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.

Introducing The Hardline According To Terence Trent D’Arby: 30 Years Old Today

CBS Records, released 13th July 1987

9/10

Yeau! The headline of Q Magazine’s September 1987 feature said it all. Perrier-quaffing Terence was correctly predicting a phenomenal critical and commercial reaction to his debut album and ready to dish the dirt. He had done it all on his terms; wrongfooted his record company (who had wanted a slick, current, ‘upwardly-mobile’ soul album) and played the press at their own game. But at what cost?

D’Arby had lived quite a life before becoming a ‘pop star’: he was born in the States, the son of a preacher father and gospel-singing mother, studied journalism in New York, became a half-decent boxer in his late teens, joined the army and was based in Germany throughout most of the ’80s during which time he worked on his music and acquired a manager (a strategy not dissimilar to another ex-army musical maverick, Jimi Hendrix).

Decamping to London in 1985, D’Arby worked on demos with Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware and, after being turned down by several major labels, finally got the nod from CBS. They pulled off a pre-release masterstroke when D’Arby was block-booked for four weeks running on ‘The Tube’ after a knockout debut live TV performance (I remember it well). To say that there was a buzz about him would be an understatement. The general consensus was: ‘Who the hell is this guy?!’

Hardline still sounds like one of the better debut album of the ’80s or any other decade. From the opening bars of ‘If You All Get To Heaven’ (mastered directly from a Walkman, by the sound of it), it’s clear that something pretty special and pretty different is going on, though the album inadvertently tapped into the ‘retro-soul’ revival that had built up in the UK over 1986 and 1987 – Ben E King and Percy Sledge had both had number ones in the months before Hardline‘s release, and The Pasadenas, The Christians and various others would bring forth similar grooves in the months to come.

Hardline also reminded critics and audiences alike of some of the great soul vocalists of the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s – Al Green, Otis Redding, Stevie, Prince, Michael Jackson, James Brown and especially Sam Cooke. All went into the mix but finally D’Arby sounded just like himself. He peppered ‘Dance Little Sister’ – a track that Prince would have killed for – with some outrageously over-the-top vocals. But, refreshingly, his singing throughout the album ain’t perfect – he’s much more into getting the emotion across and bringing a party vibe to the studio.

‘Sign Your Name’, ‘If You Let Me Stay’ and ‘Wishing Well’ are funky yet accessible (if the latter doesn’t make you move, you’re probably dead), but the a cappella, African-themed ‘As Yet Untitled’ is totally original. He even takes on Smokey Robinson and emerges unscathed on the closing ‘Who’s Loving You’. He plays a lot of instruments himself and only gets in occasional help when absolutely necessary (including future Skunk Anansie bassist Cass Lewis and Pop Group/PiL drummer Bruce Smith). As such it’s a remarkably cohesive album.

Hardline was a big hit, reaching number one in the UK, number four in the US and selling over eight million copies worldwide. D’Arby got the rep of being a ‘difficult’ artist when his follow-up album Neither Fish Nor Flesh missed deadlines and went over budget. Things would probably never be the same again. But we’d always have Hardline.