The Legends Behind ‘Sweet Soul Music’

Frank Mastropolo

Arthur Conley’s Eternal Question: ‘Do You Like Good Music?’

By 1966, soul shouter Otis Redding’s career was at a crossroads. Rumored to be unhappy with Stax Records, Redding established Jotis Records with managers Alan and Phil Walden and producer Joe Galkin (the “J” in Jotis). With Jotis, Redding hoped to break and produce new talent.

A year earlier, Redding discovered Arthur Conley, a singer who sounded remarkably like the soul legend. Redding became Conley’s mentor; the second release on Jotis was Conley’s “I’m a Lonely Stranger,” which Redding produced.

Though the song met with little success—and Jotis soon folded—Redding believed in Conley’s talent. In January 1967 Redding and the Waldens brought Conley to producer Rick Hall’s FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. In Skydog: The Duane Allman Story, Alan Walden explained that Conley recorded two singles at FAME produced by Hall, who then declined to continue as Conley’s producer.

"Sweet Soul Music" by Arthur Conley

“Rick decided that he didn’t want to continue doing Arthur himself,” said Walden. “But Otis believed in Arthur Conley, and he said, ‘I’ll take Arthur Conley and go to FAME Studios with my road band and produce him myself.’ So Otis and Arthur Conley and I went to the studio with Otis’s band. Jimmy Johnson was the engineer. We recorded ‘Sweet Soul Music’ — which, of course, became a million-seller.”

"Yeah Man" by Sam Cooke

Redding and Conley co-wrote “Sweet Soul Music” based on “Yeah Man,” a little-known tune by another legend, Redding’s idol Sam Cooke. Careful listeners will also note that the opening horn intro sounds very similar to Elmer Bernstein’s score for The Magnificent Seven, popularly known as the Marlboro cigarette ad theme.

What makes the track memorable are the name-checks of the great soul artists of the era. The song celebrates “Going to a Go-Go” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, “Love Is a Hurtin’ Thing” by Lou Rawls, “Hold On, I’m Comin’ “ by Sam and Dave, “Mustang Sally” by Wilson Pickett and Redding’s own “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song).” James Brown is crowned “King of them all, y’all.”

The funky sound of “Sweet Soul Music” was no accident. The FAME rhythm section, later immortalized by Lynyrd Skynyrd in “Sweet Home Alabama” as “the Swampers,” would become one of the hottest house bands in recording history. By 1967, the band would include drummer Roger Hawkins, guitarist Jimmy Johnson, keyboard player Barry Beckett, and Albert “Junior” Lowe on bass.

“Sweet Soul Music” would rise to No. 2 on the Billboard chart in 1967. Conley never enjoyed comparable success again and in 1975 relocated to Europe. Conley settled in the Netherlands and in 1980 legally changed his name to Lee Roberts — his middle name and his mother’s maiden name. Conley promoted new bands through his Art-Con Productions company and continued to record and perform, fronting Lee Roberts and the Sweaters.

Conley, 57, died in 2003. “Sweet Soul Music” remains a reminder of a golden age of soul music.

Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever.

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Frank Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever and New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make New York Rock, selected by Best Classic Bands as two of the Best Music Books of 2021 and 2022. The former ABC News 20/20 writer and producer, winner of the Alfred I. DuPont–Columbia University silver baton, has written a number of books on music, television, ghost signs, and New York City history. His photography is featured in the Bill Graham Rock & Roll Revolution exhibition. Mastropolo subscibes to that old Sicilian proverb, "Laugh and the world laughs with you. Prov and you provolone."

New York, NY

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