MURRAY CAMMICK'S BLOG: Who’s Your Favourite Soul Singer?Monday , 20 Aug 2012
Murray Cammick catalogues the very best soul men of the past 50 years in possibly his geekiest column yet.
The question, “who’s your favorite soul singer” is a frustrating one for me as I have over 30 favourite male soul singers and a similar number of favorite female soul singers.
Most come from the 1960s and 1970s as there are a lack of contenders for top soul dudes in the decades that follow. The label in brackets behind the soul man’s name is the label on which his Best Of or Greatest Hits compilation will be the best intro to his music.
However some artists such as Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, Billy Paul and Marvin Gaye may be best heard on the original albums.
1. Otis Redding (Stax)
As a teen I was a tedious Otis Redding obsessive. His emotion-drenched style as represented by the album Otis Blue is still big with teen lads, particularly Brits. He was prolific, although he only had a five-year career. Did he come from another planet? Otis never seemed to have the anger, the edge that you’d expect over race issues etc. His posthumous albums Love Man and Immortal are seriously underrated.
2. Solomon Burke (Atlantic) (Fat Possum/Anti)
Now I am grown-up Burke is the best. He stayed the ‘big friendly guy with a gospel drenched show and a politically aware, inclusive rap’ right to his final days. His recent Don’t Give Up On Me (2002) is one of his finest albums. He practiced what he preached with 14 daughters, seven sons, 90 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren, last time I counted.
3. Marvin Gaye (Motown)
After reading the infamous, unflattering biography A Divided Soul, everyone loves this damaged man with the crazy Dad, even more. His music connects in a timeless fashion and one could say his beautiful voice is simply the best.
4. James Brown (King) (Polydor)
This man survived the streets and juvenile detention to excel in soul, on-stage moves, invent funk, provide the soundtrack for black pride and the foundations of hip-hop. One of the greatest bandleaders of all time who left a legacy of hundreds of great recordings. Not much fun to be around.
5. Jackie Wilson (Brunswick)
Berry Gordy wrote some fine songs for Wilson prior to starting Motown Records. Jackie Wilson put the sweet in Sweet Soul Music and his dance moves inspired Michael Jackson.
6. Sam Cooke (RCA)
A Cooke LP title called him the Man Who Invented Soul. He stole the tunes from the church and added secular words. Otis Redding stole Cooke’s tune ‘Oh Yeah’ and changed the lyrics to create Arthur Conley’s ‘Sweet Soul Music’. As penance Redding had to record several more Cooke tunes. This proves Sam did invent soul. Cooke matured to write ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, inspired by Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowing In The Wind’.
7. Al Green (Hi)(A&M)
A generation younger than the founders of the soul style, his music ruled in the 1970s. After the demise of Stax Records, Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records kept Memphis and the soul music style on the map with Green’s perfect performances.
8. Jerry Butler (Mercury)
Not a shouter, this guy had (and still does have) a class that’s cool. His vocal performances in the soul music movie Only the Strong Survive (2003) are sublime! His 1960s hits were covered by other singers – ‘Make It Easy On Yourself’ (Walker Brothers), ‘A Brand New Me’ (Dusty Springfield) and ‘Only the Strong Survive’ (Billy Paul).
9. Smokey Robinson (Motown)
The Motown songwriter who got that company started and is a uniquely fine singer who is still working.
10. Billy Paul (PIR)
A jazz style singer who is sadly misunderstood due to his mega-hit ‘Me and Mrs Jones’. The singles compiles are great but there’s another man on the albums, an adventurous Gil Scott Heron style dude with tracks like ‘False Faces’, ‘Black Wonders of the World’ and ‘East’. I highly recommend his bio DVD Am I Black Enough For You?
11. Curtis Mayfield (Curtom)
Famous for Superfly but he had a career before and after Blaxploitation. Even when in the sweet vocal group The Impressions his civil rights songs (sugar-coated bullets) such as ‘People Get Ready’, ‘Movin’ On Up’ and ‘We’re A Winner’ put the black struggle on pop radio.
12. Bobby “ Blue” Bland (Duke) (ABC)
A tasteful blues singer without the nasty whitey blues guitar that now plagues the genre. An acquired taste, his masterpiece ‘Ain’t No Love In the Heart of the City’ has been covered by David Coverdale and Paul Weller. Now on the Malaco label, he puts the same album out every year, but he did the great track ‘Members Only’ on this Southern label.
13. Bobby Womack (Liberty) (Beverly Glen) (MCA)
The Keith Richards of soul music. Both are survivors and great guitarists. Womack wrote ‘It’s All Over Now’ but the Stones heard it and rushed out a cover version that usurped the Womack (Valentinos) version and they have been best friends ever since because Bobby liked the big bucks he earned as songwriter from the Stones hit. Womack now slumming it with the Gorillaz, Damon Albarn etc.
14. David Ruffin, The Temptations (Motown)
The greatest of the great singers in the Temptations. You know his voice from ‘Ain’t to Proud to Beg’. I know someone who liked his disco hits.
15. Bill Withers (Sussex)
This guy earns more money asleep than most people earn while awake as he wrote ‘Use Me’, ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ etc. A bit folky for some but every soul singer sings his songs.
16. Edwin Starr (Motown)
This guy never stopped moaning about Motown but never recorded a dud track for this label from ‘25 Miles to ‘War’. A careful, definitive Edwin Starr Motown compile is overdue. Since leaving Motown this lovely man recorded little that was notable including the mega-selling dancefloor pick-up song ‘Contact’.
17. Levi Stubbs, Four Tops (Motown) (ABC)
This guy should be at the top of the list. Brits love Levi Stubbs and Otis Redding. I love the fact that they do and that Billy Bragg wrote Levis Stubbs ’Tears’. Their dozens of 1960s hits on Motown are only rivaled by there numerous 1970s hits on ABC/Dunhill.
18. Johnnie Taylor (Stax) (Beverly Glen)
This guy could be at the top of the list. One of the later hit makers on the Stax label with ‘Who’s Making Love’ etc. Post- Stax he hit big with ‘Disco Lady’. He returned to soul on the Beverly Glen and Malaco labels.
19. Ray Charles (Atlantic) (ABC)
Charles had so much soul he could make his equals look like try-hards. In a rock ‘n’ roll, throwaway fashion he takes Stevie Wonder’s ‘Living For the City’ and makes Stevie look like a school boy.
20. Stevie Wonder (Motown)
The first Motown artist to reject the Motown factory-style machine, he took creative control of his career when he turned 21. The older Marvin Gaye would follow Stevie and also insist on creative independence. Once in charge, Wonder turned out the masterpieces Music of My Mind (1972), Talking Book (1972) and Innervisions (1973).
21. Sly Stone (Epic) (Warners)
Sly’s funky psychedelic style would be stolen by Motown, cloned by a generation of music makers and revived by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. At its peak his career was derailed by drug addiction and fame but although his big hits are all on Epic the later Warners albums are also very funky.
22. Willie Hutch (Motown) (Whitfield)
A producer by trade, Hutch’s own recordings never got much of a push but his Blaxploitation movie scores The Mack and Foxy Brown did get noticed. Vinyl junkies can find great Hutch albums that are yet to be issued on cd. ‘Midnight Dancer’ is a great cut on the Whitfield label.
23. Ronald Isley, The Isley Brothers (Motown) (T-Neck)
Ronald started with ‘Twist and Shout’ and went on to record for Motown where they made numerous Northern Soul classics before they rocked out on their own T-Neck label with ‘It’s Your Thing’ etc. After a recent stint in jail for stealing his late brothers’ royalties from their families, he’s back on the road again.
24. Wilson Pickett (Atlantic) (RCA)
One of the angry soul men, Pickett hit after hit for the Atlantic label whether he recorded in the South at Muscle Shoals or nearer home in New York or Philadelphia. On RCA he continued the soul style with producer Brad Shapiro. There’s a few good dance floor moments later in his career – ‘Groove City’ etc.
25. Joe Tex (Atlantic)
Novelty songs (‘Ain’t Gonna Bump No More with No Big Fat Woman’) gave Tex a bad name but his soul hits on Atlantic are superb and there are numerous great records on Dial during the 1970s.
26. Teddy Pendergrass (Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes) (PIR)
A former drummer who became the big voice of the vocal group that defined the “Philadelphia International Records” sound.
27. Isaac Hayes (Stax) (Polydor)
When Stax lost rights to their catalogue and needed records fast by all of their roster, Hayes was not asked to do an album, but he did and his big sellers bankrolled the label into the 1970s. In 2003 a 32 song compilation showed how much depth there was in his recordings for Stax. There’s more to this man than ‘Shaft’ and Chef.
28. Jimmy Ruffin (Motown)
A tier two Motown star who was massive in the UK Northern Soul Scene partly due to the difficulty in finding his recordings on vinyl. The UK have now issued a 48 song Ultimate Collection CD.
29. Luther Vandross (Sony)
Luther triumphantly took the soul style into the 1980s with a little help from former Miles Davis bass player Marcus Miller. Funky but too sweet for some listeners.
30. Bobby Taylor (Motown)
A tier three Motown singer who when he got his hands on another Motown star’s track, he always did it better. Check out his take on the Temptations’ ‘It’s Growing’. Thankfully the UK have done a definitive Motown Anthology CD with 46 tracks’ of this man’s music.
Barry White, Eddie Levert (The O’Jays), Lee Dorsey, Ben E. King, Arthur Conley, Dennis Edwards (The Temptations), Joe Simon, Eddie Kendricks (The Temptations), Steve Winwood, General Johnson (Chairmen of the Board), Bob Marley, Sam Moore (Sam & Dave), Arthur Alexander, George Faith, Cee Lo Green and why not sax player Jr Walker, he sort of sings.
By Murray Cammick
Who’s Your Favourite Soul Singer?
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