Sam & Dave sing it best: ‘I’m a Soul Man’

There is bad music. Then there’s soul music.

When asked what kind of music they like, people often respond with “I like all kinds.” Certain members of my family label me a ridged, insufferable music snob when I answer this personal question.  

“Me, I like good music.” It’s not all good to me. I have to regularly prepare for the impact of heavy gasps when I proclaim that I’ve never been moved by a particular quartet of British invaders. Or the fact that I don’t feel especially motivated to take dancing or sing-along orders from The Boss. 

Milt Lee

I can feel the seismic, shake, rattle and roll of the earth each time I express these feelings. My son, who is even more obnoxiously opinionated than I about music, activates his Spotify and launches into a master class on Nirvana, Grateful Dead and Bob Marley.  Although I have great appreciation and respect for all artists, only Bob Marley makes the cut from this list as someone who digs into my soul. 

For me, it has to be soul music. Not the reclassified definition of soul, but the music that makes you curl your lips and rock your dome from left to right. 

Whether slow or fast, its lyrics are in agreement with beautiful noise, satisfying the head and heart equally. It’s the slow freight train that picks up speed until it knocks you off your feet, and makes you hold your hands up to the heavens, a hostage to penetrating tones of Sam Cooke, The Isley Brothers, Chris Stapleton or…. ah shucks…Al Green. Or the not-so-subtle sledgehammer that immediately tells you to “get up offa that thang!” That’s soul music. 

When investigating why this music touches my soul in such a profoundly personal way, my journey uncovered a history of disrespect, prejudices, racism, social injustice, plain old greed and triumph.  

What I didn’t know was soul music was birthed, like all “good music,” from the body of rhythm and blues, which also gave rise to rock ’n’ roll.

Originating in African American communities in the 1940s, this genius combination of blues, jazz and rock captivated music executives and fans alike. Rhythm and blues, originally labeled “race music,” would later be rebranded so it would be palatable for mainstream audiences — a code phrase meaning white folks could buy and enjoy these recordings too. 

The Four Tops were among the soul pioneers.

Later, beginning in the 1950s, specific world events would shape the cultural phenomenon we know as today’s R&B. This includes two wars and the great migration of Black folks to the northern parts of the American landscape. The beneficiaries of this migration were all of music-loving society, but specifically urban cores of cities such as New York, Detroit, Chicago and even Cleveland.  

No matter what the city, artists tell stories of struggle, success, degradation, triumph and the thin line that separates love and hate. I’m convinced that’s what I hear in these recordings of soul music. Some of her greatest ambassadors communicated these experiences and emotions with surgical precision, carving their own personal resting place in my soul. 

Artists like the Four Tops, The Temptations, Sam and Dave, James Brown and Marvin Gaye wrote the soundtrack of Black American life in the 1960s with good old soul singles that that painted portraits as vivid as an Ultra 4K television.  

My journey included digging through old vinyl, most of which I lost when a torrential rain in the 1980s flooded the dark, damp basement of my parents’ rented home. This was the basement room I’d commandeered as my pad when I came home during breaks and summer vacations from my journalism studies at Ball State University. It’s relevant to note that my college roommate and I dusted off the knobs and levels of an old campus radio station in the basement of Wagoner Hall, aka “The Zoo,” and started the “Power Hour of Soul and Funk.”

But that’s another story for a different piece. 

Also in that basement, I found a Black-power-fist Afro comb, a Power Man comic book and my only concert T-shirt from my first live music event, which was the funk band Cameo around 1978. Digging further, I struck Black vinyl gold and retrieved album jackets that successfully protected legendary recordings by The Whispers, The Ohio Players, Rick James, the Commodores and Earth Wind and Fire. 

Music by the likes of The Brothers Johnson survived Milt’s basement.

By this time, those cuts from the mid- to late-1970s were being classified as funky soul. And did this expedition ever satisfy my soul…  one might say, righteously, and I don’t mean the brothers. However, I did stumble upon a pair of brothers named Johnson who pumped out ballads like “Strawberry Letter 23” and “Get the Funk Out Ma Face.” 

It was a hip trip indeed down the rusty tracks of soul music. It fed my soul, and it was all good.