Tryin’ To Run My Game On Ya: 70s Soul

Whenever I get a little complacent and think I’ve heard pretty much all of the essential soul albums, I get a reality check. A few years ago I wrote a piece focusing mainly on Curtis Mayfield, Bill Withers and how they are unfairly overlooked next to Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Al Green and Sly Stone (see below). But I was just scratching the tip of the iceburg of neglected soul artists, and had much to learn. Soon after I finally gained a proper appreciation of Donny Hathaway after hearing his full albums rather than the unsatisfying hits collection. Next was Terry Callier. Due to his association with horrid 90s acid jazz, I was late in discovering the brilliance of his trio of early 70s albums. Similarly, I dismissed Minnie Riperton because of the supposed cheesiness of her biggest hit, “Loving You.” It’s actually a nice song, one she wrote to sing to her daughter Maya Rudolph as a baby. She too had a run of three great albums in the early to mid 70s. I also realized there are a lot of solid 60s Motown albums worth hearing in full by The Temptations, Martha & The Vandellas, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, and more.

MOJO Magazine - The 70 Best Soul Albums of the 70's
When I picked up the September 2010 issue of MOJO Magazine for it’s feature, “The 70 Best Soul Albums Of The ’70s,” my first reaction was to roll my eyes at their ranking Isaac Hayes, The Commodores and Millie Jackson well above Curtis Mayfield’s masterpiece, not to mention Al Green and others. Sheer madness. However, looking past those couple gaffs, it’s a really good list, nearly a third of it albums I hadn’t even heard. I started a thread on ILX which produced even more good suggestions that MOJO left out, and spent the next few weeks searching out those albums, seeking out ande downloading the out of print ones, and selling old stuff to Dusty Groove so that I can afford my latest soul binge. I finally listened to everything at least twice, and burned choice cuts onto a couple CDs for my road trip mix last weekend. Below is my updated list (see also my overall soul list that includes all the decades) and highlights of standout albums that are new discoveries for me.

The Temptations - Sky's The Limit (Motown) 71

Eddie Kendricks - People...Hold On (Motown) 72

The Temptations, Sky’s The Limit (Motown) 71

I picked up a half dozen Temptations albums a couple years ago that were good to great, but for some reason their greatest album remains out of print. I can’t believe you currently cannot buy a legit copy of the album with “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me),” “Ball Of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today)” and the awesomely psychedelic rager “Smiling Faces Sometimes.” They need to get the deluxe edition out soon. It’s a testament to how great that group was that after losing David Ruffin, and then the talented Eddie Kendricks, they still came back with the great All Directions (1972), Masterpiece and 1990 (both 1973). Solid Rock (1972) isn’t quite as solid as the others, but it does have “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Stop The War Now” and “Superstar.”

Eddie Kendricks, People…Hold On (Motown) 72

Kendricks himself did quite well for himself, first with the excellent solo debut All By Myself (1971) with the hot centerpiece, “Something’s Burning,” then his masterpiece, People…Hold On. Much like Curtis Mayfield, Kendricks used his lovely high tenor to expand on his composition, arrangements, and socio-political concerns with some hard hitting jams. Ridiculousy, Kendricks hardly made a blip with the album, and it continues to be a lost classic, as it was left out of the MOJO list. Even the Rough Guide To Soul And R&B denied Kendricks his own entry, leaving him as a footnote to The Temptations. It wasn’t until the next year that Kendricks hit the charts with “Keep On Truckin’,” which is frankly one of his lesser efforts. The wrongs continue to pile up when Allmusic suggests that his fourth album, Boogie Down (1973), is his best. Crazy talk. People…Hold On is in print thanks to Hip-O Select’s Keep On Truckin’: The Motown Solo Albums, Vol. 1 containing four albums, but leaving out Boogie Down for Vol. 2 and adding his fifth album, For You (1974) for space reasons. Like Curtis Mayfield, even Kendricks’ lesser albums are still pretty great, making it well worth it.

Esther Phillips - From A Whisper To A Scream (Kudu) 72

Esther Phillips, From A Whisper To A Scream (Kudu) 72

Through countless Behind The Music type stories, we know all about the horrors of the music business. Esther Phillips had seen it all, scoring her first #1 R&B hit at the age of 13, in 1950. Soon she had acquired a heroin addiction and was bouncing between record labels for two decades. The experience would burn out, if not destroy most people, but Phillips was a survivor. IN 1971 she signed with the Kudu label, that finally provided her the dream team of musicians she deserved under the production of Creed Taylor, and horn arrangements by Pee Wee Ellis. She emerged with a stone cold classic album in From A Whisper To A Scream, her mature vocals a riveting combination of Billie Holiday, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin. The standout was her cover of Gil Scott-Heron’s account of drug addiction in “Home Is Where The Hatred Is.” The Queen of Soul even gave her Grammy to Phillips, acknowledging that Phillips’ album kicked the shit out of Young, Gifted and Black. Taking advantage of her roll, Kudu signed her to a three year contract, and she banged out another classic that same year with Alone Again, Naturally, reissued in 2008 on Reel Music. I’ve become obsessed with her, and tracked down all seven of her Kudu albums. Many believe Black-Eyed Blues (1973) is even better than From A Whisper To A Scream. It’s a close call for sure. Nearly as great is Performance (1974). There is more disagreement over her more disco oriented What A Diff’rence A Day Makes (1975), For All We Know (1976) and Capricorn Princess (1976), but they each have some great performances from Esther.

The Chi-Lites - (For God's Sake) Give More Power to the People (Brunswick) 71

The Chi-Lites, For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People (Brunswick) 71

Yet another lost classic that eluded the MOJO list, this is a product of Chicago’s fertile soul scene. With a background in doo-wop, The Chi-Lites developed a harder hitting political side that incorporates psychedelic rock much like The Temptations and Sly Stone did, particularly on the fiery title track, and “We Are Neighbors” “Have You Seen Her” juxtaposes their sweet vocal harmonies with a menacing, distorted lead guitar line. A Lonely Man (1972) is well worth hearing. It may not sustain their towering peak, but the Chi-Lites remained vital hitmakers throughout the 70s.

Lee Moses - Time And Place (Maple/Castle) 71

Lee Moses – Time And Place (Maple/Castle) 71

With his testifyin’ vocals and Hendrix-influenced guitar, Lee Moses’ sole album was long treasured by deep soul collectors, until Castle rescued it from obscurity in 1997 and made it widely available. Backed by his band the Disciples and some of the Ohio Players, it’s a great, great album. The reissue enhances by adding most of Moses’ choice late 60s singles that nearly measure up to should-have-been hits from the album, the title track and “Bad Girl.”

Wilson Pickett - In Philadelphia (Atlantic) 70

Wilson Pickett, In Philadelphia (Atlantic) 70
Known for his gritty, funky deep Southern style soul, it seems on paper to be a mismatch to team Wilson Pickett up with Gamble and Huff. But it was the perfect jolt to knock Pickett out of his stylistic rut. The production is nowhere near as slick as the Philadelphia duo’s later work, but smooth enough to give the album a slightly more complex, sophisticated feel while retaining much of the Wicked Pickett’s bravado. “Get Me Back On Time, Engine No. 9” and “Don’t Let The Green Grass Fool You” were big hits, and “Run Joey Run,” “Bumble Bee (Sting Me)” and “International Playboy” also deserved to be just as big.

Etta James (Chess/Hip-O Select) 73

Etta James (Chess/Hip-O Select) 73

When I learned that Esther Phillips covered James’ “All The Way Down” (on Capricorn Princess), and that they were old friends, it made sense. They share a lot in common, and can both relate to that song. Both became professional singers, discovered by Johnny Otis, in the ’50s when they were very young, barely in their teens (Esther was 13, Etta 14). Both developed heroin addictions that haunted them through their careers. And both, despite being tremendous talents, both spent the 60s jumping between jazz, R&B, pop and soul, not finding consistent success, much like Aretha Franklin did in her Columbia years. James of course did come up with the timeless “At Last” in 1961, destined to be used in tons of movies and every freakin’ wedding until the end of time. And Tell Mama (1967), recorded in Muscle Shoals, was a soul classic. Nevertheless, her 70s albums are even more neglected and forgotten than Esther Phillips’. Her self-titled album in 1973 featured heavier funk and rock-influenced production (by Steppenwolf and Three Dog Night producer Gabriel Mekler) that was well suited to James’ deepening voice. The songs and performances are consistently great, making this another true lost gem, that again, MOJO missed. The aformentioned centerpiece, co-written by Mekler, “All The Way Down,” became a top 30 hit, and was wildly popular in gay clubs that celebrated its vividly sordid subject matter. She even performed it at The Continental Bathhouse. The landmark album was reissued by Hip-O Select. Come A Little Closer (1974) was nearly as great, despite the fact that James was in rehab the entire time she recorded it. Bettah Than Evah (1976) and Deep In The Night (1978) suffered somewhat diminishing returns, but well worth hearing for fans.

Ann Peebles - Straight From The Heart (Hi) 72

Ann Peebles – Straight From The Heart (Hi) 72

For over a decade all I had was a Hi compilation of Ann Peebles. It simply wasn’t enough. With her full albums back in print, I was finally able to appreciate how, while “I Can’t Stand The Rain” is her biggest and most interesting hit, she actually hit her peak in 1972 with Straight From The Heart, a perfect balance of her bluesy, earthy Southern roots, and Hi’s still fresh forumula of tight funky rhythms and spare horn arrangements. She wasn’t nearly as prolific or popular as her labelmate Al Green, but like him she maintained a satisfying groove throughout the 70s that remains underrated, including Part Time Love (1971), Can’t Stand The Rain (1974), Tellin’ It (1976) and If This Is Heaven (1978).

The Staple Singers - City In The Sky (Stax) 74

The Staple Singers – City In The Sky (Stax) 74

Known for huge hits “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There,” (included on this album as bonus live cuts), The Staple Singers nailed their most consistent album with City In The Sky. Zeroing in their protest songs on focused targets like the Watergate scandal (“Washington We’re Watching You”) and looking back on our racist past (“Back Road Into Town,”) The Staple Singers transform their righteous anger into and uplifting, funky party. Their soundtrack work with Curtis Mayfield, Let’s Do It Again (1975) is very good, but they’d never again be this great.

Billy Paul - War Of The Gods (Philadelphia International/EMI) 73

Billy Paul – War Of The Gods (Philadelphia International/EMI) 73

With four cuts ranging from 6:11 to 10:03, this Gamble & Huff production is a bit different than the normal Philly International stuff in that it’s sprawling, spacey and spiritual. The two shorter tunes are more standard, poppy fare that sound somewhat out of place. Like Etta James and Esther Phillips, Billy Paul had been performing since the 1950s, more in the jazz arena, performing with the likes of Dinah Washington, Miles Davis and even Charlie Parker. Along with Phillips and Terry Callier, you can hear Nina Simone’s influence on his singing. While his biggest hit, “Me & Mrs. Jones” can be found on 360 Degrees Of Billy Paul (1972), his best album might be his Philadelphia International debut, the gorgeous Going East (1971).

Sam Dees - The Show Must Go On (Atlantic) 75

Sam Dees – The Show Must Go On (Atlantic) 75

Sam Dees has written hits for Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston. The Show Must Go On does not benefit from the long career momentum of his peers, and ended up a truly overlooked gem. It might be controversial to say it’s way better than Gaye’s What’s Going On, but I enjoy it more, probably because it isn’t so infuriatingly overrated like that album. His testifyin’ vocals give some convincing weight to the concerns behind message songs like “Troubled Child” and “Child Of The Streets,” while the music makes it sound like he could be from Chicago rather than Alabama.

There’s plenty more new entries to my list that are pretty essential listening for anyone into 70s soul, including albums by Lee Dorsey, Chairmen Of The Board, The Isley Brothers, Doris Duke, O.V. Wright, Betty Wright, Gloria Jones, Johnnie Taylor, Gladys Knight, 24-Carat Black, Leon Ware, Millie Jackson, Ernie K-Doe, Bobby Womack and many more. One doesn’t have to be necessarily as obsessed as me to also be able to enjoy entries further down the list, like Rick James, Come Get It! (1978), Smokey Robinson, A Quiet Storm (1975), The Miracles, City Of Angels (1975), and Johnnie Taylor, Super Taylor (1974).

Quiz question: what song does the line, “Tryin’ to run my game on ya” come from?

Favorite 70s soul albums

  1. Curtis Mayfield – Curtis (Curtom) 70
  2. Curtis Mayfield – Superfly (Curtom) 72
  3. Sly & the Family Stone – There’s A Riot Going On (Epic) 71
  4. Al Green – I’m Still In Love With You (Hi) 72
  5. Al Green – Call Me (Hi) 73
  6. Stevie Wonder – Innervisions (Tamla) 73
  7. Donny Hathaway – Everything Is Everything (Atlantic) 70
  8. Bill Withers – Just As I Am (Sussex) 71
  9. Bill Withers – Still Bill (Sussex) 72
  10. The Temptations – Sky’s The Limit (Motown) 71
  11. Curtis Mayfield – Roots (Curtom) 71
  12. Eddie Kendricks – People…Hold On (Motown) 72
  13. Curtis Mayfield – There’s No Place Like America Today (Curtom) 75
  14. Stevie Wonder – Talking Book (Tamla) 72
  15. Esther Phillips – From A Whisper To A Scream (Kudu) 72
  16. Esther Phillips – Black-Eyed Blues (Kudu) 73
  17. Terry Callier – What Color Is Love (Cadet/Verve) 72
  18. The Chi-Lites – (For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People (Brunswick) 71
  19. Lee Moses – Time And Place (Maple) 71
  20. Lee Dorsey – Yes We Can (Polydor) 70
  21. Parliament – Mothership Connection (Casablanca) 75
  22. Wilson Pickett – In Philadelphia (Atlantic) 70
  23. O.V. Wright – A Nickel And A Nail And The Ace of Spades (Back Beat) 70
  24. Al Green – Let’s Stay Together (Hi) 71
  25. Esther Phillips – Alone Again, Naturally (Kudu/Reel) 72
  26. The Temptations – All Directions (Motown) 72
  27. Donny Hathaway – Extension Of A Man (Atlantic) 73
  28. Al Green – The Belle Album (Hi) 77
  29. Al Green – Gets Next To You (Hi) 70
  30. Minnie Riperton – Perfect Angel (Capitol) 74
  31. Donny Hathaway (Atlantic) 71
  32. Aretha Franklin – Amazing Grace (Atlantic) 72
  33. Etta James (Chess/Hip-O Select) 73
  34. Ann Peebles – Straight From The Heart (Hi) 72
  35. Minnie Riperton – Come To My Garden (GRT/Varese) 70
  36. The Staple Singers – City In The Sky (Stax) 74
  37. Curtis Mayfield – Back To The World (Curtom) 73
  38. The Temptations – 1990 (Motown) 73
  39. The Temptations – Masterpiece (Motown) 73
  40. Billy Paul – Going East (Philadelphia International/EMI) 71
  41. Betty Davis (Just Sunshine/Aztec) 73
  42. Esther Phillips – Performance (Kudu) 74
  43. Chairmen Of The Board – Skin I’m In (Invictus) 74
  44. Billy Paul – War Of The Gods (Philadelphia International/EMI) 73
  45. Terry Callier – Occasional Rain (Cadet/Verve) 72
  46. Sam Dees – The Show Must Go On (Atlantic) 75
  47. Eddie Kendricks – All By Myself (Motown) 71
  48. The Isley Brothers – 3 + 3 (T Neck) 73
  49. Sly & The Family Stone – Fresh (Epic) 73
  50. Betty Davis – Nasty Gal (Just Sunshine/Aztec) 75
  51. Marvin Gaye – Let’s Get It On (Motown) 73
  52. The Stylistics (Amherst) 71
  53. The Delfonics (Buddha) 70
  54. Curtis Mayfield – Sweet Exorcist (Curtom) 74
  55. Al Green – Explores Your Mind (Hi) 74
  56. Terry Callier – I Just Can’t Help Myself (Cadet/Verve) 74
  57. Shuggie Otis – Inspiration Information (Epic/Luaka Bop) 74
  58. The Temptations – Psychedelic Shack (Motown) 70
  59. Marvin Gaye – Here, My Dear (Motown) 78
  60. Doris Duke – I’m A Loser (Canyon) 70
  61. Ann Peebles – Part Time Love (Hi) 71
  62. O.V. Wright – Memphis Unlimited (Back Beat) 72
  63. Etta James – Come A Little Closer (Chess) 74
  64. Betty Wright – Danger High Voltage (Alston) 74
  65. Ann Peebles – Can’t Stand the Rain (Hi) 74
  66. Eddie Kendricks (Motown) 73
  67. Eddie Kendricks – Boogie Down (Motown) 73
  68. Chairmen Of The Board – Bittersweet (Invictus) 72
  69. Gloria Jones – Share My Love (Reel/Universal) 73
  70. Stevie Wonder – Music Of My Mind (Motown) 72
  71. Johnnie Taylor – Taylored In Silk (Stax) 73
  72. Gladys Knight & The Pips – Imagination (Buddah) 73
  73. Ann Peebles – Tellin’ It (Hi) 76
  74. 24-Carat Black – Ghetto: Misfortune’s Wealth (Stax) 73
  75. Leon Ware – Musical Massage (Motown) 76
  76. Millie Jackson – It Hurts So Good (Westbound) 73
  77. Rose Royce – Car Wash (MCA) 76
  78. Cymande (Janus/Sequel) 72
  79. The Meters – Struttin’ (Josie) 70
  80. James Brown – Sex Machine (Polydor) 70
  81. Ernie K-Doe – Here Come The Girls! (Great American Music) 70
  82. Baby Huey & The Babysitters – The Baby Huey Story: Living Legend (Water) 70
  83. Al Green – Livin’ For You (Hi) 73
  84. Betty Davis – They Say I’m Different (Just Sunshine/Aztec) 74
  85. Bobby Womack – Understanding (UA) 72
  86. Aretha Franklin – Young, Gifted And Black (Atlantic) 71
  87. Clarence Carter – Patches (Atlantic) 70
  88. Laura Lee – Women’s Love Rights (Hot Wax) 71
  89. Allen Toussaint – Life, Love and Faith (WB) 72
  90. James Brown – There It Is (Polydor) 72
  91. Jean Knight – Mr. Big Stuff (Stax) 70
  92. Eddie Hinton – Very Extremely Dangerous (Capricorn) 78
  93. Fontella Bass – Free (Paula/Fuel) 72
  94. Laura Lee – Two Sides of Laura Lee (Hot Wax) 72
  95. Margie Joseph – Makes A New Impression (Volt) 71
  96. Tyrone Davis – Turn Back the Hands of Time (Brunswick) 70
  97. Honey Cone – Sweet Replies (Hot Wax) 71
  98. The J.B.’s – Food For Thought (Polydor) 73
  99. The J.B.’s – Breakin’ Bread (Polydor) 74
  100. Bill Withers – ‘Justments (Sussex) 74
  101. James Brown – The Payback (Polydor) 73
  102. Swamp Dogg – Total Destruction to Your Mind (Canyon) 70
  103. Aretha Franklin – This Girl’s In Love With You (Atlantic) 70
  104. The Impressions – Check Out Your Mind! (Curtom) 70
  105. Bobby Womack – The Facts Of Life (USA) 73
  106. Bobby Womack – Communication (UA) 71
  107. Rick James – Come Get It! (Motown) 78
  108. Millie Jackson – Caught Up (Westbound) 74
  109. Stevie Wonder – Fulfillingness’ First Finale (Motown) 74
  110. The J.B.’s – Breakin’ Bread (Polydor) 74
  111. Bill Withers – ‘Justments (Sussex) 74
  112. James Brown – The Payback (Polydor) 73
  113. Swamp Dogg – Total Destruction to Your Mind (Canyon) 70
  114. Aretha Franklin – This Girl’s In Love With You (Atlantic) 70
  115. The Impressions – Check Out Your Mind! (Curtom) 70
  116. Bobby Womack – The Facts Of Life (USA) 73
  117. Bobby Womack – Communication (UA) 71
  118. Stevie Wonder – Fulfillingness’ First Finale (Motown) 74
  119. Smokey Robinson – A Quiet Storm (Motown) 75
  120. Syreeta – Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta (Motown) 74
  121. Laura Lee – I Can’t Make It Alone (Hot Wax/Invictus) 74
  122. Stevie Wonder – Songs In The Key Of Life (Motown) 76
  123. Syreeta (Motown) 72
  124. Parliament – Osmium (Invictus) 70
  125. Lyn Collins – Think (About It) (Polydor) 72
  126. The O’Jays – Back Stabbers (Philadelphia International) 72
  127. Marvin Gaye – I Want You (Motown) 76
  128. Marie Queenie Lyons – Soul Fever (Vampi Soul) 70
  129. Bobby Womack – Lookin’ For A Love Again (UA) 74
  130. Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (Motown) 71
  131. Michael Jackson – Off The Wall (Epic) 79
  132. Billy Paul – 360 Degrees Of Billy Paul (Philadelphia International/Sony) 72
  133. Johnnie Taylor – One Step Beyond (Stax) 71
  134. Willie Hutch – The Mack (Motown) 73
  135. Marvin Gaye – Trouble Man (Motown) 72
  136. Stevie Wonder – Signed, Sealed and Delivered (Motown) 70
  137. Esther Phillips – What A Diff’rence A Day Makes (Kudu) 75
  138. The Jacksons – Destiny (Epic) 78
  139. Freda Payne – Band of Gold (HDH) 70
  140. Charles Wright & the 103rd Street Rhythm Band – Express Yourself (WB) 70
  141. Swamp Dogg – Rat On (Elektra) 71
  142. Syl Johnson – Is It Because I’m Black? (Twinight) 70
  143. Syl Johnson – Total Explosion (Hi) 75
  144. Millie Jackson – Still Caught Up (Westbound) 75
  145. The O’Jays – Ship Ahoy (Philadelphia International) 73
  146. Barbara Mason – Give Me Your Love (Buddah) 73
  147. Labelle – Nightbirds (Epic) 74
  148. The Temptations – Solid Rock (Motown) 72
  149. Esther Phillips – For All We Know (Kudu) 76
  150. Esther Phillips – Capricorn Princess (Kudu/Reel) 76
  151. Millie Jackson – Feelin’ Bitchy (Westbound) 77
  152. Stevie Wonder – Where I’m Coming From (Motown) 71
  153. The Isley Brothers – Givin’ It Back (T Neck) 71
  154. Shuggie Otis – Freedom Flight (Epic) 71
  155. Etta James – Bettah Than Evah (Chess) 76
  156. Etta James – Deep In The Night (Chess) 78
  157. The Isley Brothers – Get Into Something (T Neck) 70
  158. Earth Wind And Fire (WB) 71
  159. Bill Withers – Menagerie (CBS) 77
  160. Curtis Mayfield – Never Say You Can’t Survive (Curtom) 77
  161. Millie Jackson (Spring) 72
  162. Freda Payne – Contact (HDH/Edsel) 71
  163. Arthur Alexander (WB) 72
  164. Parliament – Up For The Down Stroke (Casablanca) 74
  165. Rozetta Johnson – Personal Woman 1970-75 (Clintone/Soulscape)
  166. Minnie Riperton – Adventures In Paradise (Capitol) 75
  167. Johnny Robinson – Memphis High (Sony) 76
  168. Eddie Kendricks – For You (Motown) 74
  169. Allen Toussaint – Southern Nights (WB) 75
  170. The Staple Singers – Let’s Do It Again (Curtom) 75
  171. Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes – To Be True (Philadelphia International) 75
  172. Al Green – Is Love (Hi) 75
  173. Al Green – Full of Fire (Hi) 76
  174. Aretha Franklin – Spirit In The Dark (Atlantic) 70
  175. Syl Johnson – Diamond In The Rough (Hi) 74
  176. Earth Wind And Fire – That’s The Way Of The World (WB) 75
  177. Parliament – Motor Booty Affair (Casablanca) 78
  178. Otis Clay – Trying to Live My Life Without You (Hi) 72
  179. The Chi-Lites – A Lonely Man (Brunswick) 72
  180. The Staple Singers – Be Altitude: Respect Yourself (Stax) 72
  181. Isaac Hayes – Black Moses (Stax) 71
  182. Roberta Flack – Chapter Two (Atlanitc) 70
  183. Sly & The Family Stone – Small Talk (Epic) 74
  184. The Miracles – City Of Angels (Tamla/Hip-O) 75
  185. Leroy Hutson – Hutson (Curtom) 75
  186. The Commodores – Machine Gun (Motown) 74
  187. Honey Cone – Soulful Tapestry (Hot Wax) 71
  188. Honey Cone – Love, Peace And Soul (Hot Wax) 72
  189. Denise LaSalle – On The Loose (Westbound) 72
  190. Denise LaSalle – Trapped by a Thing Called Love (Westbound) 72
  191. Don Covay – Superdude (Mercury) 73
  192. Don Covay – Hot Blood (Mercury) 74
  193. The Detroit Spinners – Spinners (Atlantic) 72
  194. Betty Wright – Danger High Voltage (Alston) 75
  195. Parliament – The Clones Of Dr. Funkenstein (Casablanca) 76
  196. Al Green – Have A Good Time (Hi) 76
  197. Al Green – Green Is Blues (Motown) 70
  198. Johnnie Taylor – Rare Stamps (Stax) 70
  199. Lee Dorsey – Night People (EMI) 78
  200. Syl Johnson – Back for a Taste of Your Love (Hi) 73
  201. Parliament – Funketelechy Vs. the Placebo System (Casablanca) 77
  202. Teddy Pendergrass (The Right Stuff) 77
  203. The Soul Children – Best of Two Worlds (Stax) 71
  204. Rick James – Bustin’ Out Of L Seven (Motown) 79
  205. Prince (WB) 79
  206. Rick James – Fire It Up (Motown/Hip-O) 79
  207. James Brown – Get On The Good Foot (Polydor) 72
  208. Parliament – Chocolate City (Casablanca) 75
  209. Eugene McDaniels – Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse (Atlantic) 71
  210. Honey Cone – Take Me With You (Hot Wax) 70
  211. Ann Peebles – If This Is Heaven (Hi) 78
  212. Eugene McDaniels – Outlaw (Atlantic) 70
  213. Freda Payne – Reaching Out (HDH/Edsel) 73
  214. David Ruffin – Who I Am (Motown) 75
  215. The Staple Singers – Be What You Are (Stax) 73
  216. Candi Staton – Young Hearts Run Free (WB) 76
  217. David Ruffin – Everything’s Coming Up Love (Motown) 76
  218. David Ruffin – In My Stride (Motown) 77
  219. William Bell – Wow… (Stax) 71
  220. Lou Bond (We Produce/Light In The Attic) 74
  221. O.V. Wright – The Bottom Line (Hi) 78
  222. The Isley Brothers – Brother, Brother, Brother (T Neck) 72
  223. The Isley Brothers – Live It Up (T Neck) 74
  224. Aretha Franklin – Sparkle (Atlantic) 76
  225. Johnnie Taylor – Super Taylor (Stax) 74
  226. O.V. Wright – Into Something (Can’t Shake Loose) (Hi) 77
  227. O.V. Wright – We’re Still Together (Hi) 79
  228. Al Green – Truth ‘n’ Time (Motown) 78
  229. Isaac Hayes – Truck Turner (Stax) 74
  230. The Isley Brothers – The Heat Is On (T Neck) 75
  231. The Soul Children – Friction (Stax) 74
  232. Sly Stone – High On You (Epic) 75
  233. Isaac Hayes – Isaac Hayes Movement (Stax) 70
  234. Isaac Hayes – To Be Continued (Stax) 70
  235. The Isley Brothers – Harvest for the World (T Neck) 76
  236. Isaac Hayes – Chocolate Chip (Stax) 75
  237. Isaac Hayes – Tough Guys (Stax) 74
  238. The Ohio Players – Pleasure (Westbound) 72

Curtis Mayfield - Curtis (1970)

Curtis Mayfield – Curtis (1970)

Don’t Leave Curtis and Bill Out of the Marvin/Stevie/Al/Sly Cannon

Listening to Curtis/Live! reminded me how much I love Curtis Mayfield. On a cold winter night in January 1971, Mayfield performed an intimate show at the Bitter End, a small New York City jazz club to an adoring audience. In between songs he’d rap about the songs, or whatever was on his mind. His soft spoken voice exuded a loving gentleness and humor, but just under the surface was a righteous anger and a little sorrow. His extensive history of socially conscious songs always seemed to hit hard with such authority that eclipsed anything by Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. And his spirituality is so natural and subtle that he would have made more sense as a reverend than Al Green, the conflicted, tortured hedonist who eventually gave up secular music, but never seemed to have as deep a grasp of spiritual matters as Mayfield. Which is why even though some of Green’s exquisitely produced and performed albums rate higher than some of Mayfield’s, Mayfield is my main soul man.

Stevie Wonder’s musical genius is often awe inspiring. But aside from his two definitive albums, he’s often guilty of cloying overindulgence. I love Marvin Gaye’s sixties singles, but What’s Going On is overrated. I’m a minority in this thinking, as Wonder and Gaye are by far the most popular and acclaimed 70s soul men. What’s Going On was a valient effort at a protest album, and directly inspired Wonder’s best work, but musically his passion sounds unconvincing. The songs are meandering and noodly, the production saccharine and vapid. Gaye introduces a very bad habit of substituting vocal acrobatics for power and directness that continues to plague modern soul music to this day. He’s much more direct on his next non-soundtrack album, Let’s Get It On. It takes some, um, balls to record a song called “You Sure Love To Ball.” His best album might be Here, My Dear (1978), an album he was forced to deliver in a divorce settlement with label boss Berry Gordy’s daughter. It’s a seething, vindictive mess, and the most honest music he’s ever made.

I honestly can’t find any fault with Curtis Mayfield. His work with the Impressions is impeccible. By 1968, in his second attempt (his first attempt was Windy C Records in 1966), he had established the first truly successful black artist-owned record label, Curtom with partner Eddie Thomas. After recording the Impressions’ strongest albums, This Is My Country (1968) and The Young Mods’ Forgotten Story (1969), Mayfield felt he needed to drop out from touring to work on his label and spend some time in his home town of Chicago with family. The respite was short lived. His creativity was burning bright, and without the restraints of writing for a harmony group and someone else’s label, he was able to let his muse run wild. And wild it was.

Curtis Mayfield - Superfly (1972)
Curtis Mayfield - Back In The World (1973)
Curtis Mayfield - There's No Place Like America Today (1975)

His brilliant concoction of psychedelic soul and bongo/conga-driven funk sparkle and bubble with a vivacious lust for life. Even his righteous indignation glows with his love for humanity. His no-bullshit, clear falsetto vocals may not be as accomplished as Al’s, but the plaintive sweet tones are always spot-on, complementing the music that is often gritty, dark, and even menacing (hear “(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below We’re All Going To Go,” where his processed vocals at first sound like howls from the firey pits before reverting to his more laidback falsetto). “The Makings Of You,” “We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue,” “Move On Up,” it was all killer, no filler. Some called his debut, Curtis (1970) the Sgt. Pepper’s of soul. That was before they heard his 1972 soundtrack album, Superfly. He fleshes out his concerns about drugs unraveling black solidarity, first expressed in the tune “Stone Junkie” he performed that winter night in January ’71. The nursery rhyme style of “Pusherman” is an early influence on hip-hop, while the full orchestration accentuates the drama. My mother had the album and the rap was so effective that I had memorized it when I was five years old. I remember in school we were allowed to bring in records and sing along if we want. That’s right, groundbreaking karaoke in 1974, yo. I played “Pusherman.” “I’m your mamma, I’m your daddy / I’m that n***a in the alley / I’m your doctor, when in need / Want some coke, have some weed…” Imagine the teacher leaping for the record player in slo-mo, mouthing the word, “noooooooo.” I was really upset that I was interrupted before I could get to the best part, “Ain’t i clean, bad machine / Super cool, super mean / Feelin’ good, for the man / Superfly, here i stand / Secret stash, heavy bread / Baddest bitches, in the bed.” I didn’t know what the words meant. My mother had to explain to the school that no, I didn’t borrow the record with her permission and no, it doesn’t glorify drugs and pimps, it’s just urban realism. Curtis was the real deal alright. Rather than sermonizing, he just provided the harsh details of reality and let you decide. Superfly’s influence was huge, inspiring dozens of copycats. But none could compare to this masterpiece.

Mayfield didn’t stop there. His subsequent albums are full of amazing music, from the environmentalist “Future Shock” to the funky “Kung Fu” and “Sweet Exorcist,” gorgeous love songs like “So In Love,” and “Billy Jack,” a hypnotically arranged song and powerful statement about gun violence that’s become only more relevant over the years. Rhino stopped it’s remastered deluxe reissues with Superfly. I hope they’ll follow through and give the rest of his albums the treatment they deserve.

Bill Withers - Just As I Am/Still Bill (1971-72)

Bill Withers shouldn’t be overlooked either. With his hits “Lean On Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine,” he should have been a big star. His first two albums were really strong, much better than, for example, the more celebrated Isaac Hayes. Thanks to a 2003 two-fer reissue on Raven, his reputation has been somewhat revived. As his self-deprecating album titles suggest, he was a humble factory worker. The cover shot to Just As I Am was taken during his lunch break. Menagerie (1977) is supposed to be good, and was reissued recently, but I haven’t heard it yet. Now if they would just reissue ‘Justments (1974). I do appreciate Isaac Hayes in all his over-the-top glory (Hot Buttered Soul (1969), Shaft (1971), Black Moses (1971), Joy (1973)…). His albums, among others, just can’t compete with Withers or the mighty Curtis Mayfield.

Rhino Handmade

Many of the albums listed above are available at Dusty Groove and Rhino

Read more: All Time Favorite Soul Albums

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