Welcome to part 2 of our countdown. Before we get back into the festivities with #40, let’s do some Casey Kasem-type ish and not only recap the previous 10 titles in the countdown, but give you a bonus.
Folks complaining about how televised musical contest shows have ruined music don’t have much of a sense of history. Televised singing competitions have been around since at least the Fifties, and a bevy of superstars going back to Gladys Knight owe at least some of their success to competing against others on television. The ’80s version of American Idol & The Voice was Star Search, and the list of talent that appeared on that show at one point or another is kinda breathtaking: Christina Aguilera, Beyonce, Aaliyah, Justin Timberlake, Rosie O’ Donnell and Ellen DeGeneres all received their first national exposure on the Ed McMahon-hosted show. The first season champ of Star Search, though, was a young man named Sam Harris who looked like he belonged on a cornfield in Iowa (if that cornfield was flaming) and sang like Patti LaBelle’s long-lost white song. His signature tune was a Patti-esque version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and after his tenure on the show was over, he won a contract on…Motown Records.
I won’t say that Sam’s “Sugar Don’t Bite” is one of Motown’s greatest hits of the ’80s, but the song and the video are worth a spin, if only for you to have one of those “that happened?” moments.
You’re welcome. Now, on with the list.
40. The Commodores “Heroes” (#54 pop/#27 R&B, 1980)
The Commodores decided to follow up their massive Midnight Magic album from 1979 (the one with “Sail On” & “Still”) with 1980’s Heroes, which was a loose concept album that focused on spiritual issues. Needless to say, it didn’t resonate with audiences the same way its predecessor did. That is not to say that it didn’t have a fair amount of good material, though. One of the best songs on the album (and in my opinion one of the best Lionel Richie ever had a hand in writing) was the title track. It was the type of message song he aimed for in later years with songs like “We Are The World” and totally whiffed on. He delivered a simple message (heroes can be regular people just like you and me, and they’re all around us) with passion and conviction.
39. Finis Henderson “Skip To My Lou” (#48 R&B, 1983)
A one-hit wonder even in the most insular soul music circles, Mr. Henderson boasted an agreeable falsetto voice and this peppy tune lit up dance floors. He caught some love in the teen rags for a minute before the prettier, falsetto-ier and as difficult to pronounce first-name boasting Lillo Thomas hit the scene. Still, a pretty solid shot, even if he only had more than one.
Did you know that Finis is now an impressionist? How do you go from funk jams to being the Black Rich Little?
38. Lionel Richie “All Night Long (All Night)” (#1 pop & R&B, 1983)
A sizable chunk of Mr. Richie’s biggest hit is comprised of nonsense words, sure. The leather pants he’s wearing in the video are ridiculous, yes. Lionel’s Jafaican accent is only slightly less offensive than Miss Cleo’s, OK. But your ass will not stop wiggling when this song comes on, and you’ll be singing “jambo jambo” like those words hold the key to all of life’s ills. And maybe they do. I nailed this at karaoke one night, and even got a middle-aged white lady to come down to the stage and dance with me.
By the way, the subtitle was originally added to avoid confusion with a song that appears a bit further up this list…
37. DeBarge “Rhythm Of The Night” (#3 pop/#1 R&B, 1985)
I nailed this one at karaoke as well. A few years before “All Night Long,” at some long-forgotten bar in Chicago with my friend Eric. I was so drunk I went for El’s ridiculously high note at the end-and hit it. I couldn’t go near it completely sober. This is why drinking is good for you.*
Did you know this was the only video DeBarge ever did?
36. Vanity “Under The Influence” (#56 pop/#9 R&B, 1986)
35. Stevie Wonder “Part Time Lover” (#1 pop & R&B, 1985)
A decade before TLC “Creep”ed to the #1 spot on the charts, Stevie led the way for DL romance with this chart-topper. Actually, chart topper may be an understatement-“Part Time Lover” spent time at #1 on the pop, R&B, dance and adult contemporary/easy listening charts. I guess doing dirty really is a universal sentiment. Bonus points for Luther Vandross’s excellent vocal arrangement.
34. Stevie Wonder “Lately” (#64 pop/#29 R&B, 1981)
“Lately” might be better known due to Jodeci’s gospel-rific live version, but Stevie’s original is a spare, plaintive gem that hits you square in the heart. Stevie’s understated vocal perfectly sells this tale of a man resigned to the end of his relationship.
33. Today “Him Or Me” (#3 R&B, 1988)
Today was the vocal group at the center of Motown’s late-’80s attempt to remake themselves into a new music powerhouse. It was also their first entry into the realm of New Jack Swing. A driving track by Teddy Riley anchors this tale of a frustrated dude asking his lady to make a simple choice. This group (and its main singer, Big Bub) should’ve been bigger, but “Him” was a big enough hit to spawn a parody song that was a ghetto smash back in the day (called “Hair Or Weave.”)
32. The Temptations “Treat Her Like A Lady” (#48 pop/#2 R&B, 1984)
Motown’s flagship male group, The Tempts returned to Motown with great fanfare in 1980 after spending a couple of years at Atlantic. Halfway through the decade, and after a disastrous reunion with former lead singers David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks and Dennis Edwards, the Tempts landed their biggest pop hit of the ’80s with the peppy “Treat Her Like A Lady.” The signature group harmonies were successfully adapted into a modern setting this time around, and this song will live in infamy (in my head at least) because, for the longest time, I misheard the lyric “help her with her coat” as “help her with her coke,” which, while chivalrous, doesn’t bode well for the long-term prospects of this relationship (and probably wouldn’t have slipped past radio censors in early 1985.)
31. El DeBarge “Real Love” (#8 R&B, 1989)
El’s debut solo album, released in 1986, was straight up middle of the road pop. Very Michael McDonald/Chicago. Unsurprisingly, it turned off El’s core R&B fans. El (and Motown) attempted to rectify that with the follow-up album, 1989’s Gemini. Picking a first single that featured El’s voice manipulated through a vocoder probably wasn’t the best way to reintroduce El to the marketplace, though. Strategy aside, “Real Love” is a fucking jam, better than the (higher-charting) songs by Jody Watley and Skyy that were popular around the same time (although all three songs are quality.) El indulges his slightly nasty side on this funk groove, sampling his former sister-in-law Janet and all. Those who thought El couldn’t bust a move (the DeBarge siblings were known for being a bit rhythm-deficient) need to check the video. El turns it out.
*Not scientifically proven.
Next up-Motown gets into the tribute record game, a group of teenage brothers asks for a direct line to your aorta, and Motown’s First Lady leaves the label with a bang.