After a long musical journey I came to the destination of R&B and Soul in my teens. The love of Southern Soul started with the more accessible offerings of Motown, (“The Sound Of Young America”), from the urban centre of Detroit and ended with the grittier Stax recordings, (“Soulsville U.S.A.”), located in the more rural Memphis, FAME in Muscle Shoals Alabama, and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Sheffield Alabama, as well as other studios in other Southern locales.

As I got older I came to appreciate a wide variety of genres but none have had the lasting power of Southern Soul that has stayed with me from the 1960’s throughout the rest of my life. While I didn’t have the opportunity to catch all my heroes in person, I collected their singles and albums that I continue to play to this day.

Early on I listened solely to two AM stations that provided a large dose of Soul music: WUFO 1080 (Amherst N.Y.) and CKLW 800 (Windsor ON). WUFO, that played Soul exclusively, was my primary source. CKLW, renowned as “the” hit making station, due to its proximity to Detroit, featured playlists heavily laden with Soul.

I have two memories that remain etched in my brain:

  • After playing “Tramp” by Otis Redding & Carla Thomas, WUFO DJ Chucky T, feeling the need to explain just exactly what Otis and Carla were saying, played the cut a second time so that the listening audience caught every nuance
  • The first time that CKLN played “When A Man Loves A Woman” by Percy Sledge. With no introduction, the silence was broken by the ominous sound of Spooner Oldham’s plaintive Hammond B-3 introduction. I was 16 at the time and immediately knew something serious was about to unfold

Southern Soul spoke to me with its raw expression of what has been referred to as “The Natural Truth” – basic needs and desires: e.g. courtship, breaking up, stealing love, and longing for unrequited love. The genre’s best offerings all reflected those urgencies as the singer exclaimed, cried, pleaded, and shouted about the condition of the human spirit.

Soul Music is epitomized by great singers. If asked to name my top five singers they would be (in order): Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Bobby Bland, and Jackie Wilson. And there would be a long line of honourable mentions who, along with my top five, continue to be in heavy rotation on both cd and vinyl.

Southern Soul is characterized as a genre of music that originated in the Southern U.S. It’s a blend of, or contains, a number of other genres including Blues, Country, and Gospel. As a further means of definition, the idiom has its lens focused on artists that, primarily, were born and recorded in the south. (What I’m alluding to is old school Soul – not to be confused with some of today’s Pop that’s passing itself off as Soul or the current overtly sexual renderings of Southern Soul).

Southern Soul artists were and continue to be predominantly black. But there are factors that come into play with Southern musicians that place whites and blacks in the same social strata. Both tend to be working class and although whites may enjoy status and may not have to deal with the atrocities that blacks endured at their hands in general walks of life, co-involvement in music tends to level the playing field.

Famed Southern Soul producer Jerry Wexler summed it up this way: “Everybody who knows the South, the real South, knows that, despite the Klan and the lynchings and the brutality, the liberated southern white is a hell of a lot closer to Negro soul than the northern white liberal….”

In the musical sphere their social milieu is probably not a lot different. Here they tend to share the same cultural, geographical, as well as vernacular foundation. Thus racial lines become blurred in both playing and singing. That’s why some white singers like Eddie Hinton are quite convincing – it comes from somewhere deeper. In this instance a white artist can’t overcome the historical implications but can relate socio economically, and it doesn’t come off as consciously copying – it comes from the heart. Of note, while the majority of Southern Soul artists have historically been black, the supporting musicians in studio house bands have been predominantly white thus affecting a role reversal.

It’s also interesting to note that African Americans from the South listened to a lot of the same music as whites, and accordingly were just as enamoured with and influenced by the Grand Ole Opry as whites of the same generation. With that perspective it’s not hard to understand that black artists emerged singing Country Soul – like Joe Simon, Dobie Gray, and Johnny Adams. Some – Charlie Pride being the most obvious example – are full-fledged Country artists. Further, some southern black artists – like Joe Tex – admired Country players and even while playing R&B, favoured Country players for his recording sessions.

Unfortunately, with the music scene being what it is today, with the exception of specialty radio shows, the only way to hear and appreciate Soul is through personal music collections. Not only has time passed the genre by, but like other Roots forms, Soul has been marginalized.

Also, to be considered as a factor of Soul falling off the radar, is that artists who defined the genre are no longer with us. As in the case of Blues, Soul has lost many of the genre’s recognizable names, (think Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, James Brown, Aretha Franklin). Unless one lives in the American deep south and frequents the still active juke joints, there’s nothing to remind a listener of the halcyon days of the 60’s when Stax was the epicentre of a tornado that hit worldwide; where every corner of North America had its own brand of Soul – be it Chicago, Detroit, New York, or Toronto.

Having opened the window into Southern Soul, as opposed to trying to describe the music, I’ve instead included a suggested playlist of twelve songs that have played a major role in not only my appreciation of the form but also helped to establish Southern Soul as a major genre. In addition, I’ve also listed prominent recording studios and some of the key session musicians.


  • Wilson Pickett – In The Midnight Hour

Released 1965; Atlantic

Recorded at Stax Studios Memphis TN

Wilson Pickett 1941-2006 was born in Prattville AL

  • James Brown – Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag

Released 1965; King

Recorded at Arthur Smith Studios Charlotte NC

James Brown 1933-2006 was born in Barnwell SC

  • Otis Redding – I’ve Been Loving You Too Long

Released 1965; Volt (Stax)

Recorded at Stax Studios Memphis TN

Otis Redding 1941-1967 was born in Dawson GA

  • Percy Sledge – When A Man Loves A Woman

Released 1966; Atlantic

Recorded at Quinn Ivey Studios Sheffield AL

Percy Sledge 1941-2015 was born in Leighton AL

  • Sam & Dave – Hold On, I’m Comin’

Released 1966; Stax

Recorded at Stax Studios Memphis TN

Sam Moore was born in 1935 in Miami FL

Dave Prater 1937-1988 was born in Ocilla GA

  • Aretha Franklin – I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You

Released 1966; Atlantic

Recorded at Fame Studios Muscle Shoals AL

Aretha Franklin 1942-2018 was born in Memphis TN

  • James Carr – The Dark End Of The Street

Released date 1967; Goldwax

Recorded at American Sound Studios Memphis TN

James Carr 1942-2001 was born in Coahoma MS

  • Clarence Carter – Slip away

Released 1968; Atlantic

Recorded at FAME Studios Muscle Shoals AL

Clarence Carter was born in1936 in Montgomery AL

  • William Bell – I Forgot To Be Your Lover

Released 1969; Stax

Recorded at Ardent Recording Studios Memphis TN

William Bell was born in Memphis TN in 1939

  • Joe Simon – The Chokin’ Kind

Released 1969; Monument / Stage 7

Recorded at American Sound Studios Memphis TN

Joe Simon was born in 1943 in Simmesport LA

  • Johnny Adams – Reconsider Me

Released 1969; SSS International

Recorded at Columbia Studios Nashville TN

Johnny Adams 1932-1998 was born in New Orleans LA

  • The Staple Singers feat. Mavis Staples – I’ll Take You There

Released 1972; Stax

Recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios Sheffield AL

Mavis Staples was born in 1939 in Chicago IL

Following is a listing of prominent recording studios and the people who oversaw the recordings of the many great Southern Soul songs


  • FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises), Muscle Shoals AL

Rick Hall

  • Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, Sheffield AL

Jimmy Johnson, Barry Beckett

  • Stax, Memphis TN

Jim Stewart, Al Bell, Steve Cropper

  • Royal Sound Studios, Memphis TN

Willie Mitchell, Boo Mitchell

  • American Sound Studios, Memphis TN

Chips Moman, Dan Penn

  • Criteria Studios, Miami FL

Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin

Following are the house bands that played a major role in both the playing and arrangements of a significant number of the great Southern Soul releases. As previously noted, while the majority of Southern Soul artists were black, the house bands were predominantly white.


  • Original FAME house band

Rick Hall / Jerry Carrigan / Felton Jarvis / Tommy Roe / Ray Stevens /

David Briggs / Norbert Putnam

  • The Swampers (FAME, MSSS)

Primarily Jimmy Johnson, Barry Beckett, David Hood, and Roger Hawkins with Eddie Hinton / Duane Allman / Junior Lowe / Pete Carr / Clayton Ivey / Chips Moman / Spooner Oldham / Tommy Cogbill / Bobby Womack

  • The FAME Gang

Freeman Brown / Jesse Boyce / Clayton Ivey / Junior Lowe         

  • The Memphis Boys (American)

Gene Christian / Tommy Cogbill / Mike Leach / Reggie Young / Bobby Emmons /

Bobby Woods / Chips Moman

  • STAX

Steve Cropper / Booker T. Jones / Isaac Hayes / Duck Dunn / Al Jackson

  • Hi Rhythm Section (Royal)

Teenie Hodges / Charles Hodges / Leroy Hodges / Howard Grimes /  

Al Jackson

  • Dixie Flyers (Criteria)

Jim Dickinson / Charlie Freeman / Tommy McClure / Mike Utley /

Sammy Creason

  • Rico Ferrara, September 2020


Once at a television taping, Little Richard’s mother, Leva Mae, took Dion aside and asked him, “You the boy that sings ‘Ruby Baby’? Son, you got soul.”

“Dion is, after all, the original wanderer. One of the most original, soulful voices sprung from the New York cauldron. And in his heart he is rhythm and blues and country which we call rock and roll”. – Lou Reed inducting Dion into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1989

Dion, who started his recording career in 1957, has just released, (by my count), his 35th studio album in July of this year – “Blues With Friends” – at the age of 81!

Dion’s career, that has spanned 63 years to date, has been anything but a smooth ride as he’s navigated through a number of creative turns. And, in the course of that journey, Dion has successfully mastered various genres including Doo-Wop, Rock & Roll, R&B, and most recently Blues. Dion, a survivor if there ever was one, has managed his career on his own terms to produce music that remains relevant and distinctly his own.

You can’t have longevity in the music business without some modicum of talent, and Dion, make no mistake, has talent to spare. And that talent’s been on display since long before his 18th birthday when he released “The Chosen Few” under the name of Dion & The Timberlanes. But Dion soon found that having talent and the corresponding fame, adulation, and wealth in the music business, wasn’t enough to keep body and soul together in the real world. Suffice to say, there’s a lot more to Dion’s story than his 10 Top Ten hits.

When you mention the name Dion you’re more than likely to hear “You mean Dion, as in Dion  The Belmonts”? It seems that Dion will forever be associated with The Belmonts, the ground breaking Doo Wop group that lived their lives on the mean streets of the Bronx and honed their chops on street corners, in alleys, and on roof tops.

But, in reality, Dion and The Belmonts account for only a small part of his resume. After all, they were only together for 4 years (1957-1960). And Dion only had 2 hits with the ensemble: “Teenager In Love” and “Where Or When”. As a solo artist, he has gone on to record 37 more of his 39 Top Forty hits. Not all might be as memorable as the two cited above, but some surpass them by a wide margin both in sales and artistic achievement: “The Wanderer”, “Runaround Sue”, “Ruby Baby”, “Drip Drop”, “Donna The Prima Donna”, “Abraham Martin & John”.

Dion’s story, overshadowed as it may be by his public persona, is truly one of resiliency and courage, and a lifelong search for inner peace and serenity. It started as a combination of “too much too soon” and a total lack of self-awareness rooted in a guilt ridden childhood growing up in a first generation Italian-American household in the Bronx in the 50’s.

As Dion was amassing his fame and fortune he was fighting internal demons and turned to drugs and alcohol to cure his ever present insecurities. In fact, Dion quickly escalated to hard drugs to the point of a full blown heroin addiction beginning at the age of 14; a habit that would last the next 15 years.

It was a continual downward spiral until he hit rock bottom. And Dion recognized it as such when he came to the realization that he didn’t care about the things that mattered most to him – his family and his music. Plainly, he wasn’t Dion the Rock star; he was just another junkie. But with the help of his wife and his renewed faith, his decision to kick the habit wasn’t solely a desire to get straight; it was, in his words, quite simply a desire to live. And, after a number of attempts, Dion was finally clean and sober at 35.

Dion was one of my original musical heroes. But I have to admit that after “Drip Drop” I lost track of Dion as I – like most people I knew – fell under the sway of The Beatles and then the various British Invasion bands that followed. Dion’s dynamic foray into Folk Rock went unnoticed. His return to the Top Ten with “Abraham Martin & John” was met with passing interest. The success of AM&J opened the door to a powerful, more introspective singer / songwriter / Blues solo act that I didn’t want or need to know about. Even his return to Rock & Roll with “Born To Be With You” produced by Phil Spector with his “Wall Of Sound” – a true clash of Rock & Roll titans – was met with a shrug.

Instead, when my musical wanderings led me back stateside it was to Southern Soul, Chicago Blues, and the West Coast sounds of Crosby Stills & Nash, and the like. When I did look eastward I was drawn to Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny, Garland Jeffreys, and Willy DeVille, among others.

In the course of soaking up what these east coast cats were laying down, it dawned on me that they all told similar gritty inner city stories that I had been accustomed to hearing from Dion, one of the greatest story tellers of them all.

As I was digesting the obvious, Dion released an album I couldn’t take off the turntable – “Streetheart”. Now if you’ve heard “Streetheart,” and you start going on about the slick production and playing; fuggataboutit! You’re missing the point, it’s the musical stories and, above all, it’s that voice! Shouting one minute, crooning the next, and scatting effortlessly and seamlessly into a Nino Tempo sax solo after that.

(If you’re looking for a copy of “Streetheart”, Ace Records, a re-issue label out of the UK, in an inspired moment, put out a twofer pairing “Born To Be With You” with “Streetheart”. Although Ace did miss a golden opportunity by not including “The Return Of The Wanderer”, the follow-up to “Streetheart”. Now that would have made a sweet trilogy of Dion’s return to Rock & Roll!)

I was now committed and had to make up for lost time. I started buying all of Dion’s Rock & Roll releases going forward. I read his autobiography, interviews, and articles that revealed some historical tidbits like:

  • Hank Williams was Dion’s first hero – Dion claims he knows over 40 Williams songs – and a major influence in Dion’s ability to tell a story in song
  • A lot of his early material was Blues based; not a conscious decision but rather a nod to the influence of Jimmy Reed
  • A lot of the non-word riffing used by The Belmonts was based on hearing sax players at The Apollo Theatre like King Curtis and Big Al Sears
  • The well-known story of Dion balking at joining Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper on that fateful flight on February 2, 1959 because he equated the $36 cost to a month’s rent. (It should be noted there were only 2 seats available, aside from one for Holly, and Dion was slated to go but gave up his seat to Ritchie Valens)
  • Dion was the first Rock & Roll artist to sign with Columbia Records
  • Dion was instrumental in influencing Bob Dylan to go electric; (they were Columbia Records label mates at the time).
  • Bobby Darin, a mentor, and Dion used to hawk NY clubs and cut heads like Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers in their heyday in Chicago; (multi-instrumentalist Darin on drums or piano and Dion on guitar)
  • Bobby Darin used to call Dion’s music Bronx Blues
  • John Hammond Sr. of Columbia Records formally introduced Dion to Blues by playing selections by Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and, the Bluesman who possibly had the biggest impact on his music, Reverend Gary Davis. When Dion found that Davis was still alive and living in an apartment in the Bronx, he made a pilgrimage to his door and learned the Blues first hand at Davis’ feet.
  • Dion recorded a Folk Rock / Blues album “Kickin’ Child” in 1965 that Columbia refused to release; a refusal that culminated in Dion leaving the label. (The album was finally released in 2017 on the Norton label to rave critical reviews).

All of that is a lot to take in, but Dion still wasn’t and isn’t done. Instead he opened another chapter in the Dion songbook: Dion 21st Century Bluesman. Starting in 2005 with the Grammy and Blues Music Awards nominated “Bronx In Blue”, Dion released a handful of Blues albums that stand collectively with the best work he’s ever recorded including: “Son Of Skip James”, “Tank Full Of Blues”, “New York Is My Home”, and the aforementioned “Blues With Friends”.

On a mix of covers and originals, with conviction and authority, Dion offers up his unique take playing and singing the Blues. (By the way, if you don’t know or believe that Dion is a fine guitar player these recordings serve as Exhibit A). At the same time, they represent his personal point of view of the world around him and his place in that same world.

Dion describes himself as “a Bronx Blues Rocker” and his music as “black music that’s filtered through the Bronx neighbourhood and comes out with attitude.” That just about sums it up.

I have a personal story I feel a need to share. Dion was at The Blues Music Awards in Memphis after the release of “Bronx In Blue”. Dion, who’s known to be a hard case at times, was surrounded by a throng of fans, and, as I approached him, he let everybody know that he wasn’t signing any more autographs. There I was face to face with one of my idols. I leaned in and as he repeated his autograph reprimand I told him I was a long-time fan, and that I just wanted the privilege of shaking his hand. He immediately put a meaty hand forward, which as he might be known to say, was “as big as a whole prosciutto”. He let his guard down and smiled saying “Thanks man. Where you from man?” But before I could answer, Kim Wilson of The Fabulous Thunderbirds grabbed him and whisked him off for a private conversation.

Damn you, Kim Wilson!

Suggested Dion Playlist:

  1. I Wonder Why (Dion & The Belmonts)
  2. Baby I’m In The Mood For You
  3. If You Wanna Rock & Roll
  4. Drip Drop
  5. Kickin’ Child
  6. Can’t Start Over Again
  7. King Of The New York Streets
  8. Runaround Sue
  9. Ruby Baby
  10. Two Ton Feather
  11. The Wanderer
  12. Streetheart
  • Rico Ferrara, September 2020