Kelley has been an online writer for over 13 years. His articles often focus on the television, movie and music industries.
These Tender Ballads Are Some of the Greatest Ever
Love songs have been around for thousands of years and who’s to say which ones are the best, but this author will give it a try. The rhythm and blues genre—often abbreviated as R&B—has certainly provided numerous tunes designed to put one in the mood for all manner of romantic possibilities, so here is the rated list of those soulful classics:
22. “Supernatural Thing”—Ben E. King
Former backup and lead singer for The Drifters in the late 1950s, Ben E. King went solo in 1960s, releasing hit singles such as “Spanish Harlem,” “Stand by Me” and “There Goes My Baby.” Then King’s career diminished somewhat because of the British Invasion groups and psychedelic rock. But King made a Top 40 comeback in 1975 with “Supernatural,” which hit #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Billboard R&B Charts.
Many artists have covered King’s songs, including Dusty Springfield on “So Much Love,” “I (Who Have Nothing)” by Shirley Bassey and multiple versions of “Stand by Me” as recorded by The Righteous Brothers, Otis Redding, Mickey Gilley and John Lennon. And Siouxsie and the Banshees covered “Supernatural Thing” in 1981.
Ben E. King
21. “We Are Family”—Sister Sledge
Album: We Are Family
This song isn’t necessarily about the love between and a man and woman; it’s about the familial love of four sisters—Debbie, Joni, Kim and Kathy Sledge, all of whom harmonize with each other as few “girl groups” have ever done. “We Are Family” is a tune with a disco groove composed by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards; it was the #1 R&B song of 1979 and hit #1 on the list of Billboard’s Dance Club Songs.
Lacking confidence in their composing prowess, Rodgers and Edwards decided to write a song for a novice group, and if the song became popular, they could take more credit for producing it. By the way, “We Are Family” became the rally song for the Pittsburgh Pirates as they beat the Baltimore Orioles in the 1979 World Series!
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20. “Creepin’”—Stevie Wonder
Album: Fulfillingness' First Finale
Released during Stevie Wonder’s so-called classic period, “Creepin’ is a romance song in which a man wonders if he and his lover creep into each other’s dreams, or if their fantasies are theirs alone. In the final verse, he decides she does creep into his dreams, as suspended chords evoke a surreal feeling, and then he sings: “So let it be, that you always creep into my dreams . . . in my dreams . . . in my dreams . . . in my dreams.”
The album won three Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year. Other hits on the album include “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” and “Boogie on Reggae Woman.”
19. “Holding Back the Years”—Simply Red
Album: Picture Book
A British soul band, Simply Red is led by their amber-coiffed lead singer, Mick Hucknall, who co-wrote the song, which reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Most fans may remember the refrain in the chorus: “I’ll keep holding on.” Hucknall said the song is “about that moment where you know you have to leave home and make your mark, but the outside world is scary, so you’re holding back the years.”
Nicknamed Red, Hucknall is the only continuous member of Simply Red. In 2019, the band released their twelfth studio album, Blue Eyed Soul, enthusiasts of which they definitely are!
18. “What’s Going On”—Marvin Gaye
Album: What’s Going On
This tune is not your average love song, though it laments a loss of love, peace, equality and civility during America’s Vietnam War and the Civil Rights period. It also has one of the coolest bridges in any R&B song, featuring jazz chords, gospel singing and classical orchestration. Covered by many artists in the present day, this timeless tune is one of those songs people will still be singing decades into the twenty second century.
What’s Going On, the album, features other hit singles: “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” Also, in 2010, Rolling Stone rated the song #4 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
17. "Could It Be I’m Falling in Love"—The Spinners
Year Released: 1976
The Spinners, aka the Motown or Detroit Spinners, formed way back in 1961, but the group didn’t produce hit songs until the 1970s (perhaps the golden age of R&B). In 1973, the Spinners released “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love,” which reached number one on the R&B chart and number four on the Billboard Pop Singles chart.
The Spinners have produced other great hit singles, such as “One of a Kind Love Affair” and “I’ll Be Around,” their first top ten hit.
16. “Opposites Attract”—Paula Abdul
Album: Forever Your Girl
Year Released: 1988
One of four number one singles on Paula Abdul’s debut album Forever Your Girl, “Opposites Attract” is a song about a boy and girl who have little in common except they love each other. Have you been there? Anyway, Abdul’s video of the song features her dancing through a cityscape with a rotoscoped, animated wolf. This music video was a huge hit back in the day and won a Grammy Award for Best Short Form Music Video in 1990.
Other hits on Forever Your Girl, for which seven million records were sold, are the songs “Straight UP,” “Forever Your Girl” and “Cold Hearted.”
15. “How Deep Is Your Love”—Bee Gees
Album: Saturday Night Fever soundtrack
Year Released: 1977
Formed way back in 1958, the Bee Gees didn’t soar to popularity until the middle 1970s when the disco era hit the pop music world; and perhaps the greatest album of disco was the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which won five Grammy Awards. The song “How Deep Is Your Love” features the Bee Gees’ R&B falsetto, highlighting a pop ballad that certainly has an R&B feel. The song reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 late in December 1977.
This tune was ranked #375 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time produced in 2004; and Barry Gibb, of the three brothers Gibb, said it was his favorite Bee Gees’ song.
The Bee Gees
14. “Go Home”—Stevie Wonder
Album: In Square Circle
Year released: 1985
Stevie Wonder started his professional career at 11, so he’s certainly had his share of time to write and perform hit R&B tunes. “Go Home” is a song about a man who wants his girlfriend to go home, yet she insists on staying with him. The song hit #2 on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues chart and #10 on the Billboard Pop Singles chart.
Stevie Wonder has won 25 Grammy Awards and produced countless songs over the decades. Some of his other hits are “My Cherie Amour,” “Superstition,” “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and “That’s What Friends Are For.”
13. “So Very Hard to Go”—Tower of Power
Album: Tower of Power
Year Released: 1976
“So Very Hard to Go” is a torchy ballad written by Emilio Castillo and Stephen Kupka, two horn players who can also write lyrics and are in fact the oldest current members of TOP as of 2020. Sang by Lenny Williams, perhaps their greatest lead singer ever, the single hit #17 on the Billboard Hot 100 and is the band’s biggest selling single to date in the US.
“So Very Hard to Go” is included on TOP’s eponymous third album, which many think is their best ever; be that as it may, their first three albums—East Bay Grease, Bump City and Tower of Power—are all R&B classics.
Tower of Power
12. "Reasons"—Earth, Wind and Fire
Album: That's the Way of the World
Year Released: 1975
Earth, Wind and Fire (EWF), a super group in the R&B genre (the author really can’t say enough good words about these illustrious guys), was formed in 1969 by Maurice White, one of the band’s lead singers. “Reasons,” was featured on the album That’s the Way of the World. While, unbelievably, the song never charted, it’s endured as a classic R&B love song.
Many other EWF songs could be included here, particularly “Can’t Hide Love,” “That’s the Way of the World,” and “After the Love Is Gone.”
Earth, Wind & Fire
11. "Ready or Not"—After 7
Album: After 7
Year Released: 1989
It seems safe to say every song on this list is one you’ll never get tired of. “Ready or Not,” produced by After 7 (a group formed in 1988 by the Edmonds brothers) in 1990, and co-written by prolific artist Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, will keep drifting softly through your mind until the end of time. By the way, “Ready or Not” was the first of two number one hit singles featured on the group’s self-titled debut album.
In the mid-'90s, After 7 broke up, but not before producing a cover of the Hall & Oates’ R&B classic, “Sarah Smile” (in 1997).
10. "Saving All My Love for You"—Whitney Houston
Album: Whitney Houston
Year Released: 1985
The late, great Whitney Houston sang many amazing tunes, and perhaps the best of the lot is “Saving All My Love for You,” her first number one hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Released in 1985, the song is a cover of Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr.'s minor 1978 hit. However, when Whitney sang the ballad, it became an overnight sensation and helped launch her meteoric career.
For recording the song, Whitney won the Grammy Award (the first of six) for the Best Pop Vocal Performance in 1985.
9. "Lady in My Life"—Michael Jackson
Year Released: 1982
One of many hit songs on Jackson’s album, Thriller (the bestselling album of all time in the United States), “Lady in My Life” excels as a classic R&B love song. Although the song wasn’t a hit single (overshadowed by Thriller’s numerous iconic tunes), “Lady in My Life” has an unforgettable melody, and Michael’s singing on it rips at one’s heartstrings until the tears fall like rain—or something like that.
8. "You’re Still a Young Man"—Tower of Power
Album: Bump City
Year Released: 1972
“You’re Still a Young Man," the first hit by Tower of Power, a funk/soul/R&B band created in the late 1960s, was written by Emilio Castillo and Stephen Kupka. They were the band’s primary songwriters, as well as the most notable musicians in a horn section that has become iconic in the world of pop music.
This song is about a young man who has a crush on an older woman, who tells him, “you’re still a young man, baby...oh, don’t waste your time.”
Tower of Power
7. "You Mean the World to Me"—Toni Braxton
Album: Toni Braxton
Year Released: 1993
Since around 1990, when she performed with her sisters as The Braxtons, Toni Braxton has been the quintessential R&B diva. Going solo in 1993, Braxton has produced numerous hit singles. In 1994, among a plethora of soulful tunes, Braxton produced “You Mean the World to Me.”
Along with “Un-Break My Heart,” another mega hit, “You Mean the World to Me” will forever remain in the hearts of fans of classic R&B.
6. “This Masquerade”—George Benson
Year Released: 1976
An exceptional jazz guitarist at the time, George Benson hit his stride as a hit solo artist in the 1970s, perhaps his greatest decade in terms of popularity and commercial success. “This Masquerade,” written by Leon Russell, became a much covered single in the 1970s, but Benson’s version was the only one to hit the charts, reaching #10 on the Billboard Hot 100. In 1977, Benson’s version won a Grammy Award for Best Record of the Year.
Other hit tunes by George Benson are “Gonna Love You More,” “The Greatest Love of All” and “Give Me the Night.”
5. "Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get"—The Dramatics
Album: Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get
Year Released: 1971
The Dramatics formed in 1962, but they didn’t hit the big time until 1971, when they released the hit single, “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get." This album became a mega hit, reaching number nine on the Billboard Hot 100 and selling over a million copies (thereby achieving gold record status).
Other Dramatics’ smash hits include “In the Rain,” a number one R&B hit and “All Because of You,” the quintet’s first hit single, produced in 1967.
4. “Sara Smile”—Hall and Oates
Album: Daryl Hall and John Oates
Year Released: 1975
Crooners of what has been called blue eyed soul, Hall and Oates may be the most well known duo in the history of American pop music. “Sara Smile” was the duo’s first top ten hit, reaching #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. Written and recorded by Hall and Oates, “Sara Smile” is about Daryl Hall’s girlfriend, Sara Allen, with whom he had a romantic relationship for 30 years.
Hall and Oates’ other number one hits are “Rich Girl,” “Private Eyes,” “Kiss on My List,” “Maneater” and “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do).”
Hall and Oates
3. "Make It Last Forever"—Keith Sweat
Album: Make It Last Forever
Year Released: 1987
As many R&B artists seemed to have done, Keith Sweat spawned a hit single with the release of his first album. “Make It Last Forever” made it to number two on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.
In addition to performing on every song on the album, Sweat also wrote or co-wrote many of the songs and, along with Teddy Riley, produced the album as well.
2. "Sweet Love"—Anita Baker
Year Released: 1986
Spawned from Anita Baker’s second studio album, Rapture, produced in 1986, “Sweet Love” hit the charts like a tsunami, surging to number three on the Billboard R&B chart and number eight on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The following year, the song, which Baker co-wrote with Louis Johnson and Gary Bias, won the Grammy Award for Best R&B Song.
The same year, Rapture won the Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal performance. Anita Baker's career definitely began with a huge splash.
1. “Can’t Hide Love”—Earth, Wind & Fire
Year Released: 1976
Earth, Wind & Fire is often considered to be one of the greatest bands of all time and is certainly one of the best-selling bands of all time. The band won six Grammy Awards and they are an inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They covered "Can't Hide Love" (written by Creative Source in 1973) which reached #48 on the Billboard Hot Singles R&B chart and #39 on the Billboard Hot 100. Those are not exactly high ratings for this illustrious assemblage, but this song provides a haunting, emotional gravity you never get tired of hearing. In fact, in the world of R&B, it’s practically iconic!
In 2008, Prince gave a live performance of “Can’t Hide Love” in Manhattan, New York. And Earth, Wind & Fire’s version of the song was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Earth, Wind & Fire
© 2012 Kelley Marks
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on December 09, 2012:
Thanks for the comment, seanorjohn. These picks are in no particular order - I just wanted to showcase 10 great ones. Later!
seanorjohn on December 08, 2012:
Great choice. I would put some in a different order. But then when you listen to each and everyone you remember why they are so great. I bet even you would change the rankings every year. Well done for organising the youtube videos.
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on November 06, 2012:
Thanks for the comment, Alecia Murphy. I had lots of fun writing this hub. Later!
Alecia Murphy from Wilmington, North Carolina on November 05, 2012:
I love this list-it spans all generations of R&B. My favorites are #2, 3, 8, and 9! Voted up, awesome, and shared!