Turn It Up, Turn It Loose: Soul of the ‘70s

Black was most beautiful in the first half of “The ‘Me’ Decade.”

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Beatles keyboardist-turned-solo ’70s hitmaker Billy Preston (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

I’ll always love me some ’80s and ’90s R&B, but on most days, ’70s retro is my new black — at least when it comes to American music created by and for black people (and anyone else who gets it, for despite its general Afrocentric-ness, soul is color blind). If black music had a golden age, it bloomed most beautifully in the decade of disco and mood rings, especially before disco and mood rings, from 1971 to 1974.

Soul music was so diverse back then, brimming with color and pop potential. “Crossing over” wasn’t yet the black commercial aspiration it would become in the ’80s and ’90s because most R&B hits became pop hits, too, almost seemingly by default. Indeed, Joe Simon’s 1975 single “Turning Point” was the first soul number one since 1955 not to even graze Billboard’s Hot 100.

Unlike later music eras, perhaps with the exception of 1980 and 1981, crossover soul during the first half of the ’70s went well beyond any single movement or black oligarchy. Disco dominated the latter part of the decade. Michael and Janet Jackson, Lionel Richie, Prince, Whitney Houston, and sometimes Billy Ocean ruled most of the ’80s. The ’90s was the age of R&B divas (Mariah, Whitney, Brandy, Monica, TLC, SWV, En Vogue, etc.). And rap and hip hop define 21st-century R&B. The early ’70s were all about everything.

Since my musical focus growing up in Kissimmee, Florida, in the ’70s and ’80s was mostly on country and radio pop, ’70s soul doesn’t have the same nostalgia value for me as ’70s hits by ABBA, Anne Murray, Barbra Streisand, Bee Gees, Charley Pride, Chicago, Conway Twitty, Crystal Gayle, Dolly Parton, Donna Fargo, Eagles, ELO, Elton John, George Jones, Glen Campbell, Linda Ronstadt, Loretta Lynn, Olivia Newton-John, and Tammy Wynette — or the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and the lite-rock of Ambrosia, Atlanta Rhythm Section, Dr. Hook, England Dan and John Ford Coley, Exile, Pablo Cruise, Player, and Todd Rundgren. It’s not attached to my childhood memories the way I’m attached to it now.

I discovered many a ’70s soul classic later in life, with a new old wave of modest Hot 100 soul hits recently making it into my music library after I heard them for the first time on vintage episodes of Casey Kasem’s American Top 40. Considering how much attention and affection Casey offered R&B artists while counting down the hits, I have a feeling he had as soft a spot for ’70s soul then as I do now.

Here are eight things I learned from listening to Casey’s countdowns while consulting Wikipedia for background information on various black acts who made the Top 40 in the ’70s.

1.) High-profile ladies of ’70s soul were fewer and farther between than high-profile soul men, and with only a handful of exceptions (see “The Superstars” below), they rarely enjoyed sustained chart success.

2.) Girl groups, so dominant in the ’60s, were basically a dying breed in the ’70s. (The Supremes was the only girl group from the ’60s to enjoy any significant chart success in the next decade.) With a few exceptions (Bananarama and Klymaxx being two notable ones during the Reagan years), they would remain so until the late ’80s when the Latin-freestyle movement that spawned, among others, Expose, The Cover Girls, Sweet Sensation, and Seduction, resurrected the female girl group.

Aside from The Pointer Sisters, the ones who did hit the Top 40 on Billboard’s Hot 100 during the ’70s didn’t do so often, and by the early ’80s, continuing and building on a mid-to-late-’70s trend begun by A Taste of Honey, Chic, Odyssey, Rufus, Rose Royce, The Sylvers, and Peaches & Herb, mixed-gender duos and groups like Yarbrough and Peoples, René & Angela, DeBarge, Midnight Star, One Way, Skyy, The S.O.S. Band, and Starpoint had become the R&B norm.

3.) Meanwhile, male groups were fruitful and multiplied. Unlike their distaff counterparts, they often produced multiple big hits and sometimes functioned as traditional bands, writing their own material and playing their own instruments. There wouldn’t be a similarly self-contained black girl group until Klymaxx in the ’80s.

4.) The ladies of ’70s soul are more likely to still be alive than ’70s soul men. RIP, Al Wilson, Barry White, Ben E. King, Billy Preston, Bobby Womack, Curtis Mayfield, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Edwin Starr, Isaac Hayes, James Brown, Joe Tex, Johnnie Taylor, Lou Rawls, Luther Ingram, The Delfonics’ Major Harris, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Prince, Ronnie Dyson, Teddy Pendergrass, Tyrone Davis, etc.

5.) Black acts dominated the Top 40 of the Hot 100 more regularly in the early ’70s than they did as the decade progressed, which would continue to be the case until the rise of Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, and Prince in the early ’80s and later Billy Ocean. By then, though, crossover status would be relegated mostly to the biggest stars (which included Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson by decade’s end) singing the glossiest pop-inflected material.

Black power peaked on the chart dated May 6, 1972 (the day before my third birthday), when 70 percent of the Top 10 and the entire Top Five was black: Al Green’s “Look What You Done for Me” at number nine, The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” at seven, Aretha Franklin’s “Day Dreaming” at five, Michael Jackson’s “Rockin’ Robin” at four, The Stylistics’ “Betcha By Golly, Wow” at three, Joe Tex’s “I Gotcha” at two, and Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” at the top.

After 1975, a number of number-one R&B hits didn’t even bother to hit Billboard’s Hot 100. Black artists wouldn’t re-emerge as consistent Top 40 mainstays until the mass mainstreaming of rap in the ’00s.

6.) Had it not been for the rise and rise of disco in the mid to late ’70s, black artists would have been virtually non-existent in the upper echelons of the Hot 100 after the apex of the golden age of soul.

7.) In the last few years of the ’70s, after many of the big stars of the early ’70s had cooled (including Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Roberta Flack), black acts in the Top 40 were mostly riding the disco wave, with several male comeback kids from earlier in the decade and from the previous one (Joe Tex, Johnnie Taylor, Marvin Gaye, and The O’Jays) scoring exactly one disco smash. Stevie Wonder was the only soul superstar who enjoyed sustained success from the beginning of the decade to its end without ever succumbing to the urge to get down, boogie oogie oogie.

8.) The battle of the sexes in R&B has been a more even match since the early ’70s. In fact, until recently, when Beyoncé and Rihanna became pretty much the last black female singing superstars standing on the charts, I would have given ladies the edge. The only black male chart superstars who don’t rap who have emerged since the end of the ’80s have been Boyz II Men, R. Kelly, Usher, and The Weeknd.

Meanwhile, on the distaff side, we’ve had Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, Rihanna, girl groups En Vogue, TLC, and SWV, and, for shorter stints, Brandy, Monica, Ashanti, and Ciara. If we add to those the ’80s renaissances of Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, and Patti LaBelle, diva-domination post-Whitney Houston’s 1985 debut almost makes up for the gender inequality of early ’70s soul (see the lists below).

Soul Men of the ’70s

The Solo Superstars:

  • Al Green
  • Barry White
  • Marvin Gaye
  • Stevie Wonder

Legends and Semi-Legends with a String of Modest Chart Hits Punctuated by One to Several Smashes:

  • Bill Withers
  • Billy Preston
  • Bobby Womack
  • Curtis Mayfield
  • Edwin Starr
  • Isaac Hayes
  • Joe Simon
  • Johnnie Taylor
  • Tyrone Davis

In and Out — The One-Big-Pop-Hit Wonders:

  • Al Wilson
  • Billy Paul
  • Carl Douglas
  • George McCrae
  • King Floyd
  • Luther Ingram
  • Major Harris
  • Ronnie Dyson
  • Timmy Thomas

Boy Bands:

  • The Brothers Johnson
  • The Chi-Lites
  • The Commodores
  • The Dramatics
  • Earth, Wind & Fire
  • Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes
  • The Isley Brothers
  • The Jackson 5
  • Kool & The Gang
  • LTD
  • The Manhattans
  • The Moments
  • The O’Jays
  • The Ohio Players
  • Parliament-Funkadelic
  • Raydio
  • Rufus
  • Tavares
  • The Spinners
  • The Stylistics
  • Tower of Power
  • The Trammps
  • War
  • The Whispers

In a League of His Own

  • Donny Hathaway

’60s Survivors and Comeback Kids:

  • Ben E. King
  • The Delfonics
  • The Four Tops
  • James Brown
  • Joe Tex
  • Johnny Mathis
  • Lou Rawls
  • The Miracles/Smokey Robinson
  • Sly Stone
  • The Temptations (and David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks)

The Next Generation:

  • Jeffrey Osborne
  • Michael Jackson
  • Prince
  • Rick James
  • Teddy Pendergrass

The Ladies of ’70s Soul

The Solo Superstars:

  • Aretha Franklin
  • Diana Ross
  • Donna Summer
  • Roberta Flack

The Fierce Frontwomen:

  • Chaka Khan
  • Gladys Knight

One- and Two-Pop-Hit Wonders:

  • Amii Stewart
  • Anita Ward
  • Betty Wright
  • Candi Staton
  • Dorothy Moore
  • Freda Payne
  • Gloria Gaynor
  • Gwen McCrae
  • Jean Knight
  • Maxine Nightingale
  • Millie Jackson
  • Minnie Ripperton
  • Shirley Brown
  • Sylvia
  • Thelma Houston

Girl Groups:

  • The Emotions
  • Honey Cone
  • LaBelle
  • Love Unlimited
  • The Pointer Sisters
  • Sister Sledge
  • The Supremes
  • The Three Degrees

In a League of Their Own

  • Cleotha, Yvonne, and Mavis Staples of The Staple Singers

’60s Survivor and Comeback Kid

  • Dionne Warwick

The Next Generation

  • Deniece Williams
  • Evelyn “Champagne” King
  • Natalie Cole
  • Stephanie Mills

11 Undersung ’70s Black Singles That Everyone Should Know

The Supremes “Nathan Jones” (1971) That I spent so many years knowing only Bananarama’s 1988 cover, despite the Top 20 Hot 100 status of The Supremes’ original rendition, is proof of how underrated The Supremes’ first couple of post-Diana Ross years were.

Joe Tex “I Gotcha” (1972) It’s a testament to the mainstream acceptance of black artists during the early ’70s that a song this “black,” with nary a hint of obvious pop appeal, could make it all the way to number two on the Hot 100.

Love Unlimited “Walkin’ in the Rain with the One I Love” (1972) Doesn’t Barry White sound like he sort of couldn’t care less when Glodean says, “I’ve got something to tell you,” and he answers “What?” during the spoken interlude? Where was the profundo basso passion that he’d bring to “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby” and his ensuing string of solo hits, beginning the following year?

Luther Ingram “I’ll Be Your Shelter (In Time of Storm)” (1972) A recurring pop and soul sentiment that never gets. old. Taylor Dayne took another song with the same title all the way to number four in 1990 and Rihanna’s continued the tradition with her chart-topping “Umbrella”… ella, ella, eh, eh, eh.

The Chi-Lites “Stoned Out of My Mind” (1973) A natural high (despite its relatively lowly number-30 peak on the Hot 100) from the stoner-soul genre that gave us Ray Charles’s 1966 number-one R&B hit “Let’s Go Get Stoned” and The Stylistics’ 1972 number-10 pop single “I’m Stone in Love with You.”

Tyrone Davis “There It Is” (1973) While his contemporaries were shouting from the rooftops in that declarative soul style cultivated over the course of years of Sunday morning church services, Davis took a distinctively more laid-back Saturday-love approach. I wouldn’t be surprised if he recorded his best material while soaking in a bathtub in the recording studio at the end of the week.

The Stylistics “Rockin’ Roll Baby” (1973) Like the aforementioned Chi-Lites single, a radical departure, um, stylistically, and a modest hit that in terms of greatness, still ranks right up there with the group’s classics.

Foster Sylvers “Misdemeanor” (1973) The decade’s best hit by a black minor not named Michael Jackson.

The Moments “Look at Me (I’m in Love)” (1975) As lush and classy as anything in the Great American Songbook, it almost sounds like Nat King Cole risen from the grave.

Joe Simon “Get Down, Get Down (Get on the Floor)” (1975) Just as funk and Philly soul were giving way to the new sound of black (and gay and young and, well, white) America, Simon had the nerve to score his only pop Top 10 with a dance song that had absolutely nothing to do with disco.

Gloria Gaynor, “Reach Out I’ll Be There” (1975) It’s a shame about the beyond-dreadful “I Will Survive.” Although the song has certainly lived up to its title, it unfortunately overshadowed the best of Gloria Gaynor, namely her back-to-back 1974/1975 singles, “Never Can Say Goodbye,” which hit number 9 in the U.S. and number 2 in the UK, and this Four Tops cover, which the Brits wisely sent to number 14. Once again displaying inferior taste in music, the Yanks lifted it only as high as number 60.

A Spotify “Golden Age of Soul” Playlist

Written by

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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