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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

A California soul writes about "California Soul"

A perfect encapsulation of the Golden State for its era... and not a Californian in sight on the production.

It’s infinitely easier to appreciate a place you’re not from than your stomping grounds.

At least that’s how I see it. I always find myself enamored with states and cities to which I’ve traveled. It’s rare for a week to go by without me thinking about wanting to go back to New York, to Nashville, to Chicago, to Whistler. …Holy cow, it’s been nearly a decade since I’ve been to Whistler. That needs to change.

Even more easily for me, I find myself pining for places I’ve never been. The further away, the more I seem to want to go there. I fantasize about finally making it to Hawai’i — the last time my family went there, I was negative-several months old. I keep dreaming about taking a trip to Australia, ideally with my brother.

All the while, I fail to take the time to appreciate my own backyard in California. I’m so used to the expansive beauty and variety of the Golden State that I don’t recognize how fortunate I am to have lived here all my life. As much of a font of trivia as I’m known to be, I’ve learned more about the Bay Area and the state as a whole from non-Californian friends in recent memory than I have from native Californians. They’re just eager to soak up everything this place has to offer.

Considering the above, I shouldn’t be surprised that my favorite song about California was written by a New York husband-and-wife team, and sung in my favorite form by another New Yorker, while being produced by a Chicagoan. The track in question is the Ashford and Simpson-penned “California Soul,” as sung by Marlena Shaw and produced by the masterful Charles Stepney in 1969.

"California Soul" was first recorded by the Messengers, a Midwest-based group, in 1967. The Fifth Dimension recorded their take on the tune in 1968, and the sadly short-lived duo of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell had a version released in 1970. Those versions are all strong themselves; the original's soft male lead vocal makes it stand out from the others, while the 5D and Gaye/Terrell versions are time capsules of the Motown sound of the era in their brass- and string-filled arrangements. There's something about Shaw's version, though, that puts it above the others for me. It just manages to capture the sound of California, as if she, Stepney, and the studio band had spent a late summer weekend driving down Highway 1 (the PCH for my SoCal brethren) with the windows down, stopping at a couple beaches along the way to admire the surf and the sunbathers.

Sonically, what sets Stepney's production apart from the others is his use of space on the recording. In a stark contrast to the Phil Spector-born Wall of Sound that dominated music in the 60s and early 70s, Stepney calls attention to different parts of the ensemble by sectioning them off, giving them their own physical area of the mix. The Hollywood-sounding strings, present from the pickup to the first bar, are panned hard to the left, where they're occasionally joined by saxophones. Meanwhile, the brass choir is panned opposite the strings, hard to the right. In hearing this mix I wonder if Stepney's approach is a result of his background in jazz (which he'd tap into even further in his later work with Earth, Wind & Fire), in which section choirs are often kept separate in arrangements to retain their distinct voices. The center-panned rhythm section of drums, guitar, bass, and piano, occasionally supplemented by backing vocals provide some of the glue for the mix, but I hear the reverb doing the most to unify the various sections. The long-tailed reverb, especially noticeable on the strings and brass, fills up the space Stepney left for it with his hard panning, creating a lush landscape while keeping each side of the mix distinct. Combine all that with a driving, handclap-supplemented backbeat, and you've got one of the most compelling instrumental backings of the era.

The aforementioned backing all serves as the bed for Marlena Shaw's conversational, yet forceful delivery. She pridefully relays how the infectious, undeniable California soul was born from the melodies and rhythms of the wind and the sea, and realized through a couple's love. It's a perfect image for a state just a couple years removed from the Summer of Love, when hundreds of thousands of hippies converged on San Francisco seeking a more natural and harmonious existence. Perhaps the couple in the song are flower children themselves, in tune with the natural world as they freely express their love. It would be a fitting parallel to the song's creation: just as the California soul takes hold of outsiders who flocked there in summer of 1967, the scenes that unfolded there inspired various non-Californians who looked on from afar to write, produce, and record a soulful ode to the jewel of the West Coast.


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