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15 Essential Soft Soul Songs from the Early ‘70s

The Stylistics: Falsettos, Polyester Suits, Afros

The Stylistics: Falsettos, Polyester Suits, Afros

In the early 1970s, it was a custom for African-American men to sport large Afros, wear polyester suits, and sing in falsettos that made wine glasses tremble.  Here are 15 groovy soft songs of love and heartbreak from 1970 to 1972.  The line below lists the songwriters and the peak position on the pop charts.  I know you can dig it, baby.

 

Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time), Delfonics -1970

(Thom Bell, William Hart) (#10)

 Producer/songwriter Thom Bell was one of the chief architects of the “Philadelphia Sound,” a style that used lush arrangements and sweeping strings.  Bell took the Delfonics to #4 on the pop charts with “La-La (Means I Love You)” in 1968 and took the band back to the Top Ten with this elegant ballad.  William Hart continues to tour with a version of the Delfonics and younger music fans may know “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind)” as a significant part of the plotline from Quentin Taratino’s 1997 blaxploitation homage Jackie Brown. 

  

It’s A Shame, The Spinners – 1970

(Stevie Wonder, Lee Garrett, Syreeta Wright) (#14)

Harvey Fuqua, onetime leader of the ‘50s doo-wop group the Moonglows (“Sincerely,” “Ten Commandments of Love”), signed the Spinners to his Tri-Phi label in 1961 and the Detroit soul group had their first hit that year with “That’s What Girls Are Made For.” In 1963, Motown bought out the entire Tri-Phi roster and the Spinners had such limited chart success, they were often relegated to doing office jobs or working as chaperones.  Stevie Wonder co-wrote and produced The Spinners biggest Motown hit and while the lyrics are trite, the polished vocals, the clever opening guitar riff, and the perfectly integrated horn section make “It’s A Shame” indespensable listening.

  

Love on a Two Way-Street, The Moments  – 1970

(Sylvia Robinson/Burt Keyes) (#3)

“Love on a Two Way-Street” was co-written by Sylvia Robinson from Mickey & Sylvia (“Love is Strange) and originally recorded in 1968 by Lezli Valentine (who had performed as a backup vocalist on “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” by The Jaynetts in 1963).  The Moments recorded their chorus hooked version in 1968, but it wasn’t released as a single until 1970.  Originally viewed as an album filler track, this soft soul ballad about losing a first love topped the R&B charts for five weeks.  The Moments evolved into Ray, Goodman & Brown and scored a #5 pop hit in 1979 with “Special Lady.”

  

Have You Seen Her, The Chi-Lites – 1971

(Barbara Acklin, Eugene Record) (#3)

 

The Chi-Lites started in the doo-wop tradition in the late 1950s and scored their first pop hit in 1971 with the income inequality statement “(For God’s Sake) Give Me Power to the People.”  Vocally, “Have You Seen Her,” the group’s second hit, is firmly in the doo-wop tradition with Eugene Record’s glass shattering falsetto on top. Luckily, the quality of the singing and the chorus can carry the listener through the campy narrated passages.

  

Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me), The Temptations – 1971

(Norman Whitfield, Barrett Strong) (#1)

After releasing a series of psychedelic funk singles that were commercially successful, yet alienated some of the group’s core fan base, Norman Whitfield went back to the Temptations’ traditional smooth soul sound with “Just My Imagination.”  A dream of eternal marital bliss with a taken woman, this was the last single with founding members Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams.  The Stones do an excellent cover version on their 1978 Some Girls album.

  

Thin Line Between Love and Hate, The Persuaders – 1971

(Richard Poindexter, Robert Poindexter, Jackie Members) (#15)

The Persuaders were a tight New York based vocal R&B group, with a soft soul sound similar to the Stylistics and the Chi-Lites.  On “Thin Line Between Love and Hate,” a cheating man is welcomed with open arms by his woman at five in the morning.  Later, he awakes in a hospital, almost beaten to death.  “Thin Line” would later be covered by the Pretenders and the band’s 1973 hit “Some Guys Have All the Luck” became a Top Ten pop hit for Rod Stewart in 1984.

 

 You Are Everything, The Stylistics – 1971

(Thom Bell, Linda Creed) (#9)

“You Are Everything” was the first major pop hit for The Stylistics, a statement of all consuming love with more of a traditional vocal group arrangement than their later hits.  Thom Bell uses an electric sitar as the lead instrument and it floats on top of the typically lush bed of strings.  The music dramatically swells before the chorus, highlighting Bell’s ability to wring maximum emotional impact from his arrangements.

  

Betcha by Golly, Wow, The Stylistics – 1972

(Thom Bell, Linda Creed) (#3)

 Producer Thom Bell wasn’t too impressed with The Stylistics as a unit, but he loved the falsetto voice of lead singer Russell Thompkins, Jr.  While Motown was moving toward a more socially conscious lyrical direction, Thom Bell was creating a new brand of supper club soul.  Lyrically, “Betcha By Golly, Wow” is a saccharin overdose, but Thompkins voice is such a splendid instrument, you barely notice the references to candyland and ordering custom made rainbows.

 

 

Everybody Plays the Fool, The Main Ingredient – 1972

(J.R. Bailey, Rudy Clark, Ken Williams) (#3)

Harlem based vocal trio The Main Ingredient started recording in 1965 as The Poets and after a few name changes began hitting the R&B charts regularly in 1970. “Everybody Plays the Fool” is a smooth soul record featuring a universal message – heartbreak happens – and the agile vocals of Cuba Gooding, Sr.  Songwriter Rudy Clark has some impressive credits:  “Got My Mind Set on You,” “It’s in His Kiss (The Shoop Shoop Song),” and “Good Lovin’.”

 

I Can See Clearly Now, Johnny Nash – 1972

(Johnny Nash) (#1)

 

Texan born soul singer Johnny Nash started recording as a teenager in the 1950s and, as one of the first American artists to record in Jamaica, helped to introduce reggae music to U.S. audiences starting with the #5 1968 hit “Hold Me Tight.”  “I Can See Clearly Now” brought a laid back, island groove and a message of hope to the top of the pop charts.

 

I’m Stone in Love with You, Stylistics – 1972

(Thom Bell, Linda Creed, Anthony Bell) (#10)

 

According to Philadelphia songwriter Phil Hurtt, the studio version of The Stylistics was formed by lead singer Russell Thompkins, Jr. with the background voices were members of the MFSB studio band.  The writing challenge was to develop new ways to describe personal devotion.  “I’m Stone in Love with You” is another overripe, teen infatuation lyric saved by Thompkins’ glass shattering falsetto and Thom Bell’s smooth production work.

 

I’ll Be Around, The Spinners 1972

(Thom Bell, Phil Hurt) (#3)

 

In 1972, The Spinners left Motown for Atlantic Records, but still had some Detroit baggage.  Producer Thom Bell, “Motown did such a number on them that they never wanted to see another black producer again.”  Bell made a friendly wager with the band – if he didn’t produce a #1 hit for the band, he’d give each band member $10,000.  If he did, they would buy him a Cadillac.  “I’ll Be There” was an accidental #1 R&B hit, it was originally the b-side to “How Could I Let You Get Away.”  MFSB, the studio house band, reportedly laughed when they discovered how simple the arrangement was.  However, the story about a man who had lost his woman, yet will continue waiting indefinitely for another chance, clicked with the public.

 

 

Oh Girl, The Chi-Lites – 1972

(Eugene Record) (#1)

 

The Chi-Lites recorded for over thirty years, but only scored two major hits – 1971’s “Have You Seen Her” and “Oh Girl,” which topped the pop charts in 1972.  It’s a soft soul tale of romantic dependency, with a smart, mournful harmonica and orchestral strings embellishing the group’s statement of guilty face heartbreak.  Chi-Lites leader Eugene Record tried to be hip and think like the crowd with a late ‘70s disco turn, but the man was born to plead, not to boogie.

 

 

Starting All Over Again, Mel & Tim- 1972

(Phillip Mitchell) (#19)

 

Melvin Hardin & Hubert Timothy McPherson were cousins from Mississippi that were discovered in Chicago.  The duo went to #10 on the pop charts in 1969 with “Backfield in Motion.”  After a contract dispute stalled their career for a year, “Starting All Over Again” worked as both as a romantic relationship song and as a commentary on their career.  Musically, it was Philly soul meets Muscle Shoals with a tad of gospel flavoring.

 

 

Too Late to Turn Back Now, Cornelious Brothers and Sister Rose

(Eddie Cornelius) (#2)

 

Typical of the soft soul of the era, orchestral strings provide the hook and the warm backup vocals provide comfort.  Nothing special as a lyric, but the chorus is pure bliss.  The family group would follow this hit with two minor Top 40 hits in 1973 and, professionally at least, went their separate ways in 1976.

3 Comments

  1. Tanguy on August 18, 2016 at 3:56 am

    Thank you for this, I discovered some great gems in there. I just love the sound of that era.

  2. FirstShad on November 18, 2017 at 1:34 pm

    I see you don’t monetize your site, don’t waste your traffic, you can earn extra cash every month because
    you’ve got high quality content. If you want to know how to make extra $$$, search for: Boorfe’s tips best adsense alternative

  3. S. C. Laidler on March 23, 2019 at 11:43 pm

    You didn’t include Ron Banks of The Dramatics.

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