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Shelby Singleton and Defying Musical Segregation

*This is an updated version of a blog post I originally wrote a few years ago.

For nearly a century, American culture consumers have been living under the misconception that music can and should be racially segregated. It began at the birth of the record industry, and carries into present day. I believe the continuation of this practice perpetuates a false narrative and serves to help keep the nation divided. It's something that has been at the root of great cultural schisms, even in recent years. I touched on this a little in my previous post about Barbara Dane.

In our present day, this time of great conflict, we should be looking to music for inspiration and guidance on how to find common ground. Music isn't something to fence off into properties. Constructing walls around it in that way is a form of institutional racism. Music is there for all of us to appreciate and celebrate. One of the reasons it's created is to teach us about the human condition. It belongs to us all, and it represents the most promising possibilities of harmonious cultural collaboration, and the sharing of ideas and perspectives.

In order to heal the wounds of today, we must understand and acknowledge our complicated past, good and bad. That brings me to the subject of the day - The relationship between soul music and country music. These are arguably two of the most racially defined genres in our history, and yet they not only share roots and creators, they nurtured and enriched each other's development.

I present the case of Nashville-based producer and ambitious record promoter, Shelby Singleton. Like many mid-century record executives, this was a man of contradictions. However, in an industry dedicated to dividing musical genres along racial lines, Shelby Singleton did much towards bringing the worlds of country and R&B/soul together. He contributed probably as much as anyone could during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, and yet he also tried to cash in on (or exploit) conservative fears with a number of gimmicky releases under his umbrella of labels.

Brook Benton and Shelby Singleton
Brook Benton & Shelby Singleton

Was the appearance of the promotion of racial integration purely an accidental outcome of someone simply trying to make a buck in the music business, or was this man truly trying to make a change? I guess I'll never know. Though from what I've heard about him, it seems more likely he was simply taking advantage of opportunity. I long had fantasies of interviewing him in person to get clarification, but he passed away in 2009. All we have left is music and speculation. Here is the evidence:

- Singleton's genre-bending began with his productions for Brook Benton. Many of those records would fit as neatly within a country music radio playlist of the early 1960s as they would on R&B radio.

- Shelby Singleton and his protege Jerry Kennedy would go on to blur genre racial lines at Smash Records with artists like Matt Lucas, Pee Wee Crayton, Ivory Joe Hunter, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Charlie Rich.

- In the late 1960s Shelby Singleton created his own record labels. SSS International and Silver Fox were primarily soul labels and their country sister-label was Plantation (a name choice that would surely be considered problematic today). These record labels would often share backing musicians, further marrying the genres.

At Plantation, with his grooming of Jeannie C. Riley and her 1968 Harper Valley PTA sound, he built upon the genre of funky country that had been popularized by Bobbie Gentry in 1967. He also broke new ground by releasing records by the first Black woman to play the Grand Ole Opry, Linda Martell (who had previously released a soul single on Sue Records.)

On the flip side at SSS International, his experiments with mixing country and soul culminated in the soul-twang recordings of Peggy Scott and Jo Jo Benson. Never before were country and soul blended in such a bold manner. The sound of Harper Valley and the sound of Muscle Shoals were thrown into a cocktail shaker and out came the twangtastically funky 45 "Soul Shake" among many other delightful recordings by the duo.

These experiments are rarely discussed in on-line soul or country music nerd circles and yet their impact can be heard in the funky country and swamp rock music of the the late 1960s and early 1970s.

When I listen to a lot of the music from the height of the country-soul / funky-country era, I'm struck by the fact that these two sub-genres are really not two sides of the same coin, but rather, these styles are generally the same thing. They have been defined almost entirely by the race of the vocalist (and perhaps the degree of how much twang is present). Take for example the two performances below:

When you consider that there are country musicians playing on Peggy & Jo Jo's recording, and the fact that Conway Twitty made a number of R&B recordings earlier in his career, it underlines the similarities in style here. For me, hearing these versions of this song back-to-back only highlights the disturbing compulsion for Americans to segregate music for the purpose of public consumption. It's a symptom of a system of institutional racism, and I'm an advocate for knocking down the cultural walls constructed by this harmful system.

The body of work by Shelby Singleton is but one example of the inseparable relationship of country and soul, and it stands as evidence that musical segregation is a fantasy created by the music industry.

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