Soul told Black musicians' stories. Its archives are going digital.

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Soul told Black musicians' stories. Its archives are going digital.
As the most granular source of news and images of soul, R&B, funk and disco artists in the Golden Age of those genres, Soul is a gold mine for Black history and pop culture scholars.

by Christopher Petkanas

NEW YORK, NY.- The rock ’n’ roll bible Rolling Stone was founded in 1967. The renegade music magazine Creem started in 1969. But another publication predated them both: Soul.

Motown, Stax and Phil Spector’s Philles Records were busting out (and Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International label was on the horizon), but until Soul, no publication had been feeding the growing appetite for even the most basic information about Black artists like Marvin Gaye, Carla Thomas or the Isley Brothers. The world knew the names of the Beatles’ wives, but not of the Ikettes.

With the smoke barely cleared from the Watts riots in Los Angeles, two men saw an opening: Ken Jones, Los Angeles’ first Black television anchor, and Cecil Tuck, who revitalized KRLA Beat, an early rock title. But the face of Soul, the one who told record company bosses where to get off and had artists calling her at night with scoops, was Regina Jones, Ken’s wife. Fly, flinty and self-created, she was at one time both the paper’s publisher and editor-in-chief.

Soul was groundbreaking, but it flamed out in 1982. Now Matt Jones, Ken and Regina’s grandson, is giving the publication a second life, creating an online archive of its issues for paying subscribers and uploading select audio from interviews. (Hard copies — dead stock — are also for sale.)

“We have bound volumes of all the issues that have been in my grandmother’s home for as long as I can remember,” Jones, 39, said. He has digitalized 82 issues with 291 to go, and is leaning on Regina Jones, now 80, for historical context. (The two talk every day; Ken died in 1993.)

As the most granular source of news and images of soul, R&B, funk and disco artists in the Golden Age of those genres, Soul is a gold mine for Black history and pop culture scholars. It “documents an important turning point in U.S. race relations and the arts,” Susan D. Anderson, who stewarded Regina Jones’ gift of Soul’s archive to the UCLA Library in 2010, wrote in an email.

Few people, she added, know that Soul, “in its drive to document African Americans’ perspective in a self-representative way, was a pivotal vehicle” powering the shift from “race records” to America “becoming the locus of popular culture production,” with Black artists the prevailing force.

Selling originally for 15 cents, the biweekly also covered jazz, television, Black Power, Hollywood and theater. Page Six-style columns delivered gossip in bites. Style was a de facto component: the Pointer Sisters in high-’40s drag, Al Green in hot pants and over-the-knee boots. A glossy sister was spawned, Soul! Illustrated.

Soul threw down the gauntlet from the first issue. James Brown and Mick Jagger shared a split cover under the headline “White Artists Selling Negro ‘Soul.’” Daphne A. Brooks, professor of African American studies at Yale, singled it out for “the audacity of its critical focus,” stunned that in 1966 a music publication would lead with a piece on the politics of cultural appropriation. “Are you kidding me?!” she wrote over email. Other covers the first year featured Stevie Wonder, the Impressions and Sam Cooke. The website highlights major interviews with Aretha Franklin, Rick James and Bob Marley.

Soul “helps to fill out and complicate our understanding of a seminal moment,” Gayle Wald, author of “It’s Been Beautiful: ‘Soul!’ and Black Power Television,” wrote in an email. “Soul!,” a variety show, was unrelated to the paper but had a similar mission. “Serious cultural journalism about pop music was just emerging,” Wald added.

Regina and Ken Jones bought out Tuck in 1967, producing Soul from their home near Watts while raising five children. Regina Jones said she did not view Rolling Stone as competition but did “resent” it covering Black artists: her territory. In 1975, both publications printed Labelle covers; she enjoyed a measure of satisfaction when she beat Jann Wenner’s magazine to the newsstands by four months. Nona Hendryx, a member of Labelle, purveyors of a landmark mashup of funk, rock, R&B and gospel, said that “for an African American artist, Soul was definitely more important than Rolling Stone.” Fans approached her in public: “Hey, I saw you in Soul.”

“You got your feedback directly from the people,” Hendryx added. “It had more weight than Rolling Stone because it kept us in the community.”

In a novel marketing gambit, Soul partnered with 30 Black radio stations across the country, printing a different edition for each. Stations had their call letters on the cover and a spread inside for rotation charts and advertisers. Bruce W. Talamon, Soul’s star photographer, said that in turn, “DJs gave us on-air promotion — ‘Buy your Soul newspaper!’”

Regina Jones’ unfiltered access to artists could mean fielding a call from David Ruffin announcing he’d just been fired from the Temptations — and wanted to tell his story. “That speaks to how highly he felt about Soul,” she said. “It was almost like going to your parents.” Diana Ross kissed the Supremes goodbye in 1970 during their final performance at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas, then slipped into a booth beside Berry Gordy, still in her Bob Mackie stage velvets, to spill tea with Soul.

Sublime talent showed up on Regina Jones’ doorstep unbidden, including Leonard Pitts Jr., the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, and Talamon, whose book, “Soul. R&B. Funk. Photographs 1972-1982,” is a definitive visual record of artists in the idioms and period it covers.

Before freelancing for Soul in 1976, Pitts said in a video interview from the 2000s, “I was there every day on the day” Soul came out, waiting for it to go on sale, to learn that the Temptations had suffered yet another personnel change, that King had been assassinated. “It was like, ‘Oh my God, what’s happening? My world is crumbling.’”

Pitts, who later held the top editorial position, said in the video that he admired Soul because it didn’t pander, printing that there was no love lost between Rick James and George Clinton. Nobody else, he noted, thought Black music warranted that kind of attention: “No one else was telling you, you know, ‘This is why Philippé Wynne left the Spinners.’ It wasn’t what the press releases say. It’s because they had a fight.”

Nichelle Gainer, author of “Vintage Black Glamour,” noted in an email that Soul’s “coverage of hot-button topics” like Motown star Tammi Terrell’s illness was “steadier,” with “consistent updates,” compared with general interest Black publications. But the paper’s quality was not always how alumni and scholars remember it. The writing could be crude; handout images were sometimes accepted as cover photos. And as the ’70s wound down, Soul lost its teeth. The Joneses’ marriage was unraveling. Regina Jones admitted she was no longer minding the store. In 1980, J. Randy Taraborrelli, who followed Pitts as editor-in-chief and would go on to write “Call Her Miss Ross,” a biography of the supreme Supreme, pushed successfully for a cover the publication’s readership could not abide: Barry Manilow.

Matt Jones will dutifully digitalize the issue. But he won’t be sad if it goes unnoticed among firebombs like the Brown/Jagger story. Before Soul, he said, Jet and Ebony talked about soul music “as this weird kind of niche thing — they had trouble describing it. The press packets of many Black musicians in the ’60s consisted of a single one-page write-up: ‘Here’s who I am. Here’s this great interview on me in Soul newspaper.’”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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