Soul music is perhaps the genre most dependent on authenticity. The name itself strikes a deep meaning — something spiritual, removed from the physical aspects of the music-making process.
WHEN: 7 p.m. June 6 WHERE: Gaillard Auditorium, 77 Calhoun St.Cost: $25-$60
Tuesday evening, Mavis Staples, one of the genre’s most beloved figures, will take the stage at the Gaillard Auditorium. Staples’ career output is an example of soul at its best, its most real.
Authenticity is a serious concern for many artists. Punks shun gaudy instrumentation, garage rockers detest the concept of “studio quality” and alternative hip-hop artists abhor commercial rap.
The Staple Singers were known for their unflinching honesty. Roebuck Staples and four of his five children — Mavis, Yvonne, Cleo and Pervis — began singing together during the late 1940s. They played their first shows at churches near their home around Chicago’s South Side.
By the 1960s, The Staple Singers had crossed over into the mainstream.
They were playing clubs like Fillmore West in San Francisco; their audiences were speckled with hippies and psychedelic youth. The group had also become the musical signpost for the Civil Rights Movement, donating their time and money to Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
It was in 1968 that the Staple Singers signed to Stax Records in Memphis, the label most associated with pure soul music. This move solidified the group’s reputation within the soul community. It also provided Mavis Staples the opportunity to develop a legendary solo career.
“The voice, you can’t get away from that voice,” said Levon Williams, curator at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis. “She has that very tangible connection to not only soul music, but gospel music and protest music. Her experience and the voice will always make her relevant.”
Experience is the key to soul’s authenticity, and Staples’ personal tribulations have certainly shaped her approach.
“There’s a clarity and conviction about what she does that I look for in any artist,” said Michael Grofsorean, producer of the Wells Fargo Jazz Series at Spoleto. “Why she’s on the stage singing, what she’s trying to evoke in people –– she sings with a purpose and with great depth.”
Ray Charles, a vanguard of soul, built his sound using a number of pre-established styles, one of which was gospel.
Charles’ 1954 hit “I Got a Woman,” his first charted success, was based off the Southern Tones’ recording “It Must Be Jesus.” The songs are identical rhythmically and Charles mirrors the Southern Tones’ vocal peaks and valleys. A quicker tempo, the addition of horns, and Charles’ new theme, women, stand out as the only glaring differences between the two tracks.
Aretha Robinson, Charles’ mother, was a devout Christian, and the source of her son’s knowledge of gospel melodies. The grit and earnestness in Charles’ voice, however, came from a decidedly secular place: his experience as a black person in America.
“There’s a through-line of this music dating back to, basically, slavery,” said Levon Williams. “That experience is what’s infused into their performance. That’s where the authenticity comes from, the connection to that through-line.”
Social consciousness, a topic Ray Charles only touched on, developed into one of soul’s primary themes during the 1960s. The Impressions, featuring Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler, were one of the first black soul groups to confront the subject of racial inequality. The group produced black pride anthems like “Keep On Pushing” and “People Get Ready,” both of which became hits on the pop and rhythm and blues charts.
The Staple Singers were on the cusp of this movement as well. In 1963, after seeing a sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery, Alabama, Roebuck Staples began penning “freedom songs.”
“We were working there that night,” said Mavis Staples in an interview with NPR. “Pops (Roebuck Staples) called us and told us, ‘Listen, y’all, this man Martin is here, Martin Luther King, and I want to go to his church.’ We all went to Dr. King’s church that Sunday morning for an 11 o’clock service. We go back to the hotel. Pops called us again. ‘Listen, you all, I really like this man’s message. And I think if he can preach it, we can sing it.’”
Staples, now 72, continues to have an immense impact on music lovers, young and old. “You’re Not Alone,” her Grammy-winning 12th studio album, introduced a new generation of listeners to true soul music. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy produced the record, a mix of modern “freedom songs” and gospel tunes.
Over recent years, both Staples and soul music itself have experienced a resurgence in popularity. People are still listening, still connecting with sounds of the past.
Theo Cateforis, author and Associate Professor of Music History at Syracuse University, attributes this to a young audiences’ search for music that’s realer and more authentic than plastic pop radio.
“Again, here’s a group of twenty-something white kids who find a sense of realness in Motown and soul and rhythm and blues music,” said Cateforis. “There’s a pretty long tradition of that. A yearning for the past, for something that seems to be missing or fast-fading.”
Singers like Mavis Staples are keeping real soul music alive song by song, making tangible the American past most only read about in history books and old magazine articles — like swatches of sonic history.
“The work of an artist becomes revealing their uniqueness to other people,” said Grofsorean. “Finding something that moves them so deeply that they want to express it and share it, that’s authentic, and I think the great soul singers did that.”
Josh Breeden is a Newhouse School graduate student.