1980s Soul: 14 Lost Classics

It’s highly unlikely that any critics’ poll of the greatest soul albums from the last 70 years would include anything from the 1980s, save possibly for a Diana, Anita Baker, Terence TD or Bobby Womack outlier.

There was the odd huge-selling ‘crossover’ album (Can’t Slow Down, Thriller, Whitney Houston) but arguably the decade didn’t produce a What’s Going On or Songs In The Key Of Life. (Or did it? Suggestions please…).

Classic soul fans generally became used to poor-to-middling album packages, with the requisite two or three-star reviews and complaints about too many producers and underwhelming material. The greats of the ’60s and ’70s also sometimes struggled to move with the times, getting hamstrung by technology and/or unsuitable collaborators.

But my goodness there were some superb tracks, particularly between 1980 and 1985, an interesting period when Classic Soul drew from Yacht Rock and Jazz/Funk. However, these songs tended to get quickly forgotten and/or ignored. In the late-’80s, ’90s and noughties, enterprising indie labels put together fondly-remembered compilations (Mastercuts, StreetSounds) that brought these tracks back for a small but very enthusiastic audience.

But the beauty of streaming services is that we can compile these beauties to create one sh*t-hot album, so I have, here. This has been my go-to playlist during lockdown. Forget the talent-show wannabees, these vocalists have serious pipes, and the songwriting and arrangements are top-class too. Here’s a small selection of lost classic soul tracks from the 1980s:

14. Johnny Gill: ‘Half Crazy’ (1985)

Co-written by legendary Philly wordsmith Linda Creed (‘Betcha By Golly Wow’, ‘People Make The World Go Round’), this was the lead-off track and first single from Gill’s second album and still sounds like a bona fide soul standard today. It was a long way from New Edition for Johnny, though he was just 18 years old when he recorded it. Scary…

13. Teena Marie: ‘My Dear Mr Gaye’ (1984)

Moving tribute to Marvin from the less-than-excellent album Starchild, featuring a string arrangement by Motown mainman Paul Riser and a groovy change of pace in the middle of the tune.

12. Carl Anderson: ‘Buttercup’ (1985)

Stevie Wonder-penned minor classic from a little-known vocalist who recorded many solo albums before his death in 2004, but was probably best known for his portrayal of Judas Iscariot in the Broadway and film versions of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’.

11. Gladys Knight & The Pips: ‘Bourgie Bourgie’ (1980)

Just check out co-writer (with Nick Ashford) Valerie Simpson’s gospel-tinged piano playing on this – absolutely fabulous. And Gladys’s super-funky vocals are perfect. It’s adapted from a 1977 Ashford & Simpson instrumental.

10. Odyssey: ‘If You’re Lookin’ For A Way Out’ (1980)

Heartbreaking ballad written by Ralph Kotkov and superbly sung by Lillian Lopez. Made #6 in the UK singles chart.

9. Millie Jackson: ‘This Is It’ (1980)

Now THIS is how you kick off a soul album. A hilarious eight-minute tour-de-force that aims to get men squirming in their seats. Remarkably, it’s also a cover of a Kenny Loggins/Michael McDonald tune.

8. Chris Jasper: ‘Superbad’ (1987)

Great song from long-time keyboard player of The Isley Brothers. Socially-conscious lyric looking at the value of inner-city education and the kind of tune Stevie should have been producing in the mid-’80s.

7. Diana Ross: ‘Cross My Heart’ (1987)

Superb, catchy song, written by frequent Leonard Cohen collaborator Sharon Robinson, and Diana’s vocals are just gorgeous. From the otherwise fairly uninspired Red Hot Rhythm And Blues album.

6. Leon Ware: ‘Why I Came To California’ (1982)

Cool mixture of soul, jazz/funk and yacht rock, an ode to the West Coast with a top-drawer rhythm section of Chuck Rainey (bass) and James Gadson (drums) and vocals from Manhattan Transfer’s Janis Siegel. But who plays the great sax solo? Seems impossible to find out…

5. SOS Band: ‘Weekend Girl’ (1984)

More evidence that producing/songwriting team Jam & Lewis were going to be arguably THE musical force of the decade, a gorgeous, upwardly-mobile, mature ballad that has the same kind of grandeur as one of Chic’s slow-burners.

4. Patti Labelle: ‘If Only You Knew’ (1983)

Just…wow. Killer ballad co-written by Kenny Gamble and Dexter Wansel which reached #1 on the Billboard R’n’B chart. Super arrangement too, emphasised by the unexpected key change going into the first verse.

3. Bobby Womack: ‘Games’ (1983)

‘You see, I like all kinds of music – no favourites!’, Bobby proclaims at the beginning of this superb track, then demonstrates it with a lovely little nod to Wes Montgomery’s guitar style.

2. Phyllis Hyman: ‘Why Did You Turn Me On’ (1983)

A hint of Rod Temperton about this catchy Narada Michael Walden-penned mid-tempo smoocher, showcasing Hyman’s giant voice to great effect. Sadly the Philly soul legend took her own life in 1995.

1. Terence Trent D’Arby: ‘As Yet Untitled’ (1987)

Ambitious accappella piece from Terence’s classic debut album, with a vocal nod to Sam Cooke but also featuring some stirring sounds purely of his own creation.

Story Of A Song: McCoy Tyner/Phyllis Hyman’s I’ll Be Around

What makes a ‘good’ singer? In a recent podcast, Donald Fagen spoke about the importance of vocal tone, saying that he’d rather listen to Ray Charles singing a mediocre song completely ‘straight’ than a jazz singer pointlessly embellishing a songbook standard.

It got me thinking about Phyllis Hyman’s crackerjack performance on ‘I’ll Be Around’ (not to be confused with the Alec Wilder standard sung by many including Frank Sinatra and Chaka Khan), from McCoy Tyner’s 1982 CBS album Looking Out.

The song, which has haunted me since I first heard it in the late 1980s, was mainly written by Stanley Clarke and recycled from his lacklustre (despite featuring some lovely Stan Getz saxophone) 1979 track ‘The Streets Of Philadelphia’.

‘I’ll Be Around’ comes from an otherwise fairly mediocre McCoy album, mainly notable for featuring Carlos Santana, Clarke and Gary Bartz on several tracks. But Tyner’s fabled work with John Coltrane must have seemed a distant memory by 1982. In jazz terms, CBS was obsessed with Wynton Marsalis and neo-classicism, though still had time for Herbie Hancock’s hip-hop explorations and Miles’s comeback.

Phyllis and McCoy in the studio

Maybe McCoy in turn thought he’d hit paydirt by grabbing Santana, Bartz and Clarke (huge Coltrane fans, all), but Looking Out is now barely a footnote to his illustrious career – it was his second and last album for Columbia.

‘I’ll Be Around’ doesn’t feature Santana or Bartz, and was the sole LA-recorded track on the album (the other tracks being recorded at the Power Station in NYC), adding the excellent pairing of Charles ‘Icarus’ Johnson on guitar and Ndugu Chancler on drums.

Chancler and Tyner work together almost telepathically, the former driving the song forward, though always with one ear on the groove, the latter sprinkling on his majestic chord voicings.

Hyman’s vocals are huge, luscious, but she also adds some subtle flavours over Tyner’s piano solo, consciously removing vibrato and sometimes singing ever-so-slightly sharp for emotional effect. Of course it’s virtually impossible now to assess this heartfelt performance without considering her tragic suicide in 1995. But, happily, ‘I’ll Be Around’ gives a different slant on a fine career and shows Hyman’s mastery of almost all forms of black music, from disco to jazz.