Kevin Le Gendre – Soul Unsung: Reflections on the Band in Black Popular Music

soul unsung

Title: Soul Unsung: Reflections on the Band in Black Popular Music

Author: Kevin Le Gendre

Publisher: Equinox

Format:  Book (Hardcover, 323 pages)

Publication date:  October 31, 2012



Though published last year, Soul Unsung seems to have gone largely unnoticed in the U.S., and in fact was only brought to my attention a few months ago. Let me say up front that this has been a major oversight, for Kevin Le Gendre’s book is superbly written, extremely insightful, and will be of interest to scholars, musicians, and anyone else seeking a deeper understanding of developments in the soul canon from the 1960s to present, especially the complex interplay between singers and musicians. Issued as part of Equinox’s Popular Music History series edited by Alyn Shipton, Soul Unsung certainly succeeds in fulfilling the series mission to “engage in archeologies of popular music.”

An award winning British jazz writer, critic and BBC commentator with roots in Trinidad, Le Gendre obviously knows a thing or two about black popular music.  Though not much information about his background is readily available, his intimate knowledge of the music indicates more than a scholarly interest, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that he’s spent considerable time in a horn section or behind a drum kit.

Le Gendre’s  central premise in Soul Unsung is that musicians—bassists, drummers, guitarists, keyboardists and horn players—“have been an integral part of the genre right from soul’s pre-history as rhythm and blues . . .to the extent that without their ingenuity, many of the canon’s great songs would simply not be the gems they are.”  Yet these same musicians are too frequently overlooked, their contributions not considered on equal par with the lead singer.  Le Gendre presents a compelling argument that it’s high time we “explored the form and content of a bass line, drum beat or figure, and to shed light on the technical excellence, the lateral thinking and enormous depth of imagination their respective creators have consistently brought to the table.” Choosing not to focus on legendary house bands such as the Funk Brothers or the Bar-Kays, he instead tells the stories behind the uses of particular instruments in the band, identifying “principle changes in thinking over time” and pointing out “the interesting, if not subversive, approaches to instruments such as the bass, guitar, or keyboards.”

Le Gendre begins by tracing three early soul continuums—soul-jazz, soul-funk, and soul-rock—then leads us through later developments including the fusion of soul with electronic music in the form of techno, house, and hip hop. Figuring prominently in the narrative is saxophonist King Curtis and his 1967 hit “Memphis Soul Stew,” considered by Le Gendre as “one of the great instrumentals in the whole history of black pop.”  The song becomes a unifying leitmotif, its spoken intro and “metaphor of tastiness” influencing chapter titles that focus on specific instruments/instrumentalists: A Half Teacup of Bass (chapter 8), A Pound of Fatback Drums (9), Four Tablespoons of Boiling Memphis Guitar (10), Just a Little Pinch of Organ (11), and A Half Pint of Horn (12). The use of strings receives a chapter as well, including examinations of Norman Whitfield’s Motown orchestrations, Charles Stepney’s arrangements for Minnie Riperton and Rotary Connection, and the “savage and soothing” strings of the Love Unlimited Orchestra.

It’s impossible to adequately cover the complexity of this book in a short review. Each paragraph stimulates further thought and discovery, and you’ll want to have your computer, iPod, or record collection handy so you can reference the numerous musical examples cited.  By the end of the book you’ll most certainly have gained a greater appreciation for soul music as “something complex, disparate and multifarious.”

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss