Note: All information below is based on my notes from my History of Rock course. The songs found at the bottom will be competing in our “Most Influential Rock Song of all Time” (MIRST) tournament, which will begin here at LivingTheDream.org on Sunday, August 20th.
The history of black pop through the lens of rock & roll is a bit different than what it might be through the lens of black pop itself- during the 60s, this music was directed at a primarily black audience. However, as it relates to the history of rock and roll, these are the key takeaways.
Two major sources for the rise of black pop. The first is Motown out of Detroit under the managerial eye of Berry Gordy Jr. The second is the “Stax Sound” coming out of Memphis. Some debate as to whether the Southern Soul music was more authentically “black” than Motown.
Hitsville U.S.A., as Motown is sometimes called, arose under the direction of Gordy. He had previously specialized in jazz, but started looking more directly at pop/R&B as the money-making part of the music business. Wanted originally to be part of the Brill Building team, but Jerry Leiber encouraged him to stay in Detroit. Gordy very concerned with shaping a conception of Motown for the white audience with disposable income for whom such music would bring in money. In this vein, very invested in etiquette and choreography lessons for his performers. Set up Motown in a Brill fashion, with a number of songwriters as well as the studio band “The Funk Brothers.”
Early successes in Motown include Smokey Robinson & The Miracles and Mary Wells. The songwriting team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland was one of the most successful of the mid-60s, penning many of the hit songs for The Supremes, The Four Tops, Martha & The Vandellas, and The Temptations. A young Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder also associated with Motown in the mid-60s.
Stax & Southern Soul has its roots in Atlantic Records productions from the 60s, but more raw and unbuttoned. Stax is run by Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, but worked with Jerry Wexler for national syndication issues. Important to note that not all Southern Soul was Stax- but the term Stax became synonymous with the Southern Soul sound. Studio band here is Booker T and the M.G.’s (famous for “Green Onions”) and the use of horns became a staple for this music. Big performers: Solomon Burke, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin (note that Pickett recorded out of Muscle Shoals, Alabama after an argument with Stewart, and that Franklin briefly recorded in Alabama before moving to NYC.)
A special note must be made for James Brown, who did not fit easily into the Motown or Stax buckets. Signed with King Records out of Cincinnati, through late 50s and early 60s begins to migrate from a Doo Wop sound to a more passionate/enthusiastic stage approach. Brown very concerned with the pure feel of music, known for deep commitment to rehearsals. Important to note that Brown was known culturally as a great peacemaker of the 60s during race relation tensions- e.g., after the MLK assassination televises his Boston Garden concert for free in an attempt to bring the community together.
We’re making the leap to Spotify- check out the songs that will be competing below! Note: please comment below if you have problems with the playlist. I want to get feedback now as opposed to when the tournament starts to make sure I’ve got the kinks worked out for a clean start.