BLUES AND SOUL’S 40 ESSENTIAL SOUL SINGLES

1. MARVIN GAYE – â��I HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINEâ�� (Tamla 1968)This isn’t my favourite Marvin Gaye track, but I do consider it his most essential and because of its impact soul’s most essential too. In just over a little more than three harrowing minutes Marvin delivers as much anguish, grief and passion as any Shakespeare tragedy. It proves that soul music – at its best â�� is indeed high art.

2. JAMES BROWN – â��PAPA’S GOT A BRAND NEW BAGâ�� (King 1965) We know that rhythm is a soul music essential, so this record must be essential too; its pure, primeval rhythm. There’s nothing here that’s unnecessary and it took dance music (and soul too) in a whole new direction.

3. OTIS REDDING – â��SITTIN’ ON THE DOCK OF THE BAYâ�� (Volt 1968) Recorded just 3 days before he died, if any record is about mood, this is it. It’s a meditative piece which proves that soul doesn’t have to be strident. Strong? Yes. Emotive? Yes and Otis is both despite his weariness and distant separation from his roots.

4. ARETHA FRANKLIN – â��RESPECTâ�� (Atlantic 1967) If â��Dock Of The Bayâ�� proved Otis the King of Soul, then this surely crowns Aretha the Queen, and it’s no coincidence that it’s a Redding song. From the perfect phrasing to the piano chords, Franklin brings to the song everything she’d learned in the church and any record that doesn’t have its roots in Gospel sure ain’t soul.

5. FOUR TOPS – â��REACH OUT I’LL BE THEREâ�� (Motown 1966)
Because of its pop history you may be forgiven for thinking that this record had nothing to do with the church. But listen (not even carefully) and you’ll hear the vocal dynamic of a hell-fire preacher in the passion of Levi Stubbs. The fact that it was a huge hit makes it even more essential.

6. CURTIS MAYFIELD – â��MOVE ON UPâ�� (Buddah/Curtom 1971)
Inexplicably, this remarkable record wasn’t issued as a single in the States till 1974. By then the UK had picked it as a soul essential. Like all great art, its theme is universal but the song also reflects the immediacy of its time. The track is delivered with conviction and optimism; like all great soul artists Mayfield believed a change was gonna come… eventually.

7. MARTHA & THE VANDELLAS – â��DANCING IN THE STREETSâ�� (Gordy 1964) Are you ready for a brand new beat? Well the beats and rhythms of Motown weren’t absolutely brand new – but new enough in ’64 to declare a new sound. The Sound of Young America? Maybe? Certainly THE sound of mid-sixties urban soul.

8. SLY & THE FAMILY STONE – â��DANCE TO THE MUSICâ�� (Epic 1968) All music has rules (written or unwritten) and just as â��Papa’s Got A Brand New Bagâ�� broke ’em, so too does this Sly Stone event. Here he took black music conventions and garnished them with the funk equivalent of rock – and soul was never quite the same ever again.

9. THE TEMPTATIONS – â��MY GIRLâ�� (Gordy 1965) Take a great writer (Smokey Robinson), an outstanding vocalist (David Ruffin) and sensational players (the Funk Brothers) and you have recipe for an essential soul single. Custom will never stale its infinite variety.

10. THE DRIFTERS – â��THERE GOES MY BABYâ�� (Atlantic 1959)
In the fifties, what was to evolve into soul was called R&B. It was usually rough, ready and simple. Here noted writers/producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller dared to be different. Strings, Latin rhythms and complex overdubs took R&B and, by extension, soul in a whole new direction.

11. PERCY SLEDGE – â��WHEN A MAN LOVES A WOMANâ�� (Atlantic 1966) If soul’s about passion, then this is essential. â��When A Man Loves A Womanâ�� is a very simple song but it’s the embodiment of pure passion. Like all the songs on this list its fame and popularity doesn’t detract from its global appeal.

12. SAM COOKE – â��A CHANGE IS GONNA COMEâ�� (RCA 1965)
Almost all Sam Cooke’s singles are essential. He was, after all, one of the genre’s founding fathers. Here though he’s right back to his Gospel roots with a dream he dared to dream but never lived to see fulfilled. Interestingly the original album cut has an extra, ‘controversial’ verse edited out from the single.

13. RAY CHARLES – â��WHAT’D I SAYâ�� (Atlantic 1959) Brother Ray is soul’s other founding father and this epochal single is soul’s foundation stone. Gospel, Jazz, R&B, Pop, and more fused into a new sound and every soul record since owes something to it.

14. STEVIE WONDER – â��SUPERSTITIONâ�� (Tamla 1972) This record is essential. It stands right on the cusp of the old and the new. Stevie sings with the intensity of an old-time store-front preacher but he’s supported by new, cutting edge studio technology and full-on synths. Once again, soul moves in a new direction.

15. THE MIRACLES – â��OOO BABY BABYâ�� (Tamla 1965) Correctly labelled here – this is a group effort but Smokey Robinson dominates on his own special song. He offers a masterclass in how to use a remarkable voice and, as with other milestone tracks, sweet soul ballads were changed forever.

 

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