In the Midnight Hour Is When Gerri Hirshey Did the Research for Her History of Soul Music

updated 06/25/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/25/1984 01:00AM

After two hours of shouting, moaning, grimacing, spinning like a top and dropping violently to knees scarred pulpy from decades of such punishment, James Brown was hungry. Long after the audience had left the Washington (D.C.) Convention Center, the food arrived in Brown's hotel room: buckets of fried chicken, racks of ribs, bowls of red beans and rice. Brown's entourage dug in lustily, but not so the slender, fair-haired young woman who had just finished writing about the legendary "sex machine" and the rest of soul music's pantheon. Drumstick in hand, James Brown admonished her to eat, but since it was 4 a.m. Gerri Hirshey merely nibbled on biscuits. "When you stay up late," she observes, "it does strange things to your digestive system."

Hirshey should know. During the past two years the 33-year-old freelance writer has sampled more than her share of midnight munchies as she traveled from her home base in Manhattan to Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Atlanta, Memphis and whistle-stops such as Barnwell, S.C., James Brown's birthplace. Over the months she haunted revival shows and nightclubs and "nattered away" backstage with performers until dawn. The result of those peregrinations appears this month in Hirshey's breezy, anecdotal new book, Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music (Times Books, $17.95).

Her experiences on the road ranged from the so fine to the ridiculous. In an L.A. sushi bar, patrons put down their chopsticks as ex-Supreme Mary Wilson demonstrated the traffic-cop arm movements that accompanied the trio's stage performances of Stop! In the Name of Love. In New York Hirshey remembers careering down the West Side in Screamin' Jay (I Put a Spell on You) Hawkins' four-door as, late for a gig, he "screamed at traffic to get out of the way and popped blood-pressure pills."

A record executive asked her, when they were talking about the way soul had blossomed in the '60s, "How are you going to map an atomic chain reaction?" It was a rhetorical question. Soul sprouted simultaneously from numerous seeds, from a cross-pollination of gospel and rhythm & blues in the mid-'50s. Rather than a formal chronicle, Hirshey decided she wanted "an oral history, a Boys of Summer of soul, going back to these people 20 years after their big success and seeing if they still had their fastball."

Most have, she found. Brown, Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves, Aretha Franklin, the Four Tops and others "are still out there in beautiful voice." Responding to Hirshey's sympathetic presence as an interviewer, they spoke just as expressively. "I think I was the first person at Motown to ask where the money was going," said Reeves, on the subject of royalty payments. "Did I find out? Honey, I found my way out the door."

Hirshey's book was the logical one for her to write. Soul has mesmerized her since the early '60s, when James Brown's performance on The Ed Sullivan Show "left me white-knuckling the vinyl hassock" in her parents' Fairfield, Conn. home. A "bookish" sort, Geraldine Kukuc excelled in high school and then in sociology at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. There she met her future husband, David Hirshey, now an editor at Esquire. At a frat party Dave defiantly removed a Cream record from the stereo and substituted an Aretha disc. Fratters howled denouncements, but Gerri was enchanted.

More than a decade later Gerri got to meet Aretha when she interviewed the press-shy singer for a magazine article. Next she wrote a piece on Smokey Robinson, who gave her "the thrill of my lifeā€”he dedicated a song to me from the stage of Radio City Music Hall." As a journalist, "I had written about sports, celebrities, business. I started thinking, 'Why not write about something you really care about?' "

Access was a problem. Berry Gordy and Stevie Wonder, she knew, wouldn't talk, and she left pleading messages on Isaac Hayes' phone-answering machine for three weeks until the king of Hot Buttered Soul relented. "He was very quiet while we talked about his bankruptcy," she says, "but then I asked about a horn pattern in Sam and Dave's Wrap It Up and it was like the sun came out." Michael Jackson was more elusive. Copies of Gerri's earlier stories were mailed to him one May, and in September "I got a call to get on a plane." While she and Jackson were driving in L.A. together, the Righteous Brothers' 1964 You've Lost That Lovin'Feelin' came over the car radio. Michael sang along, line for line. Turning to Gerri with a smile, he said: "I bet you didn't think I knew all those words."

Often finding herself in "those twin confessionals, churches and bars," the only white and sometimes the only woman, Hirshey got an inkling of what it means to be "a real minority. It was helpful," she says. "It reminded me not to take anything for granted. Beyond a reaction of mild surprise on their part, there was no trouble at all." Says husband Dave, "These singers treated her as if she was their daughter."

For Hirshey the affection is mutual. "What distinguished soul music were those big, beautiful voices. I don't think there are as many flat-out great singers today," she concludes. In their place came the "homogenized, corporate" music of the '70s that was slick, salable and often cynical. Sweet soul music's "happy and upbeat sound was almost destined to end when it did," she says, "when Martin Luther King's assassination killed the optimism we all shared."

Still, there are survivors of that earlier era, plus an enduring legacy left on vinyl, and these days Hirshey often looks for sustenance from her collection of more than 200 classic soul LPs. The practice can sometimes strain a marriage. As her husband says, "Do you know what it's like being jolted awake every morning to the sound of James Brown singing, 'Get up, I feel like being a sex machine'?"

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