7 R&B Groups That Ruled the 1970s

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Before crossing over into the more commercial “contemporary” sound of keyboards, synths, and the bass-and-drum pop of the 1980s with the likes of Stephanie Mills, Debarge, and Al B. Sure, 1970s R&B was a greater medley of soul, gospel, Afro beats, funk and disco.

Born out of folk, jazz, gospel, and blues in the 1940s, the earlier rhythm and blues of R&B music led to the emergence of rock and roll by the 1950s. Throughout the 1960s, R&B found its sentimental and soulful way with artists like The Supremes, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Ray Charles, and Marvin Gaye. Playing around with instrumentation and arrangements, artists like Al Green and Isaac Hayes began mixing in African beats and gospel interpolations, helping transition the genre into the reigning disco and funk age of the new decade.

Throughout the ’70s, R&B held its place on the charts with Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Jackson 5, The O-Jays, The Four Tops, Barry White, Earth, Wind & Fire, The Spinners, and more, while bending around other genres.

Here’s a look at just seven R&B groups that ruled R&B in the1970s.

1. Kool & The Gang

Before their 1980s explosion with R&B-pop hits “Celebrate,” “Get Down on It,” and “Cherish,” Kool & The Gang already hit the R&B chart with this 1970 instrumental self-titled debut and their self-produced 1972 follow-up, Music Is the Message, which reached No. 25 on the R&B chart. By 1973, Kool & The Gang was tapping into more funk with their Wild and Peaceful era hits “Funky Stuff,” “Jungle Boogie” and “Hollywood Swinging.” In 1979, “Ladies Night,” the title track off their 11th album topped the R&B charts and peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100.

2 . The Temptations

Throughout he 1960s, The Temptations were already helping define R&B with Motown Records’ hits “My Girl” in 1964 and the 1966 single “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” By the 1970s, The Temptations entered the new decade with just the right R&B croon—their No. 1 hit  “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)” and the Norman Whitfield- and Barrett Strong-penned “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” a song first recorded by The Undisputed Truth before becoming a Grammy-winning hit with The Temptations’ cover.  

3. Commodores

By the late 70s, The Commodores were leaving behind some of their biggest hits, including the soulful Lionel Richie-penned “Easy”—later becoming a hit for Faith No More, who covered the song in 1992— the funked up “Brick House” in 1977, the 1978 hits “Three Times a Lady” and “Natural High” and the group’s final single featuring Richie as lead singer, “Still,” released in 1979.

4. The Jackson 5

Before Michael Jackson had a bigger breakthrough with his Quincy Jones-produced Off the Wall in 1979, and wining a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male for “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” he and The Jackson 5 were releasing hit albums like the 1970 releases ABC and the follow-up, Third Album, which reached No. 1 on the R&B charts with single “I’ll Be There.” By 1972, the group’s fifth album, Maybe, Tomorrow, birthed more hit singles, “Never Can Say Goodbye” and “Maybe Tomorrow,” and the last album before Michael Jackson’s noticeable vocal change on the 1972 release Lookin’ Through the Windows.

5. The Isley Brothers

Already conquering funk and soul in’60s, by 1973, 3 + 3, gave the Isley Brothers Top 10 R&B-pop hits “That Lady” and their cover of the Seals and Crofts’ “Summer Breeze.” The Isley Brothers continued releasing platinum albums, including Harvest for the World in 1976, Go for Your Guns (1977), and the 1978 release Showdown, with more Top 40, pop, and R&B singles. In 1979, the group started to incorporate more funk and disco into their music with hits “I Wanna Be with You (Part 1)” and “It’s a Disco Night (Rock Don’t Stop),” off their first and only double album, Winner Takes All.

6. Gladys Knight & The Pips

Reaching commercial success after signing to Motown Records in 1966, Gladys Knight & The Pips continued their streak into the 1970s with hits “If I Were Your Woman,” “I Don’t Want to Do Wrong” and the Grammy-winning “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye).” After moving to Buddha Records, the group continued releasing more soulful R&B hits like “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me,” “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination,” “I Feel a Song (In My Heart)” and the No. 1 hit “Midnight Train to Georgia.” Released on the group’s 11th album, Imagination, in 1973, “Midnight Train to Georgia,” written by Jim Weatherly, earned the group a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance By A Duo, Group Or Chorus.

7. Earth Wind & Fire

Masters of mixing soul, funk, jazz, disco, and Afro-pop beats, Earth, Wind & Fire kicked off the 1970s by hitting the Billboard R&B Albums chart with their score for the soundtrack of the 1971 Melvin Van Peebles blaxploitation film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. The group’s funkier 1975 hit, “Shining Star,” earned them a Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals. By 1977, Earth, Wind & Fire picked up another Grammy (Best R&B Vocal Performance By A Duo, Group Or Chorus) for their eighth album, All ‘n All, with hits “Serpentine Fire,” “Fantasy,” which was also nominated for a Grammy for Best R&B Instrumental, and “Runnin,” which won a Grammy for Best R&B Instrumental. In 1979, Earth, Wine & Fire won another Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group for their single “After the Love Has Gone.”

Photo: Solomon NJie/GettyImages

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