1971: A Year of Soul, Funk, R&B

In a year of genre-bending music, there was plenty of blending of soul, funk and R&B sounds. This year was part of what I consider to be a Golden Era of soulful vibes. This music was not restricted to a certain group of radio stations or a single chart, much of this music crossed over to mainstream listeners.

This is by no means a complete list, but you get the idea. Maybe you remember some of these songs or even an album. This is Old School soul, R&B and the emergence of funk. The origins of this music was everywhere, from the delta to the streets, from Memphis to Detroit. Each part of the country seemed to have a unique slice of the pie. Detroit was different than Chicago, Memphis was different from Philly. There were independent labels as well as those who specialized in these genres. Chess Records, Stax Records, Motown, Atlantic and others.

Marvin Gaye – He released a groundbreaking album, What’s Going On, his first million selling album. Credited as a sophisticated concept album, Gaye tackled a variety of social issues on the record from police brutality to the environment. The title track caused Motown some heartburn as being too political, but Gaye told Berry Gordy that he would not record anything else until the song was released. It was a hit and a classic. The follow up, “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)” was another million seller.

Sly and the Family Stone – After five years of R&B chart success, Sly darkens the mood with very social conscious lyrics with There’s a Riot Going On, released after his greatest hits album in 1970. “Family Affair” is the most familiar track, and maybe the most accessible one. Sly was reportedly burned out and doing a few too many drugs, which turned the production darker and denser. Still, an album of distinction, especially topping both the pop and R&B charts.

Al Green – He would be Rev. Al later, but he had some hits to make first. In 1971, he had a hit with “Tired of Being Alone”, the first of eight Gold Singles over a four year period. Green would become a superstar and sex symbol the next year with “Let’s Stay Together.”

Funkadelic – The backing band created by George Clinton, released their third album, Maggot Brain. Psychedelic funk with shards of Jimi Hendrix style guitar. Clinton and Funkadelic would travel the funk jam universe on the mothership. If Frank Zappa had been born Black, this is what he’d be playing. You might be able to hum the melody, but the upstroke will get you on the downstroke.

Isaac Hayes – An incredible year for Hayes, he released Black Moses, a number one soul album, a double album at that. The album had originals and covers, and represented a variety of musical types. Then, there was this little soundtrack album from the film, Shaft. “Theme from Shaft” won an Oscar and was a Billboard number one hit.

The Stylistics – Their debut album was released and charted three singles that year. “Betcha by Golly Wow,” “People Make the World Go Round,” and “Stop, Look and Listen to Your Heart” were the strongest songs. The group would enjoy 12 consecutive top ten R&B hits. The group’s sound is known by Russell Thompkins, Jr.’s falsetto voice.

Curtis Mayfield – Already successful as part of The Impressions and “People Get Ready”, Mayfield became a solo artist in the 1970s. He released a live album and a studio album in 1971. Like Marvin Gaye, Mayfield threaded the needle with contemporary social messaging and soulful melodic tunes. In 1972, he would release the soundtrack to Superfly.

Ike & Tina Turner – Rarely a harder working musical act. By circumstance, they had three albums released that year. A new studio album, a live recording and a repackaged album from a former label. “Proud Mary” had been a sizable hit less than a couple of years prior. What You Hear is What You Got captured their red hot performance and charted well for a live album. ‘Nuff Said was greeted with strong sales and generally good reviews. It did not contain a “Proud Mary” but satisfied fans.

Aretha Franklin – Instead of a studio album, Aretha released a live recording of her four nights at the Fillmore West. She had hits before and after, but this served to memorialize her magical live performances. The album, Aretha Live at the Fillmore West, topped the R&B album chart. It was produced by the legendary Jerry Wexler and the King Curtis band provided Aretha’s backing.

Jackson 5 – To capitalize on their success, three albums appeared that year. First, a soundtrack to their TV special, Goin’ Back to Indiana, which included a few hits and cover songs. A greatest hits package was also released, and finally, Maybe Tomorrow, a fresh group of songs by the group hit the stores. A lot of product. The new collection lacked any megahits, but offered a few minor tunes. Still, the power of the Jackson 5, sold a lot of units and past hits were still popular. The group had a long way yet to go.

The Temptations – The year would see Eddie Kendricks depart the group, but they released “Just My Imagination” a classic. The Temptations had class, every singing group wanted to be them.

James Brown – The Godfather of Soul released two albums that year, his biggest hit was “Hot Pants” which topped the R&B chart and showed respectfully on the mainstream chart. This was not representative of Brown’s best work, but he was still a huge presence on the scene.

Gladys Knight & the Pips – The was still going strong, releasing two albums and charting the single, “I Don’t Want to Do No Wrong” which sold a million copies.

The Staple Singers – “Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom-Boom)” and “Respect Yourself” were million sellers during the year, from two different albums, both released by Stax Records.

Wilson Pickett – He released Don’t Knock My Love. Although his biggest hits were in the previous decade, this album charted several single including “Call My Name, Ill Be There” “Fire and Water” and the title track.

Stevie Wonder – Little Stevie Wonder achieved much success in the 1960s. During the early part of the 1970s, he would spin his wheels trying to land on a more mature, contemporary style. He released Where I’m Coming From, although ambitious, failed to impress many. His next album, Music of My Mind started his journey into a more complex sound, and ultimately the second of his 1972 albums, Talking Book, that would truly revolutionize his sound.

The Isley Brothers – The Isleys had been around since the 1950s. Remember “Shout”? In 1971, they released an album of contemporary cover songs including “Spill the Wine” and “Love the One You’re With.” The Isleys certainly mixed various forms of music together and would soon incorporate rock into their writing.

Rufus Thomas – Having recorded for Chess and Sun Records, Thomas spent most of his career at Stax Records. He has several charting songs in the early 1970s including “Do the Funky Chicken”, “(Do the) Push and Pull” and “The Breakdown”. He was born to be onstage and was quite the entertainer.

Bill Withers – He released his debut album, a top 40 charting collection, featuring the haunting “Ain’t No Sunshine” which was a bigger hit on the Billboard Hot 100 than on the R&B chart. Withers would produce more gentle, soulful songs over the next decade.

The 5th Dimension – The group had big hits in 1970 and 1972, but not so much in 1971. They charted a couple of adult contemporary songs, but their heyday was coming to an end. They also released a live album the same year.

The Chi-Lites – A smooth vocal quartet from Chicago, they had a few hits in the early 1970s, including “Have You Seen Her” a number one R&B hit and number three on the Hot 100 chart.

Smokey Robinson & the Miracles – In 1971, Robinson was wrapping up his singing career, taking an executive job with Motown. The group’s songs of the 1960s were still in demand. Eventually, Robinson would reemerge as a performer. The male vocal groups were huge in the 1960s and the Miracles sold a lot of records. Even when the hits stopped coming, they remained an incredible influence on singers to follow.

Four Tops – In 1971, The Four Tops and the Supremes collaborated on two albums. Even though they did not chart any significant singles, these were still Motown heavy hitters.

Johnny Taylor – Taylor charted three songs during the year, most notably, “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone” which reached the top of the R&B chart. Taylor spent many years recording for Stax Records in Memphis.

Diana Ross / The Supremes – Ross had left the group by then, but they soldiered on with a replacement and teamed up with The Temptations. Ross meanwhile, released two albums that year, one of them the soundtrack from her successful television special. Her studio album did not produce any big hits, certainly not on the scale of her debut album released just a year before with “Reach Out and Touch” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

Buddy Miles – After working with The Electric Flag and Jimi Hendrix, Miles went out on his own. That year he released We Got to Live Together, which had the song “Easy Greasy.” Miles worked in the rock, blues and R&B genres, knowing no musical boundaries.


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