25 Soul and R & B Classics Introduction
You will notice the incredible amount of difficulty I had in making this list because I excluded Michael Jackson, Bobby Brown, Prince, Aaliyah and Ray Charles among others. Some of these artists may yet crack the Top 25 once I have more time to look at their songs and amend the list. (I may come back and turn this into a top 50, then top 75, then top 100. There is just waaayyyyy too much good Soul Music out there. I wish Jazz-Rap fusion, my favorite genre, had this many talented musicians working on it over the years.)
25.Anita Baker - "Sweet Love"
Anita Baker sings in a real deep Alto. She is the counterpart to some of the other female singers on this list, like Whitney Houston and Minnie Riperton, who really hit the top of the female voice. At times, she does sneak into the low part of the soprano range, but all her singing is grounded in her alto. Baker really caresses and makes love to the mic in the above link's performance. She pays attention not only to her voice, but how her performance affects the quality of the song. Her performance comes alive especially at the last half minute of the song, and she blows the crowd away with her dancing and movement. The musical accompaniment also blows you away with its overpowering quality, and knocks you out with Anita's voice. Though the lyrics are simple, and repeated over the course of the song, they are never sang in the same way twice.
24. Gladys Knight and the Pips - "The Midnight Train to Georgia"
"The Midnight Train to Georgia" contains a lot of call and response. The response acts like the conscious thoughts of the narrator as she makes her decision to follow her loved one. The narration, though simple in terms of plot, moves along nicely with the usual climax and resolution. Especially for a song of average length, it has a great progression and completeness. Knight's narrative voice resonates with the response throughout the whole song. She punctuates each song with her emotion. Part of her ability to hit emotions comes from her control over her chest cavity to her diaphragm. Her singing creates a completeness similar to that found in the narrative.
At the height of the climax, her air retention and the ability to push her voice out creates a euphoric feeling of hope while she pursues her lover "in his world....and not in [hers.]" The trombones add a touch to her euphoria. Another quality of Knight's voice is her care and tenderness. On a lighter note, my favorite call and response in the song is "he kept dreaming (dreaming) oohhh someday he'd be the star (a superstaaa but he didn't get far," (from 1:38 to 1:50.) I don't know why, it makes me laugh.
23. T hir d Wor ld - "Now That We Found Love"
Unfortunately, this song has a bad intro that is too reggae for this sincere love song that seems to suddenly switch direction when the intro is over. The reggae drumbeats continue even when the singing starts and are most prominent during the chorus. If it had not been for the intro, the drumbeats and the instrumentals in general, this song likely would have cracked the top 10. You can forgive that this song uses thought-stopping techniques to a degree that would make even modern pop stars and politicians blush. If there is so many problems with this song, why is it number 23 on this list? The chorus is so sweet and harmonious, we can forgive that the constant repetition is a thought-stopping technique. Love is not enough is a statement we have all experienced in our lives. Once we have "found love" the road tends to get difficult not easy. It is the time to both proceed with caution AND abandon our fears. This song is one which implores us to throw up our hands, abandon our fears and just dance the night away. It is great for those moments in our relationships which reach a turning point.
22. Marvin Gaye - "What's Going on/ What's Happening Brother"
"What's Going On" is the first of 4 appearances by Marvin Gaye on the Top 25, or twice as many appearances as any other artist on the list. "What's Going On" takes a departure from Gaye's favorite topic, sexual relationships. We love it all the better for that change, and Marvin comes through with a gem here.
Unfortunately, Gaye fell victim to some of the things he talks about in this song, including violence in the black community. He was killed by his father during an argument on April 1, 1984. His father was not charged for the murder, as he was acting in self-defense. The pain in both his community and inside himself shows here, especially at the 4:00 minute to 5:00 minute mark. The music slows down and his voice begins to shake as his eyes squint and look like he is about to cry. "What's Going on/ What's Happening Brother" is a song that probably still resonates in the black community and with the poor, as their socioeconomic status and the violence in their community has only increased since Marvin's days as a singer, largely due to racism becoming subversive rather than obvert.
21. Marvin Gaye - "Sexual Healing"
No one makes a booty call sound as sweet as Marvin Gaye. "Sexual Healing" is very direct in its meaning, which is softened by Gaye's voice and the musical accompaniment. The song contains whispers with what are some aggressive lyrics, lyrics like whenever blue tearsdrops are fallin' and my emotional stability is leaving me there is something I can do I can get on the telephone and call you up, baby Ok, so Marvin needed some quick loving. We can forgive him for that and just enjoy the beauty of "Sexual Healing." I chose the extended accompaniment because it adds another dimension to the song, so definitely check it out after the 4 minute mark. It will be worth your time.
20. The Isley Brothers - "Footsteps in the Dark"
Rappers have sampled the Isley Brothers many times, including their song "Footsteps in the Dark," which was sampled by Ice Cube in his most memorable track, "Today Was a Good Day." The rap fans among you will recognize the beat from the moment the song starts. The voice contrasts greatly with this beat, it is many octaves above it. It acts as a large sigh most of the song.
The background singers play a large role in terms of breath and style, if not in terms of track time. Like Gaye's entry above, the beat will have your head bumping to the song and the lyrics and voice have a sad sweetness to them.
19. Stevie Wonder - "Superstition"
The only song in the top 25 that is funkier than Debarge's "I Like It," Superstition is upbeat, fun and happy. Wonder, for the most part, does the song's work on the keyboard and with his voice. The other musicians' music keeps the beat to let Stevie go off, except for the trombone player, who sometimes goes into his own solos. Make sure to watch the link provided above. So much of Wonder's power is not only in the strength of his musical abilities: he also puts on a show with the turning of his head and the smooth movement of his fingers. 18. Marvin Gay and Tammi Terrell - "Ain't No Mountain" "Ain't No Mountain [high enough]" could have easily been called "Ain't No Note [high enough]." Marvin Gaye shows off his precision in this beautiful duet by him and Tammi Terell. He goes up and down his scales in mix voice, never missing a note. The timing of the two singers is impeccable, and the song does feel like an actual conversation between two lovers. Gaye and Terrell stay in speech voice throughout the song, except for the chorus, when they go into belt voice. The change creates a euphoric feeling. Though most of "Ain't No Mountain" is the chorus, the chorus does not overwhelm with its repetitiveness, partly because the song is so short. Gaye and Terell's voices carry the song while the accompaniment takes a back seat to the singing. The instrument most on display is the tambourine, so you know they were not planning on the instrumentals taking the lead. And why would you when you have Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell in the mix? Put "Ain't No Mountain" on when you are celebrating some difficulty or milestone you and your loved one has just overcame. 17. Bar r y W hite - "Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe."
Short of Michael Jackson, Elvis and Johnny Cash, Barry White has probably the most recognizable voice in American Music History. The number 17 spot could have easily been any number of Barry White songs, including "Just the Way You Are" and "My First, My Last, My Everything." I decided to include "Can't Get Enough" because it gives you something you do not usually get with Barry songs, some (relatively) high notes that he hits with ease. The song also has a great build up to its chorus, and switches from singing to Barry talking with great ease. The tempo matches that upbeat feeling you get when your relationship reaches that "puppy" love stage and has not reached that "real" love stage. This is the era of "You Can't Get Enough" of that special lady you met just 7 or 8, or 5 or 6, or even 1 month ago. You can't keep your hands off this girl, you call her pet names, your friends call you whipped but you don't care, you have various inappropriate PDAs and, most of all, you are not afraid to throw on this song and embarrass yourself and your ladyfriend with your best Barry White impression.
16. Whitney House - "I Will Always Love You"
Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Minnie Riperton belong in a class of their own when it comes to range and whistle register. No other song by Houston puts her range and register on display like "I Will Always Love You." She starts the song in speech voice and builds to a crescendo in the first minute. The chimes come in just after the minute mark, and hint at the whistle register to come. Houston herself makes this hint, first on the words "with me" and then again on "please" and brings it home just before the 2:00 minute mark with the chorus "I Will Always Love You." The saxophone solo puts an exclamation point on the whole progression while Houston warms up for going into the whistle register again. For the rest of the song, Houston moves seamlessly from speech voice, to belt voice to whistle register. In terms of an individual singing performance of quality, pitch and range, the only song on this list that can match Houston's performance is Riperton's upcoming "Loving You."
15. Bobby Caldwell - "What You Won't Do For Love"
"What You Won't Do For Love" transports you around the world with its lyrics and smooth grooves. Unlike Caldwell's other appearance on the Top 25, "Open Your Eyes," the accompaniment takes the lead and the singer follows. Caldwell has a few times he goes out of his main register, but the accompaniment is really what carries the song. It includes a keyboard, bongos, lead guitar, drums, background singers, a bass guitar and trombones. Somehow, all the instruments fit in nicely and with a simple vibe. The variety of all those instruments takes us on a magical adventure. Caldwell's voice does punch in sometimes to help account for the accompaniment. His voice in "What You Won't Do For Love" is neither overpowering or weak, rather it is restrained with moments of exhilaration.
14. Minnie Riper ton - "Inside My Love"
Riperton's breathy alto will get you in the mood from the first note. She will have you hanging by a thread with the way she emphasizes the right words. When she hits the soprano notes (Riperton had a range of 5 and a half octaves), you will know what it must sound like to be in bed with this classic musician. The music builds with the lyrics and the singing voice as the song progresses. The instrumentals are pretty complicated and they are pulled off with great enthusiasm, adding an explanation point to the end of Riperton's phrases.
13. Debar ge - "I Like It"
The white and later version of the Jackson 5, Debarge came onto the music scene in the early 80s as a family of 5 and walked away with 3 gold-certified albums in just 5 years. "I Like It," their biggest hit, has a funkier feel than most of the rest of the songs on the Top 25, though it still remains well within the range of Soul and R & B. The instrumentals and voice sound like someone strutting down the street, ecstatic over a great date.
As the song comes to a falsetto in the whistle register, the lyrics "you send chills down my spines" make the hair on your arms stand straight up. The saxophone does a lot to give the song some punch as the piano keeps the beat. The instrumentals and the singing go hand-in-hand in this one, with neither taking the lead, and it works real well.
12. Bobby Womack - "If You Think You're Lonely Now"
Most of the time, background sounds and singing add little to a song. "If You Think You're Lonely Now" uses single notes of the background singers and the guitar to match perfectly Womack's clean and expressive voice. Pain and fortitude are evident in our narrator. He holds onto notes like we know he is going to hold on to the memory of this woman. By the song's end, we are more convinced of the narrator's loneliness than that that of his former beau.
11. Quincy Jones - "The Secret Garden"
Okay, the title may be lame and clichéd, but the song itself is not. Quincy Jones's best work features two voices (and multiple singers, featuring Al B. Sure, James Ingram, El' Debarge & Barry White) which work well in tandem, one a deep bass and the other a treble. It seamlessly switches between the two voices, using the bass for declarative statements and demands, while the higher voice considers the feelings and point-of-view of the woman. (You can see the two voices as the ying and yang or the masculine and feminine voices of the narrator himself.) The piano play, for the most part, is just one chord played three times then another chord played once, but it absolutely fits the song and contrasts well with what are some pretty complicated bars of singing. The drum also fits a simple pattern for these classics singers to get off on. 10. George Michael - "Careless Whisper" "Careless Whisper" holds a special place in my heart. It was the one Western song I constantly heard when I was in Syria. George Michael hid his homosexuality for over 1 decade after he released his caring
lament. Whatever lover Michael had at the time of the song's release probably felt slighted by the concealment of their relationship. I believe, with the whispers, and lines like "ignorance is kind, there is no comfort in the truth, pain is all you find," Michael was talking about how hard concealing their relationship from the public was. Michael admitted in a 2007 interview he hid the fact he was gay for concern of his mother's reaction to the news. The song, then, is a caring lament. The vocals, sax, piano and drums all play subdued notes. Range is not the strength here: it stays in the same octave for most the song's course. The song itself is a whisper. The whispers of his sexuality had already started, and would persist until he was caught by a cop in a sting operation in 1998. 9. Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes - "If You Don't Know Me by Now" The singing and accompaniment in "If You Don't Know Me by Now," like the song at number 10, is soft and understated. Even when the song reaches a crescendo, it whispers to you. This whisper reflects the vulnerability of the narrator. When Teddy Pendergrass eventually goes from speech voice to chest voice, a trace of resilience becomes clear. He is frustrated, but despite the chorus "If You Don't Know Me By Now," he is not giving up on his love. If it were meant for an individual lover, I imagine this song made her cry before she apologized about her trust issues. The song is so sincere and definitely tugs along the trust of the listener. 8. Minnie Riperton - "Loving You" Minnie Riperton's voice in "Loving You" is so sweet it deserves to be played in a meadow with Snow White and all the woodland creatures. The producers felt so, too, which is why they added bird chirping to Minnie's swan song. Riperton mimics these sounds by using whistle register. The lyrics that best sum up this song is when Riperton says "we will live each day in spring time." Riperton uses nonsensical sounds which add to the mood and atmosphere. The instrumentals used in "Loving You" are the keyboard and the acoustic guitar. They, too,
mimic the chirps of the birds, both with single, uncomplicated chords. This song is great for a picnic with your sweetheart. 7. Mar vin Gaye - "Let's Get It On" "Let's Get it On" is bedroom theatrics at its best, just make sure you're fresh and awake enough to bring your A game. Anything less would be a disappointment and a black eye to this great, raunchy song. I'll keep the explanation short, because if you and your girl or guy are reading this article, you probably checked out after the first sentence, hit the link above and are getting it on right now. 6. Boyz II Men - "I'll Make Love to You" Changing direction from that kinky girl you know to the girl you are trying to wife, this song and the guys were featured on the episode "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" where Will (another native Philly guy) was supposed to get married (seriously?!?!? the series made it that far?) This song is perfect for a weekend get-away or a special occasion, meaning you should only play it for your guy or girl if you are serious about them. And definitely play this if your significant other is going through a difficult time. Music and touch can express in ways that words will never, and this song will say to that special person that you will comfort them. 5. Mar y J. Blige - "Real Love" Upbeat, fun and powerful, Mary J. Blige shows off her vocal range by switching from speech voice to belt voice without hesitation, and hitting those high notes with ease. Mary J. Blige is among the best all-time when it comes to hitting high notes in belt voice, if a couple steps behind contemporaries Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, who do not have the same strength in speech voice. Her ability to make this switch sends chills down a listener's spine (check out the last verse, from 3:24 to 3:50, where the voice switches about every two syllables. This switch takes extreme accuracy and talent.) The accompaniment also follows this pattern, and these few bars are the best (short of the song at number 1) of any part of the other songs on this list.
Skip the last 20 seconds, if possible, where both the music and Blige's voice take a turn for the worst. 4. Bobby Caldwell - "Open Your Eyes" Bobby Caldwell's voice makes "Open Your Eyes" smooth, strong and distinctive. Caldwell is able to jump up and down his vocal range and make smooth transitions during his triads. The instrumentals really let Caldwell go to work, as they stay in the background except for a piano chord that is repeated 3 or 4 times during the chorus. This is not to say the instrumentals do not add to the song's quality. The piano chords during the chorus do take something away, but the sax and single piano notes give the song that extra oomph to allow Caldwell's voice to shine. 3. Al Green - "Let's Stay Together" Trumpets are quite appropriate in summoning "Let's Stay Together" because the song is grand and timeless. Some funky guitar and piano play overtakes the trumpets. Those instruments continue except for the end of bars in the chorus. The song features a balance between the instrumentals and vocals, unlike most songs where either the vocals or the instrumentals take the lead. Al Green is at his best when he is hitting a crescendo on a single word, as he does many times over in "Let's Stay Together." And as this short song goes on, so too does the listener go deeper and deeper and deeper into loving it. 2. Rober ta Flack - "Killing Me Softly With His Song" You have probably heard the Fugees' version of "Killin Me Softly." Many other versions exist, the most notable among them is Roberta Flack's (which, in itself, is a cover of what is now a pretty unknown song.) "Killing Me Softly" was written by Lori Lieberman as a reaction to the first time she heard Don Mclean (best known for his song "American Pie") in concert. Roberta's version of the song sounds much different than the original because of its intimacy. The delivery is much different than the Fugees' version because Roberta's voice is so sweet and soft instead of the powerful way in which Lauryn Hill delivers it. Flack's singing
matches the words better than Lauryn's. It also gives our spines and our hearts a jump when she reaches the crescendo near the end of the song ( 3:24 to 3:52) after staying in speech voice for the beginning. The back-up singing and instrumentals do add some to the song, but Flack was smart enough to let her piano-playing and voice do most of the work. 1. Sam Cooke - "Change is Gonna Come" "Change is Gonna Come" is incredibly powerful, it sounds like a symphony or the score to a dramatic musical. It alone was the reason I changed this list from Soulful Love Classics to Top 25 Soul and R&B songs. The story behind its origin is that Sam Cooke heard Bob Dylan's "Blowing in the Wind" and decided, if a white man could write such a moving song about race relations, he must do the same. The song was released in 1963, just before race riots and the Civil Rights Movement came to their height. Over time, "Change is Gonna Come" evolved into the unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. Cooke's voice perfectly displays the suffering of African-Americans and, ultimately, the hope for change. The way Cooke ends his bars with an abrupt stop brings each statement to a poignant end. The instruments sigh after Cooke ends his phrasing and add to the song's hopeful sorrow. And, while it sounds like a symphony, the lyrics Cooke wrote make the song very personal. These dynamics will make you more attached to it even as you listen for the millionth time. Unfortunately, such a hopefully tragic song also had a tragic end. The song was released posthumously after Cooke's death by gunshot in 1964 and was also played at the funeral of Malcolm X a couple months later.