Being a white female, I’m possibly at the bottom of the list for being expected to understand anything about soul and R&B music. Or some would suspect. But let me tell you that a passion for music that hits your soul , I mean really digs down deep in to it and changes things; that’s one of the most important things to have when it comes to understanding where the magnitude of the music comes from. Obviously, I’ll never understand the struggles of the black man or the black woman in our society and I’m not about to pretend to. But when I listen to Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Nina Simone , Billie Holiday, Roberta Flack or anyone with a voice that digs, I can feel it. Because isn’t that the point of powerful music, to reach beyond the barriers of race, gender and stereotypes and BAM, just shred you to pieces?
Etta James is able to carve a spot in to your soul with single note and will hold your hand when you get to the really rough patches. James Brown just punches a hole in your chest and squeezes your heart until you feel like nothing in the world exists but his voice and your ears. To anyone with half of a heart for music, it only takes one bad relationship to see what makes this music so wonderful. My mother is a die-hard for Diana Ross and The Supremes and I have, inevitably, found the same love for her after years of watching my mother’s hand movements to You Can’t Hurry Love and Stop! In The Name Of Love anytime KLUV (the local “Goldies” station) played them. I even remember my first Al Green album. I was eleven years old, fresh in to Junior High and already awkward. My aunt dug through her albums and gave me a handful of things she thought I’d really like. For some reason, the album cover with a topless black man in jeweled-looking white pants on the cover appealed to me the most. We weren’t out of her driveway before “I’m so tiiiired of being alone” invaded my ears and sent a shock wave throughout my body. It’s probably the only acceptable time a grown man is allowed to make an eleven year old girl feel “weird” (to put it nicely). I remember my aunt repeatedly expressing how guilty she felt for giving a little girl an Al Green album which didn’t make any sense to me until much later in life.
The past three years have definitely been the definitive years of my love for soul and R&B thus far. And after making friends with a weekly record-shopper, I even extended that love to more funk artists like King Floyd, The Stylistics, The Spinners, Clarence Reid, Gene Page, Purple Image and so on and so forth. Soul and R & B for me are like mother’s arms. It cradles me, reassures me, reminds me that it happens to the best of us and sends me on my way with my head high and my heart bandaged. I have serious questions about a person that can listen to someone like Aretha and not feel something. R.E.S.P.E.C.T. alone shatters cores and it’s not even her most powerful song.
My love for R&B has yet to surpass the late seventies. And it’s not that I refuse to listen to anything recorded after that time, I like plenty of it, but it just doesn’t bring me to my knees. It doesn’t soothe the pain with a deep sense of understanding. You can’t listen to someone like Solomon Burke and then turn around and listen to, let’s say, Chris Brown and tell me that the pain comes from the same place. It clearly doesn’t. Goals have changed and struggles have changed, and not just for R&B; for all music. But, when you hear the first lines of Sam Cooke’s version of A Change Is Gonna Come or Billie Holiday’s version of All Of Me or Etta James’ At Last, and you feel that pull in your stomach, you know what pain is and you can hear how deeply embedded it is in every song. And if you can’t, then you really have no idea what you’re listening to.