Ben E. King

What Is Soul?

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The last of Ben E. King's original Atlantic albums (until the 1970s, when he returned to the label), and his last new album for three years, What Is Soul? was actually the product of two years' work. In that sense, it nearly rivaled the preceding Seven Letters as a representative body of King's work -- except that at this point his back was to the wall, his chart action fading as he found himself increasingly marginalized in the changing music marketplace of the second half of the 1960s. King, like contemporaries such as Dee Clark and his one-time group the Drifters (soul pioneers all, who were getting pushed aside by the earthier sounds coming out of studios like Stax in Memphis), was losing his audience as the mid-'60s wore on. Yet the audience that he retained expected him to do the same songs -- and "Stand by Me," "Don't Play That Song," etc., were all fine numbers, but increasingly thought of as "oldies" rather than "soul" as it was defined from the mid-'60s onward. From early 1965 through the beginning of 1967, King had recorded material with less majestic, more earthily soulful arrangements, pushing his singing harder in the bargain, and all of that material was collected for this LP. The result was, with the notable exception of "Goodnight My Love" (a definite throwback to his early-'60s sound), his most fiercely contemporary album -- not that anyone was ever going to mistake Ben E. King for, say, Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett, to name just two labelmates on Atlantic who were burning up the charts just then, but he was at least in the competition. The material and arrangements are surprisingly suitable to King without too much of a difference in his own style, and one imagines that if this album could just have been widely heard, if might well have kept him off the oldies circuit for a few more years, and playing to late-'60s and early-'70s soul listeners instead. It's still worth hearing four decades on, as a harbinger of his more successful transformation in the 1970s.

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