Bob Dylan + Soul = True!


Between the 1920´s and 1940´s the term “race records” was used, tagging the records made in african-american music genres, marketed to the african american market. All the way to 1949 the term was used, even Billboard had its own chart for “Race Records”. Then one of their journalists, Jerry Wexler, suggested a change, more fitting for “enlightened times” – Rhythm n´Blues. The earlier race records were also getting more and more popular in the audiences not divided by color. As “soul” at first were a term used to describe the feeling of being an african american in USA, it more and more became the description of the secular songs rooted in gospel style singing, jazz and & rhythm n´blues. Songs of love now sung with the same intensity, rhythm, joy and sorrow as the earlier songs of faith and hope. You could clap, you could dance, you could cry to soul music, soon the songs were spanning all parts of human existence. The term “soul music” evolved more and more into the sixties, but it was actually first in 1969 that the Billboards chart changed from rhythm n´blues to soul. Ray Charles, Hank Ballard, Etta James, Solomon Burke, Little Richard, James Brown – lots of black musicians was part of and links in the musical transformation – both Ray Charles and Solomon Burke also combined the new sounds with the beautiful songs from the country and western tradition, perfectly sealing the fact that music really shouldn´t know any racial boundaries.

In many ways, of course, Bob Dylan is a soul singer, too, even if that´s one of the labels that might be least used to describe him, both as a singer and an artist. But just listen to this, Bob Dylan making the old country ballad, “A Satisfied Mind”, into a full-blown soul anthem.

But soul music isn´t always just about the music. It´s also the songs that runs the deepest, beyond words, and in such, the “soul” element may occur in many genres.

When receiving his Musicares Person Of The Year Award in 2015, Dylan said this:

“Sam Cooke said this when told he had a beautiful voice: He said, “Well that’s very kind of you, but voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.” Think about that the next time you are listening to a singer.”

Dylan ended in this way the part of the speech about his own vocal capacity and the criticism his singing met since he started. The Sam Cooke quote in a few words establishes Bob Dylan´s credo when it comes to what singing is all about – for him. And it always was. It is no coincidense that Dylan goes to a soul singer to find this. He is a soul singer, too.

Sam Cooke´s reaction when he heard Dylan´s “Blowing In The Wind” was, according to Peter Guralnick, that he “was so carried away with the message, and the fact that a white boy had written it, that . . . he was almost ashamed not to have written something like that himself.” Sam Cooke started to sing Dylan´s song, but was also inspired to write on of the greatest soul ballads ever, “A Change Is Gonna Come”.

One of Dylan´s favorite gospel groups would in the early sixties evolve into more of a soul act, combining both gospel and secular songs, songs of freedom and songs of civil rights into their set, including Bob Dylan songs as “Masters of War”:

One of the greatest soul singers of all time, in all meanings of the word, was the fabulous Solomon Burke. He made several covers of Bob, starting with a great version of “Maggie´s Farm” as early as 1965.

He also made his unmistakably soul version of “Mighty Quinn” in 1970, not released before 2000.

When Burke made his phenomenal comeback album in 2002, a lots of great artists contributed songs to the album, both Tom Waits, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, and – Bob Dylan. The song is “Stepchild”, for collectors already known as an outtake from Street Legal, “Am I Your Stepchild”. Solomon´s enormous vocal capabilities fits this bluesy soul version like a glove.

Solomon also, some years later, made the soul version of “What Good Am I”, with a touch of reggae.

The genius kid, Stevie Wonder, made his version of “Blowing In The Wind” in 1966, and even if it´s strange to see it turned into a song for the dance floor, the mixing of Dylan´s lyrics and soul music is a fact, once more.

The Isley Brothers make their version of Lay, Lady, Lay in 1971.

The Persuasions made their a capella version of “The Man In Me” the year after it´s release.

Even soul mama Patti LaBelle makes a stab at Bob Dylan´s lyrics on her solo debut in 1977, with her version of “Most Likely You´ll Go Your Way (And I´ll Go Mine)”.

Booker T & The MG´s was in many ways the house band of the greatest soul recording factory of them all, Stax Records, playing with both Queen Aretha, Otis Redding and all the other stars. In 1978 he makes his cover version of “Knockin´on Heavens Door”. He even played bass on the original version by Dylan, his neighbor at Malibu, who just called him when he needed a bass player.

It only seemed fitting for Bob Dylan to ask Booker T, Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn from the MG´s to join the house band for his 30th Anniversary Consert, along with Jim Keltner and G. E. Smith.

Donald “Duck” Dunn had also played with Dylan before, on the “Shot of Love” album. Although it´s mostly labeled as a gospel album, at best, as in the title song, it combines the crispy sound of a Sun album, with the powerful soul of a Stax record.

But before that, in 1979, Bob Dylan reaches out to the producer Jerry Wexler, the one time journalist that made the term “rhythm n´blues” and who in company with Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegün made Atlantic Records a giant in the music business, starting in 1953, producing all the great stars, famously known for turning Aretha Franklin´s career to success after her first stumbling years on Columbia Records. He also had a very close cooperation with Stax Records, and he was a driving force in establishing Muscle Shoals Studios in 1969. Keyboardist Barry Beckett was one of the founders and one of Jerry Wexler´s partners then, and in 1979 they also became partners as producers of “Slow Train Coming”.

A jewish atheist, Jerry Wexler wasn´t prepared for wall-to-wall-Jesus-music, but said that when it comes to Bob, he could have sung the telephone directory if he wanted to.  Asked by LA Times about his producing of Ray Charles he elaborated on the theme like this:

“How do you deconstruct genius? He took the Lord’s music and the devil’s words and make this amalgam they call soul music. And as a performer, there is no one you can compare him to, and the distance to whoever is second is immeasurable. That’s the way it is with Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin in their areas.”

Not a bad company for Bob.

Back to the makings of “Slow Train Coming” – Jerry Wexler used all his unique competence from years and years of work with rhythm n´blues and contributed to the unique and in many ways radically new sound for Dylan. As Wexler himself told, Dylan wanted a sound that “was more of a tailored, big funk sound, which he didn’t have on his records. He wanted a little more precision, a little more musical input. It was something he felt was time.” Musically, the recipee was soul music. The songs of faith nevertheless would for ever and always label the record as a gospel album, which of course is right. But listen to the music, to the big funky sound, to the horns, to the intensity and the sound, to the soulful vocal – it also, musically spoken, is just sweet soul music.
Music you can dance to. Dylan knew what he did when he asked Wexler for help.

When Dylan did appear at the first Farm Aid, happily backed for the first time by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, he is in a soul mood, for sure, and he storms fearless into “Shake”. It´s a straight twelve bar blues, but played in a joyous soul version. There is some mystique about the origin of the song, is it improvised/written by Dylan, is it a hybrid of other songs, or is it in original we don´t know? Nevertheless, Dylan is on fire this night, maybe because of the new band, maybe because of the duets with his soon-to-be mother-in-law and his future wife as back up singer again, years after the last tour with them in 1981. We will never know. What we do know is that Dylan made a memorable show this night. Maybe he also saw the possibilities for more touring with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. They would back him both in 1986 and 1987.

When Dylan made his album “Empire Burlesque” in 1985, he was striving for a modern sound, but didn´t succeed, at least the reception of the album wasn´t as he had hoped for, even if it contains several great songs, they were not uncovered in the way Dylan can do it at his very best. But, like in all of his phases, there has always been artists that saw the potential of his songs. This time it happened to the soul group, The O´Jays, bringing the song to the second place on the R&B chart in 1991. Of course they deserved to be on the stage of the 30th Anniversary of Bob Dylan the year after.

Richie Havens was also one of the artists this night, with a wonderful version of “Just Like A Woman”, a song he was known for playing already in the sixties. Richie was also one who saw the potential of Bob Dylan´s songs in the eighties, and made a really great version of “License To Kill”. Singing and playing from his soul.

Neville Brothers is not easy to limit to one genre, they´ve been playing them all in their New Orleans-based jambalaya of styles, spanning from funk to zydeco to rock to doowop and much more, even soul. In the Lanois-landscape of their album “Yellow Moon” they made a hymnlike version of “With God On Our Side”. One visitor in the studio soon would make his own record with Daniel Lanois, the record was “Oh Mercy”. But this is Neville Brothers.

Bob Dylan has been in and out of genres, and he stays a hybrid between them, over and under them. He himself hasn´t covered that many soul songs. On the tour that goes on and on, he has played “Sitting On The Dock of the Bay”, and if we go back to the fall  of 1980 he started to introduce secular songs in his set again, after a year of only gospel songs. He sings “Fever” by Little Willie John, and he also makes a heartfelt version of the song “Abraham, Martin And John”.

And then there is, of course, the unique and almost frightening raw version of “A Change Is Gonna Come”, with a message of hope for both believers and non-believers, as well as the voice of despair and frustration for having to still wait for better times. He sings it like it was written in his soul.

Johnny Borgan


One thought on “Bob Dylan + Soul = True!

  1. Pingback: “Alias Anything You Please!” – Bob Dylan at 80. | Johnny B.

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