This was a really tough one to narrow down to 10, and I’m conscious that a number of all-time great singers were left off. In some cases I could justify it because they’ve gotten their props elsewhere (e.g. Marvin Gaye, whose work with Tammi Terrell is cited in the “Duo or Group” list; Stevie Wonder, meanwhile, gets his own list), and it’s important to note that this list applies only to solo performances and not to lead vocals under a group name. But recognizing that I set the bar high and allowed myself to go with personal tastes, here we go:
1. Jackie Wilson: “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher and Higher”
Wilson’s exuberance was unsurpassed among R&B vocalists, and he had the chops to really soar when things got exciting. As a fan, he’s a tricky case for me, as I find his recordings to generally be schmaltzy enough that I have to work to block out the production in order to experience the joy of listening to his voice. This track, with a band comprised mostly of moonlighting members of Motown’s Funk Brothers, is a notable exception, one in which a fairly simple statement of romantic devotion is amplified to the point of being profound. Full disclosure: I love this recording so much that we had this one sung at our wedding ceremony
2. Al Green: “I Want To Hold Your Hand”
Speaking of exuberance, the Rev. Green has no shortage of that. I had the pleasure of hearing him live for the first time this fall, and his voice is as spry and soulful as ever, with his range seemingly undiminished (no mean feat for someone who’s been going as long as he has). He sang most of his biggest hits that night, and they were excellent, but this early recording is my favorite (and would likely top a list of favorite Beatles covers if I were to do one of those). Over a simple, rocking instrumental track, Green gives a virtuoso performance in which you can virtually see his wide-faced grin as you listen.
3. Bobby Bland: “Call On Me”
I love Bobby “Blue” Bland’s voice and I love both extremes of his vocal range – not range in the sense of high and low (though I dig that too), but rather the sly, understated bluesiness and the passionate cries that are so gravelly that you have to wonder if he’s about to sever a vocal cord. His more blues-based material (e.g. “Farther Up the Road,” “Turn On Your Lovelight” or his version of “Stormy Monday”) is certainly a great place to start, but my favorites tend to be the catchy proto-soul tunes like “There Ain’t Nothin’ You Can Do,” “Who Will the Next Fool Be?” and this incredibly catchy, bouncy-tempo love ditty.
4. Otis Redding: “Try A Little Tenderness (Live at Monterey)”
If this were a list of Top 10 male R&B singers (and not performances), Otis would be #1 for me. I can only imagine what he would have come up with had he not been taken from us so young. Even as it is his body of work is tremendous and his singing style represents all I love in soul singing – nuance, richness of vocal tone and unbridled passion. There are a number of live recordings of Otis singing this one (in addition to the studio recording, which is also great) and I’ve never heard one I don’t love. The passion is unmatched on this version, which also was a historical landmark, exposing him to the young hippie set and inspiring him to write his posthumous signature tune “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.” His singing on the last couple minutes of this recording is so passionate that I sweat just listening to it.
5. David Ruffin: “My Whole World Ended the Moment You Left Me”
Of course I dig Ruffin’s work with the Temptations, of course – “My Girl,” “I Know I’m Losing You” and so on. But this song, his most significant solo single (in my opinion), is just off the hook. The passion with which he projects his longing here is almost disarming, and the richness of his voice gives it even more depth. Someone give this man a hug!
6. Ray Charles “I Don’t Need No Doctor”
Okay, YOU try to come up with one Ray Charles performance for a list like this. I dare you. One way that I tried to narrow it down was to really zone in on the R&B side of his vast persona. It was extremely hard not to cite “Night Time is the Right Time” or “What’d I Say” (not to mention comparative obscurities like “the Sun Died” and “My First Night Alone Without You”), but the balance of passion and subtlety on this one particularly speaks to me.
7. Brenton Wood: “Gimme Little Sign”
The world needs one-hit wonders too (though technically he had another, the endearing “Oogum Boogum Song”). The song is catchy as hell, and Wood sings it masterfully as he creates a ‘60s pop classic. His tone is great and so is his range. This recording is also noteworthy for containing possibly the cheesiest organ solo in modern pop music history (but I love that too).
8. James Brown: “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World”
Perhaps to an even greater extent than with Ray Charles, it’s hard to separate James Brown’s vocal delivery from the whole package of his music. Certainly if I were to pick a JB tune for a time capsule I’d be inclined to pick one of his more up-tempo dance numbers, say “Cold Sweat” or “Sex Machine” or maybe “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag.” But for the vocals themselves, his passionate reading of this slow, emotive song is second to none.
9. Sam Cooke: “Cupid”
Like Jackie Wilson, much of Cooke’s work is marked by schmaltzy production, though to my ears it is a bit less conspicuous, perhaps due to the generally high quality of Cooke’s songwriting. I could easily make a long list of favorite vocal performances by Sam Cooke, and this cute yet passionate one is the one that I would take to the desert island (with the caveat that I see “Bring It On Home to Me” as a duet with Lou Rawls and not as a solo performance, even though it was released only under Cooke’s name, and as for overall tracks I might be inclined to move forward in time to “A Change Is Gonna Come” or backward to “Touch the Hem Of His Garment” with the Soul Stirrers).
10. Little Willie John: Fever”
Confession time: I have become pretty jaded by the song “Fever,” having heard (and/or participated in) countless lackluster versions of the song. As such, it’s easy for me to dismiss the tune when I’m feeling crotchety, but I’m also conscious not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Little Willie John was a sublime vocalist. I dig all of his recordings, but this track is to my ears the one where his great voice and delivery were matched with a song that (at least in his hands) was totally worthy of him as a performer.