Style of U.S. popular music sung and performed primarily by African American musicians, having its roots in gospel music and rhythm and blues. The term was first used in the 1960s to describe music that combined rhythm and blues, gospel, jazz, and rock music and that was characterized by intensity of feeling and earthiness. In its earliest stages, soul music was found most commonly in the South, but many of the young singers who were to popularize it migrated to cities in the North. The founding of Motown in Detroit, Mich., and Stax-Volt in Memphis, Tenn., did much to encourage the style. Its most popular performers include James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, and Aretha Franklin.
Learn more about soul music with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Soul music is a music genre that combines rhythm and blues and gospel music, originating in the United States . According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, soul is "music that arose out of the black experience in America through the transmutation of gospel and rhythm & blues into a form of funky, secular testifying. The genre occasionally uses improvisational additions, twirls and auxiliary sounds. Catchy rhythms, stressed by handclaps and plastic body moves, are an important feature. Other characteristics are a call and response between the soloist and the chorus, and an especially tense vocal sound.
Sam Cooke, Nina Simone, Jackie Wilson, and Etta James were early popular stars of the music genre, and other soul forerunners include: Mahalia Jackson, Louis Jordan, and Big Joe Turner. Some of the earliest soul artists included Ray Charles, who is widely considered to be the inventor of soul music by putting the blues and gospel music together with his groundbreaking hit of 1954, "I Got A Woman". Little Richard, Fats Domino and James Brown, although all were happy to call themselves rock and roll performers at the time. During the 1960s Beatles boom, both Charles and Brown claimed that they had always really been R&B singers. Little Richard proclaimed himself the "king of rockin' and rollin', rhythm and blues soulin'", because his music embodied elements of all three, and because he inspired artists in all three genres. Solomon Burke's early recordings for Atlantic Records codified the soul style, and his early 1960s songs "Cry to Me", "Just Out of Reach" and "Down in the Valley" are considered classics of the genre. Peter Guralnick writes, "it was only with the coming together of Burke and Atlantic Records that you could see anything resembling a movement."
An important center of soul music recording was Florence, Alabama, where the Fame Studios operated. Jimmy Hughes, Percy Sledge and Arthur Alexander recorded at Fame, and Aretha Franklin recorded in the area later in the 1960s. Fame Studios, often referred to as Muscle Shoals (after a town neighboring Florence), enjoyed a close relationship with Stax, and many of the musicians and producers who worked in Memphis contributed to recordings done in Alabama. Another notable Memphis label was Goldwax Records, owned by Quinton Claunch. Goldwax signed O.V. Wright and James Carr, who went on to make several records that are considered essentials of the genre. Carr's "The Dark End of the Street" (written by Chips Moman and Dan Penn) was recorded at two other important Memphis studios, Royal Recording and American Sound Studios, in 1967. American Studios owner Chips Moman produced "The Dark End of the Street", and the musicians were his house band of Reggie Young, Bobby Woods, Tommy Cogbill and Gene Chrisman. Carr also made recordings at Fame Studios, utilizing musicians David Hood, Jimmy Johnson and Roger Hawkins.
Aretha Franklin's 1967 recordings, such as "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)", "Respect" (originally sung by Otis Redding), and "Do Right Woman-Do Right Man", are considered the apogee of the soul music genre, and were among its most commercially successful productions. During the late 1960s, Stax artists such as Eddie Floyd and Johnnie Taylor made significant contributions to soul music. Howard Tate's recordings in the late 1960s for Verve Records, and later for Atlantic (produced by Jerry Ragovoy) are another notable body of work in the soul genre.
Motown Records also contributed to the soul canon, although at the time, the Detroit-based label described itself as a manufacturer of pop music. Music by Motown artists such as Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, and Marvin Gaye did much to popularise the style, and the overall Motown sound did much to define what later became known as northern soul. In Chicago, Curtis Mayfield created the sweet soul sound that later earned him a reputation as the Godfather of northern soul. As a member of The Impressions, Mayfield infused a call and response style of group singing that resembled the gospel style, and influenced many other groups of the era.
By 1968, the soul music movement had begun to splinter, as James Brown and Sly & the Family Stone began to evolve both soul and rhythm and blues into other forms. Guralnick argues that, "More than anything else, though, what seems to me to have brought the era of soul to a grinding, unsettling halt was the death of Martin Luther King in April of 1968."
In Detroit, producer Don Davis worked with Stax artists such as Johnnie Taylor and The Dramatics. Early 1970s recordings by The Detroit Emeralds, such as Do Me Right, are a link between soul and the later disco style. Motown Records artists such as Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson contributed to the evolution of soul music, although their recordings were considered more in a pop music vein than those of Redding, Franklin and Carr. Although stylistically different from classic soul music, recordings by Chicago-based artists such as Jerry Butler and The Chi-Lites are often considered part of the genre.
By the early 1970s, soul music had been influenced by psychedelic rock and other genres. The social and political ferment of the times inspired artists like Gaye and Curtis Mayfield to release album-length statements with hard-hitting social commentary. Artists like James Brown led soul towards funk music, which became typified by 1970s bands like Parliament-Funkadelic and The Meters. More versatile groups like War, the Commodores and Earth, Wind and Fire became popular around this time. During the 1970s, some slick and commercial blue-eyed soul acts like Philadelphia's Hall & Oates and Oakland's Tower of Power achieved mainstream success, as did a new generation of street-corner harmony or city-soul groups like The Delfonics and Howard University's Unifics. By the end of the 1970s, disco and funk were dominating the charts. Philly soul and most other soul genres were dominated by disco-inflected tracks. During this period, groups like The O'Jays and The Spinners continued to turn out hits.
After the decline of disco and funk in the early 1980s, soul music survived for a short time before going through another metamorphosis. With the introduction of influences from electro music and funk, soul music became less raw and more slickly produced, resulting in a newer genre that was called R&B, (often known as ''contemporary R&B), which sounded very different from the original rhythm and blues style.
In early 1980s Chicago, a new dance genre called house was heavily influenced by soul, funk and disco. This was mainly made using synthesizers and other electronic equipment. House and techno rose to mainstream popularity in the late 1980s and remained popular in the 1990s and 2000s. Also starting in the 1980s, soul music from the United Kingdom become popular worldwide, with artists such as Soul II Soul, Loose Ends, Imagination, Mica Paris and Sade. British soul music became very popular in the 2000s too with artists such as Joss Stone, Terri Walker, Beverley Knight, Corrine Bailey Rae, Adele, Duffy, Amy Winehouse and the Brand New Heavies achieving great success.
Other notable performers include Robert Randolph, Rahsaan Patterson, Cody Chesnutt, Jaguar Wright, Eric Benet, Amel Larrieux, Adriana Evans, Raphael Saadiq, Dwele, India.Arie, Lalah Hathaway, Anthony Hamilton, Marlon Saunders, Musiq, Amp Fiddler, Alicia Keys, Joss Stone, Floetry, Vivian Green, Raheem DeVaughn, Leela James, Frank McComb, Goapele, and N'dambi, as well as newcomers Conya Doss, Ledisi, Maysa, Maya Azucena, Andreus, Rachael Bell and Eric Roberson. A key musical element in the Neo Soul artist/producer's arsenal is typically a heavy dose of Fender Rhodes or Wurlitzer electric piano pads over a mellow, grooving interplay between the drums (usually with a rim shot snare sound) and a muted, deep funky bass. The Fender Rhodes piano sound gives the music of this sub-genre a "vintage", warm, organic character, reminiscent of the 1970s-era recordings of Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway, as well as the work of Roy Ayers on his Mystic Voyage and Everybody Loves the Sunshine albums.