Singer-songwriter Arthur Conley was born in Georgia on January 4, 1946 and died of cancer on November 17, 2003. Conley is best known for his singing of the wonderful song “Sweet Soul Music.”
Conley helped create the classic recording with Otis Redding, but the song’s creation comes from a history of digressions. Similarly, Conley’s life had its own digressions.
The Singer and Co-Writer
Arthur Conley started off his career as the lead singer of Arthur & the Corvets in 1959, recording three singles with the group in the early 1960s. But he went on his own and eventually had his biggest hit with “Sweet Soul Music” in 1967.
Conley had hit singles in the U.S. through the early 1970s, with some ups and downs in the music industry. In 1975, he moved to Europe, eventually settling in the Netherlands and changing his name, using his middle name and his mother’s maiden name, to Lee Charles.
After his relocation, Conley became a successful entrepreneur and continued to work in the music industry and promote other bands. His moves likely were prompted by discrimination he faced for being gay, and he died in relative obscurity in a small village near the German border.
Still, most people remember him for the great joy he brings to his recording of “Sweet Soul Music.”
The Co-Writer Otis Redding
Conley had some help in writing “Sweet Soul Music.” The great Otis Redding, after hearing Conley’s earlier music, asked Conley to record on his label and the two men later worked on writing “Sweet Soul Music” together.
Conley admired Redding, who mentored Conley in the music business. While name-dropping the great soul singers in the song, Conley insisted they include Redding’s name.
The Original Inspiration: Sam Cooke
But “Sweet Soul Music” was not created by only Conley and Redding. The two men wrote the song while jamming on the work of another great singer-songwriter, Sam Cooke. Cooke’s song was “Yeah Man,” which had appeared on Cooke’s album Shake when the album was released after Cooke’s death.
I first heard “Yeah Man” years after “Sweet Soul Music” and initially thought Cooke had created a variation on “Sweet Soul Music.” But the truth was the other way around. “Yeah Man” created the foundation for “Sweet Soul Music.”
Listening to “Yeah Man,” one is not surprised that Cooke is listed as a co-author of “Sweet Soul Music” (following a lawsuit by Cooke’s surviving business partner).
The Movie That Inspired the Opening Riff
Our story does not end here, because there is still that great opening riff of “Sweet Soul Music” to discuss. Cooke’s “Yeah Man” was not the only tune that influenced the creation of “Sweet Soul Music.” The opening riff of “Sweet Soul Music” comes from one of the great movie scores, Elmer Bernstein’s score for the Western The Magnificent Seven (1960).
Although like many, I know the movie’s riff by heart, I had never made the connection to “Sweet Soul Music” until reading about it. But after listening to them side-by-side, it now seems obvious. You may hear the riff in this video, set to start where the riff first appears at the 23-second mark.
Other Versions of “Sweet Soul Music”
The lively “Sweet Soul Music” has been performed by a number of great artists. There are wonderful recordings by artists like Sam & Dave, whose song “Hold On, I’m Comin'” is referenced in Conley’s version.
Wilson Pickett, who is mentioned in “Sweet Soul Music” along with his song “Mustang Sally,” also has performed a version of “Sweet Soul Music.” Cyndi Lauper, Ben E. King, and Billy Joel joined forces to perform a version of the song as part of a medley on the Sixth Anniversary Late Night with David Letterman special.
Similarly, Bruce Springsteen has performed the song a number of times in concert. I remember hearing him sing it during the 1980s at a concert in Cleveland during his Tunnel of Love tour. Springsteen made a few lyric changes (as in the July 1988 performance below).
At the time, I knew the original, but knew little about the songwriters or that “Sweet Soul Music” started out from a Sam Cooke song. I just knew it was incredibly fun.
We’re still dancing to one of the greatest songs compiled by a committee of geniuses. Oh yeah, oh yeah.
Photo of Arthur Conley via public domain.
What is your favorite version of “Sweet Soul Music”? Leave your two cents in the comments.
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