Rock guitarists have all the fun. They get to stand at the front of the stage with the lead singer and play flashy solos—which are run through about eight different electronic filters)—and bask in the light of their fans’ adoration. Drummers and bass players, on the other hand, have to stand in the background and look mournfully out to the crowd, hoping that some girl might look past the frontman’s unbridled machismo and notice the sensitive soul laying down beats toward the back.
This wasn’t always the case. Back in the heady days of soul music, while the lead singers were busting out some fly, synchronized dance in the front, the guitarist and the bassist were standing together. Bassists, drummers, and guitarists were equals, all working together to lay down the foundation of the song. Guitarists didn’t get solos. Like all the other musicians, they would get a “break”—a couple of measures—in the song to do their thing before melting back into the rest of the band.
This is what makes Eddie Floyd’s “Big Bird” so unusual. It is above all else a guitar song, driven by the sort of guitar licks and chord progressions usually found in rock ‘n’ roll. The guitar plays exposed riffs a total of four times throughout the track, and the horns—which have most of the best solos in the soul catalog—actually let the guitars have all the limelight on “Big Bird,” acting for the most part to support the other instruments in the rhythm section. It is the guitarist’s big moment, and even for a musician as accomplished as Booker T. Jones—of Booker T. and the M.G.’s’ fame—the recognition must have been nice.
Before I continue, I have to own up to a couple of things. First of all, unlike the other songs I’ve written about in this column, “Big Bird” was actually released as a single—by Stax Records in 1967—even if it was a commercial flop. Also, this song wasn’t cruelly underappreciated. In fact, it has been covered by numerous artists, including seminal English punk rockers The Jam, and has enjoyed a cult following in the UK. The reason this song is worth discussing is because it marks a watershed moment in the history of soul music. Soul music—especially in the early to mid ‘60s—often fell victim to appropriation by white artists like Pat Boone, who scored hits by covering the work of black artists. Even artists like The Beatles did the same thing, even though, to their credit, they took the time to acknowledge the genius of the artists they were covering.
Soul music tends to be a little formulaic, but this song draws very heavily from the guitar-driven rock that was flooding the airwaves in the late ‘60s. However, what is so interesting about a song like “Big Bird” is how syncretic it is. “Big Bird” is still definitely a soul song, but one that is actually in conversation with music by the likes of the Kinks and the Dave Clark Five. In fact, it was written by Floyd in London—incidentally while he waiting in an airport to fly back to the states for Otis Redding’s funeral—the home of blues-infused rock music pioneered by artists such as the Rolling Stones.
It starts with a meandering, sliding guitar riff, quickly doubled by the rhythm guitarist. Soon, the drums and saxes come in and kick the song up to a whole other level of intensity. Just as suddenly as they emerged, they fall back and let Booker Washington set the tone for the verse with a bluesy chord progression that sounds like it came straight from a Howlin’ Wolf classic. “Big Bird” has all the bells and whistles normally associated with soul music—such as punchy sax solos and call-and-response vocal harmonies—but unlike most of Floyd’s other works, the engine of the song is the omnipresent guitar, which drives the song along in a distinctly rock ‘n’ roll way.
One of the hardest things for any artist to do is to mesh two different styles without compromising the integrity of either one. “Big Bird” is an example of precisely how this should be done. It is full of rock elements, but never once sounds like anything but a soul song. It captures both rock’s hard edge and soul’s lushness. And for once, Booker T. Washington got to share the spotlight with the lead singer and play a soul song that is actually worthy of a guitarist of his abilities. His mother must have been proud.
—Columnist Noah S. Guiney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.