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THE ROOTS OF ROCK & SOUL, SONG BY SONG: THE MID-’60S

Click on any song title below to play it on Spotify. The full 66-song playlist can be found on both Spotify and Apple Music.


C H A N G I N G  T I M E S

 

Sam Cooke, “A Change Is Gonna Come” (RCA Victor, 1964): By the early ’60s, Sam Cooke was a big star, so big that he thought he could check into a Louisiana motel while touring the South. Wrong. His arrest for merely trying to get a room to sleep in thrust the ugliness of racism right in his face, so Cooke wrote a song about it, reaching back to his gospel roots for the tone and language. “I go to the movie and I go downtown,” he sings over celestial strings keening with hope, putting the struggle of black Americans in everyday terms. “Somebody keep telling me don’t hang around.” Strange as it seems now, the scene Cooke describes was all too real in the South, where African-Americans were confined to the balconies of movie theaters, where lavatories and water fountains were marked “WHITE” and “COLORED.” Yet he latched this soul-crushing reality to the promise of a new day for his country: “It’s been a long, a long time coming/But I know a change gonna come…oh, yes it will.” Although the song didn’t even break into the Top 30, it became an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement and a modern-day hymn that’s inspired caring people to lift their voices in times of tragedy and celebration alike. Cooke’s dream finally became a reality 45 years later, on election night 2008, as President-elect Barack Obama proclaimed, “Change has come to America.” Maybe the day will come when we can say it again.

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, “The Tracks of My Tears” (Tamla, 1965): Smokey Robinson was Berry Gordy’s first go-to guy and Motown’s first million-seller with The Miracles’ seminal 1960 smash “Shop Around,” and he went on to crank out hit after hit for himself and for other Motown acts, including The Temptations, Mary Wells (“You Beat Me to the Punch”), The Marvelettes (“The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game”) and even the highly skilled writer Marvin Gaye (“Ain’t That Peculiar”).  With its intricate rhyme scheme and deft wordplay—“I’m just a clown since you put me down/My smile is my make-up/I wear since my break-up with you”—“The Tracks of My Tears” is Smokey in peak form, and one of the most devastatingly relatable breakup ballads ever written. Listen closely to “Tracks” and you’ll understand why no less an authority than Bob Dylan hailed Smokey as “America’s greatest living poet.”     

The Temptations, “My Girl” (Gordy, 1965): All you need to hear is the opening of this Temptations classic—a bass line like a heartbeat, an ascending guitar lick, and David Ruffin’s rugged voice, testifying about his true love: “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day/when it’s cold outside, I’ve got the month of May.” Suddenly, the memories come flooding back—walking in the park hand in hand, sharing a bottle of wine in front of the fire, the butterflies and palpitations, all the precious images of being deeply in love. Nobody ever sounded more manly while expressing tenderness than Ruffin does here, making Smokey Robinson’s lyrics his own, reaching up to grab the final verse like a wide receiver cradling a perfect spiral. “I don’t need no money, fortune, or fame,” Ruffin insists, “I got all the riches, baby, one man can claim.” The rest of the Temps join him for the radiant chorus, and if you’re not singing along, you’ve never been in love.

The Impressions, “People Get Ready” (ABC-Paramount, 1965): Right in the thick of the Civil Rights Movement, as peaceful demonstrators were confronted by tear gas, billy clubs and attack dogs, The Impressions’ Curtis Mayfield cooked up a stunning song of hope by reaching deep into his gospel roots. What he pulled out was an image dating back to times of slavery—a train chugging toward salvation—and he redirected that train straight into the urban jungle of the mid-’60s, inviting people to climb aboard: “You don’t need no ticket/you just thank the Lord.” But Curtis isn’t gazing heavenward; he’s looking at the journey toward a hoped-for destination of equality right here, right now — a freedom ride. The Impressions’ marinated vocal blend, midway between a Baptist choir and The Mills Brothers, gets an electrifying shot of soul from Curtis’ preacher falsetto and laid-back, tremolo-textured guitar, as he trades off lead lines with the other Impressions, doo-wop style, jiving up the gospel vibe. When Mayfield died in 1996 after being paralyzed in a freak accident six years earlier, his manager, Marv Heiman, offered this epitaph: “He wanted people to think about themselves and the world around them, making this a better place for everyone to live.” Later, Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck recorded a yearning cover of “People Get Ready,” demonstrating that its message would never go out of style.


The Rolling Stones, “Heart of Stone” (Decca U.K., 1965): As The Stones were taking London by storm with their insouciant refraction of received R&B, the Daily Mail, somewhat taken aback, noted their “doorstep mouths, pallid cheeks, and unkempt hair.” Those words accurately described what would become the most copied image in rock history. A charming exuberance pervaded Now!, the Stones’ third U.S. release, with its hot-rod takes on Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Willy Dixon and Muddy Waters, plus—at the urging of manager/producer Andrew Loog Oldham—four nascent attempts at recreating stateside R&B on their own compositions, the best of which, the hard-assed ballad “Heart of Stone,” introduced the crucial element of menace into the mix.

The Young Rascals, “Good Lovin’” (Atlantic, 1966): A soulful New York bar band infected by the exuberance of The Beatles, The Rascals opened their cover of The Olympics’ “Good Lovin’” with a cunningly simple hook—singer/organist Felix Cavaliere’s “One! Two! Three!” count-off. Their jacked-up live rendition was faithfully captured by co-producer/engineer Tom Dowd, who urged them not to mess with it. “We really weren’t too pleased with our performance on it; on a scale of one-to-ten, we thought this was about a six or a seven,” Cavaliere admitted. “It was quite a shock to us when that thing went to the top of the charts.”

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