Music from the 1970s still looms large, and has no doubt inspired countless artists working today in modern music. And when it comes to black male singers from this era, the 1970s was their time to shine and leave an impact on the music industry that’s still felt today.
So in this article, I’m going to provide you with my absolute favorite black male singers of the 70s. I’ll talk about their impact on music, the songs or albums they created that I love, and why I think they deserve our respect.
James Brown changed the world of music with his intricate musical arrangements. The way each instrument is interwoven and syncopated became the staple of the James Brown sound. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that the “J.Bs,” Brown’s third band, was founded.
Brown had a number of number one hits in the 70s including “Ain’t it funky now,” in 1970, “Super Bad (pt 1 & pt 2),”in 1971, and “Get On the Good Foot,” in 1972. In February 1974, his single “The Payback,” climbed rapidly to the top of the Billboard Top 100 charts. That single would not only be James’ last certified gold record, it would also be the first of three consecutive top charting singles that year.
James Brown was known for his dynamic personality and stage presence. He’d often do a high pitch scream or squeal. It initially may sound unpleasant to certain ears, but it was actually a great expression of the way his music was meant to make you feel. It’s intense and energetic, and effectively catches your ear in the best way.
His voice sounds the way barbecue taste: smokey, sweet, with a powerful flavor. He sings in such a way that you can always hear exactly what he was feeling in each song.
Browns voice also commanded every stage he stepped on. It wasn’t just that he was vocally dynamic either—this man could dance! His innovative dance moves inspired the work of other musical icons like Prince and Michael Jackson.
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Next we have one of my all-time favorite artists, Stevie Wonder. Born Stevland Morris of Saginaw, Michigan, Wonder first emerged onto the music scene at the very young age of nine years old. During those early years he performed under the name “Little Stevie.”
His single “Fingertips (part 2)” came when he was only thirteen years old, making him the youngest person to top the Billboard charts in 1963. It wouldn’t be long until “Little Stevie” grew up to be the musical powerhouse known today as Stevie Wonder.
It’s hard to recall the first time I heard Stevie Wonder sing. His music has always been a staple of the black community. It plays year round in grocery stores and coffee shops. It’s played consistently on “oldie” radio stations now, as well as non-stop in my 2006 Buick LaCrosse. Stevie Wonder is the type of artist that brings communities of every race, age, and gender together in harmony.
You can’t help but perk up once you hear the distinct sound of his voice ring out over your speakers. He sings in a sweet, conversational tone that conveys a sense of trust. To listen to his music is to feel as if you’ve known him for years.
His vocal range and ability is also unmatched. He can manipulate his voice to the point where you question whether or not it’s still Stevie on the track, like in his single “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for it.”
Stevie referred to the 1970s as his “Classical Period.” By the end of the decade, Wonder had undoubtably become one the most influential black male singers of the 1970s. His 1976 album “Songs in the Key of Life,” is widely believed to be his greatest body of work. The album included a myriad of his greatest hits including: “Sir Duke,” “Isn’t She Lovely, and “As.”
Whenever anyone brings up Marvin Gaye, you most often hear them talk about his 1971 album “What’s Going On.” Many people inside the world of music recognize this album as Marvin’s greatest body of work. Gaye’s time on Earth was cut short in the 1980’s, leaving behind a legacy of musical genius.
Marvin Gaye’s vocal style was heavily influenced by the sounds he heard in church growing up; much like many other funk/soul artists.
Marvin Gaye’s sound was reminiscent of early jazz and blues singers. He was heavily influenced by the deep sounds of Sam Cooke, whom he hailed as his idol. Gaye was one of the few black mainstream artists of the 70s whose music falls directly outside of the funk/R&B genre. His intention was to bring the jazz standard sound to the forefront of his creations. Though he did sometimes pull elements from other genres of music to create a richer sound and vocal track.
Al Green was no doubt one of the best soul singers to come out of the early 70s. His song “Let’s Stay Together” has become a staple of black weddings, black movies about weddings, family reunions and get-togethers. He’s such a staple, in fact, that he performed the theme song for the Showtime drama “Soul Food,” which first hit cable TV screens in 2000.
Green’s seductive tenor voice instantly transports you to a realm of immense pleasure and satisfaction. His range, especially in the 1970s, was incredible. He never missed an opportunity to showcase his falsetto on a track. His debut R&B/Soul album, entitled “Green Is Blues,” was released in the 1970’s—though his first hit single didn’t come until the release of his second album with the song “Tired of Being Alone.”
Al Green had a number of “secular” hits in the early 70s. His sexy, smooth, vocals influenced not only his predecessors but established artists, such as Marvin Gaye. In the late 70s, he made the switch from secular music to gospel. And if you think making that switch hindered his career in any way, well, you’d be wrong.
Green had a lot of success in the gospel music scene. The majority of his Grammys wins have been for his performances on gospel songs. His signature southern twang faired very well in the black gospel community. Some of his award winning songs are: “Lord Will Make a Way,” “Higher Love,” and “Precious Lord.”
In fact, Al Green became so successful and so mainstream decades after his debut in the music industry that he was featured in an episode of “Ally McBeal.” Let that sink in.
Bill Withers is a legend of his time.
Withers’ career didn’t really take off until the 1970s. He rode a wave of consecutive hits throughout the decade, creating a lasting impact along the way. Many of his hits from the decade have reappeared on TikTok recently, like “Just the Two of Us” and “Lovely Day.” When we’re talking about amazing black male singers of the 1970’s, it would be almost criminal to not include the incomparable Bill Withers.
There’s something special about the deep melodic sound of Withers. When his voice plays over the speakers, you feel transported back to the time when men were walking around with mini fro’s and funky brown suits. Withers often sounds so wise, like on his song “Lean On Me.” His voice conveys an element of smooth, controlled emotion that I find is just so pleasing to hear.
His 1971 hit “Ain’t No Sunshine” is no doubt classic that transcends its time. You can hear the pain of heartbreak in his voice as he strokes the guitar, singing about a woman who’d left him and stolen his light. The most notable part of that song is the series of “I know’s” that bridge the second and third verse. He sings them effortlessly, and as anyone who’s attempted to sing this song will tell you, it requires a lot of air to push out.
Wither’s was able to sustain his notes for long periods of time, which was another thing that made him incredible. The first song off of his “Menagerie” album, “Lovely Day,” has a chorus that’s literally just Bill holding the same note for sixteen seconds over a loop of him singing “lovely day.” And it’s just wonderful. His career was short lived; he retired from music in 1985, but his impact on music and black culture were substantial.
Ron Isley (The Isley Brothers)
The Isley’s brothers influence on music is undeniable. Lead singer Ron Isley’s vocals are hypnotic on top of the band’s rhythm. Ronald Isley is a notable mention on this list because it was his voice that propelled the Isley Brothers’ sound.
One of their most influential songs, “Footsteps in the Dark (Pt 1&2),” comes off of their “Go For Your Guns” album. This track is a certifiable bop. Ron’s voice fits the song perfectly as he pleads for his woman to stay with him and stop moping around in the dark. His tone is loving and persuasive at the same time.
The Isley Brothers had a number of hits before the 1970s, but amassed a great deal of success in the 70s with their funky groove. They even have a joint album with the rock legend Jimi Hendrix entitled “In the Beginning!” The third track on the album, “Testify, Pts 1 & 2,” might be an underrated banger. Ron Isley gives a lively performance, where he heavily combines Jimi’s Rock ’n’ Roll sound with the Isley Brothers’ soul-funk rhythm.
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Bob Marley (Bob Marley and the The Wailers)
Robert Nesta Marley, otherwise known as Bob Marley, is truly a legend. His music united the African Diaspora under the promise of One Love. He was a carrier of light and love, but also an advocate of the truth.
His thick Jamaican accent gave every word he sung a carefree emotion to it. His raspy voice quickly became iconic, especially as he began to put out hit songs in the mid 70s. His first international hit song was the iconic “No Woman, No Cry.” It was an anthem for forgetting the past and moving on.
I think Bob Marley’s voice sounds amazing on slow ballads (like “No Woman, No Cry”) because his voice is so incredibly soothing. It’s kind of ironic, then, that you can actually hear the pain in his voice when he recounts certain memories. But to me, his voice doesn’t sound sorrowful here. If anything, he sounds grateful to have had those past experiences because he’s moved forward in his life.
Marley’s tone could also get very serious depending on the subject he was singing about. For example, on a song like “400 years,” his tone is much deeper, almost conversational, as he talks about the treatment of people of color during that time. Marley had a number of tracks that could be used as a soundtrack for a revolution, and this was certainly one of them.
Four hundred years (four hundred years, four hundred years, wo-o-o-o)
And it’s the same
The same (wo-o-o-o) philosophy
I’ve said it’s four hundred years
(Four hundred years, four hundred years, wo-o-o-o, wo-o-o-o)
Look, how long (wo-o-o-o)
And the people they (wo-o-o-o) still can’t see
Why do they fight against the poor youth of today?
And without these youths, they would be gone=
All gone astray
Bobby Womack has a sultry voice. But it’s also a voice that has a raspy tone to it. And a warm tone to it. And even a rugged tone to it.
His work is soulful in the way many black singers of the 70s were, but it’s his unique sound (and melodies) that set him apart from the rest. Bobby Womack had various Billboard hits throughout his career, a good collection of which were released in the 1970’s. Most of Womack’s hits of this decade smashed the R&B charts.
Unlike many on this list, Womack is not as big of a household name. But that doesn’t mean he can’t stomp with the big dogs.
Ray Charles was such an immense talent, and spanned so many decades, that it almost seems unfair to have him on this list. But he was so undeniably great, and so undeniably important, that it would be criminal to not include him.
And sure, one could argue that, given the changing music scene come the 1970s, that Ray Charles’ star was beginning to dim a little. But, even if you believe that to be true, it didn’t stop him from releasing great music.
Take 1972’s “A Message From the People” for instance, which not only featured the incredible, gospel infused “America the Beautiful,” but also a song like “Abraham, Martin and John,” which is dedicated to the lives of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and John F. Kennedy.
But, because “A Message From the People” is a bit of a protest or social justice-leaning album, it’s a song (and album) that also ponders why tragedy and injustice happens in the world, and what we can do to make life better for everyone.
Curtis Mayfield is an amazing black male artist from the 70s. He had immense success as the lead singer of The Impressions in the 1960s, but his career blew up after going solo in the 1970s. Some of his biggest 1970s hits include: “Move On Up!,” “Pusherman,” and “Freddie’s Dead.”
Mayfield’s vocal style was rhythmic and would sing in a sweet, high tenor voice. On his song “Freddie’s Dead,” his words mirror the beat of the hand drum being played in the background.
As a solo artist, you could also hear the gospel influence in the way he sings. In the song “Get On Up,” he employs a gospel tone of voice, almost preachy, over a latin swing beat. You can also hear a call and response between Mayfield and the horn section during this song. Call and response has roots in African and African American music.
Mayfield was also thought to be an innovator of his time because of his contributions to the funk genre. His musical arrangements featured complicated drum patterns and diverse horn sections.
The Brothers Johnson
George and Louis Johnson are known better by their stage name The Brothers Johnson. Both brothers sung while they played instruments; George on guitar & Luis on bass. The group earned two platinum records before they split up in the early 1980s. Those records were their first LP (“Look Out for #1”) and their second studio album “Right On Time.” This dynamic duo is most popular for their late 1970s hit “Strawberry Letter 23,” which topped the R&B charts in 1977.
The vocal style of The Brothers Johnson is very conversational. It almost sounds like they’re reciting their lyrics rather than singing them. Their voices on their first hit “I’ll Be Good to You” are much more emotional over a slower track. The delicate falsetto voice of Brother Louis underneath George’s strong baritone is undeniably fantastic.
It’s hard to single out one of these brothas for this list. So, I’m going to call an audible. Since they sing in such great harmony together together, I’ll add them to this list as one single submission.
Smokey Robinson, born William Robinson, Jr., is one of the most iconic artists to come out of the Motown era. The world first saw Robinson as the lead singer of the Miracles in the 1960s. The group amassed a number of hits during the 60s with Smokey at the helm. However, in the early 70s, Robinson decided to leave and focus his energy on himself and his family.
In 1973, Robinson released his first solo album entitled Smokey. It was on this project that we see the formation of his signature lush R&B sound. His vocals are smooth, with a hint of smoke. There’s a tinge of raspiness underlining his sweet, sincere tone. It’s smoother than butter on warm toast.
Smokey Robinson became almost synonymous with the pop ballad. His voice sounds amazing when spread over a slow track. When he has room to stretch syllables or hold notes, you can hear his natural vibrato. You can also note a slight airiness when he switches into his head voice to reach notes that are higher in his range.
Smokey had a number of R&B hits in the 70s. Most notably, his single “A Quiet Storm,” off of his 1975 album with the same name, and “Baby, That’s Backatcha,” which was on the same album as well. Robinson’s 1979 hit, “Cruisin’,’ was actually rerecorded in the 1990s by R&B singer D’Angelo. And this helped give the song, and Smokey a bit of new life.
The warm, seductive sounds of Tyrone Davis captivated the hearts of black women in the 1970s whenever his voice rang out. Davis entered the 1970s riding a wave of success from his late 60s hit, “Can I Change My Mind.” The hits by no means stopped there. Davis would go on to put out forty-three hit singles between 1968 and 1988.
Tyrone Davis’ sound was very warm and comforting. His style was versatile, and he could always deliver a heartfelt performance over a power ballad. After switching record labels in the mid-70s, however, you begin to hear more of his luscious vocals over pop and disco grooves.
Davis’ vocal performances on songs like “If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time” show off his vocal agility. He’s able to maintain the emotion of being heartbroken and in love while also sticking to the uptempo groove.
It’s hard to believe that the man with arguably the most impressive voice on this list could also be one of the most underrated artists on this list.
Donny Hathaway was an incredible singer in the 1970s, most popular for his Christmas anthem “This Christmas.” A song that’s absolutely impossible to have not heard, let alone love, “This Christmas” is a holiday staple that some love so much, they genuinely believe it doesn’t feel like Christmas until they’ve heard this song.
Donny’s voice had a very unique quality to it. It was airy and bold and clear. He always sung like his life was on the line. It sounded like he poured his heart out on every track and left it all out on the field. His song, “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” is a great example of the way in which Donny’s emotions were always laid bare for the world to hear.
His most notable body of work was a1971 self-titled album (“Donny Hathaway”). It included iconic hits like “Love, Love, Love,” and “A Song to You,” the latter of which actually played during the first season of HBO’s Euphoria.
Michael Jackson quickly found success outside of his family band “The Jackson Five.” He released his first solo album in 1972, entitled “Got To be There.” The album displayed the vocal range of a young Michael Jackson.
From an early age, Jackson displayed incredible vocal talent. His prepubescent voice was delicate at times and quite strong on other occasions. He had a nice tonality and a knack for showmanship.
Sure, Michael was the powerhouse of the group, often times singing lead, but where would he be without the help of his brothers: Tito, Jermaine, Randy, Marlon and Jackie? Not only did they each play instruments, they routinely sung back up for Michael. They perfected their five part harmony, and with Michael at the forefront of the group, the Jacksons stood apart.
Their 1970s single “ABC” was one of their biggest and most recognizable hits in their catalog. A young Michael Jackson’s voice is high pitched, but when he sings a song like “Maybe Tomorrow,” that childlike tone to his vocal performance all of the sudden becomes an impressive powerhouse.
If I were to single out another member from this group aside fro Michael, I’d go with Jermaine Jackson. In fact, if you doubt the vocal talent of Jermaine, be sure to check out his songs “That’s How Love Goes” and “Daddy’s Home” from 1972. You’ll thank me later.
As for Michael, well, he continued to put out solo records during the 1970s. As he grew, he became even more of a powerhouse. The 70s ended with arguably Jackson’s best album–the 1979 album “Off the Wall”–which was the world’s introduction to the funky sound of teenage-turned-young-adult Michael Jackson.
It’s easy to forget that Off the Wall came out when Michael Jackson was getting ready to turn 21-years-old. Let that sink in for a minute.
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This article was written by Kristen (and edited by Michael), with one select addition by Michael (Ray Charles).