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LEGENDS | Culture & Arts from the Cradle of American Music

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Pickin’ Up Steam Again

The Music of George Soulé

By Jacky Jack White
Photographs by Marianne Todd

 

In the late 19th century through World War II, the Soulé Steam Feed Works in Meridian, Mississippi, was one of the most vital and innovative manufacturers of lumber and sawmill products in the country. Even the Goodyears counted on them when they developed the Great Southern Lumber Company. The founder was a dynamo inventor and businessman known as George Soulé. His grandson of the same name followed a different and just as competitive and creative path in another field: the music business.


    The younger George Soulé (pronounced Soo-Lay) was born in 1945 some 23 years after the death of his grandfather. From the time he was eight, George loved music. “Pop music at first,” according to George. “I had an aunt that played organ in a restaurant in Jackson, and I was fascinated I guess you’d say. She played our piano at the house every time she came over. Playing music just seemed like something you were supposed to do.”

 


     George kept at it, and others helped him discover that he was a really good singer. “Again, I never really thought much about it. I was shy. Heck, I’m shy now. But folks would need somebody to sing and there I’d be standing in the way.”


    At the time, Meridian had a burgeoning rock 'n' roll scene, and many teenage musicians jumped right in. George met another timid teenager named Paul Davis. Like George, young Paul was consumed with learning to play, write and sing. “We were not dreaming so much about being famous back then, yet we were going to be ready if the possibility arose,” George said. 

    They started a band and played with other bands on occasion and started taking baby steps toward stardom. In the meantime, George began a disc jockey career at the age of 18 at Meridian’s WOKK. It was there that fate played a hand in pushing George into the professional ranks.
    One night when George was spinning records, one of the managers became upset with the presence of Paul in the control room. Paul had come for George's signature on some song contracts, but the angry manager ran him out of the room, telling him to go home. The long-haired teenager left and  just after sold millions of records as Paul Davis, the singer/songwriter of the beloved standards “I Go Crazy,” “'65 Love Affair,” “Ride ‘Em Cowboy,” and many more. George left, too.


    “A Sandy Posey song was playing on the turntable. I think it was 'Born a Woman,'” George said. “I was born a man, so I just walked right out the door and left ‘em to find a new disc jockey.”
    It was that step of rare independence that propelled George to take his next big leap. He continued to spin records at the local WMOX radio station and afterward moved to Jackson, Mississippi. Tommy Couch and Mitchell Malouf, along with Wolf Stephenson, had recently opened a recording studio to complement their artist booking agency, Malaco Records. In a short period of time Malaco became an important label for top blues and black gospel acts. Johnny Taylor, Dorothy Moore, Little Milton, the Mississippi Mass Choir and Bobby Bland were all eventually associated with the label. George stepped in on the ground floor as a writer, engineer, musician and singer. Sue Thompson recorded his song “Someone” and George was off to the music business races.


    “I made a lot of great friends back in those days. Met a lot of big name stars. Moved to Nashville and wrote for Acuff-Rose. Then moved down to Muscle Shoals and wrote with Terry Woodford a lot. Mavis Staples, Bobby Womack, the Temptations, Wilson Picket, all those good folks recorded our tunes,” George said. “I wrote a big hit called ‘Shoes’ for Brook Benton. Then Rick Hall released a single on me entitled ‘Get Involved.’ That’s about the time Percy Sledge charted with my tune “I’ll Be Your Everything.” I was in the same studio when The Rolling Stones recorded there in Muscle Shoals. Believe me, that was a circus. A little while later I found myself in a studio singing backup on “Shotgun Willie” with Willie Nelson. Those were my ‘Salad Days.'”

 


    Since those salad days George Soule has had his share of personal, professional and health related ups and downs. Always highly respected by fellow music professionals, the stress and competitive nature of the business, coupled with an almost insecure modesty, made George a singular figure in the entertainment business.


    “When I sang on Shindig –  one of the highest profile rock shows on network television –  there I was rubbing elbows with Ray Charles and Leon Russell. It was both the most magnificent and most terrifying situation I’ve ever felt,” George said, his discomfort still palpable. 


    In 2004, he took his Country Soul Revue to England, a trip that included Muscle Shoals alumni Dan Penn, Jimmy Johnson and David Hood, and he has since occasionally recorded such releases as “Take a Ride” and “Let Me Be a Man.” Now in the last few months, George has reinvigorated and dusted off his writing skills.


    “Two to Tango,” and “Evangeline” were recorded within days of their composition by California artist Justin Paul Sanders on SRI Records.


    In Sanders’ words, “'Tango’ had so much swagger, I just had to do it. It also brought out my country side. Both songs have total authenticity.”


    Geroge Soule is also excited about the release “What’sa Matter Baby” which is slated for a Muscle Shoals recording session in a few weeks.


    Producer and hit song writer Billy Lawson is opening his studio to record the release in what will be a homecoming for George. 


    “He is a dear friend of mine. I taught him a few engineering board tricks when he first started,” said George, laughing. “Maybe I’ll get me a red Mercedes convertible out of the deal.”


    Nothing seems is impossible for George, the singer/songwriter whose life grew from a storied American manufacturing family, to a legend from Muscle Shoals.
 

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