Books about soul music capture the essence and iconic voices of Motown with the written word.
Soul entered the popular music scene in the late 1950s as a fusion of African American gospel, rhythm and blues, and jazz. Important innovators like James Brown, Little Richard, Etta James, Ray Charles, and Sam Cooke pushed soul music onto the charts.
Along with its catchy rhythms, soul music became popular for its meaningful lyrics on the historical, cultural, and economical aspects of the Black experience. Its sound conjured up activists’ passion for the Civil Rights Movement, especially with freedom songs like “We Shall Overcome.”
According to RIAA, R&B and soul music remain today’s third biggest genre. Avid listeners of Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and Luther Vandross can feed their fascination with books about soul music too.
We “Heard It Through the Grapevine” that the following 30 books offer can’t-miss reads about soul stars.
#1 – Young Soul Rebels: A Personal History of Northern Soul
BAFTA Award winner and Perth native Stuart Cosgrove penned Young Soul Rebels in 2015 to share the intimate story of Britain’s fascinating musical underground scene. Readers travel to the iconic clubs where northern soul became infamous, including The Twisted Wheel and Cleethorpes Pier. Its chapters capture 50+ years of British history from miners strikes to Thatcherism and the rising amphetamine culture.
#2 – The Sound of Soul: The Story of Black Music
The Sound of Soul is a 246-page paperback written by Phyl Garland in 1969 when Motown had climbed the musical charts. The easy-to-read book begins by surveying the origins of soul music from a Black perspective. Pages progress into contemporary examples of the genre’s leading musicians, including B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, and Nina Simone. Garland also shows soul’s connection to various styles from jazz to bebop.
#3 – All Music Guide to Soul: The Definitive Guide to R&B and Soul
Vladimir Bogdanov, Chris Woodstra, and Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Featuring over 900 pages, All Music Guide to Soul is a mammoth resource compiled by critics Bogdanov, Woodstra, and Erlewine with a library of musical trivia. From Ray Charles’ early 1950s hits to Alicia Keys’ first CD, the guide respectfully reviews legions of songs in rhythm and blues. “Music maps” help readers trace soul music’s growth from gospel to Motown.
#4 – Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom
From the acclaimed author of Last Train to Memphis, this book provides a rich tapestry of knowledge on the “race” music that spawned soul. Peter Guralnick covers the genre’s social history from the rise of Stax Records to Martin Luther King’s assassination. Biographical profiles are included for Southern soul greats like Solomon Burke, Al Green, James Brown, and Otis Redding.
#5 – Blues All Around Me: The Autobiography
B.B. King and David Ritz
Called “charming, honest, and transcendent” by Billboard, B.B. King’s long-awaited autobiography was published in 2011 with editor David Ritz. From his childhood on the Mississippi Delta to his breakout appearance on Sonny Boy Williamson’s radio show, the book covers King’s rise to international acclaim. The gripping tale candidly shares the tragedies and triumphs that shaped America’s ambassador of soul music.
#6 – Chicago Soul: Making Black Music Chicago-Style
Originally printed in 1991, Chicago Soul is a comprehensive, meticulous guide covering every aspect of soul music produced by African Americans in the Illinois hub. Columnist Robert Pruter presents significant research on artists like Curtis Mayfield, Gene Chandler, Etta James, and Major Lance. Pruter also delves into the stories behind classic soul hits, such as Dee Clark’s “Raindrops” and Jan Bradley’s “Mama Didn’t Lie.”
#7 – Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues
Starting with a foreword from Richard Wright, Blues Fell This Morning provides a classic account on the unique aspects of Black society that sparked soul music. Paul Oliver broadens readers’ understanding on the complexity of lyrical meaning in R&B by detailing its history from 1920 to 1960. Its chapters portray how the themes of love, labor, violence, disease, war, and civil rights were woven into song.
#8 – James Brown: The Godfather of Soul
James Brown and Dan Tucker
Before his legal scuffles in Georgia, James Brown partnered with Dan Tucker to produce a self-titled autobiography in 1986. Firsthand, the “Godfather of Soul” tells his soulful story from growing up in an Augusta brothel to achieving fame and becoming a sex machine. Illustrated with colorful photo inserts, Brown also offers anecdotes about his experiences with Elvis, Little Richard, Tina Turner, and more.
#9 – The There’s That Beat! Guide to the Philly Sound: Philadelphia Soul Music and its R&B Roots: From Gospel & Bandstand to TSOP
Dave Moore and Jason Thornton
Dave Moore and Jason Thornton, the enthusiastic duo behind Northern Soul magazine, teamed up to create this lavishly designed 690-page guide. From its Gospel and Bandstand roots, the book offers in-depth investigation into how Philadelphia became the epicenter of Black music. Remarkable stories about Thorn Bell, Teddy Pendergrass, Bobby Eli, and other acclaimed Philly artists abound.
#10 – Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye
Ever wonder about the man behind seductive soul songs like “Let’s Get It On”? Author David Ritz published this fascinating biography in 2003 from interviews before Marvin Gaye’s murder. Its pages paint a full-scale portrait of the brilliant, yet tormented musician who rose from Washington DC’s “Simple City” to Motown stardom. Ritz also explores Gaye’s relationships with artists like Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, and Diana Ross.
#11 – Motown Artist by Artist
High school dropout Berry Gordy Jr. established the Motown record label in Detroit in 1959, launching soul music’s most successful movement. Starting with Barrett Strong’s “Money,” the sound of Black America hit the radio waves. Soon the careers of superstars like Marvin Gaye, Jackson 5, and The Supremes were blossoming. Author Pat Morgan discusses both Motown success stories and the style’s eventual changes.
#12 – The Holy Profane: Religion in Black Popular Music
Teresa L. Reed
Known for winning a 2004 ARSC Award, The Holy Profane examines the presence of religious sentiment in secular African American music styles, including soul. Tulsa University professor Teresa L. Reed researches the links between R&B megastars and the religious culture of their West-African ancestry. Readers will analyze lyrics from diverse 20th century artists, such as Stevie Wonder, Rosetta Tharpe, and Tupac.
#13 – Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War
Dena J. Epstein
Chicago librarian Dena J. Epstein wrote Sinful Tunes and Spirituals in 2003 to present one of the largest resources on early African American music. With copious primary source material, Epstein depicts how the musical culture of West Africa was carried on slave ships and remade in the New World. She then shows how secular African folk styles progressed into the Antebellum period.
#14 – Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues & Coming of Age Through Vinyl
Soul Serenade is a unique coming-of-age memoir written by music critic Rashod Ollison about his childhood in rural Arkansas. Faced with his parents’ volatile divorce and discovery of his same-sex attraction, Rashod is left feeling isolated and depressed. That’s until he uncovers his father Raymond’s record collection. Rashod find solace with the soothing sounds of music from Aretha Franklin to Al Green.
#15 – The Death of Rhythm and Blues
Nelson George, writer of the Netflix series “The Get Down,” provides a fast-paced narrative on the last 50 years of Black music. George chronicles the rise of “race” music through the chart-topping R&B trend. He applauds his favorite creative heroes, including Chuck Berry, Michael Jackson, and James Brown. The book’s latter chapters then portray how soul has been submerged into white culture to the point of extinction.
#16 – Midnight Mover: The True Story of the Greatest Soul Singer in the World
Bobby Womack and Peter Ashton
Legend Bobby Womack paired up with Los Angeles Times journalist Peter Ashton for one of the leading first-person books about soul music. Midnight Mover tells the scorched story behind the gifted singer and guitarist with 30 million records sold. From his impoverished upbringing in Cleveland to drug abuse and riotous partying with greats like Jimi Hendrix, Bobby Womack is spilling all.
#17 – After the Dance: My Life with Marvin Gaye
After the Dance is an engrossing read about the bliss and danger of loving a passionate soul music icon. In 1973, Janis Hunter met legendary Marvin Gaye during the recording of his “Let’s Get It On” album. Despite a 17-year age difference, Jan and the seductive Motown singer were married. Now Jan Gaye opens up about the drugs, affairs, abuse, and dysfunctional chaos that complicated their love.
#18 – Soul Covers: Rhythm and Blues Remakes and the Struggle for Artistic Identity
University of Michigan professor Michael Awkward published his extensive soul music research in 2007 with Soul Covers. This engaging book depicts how famed R&B performers crafted their own musical identities partly by covering songs associated with other artists. Awkward considers the work of Aretha Franklin, Al Green, and Phoebe Snow to examine the role of remakes in popular culture.
#19 – The Unknown Musician
Intended for youth aged nine to 12, The Unknown Musician is a five-part novel based on the true childhood of Don Walker. Its beautifully scripted pages share a young man’s dream of creating the world’s best R&B band. He successfully recruits 11 dedicated musicians to make it big. Through a journey filled with ardent adventure and tragedy, they encounter soul music favorites like James Brown and Michael Jackson.
#20 – People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music
Robert Darden, Senior Editor of The Door magazine, traces the history of soul from Negro spirituals to contemporary Black gospel music in People Get Ready! This scholarly 440-page resource addresses the often-neglected musical era between the Civil War and the rise of Jubilee quartets. From the nameless slaves of the Thirteen Colonies to Yolanda Adams and Mahalia Jackson, Darden leaves no aspect forgotten.
#21 – Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music
Music journalist Gerri Hirshey’s Nowhere to Run is one of the monumental books about soul music split into three sections. Part one explores the gospel and blues roots of soul music back to slavery. The second part looks at early soul artists, such as Martha Reeves, Sam Cooke, and Solomon Burke. Part three delves into Southern soul’s Memphis scene with James Brown, Isaac Hayes, and more.
#22 – The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved the Soul of America
Since James Brown’s passing in 2006, the “Godfather of Soul” has been memorialized for his outstanding achievements. Yet few know the depth of his contribution to saving America’s Civil Rights movement. Here James Sullivan shares the details of his electric performance in Boston Garden the day after Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination that empowered society.
#23 – Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis
Tennesseans may find Beale Street Dynasty among the most fascinating books about soul music. Best-selling author Preston Lauterbach shares Beale Street’s vivid history as a cauldron of sultry sex, swaggering musicians, and steely politicians. Lauterbach tells Memphis’ fascinating past through the story of Robert Church, the South’s first Black millionaire, who helped transform American music with composer W.C. Handy.
#24 – A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul
John A. Jackson
A House on Fire takes audiences inside the musical movement launched by pioneers Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff, and Thom Bell. Author John A. Jackson offers perspective on the creation of International Philadelphia Records through the blending of sophisticated Motown harmonies with spirited Memphis funk. The back-stories for 1970s Philly Soul standouts like Teddy Pendergrass, Patti LaBelle, Lou Rawls, and others are covered.
#25 – What Happened, Miss Simone?: A Biography
Inspired by the Oscar Award-nominated Netflix documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? is an emotional biography on the legendary soul singer. Using Simone’s private dairies and interviews with her only daughter, Vibe Editor-in-Chief Alan Light sheds light on one of the genre’s least understood performers. From her childhood in the Jim Crow South to her self-imposed exile in Liberia, readers get to know Nina Simone’s personal demons.
#26 – My Life with Earth, Wind & Fire
Maurice White and Herb Powell
Ranked #1 in R&B biographies on Amazon, My Life with Earth, Wind & Fire was published by the Grammy Award winner in 2016. With a foreword by David Foster, Maurice White’s memoir discusses how he joined Philip Bailey, Ralph Johnson, and others into a legendary soul group. He also shares painful secrets, including his mother’s abandonment at four and his diagnosis of Parkinson’s.
#27 – Funk: The Music, The People and The Rhythm of The One
Funk originated in the mid-1960s through the rhythmic combination of soul, jazz, and R&B. It’s the only musical form to transform an entire nation into bell-bottomed, rainbow-colored dance warriors. Author Rickey Vincent celebrates funk’s colorful history from the early work of James Brown through Stevie Wonder, Miles Davis, and The Temptations. Attention is also given to variations, such as funk rock popularized by Jimi Hendrix.
#28 – Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records
Grammy Award-winning author Rob Bowman wrote Soulsville, U.S.A. to walk readers down the halls of the famous record label that produced monster soul hits. The 402-page narrative provides the company’s ground-breaking history in Memphis soul music. Bowman introduces the pioneers who recorded the voices of Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave, Rufus Thomas, and more. Also check out Bowman’s 10-CD set of Stax/Volt Soul Singles.
#29 – Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield
Traveling Soul is a powerful biography portraying the famously private Curtis Mayfield’s life from his second-oldest son’s perspective. Born in the slums of Chicago, Curtis was a young musical prodigy. By the 1960s, he pioneered his own record label and discovered top musicians like the Staple Singers. More importantly, Curtis influenced the civil rights movement by writing the 1960s Black anthem “People Get Ready.”
#30 – Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul
National Book Award-winning author James McBride shares his search into the troubled life behind soul genius James Brown. McBride travels to the South Carolina fields where Brown’s family toiled, tracks down his right-hand manager of 41 years, and interviews his “adopted son” Reverend Al Sharpton. What results is an electric glimpse into James Brown’s story and its unsettling metaphor for African American life.
When you’re looking to expand your soulful playlist, head to these 30 great books about soul music to learn about more noteworthy men and women who contributed to the genre with their smooth sound and emotional lyrics.
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