As chosen from somewhere in this ongoing collection…
Back when I was a teenager I stumbled across a Stevie Wonder record in my uncle’s collection – it was Talking Book – and the seed was planted for a lifetime of record collecting. I’ve now been regularly adding to the shelves for over 25 years and counting, and my first love has always been 70s soul music, because for me that’s where it all began. I’ve veered in numerous directions over the years, but I’ve always come back to Marvin Gaye, or Gil Scott-Heron, or Laura Nyro or The Isley Brothers or Bill Withers, or less talked-about artists like Greg Perry and Lou Bond, or Alice Clark or Jean Carn or Bobby Womack, or Marlena Shaw, or The Natural Four or Minnie Riperton. It’s something I’ve barely written about, because I wouldn’t really know where to begin, and it’s hard to know what to say about music that you’re passionate about, because each record holds a memory, or takes you back to a certain time. It just seems impossible to be anything but absurdly subjective about the whole thing…. Which leads seamlessly to this list of, in my opinion (and after much head scratching and inner deliberation), the greatest soul records of the 1970s. This is based on 27 years of research, it’s in no particular order, feel free to tell me I’ve got it all wrong in the comments section.
Isaac Hayes – Black Moses (1971)
One of the true greats of any era, Isaac Hayes’s work on Shaft and South Park are what he’s most famous for, but I’ll always love the man for this album, which I found in a second hand record shop in 1992. It has everything – sweeping strings, angels on backing vocals, and then, of course, that voice.
Gwen McCrae – Melody of Life (1979)
If Aretha owned the 1960s, I’d argue that Gwen McCrae was the great female soul voice of the 1970s. So many of her albums could have made the list – Rockin Chair, Let’s Straighten It Out – but this is the one that features two of her greatest tracks. The ever-popular All This Love That I’m Givin’, then the lesser known but equally as excellent I Can Only Think of You.
The O’Jays – Ship Ahoy (1973)
Philly Soul was one of the great musical movements of the 1970s, and this is arguably the best album to come out of the Philly stable EVER. That’s quite a declaration when you look at the other options, but this one balances the label’s upbeat vibes with hard-line politicising perfectly. Also, The O’Jays were the best soul group of the 1970s. With the possible exception of The Isley Brothers.
Donny Hathaway – Extensions of a Man (1973)
Up against serious competition, Donny Hathaway has the greatest soul voice of all time, and this is his best record. Listening to it is about as close as I will ever come to a religious experience, as the most soulful of them all mixes a near-classical soundtrack with soaring vocals. Not just one of the greatest ever soul albums, one of the greatest ever albums. Full stop.
Stevie Wonder – Music of My Mind (1972)
Stevie’s run of albums in the 1970s has possibly never been equaled by anyone, and I’d comfortably include people like The Beatles or David Bowie in that. From From Where I’m Coming From in 1971 to Songs In The Key of Life in 1976, he released six truly amazing soul records, and this one, the second of the run from 1972, is the standout. It still sounds unbelievably inventive.
Marvin Gaye – I Want You (1976)
There was never any doubt that a Marvin Gaye album was going to make the list, but it was always going to be tricky to decide which one. They’re all so different, and so brilliant in their own way. The inspiring social commentary of What’s Going On, the sass of Let’s Get It On, the pure poetic venom that bleeds through his unsung masterpiece Here, My Dear. But for taking filthy, sexy soul to a whole new level, I went with I Want You.
Milton Wright – Friends and Buddies (1975)
One of the lesser known names on the list, as far as I can tell, Milton was brother to the slightly more famous soul singer in the family, Betty Wright – who was also responsible for a few great records in the 1970s. But this is a personal favourite, mixing the rootsy soul-folk of Terry Callier with the synthesizers of Stevie Wonder. His track Keep it Up is one of the greatest dance floor soul tracks ever recorded.
Curtis Mayfield – Roots (1971)
Like Marvin and Stevie, there was no option to not include a Curtis Mayfield album, and during the 1970s he was responsible for at least seven genuine contenders, including Sparkle, which found him producing tracks for Aretha Franklin. But after much deliberation with the various voices in my head, I decided that this was the best of an amazing bunch, not least for the inclusion of this gem.
Esther Phillips – From A Whisper to A Scream (1972)
If I was compiling a list of the greatest songs of any genre in the 1970s, sitting right at the top would be Esther Phillips’ cover of the Gil Scott-Heron classic Home is Where The Hatred Is. Give it a listen, it’ll tear your heart out, and is made all the more potent by knowing that Esther Phillips died a junkie. This was her finest album.
Leroy Hutson – Love Oh Love (1973)
The great unsung genius of the 1970s, it’s one of life’s great mysteries why Leroy Hutson isn’t spoken about in the same sentence as people like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and his old college roommate, Donny Hathaway. Like the aforementioned, he made numerous great albums in the 1970s, but this, his debut after leaving The Impressions, was probably his best.