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Blue-eyed Soul: Colour Me Soul

 

Blue-eyed Soul: Colour Me Soul By Bill Millar

Originally published in : The History of Rock

Date of publication: 1983

The phrase 'blue-eyed soul' was coined by Georgie Woods, a black disc jockey on the WDAS radio station in Philadelphia. One of the major personalities in the field, Woods invented the term to categorise the Righteous Brothers, whose records were played on R&B radio stations before black disc jockeys and programme directors realised they were white.

Such distinctions were not always necessary. Earlier in the century there had been little difference between the music of Southern blacks and whites. Forty years of mutual musical influence is described in Tony Russell's Blacks, Whites And Blues (Studio Vista, 1970), a ground-breaking essay which takes the reader from the mockery of minstrelsy through the white blues of Jimmie Rodgers and Jimmie Davis to the Western Swing of Bob Wills and the boogies of the Delmore Brothers.

Boogie-woogie echoed through the C&W field during the Forties and early Fifties. Those who fared best included Cliffie Stone. Merle Travis, the Maddox Brothers and Rose and Tennessee Ernie Ford, while on the pop front, Ella Mae Morse adapted R&B hits with a degree of integrity unrivalled by her very much blander peers. Of the major hillbilly singers, Hank Williams also represented a confluence of country and R&B, which presaged rockabilly. Some of Williams' records, notably 'Move It On Over', were covered by black blues-shouters. "Williams," said Jim Stewart, the owner of Stax, "was a soul singer and the R&B people dug him."

The Godfather

For the few whites who sang black outside the C&W and pop fields, the late Forties were lean times. However, one man, Johnny Otis, became the most convincing and most successful of all such cultural transplants. Known as 'The Godfather of R&B', Otis was born of Greek immigrant parents in Vallejo, California and raised in the integrated neighbourhood of Berkeley. During his teens he adopted the black culture; he married black and lived the rest of his life in the ghetto. Between 1940 and 1945, he played drums with a number of famous black bands and, in 1948, he opened an R&B nightclub, the Barrelhouse, in the Watts area of Los Angeles. Otis discovered an amazing number of black artists (including Little Esther Phillips, the Robins, Jackie Wilson and Etta James), and wrote a clutch of R&B standards such as 'Every Beat Of My Heart', 'Double Crossing Blues' and 'So Fine. Throughout the early Fifties, the Top Fifteen R&B chart just wasn't long enough to accommodate all the many manifestations of his work as band-leader, singer, writer, producer and talent scout. Otis even made the pop Top Ten with 'Willie And The Hand Jive' in 1958. His total identification with the black community extended to an involvement with civil rights and a semi-autobiographical plea for understanding Listen To The Lambs (Norton, 1968).

Pushing further into the early Fifties, Ray Charles' fusion of blues and gospel was not without its influential white counterparts. The fast, skiffle-like performances of Brother Claude Ely provided the often-overlooked but pivotal link on which blues and country were moulded into rockabilly. "Elvis", remarked Sleepy LaBeef, "followed Claude Ely from one tent meeting to another." Ely's King label recordings, including 'We're Gonna Move' and 'Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down', were at least as important as Sister Rosetta Tharpe's 'Strange Things Happening'. For sheer, berserk excitement they rival anything by black gospel singers and, apart from a tip of the hat to Mylon LeFevre, no other white gospeller has approached him.

Swagger and soul

Rockabilly, perhaps the most celebrated of all black-influenced white musics, evidently sold well in black locations. The R&B charts of the Fifties, then open to all-comers regardless of race, creed or colour, were a second home to Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, while Ronnie Hawkins reached the R&B Top Ten with his cover of Young Jessie's 'Mary Lou'. "Rockabilly", wrote Arnold Shaw, "might be regarded as 'blue-eyed soul', save that R&B had not yet moved into its soul phase and the sound of Elvis. Jerry Lee and other white Southerners was a blend, not an imitation." When Elvis first appeared on Dewey Phillips' radio show he was required to authenticate his true colour by assuring listeners that he attended the all-white Humes High School. During his later career, he could still sing soul like a black man: 'Any Day Now', 'It Hurts Me' and 'Stranger In My Own Home Town' contain a passion, a swagger and an intensity of a kind more commonly associated with Solomon Burke.

The late Fifties and early Sixties were also boom years for whites who sang black. The Skyliners, the Capris and (initially) the Four Seasons were among the many white vocal groups whose music provided no clue as to the real colour of their skins. Joe Barry, Rod Bernard, T.K. Hulin and other South Louisiana swamp-poppers reigned briefly with a mournful approximation of Fats Domino's blues-ballads. Although both contingents were successful on the R&B charts, this was largely due to the fact that they were new acts who hadn't yet appeared on television; with the growth of black political consciousness, it became increasingly difficult for white acts to get into the R&B charts.

Sixties soul music was forged from a country background. Many of the most important producers had played in country or rockabilly bands, the Memphis and muscle Shoals session men were usually white, and as often as not the black vocalist sang C&W songs. 'Just Out Of Reach' (Solomon Burke), 'The Dark End Of The Street' (James Carr) and 'Release Me' (Esther Phillips) are country songs performed with a church feeling. C&W guitar licks permeated the finest Southern soul records and critic Nick Tosches' over-generalisation, "Every time you hear an Otis Redding record you're hearing a bunch of white guys" sums up an era in which such cross-pollination was both meaningful and enjoyable. The genre produced a handful of good 'white soul' records (notably by session men-turned-singers like Dan Penn or Travis Wammack), but none capable of matching the emotional intensity of the best black artists.

Other blue-eyed soulmen added little but subtracted plenty from the giants of black music. James Brown played a vital role in shaping the performances of many self-styled pink soul brothers, including Len Barry, Steve Colt and Wayne Cochran. An ex-rockabilly of some distinction who also wrote the million-selling 'Last Kiss', Cochran won fantastic acceptance in black theatres and night-clubs.

Blue-eyed soul threw out various lines of descent. There was the uptown smoothness of Len Barry or Ben Aiken, the hard testifying of Jo Ann Campbell and husband Troy Seals, and the tambourine-thumping, Southern Sunday pseudo-soul of Leon Russell, Delaney and Bonnie, Don Nix and their pals. Any really comprehensive collection would need to include at least one record by Steve Alaimo (with James Brown's band), Tony Joe White, Gene Kennedy, the Magnificent Men, Billy Vera, Timi Yuro, Dr John, the O'Kaysions, Dallas Frazier and Baby Ray.

A number of these singers came out of the C&W field and recorded soul in the search for a pop hit. Some acquired a cult reputation among Carolina 'Beach Music' fans and dancers in the north of England. A tiny minority, including Johnny Daye ('Marry Me'), Roy Head ('Treat Her Right'), Ronnie Milsap ('Never had It So Good'), Chris Clark ('Love's Gone Bad') and Jo Ann and Troy ('I Found A Love, Oh What A Love') managed to hoodwink black record buyers for long enough to score one R&B hit.

Ultimately — for consistency and depth of feeling — the best blue-eyed soul is defined by Lonnie Mack's ballads and virtually everything the Righteous Brothers recorded. Many R&B DJs felt they'd been tricked by the Righteous Brothers' first recordings, particularly 'Little Latin Lupe Lu' and 'My Babe'. WWRL's general manager said of his most acute black disc jockey: "You should have seen Rocky G's face drop when he found out they weren't really Negroes." When the revelation came it ceased to matter: Bill Medley told black audiences that "soul music travelled up the Mississippi 'cos they wouldn't let it on the bus" and they got the feeling he knew what he was singing about. The Righteous Brother's utterly convincing, melisma-flecked singing was equalled by Lonnie Mack, who wailed a soul ballad as gutsily as any black gospel singer. The anguished inflections which stamped his best songs ('Why', 'She Don't Come Here Anymore' and 'Where There's A Will') had a directness which would have been wholly embarrassing in the hands of almost any other white vocalist.

While 'black music' lovers regarded the British invasion as an unwelcome irrelevance, it undoubtedly helped lower American resistance to indigenous blues bands, black and white. Paul Butterfield, who frequented Chicago's Southside clubs as a youth, and Charlie Musselwhite, whose background lay in rockabilly, came closest to matching music which black bluesmen had already perfected. J. Geils' tough early albums also made the grade, while John Hammond Jr and Barry Goldberg (who played piano on Mitch Ryder's 'Sock It To Me Baby') were less successful contenders. During the late Seventies, the Fabulous Thunderbirds and George Thorogood also overcame the prejudice of those who normally sneered at whiteface R&B.

By the Eighties, black entertainment was dominated by disco, a racially homogenous music reflecting the tastes of an audience which had, perhaps, consigned real soul — black or white — to the unfashionable pages of history.

© Bill Millar, 1983




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