Soul Music: 1970s–1980s

This article discusses the evolution of American soul music during the Maximal Trilustrum (TriMax): the 15-year timeframe in which the maximalist virtues of eclecticism, grandeur, theatrics, and virtuosity reigned supreme in all of pop.

Taking its cue from rock and jazz — both of which were ascending to high maximalism during the psychedelic years — soul embraced advanced degrees of sonic experimentation, sweeping melodrama, and elongated songform as the 1960s drew to a close. Maximalist soul was a diverse field, but its genesis can be traced along four avenues: the lengthy, layered excursions of Isaac Hayes and Barry White; the album-oriented conceptualism of Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder; the psych-tinged explorations of the Norman Whitfield stable (The Temptations, The Undisputed Truth); and the lavish romanticism of the Philadelphia International Records roster.

While the album-oriented trend didn’t gain full traction in soul music until the 1971–72 period, efforts of that nature — from visionaries like Aretha Franklin, The Impressions, and Sly & the Family Stone — are evidenced as early as 1968: the first year of entrance for this list.

As a production-driven medium, soul encompassed a vast range of musical moods during the TriMax years, from the string-laden sweetness of Blue Magic, The Chi-lites, The Moments, and The Whispers; to the up-tempo buoyancy of The Emotions, The Spinners, The Three Degrees, and The Trammps; as well as the headiness and grit of Bloodstone, The Main Ingredient, The New Birth, and The O’Jays. Arrangement-wise, soul incorporated a wider array of instrumentation and idiomatic breadth during this era, as exemplified by the jazz elements that underpin the music of Angela Bofill, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Kellee Patterson, and Michael Henderson; as well as the orchestral flourishes that sometimes feature on the recordings of Diana Ross, Randy Crawford, Roberta Flack, and Thelma Houston.

As in all eras of soul, the voice took center stage during the Maximal Trilustrum, where spades of performing talent emerged across the vocal spectrum. Among the prominent divas of this period, singing ranged from the high-octave quivering of Deniece Williams and Minnie Riperton; to the gutsy rasp of Betty Davis, Millie Jackson, and Tina Turner; and ultimately to the full-range acrobatics of Cheryl Lynn, Jean Carne, Loleatta Holloway, and Patti LaBelle. TriMax divas could also be quite seductive at times, as exhibited by the sultry purrs of Nancy Wilson, Sylvia Robinson, and Tamiko Jones; and through the ecstatic moans of Donna Summer, Gwen McCrae, and Rose Norwalt (of Rose Royce). Meanwhile, the men of soul held up their end of the complementary scale with an equally diverse range of expression and manner, from the distinct upper-registries of Eddie Kendricks, Philip Bailey, and Russell Thompkins, Jr. (of The Stylistics); to the charismatic roar of James Ingram, Luther Vandross, and Teddy Pendergrass.

On the artistic front, TriMax witnessed a growing number of performers who took the elements of music-making into their own hands. Some operated within a semi-self-contained, singer/songwriter framework (Bill Withers, Syreeta Wright, Terry Callier, Zulema), while others proved equally adept as composers, arrangers, instrumentalists, and band leaders (Billy Preston, Leon Ware, Patrice Rushen, Shuggie Otis).

TriMax was also marked by bold advances in the realms of studio technology and audio fidelity, which led recordings from the trebly, transistor-radio quaintness of the early 1970s — as evidenced in the early rubies and sapphires of everyone from Barbara Acklin, Freda Payne, and Marlena Shaw; to The 5th Dimension, Black Ivory, and Love Unlimited — to the slick, surround-sound polish that producers perfected at the dawn of the 1980s, which graced a full range of artists: from combos like Ashford & Simpson, Odyssey, Shalamar, and Sister Sledge; to performers such as Al Jarreau, Chaka Khan, Phyllis Hyman, and Stephanie Mills.

Of course, not all TriMax-era soul was aligned to the maximalist aesthetic; plenty of performers during the 1970s and early ’80s continued purveying foundationalist forms of soul that harkened back to the earlier heydays of Motown, Stax, and even doo wop. As with pop and rock foundationalism — which characterized all of pop before the Beatles reached artistic maturity — foundationalist soul relied primarily on the bare bones of music-making: rhythm, lyrics, instrumentation, and perhaps a modicum of melody. Key players in this league included Al Green, Ann Peebles, Betty Wright, Candi Staton, Paul Kelly, and most acts classified under the Southern Soul umbrella.

(And what about minimalist soul, I hear you ask? Minimalism is the _absence_ of soul, silly.)

Drawing boundaries is sometimes difficult, and it’s hard to determine when exactly TriMax descended to the musical impasse that foreshadowed the apocalypse of the 1990s: an era awash in melisma-addled, slow-groove sludge. After all, the mid–late ’80s witnessed a slew of fine debuts in soul; some by performers who reinvigorated traditionalist elements (Anita Baker, Terence Trent D’Arbey), and many more by those who continued to push the technological envelope (Alexander O’Neal, Cherrelle, Keith Sweat, Oran ‘Juice’ Jones). Time-wise, the cultural marker could perhaps be placed between the first two albums by Whitney Houston, whose debut followed the classic, songwriterly mode of music-making, but whose second leaned heavily towards the dance-based, beat-predicated, digitally programmed approach that characterized such iffy late-80s genres as freestyle and New Jack Swing.

Click here for a semi-annotated directory of 975+ TriMax soul albums.