Archive for the ‘Soul’ Category

Top 5 Soul Females

Aretha FranklinAretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin is the Queen of Soul because she oozes the ache and pain of soul music in every note she sings and every key she plays.  Aretha’s is a kind of effortless vocal perfection that deserves to be associated with the only musical format named for what gives us life.  From her days as a child singing and playing in the church choir to her early break out success as an R&B singer, Aretha feels whatever she is singing and in that truth lies what makes her music soul.  There’s no acting when she talks about being in,  “a chain of fools” and there is no duplicating her sincerity when she cries out, “You make me feel like a natural woman.”  Franklin was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and is one of the most celebrated Grammy artists of all time.  This music legend is still recording and just released a new album,  A Woman Falling Out of Love. Aretha has sung us through the complications of being women and she has a song for every up and down that’s in it.  That’s soul.

Nina SimoneNina Simmone

Take a walk down the dank alleys of jazz, sit in the darkest corner of blues, lie naked on a cold theatre’s stage and in that space is where you find the soul that is Nina Simone.  While her music may cross numerous genres her voice belongs to one, soul.  Nina was a complex vocalist with a graduate student’s approach to this often-elementary music industry.  The consummate underground sensation, Nina found her audience was folk with discrete tastes and the balls to sing, “Mississippi Goddamn!” in mixed company.  The proof of her originality is this… how many times have you heard someone say, “That singer is the next Nina Simone.”

Gladys KnightGladys Knight

I can’t pick one Gladys Knight song, or one moment that sealed this singer’s place in my heart as one of the best.  When I was a child it seemed like Gladys Knight and the Pips were just everywhere, if it was a hit either they or Lou Rawls were singing it.  The crossover success of this singer lies in the uniqueness of her voice.  Just like the other women on this list, Gladys has an unmistakable sound.  Gladys also has a delivery that is all her own.  When she sings a song she respects it and tells its story with a refinement that sets her a part from most soul singers who proved their girth by screaming their way through lyrics.  With Gladys it was never about how high or how long she could hold a note.  It was about communicating a feeling while using one of the most comforting and soulful voices in soul music to do it.

Mavis StaplesMavis Staples

Mavis Staples sang, “I’ll take you there,” and her vocal power suggested you had no choice but to go.  Mavis gained national attention in the 60’s as the lead singer of the Staples Singers.  Her raspy lower octave confused listeners who didn’t benefit from a face to face via one of the Staples Singers church tours.  Was this a little boy singing with the power of a god?  No, it was a little girl fronting her family’s gospel group and as they crossed from Negro spirituals, into gospel into soul music; her androgynous vocals painted the 70’s with some of its most memorable tunes.  Yes, let’s do it again and again!

Etta JamesEtta James

Etta James elevated Chess Records above blues, beyond R&B and straight into soul when she sang out, “At last my love has come along.”  Singer-songwriter Etta James was soul even as she sang the blues. James is a multi grammy winning, Rock and Roll, Blues and Grammy Hall of Fame Inductee.  While so much music that was once considered great has come and gone, Etta James has been charming generation after generation with her classic expression of how good it is when your “Man” finally comes along.  That sentiment helped knock down the door for sisters to feel free and sing about how they love as blues and R&B developed into soul and crossed over into the mainstream.



Top 5 Soul Males


Otis ReddingOttis Redding

The first time I heard Otis Redding scream out to try a little tenderness, it cut straight to my 8 year-old soul.  I think all 70’s babies who call themselves Otis Redding fans have walked this path of getting to know someone we didn’t experience first hand, but wanted to know more about.  I’ve researched to learn what created this music pioneer; this large, country, black man with little education yet an ability to not only lead an integrated band but play for hippies at the Monterey International Pop Festival.  The Nation, not just the black community, mourned the death of this man.  In my opinion, he was a tower of influence gone too soon, a child of gospel and blues and a father of soul.  Any man who can whistle through more than half a number one hit has to be a musical genius.  Redding’s special phrasing within a song; the sorrow; regret and passion he communicated can’t be taught, it must be lived.  I hear Otis and think, maybe if today’s artists knew what it was to suffer, to have to moan and groan their way into joy, our music would have the subtle complexity that would cause a generation 30 to 40 years from now to seek it out. Sadly, I don’t think that will be the case.

James BrownJames Brown

James Brown was more than a singer and dancer, he was one of the most respected black men of his time.  I know this because right next to my grandmother’s crushed velvet picture of Robert Kennedy, John Kennedy and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was a framed picture of James Brown.  These men and Jesus were the only non-family members on my Grandmother’s walls.

While African-American historians may debate that it took Brown too long to say, “I’m black and I’m proud,” what mattered in my life is that he did say it and he said it loud.  Soul Brother Number 1, Brown was the archetype.  His hard driving beats on the one laid the groundwork for the best in soul and later the best in hip-hop music.  In fact I think all of my favorite hip hop classics used Brown samples.  Admittedly, I was once a bigger fan of Brown’s band than I was his vocals until I heard “It’s a Man’s World,” from that moment on I became a complete fan.


Sam CookeSam Cooke

I understand that Sam Cooke first made the ladies swoon with his mellow delivery of gospel hymns.  It’s so hard for me to imagine a gospel rock star but that could be because Cooke was the last.  In my memory, there was always so much sadness associated with his name because of his tragic and untimely death.  But this is a man to be celebrated.  Sam Cooke was a man; unlike so many acts before him, there wasn’t a perm in his hair or heels on his feet to help integrated audiences feel more comfortable with his black masculinity.  He was an unapologetic male with a well spoken and well sung opinion about who we were as a people and who we could be.  He believed a change was going to come, and for many singers who followed, Sam Cooke was that change.


Donny HathawayDonny Hathaway

Donny Hathaway began singing in DC while he attended Howard University; in fact he played with drummer, Ric Powell who grew up with my Dad and lived next door to my Grandparents in Northwest, Washington.  The more I grew into a Donny Hathaway fan the more jealous I became of my parent’s stories of seeing Hathaway perform at clubs around the City.  He actually sang happy birthday to my Mom one night at a club in Southeast.  So that’s how my connection to Hathaway began.  As a kid, my parent’s stories lead to me sneaking away with some of my Dad’s 45’s and playing Donny on my Barbie record player.  I would listen to The Ghetto and This Christmas over and over again.  Then when I got into high school I found my Father’s album of Donny Hathaway live and my entire world changed.  I could just feel myself sitting in that dark club screaming, “Ow!” as he stroked the keys.  I love his voice and style.   I even love it when neo-soul artists try to sound like Hathaway because a few have come really close.  Donny Hathaway is an inspirational and talented contributor to music then and now.


Al GreenAl Green

What can I say about the sexy and necessary sounds of Al Green?  Man I love his music!  I am from top to bottom a fan of Al’s work, he kills every song from the highest moan to the lowest beg… you feel Al Green.  Even his latest come back album killed it!  It was almost like he just stopped by to remind R&B that it takes some soul to make great music.  I respect Al Green’s gospel music, but I need his soul music.  While Al Green’s vocals are always celebrated, enough can’t be said about his amazing band.  Al Green’s music has also been used in some memorable R&B and hip-hop samples.  Green’s music was well ahead of its time and filled with beautiful rhythmic complexities.  From the bass to the drums it’s hard to choose what sounded best, and with Al on the vocal it was all too perfect to even try.