James Brown and Aretha Franklin: Two masters of 1960s “soul” music

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Among many significant artists whose names became linked with “soul music” in the 1960s, James Brown and Aretha Franklin stand out as exceptionally popular performers with multidecade careers; in fact, they are the top two rhythm-blues artists of this entire time period. Both brought experience with gospel singing to bear upon their performance of secular material. They each developed an intense, flamboyant, gritty, and highly individual approach to the singing of pop music.

(The following is excerpted from the U.S. Department of State publication, American Popular Music.)

James Brown

If Ray Charles employed “soul” as an avenue of approach to diverse material, James Brown revealed different tendencies from the beginning. His first record, “Please, Please, Please” (1956), is indicative: while the song is in the format of a 1950s R&B ballad, Brown’s vocal clings to repetitions of individual words so that sometimes the activity of an entire strophe will center around the syncopated, violently accented reiterations of a single syllable. The result is startling and hypnotic. Like a secular version of a transfixed preacher, Brown leaves traditional notions of grammar and meaning behind in an effort to convey a heightened emotional condition. Later, Brown would leave the structures of 1950s R&B far behind and abandon chord changes entirely in many pieces. By the later 1960s a characteristic Brown tune like “There Was a Time” offered music focused on the play of rhythm and timbre. While the singer does tell a story, the vocal melody is little more than informal reiterations of a small number of brief, formulaic pitch shapes; the harmony is completely static, with the instrumental parts reduced to repeating riffs or held chords. But this description does the song scant justice – when performed by Brown its effect is mesmerizing. Brown’s fully developed version of soul is a music of exquisitely focused intensity, devoted to demonstrating that “less is more.”

In the politically charged “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” which reached Number One on the R&B charts in 1968, Brown pares his vocal down to highly rhythmic speech. Although the term would not be in use for at least a decade, “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” is for all intents and purposes a “rap” number, a striking anticipation of important black music to come. In the wake of the urban folk movement of the early 1960s, in which white singers presented themselves as spokespeople for the political and social concerns of their generation, Brown led black musicians in assuming a comparable role for the black community. Soul musicians came to be seen as essential contributors to – and articulators of – African-American life and experience.

From the late 1960s through the disco music of the 1970s, from the beginnings of rap on through the flowering of hip-hop in the 1990s, no other single musician has proven to be as influential on the sound and style of black music as James Brown. His repetitive, riff-based instrumental style, which elevated rhythm far above harmony as the primary source of interest, provided the foundation on which most dance-oriented music of the period is based.

Brown’s focus on rhythm and timbre demonstrates his strong conceptual links with African music styles. The minimizing or elimination of chord changes and the consequent de-emphasis of harmony makes Brown’s music seem, both in conception and in actual sound, a lot less “Western” in orientation than a good deal of the African-American music that preceded it. On the one hand, this quality resonated with many aspects of African-American culture in the late 1960s and the 1970s, when there was a marked concern with the awareness of African “roots.” On the other hand, one could argue that the acceptance and wide influence of the “non-Western” aspects of Brown’s music provided a foundation for the recent explosion of interest in world music of many sorts.

Aretha Franklin

Like Ray Charles and James Brown, Aretha Franklin underwent a long period of “apprenticeship” before she achieved her breakthrough as a pop star in 1967. After a less than stellar career at Columbia Records, from 1960 to 1966, she went over to Atlantic Records, where Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler encouraged her to record strong material well suited to her spectacular voice and engaged stellar and empathetic musicians to back her up. The rest, as they say, is history. Beginning with “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” in 1967, Franklin produced an extraordinary stream of hit records over a five-year period that included 13 million- sellers and 13 Top 10 pop hits. Although the later 1970s and early 1980s witnessed a decline in Franklin’s status as a top hit maker, she was never absent from the charts, and the mid-1980s brought her a resurgence of popularity. As of 1994 Franklin was still a presence on the charts.

Franklin grew up with gospel music; her father was the pastor for a large Baptist congregation in Detroit. Franklin’s first recordings were as a gospel singer, at the age of 14, and she occasionally returned to recording gospel music in the midst of her career as a pop singer – most spectacularly with the live album Amazing Grace (1972), which was recorded in a church. Amazing Grace introduced legions of pop music fans to the power of gospel music. The album was a Top 10 bestseller and the most successful album of Franklin’s entire career; it sold over two million copies.

What is most important about Aretha Franklin is the overwhelming power and intensity of her vocal delivery. Into a pop culture that identified female singers with gentility, docility, and sentimentality, her voice blew huge gusts of fresh air. When she demanded “respect” or exhorted her audience to “think about what you’re trying to do to me,” the strength of her interpretations moved her songs beyond the traditional realm of personal relationships into the larger political and social spheres. Especially in the context of the late 1960s, with the civil rights and black power movements at their heights, and the movement for women’s empowerment stirring, it was difficult not to hear large- scale ramifications in the records of this extraordinary African-American woman. Although Aretha Franklin did not become an overtly political figure, she made strong political and social statements through the character of her performances.

Franklin was not only a vocal interpreter on her records but also a major player in many aspects of their sound and production. She wrote or co-wrote a significant portion of her repertoire. Franklin is a powerful keyboard player; her piano is heard to great advantage on many of her recordings. And she also provided vocal arrangements, colored by the call and response of the gospel traditions in which she was raised.

Franklin symbolized female empowerment not only in the sound of her records but also in the process of making them. By the time she recorded a tune called “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” in 1985, she was telling a story that had been true of her for a long time. In the 1960s female empowerment was something new and important in pop music. And neither its novelty nor its importance was lost on the rising generation of female singer-songwriters, such as Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell, whose ascent to prominence began directly in the wake of Aretha Franklin’s conquest of the pop charts.

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