In a 1970 interview with Playboy, Ray Charles described soul musicians as "people who do things from the heart." This still holds true, but what have the past four decades added to the genre, especially given its resurgence in the late 2000s? Madisonians can hear for themselves in the coming days, as a slew of soul-revival acts hit local stages.
Milwaukee soulsters Kings Go Forth have built a 1970s-inspired sound from the memories of their singer, Black Wolf, who recorded at Curtis Mayfield's Curtom studio during the Me Decade, and from the vintage vinyl of bassist Andy Noble, who doubles as a DJ and the owner of Lotus Land Records. The 10-piece group released their debut LP, The Outsiders Are Back, on David Byrne's Luaka Bop label last year. They play the Majestic Theatre Oct. 14.
Then there's L.A. soul-pop band Fitz & the Tantrums, who got started when lead singer Michael "Fitz" Fitzpatrick bought an old Conn electric organ and penned the group's single "Breakin' the Chains of Love" minutes later. The Tantrums delve deep into music history each time they perform the song, channeling the James Brown and Prince tunes they were raised on, as well as the sounds of contemporary bands such as MGMT.
The band have earned Motown comparisons, but keyboardist Jeremy Ruzumna says that non-soul elements also help make their songs memorable. "If you took a New Wave band from the 1980s and put them into a time machine and brought them to the 1960s to record their songs," he says, "you might have something close to what we do."
The group's popularity has skyrocketed since 2010, when they played one of the year's most spirited sets at the High Noon Saloon. When they visit Madison this time around, on Oct. 15, they'll be playing a much larger venue: Willow Island at the Alliant Energy Center. They're riding a tidal wave of soul-music enthusiasm, fueled in part by Amy Winehouse's Motown-esque megahit, "Rehab," which dominated the radio in 2006 and 2007.
It was around then that Kyle Henderson, of the local outfit Kyle Henderson's Blue Eyed Soul and 1980s power-pop band the Producers, landed in Madison. Henderson was intent on paying his respects to legendary soul singer Otis Redding, who died when his plane crashed into Lake Monona in 1967. Henderson's fascination with soul began years earlier, when he sang in a band helmed by Billy Joel's drummer, Liberty Devitto.
"We did a lot of Marvin Gaye and a few Temptations [songs]," he says. "Also some Gladys Knight - with the key lowered. My voice has a furry hoarseness to it, so I could pull it off. I'd say my 'soul compass' was pointed more toward Motown then. Now it's more Stax-ish."
These days, Henderson performs original material mixed with a smattering of covers by Redding, Ray Charles and other old-school greats. Though the tunes are rooted in sounds from the 1960s, they have a 1980s pop bent as well. "Think a little more Squeeze and Elvis Costello than some other neo-soul artists," says Henderson, who'll play the Knuckle Down Saloon Oct. 29.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound fuse soul's fiery emotions with the political consciousness and DIY aesthetic of punk. It's a Stax-meets-Clash sound with a bit of Gang of Four thrown in for good measure, and it's coming to Freakfest Oct. 29.
"Our punk roots allow us to add that extra aggression into what is typically 'baby, baby' fare," says Brooks, the group's vocalist. "It also lets us sing about our political sensibilities and the events we've grown up with, from the Cold War to the Gulf War to the current conflict in the Middle East."
Brooks says that soul musicians can speak more openly than they could early on. "Sam Cooke could write a song like 'A Change Is Gonna Come,' but he couldn't write a whole record like that and get the record companies on board," he notes. "And when Aretha [Franklin] was singing 'Respect,' most of the message was between the lines."
And the new openness doesn't just have to be about politics.
"When we do a song about love, we're treating it as this complicated thing, not just, 'Hey, that girl is hot and I want her,'" Brooks says. "Because we can be straightforward, we can explore what it all means."