Compiling music lists can be impossible. And yet we still make them, convinced that somehow, some way, we can come up with a definitive one. When it comes to Black music, the rich smorgasbord of sound that encompasses, funk, soul, jazz, hip-hop, blues, and R&B makes such an attempt a more than daunting task, not to be undertaken by the faint of heart.
However, lists we must create and debate, if only to underscore that our music cannot be easily defined, categorized, or limited. We begin here with the first installment of our take on the most significant Black music songs ever made starting with those from the 1970s. Our criteria: songs that pushed the culture forward, predicted trends of the future, represented something uniquely Black and special, or had significance beyond the song itself.
“Funky Drummer” - James Brown March, 1970
Though the song stalled on the Billboard R&B charts at #20, it’s now credited as the most sampled song of all-time, largely due to Clyde Stubblefield’s drum solo. The song became the backbone of the nascent hip-hop era to come and has been used on more than 1700 songs.
“I’ll Be There”- The Jackson 5 August, 1970
Though he couldn’t have known it at the time, 11-year-old Michael Jackson was just getting started on a career that would ultimately make him one of the best-selling solo pop superstars in music history. Though he shares the lead on “I’ll Be There” with older brother Jermaine, it’s Michael’s plaintive vocals that truly bring home its emotional impact. In 2011, “I’ll Be There” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
“What’s Going On”- Marvin Gaye January, 1971
If the Black experience in America were a song, this would be it. Motown president Berry Gordy famously rejected Gaye’s insistence on doing a “protest” album. Fortunately, Gaye prevailed, and the rest is music history. Though it sold two million copies and went to #1 and #2 on the Billboard R&B and Hot 100 charts respectively, and was nominated for two Grammys, it didn’t win.
“Theme from Shaft” - Isaac Hayes September, 1971
The lush orchestrations and the popularity of the movie it was written for starring Richard Roundtree helped this song go to not just #1 on the pop and #2 on the R&B charts, but to also become a gold single. In 1972, Hayes was the first African American to win an Oscar for Best Original Song. “Shaft” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999 and was added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2013.
“Superfly” - Curtis Mayfield July, 1972
The quintessential soundtrack of the era, it exposed the ugly side of drug addiction and pimping that were then the scourges of the inner city. But it also showcased the era’s lush soundscapes and the emergence of Black creative talent that collaborated on films and music during the blaxploitation era. One of two million-selling singles from the soundtrack along with “Freddie’s Dead,” it picked up zero awards, but was added the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2019.
“Papa Was a Rolling Stone” - The Temptations May, 1972
Legendary Motown songwriters Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong wrote the definitive song about an absentee dad that was originally recorded by The Undisputed Truth. A Billboard #1 and winner of two Grammys in 1972, “Papa” would prove to be the last hit for the Temptations [what qualifies as a “hit?” Do we mean last #1 hit?], effectively ending Motown’s golden era in Detroit. The song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
“Midnight Train to Georgia” - Gladys Knight, 1973
Inspired by ‘70s icon, actress and model Farrah Fawcett, the song was initially about a midnight plane to Houston. The altered version was first recorded by Cissy Houston, but it became Gladys Knight and the Pips’ first #1 record after leaving Motown. It won a Grammy in 1974 for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
“Someday We’ll All Be Free” – Donny Hathaway 1973
This largely unheralded B-side of “Love, Love, Love” is one of the singer/songwriter’s most achingly beautiful works. From his 1973 classic album Extension of a Man, it stands the test of time as a balm to uneasy souls. Hathaway, who struggled with his mental health, died by suicide in 1979.
“Killing Me Softly With His Song”- Roberta Flack January, 1973
Marvin Gaye encouraged Roberta Flack to sing this song live before she’d even recorded it and the audience response was confirmation. It was Flack’s second consecutive Record of the Year Grammy in 1974, after “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” the year before. (She also won for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female). “Killing” went #1 three times, including for the Fugees in 1996 and as a house remix of the Flack version the same year.
“I Shot the Sheriff” - Bob Marley February, 1973
Bob Marley brought the Caribbean to the chat with this seminal reggae song, viewed as Marley’s statement on police brutality in his native Jamaica and around the world. It also helped solidify Marley, the superstar of reggae, as a presence in the U.S. As has been the case throughout music history, a white artist, Eric Clapton, covered the song and it went to #1 in the States (the only number one of his career). Clapton’s version was the one inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2003.
“Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” - Aretha Franklin November, 1973
Although the late Queen of Soul is rightly lauded for her spectacular vocals, the acoustic piano intro on this #1 R&B hit was played by Aretha Franklin as well. The gold-selling single was just one of the gems of Aretha’s astonishing ‘70s run of more than a dozen top 10 R&B hits that include “Spanish Harlem,” “Day Dreaming” ‘You’re All I Need to Get By” and “Rock Steady” from 1971-1972 alone.
“Lady Marmalade” Labelle - November, 1974
Group lead Patti LaBelle famously thought the song was vulgar, but despite that and its French chorus, “Lady Marmalade” is among the most memorable songs of the ‘70s due to that racy, yet catchy hook. Though the 2001 remake for Moulin Rouge, sung by Christina Aguilera, Maya, Pink, and Lil’ Kim won a Grammy, the Labelle version is the one that the Library of Congress added to the National Recording Registry in 2020.
“For the Love of Money” – The O’Jays April, 1973
Once the bass kicks in and the crackling live instrumentation begins, you are now experiencing The Sound of Philadelphia. Though the mighty O’Jays were actually from Ohio, they became associated with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s hitmaking, groundbreaking TSOP label and songwriting superiority. One of their many hits on the label, its lessons about the evils of greed remain just as relevant today.
“Be Thankful for What You Got” - William DeVaughn, March 1973
Though DeVaughn can rightly be considered a one-hit-wonder for this million-selling single, he’s also the author of an enduring classic. It’s a song that elicits memories of time, place and the specific joys and pains of being Black. Because who else would have “…gangsta white walls, a TV antenna in the back…” of a car but your uncle, daddy, pop pop, or flyest cousin from back in the day? There’s an undeniable pathos in the message of being thankful, even when you know your people have been denied basic human rights since they were first dragged to these shores.
“Lovin’ You” - Minnie Riperton January, 1974
Riperton and her husband, Richard Rudolph, not only collaborated on the song, which went #1 on the Hot 100 Billboard chart, as well as gold, but they collaborated on making their second child, actress Maya Rudolph, while working on it. Stevie Wonder co-produced the song, which Richard says reflects the couple’s loving relationship, anchored by Riperton’s otherworldly, ‘whistle register” vocals.
“That’s The Way Of The World” – Earth, Wind & Fire June, 1975
Maurice White founded the band to uplift listeners with the spirituality he was exploring in his own life. Among the significant songs EWF recorded during their chart domination in the era, this particular one, written along with White’s brother Verdine and longtime collaborator Charles Stepney, stands out for its hopeful, expansive view of humanity.
“I Wish” - Stevie Wonder November, 1976
The nostalgic song from Stevie Wonder’s nearly flawless Songs in the Key of Life album anchors the project with its yearning for times past and as the lead single, sets up one of the most extraordinary musical projects of all time. A number one hit across the board (Wonder’s fifth), it won a Grammy in 1976 and remains a classic among classics to this day.
“Good Times” - Chic 1979
One of the most important tracks of the disco era, Chic, formed by musicians Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, would craft hits not just for their own group, but also for Sister Sledge, Diana Ross, Debbie Harry, and more. They were also the group where a young Luther Vandross perfected his vocals as a session singer. The skate/club/roadtrip song was not just a top-selling single for its Atlantic label, but it’s also among the most sampled songs in music, such as “Rapper’s Delight.”
“We Are Family” Sister Sledge April 1979
Philly-based sisters Joni, Kathy, Debbie and Kim’s own familial closeness was the inspiration for the classic ‘70s groove, overseen by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic, who’d write and produce most of their big hits, including “Lost in Music” and “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” all linchpins of the disco era. Reportedly, lead singer Kathy, then just 19, did the blistering vocal in one take.
“Rapper’s Delight” – The Sugarhill Gang September, 1979
Although there remains some debate as to whether it’s hip-hop’s official first single, what’s undeniable is its lasting influence and its position as one of the genre’s earliest recorded hits. “Rapper’s Delight” charted on both the mainstream and soul charts (now the R&B/Hip-Hop songs chart), going as high as #4 on the latter. In 2014, “Rapper’s Delight” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
*Sincerest apologies to Teddy Pendergrass, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the Isley Brothers, Rufus f/Chaka Khan, Barry White and the Love Unlimited Orchestra, Stevie Wonder's entire "Innervisons" album, Betty Davis, Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway's duets, all the Philadelphia International groups outside of the O'Jays, The Gap Band, and Prince. All of these songs/albums and projects are worthy but are limited to 20 and the list above truly showcases the bands, groups, solo acts, and genres that had future significance and best exemplified the decade's prevailing themes.
Visit BET.com tomorrow for the next sampling of best songs from the 1980s.