability to articulate the depth of human experiences through music could not be clearer.  RESPECT tells the story of Aretha Franklin’s journey of faith and finding her voice. UrbanFaith sat down with Jennifer Hudson, the star of the film who portrays Ms. Franklin to discuss the themes of faith, Gospel, and how to find our voices from the film. Full audio interview is linked above, the text of the interview below has been edited for clarity.

Allen
My first question for you after seeing the movie is about faith. Of course, it has so much faith in it. And a lot of the movie is about Aretha’s faith. What role did you see faith playing in that movie, and in your work with it?

Jennifer
Oh, it was mandatory. So that was the main thing, I was determined to make sure this was present. If my executive producer credit counts for anything, if I could add one thing, it was the Gospel. and I was like, we got to have a Gospel, you gotta have a thing. You gotta have faith. I don’t care what she’s singing or what’s happened in her life, THAT has always got to be present. It’s the same for me as well. For Aretha as well as for me.

 

Allen

And it seemed like it was really well presented as a story of redemption, you know? And why do you think that’s important for people to see, especially in a time like this, where there’s so much chaos, to hear these stories of hope out of that?

Jennifer

I think it’s even more impactful and powerful when it comes from someone like a legend and icon. But people don’t think that they go through real life things. And I look at it almost as if this is kind of like her testimony in a way; to see her struggle, go through life, be human, and still prevail. That’s a testimony. You know what I mean? And it inspired me. Yeah. And I think it would inspire so many others, because it’s to me misleading to let people think you just get what you want, or nothing’s going to happen, you’re not going to face anything. So when you get to see the life, the human, the person, you know, it kind of puts it in perspective, you know, and I don’t know how anyone would not find that inspiring.

(ctr) Marlon Wayans stars as Ted White and Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin in RESPECT A Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film Photo credit: Quantrell D. Colbert

Allen

Yeah, I really appreciated how complex all the characters were. I mean, you did a phenomenal job bringing Aretha and all her complexity out. But I thought that was the case across the board for the cast, how did you prepare to try to embody all that complexity over years? 

Jennifer

That was another challenge, because it’s kind of overwhelming. When you think of Aretha, like she has decades and decades of a career. And it’s like, just trying to condense the music alone, eight albums before a hit. Okay? That’s one thing. Then you think of the life. Then you think of the people that were in her life. Then you think about what was going on in her life. What part of the story do you tell? But I think that was more of a challenge for Tracy, and the writer, I’m like, how are they gonna be able to… I don’t want to say condense…but get it all in? Because it’s such a powerful story in every capacity. 

 

Allen

And it did tell this story that ended with Gospel that began with Gospel and her relationship with the church. What is some good news that you feel like the world needs from this film? 

Jennifer

Um, I would say… my God, there are so many things. If I had to narrow it down to one, what would it be? I was gonna go to the base of her trusting her voice, and finding your own [voice], because it wasn’t until she owned hers, that we got our Queen of Soul. You know, to me, if we all took the time to do that within ourselves; what’s in there? [What’s] here to share with the world as our gifts? You know what I mean? So it makes you kind of want to relook at yourself. At least for me, it did. And encouraged me to want to…trust my own voice, path, experiences, and it shows things  will prepare you for [what’s] next. But I kind of see things differently from everyone else. But I do think there’s something in [the movie] for whoever the viewer is, it’s just a matter of what you need, what you’re looking for. 

 

Allen

Finding Her voice was something that really stood out to me as she had to deal with so many people trying to control her voice. And I want to know,  what advice would you give to a young person young woman or a young adult about how to find their voice?

 

Jennifer

Wow. One, not to give it away. Because that can happen. And I think we take our voice for granted. And what I mean by that, is you may have a voice, but are you using it?

You know? And to me, that’s the trickiest part. Because yes, I have a voice. But is it telling my story? It should tell your story. It’s should speak of your experiences. We all have a story to tell. And we can only tell that story through our voice. So that’s what I mean by don’t give it away. Because it can happen unconsciously. It’s like, when I speak what am I speaking for myself? Am I speaking from my truth? Am I speaking from my experiences? Or am I going through the motions of what someone else would have me to do? And you could get confused by that by using your… the sound of your voice. But are you speaking for yourself?  That’s when it gets tricky.

Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin and Forest Whitaker as her father C.L. Franklin in RESPECT A Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film Photo credit: Quantrell D. Colbert

Allen

It does. One of the things that I appreciate, though, is that she had to figure out that people were for her. I want to know, how is it that the community has helped shape you, as you’ve taken this on?

 Jennifer

Oh, my God…wow, that’s a good question. It’s been a… it’s been what is needed to be when it’s needed to be that. You know what I mean? When I need a push it’s there, like right now [there’s] so much love. So much support even when I don’t see things the way…it appears? That encouragement is there. That support is there, that I love is there, which is needed right now.  Or when times are down. There are people are like, come on, keep going, keep pushing. So it varies depending on the situation. But [there are things that are there ] to teach you tough lessons, too. So again, it varies.

 

Allen

Absolutely. And so again, a last word for any young adult, especially young adult faith, trying to figure out how can they get to success. You’ve accomplished so much. What is the advice that you would give trying to figure out how to be successful? 

Jennifer

Well, one, no one knows your potential the way you do. And if people don’t see your dream and your vision, it’s only because they don’t dream as big as you do. And nothing is JUST that. [People say] “oh, that’s just this, this just that.” Well, honey, just singing the tribute got me right here today. You know what I’m saying? So I’m trusting that. And if you keep at something, it has no choice but to give. And NEVER…this is what I told myself after Idol  before Dreamgirls.  After I was eliminated from American Idol…and I really want to share this with this community. When I started out, I was like “I’m gonna win.” And people were like, “Well, what if you don’t? What if you don’t win?” So I started believing them.

And that’s when I started to say, “I’m gonna do it for the experience.”  And I let them talk me out of my faith. I let them interrupt that faith. So when Dreamgirls comes around and someone wants to say something that wasn’t in my train of thought I said, “No, I will not interrupt my faith. This is mine and I’m sticking with it.” And I learned that lesson. That’s what I mean by nothing is “just.” So even when it’s an experience that didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to [turn out]…it can still prepare you for the next thing. Because by the time the Dreamgirls opportunity rolled around, I learned from that experience. Allowing people to interrupt my faith? No, no. That’s what went wrong the last time! [Instead I said] I’m ready God, I believe it, I accept it. I’m not concerned with what [anyone else] got to say and [they] will not interrupt my faith. Don’t allow someone to interrupt your faith. I want to leave it with that. 

Allen

Thank you so much!

Jennifer

Thank you for having me!

We Remember ‘Soul Train’

We Remember ‘Soul Train’

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

Soul Music

Soul MusicThe 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
Wonder.

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.

Soul Music

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 artists who recorded on those twin towers of soul–Motown and Stax. The music coming out of Detroit and Memphis gave me a window into a mysterious, other-worldly culture.

(more…)