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October, 1975. A tall, slender African American man proudly based in Memphis, Tennessee, takes Soul Train's stage—with a freshly permed and curled Afro-style pompadour. He's wearing a sky blue, three-piece checkerboard-patterned leisure suit complete with an absurdly wide-collared shirt and broad-knotted silk tie. Eight minutes in—backed by an all-star band of session musicians—Al Green launches into an unexpected nine-minute testimonial, sweatily exalting about how much Christianity honors marital bliss.
Flash forward 45 years to last week. An intentionally nappy-Afroed Canadian vocalist of Ethiopian heritage looks like the devil in a slim, red designer suit while performing during the half-time show of Super Bowl LV. Surrounded by a coterie of look-alikes, he aimlessly wanders between them in a harried haze. The Weeknd croons about trying to find true love in desolation while aping the best of Fear and Loathing-era Hunter S. Thompson.
In the early '70s, Memphis's Al Green and contemporary Issac Hayes were doing much more than singing classic songs. Rooted in exuberant spirituality and freedom rising—these two icons were redefining Black greatness.
But now it's 2021, and soul music's slate of genre-defining Black male stars are in trouble. Narcotic and profane, detached and commercial, theirs is damn sure not our grandparents' rhythm and blues.
Over the past fifty years, the traditional standard of R&B showcased by Southern icons —romantic, but not profane, sanctified, but still secular—has been replaced by a wholly different style. Today, contemporary artists led by Canadians The Weeknd and Drake have created a form of soul music that is frustratingly similar yet tonally different from R&B's roots. There's sex for sure, but no romance. Taking center stage is a kind of isolated, libertine self-expression, without the expectation of collective freedom and togetherness that grounded early soul practitioners.
"Memphis in the early 70s was a magical time," says record producer and audio engineer Boo Mitchell. As the current owner of the city's Royal Studios, he's conducting this phone interview from the same building where Al Green recorded iconic hits like "Let's Stay Together," "Love And Happiness," and "God Blessed Our Love." The studio is also home to notable current hits like Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars' Grammy-winning 2015 collaboration "Uptown Funk."
"Adventurously innovative people rallied around each other with soul and camaraderie. We knew we wanted to be nonconforming individualists," Mitchell says. "We had pioneered the blues; now we were moving—via recording labels like Stax and Hi Records— into soul music and Black entrepreneurship."
The blues, with its focus on making do, was a musical depiction of Black struggle, and also of Black music's resolute creative voice. However, the advent of soul marked the shift of attention away from pain, and toward desire.
At the same time, America was restricting gains of the civil rights movement. The evolution of Black entrepreneurship in soul music, pioneered by Issac Hayes at Stax Records and picked up by Al Green at Hi Records, became a commercial demonstration of how blues' notion of the long-suffering Black artist had been exploded by a sense of wanting, even yearning, for individual power and collective liberation. Both of these Memphis iconoclasts mixed soul's uniquely Southern cocktail from spiritual essences and newfound secular emancipation.
In November 1971, Green released "Let's Stay Together" the same month Hayes released an album titled "Black Moses."
"Let's Stay Together" was mixed by Boo Mitchell's grandfather, legendary blues artist and music producer/engineer Willie Mitchell, in a production Boo says showcases "his pop's" masterful ability to mix Hi Records' rhythm section and Green's vocal performance.
Green's voice is a profoundly peculiar instrument; a sexualized version of soulful religiosity. His Southern childhood—steeped in countrified blues arouses vibrations familiar to folk, bluegrass, and pop-styled Negro spirituals direct from the Gospel Highway tradition—emerges like a lasso and lands like a halo. Green's vocals on "Let's Stay Together" sound like heaven-sent entrapment.
Heaving his soul into the word "love"—a ten-second statement of exhaustive joy before the band counts itself in as the song opens—radical love is expressed as a semi-silent sacrament. A Pitchfork review of a remastered rerelease of the single notes that "the genius of Green's ["Let's Stay Together"] performance is that he's murmuring it to the person on the next pillow, not declaiming it for the neighbors to bear witness."
Everything about Green's artistry reflects a need to remain grounded in spirituality while aiming for a higher expectation of success. In a 1972 conversation with Interview Magazine, Green highlights his background in singing spirituals, while also noting that as a secular soul singer, his music "can go from any range," with boundaries stretching "from the sky to the center of the earth."
Green became an ordained minister of his own Full Gospel Tabernacle Church by 1976, further outlining the full scope of the secular-meets-spiritual trends in Green's music—and soul in general.
Blending that similar spirituality with the cause of Black liberation paid dividends for Isaac Hayes with Black Moses:
"Mama taught us the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments. The older generation of Blacks—my mother and grandmother—were strictly brought up in the church, and they were taught a kind of spiritual discipline. My raps represent a kind of rejuvenation of the church." New York Times, 1972
Here, Hayes offers a glimpse into how he so effortlessly envisioned the celebration of Black self-expression as freeing penance. His use of proto-modern raps on albums, including "Black Moses" as empowering spoken-word interludes embraced a Southern Baptist minister's spirit.
As a composer‐producer at Stax Records, Hayes wrote Black empowerment movement staples like Sam & Dave's 1967 hit "Soul Man," which helped him evolve into "Black Moses." Often performing bald, bare-chested, and draped in a suit of golden chains, he embodied the emancipation of Black history and Black expression.
"Black Moses" was a Billboard number one album.
The result of these two albums' success cannot be understated in the evolution of soul into universally-beloved and pop-chart-ready R&B. By 1975, Al Green and Issac Hayes had sold a combined 20 million-plus albums and singles. These totals align well with the likes of big-budget arena touring artists of the era like The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, and Neil Diamond.
These two vocal powerhouses exuded a kind of masculinity within soul that was full-bodied and deeply connected to others. Green's connection is most readily seen in the intimate tenderness and power with which he sings about romantic and divine love. For Hayes, that love is also connected to a love of Blackness—of self and people.
Few descriptions of the gravitas of how the sanctified, romantic space sounds compare to Pitchfork's 40th-anniversary review of Hayes' 1969 album "Hot Buttered Soul." The reviewer calls it "a classic crossover formula … keep the orchestral sweetness, but layer on a shining veneer of psychedelic R&B, then stretch it out with some soul-jazz vamping and nail it down with a voice that hits like a velvet sledgehammer."
If Memphis gave us a Hot Buttered Soul, then Toronto is giving us whiskey on the rocks—or in the case of The Weeknd, an icebath after an organ transplant.
Some 1,600 miles north of the birthplace of soul, Toronto's soul music legacy is divorced from all Southern-bred religious spirituality or any sort of civil rights liberation songs. Instead, "House of Balloons," The Weeknd's 2010 mixtape series, included tracks like "Rolling Stone." The title an allusion to smoking weed while rolling on ecstasy, the song is a barren interplay between ambient acoustic guitar and a strained falsetto.
"Al Green's heart lives in his voice," Boo Mitchell jokes. By comparison, in 2017, The Weeknd was described as having a highly marketable "eccentric falsetto," that in 2015 was noted for its ability to flexibly "fit over every pop sound that's been successful in the past half-century of mainstream pop, rolled tightly in a blunt and set ablaze."
While The Weeknd can rely on his vocal prowess to simulate runs and groans that hearken back to the genre's forefathers, Drake employs samples, rhythms, and melodies to conjure the feel of Memphis.
Drake is also a Torontonian, but his father has roots in Memphis. "[When Drake was a child] we used to share the radio," his father, Dennis Graham, noted in a 2019 interview. "[Drake] would listen to rap music part of the time during the drive, and then he'd have to listen to [Memphians] Otis Redding and Johnnie Taylor half the time."
Make no mistake, Drake doesn't style himself as a soul or R&B artist. Nevertheless, the rapper/singer has capitalized from commodifying, and ultimately removing soul music's well-worn secular-meets-spiritual context from its present. Perhaps the austere-feeling vapidity of hits by both The Weeknd and Drake are a balancing response to the universal almost-saccharine appeal of Al Green and Issac Hayes' '70s era catalog of legendary songs.
If you're looking for the moment that the music synonymous with sanctified romance, Black power, and Black entrepreneurship loses a bit of its edge, it's around 1973. Issac Hayes was filming starring roles in mainstream-released Blaxploitation films "Three Tough Guys" and "Truck Turner," while Al Green played venues like Brooklyn's Bananafish Garden for ABC-TV specials alongside Eric Weissberg and Deliverance, Taj Mahal, Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, and Mahavishnu Orchestra. That's a long way from Memphis.
By 1975, our Memphis-based soul icons were no longer at the forefront of the sound. Rhythm and blues never rediscovered its organic roots in the mainstream. Hayes faced financial troubles and embraced disco. Green took his soulful R&B in a far more religious direction and became a full fledged minister in 1977.
The stylistic slurry that ensued left rudderless soul music in a bizarre position by the 1980s. Stars like Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson begin blending power-pop ballads and technofied disco sounds into a pop music rocket. Boy bands merging house-styled New Jack Swing with barbershop style harmonies refined Richie and Jackson's work into a sound that turned love into a more of a platinum-selling art than ever before. Merge this with braggadocios rappers like LL Cool J and 2 Pac, and this heavily-borrowed, well-condensed version of R&B sound is now ubiquitous mass-marketing material.
Pop music's prodigious impact on the 1970s era Memphis soul standard has possibly rendered it obsolete. Current artists probably inclined to dabble in Memphis' timeless traditions, like Miguel, Frank Ocean, and Anderson .Paak, have all achieved a measure of critical and pop success. However, their combined mainstream success pales in comparison to that of an artist like Drake.
But if we are to award the genre title to those who actively resist their Southern predecessors, while a dedicated few attempting to revive the classics go the way of their forgotten forefathers, then what do we make of this new genre that looks nothing like its roots? To lump 2021's dystopian Super Bowl halftime performance under the same R&B umbrella we ascribed to Soul Train in the 1970s makes imagining a time that soul as we knew it can reemerge even murkier. The catchall genre that listeners recognize as R&B today looks so different from its origins that it's near-impossible to see those throughlines, and even harder for the remaining soulful few to break away from modern tradition and find mainstream success.
During a Verzuz battle in 2020, Jill Scott referred to soul traditionalist Anthony Hamilton as "that damn old-ass [singer]." Hamilton told Medium's LEVEL that he indeed "[sounds] like the heritage of our ancestors. The Black church in the '60s South. Man, I sound like an old whiskey barrel, or somebody playing a rusty bass while wearing hard-bottomed shoes."
And maybe that's OK. Love and happiness made us do right, then it went wrong. Though the horizon of soul and R&B looks bleak, here's to hoping that we'll never have to say goodbye.