Styles & Forms | Classic Soul Era | Soul & R&B

The story of soul’s Golden Age is linked with the story of two American record labels: Berry Gordy’s Motown and Jim Stewart & Estelle Axton’s Stax. They discovered artists, wrote songs and developed recording and marketing methods that would irrevocably change popular music, and have a profound effect on the perception of race all over world.

Motown’s base in Detroit and Stax’s in Memphis symbolized the Afro-American migration from south to north, and the differences in style and aspirations between those who left and those who stayed. Berry Gordy came from a Georgian farming family who had relocated to Detroit. He began writing songs in the mid-1950s, after stints as a boxer, soldier, jazz record shop assistant and car worker, and hit big with songs for former sparring partner Jackie Wilson, including big band R&B classic ‘Reet Petite’. Gordy was persuaded to form his own record company in 1959 by singer-songwriter protégé Smokey Robinson, making his big breakthrough in 1961 with ‘Shop Around’, performed by Robinson’s vocal group The Miracles. Gordy’s tightly controlled methods were considered both revolutionary and controversial in later years. Artists were signed on salaries and ordered to perform the material that Gordy insisted upon. The house producers and composers – Robinson, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Ashford/Simpson, Whitfield/Strong – were all-important. The in-house band The Funk Brothers (pianist Joe Hunter, guitarist Dave Hamilton, drummer Benny Benjamin and the legendary James Jamerson on the most influential bass guitar in pop history) pioneered the all-important Motown sound but saw little in the way of financial recompense (a complaint subsequently echoed by many Motown artists) or recognition. Motown package tours were tightly choreographed and chaperoned, with the young stars given lessons in deportment and etiquette by Motown staffers.

The Hit Factory

Whatever the rights or wrongs of the set-up, the inexhaustible supply of Motown hits dominated the 1960s, in Europe as well as America. The unmistakable Motown blend of powerful R&B rhythm, highly sophisticated orchestral arrangements and poetic lyricism came to define the language of pop. The peerless parade of charismatic virtuoso gospel-derived vocal groups and solo artists beguiled white fans as much as black, and raised the level of artistry that pop could attain.The likes of Robinson, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, The Temptations and Stevie Wonder fronted hit after hit, rising from pop ingénues to era-defining artists within the 10 years of Motown’s peak period. Although they may have signed to Motown in 1968, after its peak, The Jackson Five’s debut single ‘I Want You Back’ was the label’s fastest-selling record ever, and three of their subsequent five singles reached the No. 1 spot in the US.

The Southern Melting Pot

1960 saw the formation of Stax, a label that, by signing a distribution deal with powerful New York jazz and R&B company Atlantic, would see their completely contrasting style of soul cross over to the rapidly growing rock...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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