Nowhere to run: the story of soul music.
For young white fans, soul music was a revelation. "Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa" came to them as wisdom in an unknown tongue. They might not have owned a pair of high-heeled sneakers, and they might not know their booties from a hole in the ground, but they did know great dance music when they heard it. Most white fans, in fact, can point to a certain concert, to a certain song that came as a kind of epiphany, a realization that their culture was lacking some vital ingredient that even Elvis Presley couldn't supply.
Gerri Hirshey describes such an epiphany in her introduction to Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music. An appearance by James Brown on The Ed Sullivan Show led Hirshey to bury her Beatle magazines and focus her fantasies on becoming one of Brown's Famous Flames. Brown represented "a special freedom," a "total release from any kind of nagging self-consciousness." Michael Jackson, who was himself branded for life by Brown's special form of stage transcendence, called it "getting out of myself." Inaccessible to agnostics or lukewarm believers, soul was a form of possession, of release, first learned in church. As Hirshey describes it, Brown and his fellow soul-singers "blew, a huge hole in Leave It to Beaver-land."
Soul music, with its sweaty, hard-working heroes, brought black and white cultures together in new ways. It was a genre that drew upon the deepest well-springs of black experience, yet remained amenable to white producers, songwriters and fans. It was an openhearted music, thriving on the sense of hope and opportunity in the air, stirring black pride even as it extended a hand to white audiences. But unlike earlier forms of rhythm and blues, which were absorbed by the white rockability revolution, it was not a form easily appropriated and diluted by white singers. (The Righteous Brothers are a case in point.) Who could hope to emulate James Brown's nightly resuscitations, Aretha's swooping improvisations, Wilson Pickett's intimidating growls?
What cataclysm, then, ended the great soul era, which coincided roughly with the decade of the 1960s? Critic Peter Guralnick has suggested, plausibly, that the music was too singular in style and purpose to adapt to changing times and trends. Musical tastes change, and black audiences tend to stay at least a dance ahead of white audiences. Guralnick theorizes that Aretha Franklin's success in the late 1960s, both artistic and commercial, was bound to supersede anything she could do after it. There could be no second or third acts after her quintessential sessions for Atlantic Records. He suggests further that the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. was too much of a shock for a music predicated on good faith to absorb.
Hirshey simply treats the deeling of soul as an inevitability, like the fall from Paradise. Hers is a nostalgic view of the history of black music, a view perpetuated by many blues and soul aficionados who would like to stop time with Robert Johnson's "Love in Vain" or with Aretha's "I Never Loved a Man." Indeed, songs that seem so timeless do make it hard to believe in musical progress. For the purist who rates black music on a scale of raw authenticity, the supreme artist is the instinctual genius, the primitive savant who must suffer in order to create. (And the further into the boondocks the musicologist must travel to interview him or her, the better.)
Consequently, in Nowhere to Run, the great soul-singers loom as tragic heroes, artists whose talents could not make the transition into the silicon age of disco and techno-funk. Slickness, then, became the snake in the garden. But that theory, however appealing, underestimates the musical sophistication and calculated theatrics involved in the creation of a soul persona. It also underestimates the considerable number of serpents already at large in the world of soul music. There were worse causalties during that era than James Brown's bloody knees. A number of the record company executives responsible for the popularity of soul were also the most manipulative and greedy exploiters; some were known to use booze and drugs to keep wayward artists under control. A well-known executive quoted approvingly by Hirshey once told me, concerning a famous singer with whom he had worked, "She sang better when she was down and out."
Fortunately, Hirshey's misty-eyed treatment of the music does not turn her idols into talking relics; Nowhere to Run is a lively book. If she is not the most erudite of musical analysts, she manages to avoid the windy pontifications that rock specialists tend to inflictions that rock specialists tend to inflicton their readers. (Since she is not a member of rock's righteous brotherhood, she has received a few of the customary potshots aimed at the uninitiated.) She does indeed make a number of errors in the book, such as identifying Naomi Neville, the name under which Allen Toussaint produced records for Irma Thomas, as singer Aaron Neville. And some of her images seem a bit strained: Cissy Houston's backup vocals are said to fit "around Aretha's tasty filling with the snug but airy lightness of a blue-ribbon piecrust." But she is a superb interviewer, and she knows when to get out of the way. She sets the scene--at a Chinese restaurant with James Brown, on a shopping spree with Solomon Burke, in a church basement with Cissy Houston--and lets the legends talk.
And how they talk. Wilson Pickett, for example, sustains a long analogy between musical styles and cars:
You harmonize; then you customize. Now what kid don't want to own the latest model? And tell me now, what black kid in some city project can afford it? . . . Anyhow, you got no cash for music lessons, arrangers, uniforms, backup bands, guitars. No nothin'. So you look around for a good, solid used chassis. This be your twelve-bar blues. . . . And once you get known for something special, well, now, that would be your hood ornament.
It is Pickett who best expresses the soul-singers' frustration at the fickle tastes of andiences who consider them obsolete: 'Stuck us in a closet in mothballs like some raggedy-ass Nehru suit." Who would ever have thought that James Brown's cape could be discarded for a single spangled glove?