In the pantheon of soul music, the genre known as New Orleans Soul often flies under the radar. While ’60s soul brethren like Stax-Volt, Deep Soul, and Southern Soul have garnered much attention, New Orleans Soul remains a hidden gem waiting to be discovered. This unique genre, pioneered by singer-songwriter-producer Allen Toussaint around 1960, deviated from the traditional churchy style typically associated with soul music. Instead, it embraced a piano-driven pop-soul sound, influenced by the boogie-woogie style that gained popularity in the postwar Crescent City.

The Distinct Sound of New Orleans Soul

Unlike earlier R&B styles, New Orleans Soul incorporated bedrock-simple pop structures and rhythms heavily influenced by the city’s signature “second line” and “parade” beats. This infusion of local flavour, coupled with the strong Caribbean influence and the Latin music fad of the early ’60s, gave New Orleans musicians the impetus to experiment with more exotic beats and rhythms. Guitars took a backseat in this genre, as New Orleans Soul songs relied on the driving force of pianos and saxophones, sometimes complemented by horn sections comprised entirely or mostly of saxophones. The lyrics were often straightforward and delivered with a touch of grit, while angelic female voices in the background added an ethereal dimension, paying homage to the influence of Atlantic’s prominent backing choirs.

Regional Impact and Unsung Gems

While New Orleans Soul produced about two dozen national hits, its impact was primarily regional during its initial heyday. The genre birthed a plethora of unrecognised gems that unfortunately never gained widespread recognition beyond the city’s borders. Nevertheless, the influence of New Orleans Soul cannot be underestimated. Musicians from Memphis cite it as a key ingredient in the development of their city’s brand of soul music. Mod and Northern Soul aficionados also hold New Orleans Soul in high regard, considering it a primary style within their respective scenes. Additionally, British Invasion bands routinely covered obscure tracks from the genre, further solidifying its impact on the global music landscape. It is worth noting that around 1965, Allen Toussaint transitioned to a harder, slower version of the genre, playing a pivotal role in the birth of funk.

Examples of New Orleans Soul

  1. “Mother-In-Law” by Ernie K-Doe: This classic exemplifies the essence of New Orleans Soul. Originally a faster jump blues track, it was slowed down to a parade beat tempo, allowing the piano-and-drums groove to breathe.
  2. “It’s Raining” by Irma Thomas: Known as the “Queen of New Orleans Soul,” Irma Thomas delivered heart-wrenching ballads. Her collaborations with Allen Toussaint were elegant and poignant, capturing the true essence of the genre.
  3. “Ya Ya” by Lee Dorsey: Lee Dorsey’s unique, lisping style and humorous approach to blues set him apart. The catchy groove of “Ya Ya” showcases the repetitive nature of many New Orleans Soul songs.
  4. “I Like It Like That” by Chris Kenner: Although the reasons remain unclear, this vibrant invitation to a wild night out became a big hit among British audiences. The song vividly describes a mythical club with few rules, serving as a testament to the genre’s colourful storytelling.
  5. “Barefootin'” by Robert Parker: “Barefootin'” captures the spirit of carefree dancing and exhibits a stronger blues influence, reminiscent of the sound that later emerged from Stax Records.
  6. “Fortune Teller” by Benny Spellman: Benny Spellman’s wit shines through in this track, displaying Allen Toussaint’s clever songwriting skills. With its Latin flavour, this song gained popularity among the Mods, and even The Who covered it.
  7. “Ooh Poo Pah Doo (Pts. 1 & 2)” by Jessie Hill: This nonsensical number filled dance floors with its infectious rhythm. Despite its obscure lyrics, the song’s energetic vibe made it a favourite among dancers.
  8. “All These Things” by Art Neville: As part of the Neville family, Art Neville had his own hit with this tender ballad. The song’s sensitivity bordering on the eerie showcased the emotional depth inherent in New Orleans Soul.
  9. “I Know” by Barbara George: Barbara George’s only major success, “I Know” caught the attention of the legendary Sam Cooke, who included it on his own request list for “Having a Party.”
  10. “There Is Something On Your Mind (Pts. 1 & 2)” by Bobby Marchan: This murder ballad delves into the uncomfortable theme of domestic violence, shedding light on the dramatic side of New Orleans Soul. The song captivates listeners with its intense storytelling.

New Orleans Soul may have remained in the shadows of its better-known counterparts, but its impact and influence are undeniable. This genre’s unique blend of pop structures, infectious rhythms, and emotionally charged performances created a lasting legacy. From its regional roots to its global reach, New Orleans Soul left an indelible mark on the evolution of soul music. Today, we recognise its significance as a pivotal genre that deserves appreciation and recognition alongside its more celebrated contemporaries.