This past Tuesday, Rhino Records released Can You Dig It? The 70s Soul Experience, a six-disc boxed set of some of the best R&B from the so-called “Me Decade.” Craig Werner, a UW professor in the Afro-American Studies Department, wrote an essay included in the set’s booklet. Werner, who previously penned “A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America,” an acclaimed analysis of post-war Black music, has also recently contributed notes to re-releases of music by artists like Rick James and Jerry Butler. The Herald sat down with Prof. Werner to discuss his contribution to this stellar new collection.
BH: How did you get involved with the project?
Craig Werner: Some writer friends of mine, who were aware of “A Change Is Gonna Come,” as well as interviews I’ve conducted with people like Curtis Mayfield and Bobby Womack, put me in the pipeline. The Rhino Records people called me and asked me to contribute the notes for the box set, which I was glad to do.
BH: What is it about 70s soul that appeals to you so strongly?
CW: Well, whenever people ask me what my favorite kind of music is, 70s soul is my answer. I guess it appeals to me because it combines the deep gospel vocal style that was common in 50s and 60s R&B with a strong desire to reach broad pop audiences. It redefined the pop formula, which had been really predictable up until that point, even in the soul records produced by Stax/Volt, Motown and other companies. When you put on one of those records, you were pretty much assured to hear a certain formula.
In the 70s, those rules changed, and you started to get some really funky jams right in the middle of commercial pop music that talked about social and political issues. Also, unlike the 60s, when soul music, except for Motown, Stax/Volt and some of the Atlantic Records stuff, was mainly a regional thing, 70s soul was much more national. There was tremendous regional diversity; there’s stuff on this box set from the Northeast, the West Coast, a lot from Chicago, New Orleans and Philadelphia, plus stuff from many other places. But most of these songs were on the national scene when they were first released, and that’s not necessarily true of the 60s R&B.
BH: In the liner notes, you say that “This boxed set tells the story of the ’70s better than any history yet written.” How so?
CW: The soul music of the 1970s was “Black power” music, much more so than anything that had come before it. “Blackness” in a wide sense was becoming more acceptable in the mainstream. There was a sense of enormous freedom, and that comes out in the records, as do the serious obstacles that African-American communities began to face as the decade wore on. Can You Dig It? does a nice job of demonstrating this.
BH: Speaking of which, are you generally satisfied with the collection?
CW: Yeah, most definitely. There are two artists who I would’ve liked to see represented, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder, but licensing restrictions prevented that from happening. It’s likely that the audience for this set will already be familiar with albums like Spirit In The Dark or Songs In The Key of Life anyway, so it’s not a serious problem. Otherwise I’m very pleased. The song selection is excellent, the gender balance is good, and all parts of the story have been represented. It’s been a great way for me to rediscover a bunch of great records that I’d forgotten about, and be introduced to a few that I hadn’t heard before.
BH: What are some of your favorite tracks on the set?
CW: A million favorites, but a few are: Frederick Knight’s “I’ve Been Lonely for Too Long,” Tyrone Davis’s “Turn Back the Hands of Time”; Freda Payne’s “Deeper and Deeper”; Curtis Mayfield’s “So In Love”; Brass Construction’s “Movin”; Earth Wind & Fire’s “Reasons”; the Three Degrees’ “When Will I See You Again”;
BH: If you had to recommend Can You Dig It? in one sentence, how would you do it?
CW: I’d say it’s the perfect box set for people who know 70s soul and want more, and for those who don’t who want to know why it’s the best music ever made.