SOUL MUSIC and CIVIL RIGHTS
Updated: Aug 2
HOW 1960S AND 70S SOUL IS STILL CHANGING THE WORLD
Can soul music save the world? In many ways, it already has. It did for me and still does.
Growing up surrounded by cornfields and pastures in the rolling hills of South Carolina, I was more captivated by Prince, The Commodores, Earth Wind & Fire, and other soul artists than most rock or country music of the day.
Soul music—like that of white folk performers and less-mainstream black artists of the 1960s and early 70s—often was protest music.
There were plenty of direct, social-conscious message songs. But even when singing about love or Momma or meeting Mrs. Jones, there was a certain audacity in soul artists’ presence, a subversion in the very act of writing, singing, dancing, performing and standing up. This was especially true in the South, where life was segregated by law, but Black groups routinely played to young white audiences at fraternity parties in Alabama and Mississippi and beach-music hideaways on the Carolina coastline.
For me, soul artists in that era led to my lifelong love and study of R&B music and helped influence me to become a student of all Black music and culture, the Civil Rights Movement, and how these movements influence American life—and are taking hold again now.
It was through this frame that I watched an online program in June that featured two soul-music legends: former Stax Records president and producer Al Bell and Grammy Award winning soul singer-songwriter William Bell.
The event was sponsored by the Take Me to the River education project, which sprung out of the 2014 documentary of the same name about the history of Black music in Memphis—its direct influence on rock ‘n roll, hip-hop, and even country, inspiring many artists and music lovers around the world.
Consider what Stax, a little homegrown record company started in Miss Estelle Axton’s Satellite Record Shop in south Memphis, then the makeshift studio built inside an old movie theater next door, introduced to the world: Otis Redding, one of the greatest, who wrote and recorded “Respect,” “Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay,” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” right there in Memphis, all before his death in that Lake Monona plane crash at only 26.
There also were Booker T. and the MGs, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes, Carla Thomas and the Staples Singers. Stax was a nationally recognized, black-run (eventually) enterprise that touched the whole world. There were Southern musicians, black and white, playing together, when people really didn’t, not there.
There was freedom in those songs.
Then and now
As the June webinar began, a clip from the Take Me to the River film showed Stax legends remembering Memphis in 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated as he stood on the second-story balcony of the Lorraine Motel downtown. He was visiting to support the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike that had spilled over to other city workers and equality in general.
“It was just devastating,” Al Bell says in the film, reflecting on the events of April 4, 1968. The original Stax was only two-and-a-half miles away. “Isaac (Hayes) and David (Porter) asked me to get on the radio… There was a lot of frustration and burning and looting.”
William Bell took to the airwaves himself to say, “You’re burning down your own homes. You’re burning up your own cars.”
At the time, Al Bell says in the film clip, the music industry was Memphis third-largest employer, led by Stax Records. He later told Memphis author Robert Gordon that music accounted for $100 million annually to the city’s economy.
Charles “Skip” Pitts, guitarist for Isaac Hayes and who’s been sampled by many of hip-hop’s best, said in the film clip that Hayes had to usher white guitarist, songwriter, producer and Booker T. and the MGs member Steve Cropper in and out of Stax for his own safety, assuring young men on the street that Cropper was cool.
Hope for the present day
I came to the live online discussion in June of 2020 depressed by the state of affairs—black oppression, widespread protests of police violence, President Trump’s hostility, and the bleakness of COVID-19’s spread.
Soul music’s legends again gave me hope.
Now 80 years old, Al Bell began the conversation in June by describing the times as “a wake-up reality call regarding racism and racist police brutality for all of us,” calling George Floyd “a martyr for the human race.”
“My white brothers and sisters, it’s coming together time,” he said.
Al Bell spoke of his time marching and working with Dr. King, attending Southern Christian Leadership Conference nonviolent protest training in Midway, Georgia. Bell was just 20 years old when he marched with King in Savannah.
“We had a passive resistance protest march down Main Street in Savannah,” he said. “My position was front line left flank… White people in the hundreds filled both sides of the sidewalk…”
A white man followed Bell along the parade route, insulting him, and finally spitting on him. Bell grew enraged. “I grabbed my switchblade knife,” he said, but “a man and a lady in my group came after me… I had broken a cardinal rule, and the march was disbanded.”
Dr. King then had a talk with the young activist. “Al, this is a passive resistance movement…. He said, ‘You haven’t been outside of Arkansas… You don’t know that people outside of America don’t know that we even exist within America as a people… We have an opportunity to change that.’”
If police brutality in response to peaceful protests is seen on television around the world, “the rest of the world we know we even exist here, and they can see how the people of America are treating us. This puts us in a stronger position,” Al Bell recalled King as saying. “I said, I understand Dr. King… but I must do so in the background, because I can’t take that. I can’t take that.”
Al Bell would choose a different path—a musical and mass media path. But when he saw the video of George Floyd’s death under a policeman’s knee in May of 2020, he couldn’t help but think back to King’s words decades earlier.
The similarities to today were striking to Al Bell. “I realized a camera phone was capturing this… and because of social media it was being seen in real time over and over again all around the world,” he said. “Finally, Dr. King, finally Dr. King, the whole world knows. …”
‘The Soul of a Bell’
William Bell is one of my favorite singers of all time. His pleading singing style, heavily influenced by gospel and country, was the epitome of country-soul in the 60s, even though he was born and raised from Memphis and now has called Atlanta home for decades.
Booker T. Jones mimics a soulful Floyd Cramer on Bell’s “Everybody Loves a Winner.” Bell made it big writing and recording “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” covered both by Otis Redding and The Byrds, and the classic “Born Under a Bad Sign.”
William Bell’s passionate, danceable duet with Judy Clay, “Private Number,” celebrates a soldier’s coming home from Vietnam, disguised as a straight-up love song.
William Bell then reflected during the June event on the events happening in 2020.
“Like Al, we’ve lived through this. This is not some problem that’s new… It’s been happening for hundreds of years… We are seeing in my lifetime the 50s and 60s (repeat) in 2020, and that to me is not acceptable,” he said. “America, the USA is my home, but I have to say we’ve been sweeping dirt under the rug … racism, big, injustices… As long as I’ve lived, we’ve lived in a dirty home.”
“Now is the time to clean our home (and it’s time that) we sweep that dirt under the rug,” William Bell added. “All the world is watching America. We can no longer say that this doesn’t happen in our country.”
That led Shore, the filmmaker to ask Bell about a new song he’s writing on that very theme. Bell’s most recent release was for a single for Amazon music, produced in Memphis by Matt Ross-Spang in a series that also featured the Rev. Al Green, the recently departed John Prine, and alt-country singer-songwriters Margo Price and Erin Rae. (See our SoulCountry feature on Ross-Spang and his work with these musicians on the series for Amazon.)
Hopefully, we'll hear that new song from William Bell soon.
“After watching what’s happening on television… I had an idea that came to mind,” he said. “America’s is everybody’s home, and if you put it in a sense lyrically that every community… a clean household… sweeping our dirt under the rug… So ‘Dirt Under the Rug’ is a song that I’m working on now.”
“We need to sweep this dirt from under our rug,” William Bell continued. “It affects us all… We’re too good for that to keep happening over and over but it happens… We have to change and we have to make a change now.”
During a question-and-answer potion of the program, I was thrilled and honored when William Bell answered my own question on whether soul music from the artists’ perspectives has made an impact on freedom and civil rights.
“I hope so. I do honestly hope so, because the Stax music was created by black and white within the studio and we didn’t see color in the studio. We only judged a person by the caliber of music” and quality of performance, William Bell said.
“We had the problems outside of the confines of Stax, so I hope the music reflected us as a family,” he said. “We all championed civil rights… We hope that the music reflects that and has made some change in society.”
“There’s no question,” added Martin Shore, the Santa Monica filmmaker and activist who directed Take Me to the River and hosted the recent online event. “Music is the soundtrack of our lives and the soundtrack of society and it helps us with our pain and helps us und things… You two amazing songwriters have allowed us to transcend and… learning about ourselves... sharing like experience with others, regardless of race, color, gender.”
“And we need more of it,” Shore said.
Singing a new song
Speaking as a white man and civil rights advocate himself, Shore implored viewers to register to vote and become more civically engaged in their own communities. The recent deaths of young black persons at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Atlanta, south Georgia, and Louisville show the importance of knowing who your governor, mayor, prosecutors and judges are, he said.
“I think everyone, everyone is sick and tired disgusted and ready to change,” Shore said. “You’ve seen it in the streets. We’ve felt it this week, and we need to drive forward, but we also need to know that that will take work. It will take diligence.”
Al Bell joined in: “Perhaps the brutal martyr (or murder) of George Floyd has shaken the consciousness of good people, our white American silent majority, and opened the door to achieve the fulfillment of achieving Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream."
One of the Stax classics that Al Bell produced was the Staple Singers’ 1973 single, “Touch a Hand, Make a Friend,” which hit No. 3 on the Billboard R&B charts—and then in the 1980s became a No. 1 country hit for the Oak Ridge Boys.
Recorded at Muscle Shoals Sounds Studios in Alabama and written by Stax songwriter Homer Banks with Raymond Jackson and Carl Hampton, the song had a poignant, peaceful message for that era—and for Al Bell, it resonates today.
“Reach out and touch a hand, make a friend if you can,” Al Bell recited. The song says, “Hey y’all, let’s be friends. Let’s work together. Forget about all of this other stuff,” he said.
“The purpose for recording and producing it at that time was to get that message out back then. … Let them feel you, let them feel us.”
A change is coming on
From every walk of life…
Can’t you feel it in your heart?
A new thing is taking shape
“Mavis (Staples) always takes me to church,” Shore offered. “Music is one of the things that unites us. It allows us to have common experiences together.”
One viewer asked whether it’s time for another Wattstax—the music festival for Black Americans that attracted more than 100,000 people to the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1973, resulting in a soundtrack and two films.
“That would be excellent. That would be excellent,” Al Bell said. “We put Wattstax (on) because of Watts and what had happened in Watts,” to “let the African Americans have an opportunity to look in a mirror and see themselves… and for white Americans to have a little peep hole” into Black culture and song.
“We need an 'America Stax' in 2020… It’s been on my mind… If we do that, I think it will have (an even more) tremendous impact on people today than Wattstax back then," he said.
The groundswell of young Americans marching and protesting, voting, and demanding justice and change gives Al Bell hope for a lasting new direction in society: “We hear our young people talking. We see our young people acting,” he said. “For the first time, I see a ray of hope. I hope I’m not kidding myself because I see that silent majority—those good white brothers and sisters beginning to step up and speak out.”
“If we don’t, we’re going to end up killing ourselves… If we don’t come together, it’s going to be difficult for us to save America,” he said. “The young people are beginning to come together. Integration has had an impact on them… They’re listening to us, they’re talking like us, they’re thinking like us.
“It’s coming together time.”