Before Aretha Franklin was the Queen Of Soul, she took a trip to Soulville

Before Aretha Franklin was the Queen Of Soul, she took a trip to Soulville

The album may or may not be obsolete, but the fact remains: Listeners have long obsessed over individual songs. The Single File is The A.V. Club’s look at the deep cuts, detours, experiments, and anthems that make us reach for replay. 

A common item of complaint these days is the endless—and some say gratuitous—proliferation of music genres. “Chillwave dubstep nu-gaze whatever” is the type of slam you’ll hear a lot, despite the fact that it only makes the complainer look like a cranky old fuck. I know this because I’ve done it myself, in spite of the fact that I’ve readily used such ridiculous labels as Madchester, screamo, and powerviolence. Amid this constant barrage of taxonomical neologisms, though, it’s worth remembering that the name-game is nothing new. The entirety of the 20th century is rife with musical classifications and re-classifications, some argued vehemently for decades before Pitchfork came along. 

Take, for example, soul. The word seems innocuous to today’s ears, one that evokes warm images of Stax, Motown, and those who have followed in that tradition. But it wasn’t always so accepted, nor so easily defined. The term had been in circulation long before the mid-’60s, when it became a catchall term for black music—especially the kind that crossed over to white audiences. Until then, the term R&B had sufficed. But when the sudden success of Motown in the early ’60s began to break down some of the racial barriers in the record-buying public, a friendlier name was needed—one without the seedier connotations (at least to many white sensibilities) of R&B. Soul, then, became not just a newly minted genre, but a way of marketing R&B to receptive white people who needed just a nudge in that direction—and maybe a label that looked slightly more "respectable."

Respect is something Aretha Franklin knows well. Besides having earned it a hundred times over as one of the icons of modern music—or The Queen Of Soul, when she’s pulling rank—“Respect” is also the title of her 1967 breakout single. The album it appears on, I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You, opened an untold number of doors for Franklin, not to mention soul as a whole. In many ways, it’s the tipping point. “Respect” is ostensibly sung from an abused lover’s point of view, but it speaks from many perspectives: that of an artist, a woman, and a black person. After “Respect” demanded—not asked—for its namesake, the song became emblematic of Women’s Lib, the Civil Rights Movement, and the emergence of, as James Brown later called it, soul power.

The Franklin phenomenon seemed as if it came from out of nowhere, but it didn’t. Although she was only 24 when she made I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You, she’d already been struggling in show business for almost a decade. Her first pop single, “Today I Sing The Blues,” became a minor hit in 1960, but it also proved to be a fluke. Franklin was in a tough spot. As with many R&B singers of the time, from Sam Cooke to Marvin Gaye, she’d started out singing gospel before bringing that skill set to the secular market—a move that was just as apt to turn off potential fans as attract them. 

Another variable complicated and confused Franklin’s budding style: the relatively refined realms of jazz and pop, both of which Franklin’s role model Dinah Washington had successfully courted. Little wonder, then, that in 1964 Franklin recorded a version of a lesser-known Washington single (itself a cover of a Titus Turner song). Its title: “Soulville.”

Turner’s original is slow, grinding, and somehow lascivious in its moaning yet gospel-inflected proto-funk. Washington’s, on the other hand, is slick and jittery, with a shallow groove that was suitably friendlier to her broader audience at the time. Franklin’s nailed the sweet spot directly in between. “Show me the way to get to Soulville, baby / Show me the way to go, the way to go home / Show me the way to get to Soulville, baby / That’s where I belong,” Franklin exclaims, her voice both sensually cool and ecclesiastically frantic. The syncopation is meaty and walloping, a jerky rhythm that quickly settled into a Morse code of magnetic thrusts, a compass for the pelvis. The keys creak; the bass boils. And when the song slams to a halt so that Franklin can cry, “Yeah yeah yeah!,” her churchly upbringing as the daughter of the Baptist activist C. L. Franklin shines through.

But this isn’t the Holy Land. This is Soulville. “I’m gonna see some soul folks / Who know all the tricks,” Franklin vows in all her secular glory. “Talkin’ ’bout the candied sweets / Down in Soulville / Talkin’ ’bout the black-eyed peas / Down in Soulville.” Her homecoming isn’t just physical; she’s singing of a reconnection with her spirituality, one that has less to do with the Bible and more to do with the R&B roots she’d been forsaking in order to appeal to pop audiences, the jazz scene, whoever would have her. Franklin didn’t write “Soulville,” but she made it her own. And then made it her rallying cry.

There’s something symbolic about Franklin’s version, as well. “Soulville” is the final single Washington released before her untimely death of a drug overdose in 1963; Franklin had long admitted her artistic debt to Washington, and she often sang in her shadow. In fact, Franklin’s recording of “Soulville” later appeared on her album-length memorial to her late hero, 1964’s Unforgettable: A Tribute To Dinah Washington. In a way—and with utmost reverence—“Soulville” was Franklin’s way of not-so-humbly picking up Washington’s torch, in hopes that she might run somewhere with it. Incidentally, the song’s perfect blend of R&B, pop, gospel, punchy production, and raw funkiness was exactly the type of thing that would soon become known to the world at large as soul. And with a name as potentially genre-launching as “Soulville,” it was as though Franklin were delivering soul’s formative anthem, its “Rock Around The Clock.”

Only it wasn’t. Instead, “Soulville” flopped, like many of Franklin’s albums and singles from her tenure at Columbia Records in the early-to-mid-’60s. It wasn’t until she was dumped by Columbia and signed to Atlantic in 1967 that she was finally given the freedom to find her own voice. Ironically, Columbia re-released “Soulville” in 1968, after Franklin had become a star, in a cynical attempt to cash in on the artist they’d recently abandoned. Again, it flopped. By then, the song probably sounded a little quaint. Soul was starting to take on a heavier feeling, even as the music grew militant in the hands of James Brown, Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield, and others. Franklin may have been anointed the Queen Of Soul, but the poor timing of “Soulville” wound up dooming the song—one of her greatest of the ’60s, and what could have been her signature tune—to the margins of history.

In 2007, I interviewed veteran soul artist Bettye LaVette—a friend of Franklin’s in the ’60s, at least until LaVette slept with Franklin’s husband—and all those decades later, she still took umbrage at being pigeonholed as soul. “I think the word ‘soul’ is a white euphemism,” she not-so-patiently told me after I’d referred to her as a “soul singer” about 20 times in our interview. “I never heard anyone black call themselves a soul singer unless they were trying to explain themselves to somebody from Japan.” LaVette never became a household name like Franklin, so she had less to lose by standing her ground and rejecting the term "soul" as a vestige of a less evolved era. To her, R&B is the tag that demands respect. On its own terms.

Granted, the meaning of R&B has morphed since the '60s, and the distinction doesn't seem so heated now. Franklin is the Queen Of Soul, period, and for her to suddenly have a problem with it at this point in time would seem fatuous at best. Taken in historical context, though, LaVette’s point is valid. These genre names—even all the new, pretentious, annoying ones that we love to bitch about—do have meanings, even if those meanings change, stagnate, or are forgotten as the music they describe does. One fact, however, remains certain and immutable: After Franklin took a detour to a little place called Soulville, American music, no matter what you call it, was never the same.

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