Alabama, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee
The Record Labels of Soul and Their Legacies Today
- New York
More than any other genre, the labels, studios, cities and artists involved in the creation of soul music are intrinsically intertwined.
That was the case with Otis Redding and Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee, and The Jackson 5 and Motown in Detroit, Michigan. A few labels and their founding cities stand as the pillars of soul.
Memphis, Tennessee: Stax Records – Hit After Hit, Building a Sound into a Legend
When Memphis-based Satellite Records changed its name to Stax in 1960, its founders couldn’t have known how appropriate the new moniker would be. Gradually, over the years, the label “stacked up” artists on its roster who would use a signature sound to produce hit after hit that rocked the music world. Otis Redding, known for “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay, and Wilson Pickett of “In The Midnight Hour” fame were among musicians who bloomed into stars using soulful slow burners, sultry grooves, glorious horns and booming voices to carry the label. In the early 1970s, Stax Records established a new Memphis sound with funk-based soul sung by Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers and Albert King.
You can experience the story at the Stax Museum of American Soul in the Memphis neighborhood where the label operated. The museum features a replica of the studio with original instruments, a massive wall with all of the hit records and Hayes’ gold-plated Cadillac Eldorado. The historic area known as Soulsville is a great place for soul food at restaurants like The Four Way, which offers classics like country fried steak, fried chicken, and macaroni and cheese. For live music, check out B.B. King’s Blues Club, which features performers like the eight-member King Beez band and Blind Mississippi Morris, one of the best harmonica players in the world. At the Soulsville USA Festival every October, get introduced to up-and-coming musicians as they perform at the three-stage showcase. Art, step dancing, food and Stax Museum tours are part of the experience.
Classic vinyl album pressed with the Stax Records label
Detroit, Michigan: Motown Records – Motoring a Movement
Detroit native and songwriter Berry Gordy turned Motown Records into one of the most influential labels in music history with a stable of artists who redefined style, fashion, the way we talk and what we listen to while unleashing a mountain of hits spanning nearly 60 years. When you think of “My Girl” by The Temptations, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye and “Baby Love” by The Supremes, that’s just a sampling of Motown’s megastar artists who dropped their own hits and caused a ripple effect of influence that continues today.
If you visit the Motown Museum, you will be in Hitsville USA, site of the original headquarters and recording studio for the label. Step inside Studio A to see the original instruments and equipment used to record all of the smash hits, and go inside the control room where Smokey Robinson and others turned the knobs and adjusted the levels. Get the most out of the experience by joining one of the group tours led by entertaining guides. One of the stops is the restored upper flat where Gordy lived in those early years. Sheet music, songbooks, CDs and other mementos are sold in the gift shop.
Visiting the Motown Museum, where hit songs were recorded, in Detroit
Florence and Muscle Shoals, Alabama: FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio – Hit-Making House Band
Aretha Franklin stands as just one example of the importance and influence of Florence Alabama Music Enterprises, better known as FAME, that was founded in the late 1950s by songwriters Rick Hall, Billy Sherrill and Tom Stafford. FAME was the turning point in Franklin’s career; it’s where she recorded her first million-selling single, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” in 1967. That success was thanks in large part to FAME’s in-house session band – guitarist Jimmy Johnson, bassist David Hood, keyboardist Barry Beckett and drummer Roger Hawkins – who played on some of soul and rock’s biggest records. Later, a group of studio musicians known as the Swampers left FAME in Florence, Alabama, to open the nearby Muscle Shoals label. They recorded soul albums for Franklin, Wilson Pickett and The Staple Singers as well as crossing over into rock and producing hit records for The Rolling Stones, Elton John and Bob Dylan.
If you want the full tour of the history and sounds of FAME and Muscle Shoals, make arrangements at the visitors’ bureau in Florence. They recommend a tour that starts at FAME Recording Studios on Avalon Avenue in Muscle Shoals, takes you to the original Shoals studio in Sheffield, Alabama, and ends in Tuscumbia at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, where you can see original recording equipment, instruments, artifacts and memorabilia from artists like Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley and Martha Reeves.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Gamble-Huff Music – Soul Train Rolling Through the City
Without Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and their Philadelphia International Records label, disco music wouldn’t have existed. The songwriting duo invented the Philadelphia soul sound – featuring uplifting strings, thumping beats and joyous grooves – that dominated the charts and redefined the genre with songs like “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” a hit for the Blue Notes in 1972, and “Love Train,” recorded the same year by the O’Jays. By 1976, it was clear they had overtaken competitor Motown as the country’s top soul label. They already claimed the theme song to the TV show “Soul Train,” the popular song “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)” by MSFB (Mother Father Sister Brother), and they lured The Jacksons from Motown in 1976. While he partnered with Huff to reinvent soul and launch the careers of dozens of artists, Gamble also used his success to revitalize working class African-American communities in south Philadelphia with the founding of Universal Companies, one of the city’s largest real estate developers.
If you want to experience soul in this area, visit Warmdaddy’s along the Delaware River. The restaurant featureds live soul and blues music and serves an ample soul food menu that includes chicken and waffles, short ribs and Lowcountry catfish. For live music, check out the Fillmore Philadelphia, which books acts like A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie and Miguel.
New York, New York: Atlantic Records – Huge Label and Noble Beginnings
It’s hard to believe that a record label giant like Atlantic Records started in New York City more than 70 years ago with the modest, innocent goal of its founder, Turkish-American songwriter Ahmet Ertegun. He simply wanted to sign artists he liked and make the kind of records he wanted to buy. For the first 20 years, beginning in 1952, those artists were soul artists, starting with Ray Charles and continuing with many artists who recorded for Stax in Memphis and were distributed by Atlantic. Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge and many others would follow. Over time, Atlantic transitioned into rock with groups like The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Genesis, eventually dominating the music business today with names like Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran and Sia on the current roster.
The best way to explore and experience the soul of Atlantic Records is to follow the artists who made the music. Visit Aretha Franklin’s Detroit, Michigan, stopping in the Motown Museum and venturing into downtown clubs. Discover Ray Charles’ early years in Albany, Georgia, and then Greenville, Florida, where you can pay tribute at his memorial, a larger-than-life statue in Haffye Hays Park. Don’t miss visiting the Stax Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, where so many of Atlantic’s biggest hits were recorded. Any day in Memphis needs to end with live music on Beale Street to celebrate the artists of yesterday and today.