The song has been recorded by respected artists ranging from Gladys Knight and the Pips to Creedence Clearwater Revival, but no one ever topped Marvin Gaye's soulful rendition of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," the No. 1 single on both the R&B chart and the Billboard Hot 100 exactly 50 years ago. Here, to mark that anniversary, is more on Gaye and two dozen other soul legends.
With a voice that could go smooth, sweet, raspy or into an unreal falsetto, Marvin Gaye helped shape the Motown sound in the '60s with a string of singles leading up to his No.1 hit "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." Then, in 1971, he redefined soul music with his stunning album "What's Going On," followed by the seductive "Let's Get it On." By the late '70s, however, Gaye was struggling with cocaine addiction, and in 1984 he was tragically shot and killed by his father during an argument in his Los Angeles home.
Known as the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business, Soul Brother No. 1 and, of course, the Godfather of Soul, James Brown was singular figure in American music—not just soul, R&B and funk (which he virtually invented). From his first single, 1956's "Please Please Please," he moved the earth with every ecstatic grunt, growl and squeal, and made the heavens cry with his pleas of pain. For Brown at his best, just check out his 1964 "T.A.M.I. Show" set, which helps explain another of his many nicknames: Mr. Dynamite.
He topped the pop chart only once—with "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay," released after his 1967 death in a plane crash at the age of 26—but Otis Redding looms large in the history of soul. With R&B hits like "Mr. Pitiful" and "Try a Little Tenderness," he drew on blues and gospel to create his distinctive sound. An electric performer—as demonstrated in the 1968 documentary "Monterey Pop"—Redding could, as one critic put it, "testify like a hell-bent preacher, croon like a tender lover or get down and dirty with a bluesy yawp."
The Queen of Soul was one of the true immortals even before her recent death. Just listen to the title track of her 1967 breakthrough album "I Never Loved a Man the Way I love You." "American history wells up when Aretha sings," Barack Obama once said. "Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock and roll—the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope." Amen.
If Aretha was the Queen of Soul, Sam Cooke was its King. Smooth as silk, both in voice and in looks, he delivered a song like a soulful kiss—passionate, sensual, irresistible. Schooled in the music of the black church (he began his career as a part of a gospel group, the Soul Stirrers), Cooke scored a string of gem-like hits such as "You Send Me," "Wonderful World" and his Civil Rights anthem "A Change is Gonna Come." Tragically, Cooke was shot to death at a Los Angeles motel under mysterious circumstances in 1964. He was 33.
Ray Charles towered above all others, primarily because he was one of soul's original architects—among the first to merge the music of the black church with secular rhythm and blues. You can hear that in his 1959 classic "What'd I Say"—one of the first songs to be classified as "soul"—which topped the R&B chart in 1959. Charles ventured into many genres, from standards to country, but always with that soulful voice. Just listen to his rendition of "God Bless America," the most moving version of the song ever recorded.
One of the world's great divas, with a voice of extraordinary force and control that can go soft and low or roof-shatteringly high, Patti LaBelle has been a driving force in soul music for more than 50 years. Fronting the Bluebells in the 1960s and LaBelle in the '70s—when she had her biggest hit, "Lady Marmalade"—and later as a soloist, she has sold more than 50 million records worldwide. Her response to the diva charge: "If a diva means giving your best, then yes, I guess I am a diva."
The baritone lead vocalist of the Four Tops, Levi Stubbs brought his dramatic singing style to the group's many hits—from "Baby, I Need Your Loving" and "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)" to "Bernadette" and "Reach Out I'll Be There"—making his one of the most iconic voices in soul music. Said fellow Motown artist Smokey Robinson: "I love singers whom you can identify the first second they open their mouth, and Levi Stubbs is one of those; he's one of the greatest of all time."
He has been called "soul's purest badass," and, musically speaking, the description is spot on. Swaggering through hits such as "In the Midnight Hour" and "Mustang Sally," Wilson Pickett brought a forceful, ferocious passion to his singing. He could turn a piece of bubblegum like the Archies' "Sugar, Sugar" into raw R&B with roots in the Baptist church of his Alabama childhood and the streets of Detroit. Though his last big hit was "Fire and Water" in 1972, "Wicked Pickett" kept performing until shortly before his death in 2006.
The Righteous Brothers
When Otis Redding first heard the 1964 hit "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" on the radio, he assumed the singers were black. Redding wasn't alone: Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield—for whom the term "blue-eyed soul" was coined—were the most soulful-sounding white guys around. Specializing in melancholy ballads, with Hatfield's heavenly tenor floating above Medley's resonant bass, the California-born duo (not actually brothers) delivered "Soul and Inspiration" in the '60s. Since Hatfield's cocaine-related death in 2003, Medley has continued to perform under the Righteous Brothers name, but with a new soul partner.
With voice that could reach the sweetest falsetto heights and hook into the smoothest grooves, Smokey Robinson became a soul giant in the '60s, as both lead singer of the Miracles and Motown's top songwriter. "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," "Ooo Baby Baby," "Tracks of My Tears"—the list goes on. A Kennedy Center honoree, Robinson still performs, never straying too far from his Motown roots. "I love hearing my music," he says. "I love hearing it by other people. I hope it will always be played." Not to worry, Smokey.
Sam & Dave
Soul music's most popular duo, Sam Moore and Dave Prater scored their biggest hits from 1966 to 1969, reaching No. 1 on the R&B chart with "Hold On, I'm Coming'" and "Soul Man," a song that celebrated the musical genre. With church-derived tenor-baritone interplay, Sam & Dave more than lived up to their nickname, Double Dynamite. Prater was killed in a 1988 car crash. Moore, 81, continues to perform, in 2017 singing "America the Beautiful" at a presidential inauguration concert for Donald Trump.
One of the last great singers of the classic soul era, Al Green soared onto the charts with 13 Top 10 hits in the 1970s, including "Tired of Being Alone" and the incomparable "Let's Stay Together." Joyous, vulnerable, sensual and explosive--often within the same song--Green could take a country tune like Willie Nelson's "Funny How Time Slips Away" and transform it into a soul classic. Green turned to gospel in the late '70s, when he became an ordained minister, but was later inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as "one of the world's most gifted purveyors of soul music." No one argued.
A child prodigy (he signed with Motown at the age of 11), Stevie Wonder has scored 25 Grammys and more than 30 Top 10 hits. From "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours" to "Superstition" to "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," they exude a joyful sound filled with heart and soul. As Elton John once said, "When people in decades and centuries come to talk about the history of music, they will talk about Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder."
Known as the Soul Queen of New Orleans (a title officially bestowed by that city's local officials), Thomas never achieved her contemporary Aretha Franklin's commercial success. But her warm and distinctive vocals on such songs as 'It's Raining" and "Ruler of My Heart" capture the spirit of the Big Easy, America's most soulful city.
Most people remember him for just one song—but what a song! The 1966 classic "When a Man Loves a Woman" is Percy Sledge's soul legacy. Raised in the Deep South, where he was immersed in gospel and country, Sledge infused his music with romance and heartbreak, recording 10 albums before his death in 2015. Check out his other tunes, such as "Warm and Tender Love," "It Tears Me Up" and "True Love Travels on a Gravel Road." You'll find there's much more to this soul legend than his most famous single.
Known as the White Lady of Soul, in the 1960s British-born Dusty Springfield was one the most popular purveyors of blue-eyed soul. Songs such as "Wishin' and Hopin'," "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me," and "Son of a Preacher Man" went from breathy-sensual to emotionally naked and then powerful enough to rattle the windows. Springfield's magnum opus, her 1969 album "Dusty in Memphis," is now considered one of the greatest soul albums of all time. She died of breast cancer in 1999.
Ben E. King
He scored several early hits as a singer with the Drifters ("Save the Last Dance for Me," "This Magic Moment") and more as a solo artist ("Spanish Harlem," "There Goes My Baby"). But it's Ben. E. King's "Stand By Me"—which he co-wrote with Leiber & Stoller—that puts him in the soul pantheon. More than 400 covers of the song have been released since the original topped the R&B chart in 1961, but it's King's simple, direct, church-derived original that remains the best.
The lead vocalist on such Temptations hits as "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," "I Wish It Would Rain" and the group's signature song, "My Girl," the bespectacled David Ruffin was a tenor whose voice expressed heartbreak and longing. Marvin Gaye detected in it "a strength my own voice lacked." But Ruffin could be difficult to work with. Fired from the Temptations, he had less success in a subsequent solo career, his life troubled by cocaine addiction. In 1991, the Mississippi-born singer died from "an adverse reaction to drugs."
Perhaps because of his size, Solomon Burke never achieved crossover stardom the way Sam Cooke did. But Burke was the essence of soul. With a voice described as "river deep country fried buttercream soul," he was also a great character. Dubbed the "King of Rock 'n' Soul," he took the stage in flowing cape and crown—until James Brown got him to abdicate. "James paid me $7,500 to stand onstage and hand him my robe and crown," said Burke, who took the money without singing a note. Of course, it's better to hear him sing.
She rose to stardom following the 1986 release of her certified-Platinum album "Rapture," which included the Grammy-winning single "Sweet Love." With her earthy and emotionally rich voice and jazz-tinged songs of romantic introspection, Anita Baker became one of the most popular singers of contemporary soul—aka "deep soul."
First as a member of the Impressions and then as a solo artist, Curtis Mayfield carried every emotion to a higher ground with his soaring falsetto and socially aware songwriting. With works ranging from "Gypsy Woman" to the "Superfly" soundtrack, the Chicago-born Mayfield influenced a legion of artists, including Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Sly Stone and Marvin Gaye. His 1965 gospel-influenced single (with the Impressions) "People Get Ready" stills stands as a pinnacle of faith and hope in a troubled world.
A complete singer with an operatic range, Jackie Wilson was a key figure in the transition of rhythm and blues into soul. A former amateur boxer, he had a graceful, toss-off-the-jacket, loosen-the-tie, hop-skip-and-split performing style that led him to be known as Mr. Excitement. Delivering such classics as "Reet Petite," "Lonely Teardrops" and "Higher and Higher," Wilson was "the greatest singer I've ever heard," said Motown founder Berry Gordy. Tragically, Wilson suffered a massive heart attack onstage in 1975 and remained in a coma for eight years before his death in 1984.
Bobby Womack was a teenage gospel star, a protégé to Sam Cooke and a first-rank songwriter (he wrote "It's All Over Now," the Rolling Stones' first UK hit) with a yearning voice meant for soul. But he never really hit the heights, victim to bad record deals and eventual cocaine addiction. Yet Womack competed as an equal on the same live bills as Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and James Brown. And on such recordings as "Woman's Gotta Have It," Womack soared.
Back in the '60s, Marvin Gaye recorded duets with several female singers, but the most successful of them were with Tammi Terrell. Together they put out a series of hits, starting with 1967's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," and reaching No. 1 on the R&B chart with "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" and "You're All I Need to Get By." Unfortunately Terrell's story was as tragic as Gaye's. After collapsing on stage while performing with him in 1967, she was diagnosed with brain cancer. Terrell died in 1970 at the age of 24.
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