This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #29: Soul Man by Sam and Dave.
When I first contemplated starting this 500-song countdown, one of the motivating factors was that it always bothered me when people failed to understand the message behind a song and ended up happily, mindlessly bopping along to some tune that actually had a darker meaning to it. So, as a result, here we are 471 songs later with a song that is Exhibit “A” on my list of misunderstood songs; the classic Soul and R&B song, “Soul Man” by Sam and Dave. My introduction to this song was not through Sam and Dave or anyone else at Stax Records, for that matter. No, my introduction to “Soul Man” was via arguably one of the very best “cold opens” in Saturday Night Live history when John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd donned their characters, The Blues Brothers and rocked this song to begin the show in 1975. I have to be honest, I have always, always loved their version of “Soul Man”. They captured the essence of the song very well. It helped a great deal that the band backing them during that song contained many of the original members of the band that backed Sam and Dave during the original recording; that being the Stax session band aka, Booker T. and the MGs. For many decades after that performance, The Blues Brothers version of “Soul Man” was my definitive take on the song and I was mindlessly, joyously happy about it.
But that happy, joyous feeling darkened, somewhat, because of a book I read recently called, Music Is History by Questlove. Questlove is best known as the musical director of The Roots, who have become the house band on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. But, Questlove is much more than just the bandleader on a TV show. For example, he has been nominated for an Academy Award this year for his stellar documentary called, “Summer of Soul”, which chronicles the Harlem Cultural Festival or, “The Black Woodstock”, as it was dubbed, that took place in 1969. This documentary, along with the book, Music Is History are all part of an attempt by Questlove to tell history from the perspective of black people. This isn’t to say that his film or his book are anti-white or strident in any way, shape or form. On the contrary, both invited me in and welcomed me to bathe in the warm glow of all that was good about Black culture during the 1960s and beyond……information that I may not have been aware of because of the fact that mainstream media tend to reflect news that matters most to white people and tends to ignore much of what goes on in Black communities. In any case, the book Music Is History tells many unknown or little known stories about Black history as told through the music of the times. So, for the sake of this post, specifically, Music Is History told the true story that inspired the writing of the original Sam and Dave version of “Soul Man”. It is quite a story and one that I admit to not knowing prior to reading this great book. So, what follows is what I learned from Questlove and his book, Music Is History. Here is the true story behind the song, “Soul Man”.
First, let’s talk about the song itself and then, in a few moments, we will talk about the events that inspired the song. “Soul Man” was written at Stax Records which, as you may know, was one of the record labels in the 1960s that supported black artists and bands. Stax was organized in the same manner as many record labels at the time; it had singers who sang, songwriters who wrote songs and session players who played during the recording sessions. Well, one of the most prolific songwriting duos at Stax Records was the great Isaac Hayes and his partner, David Porter. *(Eventually, Isaac Hayes would move from being a songwriter to being the face of the company. He became a movie actor and a singer known, most famously, from his work in the movie series called, Shaft). In any case, Porter and Hayes wrote songs for Sam and Dave, the same way that Holland-Dozier-Holland wrote songs for The Supremes at Motown. Some of the songs they wrote for Sam and Dave included, “Hold On, I’m Coming'”, You Don’t Know Like I Know”, “I Thank You”, “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” and, of course, “Soul Man”. All of these songs were recorded using Booker T. and the MGs as the house band. At one point during the recording of “Soul Man”, someone shouts out, “Play it, Steve”….the “Steve” he was referring to was legendary Booker T. guitarist, Steve Cropper. *(FYI: during the SNL/Blues Brothers performance, Cropper plays there, too and John Belushi recreates the shout-out moment by urging “Steve” to “Play it!”. But, there is much more to the story of “Soul Man” that what I have written so far. What is far more important than who wrote the song and who played on the recording of it, is the story of what inspired the song to be written in the first place. This is definitely one of those instances when Music and History have intersected in an important way.
Isaac Hayes and David Porter wrote the song because of news coverage of Race Riots in Detroit in the Summer of 1967 that have come to be known as The 12th Street Riots. All while the groovy, Hippie-inspired “Summer of Love” was building momentum across much of America, in the inner-cities of many major urban centres, racial tension was brewing. The causes of this tension were myriad; everything from police brutality, to systemic policies that segregated blacks in certain, less desirable parts of town, to poverty, drug abuse and much, much more. What specifically happened in Detroit that set off the second biggest riot in history (second only to the Rodney King/L.A. Riots of the 1990s) was a police raid on an after-hours club run by blacks, for blacks on 12th Street in Detroit. On the occasion of the raid, police expected to find a dozen or so patrons after midnight but, instead, found a party in progress for a couple of returning Vietnam Vets. There turned out to be nearly 100 patrons inside of the Blind Pig night club. Needless to say, the sight of white officers attempting to break up this “Welcome Home” party for men regarded as returning heroes, was met with outrage. As the officers began attempting to create order and begin processing the patrons for arrest, a crowd began to gather outside on the street. Soon, the police found themselves woefully outnumbered. The crowd sensed that they had the upper hand and a wholesale riot erupted. The police officers retreated. The crowd began a spree of looting and burning of buildings that lasted for five whole days and resulted in a State of Emergency being declared and the National Guard, along with several US Army Divisions, being called in to help restore order and calm.
In the midst of all the rioting, which caused the deaths of dozens and the arrests of over 7000 black residents, many black shopkeepers took to painting the words, “Soul” or “Soul Brother” on the doors and windows of their stores, in the hopes that enraged looters would bypass their establishments because their were black-owned. It was coverage of this phenomenon that Isaac Hayes and David Porter were watching on TV that inspired them to write “Soul Man”.
After watching the news report, they were shaken by what they had witnessed and discussed how to turn this outrageous event into something that might show black men, in particular, in a better light. So, the whole song, “Soul Man”, if you listen to the lyrics carefully, is a checklist of attributes for what makes a black man, a good man, period. The song talks about being grounded, being loving and much more. “Soul Man” is really a recipe for how Hayes and Porter wanted the world to begin viewing black men, going forward. So yes, “Soul Man” is a rocking’, uptempo tune……it was meant to be because the teaching of lessons and the creating of myths is better received with the proverbial “spoon full of sugar” than with a finger-wagging lecture. “Soul Man” is an attempt to re-brand black men in the eyes of the media and the rest of white society. It was, also, an attempt to shine the spotlight on the underlying issues that were the cause of so much unrest in so many major, urban centres. It is, as Questlove has pointed out, music as history.
The 12th Street Riots were a major event in 1967. There are many books and scholarly articles written about it that you can read if you wish to know more. In particular, there was a movie released in 2017 about this incident, simply called, “Detroit”. The movie was directed by famed Hollywood director (and Detroit native), Katherine Bigelow. Bigelow has directed such hits as “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty”. She has a reputation for being able to accurately dramatize real life events. In this case, the movie centres around an incident that has become known as The Algiers Hotel. The Algiers Hotel was a hotel located not far from the headquarters of General Motors who, as you may know, were a huuuuge corporation in Detroit at the time. Because of their prominence, extra details of police and soldiers were stationed to guard their offices from rioters. Needless to say, in the atmosphere of an out-of-control riot, many of the officers were jittery. So, when a black, teenage boy began firing a cap gun for fun at The Algiers Hotel, the building was instantly swarmed by officers. All of the clients of the hotel were forcibly removed from their rooms and were beaten and abused. Some of those clients included members of a band called, “The Dramatics”, who’re scheduled to perform at The Fox Theatre but who, instead, were forced to seek shelter at the hotel when the riots closed the theatre and forced the cancellation of their show. In all, three people were murdered at The Algiers Hotel by the authorities. All police officers involved in the killings and beatings at The Algiers Hotel were exonerated by an all-white jury during one of the many investigations into the whole of the riots. I will include a link to the trailer of the movie, Detroit below.
This brings us back to Questlove.
How I first came to be aware of Questlove and his on-going attempts at shining a light on Black history was during the beginning of the pandemic, when I started searching for live music and began finding it via YouTube and the many At-home concerts that artists and bands were giving in order that we could all get our live music fix. Well, the NPR Tiny Desk Concert series quickly became one of my favourite places to find good music and, one of the most impactful performances I witnessed was Questlove and the Roots with a song from the soundtrack to the movie, Detroit called, “It Ain’t Fair”. It was sung by a man named Bilal and it is an intense and searing account of living a life as a black person in Detroit in 1967. It is a performance that is so incredibly moving and emotional. It is the historical counter-balance to the fun of “Soul Man” which is, a song born from the very same soil as “Unfair”.
Music is, indeed, history. And, it pays to know your history. Thanks, Questlove and Isaac Hayes and David Porter for the lessons. I wish those lessons weren’t necessary but, alas, it sadly seems that they are. Blessings to all of you who have stuck with this post and made it thus far. You are my Hope for a better tomorrow.
The link to the video for the song, “Soul Man” by Sam and Dave, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Sam and Dave, can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “It Ain’t Fair” by The Roots, can be found here. ***”It Ain’t Fair” starts at 3:57
The link to the official website for Questlove, can be found here.
The link to the video for the trailer for the movie, “Detroit” can be found here.
The link to the video for the live performance of “Soul Man” by The Blues Brothers on Saturday Night Live, can be found here.
Thanks, as always, for KEXP, for playing the music that needs to be heard. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.