This week marks a whole decade since I have performed on air as a radio DJ. A few months prior was the anniversary of my departure from college radio (because I graduated), and then eventually my involvement with a local NPR affiliate (because I moved). Since then I have recorded vocals for various things with the community radio station I am involved with now, but I still have not returned to the board to settle back into the role of DJ. I do want to pick that back up again, but not sure when. Pre-COVID, I was busy with other things and I am unsure of what my priorities will be as COVID continues to play out. However, in the meantime, I can still enjoy the music.
When I was a DJ, that is where I really developed a deep love for soul music. On my college radio station, I hosted a weekly independent soul radio show every Sunday night from 10 pm through midnight, and I often made content and programming notes to the local NPR affiliate soul show. It was a time of great musical exploration for me as I was able to dive deep into local and regional labels, learn about largely unknown aspects of American music, and see where more popular and notable bands of the era stole and re-appropriated aspect of Black America musical culture.
As with every self-proclaimed music aficionado, I have a large breadth of taste of interests in music. So, depending on my mood or interests at the time, I am exploring phases. And I thrilled to say I am back into a soul music phase. I never gave up or lost interest in the genre, but I just needed to find the right thing to catch my interest and make me fall in love with it all over again.
A few weeks ago, Sound Opinions aired an episode featuring an interview with Aaron Cohen about his book Move on Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power about the social and stylistic diversity of Chicago soul music from the 1950s through the 1970s. And this was exactly what I needed to get me out of the stagnation of the 2020 blues. The conversation was engaging and I enjoyed the discussion involving the intersection of politics and social commentary within the music, as well as the brilliance of the musicality within the genre. I heard songs from artists I had not listened to in a long time, and learned so much more about artists that were new to me. And since then, I have been diving deep into a genre that had always brought me so much joy, validated my complex feelings love and loss, and challenged my notions about race and society.
The conversation stayed within the realms of Chicago soul which was always, admittedly, not one of areas of soul music I had been that familiar with. Sure, I knew a few artists here and there that came out of Chicago, but nothing about their soul scene. I loved Stax and a had deep affinity for Motown girl groups, and I knew about something of the other regions that had their moments in the soul music sun such as Philadelphia. However, I was not that very familiar with the soul scene in Chicago. As it turns out, based on the Sound Opinions conversation, that the reason why soul music in Chicago was so diverse was because there was not any centralizing figure or label that defined the region’s sound like a Berry Gordy.
So, for the last few weeks, I have been in Chicago soul heaven. And listening to it has been really helpful in dealing with all the trouble of this current time. The social commentary still rings true today and even the non-political songs help me feel better by feeling and experiencing my emotions. These feelings, which I had not experienced in a long time, are why soul music is so important; the music heals the soul.
As part of the resurgence of soul in my life, I have really been diving deep into a group I was largely unfamiliar with a decade ago when I was doing radio. The Dells, formed in 1953 in Harvey, Illinois, actively recorded for 60 years with largely the same line-up through most of that time and were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.
On Sound Opinions, they played a clip from their 1971 single “”The Love We Had (Stays on My Mind)” from the studio album Freedom Means… I heard this and I just had to stop because I was so transfixed by it. And I must have listened to the song over 100 times during the following week. It embodies so much about what I love about soul music. The earnestness, the tight instrumentals, vocal harmonization, and vocals that just bleed one’s heart out courtesy of Mr. Chuck Barksdale.
I have heard that one of the cultural effects of COVID is that people have a hard time engaging with new things whether they be music, books, or movies. Instead, they want things they have already experienced and know because there is no uncertainty. Perhaps that is another reason why I am rediscovering soul music. I am pretty happy about that, but I am even more thrilled that I still discovering something so new within an old love.