Spooky Soul

Posted October 31, 2018 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

Spooky got soul! Check out these haunting entrees from the creepy vaults of soul and R&B

When we think of the perfect Halloween soundtrack, our minds go instantly to the run-of-the-mill classics. From retro pop (“Monster Mash,” “Ghostbusters”) to screaming guitar rock wails (AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” Ozzy Ozbourne’s “Crazy Train”). And there’s plenty more in between including motion picture theme music (“Halloween,” “The Exorcist”) and , but what about soul music? Is there enough R&B and soul out there to make a playlist? Well, it’s not as easy to come by, but there’s a handful of tracks out there.

And we’re got the rundown on these hidden gems.

Blue Magic
“Born on Halloween”

After hearing a wolf howl and a heinous laugh, the creepiness of “Born on Halloween” mellows down and opens up to Stylistics soul. Blue Magic, who famously pulled off the Quiet Storm classic “Side Show,” continues in the same formula here, but it’s about a lover with mysterious heartbreak skills good at boiling a witches’ brew. “Had a bag of tricks, put me in a fix/You tricked me, it’s true/I’m so alone since you’ve been gone/You keep haunting me ‘cause you were born on Halloween/A queen of witchcraft,” the group calmly echoes.

Instant Funk
“Witch Doctor” and “Dark Vader”

Philly songwriter and producer Bunny Sigler led Instant Funk (“I Got My Mind Made Up”) into some of their most spooktacular events. Off of their 1979 self-titled LP, we hear “Dark Vader,” a song totally inspired by the space adventures of George Lucas’ Star Wars. It drops levels of fear of their character Dark Vader and Parliament-like funk into the mix and it’s a gas. “He’s back. Don’t try to hide,” Sigler explodes. And then a gloriously funky melody enters the picture, glossed with tight horns, powering rhythms and James Carmichael’s soulful pipes. On their next disc, the title cut (“Witch Doctor”), a song that Sigler confessed was once banned from R&B radio for its dark content and lyrical interplay with voodoo, sounds like a funky epiphany.

The Bar-Kays
“Freakshow on the Dancefloor”

Dance freaks were summoned to the dance floor with this precious slice of Rick James-tinged punk funk. Robotic vocoder action and spacey synths are part of the musical design. It also gave a burst of sexual openness, lightyears before R&B fully embraced it: “Guys with guys and chicks with chicks/No, it really doesn’t matter, they just do it for the kicks.” The 1984 gem gave the Bar-Kays a major breakthrough on the charts, climbing to number 2 R&B.

Phyllis Hyman
“Screamin’ at the Moon”

Phyllis Hyman never shied away from darkness, sadness and the loss of love. “Living All Alone” is prime evidence of that. But “Screamin’ at the Moon” brings chills to the dance floor. On this uptempo ‘80’s pop-meets-R&B jam, she is surrounded by synth-powered howls and lyrics of, you guessed it, heartbreak: “Promises of love that takes you to the danger zone/And all he has is heartbreak because his love has turned you cold.”

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
“I Put a Spell on You”

Halloween isn’t Halloween without the original 1956 rendering of “I Put a Spell on You.” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, who wrote the song and apparently recorded it while intoxicated, attacks the song with a Little Richard campiness and with a brute force of shock-rock. It remains one of the greatest and most iconic rock songs of the 20th century, covered by numerous artists, but Hawkins’ version remains king.

Millie Jackson
“I Still Love You (You Love Me)”

Originally a country song penned by Mac Davis, Southern soul songstress Millie Jackson takes the song and slide into a marinade of sweltering Memphis soul. With her voice, she adds constant drops of pain into the lyrics (“In the dark hours of the morning, lately I don’t sleep so warm/Feels like I’ve been lying here with the stranger in my arms”). But it’s the closing minute that sends creepy crawly chills up and down the spine. After pouring out Gladys Knight-style belting, she leaps into a manic episode and belts out a chilling wail, even a series of Joker-style laughs, while being tied down by medical authorities inside a mental ward. “Don’t come near me,” she yells. And you thought Michael Meyers was crazy.

“Slippin’  into Darkness”

This funky 1971 jam powered by the L.A.-based band filled plenty of floors of pre-discos, but it came with an edge of fear (“You know he loves to drink good whiskey/While laughing at the moon’). The broody funk also comes with a frightening tale of reality. It’s about trying to fight from falling into an abyss of mental hell, the deep end. War guitarist Howard Scott further elaborated: “Your mind could just go on, and you just go off to the left – you have to be careful, you have to say, ‘Don’t go there.’ It’s like that wall between sane and insane.”

Stevie Wonder

“Superstition” rises to the top as one of Stevie Wonder’s spooky tracks and it’s a perfect addition to Halloween playlists. Unlucky omens are introduced and words of wisdom (“When you believe in things that you don’t understand/Then you suffer, superstition ain’t the way”). Oddly enough, dozens, possibly hundreds, have covered this song over the years. It remains one of Wonder’s most requested tracks.

Mystic Merlin
“Full Moon”

This New York-based band was partly responsible for introducing the world to the voice of Freddie Jackson. As their third and final frontman, Jackson led the group through the Alan Abrahams-produced Full Moon LP. The band consistently played with magic in their live shows and even in their lyrics, evidenced in the haunting title track of their third LP.

“Dr. Funkenstein”

“Dr. Funkenstein” rises from the table with its James Brown horns and exuberant funky soul. After some playful radio chants from the “big pill, the cool ghoul with the bump transplant,” a chorus chimes in with some cool ego-stroking and adult innuendo: “We love to funk you, Funkenstein/Your funk is the best/Take my body, give it the mind/To funk with the rest.”

“Maggot Brain”

Stretching across ten minutes, “Maggot Brain” leaves us all at pause. After a scary and somewhat-comical narration from George Clinton (“Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time, for y’all have knocked her up”), the mind-blowing guitar solos of Eddie Hazel, drum echoes and psychedelic struts take over. Clinton would throw a little pop into his funk with “Dr. Funkenstein,” but the ravaging “Maggot Brain” feels like when the ‘Stein, Clinton’s otherworldly monster, comes to life in the science lab.

“Children of the Night”
Possibly the darkest song to come from Philly soul songwriting pair Thom Bell and Linda Creed, the seven-minute odyssey of “Children of the Night” comes with haunting strings, Russell Thompkins’ yielding falsetto and an atmosphere of darkness that matched the broody archetype of Isaac Hayes’ symphonic soul. It’s a golden masterpiece and a totally underrated gem in the Stylistics catalog.

There are a few more entries definitely worth checking out. And many of them clearly need no introduction. Listen to our spooky soul Spotify-powered playlist below.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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