What is New Orleans Soul?

The missing link between R&B and soul, and between soul and funk

The Dew Drop Inn, ground zero for the New Orleans Soul movement
The Dew Drop Inn, ground zero for the New Orleans Soul movement.

Only recently garnering the attention given to '60s soul brethren like Stax-Volt, Deep Soul, and Southern Soul, the genre known now as New Orleans Soul is in actuality a strange hybrid only somewhat akin to the churchy style usually associated with soul music. Pioneered largely by singer-songwriter-producer Allen Toussaint around 1960 (but soon picked up by other local and regional entities), New Orleans Soul was a piano-driven pop-soul built around the boogie-woogie style popularized in the postwar Crescent City.

Unlike earlier R&B, however, this genre used bedrock-simple pop structures and rhythms strongly influenced by the "second line" and "parade" beats common to the city. The area's strong Caribbean influence, as well as the Latin music fad of the early '60s, also spurred New Orleans musicians to include more exotic beats and rhythms. Typically, few guitars were present; New Orleans Soul songs were driven by piano and sax (sometimes horn sections made entirely or largely of saxophones), and often featured no-nonsense lyrics, fat midtempo rhythms, and an angelic female voice or two in the background -- possibly a nod to the influence of Atlantic's ever-present backing choir, though simpler and grittier.

Although the genre produced about two dozen national hits, its impact was at first largely regional; perhaps no other Sixties musical scene contains so many unrecognized gems that never made it out of the city.

Yet the influence of New Orleans Soul is hard to underestimate. It's been cited by Memphis musicians as a key ingredient in the development of that city's brand of soul. Mod and Northern Soul aficionados also cite the style as a primary one; British Invasion bands routinely covered the genre's obscurities.

And around 1965, Toussaint moved to a harder, slower version of the genre, essentially midwifing the birth of funk.

Also Known As: Southern Soul

Examples of "New Orleans Soul":

"Mother-In-Law," Ernie K-Doe

The classic formula arrives for real: originally a much faster sort of jump blues, this sad-sack near novelty was slowed down to a parade beat speed, allowing the piano-and-drums groove to breathe.

"It's Raining," Irma Thomas

New Orleans Soul ballads came no sadder or more real than those by the "Queen of New Orleans Soul" -- her productions with Allen Toussaint were as elegant as they were heartbreaking.

"Ya Ya," Lee Dorsey

Dorsey had an unusual, lisping style, and a real knack for finding the humor in the blues; his anguished gasp in the intro is priceless. Like a lot of New Orleans Soul songs, the groove repeats itself to near-insanity.

"I Like It Like That," Chris Kenner

A big hit among the Brits for whatever reason, this invitation to a wild night out was colorful in its description of a mythical club that had few rules ("The last time I was down they lost my shoes").

"Barefootin'," Robert Parker

A dance that's less of a dance than a state of mind (or foot), this smash had a definite proto-Stax feel to it and a stronger-than-usual blues influence.

"Fortune Teller," Benny Spellman

Toussaint's witty way with a song was obvious on this, the other well-known trackl by the basso profundo who provided the hook on "Mother-In-Law" ("Lipstick Traces" being the other). The most Latin of the New Orleans Soul hits and a very popular number with the Mods -- the Who did an early cover.

"Ooh Poo Pah Doo (Pts. 1 & 2)," Jessie Hill

The Who also covered this nonsense number in their very first gig caught on film, and it shows how well this song filled the dance floor. Although the words are so oblique as to be meaningless.

"All These Things," Art Neville

Aaron's brother in the Nevilles only had one big hit of his own, but it was a real belly-rubber, as they say, a tender ballad so sensitive it was almost creepy ("When you were ten minutes late I started to cry").

"I Know," Barbara George

Barbara only had one success, nationally and locally, but it was tough enough to get the attention of Sam Cooke, who slipped it into the request list of his own "Having a Party."

"There Is Something On Your Mind (Pts. 1 & 2)," Bobby Marchan

A murder ballad to end all murder ballads, shedding light on the city's uncomfortable penchant for domestic violence. You want drama? Stick around, you'll get drama.