In The Meaning of Soul: Black Music and Resilience Since the 1960s, Emily J. Lordi reminds us that soul has many directives: to “signify the special resilience black people had earned by surviving the historical and daily trials of white supremacy” (5); to represent “the musical techniques or practices through which artists enacted soul ethos” (11); and, in its most familiar use, to refer to intellectual and artistic productions of Black Americans during the soul or post-soul music movements.
Lordi’s new book, however, calls for and provides a more expansive discourse of soul, which reveals meanings that have traditionally been overlooked, underrepresented, or disregarded. The Meaning of Soul addresses such slights of soul scholarship not only by analyzing Black American musicians from the late 1960s and early 1970s (and some more recent), but also by positioning soul not as a “discrete thing” but rather “a habit of thinking, a logic” (8). To achieve this, Lordi pushes back against “paradigms that treat soul music as a mere vehicle for civil rights messaging” (4), “mass-marketed representations of soul music (which sideline black women and mystify musical craft),” and “scholarship…[that] tends to assume that soul as a concept does not have an aesthetics, but only a politics” (6). Above all, in this book, the stories of soul come to life through soul music and music makers, but their meanings transcend music.
The book establishes itself from the outset as representing a disparate discussion of soul, even before the first word. Its cover features Minnie Riperton, the gifted five-octave vocalist and composer known for her pop crossover hit “Lovin’ You,” which reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1975. As such, Riperton is usually an outlier in discussions about soul music, whether due to her membership in the late 1960s multiracial, psychedelic rock outfit Rotary Connection, or her or others’ perceptions of soul artists. As her Rotary bandmate Sidney Barnes wrote in his autobiography, Standing on Solid Ground, “She had attempted to use [her five-octave range]…at some of the local black clubs, and [they] often booed her off the stage. They weren’t used to that weird sounding shit. They wanted her to belt out like Aretha Franklin or Fontella Bass.”i Or as Aaron Cohen writes in Move on Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power, “Besides Riperton’s singular vocal range, prowess, and stylistic choices, her background countered a general assumption about R&B singers.”ii This makes Riperton the perfect case for Lordi’s counterview of soul musicality and cultural sensibility. In describing Riperton’s use of her unique whistle register vocals, Lordi writes, “In all cases, her falsetto marked a refusal to shout and an embrace of an expansive, often buoyant interior life for which Riperton sought both musical and social space” (116). Lordi’s ascription of Riperton’s “innovative soul aesthetic” (116) not only adds but also centers the under-researched Riperton in a welcomed way.
Another fascinating discussion is Lordi’s chapter on the apparently impromptu vocal ad-libs of soul subjects both conventional (Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, Nina Simone) and non-conventional (Sly and the Family Stone, Prince with Rosie Gaines). Each artist’s section is accompanied by a well-researched bio, which is helpful in establishing context. But the song choices for these artists’ ad-lib analysis are more obscure than what would typically be selected to represent them. For example, it would be easy for Lordi to pick a known chart hit like “Sing a Simple Song” or “You Can Make It If You Try” to represent Sly Stone. Instead, she digs deeper (in her own soul writing ethos) and chooses Sly’s 1973 cover of Doris Day’s “Que Sera, Sera,” which Lordi calls “one of the greatest and strangest of soul duets” (76). About Rose Stone, Sly’s sister, Lordi writes, “She also creates one of the track’s most interesting ad-libs or mistakes by singing lyrics from the first verse again; the accident only registers when she drops the word rich midway (‘ri-’). Sly, both encouraging and demanding, instructs her to keep singing.…” Lordi also details on-stage ad-libs, recorded live in concert, by Franklin and Hathaway. Ad-libs are more prevalent and natural for concert recordings, and are usually edited out of studio recordings. But the communal, call-and-response banter in live concert recordings tends to be glossed over and taken for granted. Lordi instead dissects these moments to make a case for “(expanding) the range of interpersonal soul affects…” and “showing how the ad-libs…in the studio, on stage, in churches, and in clubs, create an exploratory approach to relationship with the self and others” (74). For example, of Franklin’s live performance of “Dr. Feelgood” on Live at Fillmore West, Lordi observes that “she stretches out the first line, ‘I don’t want nobody,’ and draws the ‘s’ of the next word through the following measure to almost painful effect: ‘ssssssssssssssssittin around me and my man. She finally releases the tension, checks in: ‘Ain’t that right girls? Ain’t it right? Yes, it is.’ What she’s building up to is an epic ad-lib not included on her studio version of the song” (89). These are just a few distinctive examples of the more expansive readings of soul sensibility that Lordi argues for and offers.
The Meaning of Soul weaves varied stories and concepts of soul—in performance, in critique, and in community. What it is not is a chronological treatise of soul music “that includes everyone’s—or all of my own—favorite artists,” as Lordi indicates in her introduction (12). Instead, she introduces unconventional topics ranging from soul artists covering songs by white (and black) performers; to falsetto singing by Al Green, Isaac Hayes, and Ann Peebles; to the use of “false endings” as a recording or performing technique; to conversations of post-soul, twenty-first-century artists, such as Flying Lotus, Solange Knowles, and Janelle Monáe, and what she refers to as “Afropresentism.” And while the book’s strengths and emphasis are on vocalists and vocality, instrumentalists are not left out and are actually well represented. Lordi’s work presents new and newer ways of looking at soul, through gender, place, capitalism, sexuality, power, and closer musicological readings. And the arguments presented are lovingly exhaustive, theoretically and practically sound, and, thankfully, soulful.