As I look over this list, I notice some unintentional trends. There’s a lot of Motown (5 out of 10 tracks) and not a whole lot of music from after the 1960s (sorry O’Jays, Stylistics, Labelle, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Spinners, etc. – love y’all too!). My general preference for soulful yet nuanced vocals is demonstrated well on this list, I think.
1. Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”
Marvin Gaye’s stature as a vocalist pretty well speaks for itself – amazing voice, amazing soul and passion, great sophistication. While he had more famous duet partners (Diana Ross, Mary Wells, etc.), none were as musically compatible as Tammi Terrell. Tragically, her life was short (and thus so was her period of creative output), but her recorded legacy is timeless and she brought Marvin’s singing to new levels, particularly on this track, one of the most passionate in the entire Motown catalog. The day this song plays without me uncontrollably singing along is probably the day I get a tracheotomy.
2. Isley Brothers: “Harvest For The World”
The Isley Brothers have had among the most musically varied careers of any group in pop music history – from “Shout” to the first (pre-Beatles) hit version of “Twist and Shout” to “This Old Heart of Mine” to “It’s Your Thing” to all kinds of swanky ‘70s tunes like “For the Love of You” and “That Lady” all the way up through their hit hip-hop records. If there is another group or artist who has had this kind of longevity with continually successful new material, I can’t think of who they would be (some perspective: “Shout” was in 1959; their Baby Making Music album hit #5 on the Billboard album charts in 2006, #1 for R&B). Ronald Isley’s soulful, pleading voice has been the one common thread through all of this (as the various other brothers, O’Kelly, Ernie, Marvin, Rudolph and Sneezy [okay, I made one of those up] and brother-in-law Chris Jasper came and went over the decades). This remarkable piece of social consciousness (not a given in R&B) features some great playing, great background singing (relegated to the extended coda), thought-provoking lyrics and one of Ronald’s most nuanced lead vocal performances.
3. C and the Shells: “You Are The Circus”
The group is totally obscure – I’m pretty sure that I would have no idea of their existence if not for this tune’s inclusion on a Rhino box set (Beg, Scream and Shout – highly recommended). But man do they sing the crap out of it! The songwriting and production are also excellent, thanks to Jerry Williams, Jr., later to be known as Swamp Dogg. Sounds like a rapper, but no. In fact he did some great, under-rated stuff, especially the album Total Destruction To Your Mind. Also check out his great social commentary “Born Blue,” which was also covered compellingly on a live Etta James record.
4. Impressions: “Choice of Colors”
I have a great fondness for Curtis Mayfield’s groundbreaking solo work, but I find myself most often going back to his work with the Chicago-based vocal group the Impressions. There are a number of classics from their catalog (“Gypsy Woman” and “People Get Ready” just to name a couple), but this one always gets me kind of choked up. It is one of the greatest socially conscious songs in 1960s R&B, the energy is subtly intense, and Mayfield’s own lovely singing is well complemented by the rest of the group.
5. Sam and Dave: “Hold On, I’m Coming”
Sam and Dave were the quintessential soul music vocal duo. I personally am a bigger fan of Sam Moore’s vocals than Dave Prater’s, which I find to be a bit less skillful and versatile, but both of them are by far at their best when playing off each other. While there are a lot of great songs in their catalog, this one is their most iconic (“Soul Man” doesn’t count, because it’s the Blues Brothers who revived that level of interest in it, and “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” is perhaps equally great but as a ballad is a little left-of-center for defining them). A little Youtube-ing will likely lead you to one of several live versions of the song, where they work a crowd into a frenzy by extending the song’s ending and egging each other on.
6. Supremes: “Reflections”
Okay, I’ll admit it, I’m not a huge Supremes fan. I tend to like my R&B gritty, and their hit songs, while obviously brilliant, tend to be a bit polished for my tastes, as is true of this era of Diana Ross as a vocalist. There are notable exceptions, though (“Love Child” comes to mind) and this song is foremost among them. The opening spacey sounds of a ring modulator give way to a driving song and arrangement (featuring some great Funk Brothers work – Jamerson’s bass is characteristically brilliant and there are two tambourines). Buoyed by this, Diana and the ladies inject a layer of passion and pathos that make this track particularly resonant.
7. Four Tops: “Reach Out, I’ll Be There”
Levi Stubbs, longtime lead vocalist of the Four Tops, is in a sense the opposite Motown extreme of my description of Diana Ross above. That is, he is always super-passionate (I wonder what he sounded like ordering a sandwich (“puh-LEEEEASE can I have some may-OOOOO . . .”) and the other Tops matched his energy very well. This classic track, a quintessential example of Motown’s energetic side, is where it all comes together – the writing and production (who doesn’t love the knee-slapping during the intro?) of Holland-Dozier-Holland and the group’s energy combine for one of pop music’s most potent declarations of devotion and comfort.
8. Persuasions: “Papa Oom Mow Mow”
Perhaps a cappella should have its own category? In any case, the harmonies of the Persuasions knock me out virtually every time I hear them, and Jerry Lawson (who left the group a few years ago under mysterious and seemingly fairly contentious circumstances) is one of the great, underrated lead singers in R&B history. The “secret weapon,” meanwhile, is the booming bass of Jimmy “Bro” Hayes. This fun, silly cover song is not necessarily my favorite Persuasions track overall (there are a lot to choose from, especially soulful ballads, ranging from “People Get Ready” to the Grateful Dead’s “Black Muddy River”), but it is the most impressive place to start to understand their proud and legitimate claim of “We Don’t Need No Band.”
9. Martha and the Vandellas “Nowhere to Run”
Though lacking the longevity or hit-making power of the Supremes, the Vandellas were an indispensable part of the Motown clan, and Martha Reeves ranks as one of the most soulful vocalists on the label. “Dancing in the Streets” and “Heat Wave” are great, classic tracks, but the urgency of this song speaks to me the loudest among their hits.
10. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles: “More Love”
The final Motown entry on the list is one of Smokey Robinson’s most poignant performances and some of the most nuanced work on record by the Miracles. I’m not sure if I would call this my favorite overall track by the Miracles (that would more likely be “Tears of a Clown,” or maybe “I Second That Emotion”), but the vocal performance really knocks me out. Written by Smokey for his wife (and fellow Miracle) Claudette as a gesture of comforting after a miscarriage, there’s a particularly high level of emotional depth here. This is not to idealize their marriage, which had its issues and was ultimately not built to last, but it is unusual to hear a Motown song with such specific, personal meaning for the performer.