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Soul Music

At the Beginning was the Church

Solar worships

Cory Henry & The Funk Apostles at the stage at Cosmopolite in Soria Moria. The concert took place on 30. October 2017. Lineup: Cory Henry (vocal), Nicholas Semrad (keyboard), Adam Agati (guitar), TaRon Lockett (drums), Sharay Reed (bass guitar), Denise Stoudmire (backing vocal) and Tiffany Stevenson (backing vocal).

Credit Photo: Tore Sætre / Wikimedia  Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 4.0

The church appeared as a shelter for African-Americans. Following their own ministers, they soon developed a unique way to celebrate the Almighty, paroxystic and on the verge of trance. While the Gospel tradition undoubtedly brought many gifted and seasoned vocalists, the powerfulness still shines in evangelical, mainly pentecostal jams, and other services. 

We must situate the socio-religious context as inevitably linked to the Black Church. The specific African-American Christian cult has been named and conceptualized as Black Church. This is due to the specificities linked to its religious practices, implying an advanced practice of singing and a porosity between rural blues and evangelical prosody. To a larger extent, Black Church played a leading role in the Black community, as a social work. Within this social work leadership, music takes pride of place1.

The Black Church

A look at Contemporary Gospel acts such as the late Rev. James Moore (1956-2000), a native from Detroit Michigan, gives a precise insight into the level and power of church music nowadays. The skills developed by church musicians are extremely refined and they have nothing to be ashamed of when compared to conservatory students (though most of the time they are getting a classical training at the same time). The choirs and the amplified instruments are extremely loud, because the communion with God expects them to give all.

This “Black sacred music”, using elements of urban funk and soul music, soon turned into a whole genre in its own right with its own codes, ending in finding its place in the studios, venues and musical industry.

Crossing genres: sacred/profane, back and forth

Nevertheless, we would like to concentrate on the more “secularized” Black music type. The coexistence of a “Black church Gospel” and a secularized Black music vast genre (a branch that is now nearly 60 years) is questionable. And if they share aesthetic similarities, their ways of interpreting and their codes are quite different. Some of the performers dare to play profane music, while others exclusively dedicate themselves to the music of the church service.

Boyer, Horace C. “The History and Importance of the Black Church.” Harvard Gazette, 9 Mar. 2021, https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2021/03/the-history-and-importance-of-the-black-church/.

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Commodification Music industry Songwriting Soul Music Text analysis

The Wonderful Insights of Oliver Wang on Donny Hathaway’s Everything is Everything

This article by scholar and DJ Oliver Wang (actually an excerpt from a special VMP 2020 pressing liner’s note) is seminal in several ways1. Retracing the whole genesis of what is in fact only the very first solo album ever recorded by Donny Hathaway, it highlights the Chicago encounters, most noticeably the one with musicians Curtis Mayfield and drummer Ric Powell. Moreover, it deciphers the importance of setting the scene for Black culture, sharing a universal message of love and joy, helped by the consistancy of the perfomances. However, the record is mainly composed of only three original songs penned by Hathaway. Nevertheless, Hathaway kept his promise by completly rewriting and rearranging covers.

Cutting ties with Curtis Mayfield and Curtom

The counsciousness of his own musical abilities and genius seemingly played a considerable role in the break-up with Curtom (Mayfield’s label and trademark). Incidently, through Mayfield, Hathaway had connected with Chicago native guitarist/bassist Phil Upchurch, who had to become his teaming partner throughout his short career.

Never to be done again… that is genius

Coming straight from Howard University, Mayfield’s musical skills were so advanced that he taught music at an early age. Wang shares his hypothesis that wouldn’t he had taken back his freedom, he could have achieved a Motown-like success with Curtom, turning it into a musical industry capable of producing massive hits. But was he too reluctant to become a Holland/Dozier kind or an Isaac Hayes type of writer/composer ? No doubt he minded being a piece – even the brightest – in a record company’s assembly line. Maybe the voices inside were telling him to do so.

Social views : joy and love as weapons in the troubled nixonian era

It is nearly impossible not to underline the impressive soulfulness and joy spreading in this record. This is almost an alternative to Marvin Gaye’s introspective and somewhat melancholic What’s Going On. It surely contains its own somaesthetics (or holistic somatics)1, and while there is soul, the body is in an emergency to express itself without ties, it carries its own expression and esthetic energy (Rudinow, 2010)2. As Wang puts it, there is a certain religiosity, a unique relationship between Hathaway and God, on the other hand, tracks such as The Ghetto and Sugar Lee sound as high times of celebration, embodied in a joyful jam session (in which one could hear claps, shoutings, spanish words, laughs, a baby crying – Hathaway’s own daughter…).

And the Voices Inside song keeps resonating as a timeless anthem. The voices of young, gifted and black people, shouting, clapping their hands, living in the city, enjoying themselves. The cover photograph is kind of a fantasy : Donny is smiling, hand in hand with black children in a round in front of a ghetto brick wall. What a contrast ! We have to value the exquisite sociological and musicological work, as well as the memory traces left by this studio work. Definitely an audacious bet for this first record at ATCO.

Everything is Everything : a popular culture motto

Last but not least, Oliver Wang reveals the origin of the motto Everything is Everything : chicagoan radio DJ Herb Kent used this expression throughout his 7:30/11 pm aired program on the AM 1450 WVON station. None other than Leonard and Phil Chess, founders of Chess Record, acquired the station in 1963. Since, “the voice of the negro” is no more used, for the more politically-correct “the voice of the nation”. The radio broadcasted from the Chicago tower.

1 “One Transcendent Performance That Illustrates Donny Hathaway’s Musical Genius.” NPR.Org, https://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2016/10/17/498265985/one-transcendent-performance-that-illustrates-donny-hathaways-musical-genius. Accessed 23 Apr. 2021.

2 Formis, Barbara. « Richard Shusterman, Conscience du corps. Pour une soma-esthétique [1] », Mouvements, vol. 57, no. 1, 2009, pp. 155-157.

3 Rudinow, Joel. Soul Music: Tracking the Spiritual Roots of Pop from Plato to Motown. University of Michigan Press, 2010, pp. 110-111.

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