We draw inspiration from many sources in our lives: the loved ones who whisper encouraging words when we need them the most, the faith we lean against when we can’t stand on our own…and then there is Soul music, a genre whose name proclaims exactly which part of us it is meant to nurture.
If done correctly, soul’s heavy notes float on air from the mouths of gifted musicians firmly onto weary eardrums. Its lyrics meander thru the circulatory system, eventually tugging on heart strings. Its beat dances into the nervous system causing fingers to click and feet to tap. Its melody resonates within the respiratory system, stealing breath away. The right soul music infects the body of every listener and settles exactly where it is supposed to – in the spirit.
Inspiration comes not only from the music itself, but from the people behind the music. Their stories of struggle and survival are what breathe life into it. In celebration of international women’s day on 8th March, I was fortunate enough to catch up with one such artist whose life’s work has been dedicated to keeping all forms of soul alive – the music, the ones of her faithful fans and, in the most painful times, even her own.
The journey of P.P. Arnold is a long and unlikely one. It has taken her from the ghettos and gospel churches of 1940s South Central Los Angeles to a pioneer of soul music in the UK with an international legion of adoring fans.
Although keeping such legendary company as Jimmy Hendrix, Stevie Wonder and the Rolling Stones can seem glamorous, the path of this former member of the Ike and Tina Turner Review is not without its tribulations including teen pregnancy, abusive and failed marriages, the loss of a child and a debilitating accident.
Despite it all, P.P. Arnold remains full of life and continues to rely on the lessons of strength, faith, perseverance, family and self-love. “It is so important to be positive and to keep your light shining, even in the darkest hours. That’s the challenge. It’s easy to be happy and strong when things are going well, but it’s another thing when you have to make it through the dark days.”
Patricia Ann Cole never dreamed that she would be a professional singer; in fact, she had other plans for her life entirely. Growing up, she recalls that she was on her way to “a brilliant academic life” and laments, “I just kind of fell into show business, I never really planned to be in it. My father wanted me to be a legal secretary. Back in those days for a black woman to be a legal secretary, that was a big deal – so that was my first sort of ambition.”
However, the road would soon take an unexpected turn for the young Patricia. “When I got pregnant at the age of 15 that changed, well, everything. My father made me get married and I found myself in this really abusive teen marriage.” The new Mrs. Arnold tried to make ends meet by taking on a series of menial jobs and was motivated by her children to keep going while living in her own personal hell.
With her roots in gospel music and faith as her cornerstone, Patricia Ann Cole would be transformed into P.P. Arnold almost overnight when her brother’s ex-girlfriend called her last minute to be the replacement singer in a group auditioning as backup for Ike & Tina Turner. She was met with what some could only describe as divine intervention.
“I remember waking up on that Sunday morning, saying that prayer to God to help me find a way to move forward; I prayed hard that morning. Thirty minutes later the phone rings, two hours later I am at Ike and Tina Turner’s house and a day later, I’m an Ikette. It was that faith, that prayer – putting it in God’s hands, knowing the unexpected will work itself out if you put it in the right hands. My grandmother always had a great saying. She used to say ‘when you take your burdens to the Lord, make sure you leave them there.’ Don’t keep going back and picking them up.”
And P.P. Arnold did just that.[audio:http://soulculture.com/10 (If You Think You’re) Groovy.mp3]
She left her abusive husband, made arrangements for her children to temporarily stay with her parents and began touring on the legendary chitlin circuit. Her two-year career as a backing vocalist for the Ike and Tina Turner Review would take her around the United States and eventually to England in 1966 when the band opened for the Rolling Stones.
Impressed by her soulful and powerful voice, Mick Jagger was instrumental in offering Arnold a recording contract with his newly founded Immediate Records record label. Arnold sent for her children and quit the Turner band so that she could remain in London and establish a solo career. This was the launching pad for her lifelong love affair with Europe, where she continues to live today. Now in her 60s with a career spanning more than 40 years, P.P. Arnold has seen almost everything and is very forthcoming with advice.
When asked about family and the tools she uses to stay balanced as a full-time mother and musician she matter-of-factly states, “Get up in the morning! Wake up, get up, stay up and do what you gotta do.” As fate would have it her legacy and life’s work is to, indeed, be a grandmother of Soul – literally. P.P. Arnold just celebrated the birth of her grandson, named Soul Samuels.
On finding the ability to still be resilient and surrender to love, despite failing in the past, Arnold whimsically states, “I believe in love. I made some bad choices when I was younger and sometimes a lot of women think that if they don’t have a man in their life, they aren’t complete. I felt that it was more important to be complete within myself, first, and then I’d make better choices when relationship situations appear.”
Recovering from blinding pain and unthinkable odds, she sombrely remembers a time where others would have easily waved the white flag of surrender. “I lost my daughter in a car accident when she was 13. I had two sons and I grieved for, I think, too long very negatively. Grief is a funny thing and to lose a child like that is really, really hard. After so long I realized that it was being disrespectful to her memory for me to be so negative, I didn’t really care about anything for a while. But, I had my two boys and I had to be positive for them.”
Years later, a second car accident would test her willpower once again. “I was told I’d never do anything again; I’d never run, I’d never dance. I was in an accident where my legs were crushed by two cars. They thought I’d never do anything; they just wanted to shoot me full of steroids and put me in a heap. I thought, ‘thanks, but no thanks… I better take charge from here’.”
Regarding finding the right public image for herself as a woman in the industry, she jokes, “I started out wearing the wig as an Ikette and we had to pin it on. Everyone wanted to know if it was our hair and, if we didn’t have it pinned on, Ike would pull it off on stage.
“I came [to the UK] in the ‘60s wearing my wig, ashamed to let people see my hair. Although for my first album cover, the First Lady cover, I wore my own hair but it was like I started ruining it by wearing wigs all of the time. I had been married to an Englishmen who rarely saw me with my wig off; I would sleep with my wig on. That’s how I embarrassed I had become about my own identity and being around all of these Europeans with my nappy hair.
“In 1968 we came out of the studio, and I don’t know why but I just got so fed up with everybody thinking that I was this long straight hair, short miniskirt lady. It was around the time of Angela Davis and even though I was in England, I was still very much plugged into the Civil Rights revolution in the States. So… I walked out of the studio, took that wig off in 1968 at the door of IBC Studios and put it in the trashcan. Everybody freaked out because they had never seen me without my hair – it was a mess, all matted down from where I had the wig on sweating and everything. I cut my hair off; I had to cut it all the way down because my own hair was so destroyed from pinning the wigs on. I started all over… It is all about the evolution of finding my own identity.”
P.P. Arnold also tells me why she has held on to her identity and is steadfastly dedicated to soul music in the face of industry politics and the tidal waves of music fads which can sometimes leave artists stuck in the sand.
“I am soul. I am the blues. I’m a black American woman. I was born into a family of gospel singers. I am who I am. People are amazed and say, ‘You have lived in Europe for over 35 years and you still have your accent?!’ Well, I am still Patricia Ann Cole. And I’m blessed to share who I am with different cultures. If I came over here and adopted an English accent and tried to be English, no one would ever know who I am.”
For more about P.P Arnold’s life and music, please visit her website: www.PPArnold.com