Blue-eyed soul, also referred to as white soul, is a genre that emerged in the mid-1960s, encapsulating rhythm and blues (R&B) and soul music performed by white artists. Coined to characterise white musicians whose sonic resonance resembled that of the predominantly black Motown and Stax record labels, the term reflects a unique blend of cultural influences and musical expression.

During this era, many R&B radio stations in the United States exclusively featured music by black artists. However, a shift occurred when some stations began incorporating the works of white acts that exuded what was described as “soul feeling.” This marked the advent of “blue-eyed soul,” a genre breaking down racial boundaries in the realm of soul music.

The term underscores not just a genre but a significant cultural and musical intersection. It highlights the ability of artists, irrespective of racial backgrounds, to create music that resonates with the emotive and stylistic elements traditionally associated with soul. Blue-eyed Soul represents a fusion of diverse influences, showcasing the universality of musical expression and its power to transcend racial distinctions.

In essence, blue-eyed soul serves as a testament to the transformative nature of music, emphasising that soulful expression knows no colour or boundaries. It stands as a bridge between communities, uniting listeners through the shared experience of emotive and rhythmically rich musical narratives.

Blue-Eyed Soul Emerges: The 1960s Revolution

In 1964, Philadelphia radio DJ Georgie Woods is credited with coining the term “blue-eyed soul” to describe The Righteous Brothers, who were white artists receiving airplay on rhythm and blues (R&B) radio stations. The Righteous Brothers even titled their 1964 LP “Some Blue-Eyed Soul.” Bill Medley, one half of the duo, mentioned that R&B radio stations were surprised to discover they were white when meeting them for interviews. This led to the use of “blue-eyed soul brothers” as a code to signify white singers in the genre.

The trend gained momentum with The Righteous Brothers’ success, particularly with their hit “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” prompting R&B radio stations to adopt a more integrative approach in playing songs by white artists. Artists like Sonny & Cher, Tom Jones, Barry McGuire, and Roy Head were subsequently labelled as practitioners of blue-eyed soul.

However, the roots of white musicians playing R&B music trace back earlier. In the early 1960s, Timi Yuro, a rare female blue-eyed soul singer, showcased a vocal delivery influenced by African American singers like Dinah Washington. Lonnie Mack, with his gospel-infused vocals in 1963, garnered acclaim as a blue-eyed soul singer. Len Barry, former lead singer of The Dovells, recorded notable blue-eyed soul hits in the mid-1960s.

British singers Dusty Springfield, Eric Burdon, and Tom Jones emerged as leading vocal stars in blue-eyed soul by the mid-1960s. The Spencer Davis Group, featuring Steve Winwood and Van Morrison were notable UK exponents. Chris Clark, a blonde, blue-eyed soul singer, achieved the distinction of being the first white artist with an R&B hit at Motown Records in 1966.

The trend continued, with artists like Kiki Dee becoming the first British artist to sign and record with Motown in 1969. Various British rock groups of the era, including the Spencer Davis Group, the Animals, the Rolling Stones, and the Who, covered Motown and R&B tracks.

In the U.S., artists like Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, and Janis Joplin explored blue-eyed soul, each contributing a unique flavour. Joe Cocker, known for soul-oriented covers, is often credited with paving the way for subsequent blue-eyed soul singers.

The 1960s thus witnessed the rise of blue-eyed soul, marking a musical crossroads where artists transcended racial boundaries, creating a genre that continues to resonate across diverse audiences.

Criticism of Blue-Eyed Soul: Cultural Appropriation and Economic Inequality

In the late 1980s, a backlash emerged within the black community against what some perceived as white individuals capitalising on the popularity of R&B music. There were concerns that white artists were profiting from a genre deeply rooted in black culture. The extent of this backlash was a matter of debate, with differing opinions on whether collaboration in music was a unifying force or a threat to the authenticity of R&B.

In 1989, Ebony Magazine published an article examining the issue, featuring perspectives from individuals across the music industry, both black and white. While some believed that collaboration was positive and not a threat to R&B’s future, others expressed concerns about the potential influence of white artists on the genre. A similar article in Ebony in 1999 highlighted conflicting opinions, with the focus shifting to economic inequality within American society and the music industry.

Scholar Joanna Teresa Demers noted that the emergence of successors to Elvis Presley in blue-eyed soul and white funk was a source of bitterness for poet Gil Scott-Heron. He saw it as a continuation of a long tradition of white appropriation of black cultural identity, describing it as “artistic theft” that rendered black contributions to American history invisible and inaudible.

Daryl Hall, a prominent figure in blue-eyed soul, criticised the term itself as racist. He argued that it assumed he was an outsider attempting to imitate black musical styles, emphasising that music should be appreciated for its universal nature rather than being constrained by racial boundaries. Hall rejected the notion that performing in a black idiom automatically implied cultural appropriation, highlighting the universality of music as an art form.