When White Was Black: Blue-Eyed Soul

Today we are quite pleased to welcome back our monthly special guest blogger, John Walker Ross! John, as many of you will recall is the creator and curator of our favorite music blog. “the Round Place In The Middle” https://theroundplaceinthemiddle.com/ After a brief absence, John is back with Part Two of his unique take on “Blue Eye’d Soul” from earlier this year. Please join me in welcoming John back to SMS!

Here’s Johnny!…

The notion of “a white man with the “Negro sound” long predated Sam Phillips’ early 50’s search for one, even if he never said any such thing. (Good luck trying to figure that one out—the phrase stuck because it made too much sense in light of what happened once Elvis showed up.)

But for white singers to approach the emerging form Soul represented in the 60’s, black singers had to first define it. As a result, blue-eyed soul was a bit late developing. The Righteous Brothers probably more or less invented it with their pre-Phil Spector Moonglow releases, especially “Little Latin Lupe Lu.” At least they represented the breaking point where the concept began to need a name, which was reportedly supplied by the great Philadelphia DJ Georgie Woods not long after he arranged for a number of buses to carry marchers to hear Martin Luther’s King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

If that seems a long, long time ago and many worlds away, then you can hear these records as they were meant to be heard—as one of the great attempts we’ve made at being one people.

Dance or weep as you choose:

The Righteous Brothers “See That Girl” (1965)

Not released as a single. Best heard on any number of Righteous Brothers’ comps.

Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield could, of course, comprise this entire list and their biggest hit “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” is the apex of the form. But I’m starting off with this 1965 album cut because if someone asked me to play one record to define blue-eyed soul, this would be it. It’s atypical in being basically a Bill Medley solo record, but no white singer ever reached deeper in three minutes and, really, it never being released as a single makes some sense. It’s possible it was too strong for the radio even in 1965, the greatest year the radio ever had.

Lonnie Mack “Why” (1963)

Not released as a single. Best heard on his epochal The Wham of that Memphis Man! LP.

Lonnie made most of his reputation as a guitar player, which was almost too bad. Don’t kill me guitar players, but as great as his playing was, this cut alone proves that, given half a chance, he was also one of history’s finest singers. The centerpiece of The Wham of that Memphis Man!, as great an album as the decade produced, where he also rediscovered Chuck Berry for the masses!

Roy Head “Treat Her Right” (1965) Billboard #2

A nearly forgotten pioneer of the form. The laconic, slow boil side of the equation, which is all in Roy’s timbre, because the tempo is plenty fast enough for fancy dancing and if his moves didn’t come straight from the chitlin’ circuit, the other likely source was outer space.

Mitch Ryder “Devil With a Blue Dress/Good Golly Miss Molly” (1966) Billboard #4

His biggest hit. Mitch was one leg of the three-legged stool that defined the whole concept along with the Righteous Brothers and the Rascals. He was the Wilson Pickett side! Since he wasn’t quite the singer Pickett was (few were) he had to push to even greater extremes, though he was greatest when he kept it just this side of pure frenzy, as here.

Young Rascals “Good Lovin’” (1966) Billboard #1

Again they could comprise this list themselves and they were consummate because they were the most diverse. “Groovin’” was as smooth as it got. This was nearly as frenetic as Mitch Ryder…but played and sung with a precision that matched Motown. The singing was nonpareil. But if I ever get to meet that supreme stick-twirler Dino Danelli I know what I’m gonna say: “Man, you got my gig!”

Jackie DeShannon “I Can Make It With You” (1966) Billboard #68

So along with being the godmother of folk rock and the singer/songwriter ethos, Jackie was also one of the great blue-eyed soul singers. It’s evident enough on her big hits, but she went even further here,. on what should have been her biggest hit of all.

Lulu “To Sir With Love” (1967) Billboard #1

Fresh Air host Terry Gross once interviewed Al Green and, with the air of wondrous condescension perfected by so many NPR voices, asked him whatever possessed him to cover “To Sir With Love.” Green answered: “I heard it and I asked somebody who it was by and they said this English girl….and it was beautiful!” The Scottish lass was one of the great singers of her mighty era and she never had a better compliment than that. If anybody wants to dispute her place among the blue-eyed soul giants tell them not to take it up with me, take it up with Al Green.

The Box Tops “I’m Your Puppet” (1967)

Not released as a single. Best heard on their debut album The Letter/Neon Rainbow.

I loved the Box Tops’ string of hits…but this obscure rendition of James and Bobby Purify’s big hit gets me in the gut. It’s a perfect example of a fine black record deepened by a white cover. Call it reverse undercover work.

Dusty Springfield “Son of a Preacher Man” (1968) Billboard #10

This was pitched to Aretha Franklin and she turned it down. After Dusty’s version became a hit, she decided to cover it herself. Dusty later said that Aretha sa w her in an elevator shortly after the record came out and reach over and put her hand on her arm and said “Girl!”

O’Kaysions “I’m a Girl Watcher” (1968) Billboard #5

Amidst all this sensitivity, the all-time horn dog anthem! Which makes it all the more amazing that it’s a masterpiece of nuance. I mean, what part of the eternal process did they miss?

Elvis Presley “Suspicious Minds” (1969) Billboard #1

Of course there were always black elements in E’s music, along with literally everything else. But this was the closest he came to a straight soul record. The biggest and deepest hit from my pick for the greatest vocal sessions ever recorded….and a personal and cultural portent few could match.

Evie Sands “Any Way That You Want Me” (1969) Billboard #53

It makes sense that the great lost voice of the decade would belong to a white woman singing soul music I discovered this in a box of 45s that belonged to a friend of mine’s sister who had gone off to college. He gave it to me for helping him cheat on a test he didn’t pass anyway. He swore she wouldn’t miss them. Life is complicated sometimes. But I never felt a moment’s remorse after I discovered Evie’s greatest record hiding in the stack. And yeah, I know they lifted the bridge from “You’ve Lost Tha Lovin’ Feelin.’” Which just made it my first lesson in “If you’re gonna steal, steal from the best!”

The Beach Boys “I Can Hear Music” (1969) Billboard #24

Carl Wilson had emerged as one of the finest singers in the world by the mid-sixties. He never got a better showcase than here, not even on 1967’s Wild Honey, one of the great blue-eyed soul albums and a reminder that the Beach Boys had always been steeped in black music. I’ll never get used to him being gone, not least because he, perhaps more than anyone, so clearly heard the world that might have been. Listen again.

I mean, wasn’t that the way we always dreamed it would be?



  1. “Blue-eyed soul.” The first time I ever heard that phrase was on WLS (I still have on tape) when I taped Henson Cargill’s “Skip a Rope” and Ron Riley said it with a chuckle. I had no idea what that meant. I figured it was something to do with country music! Not sure anyone could forget the white singer doing one of the most SOULFUL songs of the 60’s: Kenny Jeremiah of the Soul Survivors and his incredible singing on “Expressway to Your Heart.” Check out the long unedited version where his last words ring out: “No room for me!” R.I.P.
    Great stuff, John

  2. John, what a great collection on Blue Eyed Soul artists. And so needed in this time where we need to find common grounds in everything in our lives. I’d like to add a couple more if I may, both from across the pond. Tom Jones of course. He is the first one to come to mind. It almost goes without saying. But let’s not forget the Stones. I know they would not be the first group you would think of, but they never missed an opportunity of acknowledge “Muddy Waters” and one of their core influences. https://www.legacy.com/news/culture-and-history/who-influenced-the-rolling-stones/

    • Thanks so much for the kind words. This suject is worthy of a book or at least a box set. Tom Jones was definitely in the running!

      And believe me, if “Brother Louie” had been released in the 60’s. it would have been here.

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