Tonawanda News

Features

March 4, 2013

Sending Smokey a thank-you note

Tonawanda News — You get to ruminating as you get older, about how and why you turned out the way you did, which is why an elderly white guy from the suburbs wants to know why soul music has had such a hold on him.

If I listed my 10 favorite love songs, nine would be by black, American artists and recorded in the 1960s. (“Bernadette” by the Four Tops, lyrics of which describe a love so intense it borders on control, would top the list.) This old white guy’s favorite singer is Little Willie John, who recorded fewer than 20 songs and died in a penitentiary at age 30.

Among my childhood memories is sitting by a window in the Buffalo summer night at about age 12, holding an AM radio the size of a cigarette pack and turning the dial to find far-away radio stations, from Chicago, Memphis and elsewhere, and listening to what I was missing. Ads for fried chicken joints and furniture stores, references to “Brother Malcolm X,” James Brown.

At a time when I knew exactly zero African-American people, this stuff sounded both foreign and familiar to me. I wasn’t alone, of course; Motown Records was aimed at the young, of any color. Rock music, my generation’s music, was based on rhythm and blues, and the Beatles and other British acts frankly credited these antecedents for their influence. Soul music overtook the country, then the world, turned into “urban contemporary” or whatever it’s called these days, and guys my age, these days, are still moved by the arrangements, the intensity, of that stuff I should not have appreciated, years ago.

Consider horns, or brass, in music. White-bread arrangements have them flowing in and out of a song, perhaps with an occasional solo. Not soul. Brass punctuates things, honking like car horns, while accompanying instruments rumble through songs. As Joe Tex would sing it, be a do-right woman (blat), and I’ll be a do- (blat blat) right (blat blat), all- (blat blat) night man.

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