In my opinion, the black soul singers of the 70s that left an indelible mark on music are the following: Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Ron Isley, James Brown, Issac Hayes, Bill Withers, Bobby Womack, Philip Bailey, Eddie Levert, Willie Hutch, David Ruffin, Smokey Robinson and Eddie Kendricks.
But what about these singers made them so great? What was it about their voices and music that was so stirring? Well, let’s take a deeper dive into each talented artist and their contributions to music!
Black Soul Singers of the 70s
Let’s begin with the talented Marvin Gaye.
1) Marvin Gaye
Nicknamed the “Prince of Soul”, Marvin Gaye is one of the most influential Black soul artists of all time. He was a prominent player in the 60s Motown era but it was his dominance during the 1970s which made him a household name. Marvin Gaye is one of the most talented vocalists on the list with a natural four-octave range. His 1971 album, What’s Going On, opened up the new decade with socially and politically charged themes, addressing the unrest surrounding police brutality, racism, and war.
Throughout the decade, Gaye continued to record legendary albums such as Trouble Man, Let’s Get It On, I Want You, and Here, My Dear. The new decade also saw his music take on much more adult messaging with songs like, “Let’s Get It On”. From his voice to the content of his music, Marvin Gaye was an artist that transcended the genre of Soul into R&B.
My favorite Marvin Gaye song: “Trouble Man” from the Trouble Man Soundtrack, 1972. Marvin Gaye sings this entire groovy track in his upper octave. There are only three things for sure, taxes, death, and trouble.
2) Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder is a musical genius and is widely regarded as one of the greatest musicians of all time. This legendary figure in music is credited with pioneering and influencing musicians across all genres and walks of life. By the 1970s he was already a seasoned musician and at 20 years old, he blossomed in this new decade.
Stevie Wonder was a musician first and was capable of playing numerous instruments including keys (synthesizer), drums, and the harmonica. His style was often seen as erratic and his albums spanned multiple genres. Stevie Wonder truly makes music than can reach everyone.
My favorite Stevie Wonder song: “I Wish” – Songs In The Key Of Life, 1976. This is just an all-around fun song! The guitar and bass riffs carry the song while Stevie and the rest of the band get to work with fun lyrics and funky rhythm and horns.
3) Al Green
Albert Leornes Greene (known as Al Green) cemented himself as one of the best soul singers of all time with his run of successful hits during the 1970s. Al Greens’ signature smooth and sultry voice made his songs unique from many of the soul artists that came from the same school of sound.
His background in gospel music was heavily influenced by the likes of Elvis and other more modern sounds. He blended the two to create his signature sound which is still loved to this day.
My favorite Al Green song: is “Let’s Stay Together” off of the 1972 album of the same name is a timeless love song for the ages.
4) Curtis Mayfield
Cutis Mayfield is one of the most socially conscious and politically charged artists on the list. Like many others, his career began during the civil rights movement and Mayfield brought that social awareness into his version of soul music. In 1972 he recorded the soundtrack for the blaxploitation film Super Fly.
The film, about a drug dealer looking to get out of the game, was accompanied perfectly by Mayfield’s lyrics about relevant issues facing his community in real life. This album is regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time.
My favorite Curtis Mayfield song: “Pusherman” Super Fly, 1972. Curtis Mayfield makes an appearance in the film singing this smooth song about Priest, the Pusherman. The lyrics “Been told I can’t be nuthin’ else. Just a hustler in spite of myself.” resonates with those who see themselves in the film’s protagonist.
5) Ron Isley of the Isley Brothers
The Isley Brothers have led the evolution of soul music for nearly eight decades. During their run of releasing 12 albums during the 1970s, lead singer Ronald Isley carved out his own lane within the genre with his recognizable vocals and one-of-a-kind demeanor. Ronald led the group with his rock and influences as they dropped hit after hit trough out the decade.
My favorite Ron Isley song: “Voyage to Atlantis” – Go for Your Guns, 1977. A mesmerizing song about a woman as enchanting as the city of Atlantis.
6) James Brown
Though he was known as Soul Brother Number 1, it was Brown’s 70s funk sound that lands him on this list. During this decade, James Brown would stray away from standard vocal melody and pitch for a more rhythmic style that would lead the way to modern hip-hop and R&B cadences.
The Godfather of Soul made groovy and danceable hits all throughout the decade and joined others on this list by contributing to the amazing film scores of the blaxploitation era.
My Favorite James Brown: “The Payback” – The Payback, 1973. Hip-hop lovers will instantly recognize this song as it has been sampled time and time again. Brown lends his aggressive call-out style of vocals to this funky soul track.
7) Isaac Hayes
Isaac Hayes was a singer, songwriter, composer, and actor, whose work is still influencing creatives today. Hayes is a pioneer of Southern Soul music and his music featured funky themes of jazz and blues from Memphis, Tennessee. Hayes was an icon and sex symbol, often performing shirtless, adorned in gold jewelry, and wearing dark glasses.
Hayes was famous for taking listeners on a journey through his explorative music. Many of his popular songs are over 5 minutes long and feature various parts, versions, and re-works of other songs. The baritone vocalist is a 1970s staple whose music has contributed to the emergence of modern r&b and hip-hop.
My favorite Isaac Hayes song: “The Look of Love” – …To Be Continued, 1970. One of Isaac Hayes’s sexiest soul songs. This epic ballad comes in at over 11 minutes long!
8) Bill Withers
Bill Withers was a late arrival to the music industry compared to many of his peers. His career didn’t begin until he was nearly 30 years old and he continued to work his manufacturing while releasing the song “Ain’t No Sunshine”. He would win a grammy that same year and continue to record some of the most beloved songs of today during his career. His smooth baritone vocals were perfect for feel-good songs like “Lean on Me” and “Lovely Day”.
My Favorite Bill Withers Song: “Lovely Day” – Menagerie, 1977. Just an all-around positive and uplifting song. Try not to smile while listening to this song.
9) Bobby Womack
Bobby Womack was a versatile artist whose music spanned multiple genres and decades. He was known for his wild lifestyle, amazing voice, and having one of the best pens in all of music. A collaborative artist, Womack wrote songs for and recorded with artists including the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, and more well-known musicians. He was no stranger to risk and even dropped a country album in 1976, B.W. Goes C&W. Truly, a unique soul.
My favorite Bobby Womack song: “Woman’s Gotta Hate It” – Understanding, 1972. Mr. Womack gives us an OG’s lesson on how to keep a woman happy. “Then you got to stay on your P’s & Q’s”
10) Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind, and Fire
While it could be tough for fans to keep track of all the members of the group, there was one voice that stood out from the rest of Earth, Wind, and Fire: the voice of Philip Bailey. One of the most popular groups of all time was led by Bailey’s piercing falsetto. Bailey brought joy to fans across the world with Earth, Wind, and Fire’s fun pop and funk-inspired brand of soul music.
My favorite Phillip Bailey song: “I’ll Write a Song for You” by Earth, Wind, & Fire – All ‘N All, 1977. This song is one of the best examples of Bailey’s octave range. He bounces between tenor and falsetto for most of the song then spends the last minute belting vocal ad-libs that few could match.
11) Eddie Levert of the O’Jays
Reduced to a trio after the departures of two original group members, the O’Jays were confidently led through the 70s by lead singer Eddie Levert and his powerful vocals. Eddie’s signature vocals can be prominently heard on their numerous hit singles like “Back Stabbers”, “Love Train”, “Now That We Found Love”, “Use Ta Be My Girl”, and other forever favorites.
My favorite Eddie Levert song: “For the Love of Money” – Ship Ahoy, 1973. This song features spaced-out reverb effects notable in modern hip-hop music today. The infectious legendary bass line and continuous rhythm are accompanied perfectly by Eddie’s raspy melodies.
12) Willie Hutch
Arguably one of the most influential yet under-appreciated artists of a generation, Willie Hutch joins other multifaceted artists on the list. He was a prominent songwriter, vocalist, musician, and composer during the 1970s He rose to notoriety writing and producing for the soul group, the 5th Dimension, and went on to co-write songs that were recorded by Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, and other artists on this list!
His music portrays his delightful personality which could surely light up a room. He made it apparent that he was a man with deep feelings and a deep urge to party!
My favorite Willie Hutch Song: “Tell Me Why Our Love Turned Cold” – Fully Exposed, 1973. This song is about an unfortunate end to the love he once had. Willie puts his soul into this song as he does with so many of his other hits.
13) David Ruffin
The former Temptation broke off on his own during the 1970s and continued his career as a solo artist. While he did not reach the same level of success individually, his signature strong raspy voice and a number of popular top ten hits during the decade solidify him a spot on this list.
My favorite David Ruffin song is: “Walk Away From Love” – Who I Am, 1975 This might be the most cheerful breakup song I have ever heard. David belts his heart out and “Walks Away From Love” before it can break.
14) Smokey Robinson
Smokey Robinson is one of the originators of soul music in the 50s and 60s. The frontman and founder of the Miracles stepped into the dual role of solo artist and music executive during the 1970s. He continued to put out hits in this new decade and his silky falsetto continued to enamor fans.
My favorite Smokey Robinson song: “Cruisin’” – Where There’s Smoke…,1979. This might be one of the best driving songs of all time.
15) Eddie Kendricks
The second former Temptation on the list, Eddie Kendricks, took his acrobatic falsetto solo during the 70s. Much like his former bandmate David Ruffin, Kendricks failed to garner the same success individually as they did as a group. Still, Kendricks’s distinctive voice is still a favorite of soul music lovers today.
My favorite Eddie Kendricks’s song: “Intimate Friends” – Slick, 1977. This song about taking a friendship to the next level is a sweet melody Kendrick’s floats on.
Clap For ‘Em
These black soul singers of the 1970s are all legends in their own right. These legendary individuals collectively helped soul music become a transcendent genre during the 70s. There is no argument that is one of the most important eras in music history. The legacy of the artists on this list can be felt and heard across nearly every genre of music today.
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