Big ‘80s pop songs you’d be surprised also hit the R&B/soul chart!

(May 3, 2021).  If I told you that Steve Miller Band’s No. 1 pop smash “Abracadabra” was also a top-30 soul hit that year, would you believe it?

Or if I said that Cyndi Lauper’s quirky No. 2 pop classic “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” also made its way onto the Billboard Black Singles chart in 1984 (as the chart was known then), would you think that was too “unusual” to be true?

Cyndi Lauper in the video for “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” (1984)

Both those songs and more are among the many unlikely pop hits to cross over to the R&B/soul charts during the ‘80s, making for some very interesting reverse-crossover scenarios in popular music.

Now I’m not just talking about your typical blue-eyed soul singers like Daryl Hall & John Oates grabbing a No. 1 hit on the Black chart.  (And, by the way, I’m not being politically incorrect or historically inaccurate here – Billboard actually called its soul chart “Black Singles” between 1982 and 1990).  

You could hardly call a pop song that was also actively being aggressively marketed to Black radio a “crossover” hit, especially in Hall & Oates’ case.  Their “I Can’t Go For That” was so soulful that it topped the Hot Black Singles chart within a week of doing the same on the Hot 100 pop chart.

No, this article is more about those extreme crossover cases – songs by artists considered by most to be pop acts that would be the least likely to have reached the soul list – except, in these cases, they actually did.  

Of course, the reverse-crossover phenomenon didn’t start in the 1980s.  For instance, when Elton John’s “Bennie & the Jets” reached No. 15 on the soul chart in 1974, Billboard referred to it as a “surprise soul chart hit” in a story about the annual Chicago Black Expo musical festival that year, which John had expressed interest in attending.  The story noted that John was greatly pleased with his soul chart breakthrough.  A year later, the British pop superstar appeared on Don Cornelius’s “Soul Train” in memorable performances of both “Bennie” and “Philadelphia Freedom,” another crossover hit that reached No. 32 on the soul chart. 

Later, “Baby Come Back” by the pop/rock group Player topped the pop charts in January 1978, but it was also a surprise top-ten hit on the soul chart that winter.

The Bee Gees and Rod Stewart took disco-oriented hits into the top ten on the soul chart in the late 1970s.  The Bee Gees even had a top-10 soul hit with the ballad “Too Much Heaven” in 1979.  

There were numerous examples during the 1950s and ‘60s – too many to count – as Billboard’s pop and soul charts often contained the same songs in their upper ranks.  Elvis Presley was a mainstay on the soul charts during that timeframe as were The Four Seasons.  Other pop acts such as Del Shannon, Little Eva, Lesley Gore, and the Everly Brothers took No. 1 pop hits into the soul chart’s top ten as well. 

But the 1980s were a trickier decade.  By then, the Billboard soul chart was well established as a stand-alone genre, with a bright line of separation between it and the Hot 100.  The decade began with the demise of disco, which further exacerbated the divide between the two charts.  By 1981, there were hardly any disco records on the Hot 100 chart, which had become largely dominated by adult contemporary and country fare.   As a result, there was hardly any reverse crossover from the pop list to the Hot Soul Singles chart.

It’s also worth noting that back then and for much of its history, Billboard determined its soul lists by a demographic-based radio and retail panel, where record stores that were located in predominantly Black or urban areas were surveyed to determine what the popular soul songs were.  

With the advent of digital song downloading and streaming in the 21st century, Billboard no longer differentiates between demographic consumer patterns and uses the same methodologies for the Hot 100 and all of its genre-specific charts, including the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs list – the current incarnation of its earlier named Soul, Black and R&B charts.  

Still, back in the 1980s and even with the hard-line differentiation between the chart algorithms and radio patterns for soul and pop music, there were some notable – and in many cases, surprising – cases of songs by pop artists that made the soul list.  The blog has rounded up dozens of pop top-40 hits that crossed over to soul right here and listed them below for your music trivia pleasure.  

How many of these are as much a surprise to you as they were to this blogger?  Not surprisingly, 1981 had the fewest examples, but you might be surprised which year had the most.  Here they are, with the songs listed by year in order of their pop chart peaks:

Robbie Dupree’s top-10 pop hit “Steal Away” also dented the Hot Soul Singles chart in 1980.
1980SongArtist Pop peakSoul peak
1.“Lady”Kenny Rogers142
2.“Another One Bites the Dust” Queen12
3.“Do That To Me One More Time”Captain & Tennille 158
4.“Yes, I’m Ready” Teri De Sario220
5.“Biggest Part of Me”Ambrosia335
6.“Desire”Andy Gibb449
7.“Sexy Eyes”Dr. Hook567
8.“Real Love”Doobie Brothers540
9.“Steal Away”Robbie Dupree685
10.“This Is It”Kenny Loggins1119
11.“Let Me Go, Love”Nicolette Larson3596
Research based on Billboard chart data from 1980
Blondie’s “Rapture” reached the top 40 of Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles chart in 1981.
1981SongArtistPop peak Soul peak
1.“Physical”Olivia Newton-John128
2.“Rapture”Blondie133
3.“Passion”Rod Stewart565
4.“Living Inside Myself”Gino Vannelli645
5.“Hey Nineteen”Steely Dan1068
Research based on Billboard chart data from 1981
Steve Miller Band had two top-30 soul chart hits, “Fly Like An Eagle” in 1977 and “Abracadabra” in 1982.
1982SongArtistPop peakSoul peak
1.“Abracadabra”Steve Miller Band126
2.“Maneater”Hall & Oates178
3.“I Can’t Go For That”Hall & Oates 11
4.“Flame Thrower”/“Freeze-Frame”J. Geils Band425
5.“I Keep Forgettin’”Michael McDonald47
6.“Body Language”Queen1130
7.“American Music”Pointer Sisters1623
8.“Your Imagination”Hall & Oates3345
9.“In the Name of Love”Thompson TwinsX69
Research based on Billboard chart data from 1982
In 1983, David Bowie had the biggest reverse-crossover hit by anybody not named Hall & Oates.
1983SongArtistPop PeakSoul Peak
1.“Let’s Dance”David Bowie114
2.“Say It Isn’t So”Hall & Oates245
3.“Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?”Culture Club239
4.“Time (Clock of the Heart)”Culture Club234
5.“Jeopardy”Greg Kihn Band248
6.“True”Spandau Ballet476
7.“She Blinded Me With Science”Thomas Dolby549
8.“Family Man”Hall & Oates 681
9.“One on One”Hall & Oates78
10.“(Keep Feeling) Fascination”Human League856
11.“I’ll Tumble 4 Ya”Culture Club970
12.“Heart to Heart” Kenny Loggins1571
13.“Shock the Monkey”Peter Gabriel2964
Research based on Billboard chart data from 1983
Cyndi Lauper’s huge No. 2 smash caught a glimpse of the soul chart in 1984 (then known as Black Singles).
1984SongArtistPop PeakSoul Peak
1.“Like A Virgin” Madonna19
2.“Jump”Van Halen188
3.“Karma Chameleon”Culture Club167
4.“Owner of a Lonely Heart”Yes169
5.“Out of Touch”Hall & Oates124
6.“Time After Time”Cyndi Lauper178
7.“Girls Just Want to Have Fun”Cyndi Lauper280
8.“Lucky Star”Madonna442
8.“Break My Stride”Matthew Wilder576
9.“Miss Me Blind”Culture Club58
10.“I Can Dream About You”Dan Hartman660
11.“Adult Education”Hall & Oates850
12.“Eat It”Weird Al Yankovich1284
13.“It’s A Miracle”Culture Club1375
14.“Holiday”Madonna1625
15.“The War Song”Culture Club 1787
16.“We Are the Young”Dan Hartman2558
Research based on Billboard chart data from 1984
Sting never made the soul chart with The Police, but did it twice as a solo artist, first with this debut single in 1985.
1985SongArtistPop PeakSoul Peak
1.“Careless Whisper”Wham! feat. George Michael 18
2.“Can’t Fight This Feeling”REO Speedwagon189
3.“Shout”Tears for Fears156
4.“I Want to Know What Love Is”Foreigner185
5.“The Power of Love”Huey Lewis & the News181
6.“Everything She Wants”Wham!112
7.“One More Night”Phil Collins180
8.“Crazy For You”Madonna180
9.“Miami Vice Theme”Jan Hammer110
10.“Sussudio”Phil Collins18
11.“Material Girl”Madonna249
12.“Axel F”Harold Faltermeyer313
13.“If You Love Somebody Set Them Free”Sting317
14.“One Night in Bangkok”Murray Head389
15.“Things Can Only Get Better”Howard Jones554
16.“Angel”Madonna571
17.“Into the Groove” Madonnaflip19
18.“Method Of Modern Love”Hall & Oates521
19.“Dress You Up”Madonna564
20.“Sugar Walls” Sheena Easton93
21.“All She Wants To Do Is Dance”Don Henley965
22.“Perfect Way”Scritti Politti1185
23.“Just Another Night”Mick Jagger1283
24.“I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down”Paul Young1360
25.“19”Paul Hardcastle158
26.“Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid”Hall & Oates1885
27.“Possession Obsession”Hall & Oates3069
28.“Mistake No. 3”Culture Club3361
Research based on Billboard chart data from 1985
Nu Shooz fared better on the soul chart than on the pop list with this 1986 dance-pop classic.
1986SongArtistPop PeakSoul Peak
1.“Rock Me Amadeus”Falco16
2.“Sledgehammer” Peter Gabriel161
3.“West End Girls”Pet Shop Boys136
4.“Human”Human League13
5.“Holding Back the Years”Simply Red129
6.“Friends and Lovers”Carl Anderson & Gloria Loring254
7.“Crush On You”The Jets34
8.“I’m Your Man”Wham!355
9.“I Can’t Wait”Nu Shooz32
10.“Two of Hearts”Stacey Q356
11.“Sweet Freedom”Michael McDonald717
12.“Bad Boy”Miami Sound Machine860
13.“Conga”Miami Sound Machine 1074
14.“Move Away”Culture Club1287
15.“Sidewalk Talk” Jellybean w/ Catherine Buchanon 1851
16.“Point of No Return”Nu Shooz2836
17.“Foolish Pride”Daryl Hall3391
Research based on Billboard chart data from 1986
Bruce Willis rode his TV and movie star fame to the top 20 on the Black Singles chart with this remake of a classic Staple Singers hit.
1987SongArtistPop PeakSoul Peak
1.“At This Moment”Billy Vera & the Beaters170
2.“Who’s That Girl?”Madonna178
3.“C’est La Vie”Robbie Nevil27
4.“I Want Your Sex”George Michael243
5.“You Got It All”The Jets32
6.“Songbird”Kenny G423
7.“Come Go With Me”Exposé514
8.“Respect Yourself”Bruce Willis520
9.“We’ll Be Together”Sting739
10.“Let Me Be the One”Exposé729
11.“Cross My Broken Heart”The Jets711
12.“Right on Track”Breakfast Club764
13.“Catch Me (I’m Falling)”Pretty Poison813
14.“Wot’s It To Ya”Robbie Nevil1069
15.“Don’t Make Me Wait For Love”Kenny G1517
16.“Living In A Box”Living In A Box1774
17.“That’s What Love Is All About”Michael Bolton1962
18.“I Do You”The Jets2019
Research based on Billboard chart data from 1987
Steve Winwood’s brass-infused No. 1 pop hit was soulful enough to make the top 20 of the Black Singles chart in 1988.
1988SongArtistPop PeakSoul Peak
1.“Roll With It”Steve Winwood130
2.“One More Try” George Michael11
3.“Father Figure”George Michael16
4.“Monkey”George Michael18
5.“Need You Tonight”INXS173
6.“Seasons Change”Exposé127
7.“I’ll Always Love You”Taylor Dayne321
8.“Everything Your Heart Desires”Hall & Oates 313
9.“1-2-3”Gloria Estéfan & Miami Sound Machine 354
10.“Make It Real”The Jets424
11.“Kissing a Fool” George Michael533
12.“Rocket 2 U”The Jets65
13.“Please Don’t Go Girl”New Kids on the Block1055
14.“(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”Michael Bolton1158
15.“Silhouette”Kenny G1335
16.“Missed Opportunity”Hall & Oates2968
17.“Nightime”Pretty Poison3683
18.“Live My Life”Boy George4021
Research based on Billboard chart data from 1988
Madonna’s controversial video for “Like A Prayer” likely helped it make the top 20 of the then-called Black Singles chart in 1989.
1989SongArtistPop PeakSoul Peak
1.“Straight Up”Paula Abdul12
2.“Like A Prayer”Madonna120
3.“Forever Your Girl”Paula Abdul154
4.“She Drives Me Crazy”Fine Young Cannibals154
5.“If You Don’t Know Me By Now”Simply Red138
6.“I’ll Be Loving You (Forever)”New Kids on the Box112
7.“The Lover In Me”Sheena Easton25
8.(It’s Just) The Way You Love MePaula Abdul 310
9.“You Got It (The Right Stuff)”New Kids on the Box328
10.“Heaven Help Me”Deon Estus53
11.“This One’s For the Children”New Kids on the Box755
12.“Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind)”New Kids on the Block834
13.“I Wanna Have Some Fun”Samantha Fox819
14.“Soul Provider”Michael Bolton1771
15.“You’re My One And Only (True Love)”Seduction 2356
16.“Back on Holiday”Robbie Nevil 3452
Research based on Billboard chart data from 1989

And there you have ‘em.  How many of these songs or artists were surprises to you?  How many of them (like maybe some of the hits by Hall & Oates, Madonna and George Michael) did you expect to see?

Were you surprised that all but one of Culture Club’s singles also reached the R&B chart?  And were you more astonished that the lone exception was their Motown-esque 1983 hit “Church of the Poison Mind”?  Or that Boy George’s last top-40 hit of the 1980s got more love on the soul chart than it did on the pop list.

And did you notice that 1985 had the most examples of reverse-crossover hits…by far?

Feel free to comment with your observations (or maybe any omissions you found) below or in any of the social media feeds where this article is posted.  I’ll add any corrections or omissions to the list as you provide them. 

DJRob 

DJRob is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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3 Replies to “Big ‘80s pop songs you’d be surprised also hit the R&B/soul chart!”

  1. What an awesome trip down memory lane! No surprises for me. I think that’s because musically we were at such a different place in those days. It seemed that popular music was embraced by most people thanks to the age of MTV and visuals/personas to help boost music sales. I will say the 2 things that surprised me then is that when I first heard them, I didn’t realize that Madonna or Boy George (Lead vocalist in Culture Club) were white. In her case, the first music video of hers clued me in. In his/their case, the cassette cover did. Great article!!

    1. Yeah, I didn’t know anything about Madonna from her first hit “Holiday.” It peaked at Number 16. I thought she was going to be a one-hit artist! There have been many examples of a dance artist having only one hit or one big hit in the ’80s. Her second hit, “Borderline,”debuted low and made a slow climb to the Top 10, but it was the video that caught people’s eyes.. Her third single, “Lucky Star,” debuted high. By the time her second album, “Like A Virgin,” was released, and the title track went to Number 1, she had arrived at super
      stardom.

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