’80s R&B That Deserves More Love Today

The 1984 hit movie Breakin’ was the Flashdance of mid-’80s R&B. (Photo: MGM/UA Entertainment Company)

New wave, ’80s pop, and hair metal get all the retro-music love, but the Ronald Reagan decade was just as good to R&B (barring Billboard magazine’s unfortunate rechristening of the R&B singles chart as “Hot Black Singles” from 1982 to 1990). A Facebook friend drove that point home when she posted several great ’80s Dazz Band singles that weren’t the group’s lone pop crossover hit, “Let It Whip” (number five, pop, number one, R&B, 1982).

I’d much rather reminisce about my early teen years to the dated-but-still-delicious dance-jazz strains of Dazz Band’s “Joystick” (number 61, pop, number nine, R&B, 1983), “Swoop (I’m Yours)” (number 12, R&B, 1984), and “Let It All Blow” (number 84, pop, number nine, R&B, 1984), the latter two of which I bought on 45 at the time.

Only the most diehard disciples of ’80s R&B (which, apparently, would include my Facebook friend) probably know them at all. Perhaps even more surprising than their lack of crossover success back then is how great they still sound nearly thirty years after the ’80s ended.

I’ve already paid tribute to some of Minneapolis’s finest ’80s gems that weren’t by Prince. Now, here are 14 other underrated grooves from back when cluttered, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink production ruled R&B, ones we all should still be jammin’ on today.

“Freak-A-Zoid” Midnight Star

In hindsight, the ’80s vision of the future seems utterly quaint and ridiculous, but it did give us some great R&B, like this co-ed band’s first significant hit. (Chart stats: number 66, pop, number two, R&B, 1983)

“Pilot Error” Stephanie Mills

This queen of ’80s R&B only managed to crossover into the Top 40 of Billboard’s Hot 100 with three songs, including 1980’s “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” which hit number six on the Hot 100 but only got to number 12 on the R&B list. (As with Madonna’s soundalike “Borderline,” Reggie Lucas received both a songwriter and producer credit.)

Inexplicably, the nine Top 10 R&B singles Mills logged between 1980 and 1989 included neither “Pilot Error” nor “Rising Desire” (number 11, 1986), two of her hottest highlights from the decade. Fun fact: Mills bookended her ’80s run with her only other two R&B Top 10s, both of which hit number eight: 1979’s “What Cha Gonna Do With My Lovin’” (number 22, pop) and 1990’s “Comfort of a Man.” (Chart stats: number 12, R&B, 1983)

“Give Me Tonight” Shannon

“Let the Music Play” was deservedly a number eight hit on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1983 — her lone song to chart inside the Top 40 — but in a perfect pop world, at least two of Shannon’s follow-up singles, this and “Do You Wanna Get Away” (number 49, pop, number 13, R&B, 1985), would have scaled similar heights. (Chart stats: number 46, pop, number six, R&B, 1984)

“I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” Cherelle

I loved me some Robert Palmer back in the day (and still do), but I never completely forgave him — or pop-music fans — for making this early Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis production/composition best known as a number two Palmer smash. (Chart stats: number 79, pop, number eight, R&B, 1984)

“Jam on It” Newcleus

And to think, the first time I heard this unforgettable electro-hip hop classic, I thought it had to be some kind of a joke. Honorable mentions from the EHH genre: “Pack Jam” and “Space Cowboy” by The Jonzun Crew (featuring Larry Johnson, aka Maurice Starr, later discoverer of New Edition and creator of New Kids on the Block), “Scorpio” by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, and “Egypt, Egypt” by The Egyptian Lover. (Chart stats: number 56, pop, number nine, R&B, 1984)

“Digital Display” Ready for the World

Better, though not bigger, than the R&B band’s other two Top 40 crossover hits, both of which hit number one on the Hot Black Singles chart: the Hot 100-topping “Oh Sheila” (also from the self-titled debut, which I bought on vinyl via one of those mail-order record clubs — Get 8 for a penny now, buy three more at full price in the next three years! — that were so popular in the ’80s) and “Love You Down,” which climbed to number nine. (Chart stats: number 21, pop, number four, R&B, 1985)

“Hangin’ on a String (Contemplating)” Loose Ends

This British R&B trio was responsible for some of the most sophisticated ’80s soul this side of Sade. (Chart stats: number 43, pop, number one, R&B, 1985)

“Save Your Love (For # 1)” René & Angela (featuring Kurtis Blow)

Before she became one of the most successful R&B producers of the ’80s and the lone female to break into that boys club (her client list included Stephanie Mills, Sheena Easton, and The Isley Brothers), Angela Winbush was the star attraction of the duo that scored one of the earliest chart hits to merge R&B and rap.

I used to own the cleverly titled parent album Street Called Desire on vinyl, and today, along with select cuts from Winbush’s three solo albums (including “Angel,” a number one R&B hit in 1987, and “Hello Beloved,” a 1988 duet with her future husband/ex-husband Ronald Isley), it remains a highlight of undersung ’80s R&B. (Chart stats: number one, R&B, 1985)

“Computer Love” Zapp

Another awesome musical relic from the dawn of the digital age, featuring vocals from the great Shirley Murdock (see below), who co-wrote the song with Roger Troutman, the late singer-songwriter, producer, and Zapp frontman who would go on to score a massive solo hit with “I Wanna Be Your Man” (number three, pop, number one, R&B, 1987).

Considering that we’ve gone from finding love online in the ’90s and ’00s to tracking it down on our mobile phones in the 2010s, I’d say this might be one of the most prescient songs of the ’80s.(Chart stats: number eight, R&B, 1985)

“As We Lay” Shirley Murdock

This was the first of Murdock’s three number five R&B singles (the other two being “Go On Without You” and “Husband,” yet another cheater’s prayer). I could listen to them all on repeat all night long. (Chart stats: number 23, pop, number five, R&B, 1986)

“Do Me Baby” Meli’sa Morgan

Four years before the dawn of the next decade when Sinead O’Connor blew up with “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which Prince wrote for The Family, Morgan had already beaten him at another one of his own songs. (Chart stats: number 46, pop, number one, R&B, 1986)

“The Finest” The S.O.S. Band

They never again scaled the charts heights of their debut single, “Take Your Time (Do It Right) (Part 1)” (number three, pop, number one, R&B, 1980), but no other band outside of Kool & The Gang and Cameo so consistently delivered high-quality R&B hits throughout the ’80s. “The Finest” totally deserved its title. (Chart stats: number 44, pop, number two, R&B, 1986)

“Joy and Pain” Donna Allen

Want to see what true artistic growth looks and sounds like? Check out Allen’s in the four years between her first hit, “Serious” (number 21, pop, number five, R&B, 1985), and her best hit. (Chart stats: number three, R&B, 1989)

“Secret Rendezvous” Karyn White

Though it was the biggest of the three Top 10 pop singles from her eponymous 1988 platinum debut album, her third was totally eclipsed by her second, “Superwoman,” an up-with-female-power anthem that established what would become a recurring pop and R&B theme in the ’90s and beyond. (Chart stats: number six, pop, number four, R&B, 1989)

“Sleep Talk” Alyson Williams

She peaked musically in 1992 with “Can’t Have My Man,” but Williams started wowing at the end of the previous decade with this breakthrough throwdown. Pop radio totally ignored her in the U.S., but she placed three of her Top 10 R&B hits in the UK pop Top 40, getting as high as number eight there with “I Need Your Lovin’” in 1990. (Chart stats: number three, R&B, 1989)

Spotify Playlist: Forgotten ’80s R&B Jams

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa” https://rb.gy/3mthoj

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