The History Of Soul Funk and Disco

The beginning In trying to trace the origins of today’s dance music it is difficult to know when to stop going back in time. Dance of one sort or another has always been a part of life and, it could be argued, the origins date way back into history. However, we take the revolution that occurred in the 1960’s as a starting point. Most of today’s dance sounds have evolved from an ever changing fusion of sixties soul (which itself was born out of rhythm & blues) and Latin jazz rhythms.

Due to the changing political climate in the early 60’s, caused mainly by the civil rights movement in the States, black artists were finally given the recognition they deserved for their contribution to music. Not that they hadn’t been making great music in the past - it was just that most of the major labels had been substituting white singers to cover the originals and turning soul classics into white pop.

It must be noted that during this period the most powerful person in recorded music was the label boss. It was he who decided what music the public listened to and generally, if it didn’t fit his criteria, it didn’t happen! It wasn’t until much later when individuals were given the freedom to experiment with music that disco music finally appeared. During the mid-sixties and early seventies major black music labels, like the Motown Group (Motown, Gordy and Tamla), Atlantic and Atco, and Stax dominated the soul dance scene and it was when they gave more freedom to individual producers and arrangers like Holland, Dozier & Holland, Norman Whitfield, Arif Mardin, Tom Dowd, Jerry Wexler and Steve Cropper (from Booker T’s MGs) that the creation of new sounds was to proliferate.

Early success Since the late fifties Atlantic had been putting out records that achieved some success by black artists like the Drifters, The Coasters, Lavern Baker who’s 1960 song "Bumble Bee" has all the ingredients of being the first disco record (?), Solomon Burke’s classic "Everybody needs Somebody to Love", which lay hidden for years until the Blues Brothers later covered it, and Ray Charles’ double length "What’d I Say", which spawned at least half a dozen cover versions, while the Motown labels had also been having some success with the Miracles ("Shop Around", "Mickey’s Monkey"), Little Stevie Wonder ’s extended "Finger Tips", and The Contours ("Do You Love Me"). The change in attitude in the 60’s enabled these and other labels to reach a much wider audience which enabled many black artists and groups like Otis Reading, Aretha Franklin, the Four Tops, The Supremes, The Vandellas, Ike & Tina Turner and a whole host of others to reach a much wider audience.

One of the major influences in the formation of disco music was the Chess Records Group, although they rarely seem to be given the credit for this. Throughout the 50’s and 60’s Chess had been a major player in the blues and r&b field (Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Bo Diddley etc.) and mainly continued in this vein even after the rise of Atlantic and others.

During the seventies however, they made a big impact through their Checker, Cadet and Neptune offshoots, in shaping the dance music of the 80’s. One of the least mentioned but most influential people to bring dance music to a wider audience was Phil Spector. In the 60’s he formed his own label "Philles Records" and released a whole bevvy of great dance tracks by artists like the Ronettes, the Crystals, and Darlene Love. He was also responsible for the classic Ike & Tina Turner multi-hit "River Deep, Mountain High" At the same time there were many small labels, as there always had been, struggling to make a living and turning out many classic tracks. Most of these were pure soul music but gradually moved into one of two new directions - disco or funk.

Increasing the tempo The influence of the Motown sound and the uptempo Atlantic music of Wilson Pickett and others was used by these purist labels to add excitement and energy to soul music. This lead to a much more hectic brand of soul, bringing out the energy of the 60’s and 70’s, and led to an underground surge of music which was known in the UK as Northern Soul.

This required a bpm of say 120 to 140, a good kicking snare drum and plenty of hi-hat and percussion. Generally this seemed to be more open to female vocalists than funk (see later). Good examples of this new sound were Edwin Starr’s 1968 hits "Agent Double O Soul" and "SOS, Stop her On Sight" made for the independent label Ric Tic.

Although a lot faster than most of the Motown sounds of the time the overall production was so much like their sound that Motown bought the label out! One of the factors that made this music stand out was the use of strings to add to the excitement, and Ric Tic excelled at this with their house band, The San Remo Strings, and when Motown bought the label the formula was transferred to the mainstream production. Of course, all the major labels had their in house orchestras which they employed to great effect mainly on soul ballads through the 50’s and 60’s (although one of the best uptempo string backed tracks of all time has to be the Drifter’s "When My Little Girl is Smiling" from 1962) but their use was gradually diminishing because of the increasing prominence of brass and horns through the 60’s.

This new sound of strings for up tempo soul was to provide a huge boost for the string orchestras as they were used more and more on these uptempo dance tracks.

The formation of funk Generally though this frenetic form of dance didn’t suit most tastes and didn’t become popular until much later. In the meantime mainstream soul music continued at a more sedate pace. In the early sixties artists began making instrumental r&b sounds but added a few extra ingredients. The main components were a strong bass lead and a ponderous beat, say 90 to 115 bpm with a solid thudding drum sound. This sound was developed through the 60’s and into the 70’s by adding brass. Listen to the change from the 1962 "Green Onions" to Booker T’s protégés The Barkays version of "Soul Finger" from 1967. And, of course, vocals were also added.

These sounds were further enhanced by various artists over those years. A lot of groundwork for this came out of Memphis and was dominated by artists like Booker T and the MGs, who included the innovative Steve Cropper, and who's 1962 ground breaking "Green Onions" was a huge turning point in our story. Others like Willie Mitchell, Ace Cannon and Bill Black’s Combo sound clip (who originally backed Elvis) were developing a similar sound on the Memphis based Hi label. In 1962 a group called the Mar-keys released a track called "Last Night" on the Satellite label, owned by Jim Stewart of the Satellite Studio and Record Shop. It’s success as a hit spurred the formation of Jim Stewart’s Stax and Volt labels, two of the most prominent labels of 60’s soul. In the band were Steve Cropper, Donald "Duck Dunn" and Wayne Jackson.

They were later joined by Booker T Jones and became the backing band for most of the Stax artists through the 60’s and were also the resident tour band. It was this band that developed that distinctive brass sound that came to be heard on most Stax tracks throughout this period and was to have a huge influence on the later funk sounds . Cropper, Dunn and Jones still continued to record as Booker T & the MGs throughout this period.

One of the founding influences in this field was the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, who, under the name of James Brown and the Famous Flames, had been making great deep soul tracks for the King label since the mid 50’s. He later gathered a whole group of fine musicians, originally called the James Brown Band, but later shortened to the JBs. Amongst these was one of the most influential figures in the progression of funk, Bootsy Collins. Also, Maceo Parker, who’s distinctive sax sound led him to later fame with his own group Maceo & The Macks, and Fred Wesley, who later took the Brown band to be known as Fred Wesley and the JBs, after Brown went solo.

Brown’s classic 1965 hit "Papas Got a Brand New Bag" was a major turning point in the progression of funk and is still heard today through innumerable samples. Another big influence was Allen Toussaint who developed a whole new sound of Louisiana rock and soul for the likes of Lee Dorsey and later The Meters. He went on to produce the classic "Lady Marmalade" for Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles (Labelle). There’s an interesting progression through these 3 artists, all produced by the same guy, which charts the change from r&b of the early sixties, through soul of the mid 60’s, to 70’s disco.