Let’s take a look at the best 70s soul songs of all time. In this list, we take it back to sideburns and bell-bottom trousers as we explore the best that music had to offer.
Originating in the late 50s and early 60s, soul music was well-established by the 70s. Some of the big names of the era include Marvin Gaye, The O’Jays, and Bill Withers.
To compile this list, we looked at chart success, social relevance, and general groove-ability. Let’s dive in and discover some of the 70s soul songs that defined the decade.
20. ‘Hercules’ – Aaron Neville (1973)
Aaron Neville’s ‘Hercules’ opens with a fantastic juicy bass, then accompanied by drums and a soulful piano with a saxophone joining the team at the chorus.
The track tells the story of a kid who’s doing his best to be aware of his surroundings and steer clear of trouble. This paints a very different image of the Hercules we all imagine. Perhaps Neville is using the repetition of the phrase ‘I must be Hercules’ as a reminder to himself.
The soft vocals the soul singer delivers make him appear vulnerable, a characteristic the protagonist is much aware of hence his constant Hercules reminder.
19. ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’ – The Jackson 5 (1971)
Michael Jackson never fails to astound me when it comes to his vocal ability. Even as a 12-year-old, he can deliver complex emotions that many performers miss the mark on.
Although originally intended for The Supremes, ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’ was a better match for the family group. It displays the Jacksons’ range without seeming boastful in a track that has a smooth rhythm you can’t help but sway your shoulders to.
The song reached No. 1 on the US Billboard R&B chart and has been covered numerous times by artists such as Isaac Hayes and Gloria Gaynor who reimagined the track as a disco tune. One of the greatest 70s soul songs.
18. ‘Let’s Stay Together’ – Al Green (1972)
From the moment the song starts, ‘Let’s Stay Together’ is iconic, as the brass section play a simple riff over suspended chords while the backing singers speak the title words in a sensual whisper.
As soon as it begins, the band falls away paving the way for Al Green’s gentle, easy-going vocals. The beauty of this song comes from its relaxed nature. Green sings with such ease, it’s a true joy to listen to.
‘Let’s Stay Together’ reached No. 1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and was ranked 60th greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone’s 2004 list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Withers is responsible for several of the all-time best 70s soul songs, and ‘Let’s Stay Together’ is undoubtedly among them.
17. ‘Family Affair’ – Sly & The Family Stone (1971)
‘Family Affair’ has been covered by an impressive collection of artists, including Iggy Pop and John Legend. The musicality in the track remains subdued and simple. What drives the song is the vocal juxtaposition between the Sly & The Family Stone members. While one belts the higher notes, the other tackles the deep notes (plus the occasional scream) in response.
‘Family Affair’ would become the final No. 1 single for the group. However, it hasn’t faded into obscurity. John Legend’s version, accompanied by Joss Stone and Van Hunt, won a Grammy in 2004 for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.
16. ‘Mr. Big Stuff’ – Jean Knight (1971)
If, like me, once a song has been used in an advert, you struggle to distance the song from the brand, I urge you to try Jean Knight.
You may recognise ‘Mr. Big Stuff’ from an old M&S advert but this track is so much more. It featured Knight telling of a man for flashing his cash sarcastically calling him Mr Big Stuff and claiming he’s “never gonna get my love.” The track also features female backing singers who I like to imagine are there while this fella gets put in his place.
‘Mr. Big Stuff’ was certified double platinum and was the No. 1 Soul Single of the year.
15. ‘Now That We Found Love’ – The O’Jays (1973)
Many may be more familiar with Heavy D and the Boyz’s 90s sampling of this tune which opens with the catchy “now that we found love what are we gonna do with it?” before rocketing into the rap. However, the O’Jays’ softer original recording is a classic in its own right.
‘Now That We Found Love’ is a love song dedicated to the singer’s lover expressing their excitement to embark on this romantic voyage with each other.
The track is found on the group’s 1973 album Ship Ahoy which reached No.1 on Billboard’s ‘Black Albums’ chart and sold over 1 million copies.
14. ‘It’s a Shame’ – The Spinners (1970)
Co-written and produced by Stevie Wonder, ‘It’s a Shame’ became The Spinners’ biggest single since they signed to Motown Records company. It was also their biggest hit in a decade.
The track takes on the familiar trend of soul classics – pairing upbeat, cheerful music that makes you want to dance with lyrics that tell a very different story. In fact, ‘It’s a Shame’ tells the tale of a woman that the singer has been involved with who doesn’t appreciate him.
Although the track only peaked at No. 14 on the US Billboard Hot 100, and 20 in the UK, ‘It’s a Shame’ has become a 70s soul standard. A truly classic 70s soul song.
13. ‘Rock the Boat’ – Hues Corporation (1973)
At number 13, we have the most nautical addition on this list with Hues Corporation’s ‘Rock the Boat’ who manage to keep up the sailing metaphors throughout. Lead singer Fleming Williams claims that his and his partner’s love has “sailed through every storm” and thus, there is no need to “rock the boat.”
After the track’s initial release, it didn’t garner the attention it deserved. With radio stations largely ignoring it, and in turn disappointing sales, it wasn’t until it became a disco favourite in New York that ‘Rock the Boat’ became the classic we’re all familiar with today.
12. ‘Lovely Day’ – Bill Withers (1977)
‘Lovely Day’ is one of the sweetest love songs on this list. But this isn’t a love song in the way you’d expect – it’s actually written for Bill Withers’ friend and co-writer Skip Scarborough. Withers claims “The way Skip was, every day was just a lovely day.” How tremendous!
The track is best known for Withers’ sustained note featured at the end of the song. The singer holds the final ‘lovely day’ for a whopping 18 seconds, one of the longest-ever notes recorded in an American pop song.
‘Lovely Day’ reached platinum certification in the UK and was ranked at No. 402 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Best Songs of All Time list in 2021.
11. ‘Best of My Love’ – The Emotions (1977)
If you listen to ‘Best of My Love’ and feel a sense of familiarity, your instincts are correct – the track was written by Earth, Wind & Fire members Al McKay and Maurice White. Once you’ve got their sound in your head, it’s easy to hear in ‘Best of My Love.’
Released as The Emotions’ lead single off their album Rejoice, it achieved huge success. It remained on top of the US Billboard Hot 100 for five non-consecutive weeks and received platinum certification, the band’s only single to do so. ‘Best of My Love’ also won a Grammy in 1977 and won an American Music Award for Favourite Soul/R&B Single.
10. ‘Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City’ – Bobby “Blue” Bland (1974)
Although ‘Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City’ didn’t receive the chart success you may expect (peaking at No. 91 on Billboard’s Hot 100), the track became a classic 70s soul song.
The song, originally by Bobby “Blue” Bland, has been covered and sampled several times. Rock legends such as White Snake and Paul Weller have had a crack at it, as well as being featured in Jay-Z’s ‘Heart of City (Ain’t No Love).’
It’s speculated that the popularity comes from the lyrics. It could be interpreted as a standard love song but many consider it a social commentary on the hopelessness of poverty.
9. ‘Move on Up’ – Curtis Mayfield (1970)
Taken from his 1970 debut album Curtis, ‘Move on Up’ has cemented itself as one of the greatest 70s soul songs, and a classic of the genre.
Ingrained in the music alone is an urge to get up and dance, a message that Curtis Mayfield follows through with his lyrics. He encourages the listener to make the most out of their life and push through the obstacles they may be facing.
Inspired by Mayfield’s neighbours, The Staple Singers, the singer-songwriter wanted to write more upbeat songs and break away from his R&B group The Impressions. ‘Move on Up’ was the first song Mayfield wrote following encouragement from one of The Staple Singers’ members.
8. ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered’ – Stevie Wonder (1970)
‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered’ opens up with a series of descending notes and Stevie Wonder’s signature scream layered overtop.
This track from the then-20-year-old Wonder is one of the biggest foot tappers from the decade and shows off the artist’s prowess as a singer-songwriter. Throughout its 2:41 play-time, it feels shiny and commanding, not overstaying its welcome by a second.
‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered’ was so popular it spent six weeks at No. 1 in the U.S. R&B chart. It even impressed US president Barack Obama almost 40 years later, the politician using it during his campaigns.
7. ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ – Bill Withers (1971)
Bill Withers makes a second appearance on this list because frankly, he’s just too good. The 26x repeated “I know” around the middle of the track somehow works and makes for a uniquely interesting characteristic that people still miscount to this day. The song was Withers’ breakthrough hit, reaching No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ is one of the songs that’s release date feels totally irrelevant. I remember listening to this track through all stages of my life and I certainly wasn’t alone. Withers managed to transcend the genre with this one and created a generation-spanning earworm.
6. ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’ – Gladys Knight & The Pips (1973)
‘Midnight Train to Georgia’ tells the sweet story of the singer proclaiming their love for their partner claiming “I’d rather live in his world than be without him in mine” and following him to Georgia. The story comes from a conversation writer Jim Weatherly had about “taking a midnight plane to Houston” and was originally intended to be a country song. Personally, I think it works much better this way!
‘Midnight Train to Georgia’ became Gladys Knight & The Pips’ first single to top the Billboard Hot 100. It garnered so much popularity that it snagged the 1974 Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance.
5. ‘Let’s Get It On’ – Marvin Gaye (1973)
It would be impossible to compile a list of the best 70s soul songs without including the one and only Marvin Gaye. ‘Let’s Get It On’ is perhaps Gaye’s most famous song, and is widely regarded as a landmark track of 70s soul.
The lyrics of the classic see Gaye requesting to get it on with his lover. Although the lyrics are simplistic in nature and don’t contain much mystery, the singer’s passionate vocal performance is what makes this song truly shine.
‘Let’s Get It On’ peaked at No. 1 on the US Billboard Hot 100, and platinum certification in the United States.
4. ‘Tired of Being Alone’ – Al Green (1971)
‘Tired of Being Alone’ is my personal favourite Al Green song. Not only does it sweep you onto the dance floor within the first few seconds, but it also delivers one of the most satisfying final choruses within this list.
During the bridge, the music takes a breather and instead is driven by Al Green’s adlibs. This break in the music makes the final chorus all that more powerful when Green re-enters full force with the aid of his backing singers to conclude the track on a high. Green’s final proclamation accentuates the singer’s exasperation with being single and his desire for love.
One of the most iconic 70s soul songs, from one of the era’s true greats.
3. ‘Love Train’ – The O’Jays (1972)
The O’Jays’ No. 1 single ‘Love Train’ calls for peace. When the track was released, the Vietnam war continued to rage on and a feeling of hopelessness was thick in the minds of many. ‘Love Train’ was released at a perfect time, spreading the message of unity.
Within the lyrics, The O’Jays name multiple countries including England, Russia, China, Egypt, Israel, and Africa – countries with power and perhaps notoriety. The naming of these places makes ‘Love Train’ feel like it’s integrating into us all and suggests there’s something we all can do to make the world a better place.
2. ‘What’s Going On’ – Marvin Gaye (1971)
Coming in at number 2, we have another social commentary track from Marvin Gaye. ‘What’s Going On’ was inspired by a police brutality incident witnessed by fellow soul singer Renaldo “Obie” Benson.
Although considered a protest song by many, Benson claimed it’s much more a love song about trying to understand the world we live in and asking people “what’s going on?”
‘What’s Going On’ topped the Hot Soul Singles chart for five weeks and sold over two million copies. It also ranked on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of all Time at No. 4 in both 2004 and 2010.
1. ‘Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone’ – The Temptations (1972)
The tragedy of ‘Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone’ comes from the lyrics being told from the perspective of a mother to her children. After the passing of her husband, she tells them about his troublesome behaviour. The track reached No. 1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and received a platinum verification.
The album version of the track is over 12 minutes long with an instrumental introduction that lasts for almost 4 minutes. Within those 4 minutes, the stage was set for the introduction of vocals from The Temptations and together they delivered a song that would become one of the best 70s soul songs, and a soul classic forevermore.
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