Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye

1. MARVIN GAYE - “I HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE” (Tamla 1968)This isn't my favourite Marvin Gaye track, but I do consider it his most essential and because of its impact soul's most essential too. In just over a little more than three harrowing minutes Marvin delivers as much anguish, grief and passion as any Shakespeare tragedy. It proves that soul music - at its best – is indeed high art.

2. JAMES BROWN - “PAPA'S GOT A BRAND NEW BAG” (King 1965) We know that rhythm is a soul music essential, so this record must be essential too; its pure, primeval rhythm. There's nothing here that's unnecessary and it took dance music (and soul too) in a whole new direction.

3. OTIS REDDING - “SITTIN' ON THE DOCK OF THE BAY” (Volt 1968) Recorded just 3 days before he died, if any record is about mood, this is it. It's a meditative piece which proves that soul doesn't have to be strident. Strong? Yes. Emotive? Yes and Otis is both despite his weariness and distant separation from his roots.

4. ARETHA FRANKLIN - “RESPECT” (Atlantic 1967) If “Dock Of The Bay” proved Otis the King of Soul, then this surely crowns Aretha the Queen, and it's no coincidence that it's a Redding song. From the perfect phrasing to the piano chords, Franklin brings to the song everything she'd learned in the church and any record that doesn't have its roots in Gospel sure ain't soul.

5. FOUR TOPS - “REACH OUT I'LL BE THERE” (Motown 1966)
Because of its pop history you may be forgiven for thinking that this record had nothing to do with the church. But listen (not even carefully) and you'll hear the vocal dynamic of a hell-fire preacher in the passion of Levi Stubbs. The fact that it was a huge hit makes it even more essential.

6. CURTIS MAYFIELD - “MOVE ON UP” (Buddah/Curtom 1971)
Inexplicably, this remarkable record wasn't issued as a single in the States till 1974. By then the UK had picked it as a soul essential. Like all great art, its theme is universal but the song also reflects the immediacy of its time. The track is delivered with conviction and optimism; like all great soul artists Mayfield believed a change was gonna come... eventually.

7. MARTHA & THE VANDELLAS - “DANCING IN THE STREETS” (Gordy 1964) Are you ready for a brand new beat? Well the beats and rhythms of Motown weren't absolutely brand new - but new enough in '64 to declare a new sound. The Sound of Young America? Maybe? Certainly THE sound of mid-sixties urban soul.

8. SLY & THE FAMILY STONE - “DANCE TO THE MUSIC” (Epic 1968) All music has rules (written or unwritten) and just as “Papa's Got A Brand New Bag” broke 'em, so too does this Sly Stone event. Here he took black music conventions and garnished them with the funk equivalent of rock - and soul was never quite the same ever again.

9. THE TEMPTATIONS - “MY GIRL” (Gordy 1965) Take a great writer (Smokey Robinson), an outstanding vocalist (David Ruffin) and sensational players (the Funk Brothers) and you have recipe for an essential soul single. Custom will never stale its infinite variety.

10. THE DRIFTERS - “THERE GOES MY BABY” (Atlantic 1959)
In the fifties, what was to evolve into soul was called R&B. It was usually rough, ready and simple. Here noted writers/producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller dared to be different. Strings, Latin rhythms and complex overdubs took R&B and, by extension, soul in a whole new direction.

11. PERCY SLEDGE - “WHEN A MAN LOVES A WOMAN” (Atlantic 1966) If soul's about passion, then this is essential. “When A Man Loves A Woman” is a very simple song but it's the embodiment of pure passion. Like all the songs on this list its fame and popularity doesn't detract from its global appeal.

Almost all Sam Cooke's singles are essential. He was, after all, one of the genre's founding fathers. Here though he's right back to his Gospel roots with a dream he dared to dream but never lived to see fulfilled. Interestingly the original album cut has an extra, 'controversial' verse edited out from the single.

13. RAY CHARLES - “WHAT'D I SAY” (Atlantic 1959) Brother Ray is soul's other founding father and this epochal single is soul's foundation stone. Gospel, Jazz, R&B, Pop, and more fused into a new sound and every soul record since owes something to it.

14. STEVIE WONDER - “SUPERSTITION” (Tamla 1972) This record is essential. It stands right on the cusp of the old and the new. Stevie sings with the intensity of an old-time store-front preacher but he's supported by new, cutting edge studio technology and full-on synths. Once again, soul moves in a new direction.

15. THE MIRACLES - “OOO BABY BABY” (Tamla 1965) Correctly labelled here - this is a group effort but Smokey Robinson dominates on his own special song. He offers a masterclass in how to use a remarkable voice and, as with other milestone tracks, sweet soul ballads were changed forever.

16. WILSON PICKETT - “IN THE MIDNIGHT HOUR” (Atlantic 1965) If we accept the earlier stated premise that 'essential' means constituting a thing's essence, then this has all the necessary essentials of classic soul - rock-steady bass, biting guitar, the most solid of beats and exceptional horn parts. The vocal's tasty too. A true definition of classic 60's southern soul.

17. JAMES CARR - “THE DARK END OF THE STREET” (Goldwax 1967) If “In The Midnight Hour” is all about Southern swagger then this starkest of records is all about sadness, regret and guilt. That doesn't mean it lacks an energy. It has a deep soul energy and stands as chief testament to soul's most under- rated performer.

18. BEN E. KING - “STAND BY ME” (ATCO 1961) If ever proof were needed of essential soul's timelessness, this is it. A hit first time out in 1961 and then number 1 in 1987? and it can still score. Why? Well, it encapsulates one of soul's key paradoxes. How can something so painful be so sweet? And though Ben E. sings “I won't cry”, he does and we all can identify.

19. CHIC - “GOOD TIMES” (Atlantic 1979) Here's another timeless record that still captures a moment. It's the perfect marriage of beats and vocal and it's little wonder that it's been copied, sampled and blatantly ripped off so many times.

20. MARVIN GAYE - “WHAT'S GOING ON” (Tamla 1967)
Another direction changing soul record! Its conception, arrangement, rhythm, harmony, vocal and atmosphere gave soul a new and real ambition. It proved what could be done. It helps that it's a beautiful melody; that it has a lyrical maturity; and that it's sung by Marvin Gaye. To think it was almost rejected by Berry Gordy!

21. JERRY BUTLER & THE IMPRESSIONS - “FOR YOUR PRECIOUS LOVE” (VEE JAY 1958) A perfect illustration of how gospel and soul walk hand in hand. That alone would make this record essential - but it also announced to the world the arrival of three major forces - the Ice Man, the Impressions and Curtis Mayfield.

22. THE SHIRELLES - “WILL YOU LOVE ME TOMORROW” (SCEPTER 1960) This beautifully written song (Goffin and King) and a peerless production (Luther Dixon) would make this record essential in any soul listing but what makes it so damn essential and so highly placed is the wonderful vocal of Shirley Owens. It's an intoxicating mix of worldliness and innocence and echoes a dilemma that every woman will have experienced.

23. BOOKER T & THE MGS - “GREEN ONIONS” (Stax 1962)
Some argue that instrumentals can never have soul. Those who adopt such a stance must have spent a lifetime avoiding this (maybe they've just landed from Mars!). Was there ever a better, deeper soul groove? The 4 players know and understand each other perfectly, and to think it was cut as an afterthought in some studio down time!

24. JACKIE WILSON - “HIGHER AND HIGHER” (Brunswick 1967)
Wilson was one of soul's founding fathers, but in the 60s his career stuttered'till he teamed up with Carl Davis. This top ten hit is a hugely soulful celebration of the power of love - and you can feel just that in the vocal, and the playing of the Funk Brothers (revealed a few years back as the session band).

25. JAMES BROWN - “GET ON UP I FEEL LIKE BEING A SEX MACHINE PART 1” (King 1970) Funk is an important offshoot of soul and this record is pure funk and soul. The song's been sampled, copied, and exploited more time than even the late JB's numerous accountants knew! But that only underlines its importance - and the fact that every one agrees on its status.

26. BARBARA LEWIS - “HELLO STRANGER” (Atlantic 1963)
It's obvious, I know, but vocal performance can make or break a record. In soul where identification and connection are essential, it's even more important. Here Barbara Lewis's performance is perfect. Her sweet, yet trembling legato phrasing convey both the hopelessness of heartbreak and the optimism of a thousand maybes. It helps that the Dells are on backing vocals.

27. THE DELLS - “STAY IN MY CORNER” (Chess 1968) And speaking of the Dells, no soul essential list would be complete without them, and though arguments will rage about their best record, this is surely their most essential. This re-recording of an earlier hit clocks in at juts over 6 minutes and synthesises the elements of a premier vocal group and by extension soul itself.

28. BILLY PAUL - “ME AND MRS JONES” (Philadelphia Int. 1972)
Go on admit it - with some exceptional records, you can remember the very first time you heard 'em. This epic tale of cheating is one of them. Urbane and sophisticated it may superficially sound, but it's every bit as passionate and heartfelt as any southern tale of cheating in the next room. It also helped cement the importance of the whole Gamble and Huff empire.

As this listing shows, popularity will never diminish a record's importance. This beautiful song topped the charts for nine weeks and it's easy to hear why. It's an unusual record in that it combines the bounce of a dance song with the passion of a ballad, and how the Reverend achieves that we'll never know. Just thank the Lord he does!

Here's a record that really works - by which I mean it gets you to do what it suggests. “When you wake up early in the morning, feeling sad like so many of us do. Hum a little soul, make life your goal, and surely someethin's gotta come to you”. It's worked for me since the first time I heard it - I'm sure it works for you.

31. B. B. KING - “THE THRILL IS GONE” (ABC/Bluesway 1969)
B. B. King is the doyen of blues men, but all true blues players perform with soul. This record defies genre anyway. Vocally and instrumentally King epitomises the emotions that go with loss. It starts with sadness and pity and ends with rage and anger. An essential record by any yardstick.

32. THE OJAYS – “BACKSTABBERS” (Philadelphia Int. 1972)
“Backstabbers” is a hugely sophisticated record in terms of its sound. But Eddie Levert's vocal is full- on gospel, while the harmonies are straight out of the Church too. Passion and sophistication have never sounded better on this testament to the creativity of early 70's soul.

33. JOE HINTON - “FUNNY HOW TIME SLIPS AWAY” (Backbeat 1964) One of soul's essential abilities is to take a song from another genre and make it its very own - and that's exactly what Indiana's Joe Hinton did with Willie Nelson's “Funny How Time Slips Away”. It matters not one jot that he was never again to scale the heights and that he died in semi-obscurity in 1968; this record means that Joe Hinton will always be essential.

Behold - another example of a soul artist's appropriation of another kind of song. Here though, “Fat Boy”, Billy Stewart doesn't just borrow and re-mould - he demolishes and rebuilds the song with a total irreverence for what is an accepted standard. It's not my favourite Stewart recording by a long way. But the fact that it grabs you hard and makes you want to hear more from the man makes it essential.

35. THE PARLIAMENTS - “(I WANNA) TESTIFY” (Revilot 1967)
Like all great art, soul is evolutionary. In the late sixties it went in exciting new directions. Some called it psychedelic soul, but the name tag never ever mattered. Norman Whitfield is often credited as its founding father because of his innovative work with the Temptations. But this hunk of funk (which had itself, of course evolved out of the James Brown sound) predates “Cloud Nine” and all those other great Temptations records of the period.

36. MARVIN GAYE - “LET'S GET IT ON” (Tamla 1973)
On this true classic, Marvin doesn't stand on ceremony with elaborate metaphors. He simply gives sex it's due and recognizes there's nothing wrong with adult personal pleasures. Not many soul records (never mind pop) had done that before. 'If the spirit moves ya, let me groove ya'. Why not?

No matter what you think about John Lennon he knew a good song when he heard one (witness the great covers on the Beatles' early LPs). Lennon contended that this was one of soul's essentials and, you know, it's impossible to argue.

38. JENNIFER HOLLIDAY - “AND I'M TELLING YOU I'M NOT GOING” (Geffen 1982) It's not too often that a stage musical spawns an essential soul side - but for all kinds of reasons Dream Girls did. The chief reason was the incredible vocal of Jennifer Holliday. Trivia fans will know it was the same lady's gospel testifying that made Foreigner's “I Want To Know What Love Is” what it was.

And speaking of truly remarkable voices - Luther Vandross is one who fits more than comfortably into this area. The great man cut man, many great songs and scored bountiful hits, but none match the majesty of “Never Too Much”. From that opening bass pop to the final fade all the ingredients are just right. It proves that classic and essential soul isn't the preserve of the 60s. Well, not quite!

40. THE SPINNERS - “COULD IT BE I'M FALLING IN LOVE” (Atlantic 1972) Essential, not just because of the sterling harmony vocals of the Spinners but for the expertise of Thom Bell. He makes the record sound slick and sophisticated but keeps it in Soulsville by allowing lead vocalist Philippe Wynne the space to break free and testify - and, you know, we're right back in the Church.
Words Bill Buckley

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