“Do you like good music / That sweet soul music / Just as long as it's swingin' / Oh yeah, oh yeah.” When Arthur Conley sang those lyrics in 1967, to a tune borrowed from Sam Cooke, soul records were already an enormous part of the 1960s pop-music landscape. The various labels that released soul records, as well as LPs of their cousins, rhythm and blues, were each based in a different American city, producing signature sounds and loyal followings.
Stax, where Conley recorded, was based in Memphis, Tennessee, which was also home to Sun Records and Elvis Presley. A subsidiary of Stax called Volt released 45s for Otis Redding, who co-wrote “Sweet Soul Music” with Conley. While the Stax sound is often associated squarely with R&B in the minds of many fans, there was an undeniable soulfulness to tunes by Booker T. & the M.G.s, Eddie Floyd, Sam & Dave, and, later, Isaac Hayes.
Another Memphis soul man was Al Green, who recorded for Hi Records beginning in 1969 with “Green is Blues.” Covers dominated that early effort, include Green’s renditions of Smokey Robinson’s “My Girl,” a Box Tops Hit called “The Letter,” and even “Get Back” by the Beatles. Green would go on to make Memphis a capital for soul in the early 1970s, often with his own material (“Let’s Stay Together,” “I’m Still in Love with You”) as well as covers of earlier hits, such as a classic by the Temptations titled “I Can’t Get Next To You.”
The Temptations were one of many Motown soul groups based in Detroit. Berry Gordy ran multiple labels in the Motor City, from Tamla, which recorded artists such as Mary Wells and Marvin Gaye, to Motown itself, whose roster is like a Who’s Who of soul—in addition to the Temptations, there were Martha and the Vandellas, the Supremes, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Stevie Wonder, and the Jackson 5, led by child singing sensation, Michael Jackson.
New York City, of course, had its own labels and rosters, most notably Atlantic and its various subsidiaries (even though Redding cut his singles for Volt, his LPs were distributed by Atco). Atlantic introduced the world to Ray Charles—soul was just one of many genres mastered by The Genius.
Atlantic also gave the first lady of soul, Aretha Franklin, a home—her recordings for Columbia before moving to Atlantic in 1967 sold poorly because the studio tried to jazz up her gospel roots. And Percy Sledge recorded the classic “When a Man Loves a Woman” for Atlantic in 1966.
Naturally, the soul sound coming out of California in the 1960s had a psychedelic tinge to it. The Chambers Brothers, based in Los Angeles, moved comfortably between venues like the Apollo Theatre in Harlem and San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium. Even more popular was Sly and the Family Stone, whose electrifying appearance at Woodstock in 1969 cemented that band’s reputation and paved the way for funk...
Last but certainly not least are the artists associated with Philadelphia International. Starting in the early 1970s, producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff promoted the O’Jays (“Love Train”), Billy Paul (“Me and Mrs. Jones”), Lou Rawls (“You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine”), and Teddy Pendergrass (“I Miss You” with Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, “Love TKO” solo).