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Facts About Soul Music

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Soul music emerged in the late 1950s and remained popular through the 1970s, when it was eventually eclipsed by styles like funk and disco. Soul was a major force in pop music history thanks to labels like Stax and Motown and exhibited many different variations in different parts of the country. Soul music's popularity among African Americans made it a prominent part of the civil rights movement.

Ray Charles

Ray Charles is often credited with inventing soul music in the late 1950s. Charles took the call-and-response format, chord changes, song structures and vocal style of gospel music and infused it with the secular lyrics of rhythm and blues. This combined the sacred music of gospel with the profane, sexual innunendo-filled lyrics of the blues. Charles had a hit in 1955 with "I've Got A Woman," which is credited as the first soul song.


Soul music grew in popularity during the 1960s and topped the black music charts throughout the decade. Soul songs often crossed over into the pop music charts as well. Songs like "Respect" by Aretha Franklin, "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" by Otis Redding and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell are some examples of the many soul hits that topped the pop charts. Long-running TV show "Soul Train," introduced and hosted by Don Cornelius for two decades, got its start in 1971.


Motown Records, based in Detroit, Michigan, released a bulk of the popular soul records in the 1970s. Owner Berry Gordy organized a team of top songwriters who met up each week and pitched the most radio-ready songs to the group. The Supremes and the Temptations were among the heaviest hitters. Songs had to match those of the top five on the pop charts at the time. Motown also dressed all of its artists up nicely, used exacting choreography and taught its performers good manners so as to properly represent the wholesome and professional image of the label.


With Motown, Detroit was known as the center of a pop-oriented brand of soul. Soul music popped up in urban centers around the eastern United States. In the 1970s, Philly Soul gave soul a smoother and slicker sound, adding lush and sweeping string arrangements. Soul music down south was more concerned with a grittier sound, emphasizing "syncopated rhyhtms, blaring horns and raw vocals," according to All Music.

Civil Rights Movement

Like rock 'n' roll, soul music embodied the spirit of political and social change in the 1960s and 1970s. According to Soul Patrol, soul music paralleled the Civil Rights movement. With funk, an offshoot of soul, James Brown echoed the sentiments of the black pride movement in songs like "Say It Loud-I'm Black and I'm Proud." Marvin Gaye commented on police brutality, war and other social issues in his 1971 song, "What's Going On."

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