It was 1971, and the age of Black Power. There were revolutionary films like Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song; Isaac Hayes' score for the Richard Roundtree blockbuster Shaft launched the age of the blaxploitation soundtrack. Sly Stone lost his marbles while making There's a Riot Goin' On, and George Clinton blended acid-rock with funk on Funkadelic's Maggot Brain. And black people all around the country... were in love.
Somewhere in between wearing massive Afros and flowing dashiki robes, spreading an Afrocentric philosophy and a new holiday called Kwanzaa, and catching hell from the "pigs" at Black Panther and US Organization rallies, African-Americans managed to launch a soft soul movement to rival the post-'60s soft-rock scene. Soul music hadn't gone toothless, so you could still hear plenty of scratchy machine-gun grooves from James Brown ("Make It Funky (Part 1)," The Honey Cones ("Want Ads"), Jean Knight ("Mr. Big Stuff") and others. Funk was the soundtrack for the working week, when you had to deal with the Man's foot up your ass. But at night, when you and your baby sorted out the day's troubles, it was time to play some sweet soul music.
This was the glory year of Philly Soul, a sound pioneered by Philadelphia songwriters and producers like Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff, Thom Bell, and Linda Creed. First heard on seminal late-'60s singles like The Intruders' "Cowboys to Girls" and the Delfonics' "La-La-La Means I Love You," it blossomed into a full-blown revival of male vocal groups celebrating the glory of everlasting love, like The Stylistics' (who released their classic self-titled album that year), The Dramatics ( What You See Is What You Get), the Main Ingredient ("I'm So Proud") and The Chi-Lites ("Have You Seen Her"). Not every artist was from Philly, yet the Philly aesthetic of ornate strings, mellow yet persistent guitar lines and indelible multi-part choruses worthy of the mighty Temptations (who had their own hit with "Just My Imagination (Runnin' Away With Me)") seemed to permeate the radio airwaves. And you can't forget Al Green, the legendary Memphis soul singer who landed his first big hit that year, "Tired of Being Alone."
This celebration of 1971 soul is dedicated to those beautiful slow jams. But it wouldn't be complete without Marvin Gaye's What's Going On. Gaye's near-perfect protest suite walked a fine line between the burnt-out frustration of Stone's There's a Riot and the lovelorn poems of The Stylistics. His lyrics were topical and pointed, but his music was drenched in orchestral ballast and deep melancholy. He spoke for a generation that struggled to attain personal and political freedom, and knew that they would only achieve it if they stayed together.