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Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania

Soul Cities: Music Roots and New Sounds in 5 U.S. Destinations

By: Peter Bothum

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  • States:
    Illinois
    Louisiana
    Michigan
    Missouri
    Pennsylvania

Robust, uplifting, joyous and comforting – the sound created when gospel music, jazz and R&B collided had to be called soul.

Soul has been an enduring spiritual force influencing countless artists across genres. Discover the cities where Soul first shined and continues to run thrive today.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – Ain’t No Stopping Soul Now

Born and raised in the City of Brotherly Love, preacher Solomon Burke was one of soul’s founding fathers – the forerunner to show-stoppers like James Brown – and credited with first describing the music as “soul.” He married gospel music to R&B and the offspring was a sound that many in the South referred to as “river deep country fried buttercream soul.” And you can’t talk about Philadelphia soul without mentioning Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, founders of Philadelphia International Records, a label that featured artists as diverse as The O’Jays and Teddy Pendergrass. Offshoots of the genre included disco, which took soul and R&B and fused it with pop in the 1970s. One of the first soul crossovers to disco was MFSB’s dance-inducing “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia).” If you want to get back to the roots of soul, in a small space, try the South Kitchen & Jazz Parlor. The Fillmore Philadelphia, a modern 2,500-capacity venue in the Fishtown area, often has soul-inspired performers as does Temple University’s Liacouras Center, formerly known as The Apollo of Temple, hosting shows by Alicia Keys and Patti LaBelle. Even the city’s arena league football team is called, of course, Philadelphia Soul.

Patti LaBelle among singers performing at Liacouras Center in Philadelphia

Patti LaBelle among singers performing at Liacouras Center in Philadelphia
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Chicago, Illinois – The Heart of Soul

This Midwest city was the station that laid the tracks for soul to reach out to both coasts. In fact, it was here that the legendary music-dance TV show “Soul Train” was born in 1971 and featured every popular soul and R&B act until 2006. Curtis Mayfield was one of the first Chicago artists who used the gospel-influenced style of soul music to churn out classics like “People Get Ready” and later helped pioneer funk in the early ’70s with songs like “Super Fly.” Mayfield’s sound later influenced fellow Chicago natives Chaka Khan and Earth, Wind & Fire. The tradition continued with a little star named Michael Jackson, from nearby Gary, Indiana, who along with his four brothers dominated pop with a Motown sound inspired by the soul of Chicago. For a history of Chicago soul, check out the Blues Heaven Museum, where the Chess Records story is told. At Buddy Guy’s Legends restaurant and concert venue, soul food and music reigns supreme.

 

Buckingham Fountain in the center of Grant Park in Chicago

Buckingham Fountain in the center of Grant Park in Chicago
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Detroit, Michigan – A Genre Goes into High Gear

It was in Detroit that soul, fueled once again by gospel, revved into high gear. Motown, a record label founded by Berry Gordy in Detroit in 1960, broke down racial barriers with a slew of soul-meets-pop singles recorded by legendary Detroit artists like The Supremes, The Temptations, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. The label’s prime, from the early 1960s to the late ’70s, is arguably the most influential period of modern music – the Beatles covered its songs and hip hop sampled its hooks. The Motown Museum, which recently underwent a 50,000-square-foot expansion, is a must-see for its artifacts, photos, memorabilia and a chance to stand in Studio A, where the label’s hits were recorded. Some of the biggest Motown shows took place downtown at the Fox Theatre, where you can still attend concerts. Other major venues include St. Andrews Hall, a well-known rock venue that also brings in soul-influenced artists, and The Majestic theater, which includes two stages, a pizzeria and a bowling alley.

Visiting the Motown Museum in Detroit

Visiting the Motown Museum in Detroit
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St. Louis, Missouri – Rolling on a River

Soul music flowed into St. Louis in the early 20th-century via the Mississippi River by artists arriving from the South who merged blues with ragtime. A lot of the St. Louis sound was piano-based – Chuck Berry’s pianist, St. Louis musician Johnnie Johnson, was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in the Sidemen category. The legendary Peabody Opera House dates to 1934 and has hosted soul and Motown greats like Ray Charles and The Supremes as well as current soul-inspired stars like John Legend. Soul in St. Louis today can be found at Delmar Concert Hall, a 750-seat venue, and the smaller 340-seat Duck Room at Blueberry Hill. Learn how soul led to blues at the National Blues Museum just blocks from the river off Washington Avenue.

A night view of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis

A night view of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis
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New Orleans, Louisiana – Adding Some Spice to Soul

Yes, this city is known for jazz, but there’s a lot of kick to New Orleans soul. Take the gospel and R&B that sprouted up in other cities, add a generous portion of piano and smother that dish with boogie-woogie and you’ve got the sound made famous by singer-songwriter Allen Toussaint in the early 1960s. Toussaint soon became known as the architect of funk by adding horns, electric instruments and unexpected rhythms to the soul sound. To find soul and funk today in the Big Easy, simply walk along Bourbon Street and follow the sounds of slapping bass and rolling piano. Preservation Hall, in the French Quarter, is a historic gem capturing jazz, soul and funk like it used to be in a setting with the original hardwood floors and no air conditioning. There’s also the more intimate Spotted Cat Music Club and Tipitina’s that both feature local soul and funk acts alongside big names like Dr. John and Bootsy Collins.

A quartet performing in the French Quarter in New Orleans

A quartet performing in the French Quarter in New Orleans
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