Southern Soul Blues – David Whiteis (University of Illinois/ Footprint Books)

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Do the names Denise LaSalle, Bobby Rush, T.K Soul, Willie Clayton, Sir Charles Jones, or even Shirley Brown, who graces the cover of this book ring any bells? Probably not, because Southern Soul or Deep Soul peaked in the early 70′ and has been struggling for mainstream recognition ever since. Regionally it’s stronger than ever, though it’s primary audience comes from America’ South, and then from mostly African Americans and primarily working class. In an era that festishises the rediscovery of obscure genres and values authenticity and regional connection over virtually everything else, you’d have to think that southern soul blues are ripe for the spotlight once again.

We’re talking about music that springs from African American communities in the south, and in the northern midwestern industrial cities like Chicago, Milwaukee and Detroit. It’s music that is a stylistic amalgamation, drawn from post war urban blues but encompassing “1960′-era deep soul and the funk and post funk that evolved from it, recent and contemporary R&B, and increasingly neosoul, rap and hip hop.” Not a lot is left out. The lyrics seem to be either gospel orientated or deep soul sleaze, where carnal storylines abound. It’s the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other.

David Whiteis has written Southern Soul Blues in attempt to shine a light on this criminally ignored genre and to argue the case for it to be recognised in the lineage of blues music, not as an aberration or diversion but as a logical extension.

He begins with a forward by renowned singer/ songwriter Denise LaSalle, an incredible prose poem entitled The Prodigal Son.

“I was born in the United States, a product of slavery in the deep south. My mother’ name is heartache; my father’ name is pain. I was a sad and lonely child. My only sister gospel was very religious….” And so it goes, a beautiful personalised account of the history of blues in America, as LaSalle details a meeting with rhythm, jazz, with country, rock and roll, pop, and rap. It’s a fascinating story of lineage and the fickle nature public sentiment. It’s an experience particularly pertinent to southern soul blues as somewhere along the way the public turned away and its been left to its own devices ever since.

Whiteis goes to pains to draw the lineage of southern soul to blues, and R&B, yet to be honest it hardly seems necessary. Isn’ it obvious?

The major focus of this book however is the opportunity to explore the artists both the legends and the up and comers. He discusses the music and approach, live performances and history of the artists via interviews and his own reflections on the music. Whiteis devotes considerable space to some of the real characters, folks like Bobby Bland and his dancing girls, whose first big hit was 1971′ Chicken Heads (i.e. chick giving head) “I was way ahead of the rap game,” he laments. The b-side was Mary Jane.

He taps into the raunch debate in a chapter cheekily subtitled “Hoochification or Sexual Healing,” suggesting that the sexualisation and carnality come from early gospel soul fusions of the likes of Ray Charles, where the spirit and the flesh are in a constant battle for supremacy. He discusses the increasingly sexualised nature of female performers in recent times and the look but don’ touch ethos of Bobby Bland or Ike Tuner.

But the real benefits of Southern Soul Blues are not the debates and controversies within the genre, nor the battle between the gospel and the raunch, but the opportunities to discover new practitioners, folks like Mr Sam and his “12 steps for cheaters” or the precocious mid 20′ Theo Huff’ sassy call and response churchliness. It’s all out there if you’re willing to dig a little and as a primer consider Southern Soul Blues a very handy shovel.

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Bob is the features editor of Cyclic Defrost. He is also evil. You should not trust the opinions of evil people.

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