On 27 October 1960, American soul singer Ben E. King co-wrote and recorded “Stand by Me”.
The song was later ranked 122nd on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and was named by BMI as the fourth most-performed song of the twentieth century, with about seven million performances. Over the next decade, a number of other great soulful performances by other African-American men graced American and even world radio waves. While many, many talented men and women of various ethnic heritages have graced our ears with their stunning sense of soul, this list selects ten of the best African-American male singers with soul who lived contemporaneously with Mr. King, i.e. in the 1950s and 1960s. For each singer, we have indicated one of their greatest hits by 1967 (this selection of cutoff date will make sense when you get to number 1 as will the order of the list, which is NOT necessarily a ranking of tenth most soulful to first most soulful!). In some cases, the song listed is the artist’s greatest hit. Because we want you to enjoy these men’s music rather than my writing, we will be brief on words. So, let us begin our soulful musical journey down what may be memory lane for our older readers…
10. Jackie Wilson
Having lived from 9 June 1934 to 21 January 1984, Wilson died at the relatively young age of forty-nine. Indeed, a rather surprising number of the men on this list did not live past fifty-two. Nevertheless, in his forty-nine years he accomplished legendary feats in the music industry that earned him induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and ranking #69 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time in 2004. Elvis Presley also dubbed him “The Black Elvis”. As was also the case with many other men of soul, Wilson’s life’s tragedies were of a level we generally would not wish on most anybody. Among other disturbing moments from his life, Mr. Excitement, as he was also known, once lost a kidney after being shot in the stomach. His haunting performance of “The Greatest Hurt” simultaneously showcases his beautiful vocals, while also capturing his sometimes wounded soul.
9. James Brown
The Godfather of Soul alias Soul Brother #1 a.k.a. Dr. Detroit was one of the longest living men on this list having survived from 3 May 1933 to 25 December 2006. During that time, he had various legal problems (ranging from armed robbery to domestic violence) as well as accusations of drug abuse. These personal flaws do not, however, necessarily negate his undeniable charisma and vocal abilities. His hometown in Georgia has accordingly erected a life-size statue of him in addition to naming an arena and boulevard after him. In addition to having a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame (he was in Rocky IV lest you forget!) and of course being an inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an article for Rolling Stone went so far as to actually cite Brown as “the greatest musician of the rock era”.
Yet when it comes to his most memorable hit, one song stands out. “I Got You (I Feel Good)” (1965), his highest charting song, is arguably his most widely known recording. In fact, of Brown’s ninety-nine hits to reach the Billboard Hot 100 (a total for a solo artist surpassed only by Elvis “the King of Rock and Roll” Presley), “I Got You (I Feel Good)” is Brown’s highest-charting song, peaking at number three. The song remained at the top of the Billboard Rhythm and Blues Singles chart for six non-consecutive weeks. Thirty-five years later in 2000, “I Got You (I Feel Good)” reached number 21 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Songs in Rock and Roll and number 75 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Rock and Roll Dance Songs, one of only seven songs to make both lists. Next, in 2004, “I Got You (I Feel Good)” was ranked number 78 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.
8. Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations
The first of three Temptations (yes, they really are that significant in the history of soul…) and one of their co-founders, Kendricks, as with all three Temptations on this list, only made it to his early fifties having lived from 17 December 1939 to 5 October 1992 when he died of lung cancer. Before his health declined, he served as one of the group’s lead singers for over a decade and then launched a solo career. Singing falsetto, Kendrick provided the lead vocals for 1964’s “I’ll Be in Trouble” for the Gordy (Motown) label. Written by Miracles lead singer and another man ranked on this list Smokey Robinson, the single was a Top 40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at number 33.
7. Melvin Franklin of the Temptations
American bass singer Franklin only lived from 12 October 1942 to 23 February 1995, or fifty-two years, i.e. just two years longer than fellow Temptation David Ruffin. Franklin endured numerous health issues in the second half of his life that seemed to umbrella from each other. For example, in the late 1960s, Franklin was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, the symptoms of which he combated with cortisone so that he could continue performing. Unfortunately, the constant use of cortisone left his immune system open to other infections and health problems that resulted in Franklin developing diabetes in the early 1980s and later contracting necrotizing fasciitis. To make matters worse, in 1978 he was shot in the hand and in the leg while trying to stop a man from stealing his car in Los Angeles. By the 1990s, the combination of so many years of physical trauma caused him to suffer a number of seizures prior to falling into a coma. He remained unconscious until his death. Shortly before his health started its long and painful decline, Franklin and the Temptations released one of their numerous hits: 1966’s “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”. The song peaked at number 13 on the Billboard Pop Chart, but was a number-one hit on the Billboard R&B charts for an incredible eight non-consecutive weeks! Franklin provides the distinctive deep background vocals on recordings of the song.
6. David Ruffin of the Temptations
Well, if you haven’t figured it out by now, the Temptations sure had a few really talented singers! American soul singer and musician Ruffin (18 January 1941 – 1 June 1991) is not only immortalized as an inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, he was additionally ranked as one of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time by Rolling Stone magazine in 2008. Yet, long before these accolades, another entry on this list, Smokey Robinson, thought that he could write the perfect song for Ruffin’s voice, a song that Ruffin could both “belt out” and sing in a way described as “melodic and sweet.” That song recorded in November 1964 and released a month later became the Temptations’s first number-one single in 1965. Have you guessed its name yet? The song was of course “My Girl” and it was the first number-one hit on the reinstated Billboard R&B Singles chart, which had gone on a fifteen-month hiatus from 1963 to 1965. The Temptations’s signature song not only elevated Ruffin to the role of lead singer and front man within their band, “My Girl” was ultimately ranked number 88 on Rolling Stone’s 2004 list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” by ANY band!
5. Billy Stewart
American musical artist Stewart (24 March 1937 – 17 January 1970) died in a car accident, just two months prior to his 33rd birthday. The car accident followed a motorcycle accident that occurred the previous year. Yet in that short, sometimes troubled life (in addition to the two vehicular accidents, the overweight Stewart developed diabetes), he achieved enough to warrant his induction into the Washington Area Music Association Hall of Fame in 2002. Nearly forty years prior to that particular honor, Stewart achieved major chart success in 1965 when he recorded the self-written song titled “Sitting in the Park”. The song reached #4 on the R&B chart and #24 on the Pop chart.
4. Sam Cooke
The King of Soul was born in Mississippi on 22 January 1931 and died in California on 11 December 1964. As those dates suggest, he died tragically at only 33 years old, barely surviving longer than Mr. Stewart. Why did yet another soulful singer die so young? He was shot by a hotel manager in what was ruled a justifiable homicide due to Cooke’s allegedly drunk and distressed behavior. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s (honored posthumously) short-lived career opened with his first release “You Send Me” in 1957. This B-side of a reworking of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” spent a staggering six weeks at #1 on the Billboard R&B chart and also had mainstream success, spending three weeks at #1 on the Billboard pop chart. Since its release, this landmark record of the soul genre, which Cooke helped create, was eventually named as one of the 500 most important rock and roll recordings by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and even voted #115 by representatives of the music industry and press in Rolling Stone magazine’s The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time in 2005.
3. Smokey Robinson of the Miracles
Born 19 February 1940 in Michigan, the future inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and later guest mentor on American Idol has quite a catalog of hits that we suspect most readers will have heard at some point in their lives, whether they like this genre of music or not. Several songs by the Miracles as with numerous ones by the Temptations are classics that transcend the era when they were first performed. As such it is not surprising that both groups’ songs frequently appear in such video game series as Karaoke Revolution. We reckon most of our readers are at least familiar with “The Track of My Tears” (1965) and “The Tears of a Clown” (1967)…why does soul have to be so sad? These classics were but a couple of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ many hits. Long before the American R&B singer-songwriter received an honorary doctorate from a College of Music, he wrote and subsequently recorded “I’ll Try Something New” in 1962. Originally released by The Miracles on Motown Records’ Tamla subsidiary label, this version of the song was a Billboard Top 40 hit, peaking at #39, and just missing the Top 10 of its R&B chart, peaking at #11.
2. Chuck Jackson
Born 22 July 1937 in South Carolina, American R&B singer Jackson recorded the first version of the song “Any Day Now” to hit the Billboard Hot 100 chart; it reached number twenty-three in 1962 with the title “Any Day Now (My Wild Beautiful Bird)” and spent six weeks in the Top 40. Jackson’s version appeared on his album also titled Any Day Now. The song, Jackson’s highest charting hit on the US pop chart, also peaked at number two for three weeks on the Hot Black Sides chart.
1. Spyder Turner
Born 4 February 1947 in West Virginia, American soul singer Turner signed to MGM Records and released a single, a cover of the soul number “Stand by Me”. The tune climbed to #3 on the U.S. Billboard Black Singles chart and #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart early in 1967. The song includes damn near spot-on impersonations by Turner of all nine other artists singing the signature lines from the above listed greatest hits. As such, it is a showcase of a master talent that celebrates some of the greatest legends of soul ever produced in human history!
In the Spyder Turner song, when he performs as Eddie Kendricks, Turner sings, “I’m gonna lead you, baby.” I searched far and wide for any song by the Temptations or Kendricks as a solo artist prior to 1967 with such lyrics, but could not for the life of me find an exact match. The closest I could find was “If you ever leave me, baby” from “I’ll Be In Trouble”. If anyone knows what song Turner is sampling from there, please post it in the comments so we can update the list accordingly.