Ten Essential Southern Soul Hits
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“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”
The late Otis Redding was the greatest soul singer of them all, and his appearance at California’s Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 was his introduction to a brand new audience: hippies. When he and Booker T. & the M.G.’s left the stage after their electrifying set at Monterey Pop, Southern soul had been triumphantly introduced to a white rock music audience. Listen to the version of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” from that set, and you’ll hear it loudly: Both camps were transformed, and neither would ever be the same.
“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”
The Godfather of Soul, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, was a musical category all by himself. He was a force of nature. “Brand New Bag,” when it hit the Top 10 in 1965, was unlike any soul music ever heard. It was revolutionary. I know you’ve heard it 1,000 times. But has it ever failed to make you shake your butt? Case closed.
The record company cut "Brand New Bag" down to 2:08 for radio purposes. Here, we bring you all 6:58 of the original.
Booker T. & the M.G.’s
The racially integrated Stax house band created a gritty, powerhouse sound — born in the Southern black church — that stood in stark contrast to the glossy productions coming out of Detroit’s Motown Records. The M.G.’s were the band behind hundreds of recordings by artists including Redding, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, and the list just goes on. But their own “Green Onions” is their most triumphant moment. It starts out elegant and infectious, led by Booker T. Jones’ organ, then Steve Cropper’s hard-edged guitar makes it nice and slinky. If there’s a disco in heaven, they should play this every night.
“When a Man Loves a Woman”
Yes, it is one of the most overplayed songs of all time, but it’s important because the Muscle Shoals “sound” might never have coalesced if not for “When a Man Loves a Woman.” It was a huge hit for Rick Hall and his FAME Recordings in Muscle Shoals. If you’ve heard it too many times, you don’t have to listen to it again now, but know this: This song had to be. It represents the birth of a sound that soon would draw recording artists from all over the world (including the Rolling Stones) to a tiny town in north Alabama. (If you want a Percy Sledge tune you’re not so familiar with, try “It Tears Me Up.” You’ll be rewarded.)
“Sweet Soul Music”
This song started a long tradition of name dropping that has persisted all the way through modern hip-hop. Written by Conley and Otis Redding, this song puts the “spotlight” on Lou Rawls, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and James Brown, one verse at a time. Conley was Redding’s protégé, and Redding produced this upbeat dance song that reached No. 2 on the charts in 1967. It was sweet music about sweet music.
Why this one over the stomping bravado of “In the Midnight Hour”? Well, for one reason, because it was so irresistible when it hit the Top 40 in 1966 that Arthur Conley later, in the aforementioned “Sweet Soul Music,” proclaims “Mustang Sally” not merely “wicked,” but “wicked wicked.” I agree with Arthur. “Mustang Sally” is a classic, undeniable, Muscle Shoals groove. It may be the most delicious groove ever to come out of the South.
“Hold On! I’m a’Comin’”
Sam and Dave
While Berry Gordy and crew were sweetening songs with strings in Detroit, producer Al Bell and his crew at Stax were making Southern soul distinctive with their horn arrangements. And arguably, the introductory horn riff in “Hold On!” became the aural trademark for the musical style we celebrate today. Ignited by the horns and the M.G.’s groove, Sam Moore and Dave Prater’s fiery call and response vocals were inspired. They were the most exciting live act at Stax, at least post-Otis.
“Knock on Wood”
When Stax Records founder Jim Stewart first heard this song, he complained that it sounded too similar to Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour.” But it it sounded so good to producer Al Bell and M.G.’s guitarist Steve Cropper that Stewart ultimately relented and put it out anyway. Good for us. It carries one of the greatest soul lyrics — “It’s like thunder and lightning/The way you love me is frightening” — and it features Al Jackson’s famous knock-knock-knock-knock snare lick, which sounds, of course, just like knocking on wood.
Truly part of the Southern soul canon, this song hit No. 6 on the pop chart, but today, it’s rarely heard. That’s too bad. “Slip Away” is a desperate, heartfelt plea from Clarence to a married woman. It falls directly into the grand Southern tradition of the cheating song (it’s not just a country thing, you know). “I know it’s wrong, the things I ask you to do,” he sings. “But could you just slip away without him knowing you’re gone?”
“Take Me to the River”
The Rev. Al Green is the embodiment of the sacred vs. secular confusion that gives Southern soul music its very heartbeat. When he sings, “take me to the river, wash me down,” you can’t tell if he’s asking to be baptized or bedded. That pull between the spiritual and sexual persists in the sound and feel of all of Green’s songs. He so embodies his songs that onstage in front of a crowd of thousands, his singing and his persona — even to to this day, at age 67 — makes grown people squeal like teenagers, even if he’s doing “Jesus Will Fix It for You.”