The Beating Heart of Soul Spreads a ‘Gospel Vision’

Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul, by Craig Werner. Crown, 352 pages, $24.

In the 1960’s, the term “soul music” defined the deepest in black American pop. Now it seems caught in history’s aspic, like Yippies, love-ins and transcendental meditation. Soul’s latest replacement, “neo-soul” (think Erykah Badu or Jill Scott), though pleasant, doesn’t pack the same punch. Listen to Aretha Franklin’s hearty growl on “Respect,” Curtis Mayfield’s plaintive falsetto on the Impressions’ “People Get Ready” or Stevie Wonder’s energized testifying on “I Was Made to Love Her,” and you hear the difference at once.

The life stories of Mr. Wonder, Ms. Franklin and Mayfield are at the heart of Craig Werner’s Higher Ground. But another story lurks behind theirs: that of the civil-rights movement, for which soul provided a constant soundtrack. What the music and the movement shared, in Mr. Werner’s words, was “the gospel vision”-a vision of redemption and shared possibility, offering “the hope that, if we held together and kept faith with the spirit, a change was gonna come.”

Mr. Werner explains that he chose to focus on Mr. Wonder, Ms. Franklin and Mayfield because they were all raised in the North, where blacks of the mid-20th century seemed closer to realizing the gospel vision than their Southern counterparts. Of course, they weren’t; the movement tactics that beat segregation in Montgomery and Birmingham couldn’t win the war against racism in Chicago and Detroit. But the belief that they could was real, a special Northern optimism that Mr. Werner hears in the music of each of his principal subjects.

Higher Ground shuttles restlessly between the three musicians, at least two of whom offer great biographical material. Ms. Franklin, strong-minded daughter of a famous preacher, grappled with early motherhood, a string of bad men and a career marked by frequent blowouts with collaborators. Mr. Wonder, blind nearly from birth, proved to be both an uncannily gifted musician and a master at getting the most out of his relationship with Motown Records. Mayfield’s life, like his music, is less dramatic-at least until the 1990 stage accident that left him paraplegic-but his foresight in taking early charge of his own business affairs is notable.

Given Mr. Werner’s pedigree (he’s a professor of African American studies at the University of Wisconsin), his emphasis on the music’s sociocultural impact is no surprise. But the book’s sharpest moments occur when he leaves historical context behind and gets into detail about the actual creation of the songs. His treatment of the sessions for Ms. Franklin’s Atlantic Records debut, 1967’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, is informative and lively. It’s a kick to be reminded that the crack studio band hired for the album was all-white, and to note that a trumpeter’s casual but racially tinged remark to Ms. Franklin’s then-husband nearly ended the recording process for good only a few hours after it had started.

Mr. Werner is a fan. Sometimes his admiration leads him in dubious directions (he claims that “well over 99 percent of the albums released since Elvis Presley walked into the Sun studios” don’t match the quality of Mr. Wonder’s Talking Book, Innervisions or Songs in the Key of Life-let’s play it safe and call it 95 percent), but he generally remains clear-eyed, giving a balanced view of both Ms. Franklin’s early, direction-challenged work for Columbia and Mayfield’s post-1975 releases, which found him taking on the challenge of disco and losing.

The turning point, according to Mr. Werner, came in 1978, when-for the first time in 20 years-the Billboard Top 100 chart didn’t feature a single record by Mr. Wonder, Ms. Franklin or Mayfield. Mr. Werner calls this a “deafening eulogy for the gospel vision,” which had died in the wake of the movement’s undeniable gains, despite the fact that those gains were still incomplete.

The trawl through the next 25 years is mostly depressing. Both Mr. Wonder and Ms. Franklin had successes, but their music no longer carried cultural weight. Mayfield struggled in relative obscurity, suffered his traumatic accident, labored mightily to make one last album and died in 1999. Meanwhile, the movement became increasingly irrelevant, squandering its energy on symbolic gestures like the Martin Luther King national holiday rather than pushing for concrete social change. And yet the promise of the gospel vision still lingers; Mr. Werner argues that in a post-9/11 world, that vision may be just what we need to set things right.

It’s tough to get a hold on Mr. Werner’s central point. Is he arguing that the rise and fall of American soul mirrored the rise and fall of the movement, or implying that the two were related in some cause-and-effect fashion? He makes a convincing case for the former, but not the latter. Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder became less important figures over time not because the fight for equality in America had failed, but because their new ideas weren’t as good as their old ones. Most pop performers don’t make vital music for long; that Ms. Franklin, Mr. Wonder and Mayfield managed to do so for over two decades is an impressive achievement.

For an overview, Higher Ground is well researched-though one wishes that Mr. Werner had actually interviewed more than 10 people. The lack of new quotes from Stevie Wonder is particularly unfortunate; Mr. Werner is forced to recycle old magazine interviews, none of which offer much insight into the music. Mr. Werner’s writing also displays occasional failures of imagination: the frequent repetition, for instance, of stock phrases such as “[the movement's] foot soldiers” and “salt-and-pepper crowd.”

Still, on the whole, the book is a welcome reminder of a time when black America, and its music, radiated hope, pride and boundless determination.

Mac Randall writes about music for The Observer, Rolling Stone, Mojo and various other publications.