40 years ago, post-disco R&B was on fire
While there are a few songs on this chart that were also pop hits, the post-disco early ‘80s era of R&B is one of marked non-crossover, as many radio programmers basically equated Black with “disco,” and avoided playing songs that should’ve been across-the-board smashes.
Which is a real shame, because the R&B charts at the time were sizzling, packed with almost too many great records. Let’s go deep. (A playlist of the chart is included at the end.)
And let’s do something different: let’s count ‘em down Casey Kasem-style, 40-to-1.
TW LW (Weeks on Chart) TITLE – Artist
40 52 (4) JUST THE TWO OF US – Grover Washington Jr. (Vocal by Bill Withers) – On its way to #3/#2 pop, this would be Withers’s first top 10 since ‘77’s “Lovely Day,” and saxman Washington’s first and only. Oddly, it’s more a showcase for Withers than for Washington, who feels like a guest on his own record. It’s a nice-enough smooth R&B song, on which Withers sounds great.
39 50 (3) BEING WITH YOU – Smokey Robinson – The way Robinson trills on this, good god. And the warm bath production, the way it’s a soft adult contemporary R&B record that somehow, magically, also swings, I mean. Everything about this fits together like a Lego skyscraper. Don’t take this for granted; listen to it again with fresh ears, trust me.
VIDEO: Smokey Robinson “Being With You”
38 45 (7) I HEAR MUSIC IN THE STREETS – Unlimited Touch – This NYC band made the top 40 twice in ‘81, and then never again; this is typical post-disco light-funk, albeit with a great chorus. It’s probably better known as a sample, particularly in two records from the ‘90s: Paul Johnson’s filter disco classic “Hear the Music” (which is basically just a re-edit of the song), and Faith Evans’s deathless “All Night Long,” which is built around its bassline.
37 42 (10) LOVE’S CALLING – Zingara – Surprise singers, part 1: James Ingram! He was the lead singer of this up-and-coming soul group – until their indie label ran out of money, and he signed with Quincy Jones’s Qwest Records, appearing on Jones’s The Dude later in the year. Motown icon Lamont Dozier produced and wrote 8/9 of the songs on Zingara’s sole, self-titled album. “Love’s Calling” is a strong soul ballad that should be covered by someone contemporary, like H.E.R.
36 35 (17) I’LL NEVER FIND ANOTHER – Manhattans – Still riding the high of spring 1980’s hit “Shining Star” (#4 R&B/#5 pop), this b-list vocal group made it to #12 with this slip-beat midtempo cut that is the definition of middle-of-the-road.
35 33 (10) TURN OUT THE LAMPLIGHT – George Benson – Down from its peak, this third single from the smash Give Me the Night LP is a very quiet, tender Rod Temperton-penned ballad that nonetheless features some of Benson’s gorgeous, should-be-patented guitar playing.
34 21 (15) I’M READY – Kano – Whoomp, here it is: the bassline that birthed the #2 (pop) single of 1993, from an Italo-disco two-hit wonder. This became an enduring dancefloor classic, and rightfully so: it never stops.
33 24 (13) MELANCHOLY FIRE – Norman Connors – Surprise singers, part 2: Glenn Jones! Connors is a jazz musician who notched numerous hits in the ‘70s with smooth soul balladry, in the process introducing the world to the likes of Michael Henderson and Phyllis Hyman. His final top 20 record features Jones, who’d go on to 5 top 10 R&B singles in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, starting with his 1983 breakthrough “Show Me” (#3). “Melancholy” is a rich, gorgeous ballad, beautifully orchestrated and arranged (those strings, those female backing vocals), and with Jones on lead, it cannot miss.
32 37 (10) MAGIC MAN – Robert Winters & Fall – The epitome of a slow burning single, this only climbed to #11, but did so during an epic 25-week chart run, whose longevity meant this finished ‘81 as the #20 R&B hit of the entire year. Now forgotten except by Quiet Storm connoisseurs – the birthplace of said format, WHUR, still plays it on said programming – this elegant ballad is a throwback to another time and place.
31 41 (5) EVERYTHING IS COOL – T-Connection – Listen without knowing who it is, and you might swear this is Earth, Wind & Fire – and that’s not a bad thing. I tend to associate these Bahamanians with disco thanks to their ‘77 hit “Do What You Wanna Do” (#15 R&B/#1 Disco), but this was actually their biggest R&B hit, on its way to #10.
30 40 (4) PERFECT FIT – Jerry Knight – Formerly of Ray Parker, Jr.’s Raydio and later half of Ollie & Jerry, Knight had a brief solo career in between which featured a pair of top 20 R&B singles, this (which would make it to #16) and the prior year’s “Overnight Sensation (#17).” What he clearly learned from Parker, Jr. was how to make guitar-forward funk jams, which describes well both of his solo hits.
29 31 (13) HERE’S TO YOU – Skyy – A year later, they’d top the chart with “Call Me” (which even made it to #26 pop), but at this point, the Brooklyn funk band signed to iconic disco label Salsoul were just consistent R&B mid-charters. They always charted bigger R&B than dance, though, which in this case of this propulsive little slice of boogie surprises me.
VIDEO: Skyy “Here’s To You”
28 32 (8) FANCY DANCER – Twennynine with Lenny White – White, the former drummer for jazz fusion legends Return to Forever (Chick Corea RIP), left the band to flex his funk muscles and formed Twennynine, best-known for their debut single, the P-Funk-esque “Peanut Butter” (#3 R&B, 1980). Taken from their soph album, “Fancy Dancer” is a little less derivative and more distinctive: you can hear White’s fusion chops in the song’s DNA.
27 30 (10) YOU’RE THE BEST THING IN MY LIFE – Dramatics – This fairly bland, midtempo-ish ballad, one notch from its peak, was the Dramatics’ final top 30 R&B single.
26 27 (11) BE ALRIGHT – Zapp – Within 0:05 you’ll recognize this, if you were listening to hip hop in the ‘90s, because it’s the basis for 2Pac’s “Keep Ya Head Up” (#7 R&B/#12 pop, 1993). At its chart peak, this was only Zapp’s second single, and thus they hadn’t calcified into the Roger Troutman Vocoder Review yet, thank goodness. Amiable, unexceptional funk is the name of the game.
25 25 (11) DANCE – Silver Platinum – A real hidden treasure, the only hit of any kind for a male trio from Miami is grooving disco that’s a little funkier than it needs to be, to its benefit.
24 28 (11) FULL OF FIRE – Shalamar – I kinda love the primary, ‘79-’84 Jeffrey Daniels/Howard Hewett/Jody Watley incarnation of Shalamar; their albums were better than you might assume, especially 1979’s Three for Love, from which this string-soaked little disco number comes. It features Hewett and Watley trading off urgent lead vocals that sound like they mean it.
VIDEO: Shalamar “Full Of Fire”
23 39 (4) AND LOVE GOES ON – Earth, Wind & Fire – 1980’s Faces may well be my favorite EWF album, and this third single, heading for a #15 peak, is a clear reason why. Aggressively uptempo (esp. by their standards) yet still incredibly lithe and so soulful, “And Love” will make you smile without, perhaps, your even realizing it.
22 29 (12) BON BON VIE – T.S. Monk – No, it isn’t “Welcome to the Terrordome,” but the latter did sample its intro from the former. This is what I believe the kids today refer to as a “bop.” A hard bop – fitting, as T.S. Monk’s father is in fact Thelonius. On “Bon Bon Vie,” he makes danceable funk sound easy.
21 20 (10) WHO SAID – The Isley Brothers – The Isleys’ ‘70s peak had just recently ended, with 1980’s “Don’t Say Goodnight” their final #1; their star faded a smidgen in the early ‘80s, until ‘83’s Between the Sheets returned them to major hitmaker status. But in the meantime, entries like “Who Said” just treated chart water – this was down a notch from its #20 peak. It’s an aggressively busy record, almost sounding like a smooth(er) P-Funk on amphetamines, and it’s completely forgettable.
20 19 (16) LITTLE GIRL DON’T YOU WORRY – Jermaine Jackson – The thing to remember about the titanic “Let’s Get Serious” is that it was the exception, not the rule for Jermaine. (And most of the credit for it should go to writer/producer Stevie Wonder, anyway.) This MOR early ‘80s R&B record was much more Jermaine’s style. You’ll forget what it sounds like halfway through listening.
19 26 (5) SUKIYAKI – A Taste of Honey – The arrangement on this cover of Kyu Sakamoto’s 1963 pop #1 is unexpectedly lovely – credit to producer George Duke, and foremost to koto player June Kuramoto of the Japanese jazz fusion group Hiroshima. ATOH’s Janice-Marie Johnson wrote new English lyrics to the song, which have nothing to do with the original (and for the fascinating story of the original version, I recommend this NPR report from 2013) but are a sweet tale of failed romance, which she sings with incredible sensitivity. Sure, this is a little anodyne, but it’s lovely nonetheless.
18 17 (17) LOVE OVER AND OVER AGAIN – Switch – Well, sure they sound a bit like DeBarge – two of the DeBarge brothers were members! Both could take over lead vocals, too, along with Phillip Ingram, brother of James, so how about that for some after-the-fact pedigree? Their final of three top 10s (this hit #9) is a delicious little disco-flecked ballad with, no surprise, inexplicably high falsetto vocals that sound so good.
17 15 (20) CELEBRATION – Kool & the Gang – I’d rather have an arm amputated than ever hear this phony-ass record one more time. K&TG were great funkateers throughout the ‘70s, but by this point had largely turned into a garbage “party” band; very little they produced after this point is worth your time.
16 16 (12) 8TH WONDER – Sugar Hill Gang – Famously sampled by the likes of Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, and Busta Rhymes, the follow-up to “Rapper’s Delight” might actually be a better record. Not that Sugar Hill are great rappers, but they’re adequate, and the groove is nothing but a party – one I’d like to attend.
VIDEO: The Sugar Hill Gang “8th Wonder”
15 14 (14) BOOGIE BODY LAND – Bar-Kays – The biggest hit at the time for the Memphis funkateers, this spent a ridiculous six weeks stuck at #3 R&B. One of the Bar-Kays’ best attributes is that you can hear the Memphis grease on their records, including this one; I also hear a lot of the seeds of Cee-Lo’s career. (And bassist James Alexander’s son is producer Jazze Pha.) This is a groove-and-a-half.
14 13 (13) MAKE THE WORLD STAND STILL – Roberta Flack and Peabo Bryson – Bryson had already done a duet record with Natalie Cole, and had a successful solo career, before touring with and recording Live & More with Flack; to fill out a double LP, Bryson and Flack recorded four studio duets, of which this was one. (And this came three years before they’d cut their duets album Born to Love, which featured the infamous slush puddle “Tonight, I Celebrate My Love.”) I wouldn’t call this jointly-produced ballad effort a great record, exactly, but it has its soaring moments, and they sing it superbly.
13 18 (6) THIGHS HIGH – Tom Browne – Good God, I love jazz fusion trumpeter Tom Browne, who’s made a number of great albums: his ‘79 debut is solid fusion funk from start to finish, 1980’s Love Approach features the deathless R&B #1 “Funkin’ for Jamaica (N.Y.),” and ‘81’s Magic is home to this hot-ass jam, on its way to a #4 peak. Its subtitle is “Grip Your Hips and Move,” which should tell you plenty about the song’s, er, thrust. Few jazzers of the fusion era made better dance music that Browne, and this record is a premium example.
12 6 (16) UNITED TOGETHER – Aretha Franklin – Franklin’s Arista Records debut, co-produced by Arif Mardin and Chuck Jackson (who made his name in the Independents, and subsequently co-producing Natalie Cole), spent five weeks at #3 and returned her to the R&B top 10 for the first time in three years. Its first single is a majestic ballad, lovingly orchestrated by Mardin (hello, strings!) that was totally out of its time but succeeds in spite of that.
11 8 (15) TOO TIGHT – Con Funk Shun – This Vallejo, CA band was always second-tier amongst the era’s funk bands, but at their best, they were most definitely, well, tight. Lead singer Michael Cooper had a great voice, and when CFS locked into a groove, watch out. This may seem like a trifle, but it’s a great trifle.
10 11 (15) TOGETHER – Tierra – The only hit for this Latinx band from L.A. (featuring some former members of El Chicano, who had a hit in 1970 with “El Tirado”) is an elegant ballad that probably should’ve been bigger – as should’ve the band, who had serious chops.
VIDEO: Tierra “Together”
9 9 (14) I JUST LOVE THE MAN – The Jones Girls – It surprises me to realize that this Philly International sister trio only hit the R&B top 10 twice, with this and ‘79’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else” (#5), because they feel like they were bigger. But classics such as 1980’s “Dance Turned Into A Romance” and ‘82’s “Nights Over Egypt” didn’t even make the top 20! (This could be a case where my love of Sirius XM’s The Groove is altering my perception of reality, because the Jones Girls are played a lot on that channel.) This is very much a lesser Jones Girls record, a limp call-and-response ballad between the sisters whose conceit is “no, you don’t understand, I just love the man!”
8 12 (12) WATCHING YOU – Slave – Another great Ohio funk band, Slave really hit their stride when vocalist Steve Arrington joined in ‘79. This is light as a feather yet still funky as hell.
7 4 (13) HEARTBREAK HOTEL – The Jacksons – Their Triumph album, a/k/a The One After Off the Wall, opened its chart assault with back-to-back #2 R&B singles: “Lovely One” spent two weeks there, while “Heartbreak Hotel” spent an astounding five as the nation’s R&B runner-up. The album’s only song with a sole “M. Jackson” songwriting credit, it’s elastic as a rubber band and smooth as silk, and while it has some silly sound effects (this is Mr. “Thriller,” remember), it’s also a perfectly constructed record. One of the Jacksons’ best.
6 10 (5) ALL AMERICAN GIRLS – Sister Sledge – The Sledges’ fourth and final single was their first in quite a while not produced by the Chic Organisation, but still uses that template: a funky little guitar riff, strings, well-produced harmony vocals. The difference this time was Narada Michael Walden behind the boards, who gave this a needed “here’s the ‘80s” gloss. He does a great job; this glides and bounces.
VIDEO: Sister Sledge “All American Girls”
5 7 (8) IT’S A LOVE THING – Whispers – They were hot in the moment; this was their third consecutive top 3 R&B single. Unfortunately, while it certainly works as a dancefloor filler, it’s not very inspiring. Just about anyone could’ve ridden this groove to a hit.
4 5 (11) I AIN’T GONNA STAND FOR IT – Stevie Wonder – I think that Wonder thought he was doing a country-ish vocal, but this cheatin’ song doesn’t sound remotely country. It does, however, sound starkly dissimilar from much of his catalog, in an awfully fun way. And it does genuinely sound like Wonder kinda sorta attempting a Charley Pride record, even if what he ends up can only be a Stevie Wonder record.
3 3 (16) FANTASTIC VOYAGE – Lakeside – I ain’t gonna stand for this formerly chart-topping record (from yet another Ohio funk band!) (#55 pop!), which bores me to pieces and always has. Coolio can have it.
2 1 (13) BURN RUBBER – The Gap Band – You want great funk? Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Wilsons are here to offer a master fucking class. Their first R&B #1 (of four, plus a further seven top 5s) has a bassline that will imprint itself on your brain on first listen, plus the secret weapon of Charlie Wilson, who’d influence an entire generation of male R&B singers to come. The Gap Band make it feel effortless; they were geniuses.
VIDEO: The Gap Band “Burn Rubber”
1 2 (15) DON’T STOP THE MUSIC – Yarbrough & Peoples – This Texan male/female duo hit the top on their first try, and stuck there for an impressive five weeks. They deserved it, too: this hard, midtempo funker stays at a perfect simmer for almost eight minutes (on its album version), and never bores, which takes some doing. Alisa Peoples has a strong, Mary Davis (S.O.S. Band)-esque voice. “Don’t Stop the Music” is a groove, more than anything, and a perfect encapsulation of this era in R&B. Jam on it.