As I write this (days before you read it), I’m already in prep mode for my annual Thanksgiving gathering. I don’t know what’s on your holiday menu, but mine never changes. I cook the same meal every year. It’s the one my mama cooked, my aunties cooked, and my grandma before them. I’ll share it in a moment.
The prep and the gathering itself are always accompanied by musical menus. Trust me: Sweet soul music is the perfect side to the prep work, the aromas, and the cheer of company.
RELATED STORY: This Black Music Sunday, we're cookin' soul food while stuffing ourselves with the sounds of soul
”Black Music Sunday” is a weekly series highlighting all things Black music. With more than 180 stories covering performers, genres, history, and more, each featuring its own vibrant soundtrack. I hope you’ll find some familiar tunes and perhaps an introduction to something new.
Before we get to the music, here’s a sampling of what will be on our table next week—with recipes! We’ll be having turkey with smoked oyster stuffin’ and dressing (since stuffing is not the same as dressing); a Virginia ham with pineapple glaze; collard greens with smoked ham hocks; candied yams; potato salad that never has raisins; mac and cheese casserole; and deviled eggs. My Puerto Rican friends will be bringing arroz con gandules. The vegans will bring a green salad. Other company comes with the desserts—mostly pies.
RELATED STORY: Black Music Sunday: A musical meal brings a soulful start to the holiday season
Back to the tunes! We gotta open with a live performance “Sweet Soul Music,” from Arthur Conley. Get ready for an earworm to get you through your food prep!
“Do you like good music? (Yeah, yeah.) Huh, that sweet soul music. (Yeah, yeah.) Just as long as it's swingin' Oh yeah, ohhhh yeah ...”
But as Micah Wimmer writes in “Arthur Conley-Sweet Soul Music”:
To most music fans, Arthur Conley is the answer to a trivia question – that question being, who sang the 1967 hit song, “Sweet Soul Music?” And it is a shame that, good as that song is, it is all that most know him for. Sweet Soul Music, an album released in the immediate aftermath of the single’s success showcases Conley’s stylings, showing him to be among the best southern soul singers of the late 1960s. Arthur Conley was the personal protege of the King of Soul himself, Otis Redding, who managed Conley, in addition to cowriting five of the album’s tracks, as well as producing the record. Conley does not sound much like Redding, yet he lives up to his mentor’s standard of excellence throughout this record.
“Sweet Soul Music” starts off the album as perhaps the greatest tribute to southern soul music ever made as he namedrops various titans of the genre such as Lou Rawls, Wilson Pickett, and, of course, Otis Redding. The song’s iconic status is well-justified. Less known is what follows, as Conley sings several originals cowritten with Redding, in addition to a few soul standards, most notably Dan Penn’s “Take Me (Just As I Am),” which he performs admirably. His own “I’m Gonna Forget About You” is buoyed by a catchy and persistent bassline as he pledges to take his ex’s photo off the wall, and do all he can to forget her. It is a simple track, but one that nevertheless works well.
Mike Boone, the self-proclaimed “Chancellor of Soul,” produced the most extensive biography of Conley I’ve found, for his Chance B YouTube channel.
A little about Boone:
Mike Boone (Chancellor of Soul) is Music Historian and storyteller from Harlem, New York who is dedicated to historical preservation of R&B / Pop music and its legendary artists' outstanding contribution in entertainment that's otherwise classified as unsung or unnoticed
Here’s the “Arthur Conley Story” in its entirety.
In 2014, NPR’s “Fresh Air” offered “The Mysterious Case of Arthur Conley, Otis Redding's Protege.”
BlackPast continues Conley’s story, including his move to Europe, where he ditched his should’ve-been-a-household name.
Conley released “God Bless” in 1970, his last hit to reach the R&B charts, topping at No. 40. After four unsuccessful songs over a three-year period, Conley in 1975 moved to England and then to the Netherlands in 1977. In 1980 he legally changed his name to Lee Roberts, adopting his middle name and his mother’s maiden name. He also formed a new group and toured Europe as Lee Roberts and the Sweaters. By the end of 1980 he settled permanently in the Dutch town of Ruurlo. From there he operated Art-Con Production company and promoted the heavy metal band from The Hague, Netherlands, Shockwave.
Conley was gay and some observers claimed that as one of the reasons for his move to Europe and his name change. He believed that his sexual orientation held back his career as an R&B singer in the United States. Arthur Conley/ Lee Roberts died on November 17, 2003 in Ruurlo after a long battle with cancer. He was 57.
This amazing three-minute clip of Conley singing “Nothing Can Change This Love For Me” during a interview for Dutch television is a must-hear. His soul-music chops are stellar.
From the backbeatamsterdam channel’s YouTube notes for the video:
Arthur Conley live performance at Dutch tv-show "Reiziger in Muziek". Clip was taken from the CD/DVD Arthur Conley & The Sweaters - Live in Amsterdam which features a recording of his live performance back in 1980 in Amsterdam and a DVD with a documentary and interview about his life
Let’s close the Conley segment of today’s soulful story with his live performance of Danny Whitten’s tune, made famous by Rod Stewart: “I Don’t Want to Talk About It.”
Otis Redding produced “Sweet Soul Music,” and it’s so nice I’m gonna play it twice. Here’s the studio version.
Continuing in the soul vein, we gotta give props to Sam and Dave. David Bianco’s biography from Musician Guide introduces the famed soul duo.
When Sam Moore and Dave Prater were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, it was largely in recognition of their hard-driving soul hits of the 1960s. Songs like "You Don't Know Like I Know," "Hold On, I'm Comin'," "Soul Man," and "I Thank You" made the duo one of the most popular soul acts of the era. Sam and Dave were part of the Memphis Sound, which revolved around the Stax and Volt family of record labels and included soul stars such as Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, songwriters like Isaac Hayes, and songs that featured backup musicians like Booker T and the MGs and the Memphis Horns. It was through their energetic stage show that Sam and Dave earned their nickname Double Dynamite.
Born in Miami, Sam Moore sang with a gospel group that toured Florida before turning to soul music. His mother was a teacher, his father a deacon, and his grandfather a Baptist preacher. According to Gerri Hirshey's Nowhere to Run, Moore was approached by the manager of the famous gospel group the Soul Stirrers to replace Sam Cooke, who had left the group to start his own soul and pop career. Moore was reportedly ready to leave Miami and tour with the Soul Stirrers, but he changed his mind after attending a Jackie Wilson show and decided he wanted to sing like Jackie Wilson.
Moore met Dave Prater while working the King of Hearts Club in Miami. Prater was a laborer's son from Ocilla, Georgia. He went to Miami in 1957 to get a job singing, but he was working as a short-order cook and baker's assistant to make ends meet. One night in 1961, Prater joined Moore on stage during a segment of Moore's act that involved audience participation. The two singers seemed to click, and the Sam and Dave duo was born.
Here’s a live version of “Soul Man.”
There are also major instrumental helpings of soul—King Curtis’ “Soul Serenade” immediately comes to mind. I consider myself blessed that I got to see him live, in “chitlin circuit” clubs.
Ed Decker wrote his bio for Musician Guide:
Although he was relatively unknown by the listening public during his career, King Curtis--whose real name was Curtis Ousley--played saxophone both in the studio and on stage for hundreds of well-known musical performers ranging from Bobby Darin and Andy Williams to the Coasters. He also achieved stardom on his own in a series of acclaimed soul recordings during the last decade of his tragically shortened life. "His [Curtis's] staccato style on the tenor sax, known as `a yackity sax' was instantly recognizable to experts even on the many records he made with others in years before his name appeared on the records," wrote Murray Schumach in his obituary for Curtis in the New York Times in 1971. "Famous artists valued his knowledge as an arranger and his sense of musical showmanship," added Schumach.
Curtis was especially known for blasting sound out of his instrument in a rough-cutting style that perfectly complemented rousing rock and roll numbers as well as soul music. As was noted in the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, "Owing to his syncopated, almost percussive style, Curtis became one of the best-known and most sought-after studio saxophone players of the 1950s and 1960s; his tone was deep and fruity, with a characteristic burr." Curtis was perfectly willing to submerge his musical presence into songs, rather than drawing attention to himself. According to Jazz: The Essential Companion, "Curtis earned his reputation for the superb appropriateness of brief solos on r & b and pop records...."
Encompassing jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, pop and even country music, Curtis's recordings demonstrated his great versatility. Many of them were instrumental versions of vocal hits, but they were far from muzak. "His style was so lyrical and so elegant that he was able to get away with playing instrumental versions of vocal hits, which is usually a sure path to dentist chair music," wrote Colin Escott in the Razor & Tie liner notes for Instant Soul: The Legendary King Curtis. Among the instrumental covers he recorded on sax were "Spanish Harlem," "On Broadway," You've Lost That Loving Feeling, "Ode to Billie Joe," "Whiter Shade of Pale," and "Let It Be."
Give a listen to this live performance!
After King Curtis’ tragic death from stab wounds in August 1971, Billy Heller wrote this piece on his funeral for the New York Post:
King Curtis was the greatest musician you’ve never heard of
As more than 1,000 people began arriving for the noon service at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church on Lexington Avenue and East 54th Street, they couldn’t help but see the sign at the entrance. “Soul is the feeling of depth, the ability to reach someone. It’s being part of what today is all about . . .” the message began.
It was signed at the bottom, “Aretha Franklin.”
This was a memorial service for musician King Curtis, who had been stabbed to death at his Upper West Side doorstep days earlier, succumbing on Friday, Aug. 13, 1971.
The passage of time may have made the name King Curtis less familiar to the general public. But the music he made — from the staccato “chicken scratch” sax solo that propelled The Coasters’ 1958 hit “Yakety Yak” to the top of the charts to his soulful saxophone wail that gave added oomph to Aretha Franklin’s signature hit “Respect” — lives on.
Curtis was the musical director and bandleader for Franklin, who he referred to as his “little sister.” He and his band opened for the Beatles at Shea Stadium and the rest of their 1965 US tour. He played with pal Sam Cooke, who gave a shoutout to his friend’s song “Soul Twist” on “Having A Party.” He brought his unique sound to hundreds of tracks by singers ranging from Wilson Pickett to Andy Williams. Curtis recognized the talent in Jimi Hendrix early on and hired him for his band, the Kingpins, in 1966. Duane Allman played with — and became best friends with — Curtis. In 2000, King Curtis was posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a sideman.
Here’s the Queen of Soul with her vocal version of “Soul Serenade.”
And a live performance in Amsterdam, in 1968.
Here’s one more King Curtis piece—you gotta fill your bowl with some "Memphis Soul Stew" while you prepare your feast.
There are quite a few soul and R&B groups who are not well-known and who never reached stardom, even though they had local followings to keep them going. Miami’s Frankie Seay and the Soul Riders were one of those groups.
Check out their funky “Soul Food.”
There is no way to talk about soul music without giving props to “The Godfather of Soul” himself, James Brown. In 1974, Brown gave a riveting performance of “Soul Power” in the Congo, documented by blogger KilliKam for Okay Africa:
The Godfather of Soul landed in Kinshasa to play Zaire 74, a three-day festival organized by Hugh Masekela and producer Stewart Levine.
Zaire 74 was originally put together to promote Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s Rumble in the Jungle. However, after an injury forced Foreman to postpone the fight, it became the main attraction, drawing in a crowd of around 80,000 people. The Guardian writes of the show:
It's two o'clock in the morning in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974. The temperature is 100 degrees but James Brown and the JBs - the most tightly drilled band in showbusiness - are blasting out hits such as Cold Sweat and Black and Proud with even more than their usual intensity. Brown himself, wearing an outrageously cut jumpsuit with GFOS (Godfather of Soul) picked out in sequins, is a larger than life figure, aggressive, sweating yet supremely controlled as he produces his trademark live show for an enraptured African audience.
Have a listen.
We can’t forget Brown’s legendary band, the JBs. Courtesy of their biography by Steve Huey at AllMusic:
The J.B.'s were the legendary supporting cast of musicians behind James Brown, earning a well-deserved reputation as the tightest, best-drilled instrumental ensemble in all of funk. The name J.B.'s is most often associated with three hornmen in particular -- saxophonists Maceo Parker and Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis, and trombonist Fred Wesley, all of whom originally joined Brown's backing band at various points during the '60s. As a recording entity unto themselves, however, the J.B.'s enjoyed a distinctly defined heyday from 1970-1975, under the musical directorship of Wesley (though Brown, naturally, remained a strong presence). The J.B.'s were billed under a variety of alternate names on their own singles and albums -- Fred Wesley and the J.B.'s, Maceo and the Macks, Fred and the New J.B.'s, the James Brown Soul Train, the Last Word, the First Family, and more.
Keeping with our holiday feast theme, have a listen as they holler out “Pass the Peas.”
Circling back to my holiday cooking for the holiday, those of you who know something about the preparation of chitterlings will understand why I am not stankin’ up my house with chitlins—though I am having yams. I will also be blasting Ray Charles’ tune about the combo.
Ryan Shepard dodged chitlins for a lifetime, until she didn’t. She wrote about his journey for Southern Kitchen in 2021.
Cooking chitlins with my grandmother brought me a deeper love for soul food
Chitlins, or chitterlings, are the small intestines of pigs. Typically braised in a large pot with onions, peppers, vinegar and various seasonings, chitlins are a soul food delicacy. But they're not for everyone. First of all, they smell like a rotting corpse. And the cleaning process is a nightmare — just think about what is actually in an intestine.
Ha! Ain’t that the truth. But then Shepard went to culinary school, and found that she enjoyed various offal dishes from other cultural cuisines.
Which led me to start thinking: If I could learn to appreciate offal in other cultures, why was it so hard to embrace it in my own?
When my grandmother arrived at my front door this fall, I asked her to make chitlins. Her response was, of course, unexpected after my years of refusing to eat hers. “You want me to do what baby?” she asked, eyeing me with a mix of disbelief and bemusement. I repeated myself and assured her that I did in fact want her to cook a pot of chitlins in my small condo, which of course would mean my whole home would smell horrible.
The house smelled to high heaven outside our front door, on the balcony and down the stairs, too. No matter where I went the scent of what we were cooking followed me. I half expected the neighbors to lodge a complaint against me or turn up at my door angrily asking me what the heck I was cooking. Luckily, after three hours the smell went away (or we all got used to it) and soon it was time for my grandmother to ladle a healthy helping on chitlins into a small bowl.
But back to Ray.
Because I know Thanksgiving is my editor’s second-favorite holiday, I’m going to stop here. (Editor’s Note: Happy Turkey Day, Auntie!) But I have lots more music to share in the comments. Please join me and post your favorite soul food (recipes please!) and soulful tunes, and tell me this:
What’s gonna be on your table and on your musical menu for the holiday?