Saturday, October 06, 2007

Southern Soul

Southern soul - the contemporary version at any rate - strikes me as being a rather under-rated music genre. Unlike Northern soul, which has a hard core of UK based fans, it is little known outside of its local fan base, centred around Jackson, Mississippi. Some of its stars, such as Peggy Scott-Adams, whose song Bill is a southern soul classic, Shirley Brown and Willie Clayton, have been around for decades and have sold plenty of records in their time, but are neglected not only in the UK but closer to home too. Driving through Mississippi you will hear plenty of southern soul on local black radio stations. But by the time you get to Memphis or New Orleans it's disappeared. You can find stations playing blues or R and B, but the distinctive southern soul style seems to thrive in a very limited area.
I remember seeing Bobby Rush playing to a predominantly black audience in Memphis a few years ago and I was blown away. He was rude, over the top, surrounded by sexy black girls shaking their booty and was absolutely outrageous. The audience loved him and so did I. Yet when he played at the Barbican a couple of years back a sort of shocked embarrassment spread throughout the audience. They clearly weren't prepared for the sort of vulgar showmanship that Bobby employs when performing on the chitlin' circuit, and Bobby wasn't ready for the much more reserved UK audience.
Among the southern soul greats of the past are stars such as Johnny Taylor, Little Milton and O V Wright, while B B King retains his Mississippi roots and others like Latimore, Denise LaSalle and Syl Johnson still show their southern heritage. But there are a whole range of newer soul men and women who I have heard but never seen, such as Carl Sims, Marvin Sease, Mel Waiters and the intriguingly named Poonanny. And I would place Toni Green (pictured), who wowed the crowd at Porretta this year, in the southern soul category. Will the southern soul scene ever emerge from obscurity? Doubtful, but it's well worth a listen in my opinion.


At 10:38 am , Blogger Dave C said...

I don't know why southern soul is not popular across the whole of the USA. Is it the weather or is it seen by younger african americans as a close cousin to the blues and therefore 'old folks' music? It does have a following amongst 'white' europeans, probably because it contains the last vestiges of 'real' soul, which they first heard in the '60s.

However one of the features, which offends european ears but apparently not african americans, is the use of synths, drum machines etc; an apparent aversion to real instruments played by real musicians. To me it's an anachronism which detracts but probably does not hold the music back.

From a language point of view, I'd be interested to learn how Poonanny got his name. It's familiar as Jamaican slang for 'vagina' but does it mean the same thing in the States? The Oxford English dictionary (with various spellings) has its earliest use as 1987 and mentions Ali G's usage in the '90s (I was not aware of this as I never watched his TV programme). Usage according to the OED has to be evidenced otherwise I would expect it to be long before 1987.

Finally your comments on Toni Green are wholly justified. Her Southern Soul Music cd is one of my favourite of this year's acqusitions.

At 2:46 pm , Blogger Preston Lauterbach said...

I too have wondered why southern soul doesn't enjoy more of a white following, at least in the U.S. (Can't speak for GB, though my impression is that there's greater appreciation for historic black music in general there)

True, plenty of the recordings feature synthetic instruments, but the best live revues working the chitlin circuit today go with brass sections, live guitar and drums, back-up vocalists, and yeah, a little organ too.

Today's southern soul artists make the bulk of their living playing live (headliners like Marvin Sease and Mel Waiters grab between $8-15K per gig, according to a current promoter), so it makes sense that they'd put their money there instead of into recording sessions.

The chitlin' circuit shows around Memphis play to huge audiences ranging from youngsters to old folks. It's really a marvelous scene. I can't really speak to why black audiences around the whole U.S. don't go for it, but I will say that the artists have formed real relationships with their audiences in the South. They mingle with the fans and pose for photos before, during, and after shows. The fans aren't fickle-- they'll stand and sing along with Latimore on "Let's Straighten it Out" and laugh at Bobby Rush's stale jokes a dozen times.

I could go on and on, but won't.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post! Keep up the stellar work.

At 10:52 pm , Blogger Nick said...

Thanks for some insightful comments. I would love to see more southern soul acts live but sadly they don't come to the UK very often, if at all. I also wondered about the name Poonanny, since the only meaning I know is as slang for pussy. Any suggestions?

At 2:59 pm , Blogger Preston Lauterbach said...

I grew up on the west coast and poonanny means only one thing there, and you know it!


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