There are many reasons for the tragic divide between rock n’ soul music, most of them ugly and regrettable and steeped in prejudice, but it’s important to remember that rock’n’roll sprang from the fertile well of R&B and both have been close cousins ever since, in intent if not sound.
And while rockers like to say rock and headbanging was invented because metal kids are scared to dance, over the decades there have been a few notable examples of when people stopped getting hung up on labels and just enjoyed the goddamn music. Here then, a nice fistful of soul songs that rock. Or vice versa. Whatever man, just hit the dancefloor and go with it.
Ike Turner – Rocket 88 (1951)
Certainly there is some controversy over what the first real rock’n’roll record was – Wynonie Harris’s 1948 bopper Good Rockin’ Tonight is a contender, as is Big Boy Crudup’s original take on That’s Alright Mama back in ‘46, almost a decade before Elvis tore into it – but let’s face it, Ike Turner recorded the very first song that is immediately recognisable as rock’n’roll. And it was mostly by accident.
Turner was an R&B singer, songwriter, producer and bandleader from Mississippi who recorded Rocket 88 in 1951 under the name Jackie Brenston (Ike’s sax player) and The Delta Cats. A standard jump-blues number, Rocket 88 sailed into infamy (and a number one spot on the R&B charts) when Ike’s guitarist Willie Kizart attempted to fix his amplifier, which suffered some damage on the car ride from Mississippi to the studio in Memphis. Noticing a ragged hole in the speaker cone, he stuffed it with newspaper, creating a unique distorted sound which would, very quickly, become the most recognisable element that rock’n’roll has or ever will have.
That’s right, Willie fuckin’ Kizart invented everything. Without him, forget it, and without this song, Classic Rock wouldn’t even exist. Sure, turns out that Ike wasn’t the greatest guy, but let’s bow our heads for a moment anyway, because neither of us would be here without him.
Charles Bradley - Changes (2015)
Hard-living Florida soul singer Charles Bradley spent most of his life on the margins, working odd jobs, moving when they dried up, playing small clubs when he could get the gigs. Half a decade ago, he moved to New York City to get to know his aging mother and while he was there, he began moonlighting as a James Brown impersonator.
During one of these low-key shows he was discovered by Daptone Records co-founder Bosco Mann and Bradley, now in his sixth decade, finally caught a break in this mean old world. Bradley originally covered Sabbath’s moody ‘72 ballad in 2013, but revived it for the title track of his third album. The stunning video shows Bradley reacting to his own performance, tears welling up as he ponders the lyrics and how they relate to the passing of his mother. It is a rare moment indeed when 70’s doom metal and contemporary soul can create such beautiful and moving art together.
Sadly, Bradley died in 2017. But as anyone who saw his emotion-stacked live shows can attest, he went out on top.
Funkadelic – Maggot Brain (1971)
Before they taught America how to be funky with seminal hits like One Nation Under a Groove, Atomic Dog and Bop Gun, George Clinton and his gang of cosmic Funkensteins dropped a whole lotta acid, allied themselves with the pseudo-Satanic Process Church of the Final Judgment, and released some of the darkest, weirdest, most brain-frying acid-funk imaginable.
Their second album, 1971’s Maggot Brain is as savage and primal as anything Detroit spewed up in the early 70s, up there with Alice and Iggy and the MC5, and you can also dance to it, if you have 17 legs and a medicine cabinet full of hallucinogens. Not the title track, though. The title track is another journey altogether. This might be the most narcotic wah-wah jam of all time. Lie down on the couch and watch the walls melt into goo.
Betty Davis – They Say I’m Different (1974)
Betty Davis was a model-slash-aspiring-singer who met and married jazz legend Miles Davis in 1968 and may or may not have had an affair with Jimi Hendrix (and/or Sly Stone) around the same time. The point is, a lot went on. Her style and affection for psychedelic music influenced Miles greatly and there would be no Bitches Brew – or jazz fusion – without her. But jazz wasn’t even her scene.
After things went south with Miles, Betty forged her own solo career, and it was a helluva thing to behold. Fusing acid-rock with hard-hitting funk and delivering it in censor-baiting songs extolling the pleasures of the flesh in dramatically direct fashion, Davis was essentially the Wendy O Williams of soul. Her vocals are a sexual bark, the rhythms like iron bars smacking your skull, the funk so deep, dark, and dirty they can get you pregnant if you stand too close.
Her trio of mid-70’s solo records (Betty Davis, They Say I’m Different, Nasty Gal) are breathlessly enthralling. There was nothing else like her, and there still isn’t.
24 Carat Black – Poverty’s Paradise
The Ditalians were a soul group from Cincinatti, Ohio. In the early 70s they were approached by Dale Warren, a string-arranger and producer at Stax records, Motown’s chief rivals. Influenced by the early 70s wave of ‘concept albums’ by prog and hard rockers like Floyd, Tull and Yes, he wanted to create the first R&B concept record. The band took the bait, he rechristened them 24 Carat Black, and together they created 1973’s incredible Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth, one of the bleakest soul records ever made.
Relentlessly grim, the album is a stark view of inner-city life for poor blacks in the US in the early 70s, set to a slow-rolling soundtrack of wah-wah guitars and down-beat jazz-funk that is as close to pure doom as any R&B record will ever get. Now considered a classic that’s been sampled countless times by hip-hop artists, it merely bewildered at the time, and 24 Carat Black never made another album.
Bunker Hill – The Girl Can’t Dance (1962)
David Walker was a gospel singer and amateur boxer from Washington DC who had a reasonably successful career as a member of traditional gospel quarter Mighty Clouds of Joy. And then he met legendary rock’n’ roll guitarist Link “Rumble” Ray and things went off the rails fast.
Adopting the pseudonym Bunker Hill to keep his day job, Walker released a slew of singles in the early 60s that still sound almost terrifying at first listen. Predating even Northwest proto-punks The Sonics, Bunker Hill’s full-barreled screams and calamitous soul-on-speed rhythms pretty much nail the punk aesthetic a decade and a half before Joey and Johnny ever even picked up a microphone. 1962’s The Girl Can’t Dance is probably his most over the top performance, and that’s saying something.
The Equals – Police On My Back (1968)
One of the most unsung and sadly forgotten bands of the 60s “British Invasion”, The Equals were, as their name suggests, ahead of their time. Racially and musically integrated, the band veered from pop to reggae to politically charged rock’n’roll effortlessly.
And if that sounds a little like The Clash to you, then you’re on the right track. Strummer and the boys famously covered The Equals’ Police on My Back on their Sandinista album in 1980. These days The Equals are known mostly for spawning the solo career of Eddie ‘Electric Avenue’ Grant, but throughout the 60s, The Equals straddled the worlds of pop, soul and rock better than just about anybody.
Eugene McDaniels - The Lord Is Back (1971)
Back in the early 60s, he was mild-mannered Gene Daniels, a soul singer from Kansas City in the vein of Jackie Wilson. McDaniels enjoyed minor success with hits like 100 Pounds of Clay and Tower of Strength, but struggled to find a foothold in the over-crowded world of 60s soul singers.
When civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in 1968, McDaniels became radicalised, reappearing in 1971 as ‘Eugene McDaniels, The Left Rev Mc D’. He recorded and released two astonishingly confrontational albums during this period, 1970’s Outlaw and it’s follow-up, ‘71’s Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse. Both mixed radical leftist politics with surprisingly funky soul-jazz; the second album also took on more a rock influence and featured fuzzy guitars over angry diatribes.
Legend goes that prior to its release, then-US vice president Spiro Agnew sent a cease and desist letter to Atlantic Records, citing Headless Heroes’ insurrectionist messages as a potential time-bomb. Who know how true that is, but the album remains a furious indictment of the times. And the jams are pretty sweet, too.
Baby Huey – Hard Times (1971)
James Ramey was a 400 pound soul singer from Chicago who discovered adopted the self-effacing stage name Baby Huey (an oversized cartoon duckling popular in the 60s) and formed the spectacular and pioneering Baby Huey and the Babysitters band in the late 1960s. Inspired by the psychedelic soul of Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix, the band recorded the legendary and ill-fated The Baby Huey Story: The Living Legend album. Ill-fated because the ironically titled album was released posthumously.
Ramey died of a drug-related heart attack in 1970 after battling heroin addiction and alcohol abuse. He was 26. Ramey’s penchant for self-referential rhymes is often cited as an influence on the development of hip-hop, and many of the songs on Living Legend were later sampled by everyone from Ice Cube to The Roots. And while that certainly adds to his looming legend, the album also stands as one of the best rock/soul crossovers ever, a hard-hitting expose of street-life delivered with a menacing swing and surprising psychedelic flourishes.
A classic, through and through.
Andre Williams – Can You Deal With It? (2008)
The lifetime and continued legacy of Andre Williams is too big and too important to summarise here, but suffice to say, the cat has been around. Born to a poverty-stricken family in Alabama in 1936, the scrappy Williams began writing and recording raunchy R&B songs in the mid 1950’s, scoring a #9 R&B Billboard chart hit with 1957’s Bacon Fat. As the 60s rolled on he wrote songs for Ike and Tina and Stevie Wonder, but his own career tanked and by the 1980’s, he was broke and wrestling with drug addiction.
And while life has never gotten all that rosy for Williams, he did manage a pretty magical comeback in the 90s, reemerging as the ‘Black Godfather’ a sort of patron saint for ‘Soul-punk’ pushers like Jon Spencer and the Dirtbombs’ Mick Collins. Williams eventually began using the Dirtbombs and other rowdy garage rockers as his back-up bands, and his more recent discography is littered with raucous, sleazy r&b songs bashed out in fiery slabs of torch-the-joint rock’n’roll.
Can You Deal With It? is just one fine example, recorded and released in 2008 with The New Orleans Hellhounds.
Hot R.S – In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (1978)
Hot R.S. was a studio disco project from South Africa that specialised in epic disco covers of epic rock songs – in fact, their name is an acronym for one of their more infamous covers, The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun. Future Def Leppard producer Mutt Lange was in this band – he played guitar - as was a couple former and future members of progressive rockers Yes.
All of this really happened, man. Disco got shanked by populist thugs (honestly, the anti-disco movement was basically thinly-veiled racism, sexism, and homophobia) and buried by the dawn of the 80s, but it produced a lot of fantastically weird and wild records along the way, and this kooky dancefloor take on Iron Butterfly’s seminal proto-metal jammer is definitely one of the most audacious.
Hot Chocolate – Brother Louie
The UK’s Hot Chocolate was another multi-racial soul band that essentially erased the boundaries between genres. Brother Louie, a cautionary tale of interracial romance, mixed thick, danceable funk with spacey psychedelic guitars and became a major hit for the band in 1973.
While their disco era smash You Sexy Thing remains a staple of rom-com soundtracks and shampoo commercials, many of their earlier hits have been covered by an array of hip rock’n’roll bands. Chicago alt-glam champs Urge Overkill and icy British goths Sisters of Mercy both took on Hot Chocolate’s melodramatic Emma, quirky pop deconstructors Stereo Total offered up a loopy, stripped-down take on Heaven’s In The Back Seat of My Cadillac, and beloved rag’n’rollers Quireboys nailed a cover of Brother Louie a few years back.
Ronnie Spector and Joey Ramone – Bye Bye Baby (1999)
As the beehived leader of 60s hitmakers The Ronettes (and wife of infamous ‘Wall of Sound’ producer Phil Spector), Ronnie is the undisputed queen of the girl groups, a major inspiration for both The New York Dolls (Ronnie once spied Johnny Thunders openly weeping in the front row of one her shows) and The Ramones.
In ‘99, Joey Ramone had the distinct pleasure of producing Ronnie’s She Talks to Rainbows EP, which featured this charming duet between the two on the Ronnette’s enduring 1965 hit. Spector has always wandered between rock and soul music; in 1986 she sang on Eddie Money’s hit Take Me Home Tonight, and she has subsequently collaborated with everyone from The Ravonetttes to The Misfits.
Dobie Gray – Drift Away (1973)
Dobie is a perfect example of how colour lines frequently stalled the careers of artists in the 60s and 70s. The son of sharecroppers, the Texan-born Gray’s first love was gospel music, but after spending some time acting and singing for a psych-rock band Pollution in the early 70’s, Gray discovered country music, and began recording albums that spanned country, pop, soft-rock, and soul.
Drift Away was a smash hit in ‘73 and remains one of the most recognisable and well-loved crossover hits of the era. Sadly, his label had no idea how to market a black country singer – despite the success of Charley Pride – and Dobie toiled in obscurity from there on out. One high note, though: In the mid 1970’s, Dobie was the first artist to play in segregated South Africa for mixed audiences. He remained a beloved figure there for the rest of his career.
Rick James – Give It To Me Baby (1981)
I mean, forget it, man. No one could hold a candle to this dude when it came to sheer rock’n’roll excess. Motley Crue wouldn’t last a week on Rick James’ tour bus.
The master of ‘punk-funk’ (a misnomer; he didn’t really have any punk influence in his music, but he did like to hang out with the punk rockers at Oki Dog in the early 80s), James was a little retro-Hendrix, a little proto-Prince, and a lot of rock’n’roll decadence thrown into one relentlessly funky package. I don’t care how rock’n’roll you are, you are still not as rock’n’roll as Rick James.
Tina Turner – Acid Queen (1975)
Tina Turner could make this list half a dozen times, really. No one merged the worlds of high intensity soul and high volume rock’n’roll like she did, from her frequent duets with Mick Jagger to her masterful 1970 cover of Come Together.
But it was her brief but memorable appearance as The Acid Queen in Ken Russell’s 1975 film version of The Who’s musical that really brought the rock’n’soul worlds together in a swirl of sex, drugs, red capes and spinning Iron Maidens. Tina is forever the queen of rock, soul, just everything really.
David Bowie – Young Americans (1975)
This would have been here anyway, believe me. While he referred to his mid 70s reinvention as “plastic soul”, Young Americans was anything but phoney. It proved that soul music was for everybody, man, even skinny glam rock motherfuckers from Mars.
Eric Burdon and War – Spill the Wine (1970)
In 1969, Animals singer Eric Burdon, deep in the cups of west-coast hippie-dom, had a vision of a new world where there was no difference between rock and soul, black and white, war and peace, love and hate, life and death. And so, with the help of producer Jerry ‘Hang On Sloopy’ Goldstein, he recruited racially-mixed LA party-band Night Shift and created the humbly-titled Eric Burdon and War.
For the next two years the band recorded two albums and toured extensively. Burdon quit midway through the tour for their second album, The White Man’s Burdon. There’s gotta be some irony in there somewhere.
War soldiered on without him, and eventually scored a couple of major hits, Why Can’t We Be Friends and Lowrider. Spill The Wine remains the high-water mark for the Burdon era of the band, however, a truly seamless melding of influences that still sounds as fresh and vital as the day it was created. Burdon and War saw a new world, and it had bitchin’ flute solos.
Rare Earth – I Just Want to Celebrate (1971)
By the late 60s soul juggernaut Motown Records wanted in on the burgeoning heavy rock market. They signed struggling soulful psychedelic-blues band Rare Earth but immediately ran into a major issue. No rock radio station worth its weight in Zep LPs was gonna play any record with a Motown imprint.
So Motown formed a subsidiary label and called it Rare Earth. The ruse worked, and over the next few years, Rare Earth scored a fistful of enduring hits that, like War and the Family Stone, rendered the strict divide between rock and soul music null and void. It doesn’t matter who you are or we’re your at, I Just Want To Celebrate comes on and you celebrate, goddamnit.
Sly and the Family Stone – I Want To Take You Higher (1969)
Sly and the Family Stone formed in San Francisco in 1967, during the height of the psychedelic rock era. Multi-racial and multi-gendered, the band did actually feature members of Stone’s extended family, and their sound was as diverse as their members, an expansive celebration of life, love and mind-altering chemicals that incorporated influences from R&B, pop, soul, psychedelia and rock.
As time went on the band slid into darker territory, addressing issues of injustice and the plight of inner-city poverty while their mercurial frontman and various members of the band slid deeper into drug addiction. By 1971, Sly was unable to even perform and was so paranoid he hired mob-affiliated gangsters for bodyguards. It was one of the most dramatic falls from grace imaginable and over the decades, Sly has made more than one fitful comeback, only to slide back into madness and medication.
But none of it can tarnish the sheer joy of early Family Stone hits like Everyday People, Everybody is a Star, Stand, Thank You, and the achingly epic I Want To Take You Higher. Sly and the Family Stone was not about labels or race or even drugs, it was about the unbridled, unfettered power of music to elevate, nurture, and heal. The song does exactly what the title suggests, every time. Sure, Sly blew it, we all blew it, really, but the music endures and it has lost none of its potency over the decades.
Fancy this as a Spotify playlist? Look no further.