Top 6 R&B Songs from the 1970s

Rhythm and blues, like most genres, is a broad description of soul music. In the 1970s, R&B expanded to include funk and disco. Record companies used “R&B” to market Black music. The earliest known printing of the term R&B was in Billboard in 1943. 

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The artists below are too dynamic to fit neatly into a single category, but their songs came to define R&B in the 1970s while similarly reshaping the sound of rhythm and blues

Here are the top six R&B songs from the 1970s. 

6. “Family Affair” by Sly & the Family Stone

Billy Preston’s electric piano helped propel “Family Affair” to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and R&B Singles charts. The album’s title, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, was a response to the question Marvin Gaye asked on his masterpiece What’s Going On. The album has a darker tone and represents Sly Stone’s association with the Black power movement. Ironically, the Family Stone band members were absent for most of the recording, with Stone preferring to work alone.  

One child grows up to be
Somebody that just loves to learn
And another child grows up to be
Somebody you’d just love to burn

5. “I’ll Take You There” by The Staple Singers

“I’ll Take You There” is a protest song about the promised land. Mavis Staples, an R&B legend and civil rights activist, leads The Staple Singers (and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section) through an optimistic song connecting the thread of gospel music’s spiritual past to R&B’s socially conscious present during the ’70s. “I’ll Take You There” is the destination of the universe’s moral arc, bending toward justice. Stax Records released the single in 1972. It reached a destination of its own on top of Billboard’s Hot 100 and R&B Singles charts. 

I know a place
Ain’t nobody cryin’
Ain’t nobody worried
Ain’t no smilin’ faces
Lyin’ to the races

4. “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers

On “Ain’t No Sunshine,” Bill Withers mines classic soul with acoustic guitar performed by Stephen Stills. For the recording session, producer Booker T. Jones included his rhythm section from Booker T. & the MGs—bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn and drummer Al Jackson Jr. “Ain’t No Sunshine” put Withers on the map and lifted him from a factory job making toilets for Boeing 747s. The steady-as-she-goes repetition from factory work shows up in the song’s refrain:

I know, I know, I know, I know, I know
I know, I know, I know, I know, I know
Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone
Only darkness every day
Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone
And this house just ain’t no home
Anytime she goes away

[RELATED: Songwriter U: Under the Hood—”Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers]

3. “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye’s 1971 masterpiece was driven by his anger with the direction America was headed when it came to civil rights. “What’s Going On” used a simple question to shine a light on police brutality and the Vietnam War. Gaye found his own independence from the Motown machine by creating a protest album that still resonates as much as ever today since, sadly, the same issues are still making headlines. “What’s Going On” spent five weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot Soul Singles chart (now called Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs).

Mother, mother, there’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today

2. “Rock with You” by Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson released Off the Wall in 1979. “Rock with You” topped the pop chart for four weeks and didn’t budge from the top spot on the R&B chart for six weeks. It was one of the last hit songs of the disco era. “Rock with You” was written by Rod Temperton, who later wrote “Thriller.” Quincy Jones’ production expands the sound of R&B to incorporate smooth jazz, funk, and disco. 

Out on the floor
There ain’t nobody there but us
Girl, when you dance
There’s a magic that must be love

1. “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder won two Grammys for this funk-soul work of genius. It topped Billboard‘s Hot 100 and R&B charts while establishing a classic period of work for Wonder. Between 1972 and 1976, he released five brilliant albums, comprising one of the greatest creative runs in music history. “Superstition” was the first single from Talking Book (1972). Wonder’s clavinet riff on the track rivals anything Jimi Hendrix produced on guitar, and the horn line is so deliciously perfect, it dares your body not to move. If Thomas Paine had been born with the funk, The Age of Reason might have been accompanied by a soundtrack like this. 

Very superstitious
Writing’s on the wall
Very superstitious
Ladder’s bout’ to fall
Thirteen month old baby
Broke the lookin’ glass
Seven years of bad luck
The good things in your past
When you believe in things
That you don’t understand
Then you suffer
Superstition ain’t the way

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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