(January 27, 2024). If you had to pick the most important R&B songs of the 20th century — more specifically from 1955 to 1999 — what would they be (and why)?

Well, djrobblog took that question to task and came up with what this blogger believes are the 22 most important songs of that era, by some of the most important artists on some of the most important labels.

What follows is that list of groundbreaking, influential, and, in some cases, highly successful songs whose importance to both the genre of R&B and the broader music field cannot be overstated.

While the selections in the below list are subjective — what qualifies as important to me may be an entirely different matter to readers — they represent songs that in a big way shaped the history of Black music for years and generations to come.

Whether they were big chart smashes by future Rock and Roll Hall of Famers or smaller hits by one-hit-wonders, these are the songs that have been part of the American R&B fabric since their initial releases between 30 and 70 years ago.

Enjoy the below list (and the Spotify playlist that follows) and let me and other readers know what you think, either in the blog’s comment section or on any of the social media feeds where the article is posted.

The songs are presented — along with a case made for each — in chronological order by their original release dates. 

“Blueberry Hill” – Fats Domino (1956)

The explosion in popularity of both R&B and by extension rock and roll music in 1956 has been attributed by music historians to Fats Domino’s rendition of “Blueberry Hill.”  He almost singlehandedly broke down barriers for Black musicians with his graceful TV appearances on national shows hosted by Steve Allen, Perry Como, and Ed Sullivan.  He wasn’t the first person to record the rock-and-roll ballad, but his rendition is largely responsible for the acceptance of Black music in the American mainstream at a time when that was unheard of, and the song is still iconic today.

“Money (That’s What I Want)” – Barrett Strong (1960)

Motown’s first legitimate hit single was Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want),” the song that gave Berry Gordy’s legendary label (at the time just Tamla Records) its first No. 1 R&B chart single.  While Strong wouldn’t score another hit during his career, the song proved to be iconic and opened the doors for what became arguably the most important Black-owned record label (and company) of the 20th century.

“At Last” – Etta James (1960)

Considered by many as one of the most recognizable R&B love songs in popular music history, Etta James rendition of “At Last,” has come to symbolize the woman who has finally found her soul mate after years of waiting and trying.  As such, the song has soundtracked many a wedding reception and still stands as James’ signature tune many decades after she charted with it. 

“Green Onions” – Booker T. & the MG’s (1962)

Stax Records was initially a white-owned record company that specialized in Black music.  One of the label’s earliest successes was this funky organ-driven instrumental by a group that, thanks to its success, would eventually become Stax’ in-house studio band.  Booker T. & company would go on to play on hits by Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Carla Thomas and many others, and helped make Stax one of the most important and influential labels in soul music’s history.  

“A Change Is Gonna Come” – Sam Cooke (1964)

Just months before he was tragically murdered in a notorious hotel incident (for which many believe justice was never served), Sam Cooke recorded what would be considered the Civil Rights Movements first true anthem.  “A Change Is Gonna Come” signaled the hope of an oppressed people who were just beginning to overcome the nation’s institutionalized racism. The song is still cited today as one of the movement’s most poignant moments. 

“Respect” – Aretha Franklin (1967)

Although it had been written and originally recorded by a man — Stax Records’ Otis Redding — “Respect” was taken to new heights as a female empowerment anthem when the newly crowned Queen of Soul sent her version to No. 1 pop and soul in 1967.  In a career that spanned nearly six decades and hundreds of recordings, “Respect” is still considered Aretha’s signature tune with its powerful vocal delivery and messages of (Black) female empowerment and demands for mutual satisfaction in the bedroom.

“Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” – James Brown (1968)

At the height of the Civil Rights movement and in the wake of the assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, the Godfather of Soul released this unofficial Black rights anthem to a highly receptive audience.  The song became one of James Brown’s biggest hits, reaching No. 1 for six weeks on the soul chart and climbing to the top ten pop. According to WhoSampled.com, “Say It Loud” has been sampled 257 times, making it one of the most borrowed tunes in soul music history. 

“To Be Young Gifted and Black” – Nina Simone (1969)

Speaking of Black empowerment, perhaps no song was as poetic in its assertion of Black beauty as Nina Simone’s “To Be Young Gifted and Black,” the song she introduced at the now-immortalized Harlem Cultural Festival in August 1969 during the same weekend that another famous rock music festival was happening in the Catskills of New York (Woodstock).  Simone’s version of the song, which had been inspired by the death of a good friend (and author of the play A Raisin in the Sun) Lorraine Hansberry, went on to be covered by the likes of Donny Hathaway, Aretha Franklin and even, interestingly, Elton John. But none matched the power of Simone’s version, where each utterance of the word “Black!” carried the weight of the people whose melanin it was celebrating.

“What’s Going On” – Marvin Gaye (1971)

Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album, What’s Going On, was a pioneering step towards social commentary in music for both the singer and his label Motown Records. Having been recorded on the heels of many personal challenges for Gaye, most notably the death of his musical soulmate Tammi Terrell a year earlier, the songs on the album, starting with this title track, were a significant departure from the upbeat love songs he’d typically recorded. The trilogy of “What’s Going On,” “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology),” and “Inner City Blues” could arguably be the most important set of songs to come out of any single Motown album. And, yes Marvin, it’s still going on. 

“Let’s Stay Together” – Al Green (1972)

Fans of Al Green might argue that he had many better songs than “Let’s Stay Together,” including “Tired of Being Alone,” “I’m Still In Love With You,” “Love and Happiness,” and his soul-stirring rendition of the Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart.”  But none of those were more successful than this No. 1 crossover smash, which was the biggest soul hit not only of its release year — a year dominated by Soul/R&B crossover music in the pop top ten — but of the entire ‘70s decade, spending nine weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Soul chart, more than any other between 1970-79. 

“Superfly” – Curtis Mayfield (1972)

The cautionary tale contained in Curtis Mayfield’s movie classic “Superfly” ran counter to the more exploitative drug and gangster culture depicted in the Blaxploitation film it soundtracked.  Still “Superfly” — both the single and the album — were a major success in 1972 and helped popularize the Black music soundtrack, to which Mayfield largely contributed with follow-up albums Claudine (1974), Let’s Do It Again (1975) and Sparkle (1976).  

“Back Stabbers” – O’Jays (1972)

Motown’s greatest challenger for Black music supremacy in the 1970s was the Philly sound, as curated by songwriting and production icons Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff (and the late Thom Bell).  Gamble & Huff and their label Philly International Records produced the most hits, and the first No. 1 R&B smash out the gate in 1972 was the O’Jays “Back Stabbers,” quickly followed by No. 1s by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes and Billy Paul, which set the stage for a dominating PIR chart presence that continued for the next decade and a half.  

“Superstition” – Stevie Wonder (1972)

While Stevie Wonder had gained full album autonomy from Motown Records a couple of albums earlier, the first album that he wrote, produced and performed nearly all instruments on that topped the charts was 1972’s Talking Book, which was kicked off by the No. 1 pop and soul smash “Superstition.”  Not only was the smash a personal triumph for Wonder (“Superstition” was his first No. 1 pop hit in nearly ten years), but it also ushered in a sonically different era for the musical genius whose use of the Clavinet, synthesizer and other keyboards proved to be groundbreaking. 

“Let’s Get It On” – Marvin Gaye (1973)

The pivot that Marvin Gaye made from socially conscious teacher in 1971’s “What’s Going On” to sex-starved beggar in 1973’s “Let’s Get It On” is the stuff of legends.  Both he and his label Motown Records had to be pleased with the results, another No. 1 pop and soul smash for the label’s most complex and biggest sex symbol.  Ask yourselves: without “Let’s Get It On,” would there be a “‘Cause I Love You” (Lenny Williams), “Sexual Healing” (Gaye), or “Bump n Grind” (R. Kelly)?

“Tear the Roof Off the Sucker” – Parliament (1976)

The P-funk collective of Parliament-Funkedelic — under the conductorship of maestro George Clinton — did for spaced-out funk-and-roll what people like Fats Domino, Little Richard and Chuck Berry did for rock music decades earlier, helped bring it to the masses and influence a host of musicians in its wake.  With more experimental albums like Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain already under its belt, Clinton’s first big taste of mainstream success came with the No. 1 1976 smash “Tear the Roof Off the Sucker” from the Parliament contingent.  For the next half decade, the nation was grooving not only to P-Funk records, but bands inspired by them including Bootsy’s Rubber Band, Slave, Zapp, the Gap Band, Lakeside and many others.  

“I’m Every Woman” – Chaka Khan (1978)

Chaka Khan’s ode to female multitasking couldn’t have been more appropriate for the singer involved.  Khan was still a member of the band Rufus who had just come off three consecutive No. 1 R&B albums (on ABC Records) culminating with 1978’s Street Player, and she’d scored a No. 1 collaboration with Quincy Jones and Ashford & Simpson on Jones’ “Stuff Like That” (A&M) that summer.  So, it was only fitting that when she released her majestic debut solo single on Warner Bros, this iconic funk/disco celebration of all that women like her can do (and soul music’s answer to Helen Reddy’s earlier women’s lib anthem “I Am Woman”), it also went to No. 1.  When she returned to Rufus a year later for their Masterjam album (on new label MCA), it too went to No. 1 as did its lead single “Do You Love What You Feel,” which also made Khan the first woman to score No. 1 soul records on four different labels over the span of just two years (ABC, A&M, Warner Bros and MCA). 

“Good Times” – Chic (1979)

The R&B/Funk/Disco band Chic’s biggest hit was “Le Freak.”  But their most influential (and most important) was “Good Times,” released eight months later. The No. 1 pop and soul chart single was many things: the symbolic end of the disco era, the beginning of the commercial hip-hop era (with its “Rapper’s Delight” interpolation), and the song with arguably the most recognizable bass line of the 20th century, courtesy of the late Bernard Edwards.

“Billie Jean” – Michael Jackson (1983)

“Billie Jean” was the most important single on the most important album by the most important Black artist of the 20th century.  And what its video did for Black musicians and MTV was as important — or more so — as what “Blueberry Hill” did for Black musicians and R&B/ Rock-and-Roll music 27 years earlier. 

“I Feel For You” – Chaka Khan (1984)

When Chaka Khan teamed up with Grandmaster Melle Mel (rap) and Stevie Wonder (harmonica) to cover Prince’s “I Feel For You” in 1984, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame didn’t yet exist.  Now, nearly 40 years later, all four legendary musicians — Khan, Melle Mel, Wonder and Prince — are RRHOF inductees.  One has to believe this pioneering musical marriage between R&B and hip-hop played at least a small role in helping make that happen for one or two of the artists involved.

“I Will Always Love You” – Whitney Houston (1992)

Although country legend Dolly Parton proudly takes (and deserves) credit for writing one of the most enduring ballads of the 20th century, even she will acknowledge that Whitney Houston’s 1992 rendition took the song to heights no one could have ever imagined.  Aside from selling millions of copies and remaining at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for a then-record 14 weeks, it helped make the Bodyguard album from which it came the biggest selling motion picture soundtrack of all time, surpassing movies like Saturday Night Fever and Dirty Dancing.  

“Waterfalls” – TLC (1995)

In an era where R&B/hip-hop was increasingly being dominated by gangsta rap, sex, and violent lyrics, TLC’s cautionary No. 1 smash “Waterfalls” from 1995 served as the perfect antidote to all that recklessness. The metaphorical references to waterfalls (to avoid), and rivers and lakes (to stick to) may sound cheesy today, but it worked back then and helped make the album from which it came, CrazySexyCool, the biggest-selling album by a female group ever (not to mention highlighting the superior and often overlooked rap skills of the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, who died in a Honduran car crash seven years later).

“Brown Sugar” – D’Angelo (1995)

Did “Brown Sugar” signal the beginning of the end of mainstream R&B’s top-40 accessibility as we’d known it for the previous 40 years?  The so-called “Neo-soul” movement hadn’t yet taken hold when D’Angelo’s classic was released in 1995, but “Brown Sugar” and several cuts on his debut album certainly epitomized the young sub-genre, which has been a thing ever since.  It would be another decade or so before R&B permanently took a backseat to hip-hop, relegating it to also-ran status with hybrids like adult R&B, afrobeats, and neo-soul barely approaching the kind of massive success Black soul music experienced in the past. But the fact that it still has a heartbeat, largely thanks to the neo-soul movement popularized by D’Angelo and others, means that good R&B music will never die. 

So what do you think?  Let us know your thoughts on this list in the comments section below or on any of the social media feeds where the article is posted.


DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, disco, pop, rock and (sometimes) country genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @djrobblog and on Meta’s Threads.

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By DJ Rob

2 thoughts on “Black History: What are the 20 most important R&B songs of the 20th century?  Here’s the blog’s take (plus two)”
  1. Would love to see other folks comment on alternatives! Can’t argue with any of your choices, but my top twenty would definitely include “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” (Temptations).

Your thoughts?