“Soul Man,” written by creative duo Isaac Hayes and David Porter, soared into the popular music charts even as it expressed, at a difficult time, the pride of many black Americans. The song appeared at a crucial moment in the civil rights struggle. City after city was beset by rioting: New York and Philadelphia in 1964, Los Angeles in 1965, and Detroit in 1967—the year the song was written, recorded, and released.
All four cities had large black ghettos, but of the four it was Detroit, with a population 40% black, whose elected officials had long been criticized for failing to deal with increasing racial tensions. But many successful blacks lived in slums because landlords and realtors in other parts of the city shunned them and economic changes in factories contributed to high unemployment leaving many feeling unsettled. For Detroit’s black citizens, militancy held a growing appeal. At the same time, a predominantly white police force had a reputation for racist violence. These factors came to a head in July 1967, when a police tactical squad entered a club serving Isaac Hayes and David Porter work together at Stax Records. alcohol after hours known as a “blind Courtesy of API Photography pig.” The event was a reception for black Vietnam War veterans, and when officers tried to make arrests, they met resistance. The confrontation escalated, and residents of neighboring streets began to riot, setting fire to stores known for their discriminatory practices and soon to white owned businesses as a whole.1
According to the PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize, “Estimates for the number of injured was as high as six hundred people, four thousand residents had been arrested, five thousand people were homeless, and 682 buildings were damaged. Property loss from fires ran over $45 million.” 2
In the film Eyes on the Prize, Ron Scott, a citizen of Detroit, explained what he believed led to the violence:
“Inside of most black people, there was a time bomb. There was a pot that was about to overflow, and there was rage that was about to come out. And the rebellion just provided an opportunity for that. I mean, why else would people get upset about the cops raiding the blind pig? They’d done that numerous times before. But people just got tired. People just got tired of it. And it just exploded.”3
After the riots, President Lyndon Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to investigate the root causes of the riots. In their report, the authors explained, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal. What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that . . . white institutions created [the ghetto], white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” The commission recommended that federal funds be allocated to economic empowerment, but the rising cost of the Vietnam War rendered that a political impossibility. 4
Washington had offered a diagnosis but would struggle to administer a cure. A pair of songwriters took a different approach. Hayes described the inspiration for “Soul Man”: “I remember in Detroit, I saw the news flash where they were burning [the neighborhoods]. Where the buildings weren’t burnt, people would write ‘soul’ on the buildings. The big thing was ‘soul brother.’ So I said, ‘Why not do something called “Soul Man” and kind of tell a story about one’s struggle to rise above his present conditions.’ It’s almost a tune [where it’s] kind of like boasting I’m a soul man—a pride thing. ‘Soul Man’ came out of that whole black identification.”5
In the aftermath of the riots Hayes and Porter made a deliberate decision to counter negative images of black men by focusing on an ordinary person trying to create a better life for himself. The song was a breakthrough hit. “Soul Man” went on to become one of the most popular Stax songs of all time, reaching number two on the Billboard Hot 100 in the fall of 1967 and number one on the Billboard R&B chart for seven weeks in a row in October and November of 1967. It won the GRAMMY® Award for Best Rhythm & Blues Group Performance, Vocal or Instrumental. In Soulsville, U.S.A., Rob Bowman writes, “‘Soul Man’ was an important record, keying in to the then-newly emergent black consciousness that was perhaps best summed up by the phrase ‘black is beautiful.’ In 1967 the song became an anthem for black America.”6
- 1 : Facing History and Ourselves, Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Movement 1954–1985 (Blackside Production, 2006), 130.
- 2 : Facing History and Ourselves, Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Movement 1954–1985 (Blackside Production, 2006), 130.
- 3 : “ Riots in Detroit,” American Experience: Eyes on the Prize, accessed July 19, 2013.
- 4 : Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (1968), The Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation, The Marshall Project website, accessed April 11, 2017.
- 5 : Rob Bowman, Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records (New York: Schirmer, 1997), 128.
- 6 : Rob Bowman, Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records (New York: Schirmer, 1997), 128.