Soul Searching

Various Artists
Beg Scream & Shout! The Big Ol' Box of '60s Soul
(Rhino)

If popular culture is to be believed -- and, granted, as cultures go, it's a pathological liar -- the most important thing about soul music appears to be your response to it. Not just whether you stir at all, though that factors large, but the extent of your contortion. Because the soul in question isn't really the music's, it's yours -- and that's all part of the package.

If you're at a loss as to soul protocol -- or if, merely liking the music on Rhino's new six-disc '60s soul compilation, Beg Scream & Shout!, you don't go into fits of apoplexy at the sound of Marvin Gaye -- all you need do is refer back to the pantomimes seen in movies (The Big Chill), on television (Murphy Brown), or at post-Lee Atwater Republican victory parties. In a festive spirit, William Hurt or Candice Bergen or Newt Gingrich sets the turntable to spinning Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, or Sir Mack Rice. (Not all soul singers were famous.) People in the vicinity -- who, in the aftermath of the soul era, all seem to be over 40, professional, and white -- start making various ... gestures. At first, these might just be chance facial tics, or just that nod that most of us get from listening to music we enjoy. But then the faces cinch up like drawstrung sweat pants. Their hands commence to clap in a way that says not so much "I can keep time" as "There's a groove in there somewhere." They may even begin to snap their fingers and utter sundry whoops of joy. For extra soul points, they might cry, "Ow" -- it does, after all, hurt so good. And then the pelvising begins -- a wholesale dry hump of the air, assisting those clapping hands in their search for the groove. And then, after the various whitefortyfessionals bite their lips, loosen their ties, and ... oh, the humanity ... start to dance, a soul-drunken number of them might elect to sing along. "Muh-staang SALLY," they yawl. "Ah think you bet-tuh suh-LOOOW, yo MUH-staaaang down." In their attempts to emulate the soul singer, the partiers flirt with blackface. But no -- it's the soul, you see. The deeply felt condition of humanity, wrung from a pop song, articulated through stiff steps and isometric facial exercises.

Granted, real live people who happen to be over 40, white, or professional don't necessarily behave this way; all sorts of people like soul, and some of them even know how to dance; and when real live people do snarl and stomp along with music like an enthused animated corpse, it's usually because they're enjoying it, and, more important, relishing their memory. Soul music is, after all, as inextricable a vein in the boomers' bygone youth culture as big band music was in that of their parents. (That is, once again, if pop culture isn't telling a whopper.) And like big band music, soul was slick -- an orchestrated music, meticulously planned and produced, and a canny exploiter of the sort of advanced oiling available in the studio.

None of soul's artifice makes it bad. The idea that tunes like "In the Heat of the Night" (Ray Charles), "Function at the Junction" (Shorty Long), or "Piece of My Heart" (Erma Franklin) -- all offered here -- allegedly inspired grand mal is quite admirable. If a producer, or even a musician, can manipulate a bunch of handy, predetermined ingredients (in the case of soul, predominantly from African-American sources, but with a healthy respect for the pop necessities of the day) and convince people that they're hearing passion, immediacy, abreaction -- hell, we can call that art, can't we? Contemporary R&B, with its vacuous displays of proficiency with voice set over canned background, pales. Boomers liked soul for a reason.

Younger listeners, whose preferred types of music owe much to the stuff heard on Beg Scream & Shout!, might have a thing or two to learn about the form. But unpackaging soul music from its vital cultural setting might be just as difficult as getting the stuff out of Rhino's damn box. The packaging imitates one of those 45 boxes that Mom or Dad carted around back in the day. The discs themselves are dolled up like old singles, with sleeves, plastic platters, and old label imprints. The contents also include a booklet and about a thousand soul singer trading cards, with pictures, bios, and tiny soul-quiz questions and answers. Some of the biographical material is interesting, if partisan. "The grit-and-grease of The Contours stood in marked contrast to the ready-for-prime-time sheen of other, more urbane Motown acts. ... It's hard to believe that the lyrics were written by no less [sic] than Smokey Robinson, the premier composer of romantic soul ballads." True. But then comes the inevitable cheerleading for the deified: "To truly appreciate the power of raw, undiluted funk, you could go out of your way and buy the entire Parliament-Funkadelic/Ohio Players/Cameo back catalog. Or you could simply do what I did and sit in the backseat of a taxicab for a half hour on the hottest day of the year. That way you could observe firsthand as your driver -- a robust, hairy, awkward man -- reels through a series of convulsions to the tune of 'It's Your Thing' by the Isleys." Yes, that's very nice -- but I already knew that people liked the Isley Brothers. And I already knew that people act foolish when they hear soul. As for the generous packaging: You don't need an entire printing press to wrap a fish.

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