Elvis Costello and Soul Music


The guest for the season’s final episode of SPECTACLE is someone whom Elvis Costello has referred to as “daunting.” But Smokey Robinson has actually been called far more serious things than that; Bob Dylan once described him as “America’s greatest living poet.” It was a bit of hyperbole on Dylan’s part, perhaps—but as a singer and songwriter, there is no debate that with such classics as “Tracks of My Tears,” “I Second That Emotion,” and “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me,” Robinson greatly expanded the range and possibilities of the gospel- and blues-based music that came to be known as soul.

For all of the attention given to Elvis’s sophisticated lyric writing over the years, the fact is that without the conviction of his vocal delivery, he never would have sustained his remarkable career. Much of the credit for that approach belongs to his study of, and admiration for, soul music, which has repeatedly turned up within his work.

The most obvious example of this influence in the Costello catalogue is the Get Happy!! album from 1980. In the liner notes to the 2003 reissue, Elvis recalls that the lack of historical sensibility in the so-called “new wave” movement drove him back to older music. “I had begun listening again to the R&B records,” he writes, “filling in the gaps between the compilations of my teenage years…with stacks of Stax singles purchased in Camden Town.”

Those soul sounds turned up all over Get Happy!! In addition to covers of songs by Sam & Dave and Betty Everett, Elvis refers to the influence of Curtis Mayfield and Al Green on the project, and to lines or riffs borrowed from the Supremes, the Four Tops, and Booker T. & the MGs.

The rhythm & blues spirit might never be as blatant in his work again, but—in passionate singing and grooving arrangements—it hovered over songs on albums like Punch the Clock, Spike, and King of America. Elvis has covered songs by such soul immortals as Sam Cooke, James Carr, and the Drifters. He wrote the majestic, agonizing “The Judgment” for the great Solomon Burke in 2002; the King of Rock and Soul himself said that the song was “like an opera—it takes you back to that time, back to Europe.”

Most recently, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Elvis honored the musical heritage of New Orleans by recording the River in Reverse album with local hero Allen Toussaint. Focusing on Toussaint’s compositions, and featuring his band’s horn section, the disc served as a tribute to the city’s creative legacy, without ever feeling like an imitation or a history lesson.

Above all else, that personal approach, so full of life, is what Elvis Costello has been able to give back to soul music over the years. As he described his intentions for Get Happy!!, “drawing on all of these sources, we set about re-arranging the songs using a rock ‘n’ roll motor.” Almost three decades later, it still sounds like a good idea.

– Alan Light

Alan Light is the former Editor-in-Chief of Spin and Vibe magazines, and a former Senior Writer for Rolling Stone. A frequent contributor to the New York Times, he is the author of “The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys” and a two-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor award for excellence in music writing.