1968 was a year of flux in the pop music scene. Soul music failed to extend its influence on the music as a whole, country music contributed some new ideas, but did not achieve acceptance as a form in itself, and English blues bands were again very popular. As the year closed, no one style dominated the scene.
1967 ended with the death of Otis Redding. In 1968, some of his finest records were released. “Sitting On the Dock of the Bay” was probably the best selling soul record of the year, and, in my view, the best artistically as well. The album of the same name was a top seller and included some of Redding’s most brilliant performances, such “Don’t Mess With Cupid” and “Open the Door.” All through the year Atco continued to release new tapes. Of special interest were The Immortal Otis Redding and In Person at the Whiskey A Go Go.
Aretha Franklin began the year with her best album to date, Lady Soul, but had trouble coming up to that high point during the rest of the year. In some ways her career is indicative of soul music’s development this this year: having already created an extremely high standard for herself, she is now having trouble either living up to it or finding new directions in which to grow. News of her forthcoming jazz-oriented album bodes well for her in this respect, because it shows that she is aware of the problem.
Prior to 1968, Atlantic records had distributed Stax records and had contributed to formulating its policies. In 1968, Stax separated from Atlantic and was bought by Gulf and Western. Jim Stewart remains the president of Stax and is now on his own. The initial efforts of Stax as an independent have been superb: the label’s very first release, Booker T. and the MGs “Soul Limbo,” was a big hit. Musically, it was noteworthy primarily because of Al Jackson’s excellent percussion work. Eddie Floyd had several great records this year, particularly “Bring It On Home” and the little known “Get On Up Big Bird.” There was also William Bell’s moving “Tribute To a King” which used the traditional folk ballad form to pay homage to Otis Redding.
Probably the best Stax record of the year, and the one that proved Stax will make it on its own, was Johnny Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love.” Taylor, a blues singer in his early thirties, had been floating around Stax for years, going from one producer (and style) to another. He has now found Don Davis who has given him a perfect sound, and with “Who’s Making Love,” both Taylor and Stax won their first gold record.
Motown has gone through a year of troubles. The magnificent song writing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland left the label permanently and various suits and counter suits, involving enormous sums of money, are now pending. For a while it looked like the Supremes wouldn’t ever have a hit again. “Love Child” proved that notion wrong and has gone on to be one of their best selling records ever.
David Ruffin left the Temptations during the year, and the new Tempts suffer badly for it. Ruffin was one of Motown’s finest singers and it is widely believed that he left the company because they were abusing him financially. In fact, most of Motown’s problems seem to be based on their unwillingness to remunerate their artists properly for the millions of dollars they bring into the company.
Ruffin mentioned in his statement about leaving the Temptations that he would like to do a soul act, the implication being that singing “Hello Young Lovers” at the Copa was not his idea of a career. Unfortunately, it remains Motown’s idea. In 1968 they made a few concessions to their record-buying audience — Marvin Gaye’s “Heard It Through the Grapevine” is superb — but on the albums and-live they specialize in strictly whiteface night club acts. I wonder how long the Supremes are going to keep the public interested in how many wigs Diana Ross can put on in the space of a one hour television program.
Motown, which entered the year looking like it was on its last leg, ended the year holding down the top three positions on the singles charts, all at once. And Atlantic Records had its biggest year in history, ending up only second to Columbia Records in total sales. Soul music will continue to exert a major influence on all music in 1969 because of the talent and energy of its performers. The best of it will continue to be among the best pop music being made. But one must face the fact that most soul musicians and producers do not have enough imagination to expand soul music beyond what it already is and help it continue to grow.