(November 7, 2020). For decades now, artists have been given “featured” credits on other artists’ hits. It’s no longer the exception but the rule, particularly during the hip-hop era – or essentially the entire 21st century so far.
For evidence, look no further than this year’s Billboard Hot 100 charts. As of Nov. 7, there have been eighteen songs that have ascended to No. 1 in 2020, and eleven of those were collaborations between different solo artists.
Of those eleven collaborations, nine credited at least one of the partners as a “featured” guest, including three where the songs were elevated to No. 1 after the featured artists were added – in all three of those cases months after the song had already been out (Nicki Minaj on Doja Cat’s “Say So,” Beyoncé on Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage,” and BTS on Jason Derulo’s “Savage Love”).
In those three cases, as with all the others, all parties involved got to add another No. 1 song to their legacies by virtue of their label credit, with several – like Minaj – logging their first career chart toppers (Minaj still hasn’t had a solo No. 1 song of her own, by the way).
In short, the year 2020 has truly been the year of the collaboration. Even popular rapper Ty Dolla $ign acknowledged the phenomenon by naming his new album “featuring Ty Dolla $ign” a nod to all of his previous and current collaborations.
All of these joint efforts reminded me of the old days when prominent artists often helped out other singers but without getting a “featured” credit on the primary act’s hit. This may have been due to legal or contractual constraints involving artists’ different record labels, where one act didn’t receive clearance to record for another person’s label, or something like that.
These guest artists may have provided a backing vocal, a prominent verse or chorus, or merely played an instrument on someone else’s tune, but they were considered silent contributors when it came to official label credit. Back then, the “featured” tag was more the exception than the rule or, alternatively, the song might have been a true duet in which both acts were considered lead artists (e.g., John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John, Barbra Streisand & Donna Summer, Diana Ross & Lionel Richie, or Brandy & Monica).
Well, yours truly went back in time to the last century (man, I feel old saying that) and reviewed Hot 100 No. 1 songs in which artists silently collaborated on another artist’s hit, i.e., without getting that label credit. In all cases, the secondary act played a prominent performance role in the song (excluding songwriting or production) and arguably contributed to its huge success, but that artist cannot claim it as a No. 1 hit because of whatever legalities prevented them from being listed as a “featured” act on the single (in most cases, the artists were graciously given credit in the albums’ liner notes).
Take a look at this impressive list of twenty No. 1 songs and our revisionist history that would have given the “featured” artist a No. 1 hit (or another No. 1 in some cases)…
“Get Back” – Beatles with Billy Preston (1969).
Okay, this one is slightly different in that the Beatles did hook a brother up and give him the label credit he deserved as all “Get Back” singles were pressed as “The Beatles with Billy Preston.” As a result, most music historians consider Preston the “fifth Beatle” because he was the only artist to ever be given a label credit on one of their hits. But the fact is that the Billboard charts never credited Preston in the artist by-lines during any of the twelve weeks that “Get Back” charted, nor have historians like Joel Whitburn included it among Preston’s No. 1 hits in their record books. Thus, many music trivia tallies have his No. 1 slate beginning in 1973 with “Will It Go ‘Round in Circles.” That’s just wrong in my opinion…give that man his credit where it (once) belonged!
“You’re So Vain” – Carly Simon featuring Mick Jagger (1973).
It was a chance phone call that landed the legendary voice of The Rolling Stones a backing vocal gig on Carly Simon’s biggest hit. Nothing more, nothing less. “You’re So Vain” wasn’t about Jagger, but his contribution is clear. The singer with the trademark lips (Jagger, not Simon) wasn’t hurting for No. 1 hits – he’d already had six with the Stones by this time and would gather two more – but it would have been nice to have him credited for a non-Stones No. 1 with “Vain.” Perhaps it was best to leave him off the label, because it certainly added to the tune’s mystique and the decades-long guessing game of exactly who the song’s target was.
“You Are The Sunshine of My Life” – Stevie Wonder featuring Jim Gilstrap & Gloria Barley (1973).
Stevie has three songs on this list, which could be viewed two ways: 1) he was kind enough to often give other artists the spotlight, or 2) he wasn’t generous enough to give them label credit on what would become big No. 1 hits. In this song’s case, the uncredited artists had even more prominent roles than the bit parts that his other, bigger name collaborators played in the later tunes (see below). Here, Jim Gilstrap and Gloria Barley were soloists on the song’s first verse, making “Sunshine” the only Stevie Wonder “solo” hit in which he didn’t sing the opening lines. Gilstrap and Barley never had top-40 hits on their own, either before or after their 15 minutes of fame with Stevie, although Gilstrap had three songs reach the Hot 100 two years after “Sunshine,” the highest of which peaked at No. 55 (called “Swing Your Daddy”). Hmmm.
“Photograph” – Ringo Starr featuring George Harrison (1973).
Back to the Fab Four, this pair of ex-Beatles got together in 1973 to give Ringo Starr his first No. 1 solo hit. Except the song featured guitar and backing vocals by former bandmate George Harrison, who also co-wrote it with Starr. Songwriting and production alone don’t count for the purpose of this article, but singing and prominent instrument playing do, so in our imaginary world, the Quiet Beatle would have had his third No. 1 hit with “Photograph,” just months after his second (“Give Me Love”) and giving him four overall.
“(You’re) Having My Baby” – Paul Anka featuring Odia Coates (1974).
The late singer Odia Coates teamed with 1950s crooner Paul Anka on several hits in the mid-1970s. But it wasn’t until after this No. 1 smash that she started getting label credit on songs like “(I Believe) There’s Nothing Stronger Than Our Love” and “One Man Woman/One Woman Man.” None of those were as big as “Having My Baby,” with Odia giving this tune a much-needed woman’s touch to soften the song’s otherwise brashly male (and very controversial) perspective on child birth. Still, the United Artists record company didn’t see fit to include her on the label of what would’ve been her first (and only) credited No. 1 single.
“You Haven’t Done Nothin’” – Stevie Wonder featuring the Jackson 5 (1974).
The Jackson 5 reeled off four No. 1 Hot 100 hits right off the bat in 1970, but failed to reach the top spot again as a group. They came close three times with No. 2 hits (“Mama’s Pearl,” “Never Can Say Goodbye,” and “Dancing Machine”)…close, but no cigar. Then in 1974, just months after “Dancing Machine” became their biggest hit in three years, Stevie Wonder enlisted the brothers to perform the “doo-doo-wops” on “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” and even name-checked them during the choruses. But Motown didn’t see fit to give his label mates a “featured” credit, and that fifth No. 1 single eluded them forever. No wonder the J-5 left Motown just over a year later.
“Whatever Gets You Thru The Night” – John Lennon featuring Elton John (1974).
Ironically, John Lennon and Elton John factor into the next two songs in this tally as well. But on this tune, the two Brits joined forces to give the ex-Beatle his first No. 1 “solo” hit (if you exclude the Plastic Ono Nuclear Band to which Lennon did give label credit). Elton contributed a prominent harmony vocal throughout the track – both verses and choruses – as well as piano and organ. Elton bet Lennon that the song would reach No. 1 and when it did, Lennon was obligated to appear at an Elton John concert in November 1974 where the two performed “Whatever” live. Elton John certainly didn’t need any more No. 1 hits on his ledger; he had two prior to this 1974 tune and four more over the next two years (and three more after that!). Still, one more wouldn’t have hurt Mr. Reginald Dwight’s already immense legacy, right?
“Fame” – David Bowie featuring John Lennon (1975).
Lennon was the last Beatle to get a No. 1 song in November 1974 with “Whatever Gets You Through The Night” (see immediately above). However, he would’ve joined his former bandmates in getting a second one less than a year later if David Bowie’s label RCA-Victor had given him credit on their joint funk jam “Fame,” on which Lennon provided backing vocals and acoustic guitar. As fate would have it, Lennon would eventually get that second No. 1, “(Just Like) Starting Over,” but it would be posthumously in December 1980, just weeks after his murder.
“Bad Blood” – Neil Sedaka featuring Elton John (1975).
Elton John factored heavily into the mid-1970s. During 1974-75, more of his chart hits reached No. 1 than didn’t, and those that didn’t did make the top five. “Bad Blood” was another big hit that contributed to John’s ubiquity at the time, with the British superstar doing the call-and-response and harmony vocals, although the label didn’t give him featured credit. There are a couple ironies to this. First, the label was Elton John’s own Rocket Records, which he co-founded and which was distributed by MCA Records – John’s label at the time. Secondly, “Bad Blood” was replaced at No. 1 by John’s own “Island Girl,” which would’ve given him the distinction of being the first act since the Beatles to replace himself at No. 1 had Rocket Records listed him on Sedaka’s hit. But these things are never thought about until after label crediting decisions have already been made, and hindsight is definitely 20/20 (no pun intended).
“50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” – Paul Simon featuring Patti Austin, Valerie Simpson & Phoebe Snow (1976).
There have been many instances where well known singers provided backing vocals on other artists’ hits. But few involve cases where a singer was backed by three well known soloists, in this case Patti Austin, Valerie Simpson and Phoebe Snow. All three had top 20 hits in their own right either before or after “50 Ways” and one – Austin – had a No. 1 several years later (“Baby Come To Me” with the late James Ingram). As I mentioned, rock stars being backed by prominent female vocalists was not uncommon back in the day. Can you think of other such cases involving No. 1 hits?
“I Just Want to Be Your Everything” – Andy Gibb featuring Barry Gibb (1977).
Both this song and its two follow-ups, “(Love Is) Thicker Than Water” and “Shadow Dancing,” would qualify here, as all three featured backing vocals by Andy’s big brother Barry Gibb, who also wrote or co-wrote the songs. This is particularly noteworthy because Barry, who wrote or co-wrote eleven No. 1 songs in a two-year span between July 1977 and June 1979, also sang on all eleven of them, including the next one on this list.
“Grease” – Frankie Valli featuring Barry Gibb (1978).
If someone had told you when the 1970s began that a singer other than Frankie Valli would be providing a distinguished falsetto vocal on his biggest solo hit later in the decade, you’d have thought that person was out of their minds. But such was the case for “Grease,” the movie title song that Valli took to the top for two weeks in the midst of Barry Gibb’s No. 1 bonanza. Valli sang “Grease” in his famous, nasally tenor while Gibb ironically provided the falsetto. Gibb, who wrote “Grease” all by himself, sang on the chorus and provided the distinctive ad lib “ahhh…got a groove, got a meaning” towards the end.
“Upside Down” – Diana Ross featuring Chic (1980).
Okay, this one will likely turn a few heads, not because its inclusion is inaccurate, but because it’s the only one in which an entire group is given the imaginary “featured” label. People who know me best will know why I included it. But, aside from my legendary Chic stanning, this song really is pretty much all Chic. In fact, one would be forgiven if they switched the credits and made it “Chic featuring Diana Ross,” as all of the song’s writing, production, instrumentation and background singing were provided by members of the group. Ross was essentially along for the ride. But what a great ride it was!
“Beat It” – Michael Jackson featuring Eddie Van Halen (1983).
This is the only song on the list for which the proposed “featured” artist is contributing only instrumentation, as the late Eddie Van Halen provided a searing guitar solo during this No. 1 song’s bridge. But it was a memorable solo indeed, one that no doubt helped “Beat It” reach its peak in April 1983 and helped propel Thriller to becoming the biggest-selling album of all time. Van Halen died just a few weeks ago, prompting this djrobblog tribute.
“Money For Nothing” – Dire Straits featuring Sting (1985).
The first voice you hear on “Money For Nothing” is Sting’s falsetto on the infamous “I want my MTV” intro. The former lead singer of the Police was on a bit of a roll during the summer of 1985 when he had his first two top-10 solo hits (“If You Love Somebody Set Them Free” and “Fortress Around Your Heart”), plus this No. 1 tune. For a couple of weeks, all three were in the top 40 at the same time, and giving Sting featured label credit on the Dire Straits tune would have made him the first male soloist to be listed on three concurrent top-40 hits since before the days of the Hot 100 (I believe).
“Part-Time Lover” – Stevie Wonder featuring Luther Vandross & Syreeta (1985).
There’s a certain ballsiness to having your ex-wife sing backup on a song about your cheating. Yet that’s what Stevie did in this uptempo No. 1 smash when he enlisted the services of Syreeta Wright, to whom he had been married over a decade earlier, to join him in singing about his sneaky, philandering ways. But Motown didn’t give her label credit, nor did it list R&B superstar Luther Vandross who memorably did the scatting during the choruses and even ad-libbed towards the end. This is kinda sad because Luther made no secret of his desire to top the pop singles chart, a career goal he would never achieve (although he had several No. 1 soul hits). A featured credit on this No. 1 pop and soul hit would have been a nice consolation.
“Higher Love” – Steve Winwood featuring Chaka Khan (1986).
The eighties smash “Higher Love” was recently resurrected in a hit dance version by the late Whitney Houston courtesy of Norwegian deejay Kygo. But its original recording was a tour de force featuring an uncredited backing vocal by soul legend Chaka Khan (who Whitney also famously covered with her version of “I’m Every Woman”). Khan stayed in the background for the first couple of choruses on “Higher Love,” but turned it up for the coda, unleashing her trademark ad-libs and nearly making the song her own during the fade. As with several other artists on this list, Khan never had a No. 1 pop hit, so this would have been her crowning moment had she received a “featured” credit.
“Baby Don’t Forget My Number – Milli Vanilli featuring Charles Shaw and Brad Howell (1989).
Okay, I couldn’t resist. On this and Milli Vanilli’s two other No. 1 songs in 1989 (“Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” and “Blame It On The Rain”), Charles Shaw provided the raps and Brad Howell the baritone singing. They were also joined by John Davis and a host of background singers. Aside from the 1990 scandal that revealed who the songs’ real singers were, the songs themselves generally get a bad rap for, well bad rapping (or rap-singing as was the case here). Still, these were all chart-topping earworms in 1989 and, despite critics’ best efforts, nothing will ever change that.
“Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” – C&C Music Factory featuring Martha Wash (1991).
Continuing with the lip-syncing scandals of the late 1980s/early’90s, this No. 1 pop, soul and dance chart smash featured the soaring vocals of disco-era legend Martha Wash of Sylvester and Weather Girls fame. As a plus-sized woman, Wash didn’t factor into the label’s marketing and video plans for “Gonna Make You Sweat,” so they hired a skinny model named Zelma Davis instead. Martha unsuccessfully lobbied Sony Music for label and record sleeve credit but later reached a financial settlement with the label and the song’s producers, which included getting a “vocals by” credit from MTV on all future airings of the song’s video. It proved that sometimes not getting a label credit on a worldwide No. 1 smash can have legal implications, particularly if there’s malicious or nefarious intent.
“I’ll Be There” – Mariah Carey featuring Trey Lorenz (1992).
Mariah Carey’s sixth No. 1 Hot 100 single was also newcomer Trey Lorenz’s first. But you wouldn’t have known it from looking at the record (or CD or cassette single at the time) or the Billboard charts for that matter. Similarly, Lorenz is not listed in any Billboard books as having a No. 1 hit (readers are directed to go to Mariah’s page). The song – a live remake of the Jackson Five’s fourth No. 1 from 1970 – soared to the top of the chart after MTV aired Carey’s Unplugged episode that featured the recording, which prompted her label Columbia Records to rush release the single. Carey and Lorenz would later perform the duet at the memorial service for Michael Jackson following his passing in 2009.
And that’s it for this list, but I’m sure there are more examples out there, even in recent years (most notably Drake’s uncredited and very prominent performance on Travis Scott’s huge No. 1 “Sicko Mode” from 2018).
Can you think of some others? Feel free to comment in the space below or on any of the social media platforms where this article is posted.
DJRob is a freelance blogger from Chicago who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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