A common theme with these lists so far is that the first song usually triggers the “shit, I should have put that about 15 spots lower” response. So, without further ado…
Uh, also…previous installments in the series can be found at the end of this post.
150. “Who’s Johnny?” by El DeBarge (1 week at #1, July 1986)
“Who’s Johnny?” is in the run for Dumbest Song Ever. The song makes no sense to anyone who hasn’t seen the movie from which it spawned (Short Circuit for those of you playing at home,) and it might not even make much sense to people who’ve seen the movie and forgotten the plot (like yours truly.) So, why do I like “Who’s Johnny” enough to place it over eighty-something songs on my personal list of the ’80s best #1 R&B songs? Blame it on El DeBarge, one of a very small number of vocalists who would be able to pass a piece of piffle like this off and remain relatively unscathed.
Also, the video may have marked the first of many, many, MANY times El has seen the inside of a courtroom.
Fun Fact: Michael McDonald (yes, THAT Michael McDonald, sings background on this motherfucker. BOOM. Your mind’s blown.)
149. “Lost In Emotion” by Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam (1 week at #1, October 1987)
The first two of Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam’s three R&B chart toppers (the third and final one came in the ’90s) found the trio (and their production team, Full Force) stepping outside of the dance-intensive freestyle sound that put them on the map. Both “Head To Toe” and “Lost In Emotion” had a retro-Motown vibe that played a little better in Middle America. Full Force’s Paul Anthony admits to being inspired by Mary Wells’ classics “Two Lovers” and “You Beat Me To The Punch.” “Lost” is the lesser of the two chart toppers, but it’s still fairly solid. Lisa’s vocal is coy without being cloying, and Full Force’s background harmonies are enchanting. The only element to the song that firmly ties it to the Eighties is the wacko synth-xylophone solo at the end.
Also, remind me of what exactly Cult Jam did again? No wonder Lisa Lisa eventually went solo.
148. “A Little Bit More” by Freddie Jackson & Melba Moore (1 week at #1, November 1986)
147. “Your Smile” by Rene & Angela (1 week at #1, March 1986)
Duets were certainly a thing in the ’80s. Here are two songs that highlight opposite ends of the emotional spectrum in R&B music. “A Little Bit More” is dramatic and overwrought, as one would expect from a star who made her name on the Broadway stage (Melba Moore) and a supreme diva like Freddie Jackson. As good as “A Little Bit More” is, it feels as much like a performance as it does a song. “Your Smile,” the second #1 single from Rene & Angela’s swan song, A Street Called Desire, is just as good as “A Little Bit More” while managing to be about 1/150th as overwrought. It’s more sincere-sounding. It’s also, I guess, less of a duet. Rene Moore plays more of a background role on this than he did on any of Desire‘s other singles. It’s interesting to think of “Your Smile” as a dry run for Angela Winbush’s solo career, especially since it resembles her actual solo debut, “Angel,” so much.
At any rate, Street Called Desire might be one of the ’80s most underrated R&B albums. Crossover success was not a factor with this album, which I just don’t understand. Also worth mentioning, the album’s two singles that didn’t hit #1 (dance floor shaker “I’ll Be Good” and stunning ballad “You Don’t Have To Cry”) were better than the two songs from the album that actually topped the charts. Weird.
One more thing: Freddie was such a hot commodity at this point, that he replaced himself at #1. “Tasty Love” succeeded “A Little Bit More” at the top of the charts.
146. “Gotta Get You Home Tonight” by Eugene Wilde (#1 for 1 week, January 1985)
Between this song, Eugene’s own follow up “Don’t Say No Tonight,” and Gregory Abbott’s “Shake You Down,” is it fair to say that “Sexual Healing” was the definitive “rip-me-off-f0r-your-own-hit” song of the ’80s? Eugene Wilde might owe his whole damn career to “Sexual Healing.” Now THAT’s influence. Needless to say, Mr. Gaye’s jam will be appearing much further up the chart.
My man Eugene was doing “uh oh, uh oh” s a good two decades before Beyonce, y’all. Surfboart.
Oh, fuck it.
145. “You Will Know” by Stevie Wonder (1 week at #1, March 1988)
Stevie’s mojo didn’t slip as strongly in the late ’80s as most people would say. In Square Circle and Characters were strong albums, just not up to Wonder’s previously impeccable standard. Competing with yourself is a bitch.”You Will Know,” a sparkling ballad that missed the pop top 40 entirely, is evidence of the fact that Steveland could write the living shit out of a song after it was assumed he’d peaked. I’m wondering if there are any plans to remaster those late ’80s Stevie albums (with a bonus plug for 1991’s Jungle Fever soundtrack.) The general consensus is that many R&B albums post-Prince were mixed to lean way too heavily on the treble, giving them a tinny sound that hasn’t translated well over the years (see: every album released on MCA Records through the early Nineties.) If we can get an engineer to mix the bass a little higher on these records, we might get an entire re-appraisal of Stevie’s post-Hotter Than July work!
Probably not, but the records would sound better. Seriously.
Here’s some classic video…Stevie with Jodeci and Mary J. Blige
144. “Here And Now” by Luther Vandross (2 weeks at #1, December 1989)
I’ll admit, it took me a long time to appreciate “Here And Now” for the beautiful song it is.
Two factors led to this delay. One, I was not predisposed to drippy ballads in my youth. Kids like danceable (or at least uptempo) songs, and aside from the odd track like “One More Try” or “Can You Stand The Rain” (hey kids, guess two songs that will appear later,) slow jams/ballads just had no appeal to me. As I got older and began to appreciate mellower music, Luther’s entire oeuvre began to appear in my list of favorites more often. Despite its status as Luther’s first major crossover hit, I feel like “Here And Now” still isn’t worthy of appearing with his best songs. It’s second-tier. But second-tier Luther (especially in the ’80s) is still pretty damn good. Oh, which reminds me…the second reason it took me so long to appreciate “Here And Now” is was because it was overplayed beyond belief. Living in NYC in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I had a six radio-station rotation. There was Kiss-FM, which played R&B mostly (with hip-hop shows on weekend nights,) WBLS (which had a slightly more diverse presentation but was still “urban contemporary”), Hot 97 (which played dance music, Latin freestyle and the occasional pop crossover before switching to hip-hop in the mid ’90s), Z-100 (which was a prism image of WBLS, playing top 40 pop with the occasional deep-dive into hip-hop, reggae or non-crossover R&B), WPLJ (top 40 contemporary without much R&B and NO rap), and Lite FM (which had Delilah..or at least her precursors.) “Here And Now,” at various points over a 6 or 7 month period, had to have been in heavy rotation at all six stations. By mid-1990, I wanted “Here And Now” to die a fiery death. It’s redeemed itself somewhat in the years since.
143. “She’s On The Left” by Jeffrey Osborne (1 week at #1, September 1988)
“She’s On The Left” is Jeffrey Osborne’s ONLY #1 single, and I bet most of the…say, 50 of you reading this article have never heard it before.
When you look down the list of major R&B artists who’d never had a #1 single (up until 1988, anyway,) Osborne’s name might have been one of the most surprising (maybe next to the fact that The Jacksons never had a #1 single as The Jacksons.) “On The Wings of Love” didn’t hit the top. Neither did “Stay With Me Tonight” or “I Really Don’t Need No Light” or the god damn “Woo Woo Song.” The lattermost song on that list (and arguably Jeffrey’s most recognizable song) lodged itself in the runner-up position. I’m going to assume that there was a mandate to get Jeffrey a #1 on the follow-up, and “She’s On The Left” was it.
I personally like “She’s On The Left” quite a bit. It certainly had more balls than anything Osborne put out post-his tenure as the lead singer of L.T.D. It’s definitely an anomaly in his catalog, though, and as such isn’t as highly regarded as his ballad repertoire.
142. “System Of Survival” by Earth, Wind & Fire (#1 for 1 week, December 1987)
After ruling the ’70s and remaining a consistent force (while at a slightly lower level) at the outset of the new decade, Earth Wind & Fire decided to cool it for a couple of years back in 1983. Philip Bailey made a few solo albums, Maurice White did a solo album and some production work, and Verdine White sat back and relaxed his hair somewhere. They were the only three actual EW&F members involved in the band’s “reunion” album, 1987’s Touch The World.
One of the things that might have caused EW&F’s mojo to burn slightly less brightly in the early ’80s was a growing insistence on collaborators such as David Foster and Brenda Russell. “System of Survival” featured the services of a songwriter called Skylark, who I once thought was an imaginary person but is all too real and is also a current member of The Doobie Brothers.
It’s not a bad comeback jam. Along with Stevie Wonder’s “Skeletons,” it led to a very political winter of 1987 at the top of the R&B charts.
141. “She Works Hard for the Money” by Donna Summer (3 weeks at #1, July-August 1983)
Do people think of Donna Summer as an R&B artist? She really wasn’t. Her music ran the gamut from show tunes to rock (hey, Springsteen wrote a song for her), and, of course, she was the Queen of Disco.
Despite her prodigious vocal talent (and make no mistake, Donna could sing her ass off,) she’s not a traditional soul singer, which I only feel worth mentioning because the fact that she only topped the R&B chart twice (1979’s “Bad Girls” was her first) may surprise some folks.
1983’s “She Works Hard For The Money” was a monster, scoring high on the pop and dance charts and briefly restoring Summer to her late Seventies glory after a few middling early ’80s efforts. Interestingly, the album was a one-off on Mercury Records. Donna made her name on the Casablanca label, but she left the imprint in 1980 (at the height of her career) to become the first signing to Geffen Records. As part of the legal agreement, she still owed her old label an album, and that album wound up being She Works Hard For The Money (by 1983, Casablanca had absorbed into its parent label, Mercury.) It’s hard to imagine the team at Mercury not wanting to shove it to Geffen, and it’s hard to imagine Donna not second-guessing her decision to switch labels after Mercury hit a homer with Money. She went back to Geffen for two more moderately successful albums before scoring her last top 10 hit, 1989’s “This Time I Know It’s For Real” on yet another label-Atlantic Records.