Heavy Soul: The Intersection Of Soul & Rock

Heavy Soul: The Intersection Of Soul & Rock

nina simone
Nina Simone. Photo by Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Everybody knows that heavy rock is deeply rooted in black music, yeah? Heavy rock evolved out of the English blues-rock scene in the '60s; those riffs found their roots in the blues and jazz that the English guys cut their teeth on. But what might be surprising to some is that heavy rock in the late '60s and early '70s had a noticeable reciprocal effect on black music. 

Here are eleven examples of what we like to call Heavy Soul!

 Tina Turner | "Whole Lotta Love" [Led Zeppelin]

If we had to pick one song to describe what we're talking about here, we couldn't go past Tina Turner’s cover of “Whole Lotta Love.” Ike & Tina Turner did a few rock covers in their time – their version of "Proud Mary" is legendary, and they also did a howling version of the Beatles' "Come Together". But this is something again; something so over the top that it beats one of rock's most excessive groups at their own game. A highlight of Tina's tellingly-titled second solo album Acid Queen album – itself named after the song and the character she played in the film adaption of the Who's Tommy – this 1975 version of Led Zeppelin's signature tune puts those skinny white boys in their place. It lays down something transcendently heavy and soulful. Oh, and that's Ray Parker Jr on guitar!

Wilson Pickett | "Fire & Water" [Free]

Not quite a successful as Tina's track but the concept of the Wicked Mr Pickett – perhaps the most temperamental of all '60s soul vocalists - covering this killer slow-burn track from Free was on the money. Free were one of the landmark English rock groups. Fronted by the super soulful Paul Rogers and featuring the great guitarist Paul Kossoff, who knew that soul was to be found in between the notes, and the rhythms section of Simon Kirke and Andy Fraser, who defined the word 'groovy' – Free knew the power of understatement. Their "Fire & Water" is one of the most soulful rock tracks ever laid down, and Wilson Picket nails the cool vocal, but the production here is not quite right. Pickett's best records came from his work at Stax and American Studios and Fame Studio in Alabama between 1965 and 1969. His "Fire & Water" was recorded in 1971 and producers Brad Shapiro and Dave Crawford don't quite nail it. But hey, it's still pretty great!

Wilson Pickett | "Born To Be Wild" [Steppenwolf]

This maybe shouldn't work but it does. Steppenwolf's heavy riff rocker – composed by Mars Bonfire – is very much the biker anthem, but the original worked so well because it grooves, and Wilson Pickett, of course, knows how to groove. Stinging guitar from Duane Allman, and a bold vocal – one which stays reasonably faithful to John Kay's original and by reflection shows what a fine unsung soul singer the Steppenwolf frontman was – help make this 1969 cut a winner.

Charles Bradley | "Changes" [Black Sabbath]

Fast forwarding nearly 50 years: New York's Daptone records helped kick start a 21st Century soul revival. One of their leading lights, alongside Sharon Jones & The Daptones, was "The Screaming Eagle of Soul" – the late Charles Bradley, a man who had a part-time James Brown-inspired stage act before being thrust into the spotlight in 2011 at the age of 62. Black Sabbath might be the dark princes of heavy, but they've never been noted for their blues or R&B roots. Like their contemporaries Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, however, they cut their teeth on the stuff, and their 1972 tune "Changes" showed a rare sensitivity. Bradley's version from 2015 is a stunner.

Al Green | "Light My Fire" [The Doors]

The Doors were a heavy band metaphysically rather than sonically; their mood was dark, and their sound, even on their classic pop hit "Light My Fire", was atmospherically overbearing. Great Memphis singer Al Green, on the other hand, was known for his lightness of touch and his sweet and sexy tunes like "Let's Stay Together" and "Love And Happiness ". His 1971 cover of the Doors tune find some sort of middle ground – it's definitely darker and heavier than his usual fare, and his added laughter – something he perhaps learned from Clarence Carter - adds something vaguely disturbing.

The Meters | "Down By The River" [Neil Young]

No, Neil Young is not a heavy metal artist, but his "Down By The River", like a lot of his work with Crazy Horse, is riff-heavy, and the chorus lyric "Down by the river/I shot my baby" is heavy-heavy. Legendary New Orleans combo The Meters, best known for their instrumental originals and covers, eschewed the riff but keep the groove dark, and add their own heavy touches. As the YouTube poster points out, early in his career Young was in a band called the Mynor Band which also featured later super freak Rick James, so there are soul connections there too.

Buddy Miles | "Midnight Rider" [Allman Brothers Band]

Former Hendrix's Band of Gypsys drummer, Buddy Miles had a lengthy solo career and also cut a killer "Down By The River" in 1970, but here we present his superb version of one of the Allman Brothers Band's most famous tracks. The Allman's version came out in '70 – Buddy wasn't far behind; the track appeared on his acclaimed, super-funky and jazzy 1971 album, A Message To The People, alongside a cover of a second Greg Allman tune "Don't Keep Me Wondering". Duane Allman, of course, had those previously mentioned connections with Wilson Pickett, who Miles also worked for, circa 1964.

Lou Rawls | "The Season of the Witch" [Donovan]

A heavy and funky organ driven version of Donovan's classic 1966 hit, “The Season Of The Witch” as featured on Lou Rawls' David Axelrod-produced The Way It Was album. Rawls is probably best remembered these days for his so-smooth 1978 hit "Lady Love", but he'd already been making records for 20 years at that point, and recorded some classic soul material in the '60s. 'Heavy' was not a word often used to describe Lou's music, but even he couldn't ignore the acid rock influence in 1969.

Nina Simone | "The Pusher" [Steppenwolf]

Nina Simone was one singer who made everything sound heavy, although not metal heavy of course. She brought a gravitas to everything she sang. "The Pusher", originally written by country/folk singer Hoyt Axton, was a 1968 hit for Steppenwolf and featured alongside their "Born To Be Wild" on the Easy Rider soundtrack. It was a perfect fit for Simone, and she included it on her 1974 live album, It Is Finished. A brooding and serious song, with a social message, its use of the expression "Goddamn" – not something too often heard on the radio at the time – echoes that of her famous original "Mississippi Goddamn", which she first recorded ten years earlier.

PP Arnold | "Tin Soldier" [Small Faces]

Moving over to the UK, the original source of most of this heaviness, let's hear this rare recording from one-time ‘Ikette’, PP Arnold, who pursued a solo career in the UK after being spotted by Mick Jagger while touring there with Ike & Tina. PP – who has visited Australia twice in the last 18 months and recently released an acclaimed comeback album – is perhaps best known for her work with the Small Faces, and her powerful vocal on their "Tin Soldier" in particular. Here, PP takes lead on the song herself, with her own short-lived band TNT, in a rare recording from the BBC. The Small Faces were one of the first of the English R&B bands to push to a heavier, organ-driven sound, and "Tin Soldier" is a rock classic. PP proves she didn't need Steve Marriot's help to nail it.

Ella Fitzgerald | "The Sunshine of My Love" [Cream]

Undoubtedly the most unexpected of all covers here, this track finds legendary jazz singer Ella taking on Cream's classic hit, big band style in 1969. Ella began her singing career in the early '30s; decades before rock'n'roll, and seemingly light-years from the hard rock era. But she nails the track, and the riffing horns fit the tune perfectly, clearly illustrating the jazz influence on the band who transformed British blues into something heavier.

Dive deeper into the intersection of soul and rock, have a listen to our Heavy Soul playlist on Spotify:

Related Posts