TOP TEN R&B BANDS OF ALL TIME
THE TOP TEN GREATEST R&B BANDS OF ALL TIME
BY EDDIE C. MCCLOUD
1. SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE- Any band that can swing from a psychedelic feel good song like "Hot Fun In The Summer Time" to a message song like "Everyday People" and then an anthem like "Dance To the Music," is a force to be reckoned with. This band set the mold for virtually every band that came after them and were innovative on several levels.
First of all, Sly and The Family Stone were a multicultural, mixed gender amalgamation whose musical influences reflected the diversity of the group's members.
Although only together for a few years, this band made its mark as one of the best acts not only in the studio, but also live. It was this group that introduced the world to a young bass player from Texas named Larry Graham, who went on to become an innovator on his instrument and later founded another group in the mold of The Family Stone, Graham Central Station before embarking on a solo career.
Groups like Mother’s Finest, The Ohio Players, Fishbone and Living Colour , to name a few, were heavily influenced by this group and owe a considerable debt to them. Their songs have been sampled by countless hip-hop artists, ensuring that their influence will continue to live on in the age of digital music.
Recommended Listening:” Anthology”
2. EARTH, WIND AND FIRE- Maurice White, a former session drummer for Chess Records and Ramsey Lewis, founded this group, originally leaning heavily towards fusion. The band’s first two releases on Warner Brothers, “Earth, Wind And Fire” and “The Need Of Love” were shelved until the late 90s when they were released after sitting in the vaults for nearly thirty years. The lineup on that band for the most part split, but later White came back with another aggregation featuring his brother Verdine on bass and a dynamic young singer from Denver by the name of Philip Bailey and former Friends Of Distinction alumni Jessica Cleaves on vocals. It was this lineup along with a horn section featuring Ronnie Laws (Laws left after their first Columbia release to pursue a solo career) that was signed to Columbia Records with the initial release, “Last Days And Times.”
E,W&F fused Jazz, Latin, Gospel and Pop with the end result being a sound quite unlike anything heard before or since. Their subsequent releases helped define what the R&B concept album should be, featuring themes and artwork that leaned heavily towards Africa and Egyptology.
Their stage show was known for the use of fancy entrances using fancy props and illusions (For a while they employed the late magician Doug Henning). Their horn section, The Phoenix Horns, was on a par with groups such as Chicago, Tower Of Power or any other horn-heavy Pop/R&B group.
In the 70’s, their heyday, they put out a string of seminal albums such as “Head To The Sky,” “That’s The Way Of The World,” and this writer’s personal favorite “Spirit.” Today some 40 years later, they are still putting out quality music and hopefully will continue to do so for years to come.
Recommended Listening:”Spirit,” “All In All,” and ‘Head To The Sky”
3. WAR- War started out as the backing band from former Animals vocalist Eric Burdon. Burdon had an early hit with them on the song “Spill The Wine,” which became a classic. Burdon eventually left the group and War became an entity of its own with radio- friendly singles like “Cisco Kid,” “Why Can’t We Be Friends” and “The Low Rider.”
Albums like “The World Is A Ghetto” and “Deliver The Word” helped establish them as one of the most versatile groups of their time.
War fused Latin, R&B and jazz and created a sound that was uniquely their own. Over the years, the personnel has changed, but their musicianship has never suffered for it. As recently as 2008, the band reunited to perform a concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
Recommended Listening: “Deliver The Word” and “The World Is A Ghetto”
4. THE BAR KAYS- This band’s story is very similar to the story of the phoenix, who according to legend was resurrected from the flames. After all but two of its original members were killed in a plane crash with Otis Redding in 1967, the remaining members Ben Cauley and James Alexander put together a new group of Bar Kays with a decidedly funkier and harder edge. It would not be easy though, but after a few missteps, one of which was an album that was probably ahead of its time entitled “Black Rock,” which fused Funk with Hard Rock, they finally hit their stride and had a string of hits in the 70s and 80s, many of which became dance floor classics like “Freakshow On The Dance Floor,” "She Talks To Me With Her Body,” and the unforgettable “Move Your Boogie Body.”
There was also a tender side to the band which was exhibited by ballads like “Anticipation,” “Unforgettable Dream” and “Flying High On Your Love.” The Bar Kays were also a formidable live act celebrated as much for their music as for their onstage antics.
On another note, The Bar Kays were also the band behind the legendary album by Isaac Hayes, “Hot Buttered Soul” and would later have an early hit with their take on his legendary “Theme From Shaft” entitled appropriately enough, “Son Of Shaft.”
Recommended Listening: “Night Cruising.”
5. THE ISLEY BROTHERS- Starting out as a vocal quartet in the 50’s featuring brothers Ronald, O’Kelly, Rudolph and Vernon, with the addition of younger siblings Ernie and Marvin and brother-in-law Chris Jasper, The Isleys became one of the top acts in R&B in the 70’s and 80’s and even fostered a splinter group Isley-Jasper-Isley, featuring the aforementioned younger members of the group.
Beginning with the album “3+3,” the Isleys had a string of albums and hit singles (several of which took up two sides of a standard 45). Cuts like “Footsteps In The Dark,” “Voyage To Atlantis” and the perennial favorite smooth groove “For The Love Of You” are staples of almost every R&B station’s programming even today.
Their longevity is almost unrivaled in the history of R&B. Add to that that they have continued to put out great music, and you indeed have a true rarity.
At the time of this writing, Ronald Isley, fresh out of prison, will be releasing a solo album with a tentative release date of November 30, 2010. It is a long-awaited and much anticipated affair that I’m sure won’t disappoint fans of the man who has been one of the greatest tenors in R&B history for more than fifty years.
Recommended Listening: “Harvest For The World,” “3+3” and “Inside You”
6. THE COMMODORES- This band was put together by students attending the prestigious Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. The 70’s saw them emerge as one of the most formidable R&B bands on the scene often opening for better known groups, most notably The Jackson 5.
Once they hit their stride though, establishing themselves with dance classics like the instrumental “Machine Gun” and the funky, in-your-face “Brick House,” there was no stopping these guys. They also had sweet ballads like “Just To Be Close To You,” “Three Times A Lady” and “Sweet Love,” which helped secure them a permanent spot on Quiet Storm playlists everywhere.
In 1982 leader Lionel Richie left the group to pursue a solo career, taking his cue from his success on a number one pop single he had with Diana Ross entitled “Endless Love” from the movie of the same name. Few bands could’ve survived the departure of such a dynamic leader, but survive they did and even managed to reinvent themselves with the addition of J.D. Nicholas and the emergence of Walter “Clyde” Orange, the band’s drummer who came out from behind the drum kit to sing lead on several singles.
Post-Richie Commodores continued to have hits, but none would ever be bigger than a song they did as a tribute to Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye entitled “Night Shift,” with lead vocals shared by Orange and Nicholas. There was talk of a reunion between them and Lionel Richie, but that has never materialized and with the death of original member Milan Williams, seems very unlikely at this point.
Recommended Listening: “Heroes,” and “In The Pocket”
7. PARLIAMENT/FUNKADELIC/THE P-FUNK ALL-STARS- Some would argue that these three entities are the same band. That is debatable, but what is not debatable is that they are all the brainchild of one George Clinton.
George Clinton and his various collectives, of which the best known is probably Parliament, are known to have one of the most outrageous acts even in the annals of R&B. Their stage antics included a grown man clad in a giant diaper, various characters like Sir Nose and Dr. Funkenstein, along with a spaceship called The Mothership Connection from which the latter would emerge.
Classic albums like “The Clones Of Dr. Funkenstein,” “One Nation Under A Groove,” and others made this band very popular not only as a studio entity, but as a live band as well.
In addition, there were several spin-off groups including Parlet, The Brides Of Funkenstein and Bootsy’s Rubber Band. It was a never ending party once these guys hit the stage much to the fans’ delight.
Key members of the group included Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell, Eddie Hazel in addition to the mastermind of the group George Clinton. As far as this writer knows, George Clinton and crew are still very much in demand on the concert circuit and probably will be for some time to come.
Recommended Listening: “One Nation Under A Groove,” “Computer Games” and “The Clones Of Dr. Funkenstein”
8. CHIC- The genre known as Disco often got a much deserved reputation for being devoid of emotion and somewhat mechanical. Not so when it came to Chic, an outfit led by songwriters Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards. Not only could this band play in the studio, but they were also a formidable live band who traveled with a small string section in order to produce their signature sound on the road.
Their eponymous first album produced the hit singles “Dance, Dance, Dance ( Youwsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)” and “Everybody Dance,” which became instant dance floor classics.
Their second album “C’est Chic” produced what was probably their biggest hit “Le Freak” and “I Want Your Love,” both of which achieved similar success. It was their third album though that would give them the song that would forever solidify their place in the annals of music when an up and coming rap group named The SugarHill Gang took their song “Good Times” and used elements from it as the basis to what may have been the first official classic of rap music “Rapper’s Delight.”
The sound of chic is funky and clever rhythm guitar paired with understated but elegant bass lines provided by Niles and Bernard respectively. Add lush strings and snappy percussion to that and you have the sound of Chic.
Rodgers and Edwards also wrote for and produced Sister Sledge often playing on their records. Both went on to become successful producers individually as well. Finding a more talented writing and production team than these two will prove hard for even the most diehard music aficionado.
Recommended Listening: “Risque”
9. LOOSE ENDS- There was a period in the mid to late eighties when there was only one group in R&B that this writer saw doing anything new or interesting. That group was Loose Ends, a trio comprised of Carl McIntosh, Jane Eugene and Steve Nichols.
Formed in London in 1980, it took them five years to take off in the United States with the release of their single “Hanging On A String (Contemplating)” and the album from which it came “A Little Spice.” This first release showed the band’s versatility, going from the heavy electronic percussion of the aforementioned single to the jazzy title cut, this band showed that they could hang with the best of them. Much of the diversity exhibited by the group was due to Keyboardist Steve Nichols’ training as a classical musician.
After the album “The Real Chuckaboo,” the band split over creative differences. Carl McIntosh assembled another lineup and released their last effort “Look How Long,” which was a solid album, but clearly the magic was gone with Eugene and Nichols gone from the fold.
Rumors of a Loose Ends reunion surfaced a few years ago, This writer and legions of fans the world over await their return, but so far no such luck.
Recommended Listening: “Zagora” and “The Real Chuckaboo”
10. MAZE FEATURING FRANKIE BEVERLY- No list would be complete without including this band. Philadelphia-born Frankie Beverly put together this band whose debut album “Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly,” included the singles “While I’m Alone” and “Happy Feelings.”
Next up was the album “Golden Time Of Day.” The title song from that album is a showcase of sorts for the band. Beverly’s velvety voice croons over a mellow groove accentuated by jazzy guitar and subtle organ.
Their live album “Live In New Orleans” features several highlights including “The Look In Your Eyes” and the feel good audience sing-a-long “Joy And Pain.” It is a good representation the band’s live sound and shows why they are still some thirty plus years after its release, one of the top draws on the concert circuit.
Recommended Listening: “Live In New Orleans” and “Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly”