Trying to precisely define the term describing black music performed by white artists can be a slippery slope — while some of the genre’s greatest practitioners are among its most obscure.
One night in early December, I sat with music-business veteran and fellow Hall of Fame voter Gregg Geller in a Manhattan nightclub. When the conversation turned to the topic of this essay, he reflected: “ ‘Soul’ as a vocal quality is timeless, eternal. But ‘blue-eyed soul’ is a moment in time.”
Gregg was referring to a pop-music phenomenon whose rise and fall paralleled that of African-American soul music itself. Among its spiritual predecessors were Bing Crosby (“The first hip white person,” according bandleader Artie Shaw); Johnnie Ray, whose histrionic style borrowed heavily from black gospel and early rhythm & blues; and Elvis Presley, who scored across-the-board hits on the pop, country and R&B charts alike.
When I e-mailed some twenty music aficionados around the country, informally soliciting their favorite “white soul” artists and recordings, their enthusiastic replies cited nearly seventy artists, spanning the musical alphabet from Mose Allison to Timmy Yuro. A New York label entrepreneur’s all-British list included Tom Jones, the Bee Gees and Simply Red. A Georgia journalist named prewar jazzmen Bix Beiderbecke and Jack Teagarden. A New Jersey memorabilia dealer vouched for Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad and the Four Seasons’ Frankie Valli.
But soul music “has a beginning and an end,” noted another respondent, Dan Hodges of Berkeley, California, in his provocative three-thousand-word (!) response. “I’m unwilling to call something ‘white soul’ that wasn’t recorded during the historical period of soul music. Whatever else, for example, the Beastie Boys may be, I don’t consider them blue-eyed soul.” In awarding his soul seal of approval to the Motown recordings of the little remembered singer Chris Clark and Dusty Springfield’s landmark Dusty in Memphis, Hodges established two compelling criteria for the sound:
“One . . . is that the white singer and song should ‘fit’ with what we recognize as soul music already. It would mean that, for example, the white soul singer was recorded by a record company that released soul records and that the records were made as they would have been with a black singer.”
“Two . . . is that the white singer’s performances should be accepted as soul music since they would be so accepted if sung by blacks [italics added] . . . and [that] if a black singer recorded the song, it would be considered soul. In contrast, whether a white group or the Supremes made an album of Rodgers & Hart show tunes, it wasn’t soul music.”
Dan’s definition would accommodate such exponents (whether famed or forgotten) as the Righteous Brothers, the Magnificent Men, Roy Head, Eddie Hinton, Len Barry, Billy Harner, Roland Stone, Bob Brady & the Con Chords, Bob Kuban & the In-Men—even Lulu (in her Muscle Shoals period) and Charlie Rich (whose version of “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” predated that of Sam and Dave). But it would exclude Hall of Fame inductees the (Young) Rascals, as well as the Box Tops, Tony Joe White, Bobbie Gentry, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, Sir Doug Sahm, Laura Nyro, and the Spencer Davis Group featuring Stevie Winwood – to mention just a few more names that came over my Internet transom._
[Gregg Geller’s personal favorite, Aesop’s Fables, were from Huntington, Long Island. “Performing Stax, Motown and especially James Brown’s hits of the day,” he recalls, “their lead singer Sonny Stiles was one of the greatest live performers it has been my privilege to witness. To complicate matters (this is America, after all), Sonny was Puerto Rican – which I guess makes him a brown-eyed blue-eyed soul artist.”]
Wayne Cochran, the Rationals and the Temptones are three classic examples of the profound impact of soul music on a generation of white performers.
Throughout the Sixties and Seventies, Wayne Cochran may have done more than any other single white performer to spread the gospel of Southern soul music – and he did so without having anything close to a hit record.
Born in Thomaston, Georgia, in 1939, Cochran was a close friend and frequent performing rival of Hall of Fame inductee Otis Redding in the early Sixties. (Wayne played bass on Otis’s second single, “Shout Bamalama,” in 1962.) In 2001, Cochran described his red-dirt upbringing to author Scott Freeman in the Redding biography Otis!: “Father a cotton-miller and moonshiner. Grandfather a paid-up member of the KKK for life. . . . Music just takes all that away. You appreciate someone’s talent and they become your idol. Who cares what color?”
His imposing six-two figure topped by a towering white-blond pompadour, Wayne fronted a skin-tight, horn-heavy band known as the C.C. Riders that served as an incubator for such gifted musicians as bassist Jaco Pastorius, later of Weather Report. In a 1994 essay, writer James Porter noted that throughout the Sixties, Cochran regularly performed in “the same places as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr. At a time when Black soul acts who played that circuit . . . were reduced, in their heyday [italics in original], to doing stuff along the lines of ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business,’ the fact that Cochran could get away with performing maximum r&b for a blue-haired audience is significant.”
Cochran recorded sporadically for such labels as King, Chess and Mercury, but his closest brush with the Hot 100 came when his version of Bob and Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle” bubbled under for a few weeks in late 1965. As a songwriter, however, Wayne had better luck. In the fall of 1964, his classic tale of teen tragedy, “Last Kiss,” became a Number Two pop hit for J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers, obliterating Cochran’s original version on King. Thirty-four years later, Pearl Jam cut the song in one take at a pre-show sound check and pressed it up on a seven-inch single as a fan club giveaway. Radio programmers picked up on the track, which took on an unexpected poignancy in the wake of the April 1999 massacre at Columbine High School. By the year’s end, “Last Kiss” had reached Number Two and become Pearl Jam’s highest-charting song to date.
Wayne Cochran retired from the music business in the early Eighties and today is a pastor at the Voice of Jesus Christian Center in Hialeah, Florida. “In the end, it wasn’t music to me – it was a cause,” he told Scott Freeman. “. . . What we did, we took soul and r&b music and dressed it up like Las Vegas. And while they weren’t lookin’, we snuck up behind them!”
In 1965, four Temple University students – Daryl Hall, Paul Fogel, Ken Halpern and Brian Utain – were performing around Philadelphia as an a cappella vocal quartet called the Temptones. After Fogel enlisted in the Air Force, another Temple student, Barry Glazer, replaced him.
The new lineup recruited a rhythm section and shifted its repertoire away from doo-wop revival standards toward contemporary soul music, with a particular emphasis on the songs of their idols, the Temptations. A typical Temptones set might include the Spinners’ “I’ll Always Love You,” the Miracles’ “Ooh Baby Baby,” and such Tempts favorites as “I Wish It Would Rain” and “My Girl.”
“The Temptations’ harmonies were tighter and more melodic than [those of] the doo-wop groups,” says Barry Glazer. “Daryl, who was a music major at Temple, did all the vocal arrangements and was our main lead singer.”
When the Temptones finally met the Temptations, backstage at Philadelphia’s Uptown Theater, the Motown stars were impressed by the white group’s unaccompanied rendition of an early Tempts ballad, “Farewell My Love.” Temptation Paul Williams became a solid supporter, buying the white kids some new stage clothes and later arranging for an audition with Smokey Robinson (a Motown recording contract was not forthcoming, however).
When the group took second place in a James Brown Talent Show at the Uptown (coming in behind the Ambassadors but ahead of the Delfonics!), WDAS jock Jimmy Bishop brought them to local indie Arctic Records. On their 1966 sessions, the Temptones were backed by many of the session players who would later form MFSB – the musical backbone of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records.
Barry Glazer and Daryl Hall co-wrote the group’s first single, “Girl I Love You,” as well as the followup, “Say These Words of Love.” “‘Girl I Love You’ went Top Twenty on some local radio charts and got us on TV shows with the deejays Hy Lit and Jerry Blavat,” Glazer recalls. “We also played two Freedom Shows, big concerts sponsored by the NAACP. We almost always played with black acts.”
Neither disc did anything to extend the Temptones’ appeal beyond their home turf. A second Freedom Show at Convention Hall would have been the group’s last gig but for the thunderous reception that greeted their rendition of “Old Man River” (in the Temptations’ arrangement, naturally). This led to a showcase for the Ashley Famous Agency at New York’s Village Gate, where the Temptones’ rhythm section included one John Oates on guitar. It was the first time he and Daryl Hall had ever performed onstage together.
Following some personnel changes, the Temptones disbanded for good in 1969. “John and Daryl started doing music together,” says Barry Glazer, “and the rest is history.” (Hall and Oates released their debut album, Whole Oates, in 1972.)
“But the Temptones were pretty damn good and very unusual for our time,” he adds with a chuckle. “We didn’t even like the Beatles. I mean, we really wanted to sound black!”
Of all the white teen rock & roll bands to emerge from the Great American Garage in the mid-Sixties, none interpreted contemporary soul music with more skill and passion than the Rationals, from Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Scott Morgan (vocals) and Steve Correll (guitar), fellow students at Forsythe Junior High in Ann Arbor, formed the embryonic Rationals in 1963 and were joined within a year by Terry Trabandt (bass) and Bill Figg (drums). By then, their focus had shifted from guitar instrumentals to a blend of hip British Invasion covers (Pretty Things, Them, et al.) and promising originals. Meanwhile, Morgan recalls, “Steve Correll’s mother would drive us to the Fox Theater in downtown Detroit to see the Motortown Revue shows with Little Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, everybody. We’d be among the few white kids in the place.”
Jeep Holland was the group’s manager, the founder of the A2 (A Squared) label and a dedicated collector “extremely well-versed in rhythm & blues,” says Scott Morgan. “Jeep was the one who turned us on to songs like ‘I Need You’ by Chuck Jackson, ‘Listen to Me’ by the Esquires and ‘The Entertainer’ by Tony Clarke.” In late 1966, Holland chose an Otis Redding song called “Respect” for the Rationals’ third A2 single. This recording anticipated Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” by nearly a year and – in light of its local-hit status in her hometown of Detroit – likely influenced the Queen of Soul’s own arrangement.
Creeping to Number Ninety-two, “Respect” became the Rationals’ sole Billboard chart entry. Several more intense and soulful singles followed; none broke nationally, despite heavy regional airplay. The Rationals commanded a loyal following in the 1967–69 heyday of Detroit’s Grande Ballroom scene but gradually lost momentum. Only months before the group broke up, in August 1970, New York label entrepreneur Bob Crewe finally released their self-titled debut album. It’s an uneven LP, but the Scott Morgan–Steve Correll duet on “Temptation ’Bout to Get Me,” in its raw power and desperate yearning, actually cuts the Knight Brothers’ hit version. (“Hijackin’ Love,” an obscure 1971 single by Morgan’s next band, Lightnin’, is likewise a more thrilling record than the Johnnie Taylor original.)
Although their greatest recordings have never been legally reissued, the Rationals are partially represented on Medium Rare (Real O Mind, 2001). This Scott Morgan rarities compilation features the group’s last studio recording alongside tracks from their 1991 reunion sessions, including Major Lance’s “The Monkey Time” and Darrell Banks’s “Open the Door to Your Heart.” For thirty years, Scott Morgan has continued to perform and record with such groups as Sonic’s Rendezvous Band, Dodge Main and the Hydromatics. A still vibrant survivor of a legendary music scene, he remains (to quote David Fricke) “one of America’s Great Voices.”
[Thanks to all Blue-Eyed Soul Survey participants. Special thanks to Gregg Geller, Geoff Ginsberg, Barry Glazer of the Temptones, Daniel M. Hodges, Scott Morgan of the Rationals, Phast Phreddie Patterson and Don Waller.]