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'Soul' Hits Sweet Spot

November 09, 1986|DON WALLER

Do ya like good music? (Yeah, yeah.) Then Peter Guralnick's new book "Sweet Soul Music" (Harper & Row) is right down your alley, two steps from the blues and just around the corner from the Pentacostal church.

Featuring 175 eye-popping photographs, this 438-page oversize paperback may be the best music book of 1986. More than mere scholarly analysis, it's obviously a labor of love.

Reached by telephone at the New Hampshire summer camp he supervises, Guralnick, 42, explains: "My previous books ('Feel Like Going Home' and 'Lost Highway') dealt with blues and country, respectively, so 'Sweet Soul Music' represents the completion of a trilogy on the music that I've always loved.

"Originally, I thought the book would take me three years to write--it wound up taking five. I interviewed 125 people, many of them two or three times, because I kept uncovering fresh information.

"For example, I'd always taken the view that the development of soul music went hand-in-hand with the Civil Rights Movement as an expression of black pride in one's heritage. I was surprised to find how much of a creative contribution was made by white Southerners--writers, musicians and producers such as Dan Penn, Rick Hall and Chips Moman--who, in helping to create this new sound, were able to throw off the old, traditional attitudes and forge a new identity for themselves as well.

"The other thing that shocked me was the importance of the Southern fraternity circuit. It's ironic, but these bastions of white privilege provided an avenue for black musicians that gave a great many white Southerners their first, in-person glimpse of black music. When Rufus Thomas told me that playing frat parties at Ole Miss was to play before 'the greatest audiences in the world,' he was completely serious!"

While tracing the pioneering efforts of such pre-soul savants as Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, et. al., Guralnick's primary focus is on the three M's: Macon, Georgia, home of James Brown and Otis Redding; Memphis, where Stax-Volt and a host of lesser-known labels laid down stacks of classic fatback tracks; and Muscle Shoals, the northeast Alabama studio hot-spot that spawned four of the hottest rhythm sections in the history of pop.

Bubbling with anecdotes (Traveling down a Texas highway, Joe Tex points out the sharecropper's shack where he claims to have been conceived during a lunch break) and bristling with inside dope (Atlantic Records producer/executive Jerry Wexler reportedly asking for one-third writer's credit on the song "Sweet Inspiration" by the Sweet Inspirations because he'd thought up the group's name), "Sweet Soul Music" concludes with an exhaustive discography that's almost worth the cover price in itself.

As to why soul music still retains its appeal long after its mid-'60s heyday, Guralnick offers, "At its core, soul music is extremely visceral. Whether you're listening to James Brown singing 'Lost Someone' or that marvelous, live Solomon Burke album that came out on Rounder a couple of years ago, it grabs you emotionally. The great soul artists use all the familiar elements of gospel music, but put them together in an intensely personal way.

"Besides, great music has no time frame. Soul is just a label, although those (hard-core revivalists) who are trying to recreate what once was are not that interesting to me. I'd rather listen to Elvis Costello or Prince or Michael Jackson or Van Morrison--artists who are making soulful music with a contemporary edge."

Bypassing the assembly-line efforts of Motown, Chicago and other Northern soul scenes, Guralnick's version of the soul music story is far from the final word on the subject. However, by emphasizing what he views as the more idiosyncratic approach taken by the Southern soul stars, Guralnick has succeeded in creating a work guaranteed to last well into the midnight hour, all the way to the three o' clock in the morning of the soul. Hit me!

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