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Perfect 10: Funk-Soul Brothers

In the rich tapestry of the music industry, black male singers have consistently woven threads of soul, rhythm, and passion into the very fabric of our musical heritage, from the gospel roots of the Deep South to the soaring heights of rock and roll stardom.

Soul music and its sub-genres originated in the African-American communities in the mid-20th century, helping to shape the soundtracks of our lives and challenging societal norms, transcending boundaries of genre, race, and prejudice. With its profound impact on music, culture, and the world at large, soul has since become a key source of inspiration for artists and has birthed a number of offshoot styles.

One of those is, of course, funk, when their loose-limbed brothers and sisters created a more rhythmic, danceable solution in the 1960s.

The history of funk and soul is teeming with talent, but who are the ten greatest and most famous males of the genres? As a white(ish) man, I wouldn’t even dare to narrow it down and impose some kind of arbitrary rating system. Yes, some performers naturally stand out above the rest, and you can query whether Nat King Cole (1999, for what it’s worth) should be here — he’s not but only because his greatness falls outside the genres.

Don’t go getting dejected over Donny or irate about Isaac because in narrow terms, what I’m listicling today during Black History Month 2024 is a Perfect 10 defined by a very simple and personal purchasing criteria: the first clutch of black American males predominately known for their name above the titles who found their way into my record collection, in reverse chronological order. It really is that simple that even Ray Charles could see that.

Stevie Wonder 

Born Stevland Hardaway Morris in Detroit, Stevie Wonder’s incredible musicianship is seen as a hugely positive and pioneering influence throughout a range of genres. “Little Stevie” was blind from an early age and was quickly seen as a child prodigy, recording his first album at 12 years old, and his 1963 single Fingertips hitting the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 when he was just 13.

Wonder’s work has impacted artists in various genres such as funk, gospel, soul, jazz, pop, rhythm and blues. His unique implementation of synths and various electronic instruments in his work reshaped the R&B genre in the 1970s. A winner of 25 Grammys, his complex musical pieces brought strong social consciousness to the fore, and with hits such as Uptight, Superstition, Sir Duke, and Pastime Paradise he’s produced the Supremes and the Spinners and has been covered by everyone from George Michael to Coolio.

First purchase: The Definitive Collection (2002)

Smokey Robinson 

One of Detroit’s most enduring sons, William “Smokey” Robinson Jr. initially came to prominence as founder of the Motown vocal group, The Miracles. As provider of numerous hits including Shop Around, Tears Of A Clown and Tracks Of My Tears, Smokey was on top of it all as their frontman, main songwriter, and producer. He led the group from its inception in 1955, when they were known as the Five Chimes, until he went solo in 1972. 

While Robinson focused on his role as vice president at Motown Records, he still found time to conjure up classics for everyone from Mary Wells, The Marvelettes, The Supremes, The Temptations and the Four Tops and get covered by acts as disparate as The Rolling Stones, Blondie and Ella Fitzgerald. A renaissance in the 1980s with Being With You and Just To See Her was a pretty thing. 

First purchase: The Ultimate Collection (1998)

Barry White 

The man born Barry Eugene Carter was a two-time Grammy-winning singer, songwriter, producer and arranger. As the husky voiced balladeer Barry White, the so-called Walrus Of Lovehttps://www.stevepafford.com/inside-robbie-williams-box/ was famous for his bedroom baritone vocals and romantic aesthetic, which turned him into one of the world’s most unlikely sex symbols.

White was massive in the 1970s as a solo performer as well as singing with The Love Unlimited Orchestra, recording 20 albums, duetted with Tina Turner, and influenced a host of major musicians including David Bowie, Boyz II Men, Maxwell, and James Ingram.

Not only that, but his string-laden classic funk, soul, and disco classics, such as Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe, What Am I Gonna Do with You, and You’re The First, The Last, My Everything have been sampled by newer Brit stars including OMD, Robbie Williams, and Pet Shop Boys. 

First purchase: All-Time Greatest Hits (1995)

Marvin Gaye

Covered and sampled by everyone from Bowie to Madonna to George Michael, Pet Shop Boys and (oo-er) Robin Thicke, Marvin Gaye was a powerhouse performer, and massively instrumental in shaping Motown.

The voice of an angel — if we’re talking in pure vocal terms of any sex, colour or genre, he’d easily make my top five — and songsmith par excellence, Gaye co-wrote Dancing In The Street for Martha & The Vandellas, sang a series of duets with Diana Ross, Kim Weston, Mary Wells, and Tammi Terrell and enjoyed scores of hits such as How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), Here My Dear, I Heard It Through The Grapevine, Abraham, Martin and John, I Want You, and Got To Give It Up.

His 1970s albums Let’s Get It On and What’s Going On enabled him to become one of the first major Motown artists to break free of their factory line production company, with the latter a damning political statement as sadly relevant today as it ever was. Tragically, Gaye was gunned down in Los Angeles by his own father, not long after his 1982 album Midnight Love and its megahit Sexual Healing brought him fresh acclaim.

First purchase: The Very Best Of Marvin Gaye (1994) 

Luther Vandross

Luther Vandross was renowned for his sweet, soulful voice that could charm the easter eggs from a mother hen. His enduring popularity was in no small party due due to his solo output but he was also in constant demand as a background singer throughout his career — pairing up with artists as varied as Bette Midler, Todd Rundgren, Chaka Khan, Diana Ross, Judy Collins, Donna Summer, Ben E. King, and the man credited with “discovering” him, the dear old Dame David Bowie, on the Young Americans album in 1975.

Vandross briefly became a lead singer for the group Change, whose debut album The Glow Of Love made major waves. Signed to Epic, LV went solo in 1981 and released his own debut album, Never Too Much. He went on to sell over 40 million records globally, won 11 consecutive platinum albums (an R&B record for the time), and was awarded eight Grammys.

First purchase: The Best of Luther Vandross… The Best of Love (1989, though I bought Young Americans in ’85)

Bill Withers 

William Harrison Withers Jr. was a West Virginia country boy (and not a particularly open minded one at that) whose career spanned over two decades. A key figure in the development of blues, funk, and early disco, his top choons include Grandma’s Hands, Ain’t No Sunshine, Lean On Me, and Just The Two Of Us. 

Renowned for his smooth baritone voice and groundbreaking soul arrangements, Withers’ work was among some of the most widely covered of the 1970s, being tackled by everyone from Michael Jackson to Grace Jones and Club Nouveau.

With 1978’s eternally sunny Lovely Day, Withers set the record for the longest sustained note ever to hit the charts: an 18-second long high E. Everything starts with an E, see.

First purchase: Solid Gold EP (1989) 

Al Green

From the pulpit to the stage, whether he’s singing hymns or crooning love songs, the Reverend Al Green’s best tracks try a little masculine tenderness expressed through his swoonsome feline vocals. Indeed, few vocalists create the illusion of being carried away by the very song they’re singing the way Al could. Whether he’s exalting in a hard Memphis funk groove or layering multiple ethereal falsettos (cf the thrilling climax of Have You Been Making Out OK), the Rev. can evoke rapturous transport like it’s effortless. 

Though not as well known as, say, Let’s Say Together or I’m Still In Love With You, Loving You, a relatively restrained yet devotional deep cut from 1977, is one of my favourite Sunday songs. What’s cool about this track is just how strident and effortless he sounds. The truth was quite different — he worked hard on his output — but whether he’s singing about God or Eros, Green is the ultimate soul man. 

Perhaps it’s all best summed up by Talking Heads, who scored one of their most memorable hits with Green’s Take Me To The River, with David Byrne later remarking, “Coincidence or conspiracy? There were at least four cover versions of this song out at the same time: Foghat, Bryan Ferry, Levon Helm, and us. More money for Mr Green’s full gospel tabernacle church, I suppose. A song that combines teenage lust with baptism. Not equates, you understand, but throws them in the same stew, at least. A potent blend. All praise the mighty spurtin’ Jesus.” 

First purchase: Put A Little Love in Your Heart, with Annie Lennox (1988)

Michael Jackson

No, I’m not going to call him the King Of Pop. Names is for tombstones, baby. What Michael Jackson was was a singer, dancer, and, in later years, a songwriter who helped bring a Hollywood showbiz element in to pop. And like him or loathe him, he was one of the most important cultural figures of the 20th century.

After 1982’ sThriller became the biggest selling album ever, MJ’s influence on dance, fashion, and style made him one of there world’s true megastars, which was heightened by his increasingly erratic personal life. The influence of “Wacko Jacko” spanned numerous genres and dance styles, popularising the moonwalk and the robot dance moves. Jackson received more awards than any other individual musician before him.

Born in the rustbelt town of Gary, Indiana the same month as Madonna in nearby Michigan, Jackson’s career began in 1964 when he and his elder brothers formed the Jackson 5 (later renaming themselves the Jacksons as they ditched Motown for CBS). His solo career began in 1971 with twee pop ditties like Ben and Rockin’ Robin, and his breakout album, Off The Wall, propelled him to stardom eight years later. 

Jackson’s best musical moments thrived in their ability to transcend styles and transform expectations — the way the Jackson 5’s I Want You Back turns James Brown into bubblegum, the Afro exuberance mixed with vegan bite of Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, the way Human Nature dreams of connection while shivering in isolation. 

Many of his music videos, such as Billie Jean, Beat It, Thriller and Black Or White are hailed as groundbreaking moments in tearing down racial barriers in the entertainment industry. Yet what we now know about his life makes his music harder to enjoy, and it’s been argued that as his world darkened his voice devolved into a parodic arsenal of tics and cliché. Admittedly, though I’d not given him the time of day for the last 20 years of his life, his 1988 Bad Tour is still one of the most thrilling concerts I’ve ever seen. 

First purchase: Bad (1987)

James Brown 

Widely considered one of the greatest artists of all time, James Joseph Brown was a singer, musician, and bandleader who was a central figure in the rise of the funk genre. Given the much deserved epithet the Godfather of Soul, his career lasted over 50 years and heavily influenced artists across multiple genres.

With his distinctive gravelly voice, James Brown began his career as a gospel singer in Georgia, achieving national notoriety in the 1950s as the lead singer of the Famous Flames. He built up a reputation as a charismatic, energetic stage performer, and reached a peak in the 1960s with one of the essential concert recordings, the album Live At The Apollo. At the same time, his singles achieved great fame (ho-ho), including I Got You (I Feel Good), It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World, and Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag. Me? I came away from seeing Rocky 4 at The Point in Milton Keynes thinking he was the best thing about a rotten ham of a movie.

First purchase: Living In America (1986) 

Prince

Prince Rodgers Nelson was a singer, songwriter, and multi instrumentalist who was widely considered one of the greatest and most prolific artists that ever graced Planet Earth, if I can namecheck the album he was plugging when I saw him in concert for the first time (’07 at the 02).

Prince was famous for many things — how about his incredible vocal range, his love of colour ordination, his eccentric and often bizarre persona, and the time he changed his stage name to an unpronounceable logo symbol, which led to him being referred to as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince (TAFKAP) or The Artist for starters.

Typically, he played almost of the instruments on his records, and huge catalogue of self-produced songwriting spearheaded the rise of the Minneapolis sound, and gave everyone from Chaka Khan, Sinéad O’Connor and The Bangles their most memorable hits. With his undeniable influence reaching across multiple genres and styles — from pop, jazz, hip-hop, R&B, rock, soul, funk, and, well, too many genres to mention — Prince was not only of the best-selling musicians ever but a force of nature, a mammoth talent and a complete one-off. There can be no greater epitaph. 

First purchase: 1999/Little Red Corvette (1985, and my first purchase by a black act full stop)

Steve Pafford

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Perfect 10: Funk-Soul Sisters is here 

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