The night soul came to Atlanta
Traffic was moving at a snail’s pace near Lakewood Fairgrounds in Atlanta on this particular late afternoon in October 1958. Music from car radios echoed through the air. Shouting teenagers, with arms dangling from the car windows, rocked with the rhythm.
Suddenly, above the noise of the crowd rushing to the entrance, an alarmed voice rang out.
“Hey, man, looks like an invasion.” Several U. S. Army trucks, packed with soldiers, had just screeched to a stop near the gates.
A Military maneuver? A parade? Those who ran toward the stadium were sure something big was about to happen. They were right, but surprised. It was an invasion of a different kind.
Atlanta in 1958 was a city of gleaming glass and tempered steel, a fast-paced metropolis poised to lead the region’s business boom — the symbolic capital of Henry Grady’s New South.
About the time when the guitar was the number one musical instrument, there came from Broadway a TV program called ”The Dick Clark Saturday Night Show.”
Kids were going wild listening to the music.
Summer came; the show hit the road, sponsored by Beechnut Spearmint Gum. Miami, Los Angeles, Birmingham and other major cities had an entertainment explosion. Atlanta, Georgia was next.
A concert was held at Lakewood Park Fairgrounds, as a part of the 44th Annual Southeastern Fair.
Six of Dick Clark’s best performers came. One of them was Sam Cooke, a black singer from Chicago.
Sam Cook, whose name was changed later with the addition of the “e,” was born in Mississippi and grew up in Chicago, the son of a preacher. Before he was 10 years old, Sam was a singing star on the gospel circuit; at 13 he was a professional; at 20, he was invited to be the lead singer in the Soul Stirrers, a black gospel quartet.
And sing he did. Very soon his voice became the key factor in the greater numbers of young people attending the group’s concerts. With his smooth, resonate voice, he would croon and then suddenly burst forth a Caruso.
In 1956, Sam left the Soul Stirrers to sing pop and the emerging rock ‘n’ roll. His multi-note, one syllable voice technique was unique. Record sales soared. Everyone agreed his music was “something else,” but no one could describe it.
Someone came up with one word borrowed from Sam’s gospel career — soul.
Soul music got its name. Billed as “the best singer who ever lived,” Sam was favored with success. He soon owned a publishing house and was producing his and other artist’s songs, guiding Smoky Robinson to launch a career, spurring Otis Redding to be the champion of soul and, by example, inspiring Aretha Franklin to find fame in secular music.
What is soul? You have to think about American jazz, a kind of folk music sometimes called “spirituals” and primitive improvisations, with African rhythm.
These melodies kept throbbing until they reached New Orleans, St. Louis and other cities. They were “composed on the spot.” No piece of music was ever repeated exactly. It was always different. That was jazz.
In the 1920s through the 1940s syncopation was added, and harmonies with sixth tones gave a new sound, which modulated jazz into the idiom called the blues. Singers were all black. Blues was a vehicle with a wide variety of moods and with feelings its dominant expression. It finally became known as rhythm-and-blues.
Then came rock “n” roll in the 1950s. Rhythm and blues with its popular love themes became the dominant form of rock and roll. White singers were doing the blues, and black singers were appealing to new boarder audiences, which included the white teenagers of America.
Then came soul: that form which has many expressions, including folk, black gospel, rock, jazz, rhythm-and-blues, and romantic pop, all blended with a special touch of intimacy.
Let’s revisit Lakewood In his book, “Rock, Roll and Remember,” Dick Clark said, “Tension was high, as he televised Sam Cooke’s appearance; the National Guard and the Ku Klux Klan members attended a rock ‘n’ roll show together; Despite threats of violence, we didn’t cancel the show.”
Sam, who had run into trouble checking into a motel and had received numerous threats, said: “I’m going on; I gotta go on. That’s all there is to it.”
Sam believed in magic; the magic of soul, and it worked.
There was no trace of trouble. Black and white fans mingled in peace.
Was it true, that the spirit of love in music had overcome hate? Had 200 years of segregation suddenly ended under the spell of a singer’s charm?
For one night, the answer was yes.
Could it have been the charm of soul through the voice of Sam Cooke that became the catalyst for the history-making event?
No one can be sure. But I do know that when Sam Cooke brought soul to Atlanta, he became the first rock star to integrate a concert in Atlanta or any other city in America.
In the end, Dick Clark could return to New York richer and prouder, more relaxed, than when he came, he was glad to be the promoter of something really big that happened first in Atlanta.