This was a fun list to compile. Note that there is a separate category for duo/group performances, so some folks whose omission may seem puzzling will appear there. And here we go with our surprise #1 . . .
1. Fontella Bass: “Rescue Me”
I went out on a bit of a limb by putting this one first, but this is after all a “favorites” list. Fontella Bass’ career is an interesting, varied and pretty underrated one, ranging from a collaboration with the Art Ensemble of Chicago (she was once married to Lester Bowie) to some great gospel work later in her career (her 1990s album No Ways Tired is one of my favorites) and is a powerful and nuanced vocalist with a beautiful, expressive voice. But she will always be best-known for one of the best soul songs not to come out of Memphis, Detroit or Muscle Shoals. She is aggressive and soulful here and I think it’s just beautiful.
2. Aretha Franklin: “I Say A Little Prayer”
An argument could be made that Aretha Franklin deserves at least 8 of the spots on this list, and I couldn’t argue against that. The Queen of Soul is one of the most powerful voices (in both the literal and more abstract sense of “voice”) in 20th century music, with skill and emotional resonance that are stunning and dozens of songs that demonstrate this. This is my personal favorite, ably showing both her gentleness and her capacity for jaw-dropping pyrotechnics, not to mention her interaction with her sisters Erma and Carolyn. Some of you are likely wondering what the other 7 would be if I did in fact populate 8 spots on this list with Aretha’s performances, so here goes: “How I Got Over” (from the Amazing Grace album – is that legit?), “Natural Woman,” “Dr. Feelgood,” “Hello Sunshine” (a song one seldom hears, but holy crap does she sing the tar out of this one!), “See Saw” and of course “Chain of Fools” and “Respect.”
3. Brenda Holloway: “Every Little Bit Hurts”
I’m realizing now that this track is my only representation of Motown on the list (though they get plenty of love on other lists, and Kim Weston probably would’ve been #11). Brenda Holloway’s list of noteworthy credentials aren’t long enough for her to get as much recognition as many of her Motown colleagues (this song, plus a songwriting credit on “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” later covered by Blood, Sweat and Tears), and she purportedly clashed with their power structure. “Every Little Bit Hurts,” however, is an underrated classic. Her singing is tender and vulnerable in some places and cut-straight-to-the-heart powerful in others. This is a real gem.
4. Etta James: “I’d Rather Go Blind”
There are many highlights of Etta James’ catalog, but this one is perhaps the most emotionally intense of the songs closely identified with her. This is some serious “grown folk music,” showing a level of maturity and control that is just stunning. Beyonce did a decent job with this song for a recent movie soundtrack (and don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with Beyonce), but a side-by-side comparison only goes to underscore the incredibly deep, powerful and nuanced performance that Etta brings to the song. There are a lot of other songs I could picked, both old (“Spoonful,” “Roll With Me Henry,” “Tell Mama”) and newer (her covers of Swamp Dogg’s “Born Blue,” Otis Redding’s “Dreams to Remember,” Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed”), but this iconic track still trumps ‘em all to my ears.
5. Nina Simone: “Nobody’s Fault but Mine”
Nina Simone is SO hard to categorize (is she jazz? R&B? blues?), but I didn’t put her in the jazz category, so I’d better put her here, lest my Nina-idolizing spouse happen to stumble upon my blog and see that I’ve omitted her favorite artist (we have a nice couch, but I’d prefer not to sleep on it). In all seriousness, Nina is super-deep, often chillingly so, singing (and playing the piano) with remarkable power and emotional gravity. This track, a traditional blues tune from the Nina Simone and Piano album, offers an unadorned glimpse into that power.
6. Lorraine Ellison: “Stay With Me”
An attentive listen to this song will not only make your heart hurt, but probably your throat as well. Ellison is probably the least celebrated vocalist on this list, and this was her only substantial hit (as an R&B hit, barely making the pop charts), but this is one of the most uninhibited and emotionally genuine performances in R&B history. Some of the song is hushed and subtle, but when she begins to plead with her lover to stay the sparks (and bits of vocal cord shrapnel) really start to fly. I have to be careful when this one comes on in the car, as allowing myself to fully get into it would be a public safety hazard.
7. Tramaine Hawkins: “Goin’ Up Yonder” (as recorded by Walter Hawkins)
I hemmed and hawed a bit about whether I could include this on an R&B list, but lyrical content aside (if you must, replace “Lord” with the proper noun of your choice) I do feel that this performance belongs alongside the others on this list. Against the backdrop of a hard-grooving rhythm section and eventually a dramatic choir, Hawkins (then the wife of recently-departed bandleader/songwriter Walter Hawkins) goes from a whisper to a scream to a scream-plus as she preaches about goin’ up yonder to be with her Lord. Personally I’m about as Christian as Tibetan singing bowls and gefilte fish, but regardless of faith, anyone who is the slightest bit into soulful vocals needs to get down with this recording.
8. Chaka Khan: “Ain’t Nobody”
The production on this song is so dated and so . . . well, kind of cheesy, but I love it and I really love the way Chaka sings on it. Like many of my generation (e.g. the early MTV era) I was introduced to her in the mid 1980s through her cover of Prince’s “I Feel for You” (with Melle Mel and Stevie Wonder) and to a lesser extent her scene-stealing guest appearance on Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love.” As I became more serious about R&B I discovered her work with Rufus and as I became more serious about jazz, a roommate hipped me to her album of acoustic jazz standards with Chick Corea, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard et al. I love her work on all of this (and her solo records), though I give the nod to her vocals that transform this potentially dated song into something soulful and timeless.
9. Dionne Warwick: “Walk On By”
You may have gleaned by now that I lean more towards the intense and bluesy in my tastes in R&B vocals, as opposed to the more restrained sounds of Diana Ross or Dionne Warwick. That said, I do have a soft spot for the Warwick/Bacharach collaborations, especially this song. Warwick is at her most soulful here, showing some grit while authentically projecting the sadness of the song.
10. Irma Thomas: “Ruler of My Heart”
One of the queens of New Orleans soul, Thomas came up with this classic in collaboration with producer/songwriter (and killer pianist) Allen Toussaint. Thomas’ vocals are plaintive and pleading, but unlike Lorraine Ellison above, she holds back just enough to project some degree of control (not a qualitative judgment here, just an observation). Her fabulous voice is at its most gorgeous on this track as well. The song itself was tweaked a bit and turned, as “Pain In My Heart,” into a classic Otis Redding track.