Impact’s Music Essentials: The Classic Soul Survival Guide

Hannah Pegram

As part of Impact Entertainment’s Nostalgia themed week, Hannah Pegram took a dive into the past to explore one of the genres that she grew up surrounded by, ranking her top ten soul tracks for Impact’s Music Essentials series.

When I hear the words ‘music nostalgia’, the one genre that pops into my mind is soul. Hailing from a family with a soul obsessed Dad and a 50s fanatic Mum meant that my exposure to soul music came pretty early. No songs remind me more of my childhood than Motown. Soul is impacting the music we have today, being sampled in current Hip Hop songs, serving as R&B’s ‘mother’ genre, and inspiring the biggest names in contemporary music; soul has left its footprint on the music world.   

the genre started as a way for black people to communicate their shared struggles

Soul music has its roots in African American gospel music and had been a style in the black community for many years before it hit the mainstream. Soul music has a unique quality in how it speaks to the soul (hence the name); the genre started as a way for black people to communicate their shared struggles through their sound and music. It would be impossible to rank the songs of soul, but the following ten songs are some of my personal favourites, or at least would be my recommendations to make the perfect soul starter kit. 

Soul Man – Sam & Dave 

Maybe Sam and Dave are a surprise for some, but if someone is beginning their journey into soul, for me, a good introduction is this 1967 classic. Soul Man is instantly recognisable by its iconic opening: the continuous guitar riff and the whole sound of the trumpet. Written in the Civil Rights Movement era, co-writer Isaac Hayes watched the television broadcast of the 12th Street Riot in Detroit and saw that the buildings that hadn’t been destroyed in the riot – mostly Black-owned shops and businesses – had been marked with the world “soul” by black residents. Hayes states that the song meant more to him than just a catchy tune; it was about “overcoming struggle” and that the song “is a boast, it’s a pride thing: I’m a Soul Man“. 

I Got a Woman – Ray Charles 

‘The Father of Soul’, Ray Charles made a name for himself as one of the greatest soul performers of all time, and this classic helped him get there. Released in 1954, Charles co-wrote the song with his trumpeter, Renald Richard, creating a jazz-inspired rhythm and blues background which complimented Charles’ typical soul vocals. After its release, the song became one of the prototypes for the music genre that would later be soul music. The implications of this song have impacted early 2000s music with the lyrics inspiring the chorus of Kanye West’s Gold Digger

It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World – James Brown  

Some might choose to put one of Brown’s more upbeat songs, but this classic embodies what classic soul is to me. Co-written by James Brown and his short-term girlfriend Betty Jean Newsome, the song is based on Betty’s observations upon the relationship between man and woman. Instead of getting too complicated with describing the song, the best way to describe it is that it’s just absolutely right; the lyrics, the meaning, the instruments and the cherry on top of the cake: James Brown’s voice. 

I’d Rather Go Blind – Etta James 

the emotional rollercoaster Etta James songs put the listener through is rarely matched

If you take anything from this article, let it be this: listen to the entirety of Etta James’ discography. Though not all strictly soul songs, the emotional rollercoaster Etta James songs put the listener through is rarely matched. I‘d Rather Go Blind is true Etta; it gives an emotionally raw performance and perfectly highlights the richness in her voice. According to her autobiography, ‘Rage to Survive’, the lyrics were about her being blind to love and addiction. 

I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch) – The Four Tops 

One of the most well-known Motown Classics, I Can’t Help Myself topped the Billboard charts for nine weeks. The song has a personal backstory; Lamont Dozier, one of the co-writers, wrote the song as a tribute to his grandparents. His grandmother owned a beauty salon, and his grandfather being a ‘flirt’ greeted the women getting their hair done with the phrases: “How you doin’ sugar pie? Good morning, honey bunch.” Much like the rest of The Four Tops songs, this song makes me want to dance. 

Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) – Frank Wilson 

I couldn’t bring myself to write this list without including a slight nod to northern soul. Frank Wilson’s classic is not only a lively and cheerful song but is also the most expensive 45′ record of all time. Wilson had recorded the song in 1965 but decided to focus more on writing and producing, causing Motown boss Berry Gordy to destroy all but an estimated four copies.

Fast-forward a few years, one of these copies turned up in North England and was played at the infamous soul club, Wigan Casino. Due to its demand after being played, Do I Love You was eventually released in 1979 and has been regarded as a classic ever since but getting your hands on an original 45′ would set you back roughly £30,000. 

Cry to Me – Solomon Burke  

“An ode to loneliness and desire”, Cry to Me was one of the first songs to incorporate the gospel tradition of incorporating speech and song, causing Burke to be one of the first artists to be called a soul artist. His country twang mixed with the layers of saxophone alongside the sheer desire emoted in the song embody what soul music is: emotional and smooth. 

Jimmy Mack – Martha and the Vandellas  

Choosing one girl group to go into this list was a challenge; of course, no one can deny the excellence of The Supremes or The Ronettes, but instead, I opted for Martha and the Vandellas. Jimmy Mack is a classic song of longing and embodies a key theme of Motown girl groups – wanting a boyfriend to come back. Therefore, I think it fits perfectly into anyone’s soul starter kit. 

Try a Little Tenderness – Otis Redding 

Dying at the young age of 26, Redding had already offered the genre ample to deserve him the label of one of the greats. Between Try a Little Tenderness and (Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay, Redding’s discography is well worth a listen. In this song, Redding shows the best of himself; his ability to move the listener, but also to get them dancing with the livelier parts of this song.

Ain’t No Way – Aretha Franklin 

Any soul starter kit that does not include Aretha Franklin is worthy of the bin. The Queen of Soul and the most talented singer (in my opinion) of the 20th century. Choosing a song that encapsulates everything that Aretha is was a challenge; we all know R-E-S-P-E-C-T and Say a Little Prayer, but in Ain’t No Way, Aretha’s talent shines through the most. Complimented by angelic background singers, the trumpets’ powerful brassiness and the song’s emotional complexity all honour Aretha exactly how she should be. A classic cry-whilst-drinking-wine song, Ain’t No Way is what every person needs in their music collection.

Listen to this song (plus many more) on this playlist:

Hannah Pegram

Featured image courtesy of John K Thorne via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

In-article videos courtesy of funkyscope, Classic Mood Experience, James Brown, REBEL SONGBIRD, drdotfeelgood, IanLevine, NoRosesForMe, MreViewer, RHINO, and Aretha Franklin via @youtube.com. No changes were made to these videos.

In-article image courtesy of han.pegram via @spotify.com. No changes were made to this image.

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