Less narcissistic than solo performers, more intimate than a mere "band," musical duos embody a special chemistry. Sometimes that announces itself in genetically enhanced voices; at other times through a subtle yin-yang of two halves creating a whole. These 20 duos have stood the test of time, even if their relationship was only temporary, and created sounds that are theirs alone. Because, as one memorable duo (Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston) and then another (Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock) stated on separate occasions: It takes two. By Richard Gehr and Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
Destined for duality when the other members of their new band were no-shows to their first rehearsal in 2001, singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney emerged from a dank Akron, Ohio, basement (where they recorded their debut) to become stage-crushing blues-rock heroes. Relentless econo touring and dogged determination ultimately led them to Nonesuch Records, for whom they recorded platinum-sellers Brothers and El Camino in quick succession. These Danger Mouse co-productions extended the gnarly, grinding blues sound heard on the Keys' earlier Fat Possum recordings to something more stylistically inclusive – with touches of glam, surf, vintage pop, etc. – and acceptably commercial. Or as Auerbach once characterized his audience: "We make music for hipster strippers."
Powerhouse songwriting duo Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson were magic: in their melodies, on the charts, and in their own songs, which relied on their genuine love and gospel instincts. Key writers for Motown in the Sixties, they created some of the most enduring (and emotional) songs ever: "I'm Every Woman" for Chaka Khan, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" for Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, and "Is It Still Good to You" for Teddy Pendergrass. They excelled in glorious peaks, which was evident in their own biggest hit, Eighties radio stalwart "Solid (As A Rock)," about their own relationship – though they were not so precious about it that they couldn't rewrite it as "Solid As Barack" for Obama's first inauguration.
"I Got You Babe": What young love and talent hath wrought. The grooviest variety show hosts of the Sixties and Seventies, Sonny and Cher Bono kept pastels in business and flower-child anthems in suburban homes nationwide. They met in a coffee shop and sang back-up on some of the biggest hits of the early Sixties (the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" included), but their 50 feet from stardom became the real deal after "Babe" became a hit in 1965, showcasing their alto harmonies that always sounded a little bit sluggish, as if tamped down by Ovaltine and lovemaking. Ironically, their "clean weirdos" deal would effectively end their career as the sexual revolution surged and "groovy" equated itself with getting super high. But their legacy in American history was solidified – plus they gave us Chaz Bono, himself the awesome star of Dancing With the Stars.
Prog-rock guitarist Robert Fripp and art-school glam-rocker Brian Eno busted out of their respective bands, King Crimson and Roxy Music, to record 1973's touchstone No Pussyfooting. In the side-long "Heavenly Music Corporation" and its jitterier and more cluttered flip, "Swastika Girls," Eno produced the first of a long series of "discreet" and "ambient" musical offerings using a tape-loop system dubbed "Frippertronics." A subsequent CD re-release would include both works in reverse, with less difference than you might imagine. In 1975, the duo released Evening Star, a side of tranquilly droning tracks serving as appetizers for "An Index of Metals," a glorious 28-minute accrual of lighter-than-air guitar, piano, and synthesizer tones. Although the pair didn't produce another album together until 2004's The Equatorial Stars, their pillowy process pieces added a permanent new minimalist widget to pop-music's toolkit.
Neither actual brothers nor particularly righteous (one died of cocaine-connected heart failure), tenor singer Bobby Hatfield and sepulchral-voiced Bill Medley's "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," an epic 1965 example of producer Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, remains one of radio's most-played songs of all time. Yet the blue-eyed soul brothers enjoyed only a handful of subsequent hits, including the faux-Wall "(You're My) Soul and Inspiration," before breaking up in 1968, reuniting a few years later, and then fading into relative obscurity punctuated by nostalgic moments such as 1974's optimistic "Rock and Roll Heaven."
The 1970s were a trip and Steely Dan prove it: What other era would honor two kinda stoned, laid-back jazz dudes with dad sweaters writing long, literary jams about divorce and getting high and drunk and the Eagles? Aja's the one, their 1977 album with classic Donald Fagen-Walter Becker numbers like "Black Cow" that showcased their cool-guy harmonies and jazz guitar, setting the stage for yacht rock for decades to come. But they had countless stoney guitar jams over a decade, both influenced and hindered by their tumultuous relationship and Becker's drug addiction, leading to their first breakup in 1981. Like the Seventies, though, they just needed time to nurse the hangover, and by the 1990s the boys were back in town. They're still touring and dropping albums, ponytails and all.
"Soul Man" could be enough: one of the biggest R&B hits of all time, the song that defined the term "soul" as a genre (and precipitated its crossover to white audiences), and the perfect showcase for Stax superstars Sam Moore and Dave Prater's tenor/baritone interplay. But the cool singing "Dynamic Duo" unleashed a slew of classic songs over their 20-year career ("Hold On, I'm Comin'," "I Thank You," "Wrap It Up," etc, many of which were co-written by a young Isaac Hayes) while bringing a gospel influence to rock and roll, something that would affect the next several decades of musicians that came after – including their biggest devotees, the Blues Brothers. But those are just material facts. Sam & Dave's pure talent and energy was phenomenal, the vehemence and truthfulness of their harmonies unmatched. It earned them another nickname: "Double Dynamite."
Vocalizer Alan Vega and keyboardist Martin Rev formed Suicide in 1970, declared their music "punk" shortly after Lester Bangs invoked the term, and inspired a generation of diverse electro-duos ranging from Ministry to Beach House. Dressed like glam-rock hoods, Vega intoned free-form sketches of New York street life accompanied by his partner's revved-up industrial keyboard grooves. Recorded at punk's '77 peak, Suicide and its 1980 follow-up, Suicide: Alan Vega and Martin Rev, are throbbing reflections of the duo's confrontational live performances, during which Vega would punctuate his rockabilly twang with slashes of a motorcycle chain. Bruce Springsteen declared that "If Elvis came back from the dead, I think he would sound like Alan Vega," and has admitted that "State Trooper" on Nebraska owes a large debt to "Frankie Teardrop," Suicide's scarifying 10-minute glimpse into the mind of a poor factory worker who murders his wife and children.
Though Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo are currently enjoying the spoils of fame in America, do not underestimate their pre-"Get Lucky" accomplishments. Crucial in Europe for decades, they pioneered Nineties French house/"French touch" with their disco-inspired, high-concept bangers; they also pioneered the movement of dance producers wearing masks, having initially covered their faces with space helmets to keep the focus on the music (give them credit for the theatrical style element, too). Their mindmeld of disco-pop-dance-house-synth-funk is a manifestation of their music-nerdery, one that has translated to other music nerds beyond Pharrell – their 2001 hit "Harder Better Faster Stronger" lives on in Kanye's 2007 hit "Stronger," while generations of dance acolytes live their entire lives aspiring to the Daft Punk sound.
Otis Redding, then 26, and Carla Thomas, 25, sing so naturally together on 1967's King & Queen, it's hard to believe it would be their only album together. Inspired by Marvin Gaye's popular Motown duets, the pair's January 1967 Stax session took less than a week during Carla's holiday break from post-grad English studies at Howard University. With superlative house band Booker T and the M.G.'s, the pair knocked out ten soul standards, from "Knock on Wood" to a particularly poignant "Bring It On Home," and a Redding original, "Ooh Carla, Ooh Otis." The vibe is relaxed, almost festive. Redding's unprocessed soul power and touching asides perfectly balance Carla's sassy grace. Alas, it would be Redding's final recording prior to his fatal October plane crash.
With the musical Zeitgeist veering toward harder, more excessive rock during the Seventies, singing-drummer-turned-reluctant-frontwoman Karen Carpenter and her songwriting-keyboardist brother Richard produced a record-setting string of soft, melodic solid-gold tunes – from 1969's "(They Long to Be) Close to You" (their Bacharach/David renditions are uniformly terrific) to 1973's "Top of the World" – that provided an authentic alternative to prevailing trends. But every silver lining has a cloud, and Karen's dark side first manifested itself in the subtle melancholy that shaded her gorgeous contralto, and later in the full-on anorexia that led to her 1982 death at age 32.
Deep-baritoned writer-producer Lee Hazelwood revived Nancy Sinatra's flagging career with "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" in 1966. The unlikely May-September couple ("I had a horrible crush on him, but he was married then," she recalled decades later) subsequently reconvened for a pair of sonically ambitious, esthetically odd, and commercially successful albums. While Nancy & Lee (1968) contained spunky hit "Jackson" and morning-after masterpiece "Some Velvet Morning," 1972's Nancy & Lee Again was more sophisticated, with anti-war tracks like "Congratulations" bumping up against Norman-Rockwell-on-acid slices of American life like "Tippy-Toes." And fans of sexual tension will surely appreciate Lee's subtly sardonic ad-libs and Nancy's girlish giggles.
As went their marriage, so went the reigning couple of British folk-rock's recording history, which began in 1974 with the luminous I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight and ended eight years, five albums, and one divorce later with breakup masterpiece Shoot Out the Lights. In-between, the dazzling acid-Celt guitarist and silver-throated singer converted to Islam, joined a Sufi commune, and dropped the carnivalesque Hokey Pokey, the often chilling Pour Down Like Silver, the spiritually inclined First Light and the rather rocking Sunnyvista. As with most marriages, the Thompsons' creative collaboration was a third heavenly, a third hellish, and a third about just remembering to leave the toilet seat down.
More than just the "Hey Ya" duo, it's impossible to overstate what these two rappers and musicians have done for hip-hop. They predated the resurgence of the Dirty South as its heartbeat, and brought super-musical psychedelia to the genre when it was still entrenched in its G-funk days. Embedding their aesthetic in afrofuturism, Andre and Big split the difference between their rap styles, Big Boi slightly more classicist as an MC while Andre spit wilder bars, but through six albums (and a concept movie, Idlewild), each held his own. There's a reason the world is so juiced for their run of reunion shows this summer: They're one of the best hip-hop groups of all time, and even their spiritual brethren (Goodie Mob, Dungeon Family, Purple Ribbon, etc) could not even approximate the outré, avant-garde and purely excellent music they make as a singular moon unit.
In 1997, when Jack and Meg White formed their band in Detroit, minimalism wasn't exactly de rigueur in rock music. Grunge was still hanging onto life while other rock bands were trying their luck with electronica fusions. But as the millennium turned, rock began to look into its brass-tacks past, and by the time the White Stripes' oddly conceived biography and pure-focused garage-rawk hit, we were caught up in it before we knew it. Jack could translate his pared-down guitar virtuosity to hulking riffs, while his "sister-wife" Meg channeled her stiff drum skills to ramshackle effect, begging the question: Bass players, who needs 'em?
Has there ever been a more clearly musical meeting of man and machinery than the blend of MC Rakim's smooth, authoritative, and jazz-influenced verbal facility with DJ Eric Barrier's sample-sizzling turntable prowess? The two Long Islanders took their talent from zero to infinity in the time it took them to cook up their benchmark 1986 single "Eric B. Is President," quickly record Paid in Full, and then nail it all down with 1988's fully fleshed-out Follow the Leader. "The man so smooth, the world so rough," boasts Rakim in Leader's title track, a righteous existential observation and sly Eagles lift. Two less successful albums later, though, it was splitsville for the golden era's most masterful twosome.
Raised in the Baptist Sacred Harp tradition, hardscrabble harmonizers Ira and Charlie Louvin were the most gripping and influential of country music's many memorable brotherly pairings. During a career that took them from pool halls to the Grand Ole Opry, these Alabama sharecropper's sons epitomized country's Saturday-night, Sunday-morning dialectic on mid-Fifties hallmarks such as Tragic Songs of Life and Satan Is Real. But while they were capable of leaping octaves and swapping lead and harmony lines within a single word, they couldn't transcend volatile mandolinist Ira's earthly weakness for women, wine, and ass-whomping. So Charlie launched a solo career in 1963, while Ira died with his fourth wife in a head-on collision two years later at age 41.
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel lent quietude to a time in the U.S. that was defined by tumult – first the sexual revolution and social justice movements, then the quagmire of Vietnam. The quietly harmonizing Queens duo echoed New York's folk revival, and their first big hit, "Mrs. Robinson" (from The Graduate), signaled the coming wave of sexual liberation. But songs like 1969's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" echoed not just the war, but also interpersonal problems the duo was having, predicting years of artistic tension. It's all good, though – these dudes keep getting the band back together, and by now have played for over a half-century.
It's well-documented why these two were a toxic pairing – Ike's physical abuse was so extreme that when she finally broke it off in 1976, she hid out and bought a gun for protection, just in case. It's a horrific legacy that clouds their decades of collaboration, which happen to be some of the most indelible American music ever. Imagine "Proud Mary" without Tina's crackly whorl and Ike's baritone counter-melody? Hell, imagine the Rolling Stones' music if they had never toured with them? Ike & Tina's versatile interchange traversed genre like none before them – from folk and funk and country to deep soul, psych, and even musicals – while reinventing what a rock and roll performance could be via their onstage energy (and Tina's leg-power dances for days). Tina has understandably not wished to be associated with Ike for three decades, even forgoing their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction (Phil Spector accepted the award in her stead). But their contributions to rock, both mutually and separately, will never be forgotten.
Actual brothers Don and Phil grew up harmonizing together in Iowa, and Tennessee, and once their harmonic style took over the airwaves in the Fifties, the influence of Appalachia infiltrated the burgeoning rock movement, spreading pretty vocals to legends like Buddy Holly. A little falsetto, a little alto, a little love song, and heartthrobs were born. But more importantly, it's nigh impossible to imagine the the decade without invoking their biggest hits: "Bye Bye Love," "Wake Up Little Susie," and "All I Have to Do is Dream" embodied the era's post-war calm, as the country settled into upward mobility, suburbs, and the vast possibility of American highways. They soundtracked a turning point, however brief; but their influence crossed generations: the Beatles, the Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, the Bee Gees, Green Day, and beyond.