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THE ROOTS OF ROCK & SOUL, SONG BY SONG: 1966-67

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.



A  D I A L O G U E  I N  B L A C K  &  W H I T E


The Four Tops, “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” (Motown, 1966): “If I hadn’t worked in the factory at Lincoln-Mercury,” said Berry Gordy, “I wouldn’t have had the idea of the Motown assembly line.” Gordy’s factory turned out one of its most durable products with “Reach Out.” The Four Tops’ greatest record, penned by Holland-Dozier-Holland, comes on like a cavalry charge, right down to the galloping clip-clops that propel the track out of the gate. For the date, writer/producers H-D-H brought in the same artisans they’d deployed on previous Tops hits—the sterling Funk Brothers rhythm section, the massed string section, big-voiced Levi Stubbs and the other three Tops functioning as a contrapuntal chorale—but this time the results were especially intense, as the assembly line hammered this declaration of romantic devotion into an epic Cecil B. DeMille would’ve been proud of. “People always say it was everything but the musicians,” drummer Uriel Jones complained in the film Standing in the Shadows of Motown. “But I’d like to see them take some barbecue ribs or hamburgers and throw them down in the studio and shut the door and count off ‘One-two-three-four’ and get a hit out of it. The formula was the musicians.”

The Supremes, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (Motown, 1966): One of an even-dozen chart-toppers from Motown’s biggest female group, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” was conceived by Holland-Dozier-Holland as a rock song; the pulsing groove and semaphore guitar riff that drive the record, as well as the usually languid Diana Ross’ most impassioned vocal, make good on their intentions. But H-D-H were as surprised as anyone when Long Island band The Vanilla Fudge released a slowed-down cover of the song as sludgy as 50-weight motor oil—and it went to #1 as well.

John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton, “Hideaway” (Decca U.K., 1966): The Bluesbreakers—who worshipped America’s blues-guitar heroes—became one of London’s hottest acts as soon as ex-Yardbird Eric Clapton arrived, but that wasn’t what he’d bargained for. “All the recognition he had was a burden; he just wanted to play his guitar,” Mayall remembered. Clapton’s lone record with Mayall was such a definitive restatement of Chicago blues that any further exposition would’ve been redundant. Oddly, along with shredding his Gibson Les Paul on Freddie King’s “Hideaway,” plus expert renderings of Otis Rush’s “All Your Love” and Robert Johnson’s “Ramblin’ on My Mind,” the LP contained a nutty take on Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say,” whose interminable drum solo gave Clapton a preview of what he’d soon experience in Cream.

Percy Sledge, “When a Man Loves a Woman” (Atlantic, 1966): Alabama producer Quin Ivy heard Percy Sledge belt out a killer ballad at the local Elks Club but thought it could use better lyrics, so he had them rewritten and cut the retitled “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Percy powers out those new lyrics with such conviction, he makes them seem as eternal and holy as the Book of Psalms, an impression deepened by Spooner Oldham’s fugue-like organ, an unlikely but perfect fusion of gospel and Bach. The emotions stirred up in the church and the bedroom never seemed more closely connected than they do in this torrential outpouring. When the master found its way to Atlantic in New York, Jerry Wexler told Ahmet Ertegun, “Our billing for the summer is in the bag.”

Sam & Dave, “Soul Man” (Stax/Atlantic, 1967):  For the follow-up to Sam & Dave’s churning R&B chart-topper “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” writer/producers Isaac Hayes and David Porter dared to tinker with their winning formula. Porter asked Sam Moore to give him “the Bobby Bland squall,” guitarist Steve Cropper came up with the tasty licks that set up the familiar blast of the Memphis Horns and—voila!—another Memphis soul classic was created, this one a celebration of black masculinity. “We had no idea how good we were,” Hayes said of the partnership, mirroring the boastfulness of the lyric.

The Spencer Davis Group, “Gimme Some Lovin’” (Island U.K., 1967): The shock of hearing “Gimme Some Lovin’”—its raging organ, tribal drumming and clanging cowbell propelling an impossibly raw vocal—was equaled by the discovery that The Spencer Davis Group wasn’t from Memphis but from Birmingham—the English one. But fans could be excused for thinking they were black guys from the soul hotbed—that jackhammer groove came straight out of Sam & Dave’s 1966 hit “Hold On, I’m Comin’.” The band took its name from rhythm guitarist Davis, but that vocal (Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, who signed the combo, likened it to “Ray Charles on helium”) was the handiwork of 18-year-old phenom Stevie Winwood. “Steve had been singing ‘Gimme some lovin,’ just yelling anything, so that became the title,” recalled his bass-player brother Muff. “It took about an hour to write, then down the pub for lunch.” The adrenalized hit put Winwood in the fast lane; he went on to star in Traffic and Blind Faith before launching a long-running solo career.

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