Book Review – Sweet Soul Music – Peter Guralnick

Do you like good music?
Huh, that sweet soul music
Just as long as it’s swinging
Oh yeah
Oh yeah

Peter Guralnick is arguably the most important, best writer we have on American roots and soul music. He wrote the two-volume series on Elvis Presley’s early life that I read a while back. He also wrote a book about Sam Phillips which I reviewed several years back. I met Gurlanick on that book tour and he signed my book. (He’s a Massachusetts guy so it was easy.)

I happened to be at a permanently standing flea market in Newburyport MA (by coincidence I believe this is Guralnick’s home turf) when I found a used copy of Sweet Soul Music. I took it home and pretty much gobbled it up.

The good news about Gurlanick as a writer is also the bad news if you are not into detail. Because he is. He will tell you not only about, say, Booker T. and the MG’s but also the offshoot bands the members were in, what small bands they came from, what they had for lunch, etc. I am no expert on soul music but after reading this book I sure felt like it.

Just to give you an idea of what’s in this most comprehensive of books here are some chapter titles

  • Prologue to Soul: Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and the Business of Music
  • King Solomon: The Throne in Exile
  • Beginnings: Stax
  • Otis Redding
  • Stax: The Golden Years
  • Fame and Muscle Shoals
  • Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag
  • Aretha Arrives

Yep, the soul gang is all here from Otis to Aretha, James Brown to Al Green. And what a wild ride it is. I’ve already read (and written) quite a bit about Aretha, Otis and Cooke (“The King of Soul”) but I had not yet written about Stax.

As noted there are two entire chapters on Stax and you will know all the ups and downs of brother and sister founders Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton. (STewartAXton = Stax.) So, how they got started, how they took an old movie theater in highly segregated Memphis and made it (however temporarily) into an integrated haven, how Booker T and the MG’s created a “sound” starting with “Green Onions.”

And you will find that contrary to what you might think, Stax’s heyday was pretty much only a few brief years in the late 50’s and into the late ’60s. And then how it all came crashing down one fateful night in April of 1968 when Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis and the trust was gone. And how Stax got caught up in its own shit and went bankrupt. And is now a museum.

I find it interesting how many people in the book so much seemed to want to be either Otis Redding or Sam Cooke and how much James Brown – the hardest working man in show business – was very much his own man. And how soul was popular at the very same time Motown was popular but that Motown was aimed a white audience, soul a black audience.

There are also great stories in here about Atlantic Records and (specifically) Jerry Wexler who came south to first hire Stax musicians in Memphis and then Muscle Shoals musicians in Alabama. (Unbeknownst to Jim Stewart, when Stax signed a distribution deal with Atlantic, all the masters reverted to Atlantic. This is what happens when you are young and naive and don’t read the contract.)

One of my favorite stories comes late in the book when Memphis musician Willie Mitchell goes on the road and tries to groom his opening singer into being a big star. The singer tells him he has $1500 in debt he has to pay back in Michigan. So Mitchell gives him the dough, never really sure if he’ll see the guy again. Two months later the guy shows up at his door and says, “Remember me? I’m Al. Al Green.”

And there’s plenty in here about Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, the ecstatic Stax European tour and even a little bit about Duane Allman who played on so many of these records and was managed by Jerry Wexler at one point. (Phil Walden was Otis’ manager then started Capricon records whose signature band was the Allman Brothers. A big Southern stew is what it was.)

“Was” being the operative word here. As Guralnick says, soul – like rockabilly and blues before it – had its day. Now there is other stuff on the radio and if you want to hear soul you have to go to your record collection or satellite radio. (Stax has a whole in-depth anthology with dozens of tunes that you can find on Spotify. Ironically, Stax’ initial name was Satellite.)

Anyway, you get the idea. I will leave you with a few tunes for your dining and dancing pleasure.

Spotlight on Lou Rawls, y’all
Ah, don’t he look boss, y’all
Singing ‘Love’s a Hurtin’ Thing’, y’all
Oh yeah
Oh yeah

Spotlight on Sam and Dave, y’all
Ah, don’t they look great y’all?
Singing, ‘Hold On I’m Coming’
Oh yeah
Oh yeah

Spotlight on Wilson Pickett, now
That wicked Wilson Pickett
Singing, ‘Mustang Sally’
Oh yeah
Oh yeah

Spotlight on Otis Redding now
Singing ‘Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa’
Oh yeah
Oh yeah
Get it, Otis

Spotlight on James Brown, y’all
He’s the king of them all, y’all
He’s the king of them all, y’all
Oh yeah
Oh yeah

23 thoughts on “Book Review – Sweet Soul Music – Peter Guralnick

  1. This book definitely sounds intriguing, Jim, in particular the chapters about Stax. I just love the music I know that came out of that label! Motown used to be my “go-to soul music.” Now it’s Stax!

    I wrote a post about Stax in August 2017, which was mostly based on Wikipedia and the Stax Records website. Obviously, this book is much better informed.

    Reading about all the other soul greats you mentioned certainly must have been fun as well! I also dig the songs on your playlist.


    1. I tell you what. You read this fucking book you will be a walking encyclopedia of soul. Guralnick even has a whole chapter on people in Memphis you never even heard of! Exhaustive detail. But a great read. As to the playlist, I drove around today listening to it and hearing all those together sounded fantastic. Even though I’ve been listening to them for years.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I spread all this stuff out. So much quality material and this sounds like more. Not that I am an expert but I do have a good knowledge of the Stax scene. I have a comp I have been listening to for years’ . Its a favorite spin. So many good artists. Otis was a special find. One doc I watched , Cropper years later still tears up when talking about Redding. I will eventually get to these pages.


    1. You can’t go wrong with anything Guralnick writes. But as I mentioned, he is a detail freak. You will know everything there is to know about soul if you read it. I was listening to the list and Otis’ “Tenderness” and “Can’t Turn You Loose” are favorites. But boy do I love “Shotgun.” Cropper and Otis were pretty close and co-wrote stuff.


  3. This one sounds really interesting and a great review. I loved Guralnick’s Elvis biogs even without much knowledge or interest in the King’s work so will keep my eyes peeled for a copy of this one


        1. This book will take you down some good rabbit holes and you’ll likely discover some new stuff. Or at least, old stuff you’ve never heard. My playlist is the most well-known stuff.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, it’s obviously a longer anecdote in the book. Interestingly, that guy Willie Mitchell was a very accomplished musician and had as much to do with shaping Al’s sound as anybody. He wanted soul but a less rough version than say, JB. So he kept encouraging Al to sing softer. It all worked.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yup, he was pretty integral to Green’s sound. He’s passed away now, but he was around for Green’s secular comeback album I Can’t Stop.


  4. I ordered the Sam Philips book from a remainders site and when it came I saw how thick it was and knew I was in for a deep dive. This book looks good too, especially since I want to know about Stax. (Why was Estelle left out of the Rock Hall?)


    1. Hey, nice to hear from you. As to this book, if you’re looking for the exhaustive history of soul, this is the book for you. As to Estelle, I did not know that and have no explanation for it. The book came out in ’98 before Stewart’s induction so it’s not addressed. Total ripoff. She was every bit his partner, financially and music-wise. Among other things, she ran the record store. So she had the pulse of what kids were listening to, kinda like Brian Epstein.


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