David Whiteis’ Southern Soul-Blues is the first full length book to take on southern soul music. The music has developed a loyal following in the south with songs about sex, cheating and all things down home set to familiar blues and R&B grooves. It’s new music that takes great pride in it’s old school feel. Southern soul has its roots in deep soul of folks like Joe Tex and O.V. Wright and the blues. Whiteis marks the music’s beginning as Z.Z. Hill’s 1981 hit Down Home Blues. This book is yet another sign that southern soul may be the latest child of the blues to graduate to become its own genre.
What to call this stuff is still an issue. Whiteis uses the terms “southern soul-blues,” “soul-blues,” and “southern soul” as synonyms and deciding what to call this music has been an issue. Though by now, southern soul seems to have finally emerged as the choice of the fans and media.
Southern Soul-Blues begins with a discussion of the evolution of soul followed by profiles of eight different stars of the music. Latimore, Denise Lasalle, J. Blackfoot, and Bobby Rush represent the veterans of the scene. Willie Clayton bridges the gap to the younger generation of Sweet Angel, Sir Charles Jones, and Ms. Jody. The style of these well-written profiles will be familiar to those who read Whiteis’ writing in Living Blues or his last book Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories. They offer brief biography based on interviews mixed with critical opinion on the artists’ recordings (though these chapters are already a little dated and don’t mention recent albums). They include discussions of the music business, songwriting, and just how dirty some of the recent hits.
In both the profiles and then in an entire chapter “The Raunch Debate”, Whiteis seems particular concerned with the increasing explicit sexuality in southern soul. From Bobby Rush’s dancers to Sweet Angel including a dildo in her stage show, sex is undoubtedly omnipresent. Each artist insists that their own act is on the side of good taste. There are some particularly harsh words from Malaco Records executive Tommy Couch who hates the direction the music has taken since his label all but invented the form. The artists Whiteis has interviewed all seem a little defensive, downplaying the importance of the sexual elements. Personally, I’d like to see them embrace the sexuality a little more. It’s always entertaining and these performances aren’t for children.
Whiteis’ has a firm knowledge of blues and soul history, but he occasionally loses his way when trying to place southern soul in the context of contemporary music including bizarre statements like “the stylistic difference between an R&B superstar like Jay-Z or Usher and a southern soul artist like Sir Charles Jones, Floyd Taylor, T.K. Soul, Mr. Sam or Simeo…may be more a matter of marketing than music.” It’s not. There are hip-hop elements in southern soul, but no one whose actually listening will mistake a Floyd Taylor record for a Jay-Z record. But perhaps I’m nitpicking, because, absurd specifics aside, Whiteis larger point is well taken. Despite the musical and contextual differences, many Southern Soul songs (typically the ones that fall farther from the blues) would still fit into a set of mainstream R&B radio.
So what does define southern soul? The music has a natural audience. Crowds at southern soul shows are mostly black Southerners (or transplanted Southerners in cities like Chicago) who are over 35. Demographically, it’s the same crowd that nurtured traditional blues for decades. I wish Whiteis had spent a little more time examining the audience. Because it’s a set of shared experiences between performer and fans that make southern soul special. It’s hinted at in the sections on Sir Charles Jones and Ms. Jody when Whiteis describes some live performances.
Like most blues-based music, southern soul is at its best played live. Every performer featured in this book is a master entertainer who can consistently work a crowd. Southern soul albums tend to be a little more spotty. The synth-heavy sound and cookie cutter production at labels like Ecko sometimes mask how good the songwriting and singing are. This has also prevented reaching a more mainstream blues audience for virtually every performer aside from Bobby Rush. But the genre has produced some of the strongest singles of anything that might be considered blues in the 21st century. Whiteis spends a lot of time discussing radio airplay and record sales. Not surprisingly, like other genre music, southern soul doesn’t get a lot of either. While, this is unfortunate for the artists hoping to make money, as a fan it’s a good thing that a strong regional music can exist without this support.
In many ways, southern soul exemplifies what’s possible in the modern era of music distribution and publicity. It’s awful tough to get rich making music, but do-it-yourself methods can establish a devoted audience. Southern soul does get play on some independent radios through the south. There’s also a pretty strong internet presence at sites like American Blues Network (which also provides terrestrial radio) and Southern Soul Radio. There’s good criticism from Daddy B. Nice’s site and Blues Critic. Most importantly, there’s word of mouth from fans.
The book ends with short capsule profiles of about 45 additional artists. It clearly a tribute to the genre to note how many more names could have been included in the list. A few of the big names excluded: Carl Marshall, Jeff Floyd, Ollie Nightingale. Whiteis in focused on the Mississippi-Chicago axis. This is clearly the most active area for the scene, but there’s also a scene in the Southeast and it would have been nice to see folks like North Carolina’s Roy C, Richmond, Virginia’s Big G or Southern Maryland’s Jim Bennett get a mention.
This is the most serious writing yet on southern soul. Hopefully, it can attract a new audience to some deserving artists who don’t usually get noticed. There’s a lot left to cover. Let’s hope good critical attention continues as southern soul evolves.