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Review: John Capouya's history of 'Florida Soul' entertains

R&B singer Hank Ballard had a hit in 1959 with The Twist, which may have been inspired by teens he saw dancing in Tampa. Chubby Checker later had a monster hit covering it.
R&B singer Hank Ballard had a hit in 1959 with The Twist, which may have been inspired by teens he saw dancing in Tampa. Chubby Checker later had a monster hit covering it.
Published Sep. 15, 2017

When we think about classic soul and R&B music, we probably think of Detroit and Philadelphia, Chicago and Memphis.

But we should think of the Sunshine State, too, writes John Capouya in his new book, Florida Soul: From Ray Charles to KC and the Sunshine Band.

Throughout the glory days of soul and R&B, from the late 1940s through the 1970s, Floridians made some of the most memorable music in those genres. Capouya recounts their lives and contributions in this deeply researched and affectionate book, enriched by interviews with many of the musicians themselves.

Capouya is an associate professor of journalism and writing at the University of Tampa. He has a keen eye for the deeper context of popular culture, which was evident in his previous book, Gorgeous George: The Outrageous Bad-Boy Wrestler Who Created American Pop Culture.

In Florida Soul he looks at the music not only as entertainment but as an expression of the culture and history that surrounded it. The heyday of soul and R&B was also the era of the civil rights movement, and these songs sometimes tell stories that reverberate well beyond their three-minute play times.

Capouya defines the differences between soul, which tends to emphasize vocals and has its roots mainly in gospel, and R&B, which is driven as much by musicians as singers and grew out of blues and jazz. But the two genres often blend, and many artists bent the lines between them.

The 20 chapters of Florida Soul focus mostly on individual musicians, with a few devoted to businesses, like Miami's Deep City Records.

Many of the singers and players Capouya profiles have ties to the Tampa Bay area. The book's first chapter follows the great Ray Charles from his boyhood in Greenville in the Florida Panhandle, to the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine (where he had lessons in classical piano) and eventually, in about 1947, to Tampa.

Charles, then all of 17, "quickly found work with Tampa's most successful outfit: Charlie Brantley and His Original Honeydippers," a seven-piece band that played gigs "from Key West to Pensacola." One of the earliest recordings he made was an original called St. Pete Florida Blues. About a year later, still in Tampa, Charles was hired to play "hot hillbilly piano" for the Florida Playboys, an otherwise all-white country band, where he learned to yodel.

In this chapter, in addition to recounting the details of Charles' early career, Capouya paints a picture of Tampa's Central Avenue, a lively black business district with thriving nightclubs that drew many of the musicians in this book.

In another chapter, Tampa singer-songwriter Ronny Elliott tells Capouya about a concert at the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory that he attended as a young teen in 1961. The headliner was dreamboat soul singer Sam Cooke, whose hits that year included Cupid and Wonderful World. But the young women in the audience really swooned and screamed for Hank Ballard.

Backed by the tightly choreographed Midnighters, the handsome Ballard was most famous then for a series of bawdy "race record" hits that included Work With Me, Annie. But the song he wrote that's best remembered today has a Tampa connection.

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The Twist wasn't just a hit song, it was one of the biggest dance crazes of the 20th century. There are different versions of the song's genesis, but most attribute it to Ballard seeing a group of teens dancing in Tampa, a dance that "twisted their bodies."

Ballard himself had a pretty good hit with the song, released in 1959. But a kid named Chubby Checker made a note-for-note cover version of The Twist that became a monster hit and begat a whole string of other twist songs.

The story came full circle in 1962, when Tampa banned the dance at all its community centers, Capouya notes: "'We discourage all weird or off-beat dancing,' said Recreation Director David Barksdale."

A few years before the twist inspired Ballard, a young girl named Frankie Gearing was growing up in St. Petersburg, not far from the Deuces, the business district along 22nd Avenue S that was the counterpart to Tampa's Central Avenue.

At age 12, Gearing put on makeup and her aunt's high heels and tried to sneak into the Manhattan Casino to see James Brown and the Famous Flames, then one of the mightiest R&B acts.

Gearing wasn't just a fan; she wanted Brown to hear her sing, because she was sure her destiny was music. The police officer working security that night knew her family and turned her back at the door — but the next night, the determined girl found a ride to Bradenton, Brown's next gig, and got to speak to him.

She promised him he'd see her again. Just a few years later, fronting a group called the Laddins, she performed as Brown's opening act. At one of the first shows, she tore up the place on a song called With Every Beat of My Heart. After the show, Brown's assistant came to her dressing room and told her that Brown wanted her henceforth to "just sing half of it."

Gearing told Capouya, "When we got to the bridge it would keep building and building and everybody in the theater would be screaming, and Mr. Brown didn't want that on his show."

Many of the stories Capouya tells in Florida Soul are entertaining, and others are engrossing insiders' looks at the art and craft of creating popular music. Some are grim — many of these musicians suffered indignities and worse from segregation and racism.

That happened even to white artists who performed soul and R&B. Linda Lyndell, a white Gainesville native who grew up singing in black churches and went on to sing with black groups like the Counts, had a 1968 record, What a Man, that was a hit 28 years later for Salt-n-Pepa and En Vogue. Lyndell had to cancel at least one show after threats from the Ku Klux Klan because she was a white woman performing with black men.

On the whole, Florida Soul demonstrates that the state was an important incubator for the creation and growth of a form dominant in American popular music.

One warning, though. This is one of those books you'll want to read with a music player close at hand. I lost count of how many times I thought, "Wow, I haven't heard that song in years," and went searching for it.

Contact Colette Bancroft at or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.


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