Gritty Soul Men: Remembering Lou Rawls and Wilson Pickett

Mark Anthony Neal

Grit was not just about the 'sound' of soul, but also the grittier social and political realities that soul music offered transcendence from. The recent deaths of Lou Rawls and Wilson Pickett mark the passing of two of the grittiest Soul Men to walk the earth.

Some have hailed the recent emergence of male vocalists like Anthony Hamilton, Ricky Fante and Calvin Richardson as a much needed return to soul's grittier past -- the reversal of too many years of smoothed-out R&B. Indeed, a revisionist view of the soul world suggests that somehow the gritty soul emanating from the Fame Studio was somehow more "authentic" that that being produced at the Hit Factory, as if Steve Cropper and the boys weren't digging the Funk Brothers and vice-versa. But grit was not just about the "sound" of soul, but also the grittier social and political realities that soul music offered transcendence from. The recent deaths of Lou Rawls and Wilson Pickett mark the passing of two of the grittiest Soul Men to walk the earth.

In the latter years of his life, Lou Rawls was probably better known for his smoothed out demeanor and his work with the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) than any of his music. When his music was referenced, it was no doubt some mention of his smash-hit "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine". This is perhaps fitting for an artist whose "voice" first came to prominence well before audiences knew his name -- it was Rawls's vocals that were featured in the background harmony of Sam Cooke's "Bring It on Home to Me" (1962). A native of Chicago, Rawls and Cooke were oft-running partners on the gospel scene where Rawls sang with The Pilgrim Travelers and Cooke, of course, starred as the lead of the Soul Stirrers. Rawls, in fact, laid in a coma for nearly six days in an automobile accident in which Cooke was injured and his driver Eddie Cunningham was killed in 1958. Cooke and his success as a secular artist were an influence on Rawls and, as such, Rawls went out on his own as a secular artist in 1960. One of the things that Rawls took from Cooke was an appreciation of vocal versatility -- indeed, through much of his career Rawls could be correctly described as a jazz, blues, soul, rhythm and blues, gospel and pop singer.

When Capitol Records paired Rawls with pianist Les McCann for Rawls's debut album Stormy Monday (1962), they hoped to take advantage of the singer's comfortability with jazz and blues tunes like "T'aint Nobody's Business If I Do" and "Blues Is a Woman". Because Rawls, like Cooke, never sought to overpower a song -- muting some of the less-nuanced features of the black gospel tradition -- Rawls seemed destined for a career singing for the same supper-club crowd that label-mate Nancy Wilson had become so adept at reaching. Recording at a time when Motown was just catching its stride and the Stax/Muscle Shoals sound had yet to make its imprint, Rawls' career seemed be in flux. But it was his third album Tobacco Road and the title track that gave some inkling of the style that would finally prime for mass appeal.

"Tobacco Road", written by J. D. Loudermilk, found Rawls fine-tuning the talk-singing, story-telling style that would mark his breakthrough recording, Lou Rawls Live! (1966). On Lou Rawls Live!, the singer reprised some tunes that he recorded earlier in his career like "St. James Infirmary", "I'd Rather Drink Muddy Water", the aforementioned "(They Call It) Stormy Monday" and Oscar Brown Jr.'s "World of Trouble". The latter tracked featured a spoken-word intro by Rawls called "Street Corner Hustler's Blues" which gave voice to the gritty underside of urban-life. Decades before "repping for the street" became the mantra of hip-hop culture and rap music, Rawls detailed the pitfalls, drama, pain and humanity of life on the street in a way that was arguably unprecedented in American pop music at the time. Indeed Rawls's 1967 track "Dead End Street" (which he penned himself), gave an insider's view to growing up poor in Chicago and earned him his first Grammy award.

As the 1960s waned and black pop was pushed aesthetically by the likes of Norman Whitfield and Sly Stone, Rawls struggled to find footing, often relying on the upscale soul that was featured on "Love Is Hurtin' Thing" (his first chart-topper in 1966) by recording tracks like a vocal version of King Curtis' "Soul Serenade" (1968) and "You've Made Me So Very Happy" (1970), which was written and originally recorded by Motown's Brenda Holloway in 1964 and later became a major hit for Blood, Sweat, and Tears. Rawls version of the latter song would latter be sampled by De La Soul on Buhloone Mindstate (2003).

When Rawls left Capitol in 1970, there was likely a sense that he was beyond his prime. Rawls resurfaced in 1971 on the MGM label with "Natural Man". Though the song was fairly standard soul fare for the era, with it's critique of racial status-quo, it did give an inkling to the "race man" politics that Rawls would embrace for the rest of his life. "Natural Man" earned Rawls his second Grammy Award. Ultimately it was the genius of Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff that made Lou Rawls the "Lou Rawls" that we've came to know and love as the duo fitted Rawls's smoothed-out gruff with the Philly Sound. The initial product, "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine", (from the 1976 album All Things in Time) quickly became Rawls' signature tune. Rawls revisited the Philly formula on Gamble and Huff-produced tracks like "Lady Love" and "See You When I Get There" (both from 1977).

1976 also marked the year when Rawls became the voice of the Anheusur-Busch company. As the spokesperson for a mainstream corporation, Rawls embodied the upscale desires of an emerging black middle class. But Rawls, always the race man, also understood that responsibility also came with that ascendancy. In 1977 Rawls became the national spokesperson for the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), which helps subsidize the network of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Via The Lou Rawls Parade of Stars, which debuted in 1979, Rawls helped raise some $200 millions for the UNCF. The UNCF's recent tribute to Stevie Wonder (taped in September 2005) marked the occasion of Rawls's last televised performance.

Though Rawls never reached the success of his initial collaborations with Gamble and Huff, he stayed on the road and in the studio consistently throughout his career, having a comeback of sorts in 1989 with his well-regarded Blue Note recording At Last and later earning critical acclaim for one of his last studio efforts Rawls Sings Sinatra (2003).

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Wilson Pickett never achieved the mainstream visibility of his Soul Man colleague Lou Rawls, but at the peak of his career in the mid-1960s, Pickett, like Otis Redding, was the very epitome of hard-core Southern soul. Dubbed the "wicked" Wilson Pickett, the singer began his career as a member of the Falcons (1961-1963) and later recorded a few solo tracks for a label run by Lloyd Price. Pickett's fortunes changed when Atlantic's Jerry Wexler bought out his contract and eventually paired him with Steve Cropper (of Booker T. and the MGs). The initial results of Pickett's sessions at the Stax Records studio in Memphis were some of the most memorable Southern soul tracks ever recorded. Both "In the Midnight Hour" and "634-5789 (Soulsville, USA)" crossed-over to pop audiences and helped forever link Pickett to the great soul sounds of the era, as witnessed by the prominence of "In the Midnight Hour" in the film The Big Chill (1983).

Industry politics kept Pickett from returning to the Stax production house, but Wexler quickly set Pickett up to return home (Pickett was a native of Prattsville, Alabama) to record at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals. Out of that session came "Mustang Sally", a song written by Sir Mack Rice. Originally titled "Mustang Mama", Rice's Detroit neighbor Aretha Franklin, suggested the change to "Mustang Sally", hence the song's reference to the children's song "Little Sally Walker". When Aretha Franklin entered those same studios months after Pickett laid down the tracks to "Mustang Sally" the world of pop music would forever be changed.

Throughout the late 1960s, Pickett continued to record solid material like Bobby Womack's "I'm a Midnight Mover" and "I'm in Love" (later covered by Franklin), soulful covers of The Beatles's "Hey Jude" and The Archies's "Sugar, Sugar" and a touching tribute to some of his influences "Cole, Cooke, Redding" that was performed to the melody of Dion's "Abraham, Martin and John". Not the most flexible of vocal talents, the recording industry seemed to be moving on without Pickett -- as it did to so many Southern soul artists in the early 1970s -- when Pickett was sent to Philadelphia to record with upstarts Gamble and Huff. One of the great skills of the Philly-based songwriters and producers was that they were particularly adept at providing musical landscapes that supported male singers with gruff-vocals. This skill was on display throughout the 1970s with their work with Teddy Pendergrass, Eddie Levert, Lou Rawls and a lesser known act like The Ebony's (see the groups "Forever"), as well as with their earlier work with Jerry Butler in the late 1960. But when Wilson Pickett recorded In Philadelphia -- this in the year before Philadelphia International Records (PIR) would come into being -- they were really working uncharted territory. Primary known for "East Coast" soul -- think of their work with Laura Nyro and Labelle on Gonna Take a Miracle -- In Philadelphia was Gamble and Huff's first real stab at Southern soul.

Besides generating one of Pickett's biggest hits since the mid-1960s ("Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You"), In Philadelphia also contained one of Pickett's greatest performances. The full six-minute-plus version of "Engine Number 9 (Get Me Back on Time)" is a portrait of soul in transition, drawing back to the Southern world that Pickett literally left behind to record the project, while imagining the expansive contours of what soul could become if freed from the confines of two-minute and 30-second singles. As John A. Jackson describes the session in his book A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul, "Unlike most Gamble and Huff sessions, during which the singers methodically overdubbed their vocals to prerecorded rhythm tracks. Pickett insisted on a bit of spontaneity." (90) The ragged guitar driven improvisation of "Engine Number 9" -- listen to Pickett say amidst screams and yelps "ah this sounding alright. I think I'm gonna hold it little bit longer. I'm gonna let the boys cook this a little bit" -- sounds like the "freedom train" in reckless abandon and anticipates the success a group like the Isley Brothers would fine a few years later during their 3+3 era.

Like Rawls, Pickett stayed on the grind for much of the rest of his life, though health concerns finally forced him to retire from performing in 2004. Too often though in his later years, Pickett made news for his often acerbic offstage demeanor, including a stint in drug rehab and a brawl where he nearly lost an eye. Inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, Pickett earned a Grammy nomination for his last studio recording It's Harder Now.

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A longtime contributor to PopMatters, Mark Anthony Neal is the author of four books including the recent Songs in the Key of Black Life (2003) and New Black Man (2005). He is also co-editor (with Murray Forman) of That's the Joint: the Hip-Hop Studies Reader (2004). Neal is Associate Professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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