Ahhhh, soul music!
Gospel-style music with secular lyrics emerged in the late ’50s as an amalgam of rhythm-and-blues and gospel. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame defines soul music as “music that arose out of the black experience in America through the transmutation of gospel and rhythm & blues into a form of funky, secular testifying.” The best soul music offered impassioned vocals, handclaps, call-and-response arrangements, heartfelt lyrics and, most of all, irresistible rhythms that compelled people to get up and dance.
As a white kid growing up in suburbia, I knew almost nothing of “the black experience,” but I was certainly moved by the music I was hearing on Top 40 radio that co-mingled with The Beatles and The Beach Boys beginning around 1964. I heard a lot of soul music thanks to an older sister who exposed me to many of the songs coming from the artists on Motown, Stax and Atlantic Records. It was all such fun, so joyous and energetic, despite voices that sometimes sounded deeply anguished if you took the time to listen to the pain of unrequited love and injustice in the lyrics.
The biggest soul music hits are still played endlessly, from The O’Jays’ “Backstabbers” and Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her” to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and The Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There.”
In this special edition of my periodic “Lost Classics” feature, I am focusing on 16 “lost soul classics” — tasty R&B-based tracks that likely went under your radar because they were B-sides or deep album tracks that got almost no radio play, plus a few minor hits that have been long forgotten…until now.
These songs all have a wonderful ’60s energy to them. I invite you to dance around your living room as you listen to the Spotify playlist at the end!
“Let Yourself Go,” James Brown, 1967
Brown recorded “Let Yourself Go” and several other great tracks after hours in a Philadelphia nightclub where he had a 10-day engagement in 1967. The Fabulous Flames, Brown’s longtime backing vocalists and dancers, were near the tale end of their relationship with the volatile star, but they’re still heard on this recording. It was released as a single, which charted at #5 on R&B charts and #46 on pop charts, so mainstream audiences never heard it much compared to Brown’s signature hits. The track adopts the signature early funk that Brown favored throughout his uptempo catalog.
“I’m Doin’ Fine Now,” New York City, 1972
Originally known as The Tri-boro Exchange, this vocally talented R&B group changed their name to New York City in 1972 and recorded for the Chelsea label with the great Thom Bell. This collaboration resulted in one of my favorite soul tracks, the underappreciated 1973 minor hit, “I’m Doin’ Fine Now,” written by Bell. Peaking at #17 that spring, the tune’s joyous tempo and arrangement are underscored by lyrics in which the narrator mourns the day of his romantic breakup but is proud of his ability to eventually adopt a positive attitude about it all. New York City continued recording and touring for another three years but failed to match the success of their first single.
“Two Lovers,” Mary Wells, 1964
Just about everyone knows Wells as the girl who sang “My Guy,” the song Smokey Robinson wrote for her in 1964 that became an enormous #1 hit here and in the UK. Wells had in fact been recording hit singles since 1962 and earned the nickname “The Queen of Motown” for her role in bringing R&B music and black artists to mainstream America. Among her accomplishments was the #7 hit “Two Lovers,” which at first seems to about two men (one who treats her well and the other who treats her badly) but is actually the same guy whose mood swings determine how he behaves toward her. Wells had a falling out with Motown and bounced around between several labels throughout the ’60s and early ’70s as she struggled in vain to duplicate her early glory.
“A Change,” Aretha Franklin, 1968
“The Queen of Soul” had so many familiar hits that sometimes her deeper album tracks got overlooked. I’ve always dug this song from her 1968 LP, “Aretha Now,” written by the prolific songwriter/producer Clyde Otis, who collaborated with many dozens of artists, most often with Brook Benton. “Aretha Now” reached #3 on the US album chart on the strength of three hits — the irrepressible “Think” (#7), her cover of “I Say a Little Prayer for You” (#10) and “See-Saw” (#14) — but there are seven other tracks you might have missed or forgotten about, like “A Change.”
“Love Man,” Otis Redding, 1969
The death of Redding at age 26 in a plane crash in late 1967 was a huge loss for the R&B community and the mainstream pop world as well. He had just begun to be more widely appreciated following his riveting performance at the Monterey Pop Festival and, fortunately for us, he recorded several dozen tracks in the latter half of 1967 that Atco Records released on a few posthumous albums in 1968 and 1969. “Love Man” was one of these LPs, reaching #46 on the album chart in 1969. The title song, written by Redding, has a funky groove, courtesy of Booker T and the MGs’ accompaniment, and although it stalled at #72 on the pop charts, it reached #17 on the R&B chart.
“Baby, Call on Me,” Wilson Pickett, 1963
Solomon Burke, one of the founding fathers of soul music in the late ’50s, was a friend and supporter of a young Wilson Pickett, urging his signing at Atlantic Records, but label head Jerry Wexler was hesitant at first. Pickett had written and recorded “If You Need Me” and was on track to score his first big hit with it, but Wexler had recorded a reluctant Burke doing it and rush-released his version. Because he was an established star, Burke’s version got the attention, peaking at #2 on R&B charts while Pickett’s stalled at #30 (and only #64 on pop charts). The B-side of Pickett’s single, “Baby, Call On Me,” is arguably as great as the intended hit, but it was ignored. Check it out!
“When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes,” The Supremes, 196?
Preceding their big breakthrough in 1964 with “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love” and three other #1 smash hits, The Supremes had been recording for Motown Records since 1961. The brilliant songwriting/producing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, responsible for most of The Supremes’ biggest hits, first worked with them on “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes,” the group’s first entry in the Top 40 (at #23) in late 1963. Brian Holland said the record was modeled after, and in response to, producer Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” recording technique in vogue at the time. Some say Motown songs were too polished and not gritty enough to be considered “soul,” but that’s not the way millions of listeners (like me) saw it.
“Soul Finger,” The Bar-Kays, 1967
Formed in 1964 in Memphis as a band of session musicians at Stax Records, The Bar-Kays were selected to become Otis Redding’s backup band, participating in several recordings and on tour. Sadly, four of their members were on the same plane with Redding when it crashed in 1967, but the surviving members regrouped and ended up putting together a long and successful career on the R&B charts throughout the ’70s and ’80s. In the mainstream, their most famous moment came early when the original lineup recorded the festive “Soul Finger” in 1967. Neighborhood kids were called in to intermittently shout “soul finger!” and join in the studio merriment. It was a #17 hit on pop charts.
“Tainted Love,” Gloria Jones, 1964
It’s a safe bet that most of the US record-buying public had no idea that British synth-pop duo Soft Cell’s international #1 hit “Tainted Love” was originally a soul record recorded by American singer Gloria Jones in 1964. Written by Ed Cobb, the song was released by Jones as the B-side of “My Bad Boy’s Coming Home,” a commercial flop on the small Champion label. In the late ’60s, a dance movement known as “Northern Soul” took root in towns in Northern England, where obscure American soul records were promoted and became hugely popular. Soft Cell’s Marc Almond heard Love’s record of “Tainted Love” and chose to give it the New Wave treatment and found spectacular success with it. I find it fascinating listening to Love’s version now.
“Ain’t No Sun Since You’ve Been Gone,” The Temptations, 1967
The songwriting team of Norman Whitfield, Cornelius Grant and Sylvia Moy came up with this uptempo beauty in 1966 and worked with Gladys Knight and The Pips to record it, but nothing came of it. Whitfield and Grant had collaborated with Eddie Holland to write “(I Know) I’m Losing You” for The Temptations, and when that song became a huge hit, the songwriters modified “Ain’t No Sun Since You’ve Been Gone” to mimic it and put it on The Tempts’ next LP. It may be a copycat track, but I think it stands up on its own merit as a quality record in The Temptations’ catalog. The following year, Dusty Springfield took a stab at it for her Dusty…Definitely” album.
“Woman’s Gotta Have It,” Bobby Womack, 1972
The multi-talented Womack served as Sam Cooke’s guitarist, contributed to records byAretha Franklin and Sly and The Family Stone and wrote songs for other artists (including “It’s All Over Now” for The Rolling Stones and “Breezin'” for George Benson) during his 60-year career. Beginning in 1969, Womack debuted as a solo artist and, in 1972, he made his first Top 40 appearance with “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha,” reaching #27 (and peaking at #2 on the R&B chart). Next up was “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” a #1 single on the R&B chart that inexplicably stalled at #60 on the pop chart. I was first introduced to the song when James Taylor covered it on his 1976 LP “In the Pocket,” but I really enjoy Womack’s original as well.
“You Don’t Know What You Mean to Me,” Sam & Dave, 1968
Steve “The Colonel” Cropper, guitarist and producer for the Stax Records house session band Booker T and the MGs, became involved with several of the Stax artists’ records, most notably Sam & Dave. You can hear Cropper’s name called out in the middle of their biggest hit “Soul Man” when Sam Moore says “Play it, Steve!” The exciting hits of Moore and Dave Prater (“Soul Man,” “Hold On I’m Comin’,” “I Thank You”) overshadowed many other terrific tracks hiding on their albums, and the one that sticks out for me is “You Don’t Know What You Mean to Me,” a song Cropper wrote.
“Somebody Have Mercy,” Sam Cooke, 1962
Virtually every soul singer who followed in his wake mentions Cooke as one of their most important influences, and it’s easy to see why. Although rooted firmly in the gospel tradition, Cooke began singing blues, traditional and R&B music in 1958, beginning with his biggest hit, “You Send Me.” Between 1960 and 1964, he scored a dozen Top 20 hits (“Cupid,” “Chain Gang,” “Twistin’ the Night Away,” “Let the Good Times Roll”), some of which had B-sides that were arguably as good as the A-side. Case in point: “Somebody Have Mercy,” the flip side of the #12 hit “Nothing Can Change This Love” in 1962.
“Sugar,” Stevie Wonder, 1970
Watching “Little Stevie” Wonder mature from a child prodigy with a #1 hit (“Fingertips”) at age 12 to a phenomenal young man with three Album of the Year Grammy awards in the 1970s was truly a sight to behold. Before he came up with titanic LPs like “Innervisions” and “Songs in the Key of Life,” he still had some work to do. His 1970 LP “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” included four pop chart hits that kept his impressive streak going, including “Heaven Help Us All” and the title track. One of Wonder’s most soulful tracks, “Sugar,” can be found deep on this album, showcasing his vocals and the clavinet. It’s rarely if ever heard on the radio, and he has curiously never played it in concert.
“Love Feels Like Fire,” The Four Tops, 1965
The spectacular voice of lead singer Levi Stubbs is the primary reason The Four Tops emerged from the Motown stable as one of their premier acts, emboldened by the wondrous songs and production values of the Holland-Dozier-Holland triumvirate. We all know the hits: “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” “Bernadette,” “Baby I Need Your Loving.” But wow, check out the other tunes on LPs like “Four Tops Second Album.” It’s hard not to like “Love Feels Like Fire,” which I’d never heard until this week when I started digging through the group’s catalog.
“Talkin’ ‘Bout You,” Ray Charles, 1958
When you consider the pioneers of soul music, Ray Charles is at the top of the list. His earliest records in the late ’40s and early ’50s offered a combination of blues, jazz, rhythm-and-blues and swing that, by the late ’50s had spawned this new musical genre eventually known as soul. On his second LP for Atlantic, “Yes Indeed!,” I’ve always been partial to “Talkin’ ‘Bout You,” one of seven tracks Charles wrote that showcases his expressive voice. A word to the wise: Look beyond “Lonely Avenue” and his other signature songs (“What’d I Say,” “Georgia On My Mind”) and revel in the countless deep tracks that provide ample evidence where soul originated.