CRITIC’S NOTEBOOK; Soul of Old Is Breaking Out All Over

Documenting the history of soul music once seemed relegated to public-television pledge drives and the odd Sinbad special on HBO. Now it has bubbled into full-time cultural anthropology.

The latest study is the new documentary film by D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus called ”Only the Strong Survive.” That comes on the heels of another, ”Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” released last fall and newly available on home-video. Still another, ”Sam Cooke: Legend,” is to be released soon on DVD, as will several remastered discs of Cooke’s music.

Bookstores have ”Hit Me, Fred,” the autobiography of Fred Wesley Jr., the muscular-playing R&B;trombonist who bridged the gap from old school soul (playing with Ike and Tina Turner) to funk, segueing into turns with James Brown and George Clinton’s P-Funk collective.

And ”The Jackie Wilson Story,” the tribute to Detroit’s first ambassador of the living lightning, is touring a succession of stages; it recently played for four weeks at the Apollo in Harlem. Wilson’s story lends itself to the stage, and perhaps it will be the subject of a documentary one day.

Is coincidence part of this greatest-hits soul resurrection? Possibly. But there seems to be more to it than that. An infatuation with the old funk can be found in Snoop Dogg’s current ”Paid Tha Cost to Be Da Boss”; the album’s title is a rapper’s delight found in an old James Brown tune, and several tracks are flavored with old-school R&B;. One is Snoop’s collaboration with the Dramatics; another is ”Beautiful,” a sweet but muscular cut with Pharrell Williams’s falsetto bobbing and weaving over the Dogg’s deep-fried Southern California dreaming.

Snoop is not alone among hip-hop artists spotlighting the music. Such samplings and the commercial and affectionate reasons behind it remind older listeners of the music they grew up with and tease younger listeners with hints of a past that was just as rough-and-tumble as the paths that pop music has taken now.

The Neptunes, the up-to-the-minute production team of which Mr. Williams is a part, have left touches of old-school on music from Mystikal to Justin Timberlake.

”There’s so much more to black life and culture than the materialistic portion that seems to consume all the lyrical content on the radio,” Mr. Williams has said on MTV’s Web site. ”I want to offer our difference and perspective, and I promise we’re gonna make people move and feel R&B;again.”

The Jackie Wilson show offers a particular insight into R&B;’s foundation. A former boxer, Wilson brought to the stage the feinting, lunging bounce of a bantamweight, a fighter who throws blows for an entire round, and he left audiences swooning, knocked out. At 41 Wilson collapsed onstage and fell into a coma from which he never recovered. But he was indirectly the spark that set Motown ablaze. Wilson gave the first taste of success to a struggling young hustler/songwriter named Berry Gordy. Gordy offers a telling vignette in his book ”To Be Loved,” in which he tries to win over a virginal honey who rebuffs him. She later flings herself at Wilson, which leads Gordy to believe that a life in showbiz might be good.

Not all vehicles of the soul revival center on one person. Locales figure prominently in the retelling of the history. Detroit and Memphis were the two cities that defined soul music in the 1960’s; they were the capitals of the soul wars in which the dapper, inner-city cool of Motown was pitted against the countrified — and country-fried — energy of Memphis’s Stax Records, the Southern recording powerhouse that supplied a response to Motown. Now it seems as if the troops in the battles, which peaked in the late 60’s, are being deployed again, if only for a loving armistice, as in ”Only the Strong Survive,” the Pennebaker/Hegedus documentary. The film brings the competing forces together on the screen: Carla Thomas and Wilson Pickett from the South, and Mary Wilson, one of the original members of the Supremes, from the North.

The flare of tempers has passed. In ”Survive,” Ms. Wilson allows that the Supremes were an important part of her life, though she still tags Diana Ross with a dig by calling her ”Diane,” the less-than-regal name Ms. Ross was born with. But the movie misses a beat by ignoring the nexus of Detroit/Memphis soul: the Dramatics, the Detroit-based pop R&B;group that was signed to a Stax subsidiary label.

The documentary allows for reflection, as the Stax stalwart Sam Moore talks about being consumed by a drug problem that had him selling heroin on the streets of Manhattan to support his habit after he and his partner Dave Prater broke up in the early 70’s. But by presenting the performers as calm and reflective, ”Survive” doesn’t let the audience see what drove these artists to the stage.

”Survive” was released just as the Stax Museum of American Soul Music opened in Memphis this month. The museum, housing memorabilia from Stax Records, is called ”Soulsville.” In ”Survive” there are glancing references to industry competition, like Stax going nose-to-nose with Regal Studios, where Ann Peebles and Al Green recorded for Hi Records and the crackling minimalism of producer Willie Mitchell. And Wilson Pickett’s grin still has a rusted edge of killer instinct: the only safe place for him is the stage.

The arrogance of proud professionalism still courses through the bodies of the crack musicians in the 2002 documentary ”Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” which shined a long-deserved light on the Funk Brothers, Motown’s house band. Here the studio pianist Johnny Griffith, who died the weekend the film was released, relates a direction given him by a fellow musician: ”Just play what you want to play. They don’t know what they listenin’ to anyway.”

In his autobiography ”Hit Me, Fred,” Mr. Wesley talks about dancing around the continent-size ego of James Brown. He juxtaposes the courtliness of the South against the hardscrabble desperation of poverty, mentioning the hideous conditions that created Brown though understanding that nothing could explain his boss’s monstrous behavior.

All these circumstances disappeared when the performers hit the stage, though it’s impossible to divorce them from tragedy. When Otis Redding is shown performing Sam Cooke’s ”Shake” in ”Survive,” it’s tough to see the clip without remembering the airplane crash that ended Redding’s career.

Redding had only one side of himself to give to audiences. He didn’t flirt with as many contradictions as Cooke, who cajoled, exhorted, preached, whispered and, yes, cha-cha-cha’ed with audiences, scaling each show to the crowd before him; there’s a huge difference between the Cooke recordings ”Live at the Copa” and ”Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963.”

Shrinking all of the complication down to a documentary is tough, but ”Sam Cooke: Legend” tries. Cooke was finally a man for whom everything was a seduction; even his gospel performances were come-ons. So much of his life was compartmentalized that he seemed to be keeping secrets from himself. Finally it’s understood that you’ll have to turn to the CD’s to really get a sense of who Sam Cooke was. His life offers all the melodramatic highs and lows of a great movie, as the 1995 book on his life, ”You Send Me,” made evident.

The same can be said for all the lives touched upon in the new Spring-time flood of soul revival. There’s a minor rankle in all of this, though. It seems peculiar that these lives, which once caused the cultural blood to boil with dynamism, are now treated as if they were stories to be told from a front porch over a Mason jar of lemonade. They’ve still got more bite than a glass of Country-Time, and need to be savored at length.


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