- Washington, D.C.
The pillars of soul music cannot be confined to any one geographical area or span of time.
The influence of artists like James Brown and Aretha Franklin was felt around the world and continues to inspire performers today. There is something special about the cities where soul’s biggest names were born and blossomed into legends. Journey to the hometowns and havens for some of soul’s biggest stars.
James Brown – Augusta, Georgia
With a voice exploding with emotion, the presence of a fire-and-brimstone preacher and endurance like a marathon runner, James Brown truly was the “Godfather of Soul.” One could argue that he was the forebearer of the bulk of today’s popular music. There are the massive hits – “I Got You” and “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” – that dominated charts and radio, showed up in soundtracks and commercials, and were sampled in countless popular songs. He was born in South Carolina, but Brown’s path began in Augusta, where he grew up exceptionally poor and started singing gospel. To delve into his life here, visit the Augusta Museum of History, which has one of the country’s most comprehensive exhibits on Brown with costumes, artifacts, albums and more. There’s also the James Brown Family Historical Tour, which leaves from the museum every Saturday and takes you to all of the relevant Brown spots. A life-size bronze statue is on Broad Street along with a mounted camera that will send photos of you and the Godfather directly to your phone – for free! For some grub and a beer, check out The Soul Bar, also on Broad, which features plenty of Brown memorabilia.
Marvin Gaye – Washington, D.C.
Having grown up in poverty in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol building, it was almost inevitable that Marvin Gaye would record and release one of the most politically resonant and important soul albums of all time, 1971’s “What’s Going On.” Find many tributes in Washington, D.C., its native son. Marvin Gaye Park is a revitalized 1.6-mile park, the longest in the city, and a symbol of Gaye’s efforts to give back and work for social causes. There’s also Marvin, a small neighborhood restaurant and bar with live music and a simple menu loosely inspired by Gaye’s self-imposed exile in Belgium as well as his years in D.C. – must-eats include red curry mussels, crème brulee and smoked baby back ribs. Gaye took notes on early gospel and R&B greats at the historic Howard Theatre in the late 1950s and then took the stage there himself, debuting “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” at a show in 1962. The venue has hosted legends like James Brown, Stevie Wonder and The Supremes as well as more modern acts like Brandy and Kendrick Lamar.
The historic Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C.
Ray Charles – From the Southeast to the Pacific
There’s a reason why Ray Charles’ voice packed more emotion than any other singer in the modern era. Though tragedy dominated his early years growing up in Greenville, Florida – he lost his eyesight by age 7 – that didn’t stop him from practically inventing soul by blending 1950s pop with pure R&B and jazz, best represented in hit singles like the bluesy “What’d I Say,” the Grammy-winning “Hit The Road Jack” and the sweet Soul ballad “Georgia On My Mind.” To trace Charles’ life, start in his native Greenville, about 75 kilometers east of Tallahassee. The Ray Charles Memorial in Haffye Hays Park includes a statue of Charles playing the keyboard. A half-mile away is his childhood home; be sure to call City Hall to arrange to take a tour . In Albany, Georgia, where Charles first began performing, there’s Ray Charles Plaza, a public shrine complete with a statue of Charles at the piano with piano keys and music notes dotting the landscape. Seattle, a pivotal stop in Charles’ career, was once home to many spots where Charles began to spring to stardom in the 1940s. The modern-day soul venue and restaurant, Black & Tan Hall, was inspired by the original Black & Tan Club, where Charles often played in the 1950s. In Los Angeles, the Ray Charles Memorial Library, which opened in 2010, was a concept originated by Charles to help schools bring back music into their curriculum. The library also features a section devoted to Charles with videos, narrated exhibits and artifacts dedicated to his life and music.
The late Ray Charles, blind since age 7, playing the piano
Aretha Franklin – Memphis, Tennessee, and Detroit, Michigan
Although she became a superstar in Detroit, there’s something to be said for the fact that “The Queen of Soul” was born in Memphis, Tennessee. While Franklin was churning out massive hits like “Respect,” “Chain of Fools” and “Something He Can Feel,” the Memphis scene was blowing up with a sound much like hers: sultry guitar licks, shining horns and big beats. Her birthplace, a beat-down shack at 406 Lucy Avenue, attracts curious fans who photograph the abandoned home and read the historical marker. Once established in Detroit, Franklin became a music all-star, using her booming voice and irresistible charm to rack up 100-plus Billboard singles, 18 Grammys, more than 75 million albums sold for Atlantic Records and eventually induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. She influenced countless female soul and R&B artists past and present. You can hear a little bit of Franklin in singers across genres, from Jill Scott and Whitney Houston to Janis Joplin and Annie Lennox. Check out an exhibit of vinyl records, magazine covers and other memorabilia at the Detroit Historical Society. If you want to see shows where Franklin once performed, the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts still books performances and features a jazz café downstairs.
“Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin, an influence to many of today's singers
Otis Redding – Macon and Atlanta, Georgia
The story of Otis Redding is a tragically short one, but what a run this mighty singer-songwriter had from the early 1960s until his death in a plane crash in 1967 at age 26. His voice was gritty and powerful with singles that could roar like “Respect,” which he wrote and was covered by Aretha Franklin, and also soothe like “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” He grew up in Macon, Georgia, quit school to join Little Richard’s band in town and then started recording his own music for the legendary Stax label in Memphis, Tennessee. He brought the house down at shows all over the south, including the Douglass Theatre in Macon, where you can still see soul and blues concerts. There’s a mini-museum dedicated to Redding at the Otis Redding Foundation, a philanthropic effort in Macon that aims to empower and educate youth. At Ocmulgee Heritage Trail Gateway Park, sit with a statue of Redding near the banks of the Ocmulgee River. In Atlanta, where Redding launched to stardom, you can hear music inspired by him at Blind Willie’s, which hosts national and local acts.
A tribute in Macon to the late Otis Redding, a Georgia native
Modern Soul in the USA
In the 1990s and early 2000s, many star artists took the torch from soul pioneers and set the stage for the next generation. There’s Mary J. Blige, a singer, songwriter and producer who blends the powerful voice of Aretha Franklin with the swagger of James Brown; her 1994 album “My Life” was named one of Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest albums. Lauryn Hill, frontwoman of the Fugees in the 1990s and mid-2000s, took a bit of the low-key delivery and political push from Marvin Gaye and influenced scores of future women hip hop artists, including Nicki Minaj and Jill Scott. As one of the most sampled and imitated artists ever, Brown crossed genres to influence performers as diverse as David Bowie and Public Enemy, to today’s rap, R&B and hip hop act; check out Bruno Mars’ moves and music.