Soul, funk, and gospel; solo acts and 17-person bands; backing singers striving for stardom and stars doing albums that are largely forgotten today. In the Seventies, Rolling Stone reviewed hundreds and hundreds of R&B albums — it was inevitable that some of them would be amazing but slip through the cracks of musical history, even LPs by the Supremes and the Jackson 5. These are 20 R&B discs that we loved, even if they’ve since been forgotten by most people outside the singers’ immediate families.
Lennear, formerly an Ikette with Ike and Tina Turner and also a backup singer for Joe Cocker, was reportedly the inspiration for both the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar" and David Bowie's "Lady Grinning Soul." Her solo debut was split between a raucous rock side in the Cocker mode and an R&B orchestral suite produced by Allen Toussaint; we declared the whole album "a tour de force from start to finish." Phew! was Lennear's only album; she largely disappeared afterwards, but resurfaced last year in the documentary 20 Feet from Stardom.
What We Said Then: "Lennear's vocal flexibility and energy are staggering. Her recorded personality, though not intimate, is irrepressibly sexy, her professionalism almost frighteningly intact. . .On side two, Lennear's magnificent voice is treated as the leading instrument in a basically orchestral conception of sustained brilliance." — Stephen Holden, RS 129 (March 1st, 1973)
Parliament/Funkadelic synth legend Worrell made his solo debut backed up by most of the P-Funk All-Stars, including George Clinton himself, and it proved to be a classic platter of cosmic slop: funky, loose R&B (with just a bit of disco flavor). Worrell kept playing with P-Funk, released a half-dozen more solo albums, and also appeared in Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense movie.
What We Said Then: "And it's disco of the highest sort–passionate, varied and very clever — reaching its peak in the epic 'Insurance Man for the Funk,' one of the most attractive metaphors George Clinton has yet yielded. As the synthesizer burbles amiably in the background and bassist Bootsy Collin's mumbles about 'Leroy's of London,' Bernie Worrell observes to his beloved: 'You sure need some insurance on all you got there.' He is one convincing salesman." — Ken Tucker, RS 291 (May 17th, 1979)
A heretical opinion on the lush southern soul albums of 1973: we preferred Paul Kelly's Don't Burn Me to Al Green's Call Me. Kelly (not to be confused with the Australian singer of the same name), riding the success of his "Stealing in the Name of the Lord" single, made an album "crisp as a cracker, dipped in raw honey." The songs were short and sure, and even in falsetto, Kelly's voice was always powerful. His career was soon derailed by disco, but he wrote Karla Bonoff's biggest hit, "Personally."
What We Said Then: "Nobody's gonna believe me, but not only are there no bad cuts here, most of them fall among the best songs I've heard this year. Superior production (by Buddy Killen), wonderful, dense backing vocals (my weakness, here caterered to by Kelly himself and a woman named Juanita Rogers, multi-tracked), excellent material and one of the best young black singers around." — Vince Aletti, RS 141 (August 16th, 1973)
This L.A. band (discovered by Bill Cosby) wasn't big on solos: they went for chanting and extending a funky groove just as far as they could. Riding the success of "Express Yourself" from some months earlier, they made their second album of the year, this one built around the slow-burning heat of tracks like "Your Love Means Everything to Me." In 1988, rap group N.W.A sampled Wright for their own version of "Express Yourself"; the group's leader, Eazy-E, was a nephew of Wright.
What We Said Then: "Charles Wright's brand of soul music is nothing like the Delfonics or the Temptations, who basically rely on vocal dynamics and lyric tightness. To Charles Wright and his eight-piece band, the rhythm section is the vital ingredient. They set their lyrics against a bass-heavy, guitar-chunking musical framework… the outcome is an encircling, entwining tour de force." — Gary von Tersch, RS 92 (September 30th, 1971)
The ninth Jackson 5 studio album in five years could easily have been forgettable Motown dross, but the sound of Michael Jackson singing hard-edged dance music with talent way beyond his 15 years made it into an excellent-if-now-obscure party disc, highlighted by the disco robot hit "Dancing Machine." Jackson went on to become the biggest star in the world before dying in 2009.
What We Said Then: "It's hard bumping music, produced to death, dense with electronics and gimmicky as hell, but producer Hal Davis has calculated his effect so perfectly that every overwrought minute works. The sound is High Discotheque or Soul Train Moderne. . .it's their most energetic and exciting work since 'ABC,' and an album that should finally break them out of the just-kids market once and for all." — Vince Aletti, RS 148 (November 22nd, 1973)
A platinum-selling singer since the age of 13 (as "Little Esther"), Phillips experienced the skeeviest aspects of show business, but kept plugging, singing hard-edged, unsentimental music in the style of jazz and blues acts of the Forties, especially Dinah Washington. This brilliant album was nominated for a Grammy (losing to Aretha Franklin — who attempted to give Phillips the trophy). Years of drug abuse caught up with Phillips in 1984, when she died of liver and kidney failure.
What We Said Then: "'Scarred Knees' is a perfectly done, traditional blues number featuring some fine scat singing. The real hair-raiser is the opening cut, 'Home Is Where the Hatred Is.' She deals with the emptiness and self-hatred at the root of drug addiction with an openness and honesty that seems impossible for a human being to do. After a hundred plays I still cringe when I hear the song." — Russell Gersten, RS 112 (July 6th, 1972)
Lewis had a five-octave vocal range, an extraordinary instrument like Mariah Carey's or Minnie Riperton's. On her second album, this 22-year-old Brit made an unusual type of soul music: stripped down, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar and piano, casual, "a delight." She had some British chart success but ended up working mostly as a backing vocalist; in 2005, Common's single "Go!" (a collaboration with Kanye West and John Mayer) sampled her "Old Smokey."
What We Said Then: "Linda Lewis has this very strange voice. It's like a little girl's: high, with a breathy sort of purity, full of recklessness and wit. But it also has an unexpectedly rough texture which cuts into the little-girl quality so that, while she sounds like no one else, there are moments when she feels like early Stevie Wonder crossed with Michael Jackson — an extraordinary combination." — Vince Aletti, RS 132 (April 12th, 1973)
Simpson was best-known as half of the Ashford & Simpson songwriting team (responsible for many Motown hits, including "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and most of the rest of the late-Sixties work from Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell). On this second solo LP, she sang poignantly about the ghetto, human blight, and love across class barriers. Simpson's greatest success as a singer would come teamed up with her husband Nickolas Ashford, especially on the 1984 single "Solid As a Rock." (Ashford died from throat cancer in 2011.)
What We Said Then: "Valerie Simpson shows that as a singer she is stylistically at home in almost every area of soul. She has a first-class voice and uses it with breathtaking skill, never resorting to stylistic affectation or emotional histrionics. Such artistic intelligence is not all that common among singers. Combining this with the extra richness of her songwriting gift, Valerie Simpson should soon compel a wide audience." — Stephen Holden, RS 118 (September 28th, 1972)
Before he started Kid Creole and the Coconuts, August Darnell was the mastermind behind a cult-fave group, the retro soul-with-Twenties-stylings Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band. That group's lead singer, Cory Daye, continued the disco-meets-swing music vibe on her solo debut, as irresistible as a bathtub full of champagne. After this album, when disco crashed and Daye's solo career faltered, she ended up working with Kid Creole and the Coconuts.
What We Said Then: "Cory Daye's carbonated cartoon-soprano brings to pp music a new vocal sound, one that's both direct and elusive, girlishly simple and musically sophisticated, sexy without being huff-and-puffy. When Daye makes her entrance in any song, it's like the sun breaking through a bank of dark clouds." — Don Shewey, RS 306 (December 13th, 1979)
After writing/production team Holland-Dozier-Holland left Motown, the Four Tops floundered for five years. The singing quartet finally fled the label in 1972 (when it relocated to Los Angeles) — but before they did, they made "the best balanced, most downright enjoyable album" they had ever recorded at Motown. They kept touring and recording, and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990; amazingly, they maintained their original lineup until 1997.
What We Said Then: "Levi Stubbs' ability to coax the full meaning out of a lyric while singing at the top of his voice is marvelously intact. He's backed by thunderous, hard-driving music and the taut, scatting fabric of the other male voices and that durable female chorus." — Mark Vining, RS 124 (December 21st, 1972)
The core of this band was from Trenton, New Jersey: session men who cut their teeth working on various Gamble/Huff productions in Philadelphia and knew how to make any groove feel like an unstoppable party. This second LP was the band's last, but they kept gigging around New Jersey for many years; a young Richie Sambora played with Duke Williams before joining Bon Jovi. And their "Chinese Chicken" single became a sought-after breakbeat for hip-hop DJs.
What We Said Then: "Musical history is strewn with the wreckage of white bands who tried to play viable rhythm & blues music. . .save for the Rascals, perhaps, no major white band in recent memory has so successfully handled R&B as do Duke Williams and the Extremes. . .The seven-man ensemble glides through a potpourri of R&B influences, the most impressive of which are 'My Baby Left Me' and 'Theme from the Planet Eros.' The former spotlights the relaxed gait at which the band travels — not really 'funky' in the classic sense of the word but more on the order of 'comfortably sassy.'" — Gordon Fletcher, RS 169 (September 12th, 1974)
After Harvey Fuqua (formerly of the Moonglows vocal group), left his job as a Motown producer, he put together the New Birth: a 17-person (!) act that included an eight-man band (the Nite-Liters), a four-woman singing group (the Mint Juleps), a four-man singing group (the New Sound), and a solo singer, Alan Frye. This "solidly funky" second album featured soulful covers of unlikely songs such as Bread's "Make It with You" and Perry Como's "It's Impossible."
What We Said Then: "Fuqua reserves his baroque orchestral touches for the play of voices, using choruses like a bank of instruments — and this is what makes the albums so special. The arrangement of voices — playing the more brittle voices of the girls against the mellower male vocals, varying the leads from one cut to the next and setting them off with backings of wonderful intricacy and wit — never fails to achieve a texture that's both unexpected and satisfying." — Vince Aletti, RS 91 (September 16th, 1971)
You may know the title track, a soul classic — but this whole album is thrilling, and the work of a unique vocal stylist. Ingram, the coauthor of the Staple Singers' "Respect Yourself" and a longtime opening act for Isaac Hayes, was a southern soul man who worked with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section to create his own lush sound. Even though Ingram never sustained stardom, he charted R&B singles into the Eighties. He died of heart failure in 2007, age 69.
What We Said Then: "Take, for example, the two five-minute-plus tunes from his new album ('I'll Love You Until the End' and 'Love Ain't Gonna Run Me Away') — they appear back-to-back near the end of side two and offer an excellent showcasing of just how skillfully Ingram can develop a song — his carefully timed use of the falsetto. . .a conversational, talkin'-to-my-baby delivery and the phrases he chooses to repeat. All culminate in. . .quiet desperation." — Gary von Tersch, RS 124 (December 21st, 1972)
Ellison, best known for the super-dramatic 1966 single "Stay With Me," became something of a recluse, and turned into a cult figure, a singer's singer who sometimes went so far over the top you couldn't see the top from where she was standing. This album didn't bring her a wider audience, but we said it had "a purity and strength that most singers can only hint at in passing." Ellison quit the music business not long after this album; she died of ovarian cancer in 1983.
What We Said Then: "Ellison is a gospel screamer and a powerful one — her high wails could cut glass — but she has the sort of emotional intensity that doesn't depend on a scream for its expression. Her version of 'Stormy Weather,' with only her own piano accompaniment, is straightforward, almost offhand yet vibrant with feeling, an aching understatement." — Vince Aletti, RS 170 (September 26th, 1974)
These three gospel-trained sisters (Joyce, Lillian, and Netta) briefly worked for Ike and Tina Turner as Ikettes and provided the backing vocals for Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky." When they finally got to make an album of their own, they returned to their gospel roots, but gave it a funky twist. This "unique release" sounded like it was recorded right before Saturday night turned into Sunday morning, and produced the classic single "Hang on in There."
What We Said Then: "'Harmony' is the word that comes to mind. Their years of singing together have resulted in an unbeatable lead/chorus relationship that the musicians never get in the way of. Check out 'Rapture' and 'I'm Ready to Serve the Lord,' a couple of extended, dynamic efforts that are a seductive blend of Joyce's chromatically tone-shifting lead played off her sisters' back-up vocals. . .gospel music you can dance to." — Gary von Tersch, RS 90 (September 2nd, 1971)
In the early days of the Bluenotes, produced by Gamble and Huff for the Philadelphia International label, the great baritone persuader Teddy Pendergrass was the anonymous singer (having moved over to vocals from drums) — so unknown that even after the hit single "If You Don't Know Me By Now," our review referred to him not by name, but simply as "the lead singer." But we saluted this highly polished album as "certainly one of the better LPs of the year." Pendergrass left the Bluenotes in 1975 for a successful solo career; suffered a severe spinal-cord injury in a 1982 car accident, and died in 2010.
What We Said Then: "This album's beauty lies in the contrast between the Bluenotes' rich, bluesy vocal sound and Gamble and Huff's slick and sophisticated recording style. The latter includes a number of songs above their recent average in quality, arrangements that always provide the perfect counterpoint to the vocals, and production that employs the broadest and deepest engineering and mixing in modern R&B." — Jon Landau, RS 150 (December 20th, 1973)
Patterson, a young Arkansas gospel singer, teamed up with the Native American rock band Redbone (who hadn't cut the hit "Come and Get Your Love" yet) to make R&B music that had a heavy bottom but could still touch the clouds. The best tracks were the blues such as "Ain't No Grave Can Hold My Body Down"; we hailed the gifted Patterson as coming from the same tradition as Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin, and (incorrectly) predicted she had "a damn good chance of ending in the same golden circle."
What We Said Then: "The quartet lays down a heavy electric wall of double guitars, bass, and drums: characterized by a strong bassline, wah-wah guitar, and a pulsating 4/4 rhythm. In fact, they sound better here than on their album… Redbone provides the solid instrumental; Brenda provides the wailing vocal. And wail she does. . .She slurs some words and punches others giving the music a vibrant feel." — Jud Rosebush, RS 64 (August 6th, 1970)
Barry White wasn't just a baritone voice and the Round Mound of Rebound Relationships, he was a genius songwriter and producer, pioneering the use of the orchestra in lavish R&B bedroom music. And he was so prolific, he released sexy spinoff records by the Love Unlimited Orchestra and by his female backup singers, Love Unlimited: this LP was particularly undeniable. White wed one of the members of Love Unlimited, Glodean James, in 1974; they stayed married until his death in 2003.
What We Said Then: "The album's most attractive and successful cut, 'Love's Theme,' is a heavily orchestrated instrumental, a brilliant combination of guitar snap and violin swirls that, even after five months of listening, remains exciting. The songs, all about girls under the influence of love, are much alike but the effect is so sweetly irresistible it doesn't matter." — Vince Aletti, RS 156 (March 14th, 1974)
Rock pioneer Jackie DeShannon, the former songwriting partner of both Jimmy Page and Randy Newman, was treading water commercially. So Atlantic Records tried to repeat the success they had with Dusty in Memphis: take an accomplished pop chanteuse and let her make a lush Southern soul album. DeShannon's disc didn't have the success of Dusty Springfield's, but it was almost as stunning. DeShannon went on to hit #1 as a songwriter in 1981, with Kim Carnes' version of "Bette Davis Eyes."
What We Said Then: "I've always liked Jackie DeShannon's singing — a gently throat-catching but never maudlin style — though on record after record her talent seemed too often to be thrown away on inferior songs with shlock arrangements. Now for the first time the full range of her abilities is shown to maximum effect. . .what is so satisfying about her singing is the tension she accumulates by always just holding back the full wallop." — Stephen Holden, RS 115 (August 17th, 1972)
You might have stopped paying attention to the Supremes after Diana Ross went solo in 1970, but although they were no longer a steady source of Number One hits, they had eight Top 40 singles in the Seventies after her departure. And working with various Motown second-stringers, they made some of their strangest, most memorable music. We said Touch, the third Supremes album with Jean Terrell on lead vocals, was "an unqualified success and the final proof that the Supremes will continue without Diana Ross." Which they did — until 1977.
What We Said Then: "New lead singer Jean Terrell proves too smart to imitate her predecessor and in the space of only a year and a half has succeeded in making the group over in her own image. Gone is the cooingly adolescent sexuality of Miss Ross and in its place is a fuller and more adult approach to both music and life. The hallmark of Miss Terrell's style, like that of so many of the best Motown artists, is an enormous sense of dignity, pride, and class." — Jon Landau, RS 87 (July 22nd, 1971)