Doo Wop Ba Doo Ba British Soul: Soul Music’s Journey and Transformation From the U.S. to the U.K.

British Soul’s origin and impact on music culture in the 20th century.

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Photo by Alano Oliveira on Unsplash

“Unlike when it was first heard in Britain in the ‘60s, soul music is literally a part of all aspects of pop culture. Not only the sampling of classic soul tunes by British rap and hip-hop artists but the use of soul music in TV commercials, films, etc. is everywhere,” David Nathan said.

Soul music – the name alone is enough to embody the indelible mark it has left on popular culture and establish itself as the essence of human experience. Like many defining cultural movements, soul’s popularity grew in parallel to the Civil Rights movement — the focal movement of the Boomer generation — and gained a wide audience of hopeful, young Americans inspired by social activism and justice.

In a world of vivacious 1950s and 60s pop narratives that seldom applied outside of young White audiences, soul music emerged from the gospel church intimately with songs about faith and Black culture, acting as an outlet for young Black Americans to form communities. However, globalization and style transformation, along with the rise of Disco and Funk in the 70s, stunted its scope of impact in the United States. The decline of civil activism and the rise of the law and order movement, which reinstated White cisgender narratives as the leading authority, also hindered the movement nationally.

Despite this, soul music became ingrained into U.K. culture. It would continue to influence contemporary artists in their future fusions of soul and hip hop to create subgenres such as neo-soul and R&B. As soul historian and recording artist David Nathan stated, “Unlike some other U.S. derived music forms – hard rock, country, etc. – the themes expressed in soul music have made it truly timeless.”

Soul not only crossed generational and national boundaries but racial ones as well. The complex messaging and raspy vocals inspired many White artists to join the movement, partaking in covers from Black artists. The Beatles’ lead singer, John Lennon, said, “We didn’t sing our own songs in the early days – they weren’t good enough.” Rapid interest in White artists created a sub movement known as “Blue-Eyed Soul,” where singers like Dusty Springfield and George Michael amassed large followings and consistently topped charts. Their substantial success launched the genre into mainstream audiences, but not without controversy. Accusations of artistic plagiarism and cultural appropriation followed suit; “the one thing we always did was to make it known that there were Black originals, we loved the music and wanted to spread it in any way we could,” Lennon continued. Though contentious, Blue-Eyed Soul’s popularity launched the long-lasting legacy of soul music into the latter half of the 20th century when younger Black artists strayed from traditional blues and jazz sounds and began culminating the rap and hip-hop genres with R&B contemporary musical choices.

Nathan noted, “There remains a reverence and appreciation for the original soul artists of the ’60s and ’70s, many of whom perform on a regular basis in the U.K., often more so than in the U.S.! Beyond the music and certainly in global culture, soul music has impacted styles of dress, dance moves, urban slang, etc., more so than any other music genre!” 

Amy Winehouse was one of many neo-soul singers who launched the genre from the U.K. to achieve global success, amassing millions of listeners and awarded 6 Grammys. This statue is in her hometown, Camden Town, and was erected as a tribute to her talent. (Photo by Hert Niks on Unsplash)

Many contemporary artists credit soul and the early R&B era to their current modern fusion, with Adele, Amy Winehouse, and Gotts Street Park becoming popular names in the industry. Meanwhile, others still follow a more traditional route. Celeste’s distinct musical choices conflate traditional soul and inspire a nostalgic aura to produce a lasting and unique voice in the sea of conformist pop music. “There are so many interesting things going on in different parts of London where people are innovating their instrument with techniques from the 40s and 60s,” Celeste said in an interview. “There’s this amazing energy.”

Ryan Goldsmith ’22, Co-President of the Modern Music Appreciation Club, acknowledged the universality of soul and its range in contemporary music. He said, “Most artists in the current era are not making soul music in the purely traditional sense of the genre, but rather making music that is influenced by soul alongside multiple other genres. That being said, I do think younger listeners often find the line between R&B and soul to be sort of confusing. As soul music is a subgenre of R&B, and most modern soul does not align exactly with the genre’s traditional style, I think the line between the genres can become pretty ambiguous.”

The incorporation of soul in modern music extends beyond saxophones or electric organs; the subliminal messaging of racial and gender injustice alongside cultural celebration holds power over the neo-soul industry and crosses national boundaries, with Celeste’s “Ideal Woman” and “Not Your Muse” addressing male chauvinism and self-acceptance in spite of flaws. Others like Lauryn Hill confront racial and gender conflicts within the Black community with tracks like “Doo Wop” and “Black Rage.

“The racial, economic, social and political realities that Black Americans faced – with artists like Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, etc. using their music to express the conditions that were commonplace for Black Americans – it certainly morphed into music that conveyed love, passion, and joy as well,” Nathan remarked.

Whether it was mid twentieth-century American, with hints of rock and the blues, or the more contemporary R&B-esque British style, soul music was and remained a fundamental piece of the global youth cultural infrastructure, and continuing to recognize and celebrate its impact on the music scene is vital in upholding its legacy.

“There remains a reverence and appreciation for the original soul artists of the ’60s and ’70s, many of whom perform on a regular basis in the UK, often more so than in the US! Beyond the music and certainly in global culture, soul music has impacted styles of dress, dance moves, urban slang, etc., more so than any other music genre!” said soul historian and recording artist David Nathan.