One of the most popular pop and R&B icons of the modern era, John Legend continues to find musical success through not only a distinct voice and some wonderful songwriting, but also collaborations with other leading artists, from The Roots and Ludacris to Mariah Carey and Common. On that very note, here is his tribute to the seminal piece Nina Simone debuted I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free (1967) in collaboration with the hip hop/funk/soul band The Roots (Nina Simone’s version is in the key of B-flat, which makes sense given her deeper vocals; notice that Legend brings the song a whole fifth to the brighter sonority of the key of F):
John Legend, this multi-Grammy award winning artist, is no stranger to the history of the music he represents, though. Part of his success rides on his talent to convey a “soulfulness” to a broad audience and in a language and mood the contemporary generation would understand, all the while staying true to both his vocal talents as well as the spirit that inspired the genre he represents (mostly R&B). The integrity of his voice and his distinguished venture, then, may be something he constantly aims to practice, rather than simply remember.
We take this post to remember, then, the time he returned to Philadelphia and surprised a Baptist church one Sunday morning service. In this short clip, he remembers one of his favorite albums by none other than the great Aretha Franklin, and chooses to sing one of its songs — How I Got Over — along with the church choir and band:
Notice his acknowledgment of the firm connection between “soul” and the music of the church, when he says, A lot of the greatest soul singers in American history started in a black church. It’s very obvious when you listen to gospel music and listen to soul music. You can see and hear and feel the connection. It’s no different for me.
There is much more than a tacit understanding of the influence the world of the spiritual has had on the growth and prominence of soul music, not only in terms of practice and styles and roots, but also in literal spirit, themes, and even vocal techniques. While further investigation is required to dissect the importance of different denominations and regional personalities and their impact on the specific type of spiritual and soulful music, one can comfortably state that soul music understood today is a derivation of the world of the spiritual.
How I Got Over, after all, is a gospel hymn composed and first published in 1951 by Clara Ward, one of the leading gospel singers of the mid-20th century. The song then was popularized by another seminal gospel singer Mahlia Jackson whose influence in American music remains underrated, as well as the Queen of Soul in Aretha Franklin who, in 1972, went to the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles and recorded the live album Amazing Grace during the service (the album remains the biggest selling disc of Franklin’s entire career).
We’ll dig further into Legend’s role in contemporary soul music, the roots of soul music within the different church communities, the influence of Mahlia Jackson, and Aretha’s Amazing Grace album. Let us therefore close this post by reveling in not only Legend’s homage to the “old school” soul, but also the very recording he has turned to for inspiration: