Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Ladies of Soul

Ladies of Soul

David Freeland
Copyright Date: 2001
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Ladies of Soul
    Book Description:

    American soul music of the 1960s is one of the most creative and influential musical forms of the twentieth century. With its merging of gospel, R&B, country, and blues, soul music succeeded in crossing over from African American culture into the general pop culture. Soul became the byword for the styles, attitudes, and dreams of an entire era.

    Female performers were responsible for some of the most enduring and powerful contributions to the genre. All too frequently overlooked by the star-making critics, seven of these women are profiled in this book -Maxine Brown, Ruby Johnson, Denise LaSalle, Bettye LaVette, Barbara Mason, Carla Thomas, and Timi Yuro.

    Getting started during the heyday of soul, each of these talented women had recording contracts and gave live performances to appreciative audiences. Their careers can be tracked through the popularity of soul during the 1960s and its decline in the 1970s. With humor, candor, pride, and honest recognition that their careers did not surge into the mainstream and gain superstardom, they recount individual stories of how they struggled for success.

    Their oral histories as told to David Freeland address compelling issues, including racism and sexism within the music industry. They discuss their grueling hardships on the road, their conflicts with male managers, and the cutthroat competition in the recording business. As each singer examines her career with the author, she reveals the dreams, hopes, and desires on which she has built her professional life. All seven face up to the career swings, from the highs of releasing the first hit to the frustrating lows when the momentum stops.

    Although the obstacles to stardom are heartbreaking, these singers are committed to their art. With determination and style these seven have pressed onward with club appearances and recordings. They survive through their savvy mix of talent, hubris, and honesty about their lives and their music.

    David Freeland is an oral historian and artistic adviser of a performance series at Columbia University's Miller Theatre. He has been a guest lecturer at Columbia's School for Social Work.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-727-1
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xvii-2)

    In today’s age of catch-all mass marketing, when it seems as if the music of every hot young discovery is being touted as “a mixture of pop, gospel, and rhythm & blues,”soulas a descriptive term can be confusing. In its most general sense, soul refers to African-American popular music and is thus indistinguishable from contemporary rhythm & blues or hip-hop. In the early ’60s, however,soulas a musical category was quite distinct and new.Ladies of Soulis based upon an understanding of soul in a historical sense, that is, as a musical development that germinated during the mid-...

  5. Part One: The South

    • [Part One: Introduction]
      (pp. 3-6)

      Peter Guralnick has written that “Soul music is Southern by definition if not by actual geography.”¹ While the soul sound eventually spread to points as distant and diverse as Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago, its historical and emotional core always lay in its heady admixture of three southern musical forms: blues, gospel, and country. But equally important is the notion that soul music—its sparse elegance and richness of imagery, the pain and feeling evident in its grooves—is somehow representative of something distinctlysouthern. Soul embodies the complexity and contradiction of southern life: adversity, joy, hardship, determination, and loss....

    • Denise LaSalle: True-to-Life Stuff
      (pp. 7-40)

      I grew up a reader, an avid reader, from comic books toTrue Confessionsand all these magazines, love stories. And I daydreamed and I fantasized all my young life. This is all I wanted to do and something I always could see myself doing: singing or being a movie star or beingsomething. All these daydreams would come to me and I’d say, “I’m going to write some stories. I’m going to write my life.” I’d think about what I’m going to do and I’d write it, you know. Finally one day I got it into my head that...

    • Ruby Johnson: Having Soul For It
      (pp. 41-55)

      I come from a musical background. My father was a great singer. He sang with his brothers in a quartet, and my mother used to sing with an a cappella group down in North Carolina. She was a soloist. Of course, we always had the church music [in our] background. I grew up in church. We sang as a family chorus, along with cousins and aunts and uncles. All of our extended family. We were justborn singers. And I came from a very poor background. I was in a family of eight: five sisters and three brothers. And my...

    • Carla Thomas: Memphis’s Reluctant Soul Queen
      (pp. 56-76)

      I grew up across from Church Park in the projects.² Beale Street was right there—it was like a way of life for us. I was around music all the time and around Dad all the time. And he would take a lot of the kids to [the Palace Theater]. He was the emcee of a lot of those amateur shows. We’d all be holding hands—Mom and all of us—and we’d go watch the show. It was interesting because people would just allow their feelings [to come out]: “Man, get off the stage!” It was just fun.


  6. Part Two: Detroit

    • [Part Two: Introduction]
      (pp. 77-78)

      While the Detroit sound is inextricably linked in the minds of music fans to Motown’s classic ’60s recordings, this once-thriving industrial city had always supported an active musical scene prior to Motown, spurred on by famous nightclubs like the Flame Show Bar and the Twenty Grand, as well as legendary entertainment spots like the Greystone Ballroom and the Paradise Valley, or “Black Bottom,” district. The city has long been a haven for African-American performers, and was home to one of the first integrated musicians’ unions in the U.S. Later, in the ’60s, a number of small soul labels managed to...

    • Bettye LaVette: Buzzard Luck
      (pp. 79-102)

      I have a menu fetish.

      Bettye LaVette’s confession comes during the middle of a conversation about the great R&B singer Jackie Wilson. I ask her to explain.

      I just love menus, and if it’s a really interesting menu with a lot of interesting stuff on it I . . . just go on and talk and I’ll answer you, but I’ll be reading the menu. I’m not trying to decide, I’m trying to read the menu.

      We resume our discussion of Jackie Wilson, focusing on his debilitation in a coma and subsequent early death. LaVette, in dark sunglasses and every...

  7. Part Three: Philadelphia

    • [Part Three: Introduction]
      (pp. 103-105)

      Philadelphia has been active in record production since the early ’60s, when the small Cameo label, along with its affiliated company, Parkway, achieved a remarkable degree of success with a series of novelty records on artists like Chubby Checker (“The Twist”) and Dee Dee Sharp (“Mashed Potato Time”). Philadelphia was further notable for being the home ofAmerican Bandstand, the television program on which all-American (and in its early days, all-white) teens danced innocuously to the latest pop records. But it wasn’t until the mid-’60s, when a number of R&B-oriented record labels started to spring up, that Philadelphia began to...

    • Barbara Mason: A Lot of Life in a Short Time
      (pp. 106-134)

      I’ll just start from the beginning. Let me go back to maybe the age of twelve years old. I basically listened to a lot of R&B radio because that’s all we had to listen to in those days. We had transistors and we’d put little plugs in our ears and walk around listening to music.¹ One of the biggest R&B stations in our town was a station called WDAS. Every kid, every adult listened to that station. So I grew up listening to people like Curtis Mayfield and naturally all the Motown stuff. Again, this came before I began to...

  8. Part Four: New York

    • [Part Four: Introduction]
      (pp. 135-137)

      The soul music recorded in New York shared many of the basic qualities of Memphis and Muscle Shoals soul but added a layer of uptown sophistication through the use of strings and the pop-oriented vision of producers like Burt Bacharach, Jerry Ragovoy, and Clyde Otis (resulting in a style often described as “New York popsoul”). In contrast to the South, New York studios did not employ standard inhouse bands; rather, the musicians were hired on a date-by-date basis, with the musical arrangements usually worked out in advance of the session. The resulting sound was arguably more workaday and prosaic than...

    • Maxine Brown: Story of a Soul Legend
      (pp. 138-165)

      I came from the Pentecostal Church, the Holy Rollers—any word you want to call it. And my mother had gotten into that and she took us along with her—us being my sister and myself. And we’d all go to church, and I was brought up in the church and learned how to sing there. And there were about five young people in the church, and I always found myself being a leader even back then. So I could bang the piano a little bit and played by ear and I figured, “Let me form a little singing group...

    • Timi Yuro: Giving Them the Truth of Me
      (pp. 166-190)

      I’ve sang all my life. Sang all my life. Sang in my mother’s restaurant. Sang since I was very young. I listened to [Washington] since I was seven years old. I remember getting whacked across the kitchen floor by my father ’cause I did a song that Dinah did. I used to do it in the basement in Mrs. Houston’s. And it was [sings], “Well, I went to see my dentist, and told him the pain was killin’ . . . and he pulled out his trusty drill and told me to open wide, he said he wouldn’t hurt me,...

  9. Epilogue
    (pp. 191-204)

    In February of 1999, I was given the opportunity to promote a concert at Columbia University entitled “Classic Soul Divas.” The concert, which featured Maxine Brown and Bettye LaVette, could be seen as a variation of my larger mission: to help bring greater recognition to some of the country’s most talented and overlooked vocalists. The evening was notable in part for Maxine’s characteristically energetic, commanding performance. The audience, composed of a wonderfully diverse mix of hard-core R&B fans, young, trendy New Yorkers, older Harlemites, college students with little prior knowledge of soul music, and fellow jazz and R&B performers, was...

  10. Selected Discography
    (pp. 205-210)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 211-214)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 215-220)
  13. Index
    (pp. 221-232)