Origins and Influence of Soul Music

An Origin of the Genre

Young women singing in a recording studio
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Soul music is a combination of R&B (Rhythm and Blues) and gospel music and began in the late 1950s in the United States. While Soul has a lot in common with R&B, its differences include its use of gospel-music devices, its greater emphasis on vocalists, and its merging of religious and secular themes. Soul music was born in Memphis and more widely in the southern US where most of the performing artists were from.  The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame says that soul is "music that arose out of the black experience in America through the transmutation of gospel and rhythm & blues into a form of funky, secular testifying."

Roots of Soul Music

More than any other genre of popular American music, Soul is the result of the combination and merging of previous styles and substyles in the 1950s and 60s. Broadly speaking, the soul comes from a gospel (the sacred) and blues (the profane). Blues was mainly a musical style that praised the fleshly desire whereas gospel was more oriented toward spiritual inspiration.

The 1950s recordings of black R&B performers Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and James Brown are commonly considered the beginnings of Soul music. Following their success, white artists such as Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly adopted the sound, removing most of the gospel message but keeping the same musical techniques, instrumentation, and feeling.

Once it gained popularity among white musical groups, a new genre emerged called "Blue-Eyed Soul." The Righteous Brothers actually named one of their albums Blue-Eyed Soul,  while artists such as Dusty Springfield and Tom Jones were sometimes described as blue-eyed soul singers because of the soulful nature of their lyrics and sound.

Soul music ruled the black music charts throughout the 1960s, with artists such as Aretha Franklin and  James Brown leading the charts. Motown music is often described as Detroit Soul and included work by such top artists as Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, and Stevie Wonder.

Music Inspired by Soul

Soul inspired many other music styles such as current pop music and funk. In fact, it never went away, it simply evolved.There are many different types of soul music, including Southern Soul, Neo-Soul and other Soul-inspired movements such as:

  • Philadelphia soul and the doo-wop sound;
  • Psychedelic soul, a combination of soul and psychedelic rock and roll, led by such artists as Jimmy Hendrix and James Brown, which paved the way for Funk music in the 1960s;
  • Hyper soul, a combination of soul and dance music, as performed by Whitney Houston and Destiny's Child.

Contemporary Soul Artists

Examples of popular contemporary Soul music artists include Mary J. Blige, Anthony Hamilton, Joss Stone, and Raphael Saadiq. In addition, it's fair to say that disco, funk, and even hip-hop derive from soul music.

Over the years, the Grammy Awards for Soul music have changed their name, reflecting the culture of the era.  From 1978 to 1983, an award was given for Best Soul Gospel Performance, Contemporary. Today, the award is given to Best Gospel Album.