When Black Was White: Supper Club Soul

Today, please welcome back our special guest blogger John Walker Ross,  with his latest installment for SMS!

Here’s Johnny:

This is the first of a two-part essay on black/white crossover in the 60’s, the promise of racial harmony and the reality of racial confusion. First up, black singers moving toward the white world…with all that implied, as the Staple Singers put it in 1972:

I know a place
Ain’t nobody cryin’
Ain’t nobody worried
Ain’t no smilin’ faces
Lyin’ to the races

The deepest promise in the heart of rock ‘n’ roll was the transcendence of racial barriers: America’s and the world’s. Everyone can decide for themselves how much or little that promise has been kept. It’s safe to say we have not arrived at Utopia.

While much has been made of white artists, from the Jazz Age and even earlier, attempting to co-opt some element of black music, the road has always run in both directions. For there to be any harmony at all it could never be otherwise. Black America and White America have lived together too intimately for too long, and music is too insidious an art form, too much part of the air, for there to be anything like racial purity when it comes to either making music or hearing it.

What I’m calling Supper Club Soul has had other names, but by any name its essence was the same. Critically under sung to say the least (none of its defining geniuses—Brook Benton, Dionne Warwick, Lou Rawls, Marilyn McCoo, have ever been allowed within spitting distance of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), Supper Club Soul was perhaps the most subversive genre of all, for it was here that the idea black people belonged everywhere took its deepest hold.

Hail to a baker’s dozen, then, of the quiet revolution:

Brook Benton and Dinah Washington “Baby You Got What It Takes” Billboard #5 (1960)


Literally the foundation. Released in January 1960, it paired Dinah, already a seasoned night club veteran and a regular on the R&B charts since the mid-40’s, with relative newcomer Benton, who would virtually define the style for the first half of the 60’s. In case you don’t think Black America was on board with the idea of going classy while keeping it real, this spent ten weeks at #1 on the R&B chart.


Jackie Wilson “Doggin’ Around” Billboard #15 (1960)

From Jackie’s spectacular LP Jackie Sings the Blues (yes, folks, there were great albums before the Beatles). It was released as the B-Side of “Night” and not only charted Pop, it made the top spot in R&B. Blues with no hint of the Delta or the South Side of Chicago. Anyone who thinks it’s less deep for all that isn’t paying attention. Yes, you can see Jackie delivering it in the spotlight on an empty stage, but it’s the play of the shadows just beyond that lingers.


Jerry Butler “He Will Break Your Heart” Billboard #7 (1960)

Right from the beginning the line between “deep” soul and its pop variant was blurred. Here it was basically erased by a man who would make a career of it. An ocean of feeling, delivered with their gentlest possible ache.


Sam Cooke “Twisting the Night Away” Billboard #9 (1962)

Of course giants like Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke transcended Soul itself, let alone any sub-genre. But that was because they sought—and found—firm footing in the middle of the road. Making a big, brassy arrangement swing was part of the challenge, one Mr. Soul met with astonishing ease. He wants to tell you about a place….and it isn’t on the chitlin’ circuit.


Barbara Lynn “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” Billboard #8 (1962)

A left-handed black female guitarist from Beaumont, Texas? Okay, not exactly what Vegas had in mind, but the lilt in her voice and the gentle strength of the melody were made for rearranging boundaries. Covered by many and it would have been more, but, after a while, even the best singers probably gave up on the idea of improving it.


Ruby and the Romantics “Our Day Will Come” Billboard #1 (1962)

Often slotted with the girl groups, this is really an adult-oriented, easy listening classic that went over just as well with teenagers who were dreaming of being adults some day. Like a lot of black music you can read a double meaning into the words. Romantic, yes, to a fault. But the hint of portent is undeniable.


Dionne Warwick “Walk On By” Billboard #6 (1964)

The apotheosis of the form performed by its primary genius. It went #1 on Cash Box’s black music chart, notable because 1964 was the year Billboard did not keep a black music chart, thinking it had sufficiently merged with Pop to make a separate chart pointless. The British Invasion changed all that, but that’s another subject for another time. Warwick’s voice was unique for either Soul or Pop. The dream was never closer than when she was the one summoning it.


Lou Rawls “Love Is a Hurtin’ Thing” Billboard #13 (1966)

Deep soul, in both its southern and urban variants had, of course, grown up alongside the developments being traced here. The genius of Rawls’ signature hit was that it crossed all the barriers inside soul—you can imagine him putting it over anywhere from the Copacabana to a Mississippi juke joint without changing a thing.


The Delfonics “La-La (Means I Love You)” Billboard #4 (1968)

The breakout hit for producer/arranger Thom Bell who would go on to elevate the concept to spectacular heights in the 70’s with Spinners and the Stylistics. But everything is already in place here: the keening tenor, the soaring falsetto, the smooth harmonies and slightly off-kilter orchestration. All put in the service, like much of the music here, of expressing a certain form of romantic love that black people weren’t necessarily expected to believe in.


The Temptations “I Wish It Would Rain” Billboard #4 (1968)

Almost baroque in its sentiments, more than redeemed by autobiographical intimacy (the primary writer Roger Penzabene wrote from experience and committed suicide a week after the record was released) and David Ruffin’s greatest vocal. Berry Gordy had never made any secret of his desire to appeal to White America, to prove that, beyond all doubt, Black Americans belonged everywhere. That’s what Motown’s choreography and charm school classes were about. Listening to this on the radio in 1968, of all years, it must have seemed everything was possible…and also fragile.


The Temptations and the Supremes “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” Billboard #2 (1968)

Not the greatest record from Motown, the Tempts or the Supremes. But it’s grown with the years as the Middle of the Road it was meant to exemplify has crumbled and left us all running back to the tribes. If it catches you in the right mood that soaring arrangement will put a catch in your throat.


5th Dimension “Wedding Bell Blues” Billboard #1 (1969)

This was the moment the 5th Dimension figured out putting Marilyn McCoo up front visually and vocally would be a really good idea. They called it Champagne Soul but it wasn’t really all that new….just another of the bricks that made that old road seem so solid. They would carry the concept well into the 70’s, almost to the road’s end.


Brook Benton “Rainy Night In Georgia” Billboard #4 (1969)

Who better than the man who started it all to close out the decade? And who better to remind us that 1969 never really ended as we once more wake up, half a century on, to find it still feels like it’s raining all over the world.


Next month, be sure to tune in for part two:: Blue-Eyed Soul.

If you’d like to read more from John go to his site linked below:



1 Comment

  1. That’s a great list that includes twelve of my favorite records of all time. I have to admit that I’m not familiar with “Doggin’ Around”.

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