House of Broken Hearts: The Northern Soul of a Southern City

E. Mark Windle, 27 July 2020

Regarding what has been pretty much an obsession with 1960s southern soul themes since I started writing around ten years ago, House of Broken Hearts was taken on to resolve one nagging omission. A fair chunk of my travels (virtual and otherwise) has been spent researching the Carolinas, Virginia, Louisiana and a wee bit of Texas, to cover beach music, soul influenced garage bands and black vocal groups for the books It’s Better To Cry and then Rhythm Message. But I was always conscious that one particular southern state was overdue attention.

Memphis and Nashville are perhaps among Tennessee’s most obvious music centres. The two cities may be separated by a couple of hundred miles – no distance at all in US terms of course – but they have rich and intriguing musical identities. To the casual observer, for culturally contrasting reasons. 

Memphis’ musical heritage is undeniable. There is no danger of it being eroded by the passage of time. Indeed it is comforting that there is an abundance of literature celebrating all aspects of the Memphis musical tapestry whether it be Beale Street, Sun Records, Stax, Graceland and rock ‘n’ roll, blues or jazz. As a writer looking for a soul music ‘angle’, I guessed that Stuart Cosgrove would maybe have it covered already in his plans for his soul trilogy, no doubt adding a political slant to previous reference works by Peter Guralnik and the like. Indeed, Stuart’s Memphis 68 soon appeared.

So then, what of Nashville? Well, much of its soul music history has until recent years been obscured by the city’s accolade as the country music centre of the universe. The Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum proudly stand testament to that. But to say that “Music City” is synonymous with country music is (technically) a contradiction. After all, the term was coined when the Fisk Jubilee Singers came to UK shores to perform their spirituals in the presence of Queen Victoria as part of their university fund raising effort. This would set the scene for future decades of race music, which would only be quashed by eventual dispersion of the local African-American community. Activities to redress the balance from the 1980s onwards include Nashville musician Fred James’ efforts to roll-call blues and soul singers to perform again and in some cases even to recommence recording careers; and a highly praised Night Train exhibition by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, coordinated by museum editor Michael Gray. The CD spin-off from the exhibition was even a Grammy winner. And to this day, the artists from back in the day continue to sing, reminisce and be remembered by others who come to watch them perform regularly at Carol Anne’s café off Murfreesboro Pike.

But what does 1960s Nashville have to offer specifically to soul fans from the UK and European underground scenes?  Some are no doubt aware of the huge catalogue of Sound Stage 7 and related releases. Enthusiasts of a different genre have long loved the Louisiana swamp blues which found their way onto Ernie Young’s Excello label. But to some younger generations or to those on the other side of the pond, Nashville’s soul music output sometimes appeared a little disconnected from the rest of what was going on in the music industry at the time. Was the R&B ‘thing’ in Nashville just a bit of luck with record industry leaders finding a brief niche within the national soul explosion?

Truth is, it was there all the time. Everything just came together at the right time for soul music. As the back cover blurb of House of Broken Hearts explains:

“….In the 1960s an exciting, vibrant black music scene thrived on Jefferson Street and in surrounding neighbourhoods. Night clubs, bars and theatres provided a focal point for the development of R&B. Ingredients for success were all in place – home grown talent, venues, charismatic DJs and promoters, entrepreneurial record store owners, independent black owned labels, a radio station making hip soul music accessible to teenagers across the southern states, and TV shows which featured local R&B acts. It was even the time for white artists and musicians to experiment with black music; a crossroads where soul met country music. For a brief period at least, the future seemed bright….”

The purpose of the book was to celebrate the individuals – not just the singers, but industry players, media drivers and record labels; bringing the spotlight once more back to this era. OK, so it’s written from a northern / rare soul enthusiast’s perspective. You’ll find the stories of Jimmy Church, Frank Howard and the Commanders, Freddie North, Johnny Jones and the King Casuals, Joe Simon, Jackie Beavers, The Spidells and many more in there. But I hope you will discover more than a collection of biographies. A story of dreams, exciting times, and harsh reality. Were it not for ill-planned urbanisation decisions which displaced the black community – and inevitably much of its musical culture – perhaps Nashville could have forged an R&B legacy comparable to cities of the north.

Music City is long overdue recognition for its role in popularising soul as a genre. This book cements some of this history with thorough research and a whole lot of help from those veteran singers and musicians who still keep the flame alive. If you’re passing through Nashville, be sure to call by Carol Anne’s Cafe.

House of Broken Hearts is available to order from A Nickel And Nail.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T ! That Woman’s Got Soul!

E. Mark Windle 26 July 2020.

Let’s face it. There would be no need for a Women’s History Month forty years on from inception, if under-recognition of female contributions to culture, society and the workplace wasn’t still a “thing”. The music business is as guilty as any other male dominated industry of inequality and denied opportunity. Female recording artists are still, on average, earning less than male counterparts. Less women reach music executive positions, and less are employed as songwriters, musicians within the industry.

The good news is that strong, determined, pioneering women are well represented though the decades, and in all facets of the business. Take Hattie Leeper, the first female African American DJ to be employed on a commercial radio station in North Carolina. At fourteen years of age, she would hang around the WGIV station. Hattie would make coffee for staff, answer the phone, file 78rpm records for DJs – just about anything to get her foot in the door. From these humble beginnings a chance to introduce records was offered after a DJ failed to turn up for work. “Chatty” Hattie, as she became known, was an established household name by the time she had moved up through the WGIV ranks and onto Big WAYS, two of the most popular stations in the Carolinas for R&B in the 1960s. Her secretarial position at the National Association of Radio and Television Announcers allowed her to meet luminaries such as Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records and Berry Gordy, owner of Motown. This helped further Hattie’s interests in promoting, managing and recording soul music artists in the region. Hattie enjoyed an extremely successful career in the media and was inducted into the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2015.

Back in her early days, Hattie struck a friendship with record label owner Florence Greenberg, another woman who worked in what was traditionally deemed a man’s world. She was not African American, but a Jewish middle-aged suburban wife, with two children in tow. Florence was captivated by the song-writing creativity coming out of the Brill Building in New York and driven by a strong passion for R&B. If it wasn’t for her Scepter-Wand label empire, the careers of The Shirelles, Dionne Warwick and Chuck Jackson would not have been catapulted to fame so quickly, if at all. Maxine Brown, another of Greenberg’s high-profile artists, commented once: “She was a brave woman – one of the few to own a record label in this business, competing with men and standing in there toe to toe with male producers and record owners.”

Background tales of poverty and prejudice are found within the profiles of many of our female African American icons. Billie Holiday and Etta James had their demons, including heroin and alcohol addiction. Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin endured years of physical and mental abuse from their respective partners. Many artists succumbed to the consequences of their circumstances. But circumstance can also inform creativity, and some make it despite it all. Within just a few years of divorcing her manager-husband, Aretha’s “Amazing Grace” LP was a global big seller, and her Queen of Soul status was assured.

If there was one recording which epitomises the sentiment of this month’s theme, Aretha Franklin gave us that too. In her initial recording period with her first label Columbia, she was mainly resigned to presenting jazz and standards and was prevented from straying too close to soul music. Columbia just didn’t know what to do with her artistically. Signing to Atlantic in 1967 and “Respect” was a game changer. Placed near the top of Rolling Stone magazine’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”, the song landed two Grammys including the award for “Best Rhythm and Blues Solo Vocal Performance, FEMALE”. Aretha’s unique spin plus the musical punch from the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section transformed Otis Redding’s original take as weary, bitter male commentary into a woman’s unambiguous demand for respect in the domestic setting. But it came to represent even more than that. “Respect” was recorded when the country was about to be embroiled in violent political unrest. The song hit the airwaves just at the right time to be adopted by the civil rights movement. And thus, it became a banner for both social and racial freedom. There may not have been any explicit political commentary within the lyrics but then there didn’t need to be. One word said it all.

Copyright 2021. E. Mark Windle is a freelance writer and biographer, working independently, as a senior writer with Story Terrace (London, UK), and as a writer for Sheridan Hill / Real Life Stories LLC (North Carolina, USA). Contact: via this site or emarkwindle@hotmail.com