Chicago was an important regional center for R&B in the 1960s.
Professional songwriters and producers were active in Chicago; Chess Records released a broad range of black pop records.
Vee-Jay, Okeh, and Brunswick
Vee-Jay Records was formed in 1953 and specialized in electric blues and vocal group music; the label had sales success in the 1960s with releases by Gene Chandler, the Four Seasons, the Beatles, and Betty Everett.
Okeh Records was the “race” imprint of Columbia, which was discontinued in the 1930s and successfully revived in the 1950s to produce R&B crossover; producer Carl Davis moved from Okeh to the Brunswick label, which also released pop and R&B hits.
The Impressions were led by guitarist and songwriter Curtis Mayfield; the group’s music reflected the concerns of the burgeoning civil rights movement and sold well in the R&B market.
Atlantic in the Early 1960s
In the late 1960s, Atlantic invested in a harder-edged style of black pop known as southern soul.
Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler produced successful singles for gospel-influenced singer Solomon Burke in the early 1960s.
Southern soul has key stylistic differences from the sweet soul of artists like the Drifters; it incorporates the emotional expression often associated with gospel, and black and white listeners often perceived it as truer to African American heritage.
Soulsville, USA: The Memphis Connection
Atlantic formed a distribution partnership with a smaller, Memphis-based label called Stax.
Stax’s studio band, Booker T. & the MG’s, often worked without prepared arrangements; production duties and credits were shared.
Otis Redding was one of the most important artists recording for Stax; his crossover hits for the label featured gospel-influenced vocals and the backing of Booker T. & the MGs.
Sam and Dave
Sam and Dave were a vocal duo sent to Stax by Jerry Wexler; they worked with the songwriting team of David Porter and Isaac Hayes on a series of successful singles.
After starting his career in a vocal group, Pickett signed with Atlantic as a solo artist and Jerry Wexler sent him to Stax; during a recording session for Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” the band created a delayed backbeat feel that became a signature sound for southern soul.
Stax developed a distinctive house style that typically included organ, horn arrangements, a funk bass, a biting guitar sound, and no backing vocals; “In the Midnight Hour” is a good example of this sound, and it also demonstrates stylistic differences with Motown records such as “Baby Love.”
After a conflict with Stax in late 1965, Jerry Wexler began sending musicians to record at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama; there, Wilson Pickett recorded some of his best-known hits, which exhibit a distinctive “Muscle Shoals sound.”
Aretha Franklin was raised in Detroit, where her father was a prominent minister; she pursued a singing career in New York where she recorded for Columbia but had limited commercial success before signing with Atlantic.
Franklin began recording for Atlantic at Fame Studios, but after a dispute, the sessions continued in New York with the same backing musicians; these New York sessions produced a number of hits, including her cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect.”
James Brown: On the Way to Funk
From Doo-Wop to Soul
James Brown began his career as a singer in the Famous Flames and as a stand-in for Little Richard; his early records were released on King.
In 1960, Brown began to transition from a doo-wop style to the soul style for which he would become famous.
Brown was known for his stage show, which he attempted to capture on a successful live album recorded at the Apollo Theater in 1962.
Brown had near total control over his music from the beginning of his career.
“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, Pt. 1” demonstrates the precision Brown’s band, the Famous Flames, could achieve.
Black Pride and the Birth of Funk
To many listeners, Brown’s musical style seemed free of the compromises made by other black artists to appeal to white audiences; his turn toward funk made him an important influence on 1970s black pop.
Assimilation and Issues of Blackness
Much of the R&B music discussed in this chapter was popular in the mainstream, and the reception of these different styles reflected larger movements of African American assimilation in the 1960s.
1968: A Pivotal Year for Black Popular Music
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.
King’s death had an impact on black music; Stax Records, located near where King was shot, encountered business difficulties and was sold to Gulf and Western.
Motown saw personnel changes in the late 1960s; after King’s death, Motown’s records began to address more of the issues facing black America.