December 27, 1969: Confessions of a Soul Freak – James Hamilton on a decade of U.S. pop

Can it really have been as long as ten years ago? For me 1960’s music still seems amazingly close – frighteningly so, when I consider that I was already sixteen as the decade began (a confession which will now doubtless condemn me in the minds of most of you to the modern equivalent of the “Bring Back The Big Bands” brigade, who I found so boring)! As you may remember, 1960 dawned here amidst the excitement of a new heart-throb, Adam Faith, a new music, Trad, and a new musical movie, “Expresso Bongo”. Cliff Richard was temporarily filling someone else’s shoes, and Emile Ford (whose then advanced ideas went largely unrecognized) was in the process of selling a million records. However, apart from this home-grown activity, the Pop Charts were still very much the realm of American records – and it is American music that these necessarily very personal reminiscences concern.

New Year, 1960: Freddy Cannon, Sandy Nelson, Preston Epps, Johnny and the Hurricanes – hey! – and Fats Domino! In fact the new year that most people were waiting for began in March with that “Someone else’s” demob from the U.S. Army (March 24th was to be the magic date, but with a bit of leave thrown in he was actually out a few weeks earlier), so that by the end of the month we were all eagerly buying “Stuck On You” c/w “Fame And Fortune” . . . then Phil and Don had to stop it hitting number one by hogging the top with “Cathy’s Clown“! By the end of the year, something new and interesting had happened – the Drifters made number 2, and Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs made the Top Ten. Rhythm and Blues. (Also, “Poetry In Motion” and “Rubber Ball“!)

Meanwhile, earlier in 1961, two young girls reached the U.S. Top 20 with significant records: Carla Thomas and Aretha Franklin. Carla’s was the record with the more immediate effect – her “Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes)” was the start of the Memphis Soul Sound and the Stax label (Memphis had hitherto been best known for its Rock legends and residents). Aretha had already hit with “Today I Sing The Blues“, her first commercial (non-Gospel) recording in 1960, but it was her “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody” smash that first brought her to the pop public’s attention – although it was the “Operation Heartbreak” flip which was more indicative of her future direction.

‘61/’62: a dull period in many trendies’ estimation. Really? Joe Jones’s “You Talk Too Much“, Clarence Henry’s “But I Do“, Barbara George’s “I Know “, Cosimo Matassa, and the New Orleans Sound of Joe Banashak’s Minit label. Dion, Joey Dee, Ernie Maresca. The Ska-influenced Gary “U.S.” Bonds, Bobby Lewis. The Sensations, Marvelettes, Shirelles. Ritchie Barrett (and the Chantels!), Bobby Parker, Ike and Tina Turner, Jerry Butler, King Curtis, the lsley Brothers, the Flares, the Rivingtons (“Deep Water” . . . wow!), the Mar-Keys. Frank lfield, the Tornados (just to give this some perspective!) and, admittedly, Bobby Vee, Brian Hyland, Del Shannon and Brenda Lee.

Over all, THE TWIST and the birth of Discotheque dancing and a teenage night-life. And, thinking of the Twist, these were the Cameo-Parkway days: the Orlons’ “Wah-Watusi” and great “The Conservative“, Dee Dee Sharp’s “Gravy (For My Mashed Potatoes)” and later great “Night“, Len Barry and the Dovells’ “Bristol Stomp“, Don and Dewey’s “Soul Motion“. Also, let’s remember that classic left-over from the ’50s, “The Duke Of Earl“.

Gradually, a trend had been growing, although until Little Eva’s “The Locomotion” it had not attracted much attention – that of the powerful song-writer/ producer, either as an individual or as a team, who really made the hits. Carole King and Gerry Goffin; Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich; PHIL SPECTOR; Bob Crewe and Frank Slay; Kal Mann and Dave Appell; Frank Guida; Burt Bacharach and Hal David; Luther Dixon; John Madara, Dave White and Aram Boormazian (Len Barry to you!); Bert Berns (Russell); Jerry Ragovoy; Curtis Mayfield; and (about time I mentioned this lot, eh?) Berry Gordy, Jr. and William Robinson, and on into various combinations of Norman Whitfield, the brothers Holland, Lamont Dozier, and others.

’63: the Beach Boys. (“What!” shout the Soul Freaks, who are just getting interested!) 1963 was indeed the year of the birth of “Soul”, as we know it. Ray Charles (whose influence, C & W recordings notwithstanding, was really most important in the ’50s) had long been called a “Soul Singer”, and the term was already being bandied about quite freely. Now, however, R & B (i.e.: commercial negro pop music) was developing more and more, with two closely allied yet distinctively different styles becoming ever more discernible. One was that influenced by Sam Cooke/the Falcons/James Brown (the Gospel-derived, emotional “Soul” sound), and the other what was rapidly to become famous as the “Motown (or Detroit) Sound” (generally percussive, but also with a refined Gospel influence).

Sam Cooke, thanks to his smooth RCA recordings, is often forgotten when one thinks of Soul, yet the truth is that he alone was the greatest inspiration for a whole generation of Soul singers – an inspiration which started while he was still leading the Soul Stirrers Gospel group in the ’50s. His is even now the most frequently heard Gospel style, while secular singers from Otis Redding through Marvin Gaye (who both first came to prominence in ’63) to practically anyone you care to name have demonstrated his influence. The lead singer with the Falcons (who also spawned Eddie Floyd) at the time of “I Found A Love” was Wilson Pickett, and, secular lyrics apart, it was the pure Gospel atmosphere that he and the group brought to the Chart in 1961 that was so important. By 1963 he was out on his own, singing “If You Need Me” – which is the same as the Gospel “If You Need Jesus”.

Berry Gordy Jr.’s Tamla and Motown labels had been making hits for several years, and many of his acts were already among the most popular of R & B stars. It was in 1963, though, that his most important records came out. The early part of the year was Smokey Robinson’s, who wrote, produced, and sang (with the Miracles) “You Really Got A Hold On Me” into the U.S. Top 10 and into the Beatles’ hearts.

’64: as far as America was concerned, the year of the Beatles. They so completely shook the traditions of White American Pop that while it was recovering the resultant vacuum in the U.S. Chart was suddenly filled by R & B. (At home, our so-called “R & B” groups were happily playing their Folk-Blues or feebly covering great American singles.) R & B, which had first influenced the Beatles, was now by poetic justice inadvertently helped by the Beatles into the position of importance that it has held ever since.

After the initial shock of the Beatles, White American Pop struggled back to normal. The more adventurous started to follow their own Bob Dylan, who influenced the Beatles, who influenced all America. So the “significant” side of music was born, and entered a vortex. As our lads progressed, so did the Americans, and vice-versa, embracing as they did so in turn the two truly American musical forms, Blues and Country. Now, of course, everyone is on a nostalgia trip, looking back to the ’50s . . . how long before it’s the early ’60s, then?

One thought on “December 27, 1969: Confessions of a Soul Freak – James Hamilton on a decade of U.S. pop”

  1. The way that James’s Sixties review more or less stops after 1964 suggests that a longer piece may originally have been written. This is made clearer by a comment he makes in his column of January 10th, 1970:

    “Hey, any Freaks who want a slightly fuller version of my “Confessions of a Soul Freak” review of the decade, or who missed it in the Xmas week issue, send me a big S.A.E.”

    Oh, if only we could!

    Like

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