Ah Sukie, Sukie Now…10 of the Absolute Best Soul Songs of All Time (and How They Came to Be)!


*Some of y’all may be a tad too young to have grooved to these classics like us baby-boomers. I recall living in a huge basement apartment in the Bronx, New York (my dad was “the super” aka resident manager). There were six of us kids who, along with my parents, would blast Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, The Jackson 5, The Supremes, Little Stevie Wonder and raise the roof off the mutha in the process.

I can recall my young stepmom, in all of her 30-something glow, laughing and dancing with us kids to songs like Martha & The Vandellas’ “Heatwave (1963),” Eddie Floyd’s “Knock On Wood (1966),”  The Drifters “Up On The Roof (1962),” and James Brown’s “This Is A Man’s World (1966)” — which was like an anthem in our house!

My dad, who was 30 years my mom’s senior, was one cool cat. He would show us doses of his swag…after he’d had a couple of drinks, of course. I can still smell his sweet cigar, as he’d stand up and do his steps in place, wearing sunglasses and the one dashiki shirt he had to his name.

So take a stroll with me down memory lane, will ya. This, my friends, is what good, soul music was and is all about. You can “click” on each song title to hear the original music. Plus, check out some of the history behind these songs and afterwards, if I’ve sparked your memory, feel free to share some of your own favorites and the memories that come to mind because of them.

First up… 

Eddie Floyd  “Knock on Wood”: (1967)


This was Eddie Floyd’s biggest hit. He wrote the song with Stax Records guitarist Steve Cropper in the Lorraine Motel, which is where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Working late at night, they came up with the famous line, “It’s like thunder, lightning, the way you love me is frightening” when Floyd told Cropper a story about how he and his brother would ride out the storms in Alabama.

“In Alabama, man, there’s like thunder and lightning,” he told Cropper. “We’d hide under the bed because we’d be frightened of the thunder and lightning.”

Interesting song fact: This song has one of the most effective pauses in music history: After Floyd sings, “I better knock,” there’s some space before drummer Al Jackson comes in with with his drumbeats and Floyd completes the line with “on wood.”

Cropper liked this phrase and came up with the famous line.

Otis Redding “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of The Bay” (1968)


Photo of Otis Redding

Redding died in a plane crash on December 10, 1967, a month before this song was released (January 8, 1968) and three days after he recorded it. It was by far his biggest hit and was also the first ever posthumous #1 single in the US. Redding was a rising star moving toward mainstream success at the time of his death.

Interesting song fact: When Otis recorded this, he and Cropper didn’t have a last verse written, so he whistled it. He planned to return to Memphis and fill in the verse after performing in Madison, Wisconsin, but he died before he had the chance. When Cropper produced the song, he left the whistling in, and it fit the mood of the song perfectly. It is probably the most famous whistling in any song. (Thanks to Nashid at the Stax Museum for his help with this.)

Aretha Franklin “(You Better) Think” (1968)


Franklin wrote this with Teddy White, who was her husband and manager. In the song, Aretha sings about freedom and respect for women.


Franklin performed this in the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. The Blues Brothers themselves also recorded the song, which was released as the B-side of a 1989 UK single of theirs.

Jackson 5 “I’ll Be There” (1970) 


In this song, a man tells his former lover that he will always be there for her, and that even if she finds someone new, she can always go back to him.

 Although I love the Mariah Carey version that came decades later (1992), this song had me from the intro guitar lick! It was the first Jackson 5 hit not written by “The Corporation,” a collection of Motown writers lead by the chief of the label, Berry Gordy. The Corporation were based in California, unlike most Motown writers, who were in the Detroit offices. This song was written by Hal Davis (who also produced it), Bob West, Willie Hutch, and Berry Gordy. 

Interesting song fact: Berry Gordy has shared this many times, but it bears repeating. At one point Michael hollers, “Just look over your shoulders, honey.” He had been instructed by Berry Gordy to sing “just look over your shoulder” (as an allusion to what Levi Stubbs had said in The Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There“), but the fluffed line was allowed to remain in the final mix. 

Stevie Wonder “I Was Made to Love Her” (1967) stevie_wonder_iwasmadetoloveher-413694

This tune was written by Wonder, who was 16 at the time, together with his mother Lula Mae Hardaway, Motown songwriter Sylvia Moy, and the song’s producer Henry Cosby. Wonder’s mother co-wrote many of Wonder’s songs during her son’s teenage years. She was nominated for the 1970 Grammy Award for Best R&B Song for co-penning “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.”

Wonder recalled to the Rock Around The World newspaper that this song, “kind of speaks of my first love to a girl named Angie, who was a very beautiful woman.”

Interesting song fact: Co-writer Sylvia Moy says that her inspiration for “I Was Made To Love Her” was stories she heard from her parents – her mother is from Arkansas, which is why Stevie opens the song singing, “I was born in Little Rock.”

BONUS THROWBACK VIDEO…Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross perform “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me

Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By”


“You’re All I Need to Get By” was one of the last songs Marvin Gaye recorded with his ailing duet partner Tammi Terrell, (who would die of a brain tumor in 1970). Like most of their collaborations, it was written by the songwriting team Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, but it stood out from the other R&B-flavored tracks that defined the Motown sound. This number was heavily infused with a gospel style and incorporated vocals from a New York church choir.

Interesting fact about this duo: Following Tammi Terrell’s death Marvin Gaye stopped performing LIVE for three years.

The Drifters “Up On the Roof” (1962)


When this old world starts getting me down
And people are just too much for me to face
I climb way up to the top of the stairs
And all my cares just drift right into space
On the roof, it’s peaceful as can be
And there the world below can’t bother me
Let me tell you now

Ya feel me? I LOVED this song, even though I wasn’t even 10 years old yet!

First recorded by Little Eva, this breezy summertime song evokes the high-rise apartments in American cities where urban dwellers could escape from the stresses of daily living by climbing onto the tar “beaches” on the roofs of their buildings.

Interesting song fact: This song was written by the then husband-and-wife team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and the lead vocalist was Rudy Lewis. Carole King recorded a solo version of this on her 1970 album “Writer.”

Interesting Group fact: There were over 60 members of The Drifters (1953) and their membership overlaps and recurs throughout the existence of the quartet, making an accurate timeline of members would be extremely hard to delineate. There have also been various groups calling themselves variations of “The Drifters” over the years, often featuring one or two members that were with the group at some point.

Anything by Al Green, but I’ll choose: “You Ought To Be With Me” (1972)


Written by Al Green, Willie Mitchell and Al Jackson Jr., this song was one of three hit singles from the Call Me album (along with “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)” and “Call Me (Come Back Home).”

Nuff said, right?

This song was featured in the 1997 romantic drama Love Jones, starring Larenz Tate and Nia Long.

Interesting song fact: Pete Rock’s “You Remind Me” and Ghostface Killah’s “260” both sample this song.

Staples Singers “I’ll Take You There”

This line … “Ain’t no smiling faces, lying to the races.” Prophetic indeed, right?


This was the first of two #1 hits for the Staple Singers. The other is “Let’s Do It Again.” The Staple Singers were among the first groups to move from Gospel to inspirational Soul music. Said lead singer Mavis Staples: “When we heard Dr. Martin Luther King preach, we said, ‘If he can preach this, we can sing it.'”

And check out the profound inspiration for the song: Stax Records vice-president Al Bell (born Avertis Isabell) wrote this after attending the funeral of his little brother, who was shot to death. Says Bell: “I went out in the backyard in my father’s home. He had an old school bus there parked that was not running. I went back there and sat on the hood of that bus thinking about all that was happening. And all of a sudden, I hear this music in my head. And I heard these lyrics: ‘I know a place, ain’t nobody worried, ain’t nobody crying, and ain’t no smiling faces lying to the races, I’ll take you there.’ I heard it, and I heard the music. And it wouldn’t leave, it stayed there. kept trying to write other verses, but I couldn’t. Nothing worked – there was nothing left to say.”

Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man” (1967)


This was released on Stax Records, a legendary soul label where Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Isaac Hayes recorded. It was written and produced by Hayes and David Porter, and the Stax house band of Booker T. & the MG’s played the instruments, except for Booker himself who was away at college, which is why Hayes was brought in to Stax.

David Porter and Isaac Hayes
David Porter and Isaac Hayes

Isaac Hayes talked about this song in an interview with National Public Radio: “I got the idea from watching on TV the riots in Detroit. It was said that if you put ‘Soul’ on the door of your business establishment, they wouldn’t burn it. Then the word ‘Soul,’ it was a galvanizing kind of thing for African Americans, and it had an effect of unity, it was said with a lot of pride. So I thought, ‘Why not write a tune called ‘Soul Man.’ And all you had to do was write about your personal experiences, because all African Americans in this country at the time had similar experiences. But we realized that in addition to being an African American experience, it was a human experience, and therefore it crossed over and became very commercial.”

When this song was written, there was no clear definition of a “Soul Man.” After Isaac Hayes came up with the title, David Porter wrote the rest of the lyric based on what he thought a Soul Man would be. To Porter, he was:

Rural: “Comin’ to ya on a dusty road.”

Hardscrabble: “Got what I got the hard way.”

A great lover: “I learned how to love before I could eat.”

Monogamous: “Give you hope and be your only boyfriend.”

Describing this guy, Porter said: “He didn’t have the fancy big-city slant, but had the emotional thing happening inside of him that made people really love him.”

Interesting Quote from Sam Moore about the Blues Brothers version of this song: “I’d say they were good comedians. I looked at it the way you look at the Coasters. It was a parody from a comedy team.”

Interesting, right?

So those are SOME of MY favorites, from my childhood. Even today when I listen, these songs inspire me and evoke such beautiful memories from my childhood. The songs call me back to a time and place in my life; a time when many things were simpler, yet the spirit of the people was strong and could not be denied. These songs provide resounding examples of what makes a song “classic.” And thanks to technology they will continued to be enjoyed by generations to come.

What are some of your favorite old school, soul songs. And what memories do they evoke in you?

Source: Songfacts


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