Living as a Mod in the 21st Century

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Beginner's Guide to Soul Music: Part I - The Basics

Disclaimer: I felt this post warranted a disclaimer for the simple fact that I’m NOT a Soul music expert. This is meant to be fun and light hearted and should not be taken as the gospel truth. That being said, feel free to contribute.

At first, I was going to entitle this article “An Idiot’s Guide to Soul Music”. In fact, I wish somebody else had written this before me since I’m the proverbial idiot this post is geared too. I really love Soul and I feel like I could spend a lifetime learning about it and chances are I will more than likely only scratch the surface.

As you become more knowledgeable, your taste evolves and matures. You discover new artists and different styles that you weren’t aware existed.  Anybody can name a Supremes tune but how many of us can accurately describe the Popcorn sound or name a New Breed artist. This is what this post is aimed to do.  I’m looking at describing the more obscure sub-genres of the Soul spectrum.  I don't personally like putting music in neat little boxes and categories, because all I care about as a DJ is to make people dance, but we all know that when we buy 45s over the internet, these tags are used all the time. I will accompany these definitions with tracks that I think best describe and encapsulate the style of music in question.

Part one will cover the basics and the more obvious styles. Right or wrong, this is my stab at it.

The Motown sound:

The famous Detroit label was for many our introduction to Soul music. Why? It has always been popular and accessible. The prolific songwriting and production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland came up with a recipe for writing polished pop masterpieces one after the other. The founder, Berry Gordy Jr., had a style that was often associated with a Detroit automobile factory assembly line. The acts were polished and manufactured following strict guidelines. How do you recognize the sound? There’s tambourines, chains, hand clapping, a melodic horn section in a very structured song. There’s not a lot of improvisation like you would find in a more southern, gritty Louisiana sound like Stax.

Southern Soul or the Stax sound:

Much more raw and dirty then the clean melodies of Detroit rival Motown; it has a strong RnB, gospel and blues influence. Coming from the backstreets of Memphis and New Orleans where jazz, country and early Rock and Roll all saw the light of day, these styles helped shape the sound. Stax house band Booker T. & the M.G.'s were instrumental in molding the style and supported such Soul legends as Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave and Rufus Thomas.

Northern Soul:

A sometimes overused (mea culpa) and catch all category, the term “Northern Soul” is said to have been coined by British record shop owner/ turned musical journalist, Dave Godin. He used the name to describe the type of Soul clients from Northern England would prefer when compared to London’s taste. It was popularised in such clubs as the Blackpool Mecca, the Twisted Wheel, the Golden Torch and the Wigan Casino.  For most, Northern Soul is simply non-commercial (i.e. rare) 60s soul that was recorded by unknown artists on very small record labels.  DJs would also play the undiscovered and often neglected  B-sides of certain records giving them a new life. The Northern Soul scene was a natural extension of the Mod scene but quickly became, in the early 70s, its own bona fide scene with its own dance style and fashion.

When I think of Northern Soul, I hear an up-tempo track with a driving beat that will compel you to spin, do the splits and give karate kicks to imaginary enemies.


When you think of Funk, James Brown comes immediately to mind. The bass is the instrument that takes centre stage and is what drives the groove. The drum beat also has its own distinctive sound.  The singer will often passionately scream out the lyrics and will punctuate the song with a bunch of “Uh!”, “Ha!” and “Yeah!” You don’t dance to funk like you do to Soul, you swagger.

Instead of going for the obvious, like James Brown's Get On Up, let's instead Get Down with Harvey Scales & The 7 Sounds who cites JB as a major influence for his funk sound. I've been enjoying spinning this track lately.

Blue-eyed Soul:

As the name indicates, it’s the domain of the white Soul singers. Only a few ever came close to their Black American counterparts but the ones that did, where embraced by legions of Mods. An obvious example and a personal favorite would be UK great Georgie Fame. Another that had a few lesser known, very Northern Soul sounding tracks was none other than Welsh singer Tom Jones.


Doo-Wop is more of an early influence then an actual genre of Soul. Prevalent in the 50s, it was characterized by vocal group harmonies . Soul greats like The Temptations, The Four Tops and The Miracles clearly diped in the  Doo-Wop pool.


Part II will explore the harder to describe and more obscure styles of Soul like Popcorn, Tittyshaker, Boogaloo, New Bread and Chicano Soul.


  1. Great idea Pat to do this.
    Lovin' it so far!

  2. Tittyshaker
    New one on me! I wait with curiosity to get filled in on this one!

  3. Thank you for this... it's like I'm in school again!

  4. Nice one Pat. Look forward to part 2

  5. Nice one Pat. Look forward to part 2