(Spoiler Note: Included in this article is a ranking of the greatest blue-eyed soul singers in music history: the women are covered this week, the men next week. At the end is a link to my Spotify playlist containing the songs mentioned in the article.)
Let me start by acknowledging that rap music and R&B are clearly not the same in terms of the issue I’m about to discuss, but the recent successes of rap artists like Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and Iggy Azalea have raised several eyebrows in the R&B/Hip-hop community. Not just because they’re white rap artists, but because they happen to be white rappers who’ve dominated the R&B/Hip-Hop music charts in recent years and along the way have claimed Billboard Magazine’s top honors in the rap and combined R&B/Hip-Hop categories. With the most recent example being the crowning of Iggy Azalea as the Top Rap Artist at the 2015 Billboard Music Awards on Sunday, May 17, many people – particularly the R&B/Hip-Hop faithful – wondered aloud and on social media how a white female rapper from Australia could beat out such artists as Nicki Minaj, Drake, Big Sean and Kendrick Lamar – all of whom also had big successes in the past 12 months.
The answer was simple if not readily apparent: Iggy Azalea outsold and was played and streamed more during the eligibility period (as reflected in Billboard’s rap and hip-hop charts from March 2014 – March 2015) than the other rap artists in contention.
Billboard magazine, which has tracked such data for over 100 years, certainly has the credentials to tell us of those and other metrics related to music and artist popularity in this country and abroad.
However, the reaction to Azalea’s win suggested that the public had somehow elevated Billboard to more than just being the purveyor of music popularity data. The outcry suggested that the magazine had made a ‘quality’ assessment and told us which rapper is the “best” one, and then it questioned Billboard’s audacity to name her as such.
That is certainly not what Azalea’s trophy means – that she is the best rapper out there – and Billboard is not trying to convince us of that, nor is it their job to do so. But one could legitimately question Azalea’s high placement on the Billboard rap and R&B/hip-hop lists in the first place by challenging the methodologies by which the magazine now calculates those rankings. Since October 2012, they’ve essentially diluted airplay data from traditional R&B/hip-hop radio stations by now including data from pop stations for the R&B/Hip-Hop charts, which is another story altogether.
None of this changes that Iggy’s Top Rap Artist win was seen by some as a slap in the face to other, more “legitimate” rappers – particularly women – who’ve struggled for years to attain the kind of commercial success that she achieved with her first major release. (If you’re not convinced of this, just check the Twitter account of Iggy’s fellow female rapper and social-media enemy, Azealea Banks.)
But, before getting our knickers in a bunch, we should be reminded that Iggy is not the first white recording artist to capitalize on black music styles and she won’t be the last. After all, rock music itself, while largely viewed as a white music genre today, is a derivative of blues-oriented rock and roll which traces its roots to black blues artists in the 1940s and ’50s.
The parallels between the rap/hip-hop examples involving Azalea, Macklemore and Lewis and prominent R&B cases like Teena Marie and Robin Thicke would be easy to draw except for one major difference. Historically, white soul and R&B artists have been received – even embraced – more readily by the R&B community than their rap counterparts.
The reasons for these differences are probably many, not the least of which is that the singers often come across more authentically, with a higher likelihood of having experienced the things they’re singing about. Conversely, rap is a genre that was built primarily on hard-life street stories told by people who either lived them or knew others that did. In its best form, the music is performed by rappers with the attitude and the urgency that only those with “real” credentials can deliver.
On the surface, whether fair or not, neither Azalea nor the duo of Macklemore & Lewis seem qualified to do this kind of music, much less top the very charts that are meant to document rap’s popularity among its fans.
Whether those are the reasons or there are others, perhaps it’s time to move past those constraints and accept the new world order in rap and hip hop music: that artists like those already mentioned and established superstars like Eminem are here to stay, like it or not. After all, music is supposed to be universal and not divided by race, right?
It is with this spirit that I was inspired this week to recognize some notable white recording artists who’ve had success making R&B/hip-hop, soul, funk or even blues music over the past half-century. The term “blue-eyed soul” was coined for these singers a long time ago and they’ve been a part of the musical landscape ever since white crooners like Frankie Valli (of the Four Seasons) and Dusty Springfield were topping the charts with their soulful tunes in the 1960s. There’ve been many such musicians in the years since whose music we’ve sung, danced to or bought in droves, and this article recognizes the blue-eyed soul singers who, in my humble opinion, have pulled off having the most soul.
So this week, I present to you “The Sweet 16 – Greatest Blue-Eyed Soul Singers of All Time – The Women” (next week, I’ll cover the men). The rankings are purely subjective, and are based on my impressions of each artist’s body of work in the field of R&B and its various sub-genres.
It is not necessarily a reflection of how well they did on the charts, although, in some cases, their mere presence on the R&B charts was a factor in the rankings.
You’ll probably disagree with some on this list or some that were excluded, and if so, I certainly welcome your comments at the end of the article.
And although much of this blogpost was triggered by Iggy Azalea’s recent Billboard wins, I’ve excluded rappers from the lists because…well…I’ll save them for another day.
As usual, I present these in countdown fashion, from #16 to #1. So here they are, the Greatest Blue-Eyed Soul Singers of All Time – The Women:
16. Alicia Bridges. Most notable work: “I Love the Nightlife.” Quite simply, that song is the reason she is on this list. It was her biggest (and only) hit, and it contained vocal stylings that could rival almost any R&B singer not named Chaka on the charts at the time (1978).
15. Ariana Grande. Most notable work: the singles from her current album, Yours Truly, which debuted at #1 in 2014. She regularly collaborates with black singers and rappers, but even without those alliances, her music has an authentic soulful quality. Check out “Love Me Harder” featuring The Weeknd as an example.
14. Mama Cass Elliot. Most notable work: with the 1960s pop group, The Mamas & the Papas. She put the soul in that California quartet with songs like “Words Of Love” and “Dream A Little Dream of Me,” for which she provided lead vocals that set them apart from their more pop fare.
13. Chi Coltrane. Most notable work: Wikipedia refers to her as an American rock-pop-jazz songwriter, pianist, and singer. Her biggest commercial success, “Thunder and Lightning,” was about as soulful as anything on the radio at the time of its release in 1972. Because it’s not available on my Spotify playlist, click here for a YouTube performance of that top twenty pop single.
12. Vicki Sue Robinson. Most notable work: first as a member of the Broadway casts of the musicals Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, then as a successful disco singer in the mid-1970s. Music historians often relegate “Turn the Beat Around,” to being just another disco record, but Robinson’s vocals on that classic standout as being among the most soulful ever put on any track exceeding 120 beats-per-minute (it clocks at 131).
11. P!nk. Most notable work: she’s a bona fide pop star who’s been making hits the entire 21st century, but it was her early R&B-flavored stuff with LaFace Records that gets her on this list. Check out “There You Go” and “Most Girls” from her 2000 début album, Can’t Take Me Home.
10. Lulu. Most notable work: as an actress and singer during the 1960s. Her biggest success came with the #1 title theme song from “To Sir With Love,” a movie in which this Scottish singer starred with Sidney Poitier. But her version of “Oh Me Oh My (I’m a Fool For You Baby)” is just as soulful, if not more so. Also, check out her 1980’s comeback hit, “I Could Never Miss You (More Than I Do).”
9. Adele. Most notable work: her 2011 album, 21, which produced three #1 pop singles and has sold over 11 million copies (in the U.S.) to date. One of several British recording artists on this list, Adele’s soulful “Rolling in the Deep” will always be remembered for its brash delivery and heartfelt lyrics.
8. Duffy. Most notable work: she’s another British singer who achieved success on both sides of the pond with “Mercy,” a top 40 Billboard pop hit in 2008. But if you haven’t heard her “Warwick Avenue,” you’re missing out on a soulful treat, take my word for it!
7. Annie Lennox. Most notable work: as one half of the 1980s duo Eurythmics (with Dave Stewart). Are you sensing a pattern here: she’s British and she’s got undeniable soul. You’re familiar with Lennox’s hits, including “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This),” “Who’s That Girl?,” “Why” and “Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves,” the latter of which she went toe-to-toe with the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin.
6. Joss Stone. Most notable work: as a teenage phenom in the early-to-mid 2000s, no one could believe that the mature soul and funk sound she produced was coming from a 17-year British white girl (yes, another Brit). But it was, and it’s not as surprising when you consider her list of musical influences, which reads like a Who’s Who in Soul Music. Her breakthrough album was The Soul Sessions in 2003, which included the noteworthy “Fell In Love With A Boy.”
5. Amy Winehouse. Most notable work: her 2006 album, Back to Black. Winehouse was probably the best example of British singers from the 2000s who successfully mixed many musical genres, including soul, R&B, jazz and reggae. Her career was cut short by her tragic death in 2011, but songs like “Tears Dry On Their Own” and “You Know I’m No Good” will always be remembered by her fans.
4. Christina Aguilera. Most notable work: as part of the Latin-pop explosion of 1999, she burst on the scene with a début album that produced three #1 singles. But the souled-out vocal theatrics that has accompanied much of her work is what gets her on this list – and this high. Go back to early hits like “What a Girl Wants” and “Beautiful” for a reminder of just how capable this pop singer is of pulling off R&B when she wants to.
3. Lisa Stansfield. Most notable work: “All Around the World” and several followup singles from 1990. I will never forget the time I discovered this singer was white after having heard her 1990 breakthrough hit. I was returning to my college alma mater for a reunion and one of my riding companions told me that fact as the song played in the car. That she was also British was another big surprise at the time. But not anymore considering that seven of the top ten artists on this list are Brits. She’s the only British singer in history to have three #1 singles on Billboard’s R&B chart (Paul McCartney is second with two). Check out some of Stansfield’s other hits like “You Can’t Deny It,” “The Real Thing,” “This is the Right Time” and “All Woman.”
2. Dusty Springfield. Most notable work: 1960s hits like “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me,” “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” and “Son of a Preacher Man.” At one point in 1966 she was the biggest-selling solo female in the world and she is one of the earliest white (and British) female singers to bring soul music to the attention of an audience who otherwise might not have heard it. Twenty years after her huge success, she was able to sprinkle a little soul on the pop duo Pet Shop Boys with their 1987 collaboration, “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” Check that one out, along with this late Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s entire discography (yes, it’s that good), to get a taste of her unique brand of soul music.
1. Teena Marie. Most notable work: as a Motown recording artist and later with Epic Records, this late soul singer was the ‘Queen of Blue-Eyed Soul’ if ever there was such a title. She burst on the scene in 1979 with mentor Rick James and the funk hit “I’m a Sucker For Your Love” and she never looked back. Interestingly enough, Marie only topped the R&B chart once, with her Epic single “Ooh La La La.” But she came close several other times with top ten classics like “Square Biz,” “I Need Your Lovin'” and “Lovergirl.” Aside from Lisa Stansfield, Teena Marie is the only artist on this list who’s had more success on the R&B charts than the pop survey, as R&B/soul was clearly her genre of choice and the audience that Marie targeted. She died unexpectedly on the day after Christmas in 2010 at age 54, but it’ll likely be a long time before anyone comes close to claiming the crown that Marie wore almost from the moment she unleashed her début album, Wild and Peaceful, in 1979.
To hear a djrob playlist of the songs mentioned in this article and more, click here.
Please check back on djrobblog next week for my ranking of the Greatest Blue-Eyed Soul Singers of All Time – The Men.
And don’t forget to give comments.