The passing of Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire in 2016 got us thinking about how soul music and classic rock went from friendly cousins in the early 1960s to brothers from different mothers as the decade progressed and on into the ’70s. If you were a rock fan in the 1960s, soul music was very likely part of your musical diet, starting with the R&B that was revered by most every British Invasion act. By the mid-1960s there was a convergence of musical and cultural consciousness that led to some undeniably classic soul music that could often be found in the album collection of rockers, and should still be part of every rock fan’s musical lexicon.
So here – in no particular order aside from mostly personal preference, and by no means a complete list – are 10 damn fine songs by as many soul artists that fall under the broad classic rock rubric.
10) “Love the One You’re With” – The Isley Brothers
Yeah, one might better cite “Fight the Power” or “That Lady,” but since The Beatles copped “Twist and Shout,” from the Isleys, let’s represent them with a cover from rocker Stephen Stills. Admittedly, their take doesn’t veer much from the original though it has a seductive loose-limbed charm. Hendrix played with this group; Ernie Isley became one of his prime acolytes (threading a crackling guitar figure throughout “That Lady” that rocked).
9) “Lady Marmalade” – Labelle
An utterly delicious and alluring slice of funk-rock from 1974. (Yes, the French refrain does ask, “Do you want to sleep with me [tonight]?) And the best stage outfits this side of Kiss…. Bonus points for group member Sarah Dash going on to sing with The Rolling Stones and Keith Richards’ X-pensive Winos.
8) “Love Train” – The O’Jays
If you don’t find this hard-charging declaration of international brother- and sisterhood by The O’Jays utterly infectious, either check your pulse or see a shrink for some mood-enhancing meds. Or both. These 2005 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees took this number to the top of the pop and R&B charts in 1973.
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7) “Cloud Nine” – The Temptations
My how times change! It’s hard not to interpret this Temptations hit – the first of a number of “psychedelic soul” songs from the Motown vocal quintet – as a pro-drug song, extolling the praises of what one assumes is marijuana for easing the pain of living in the ghetto back in 1968. One can hear an undeniable Sly and the Family Stone influence on the track – especially the round-robin trading round of vocals – and the ways in which classic rock and soul were moving forward along parallel tracks. It reached #6 on the pop charts and won Motown Records its first Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Group Performance, Vocal or Instrumental.
6) “Sing a Song” – Earth, Wind & Fire
It’s a real coin toss between “Sing a Song” and “Shining Star,” both huge pop hits for Earth, Wind & Fire in 1975 (#5 and #1, respectively). We’ll go with the former for its infectious groove and simple yet inarguable sentiment: “Sing a song, it’ll make your day… Sing a song, it’ll make a way.”
5) “Superfly” –Curtis Mayfield
Yet another coin toss. “Freddie’s Dead” was the bigger single (#4 on the Hot 100) but “Superfly” (#8) feels more like the signature tune from the movie soundtrack album of the same name. It all brought Mayfield into the mainstream.
4) “The Weight” – Aretha Franklin
From the late 1960s into the early ’70s, Aretha wasn’t just “Queen of Soul” but a reigning monarch among all popular music singers. There’s many songs that could represent her here: “Respect,” “Think,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” hell, even 1985’s “Freeway of Love.” But her take on this song by The Band well represents her classic rock crossover, especially Duane Allman’s presence on guitar. And it’s one very cool rendition sung with the mastery and authority that makes Aretha such an icon.
3) “I Want You Back” – The Jackson 5
Yes, the Jacksons always had aspirations for pop stardom that transcended soul and rock. But their wide appeal pulled in the rock crowd. And to us teens in the late 1960s, they felt like peers with a stunningly talented little brother. The group’s debut in 1969 with “I Want You Back” wowed music lovers and was the first in a remarkable string of four #1 hits in a row. The song was later pulled further into the classic rock canon when Graham Parker and The Rumour released a live version in 1989.
2) “Everyday People” – Sly and the Family Stone
Sly Stone and his multiracial “family” of guys and gals were emblematic of the soul/rock melding of the late 1960s, and nowhere more so on than on this populist plea for tolerance which went to #1 on the Hot 100 in 1968. Their rousing performance at Woodstock made Sly and the Family Stone countercultural heroes; Sly would soon after squander that stature by dropping into a wormhole of ego and drug abuse.
1) “Superstition” – Stevie Wonder
This song was written for Wonder fan Jeff Beck, who helped develop it and played on its demo but not the track (though he did contribute guitar on another number on its album, Talking Book). It was supposed to be first released by the group Beck, Bogert & Appice. Their album was delayed, Motown smelled a hit and put the song out, and Wonder earned his second #1 single (and his first in nearly 10 years since 1963’s “Fingertips – Part 1 & 2”). A 1986 live recording of the song by Stevie Ray Vaughan solidified its classic rock status.
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