It’s hard to believe sometimes that Rhythm and Blues was more than just the pabulum you hear on Adult Easy Listening stations across North America these days. Or that Soul music had soul and was not being mass produced for use in cheesy Hollywood romantic comedies and afternoon soap operas.
But what they refer to as Rhythm and Blues (or R&B) and Soul nowadays has about as much in common with the music those terms originally designated as Barry Manilow has with Axel Rose. Throw anything by Sam Cooke into your compact disc player and I defy you to be able to stay seated during “Chain Gang,” “Bring It On Home To Me,” or “Twisting The Night Away.” Compared to the over-produced, false emotions, and swelling strings that waft out of radios these days, this stuff is as rough as sandpaper. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that all the musicians played instruments – not a drum machine or tape loop to be seen amongst Sam’s equipment.
What separated R&B from the blues was that big R before the B. While the blues rose on up out of the drudgery of the cotton fields, R&B flew out of the celebration of the Church. Listen to any Southern Baptist church choir when they cut lose and you’ll recognise everything you love about R&B. Of all the music that originated with African Americans, Soul and R&B are the two where the influences of gospel music are the most noticeable.
Not surprisingly, most of the first wave of R&B performers also came directly from the church choir or a gospel group to the secular stage. In the late fifties, Black musicians (and white – look at Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis’ gospel connections) began leaving their church choirs to pursue careers in popular music. Along with Sam Cooke were people like Aretha Franklin, Samuel Moore, and David Prater successfully making the move into the mainstream.
Back in 1949 it was Jerry Wexler who first coined the term “Rhythm and Blues” to replace the more offensive term “race music” for the Billboard charts. It only seems appropriate that it was Jerry who signed the last two men in the above list to a record contract with Stax records as the duo Sam and Dave in 1965.
At the time, producing duties at Stax, which was Atlantic Records Memphis division, were being handled by Isaac Hayes and David Porter. The combination of Sam and Dave and these two producers was responsible for some of the most instantly recognizable Soul/R&B hits to this day. “Hold On! I’m A Comin'” and “Soul Man” set a standard for mainstream Rhythm and Blues that has not been equaled.
Brassy horn sections, driving bass lines, and just enough sexuality to make them the tiniest bit titillating made them perfect for radio and popular acceptance. They may not have had the down and dirty appeal of James Brown or the power of Wilson Pickett and Al Green, but they had a toughness that set them apart from the even more packaged sound of Motown-signed singers.
Sam and Dave were far more than two-hit wonders; in fact they had in the course of their relatively short career ten Top Twenty hits, all of them made while working with the team of Isaac Hayes and David Porter. For those of you who haven’t had the opportunity to add any of their music to your collection, the American Legends label has just released a collection of digitally remastered hits called Double Dynamite.
As a sampler of their career, and a sampler of how soul and R&B don’t have to surrender any of their heart and still be popular, Double Dynamite is invaluable. Of course it contains the hits “Soul Man” and “Hold On! I’m Comin’,” but it also includes the eight other songs of theirs that made it into the Top Twenty.
“When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” is a classic along the line of “When A Man Loves A Woman” for its ability to utilize all the conventions of the time without being conventional. The skilful production team takes full advantage of their amazing ability to interweave their vocals and sing beautiful harmonies to generate a song that succeeds in spite of its title.
But that’s part of the fun of these songs – their titles. “You Got Me Hummin’,” “I Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody,” and “You Don’t Know Like I Know” aren’t going to be intellectual show-stoppers. But why should they? They’re pop songs, not philosophical discussions.
Comparing this music to some of the overblown, self-important twaddle that passes itself off as popular music today, and the jumped up rock and rollers referring to themselves as artists, the work of Sam and Dave is a breath of fresh air. There’s nothing overly “significant” about their music, but it was joyous and infectious like the gospel music that gave it life.
Listening to Double Dynamite by Sam and Dave is to be reminded of how much fun music can be. It’s music that’s a celebration of rhythm, melody, and great vocals. This is a disc that every aspiring pop musician should listen to so they can remember that they are supposed to be there to entertain their audiences, not inflict themselves upon them.
If you’re not familiar with the work of Sam and Dave, than you really owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of Double Dynamite as soon as it becomes available and find out what you’ve been missing all these years. It may not change your life, but it will put a bounce in your step and a grin on your face, which isn’t such a bad thing, now is it?