Your Guide to the Best R&B Singles of 1976

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Your Guide to the Best R&B Singles of 1976

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The year of the US Bicentennial was a celebration of everything that made America great, so it only made sense that the country's first great original musical art form, jazz, would take such a large role. It was usually pretty subtle, a seepage from the soul-jazz of the '60s into slick modern R&B, but the soul hits of 1976 had a definite blue vibe and improvisational feel. Even the disco was jazz! Here are the greatest R&B hits of 1976, excluding, as always, those which have already made my pop Top 10 list!

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"Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)," Parliament

Funk was more than just a groove to George Clinton: a true hippie leftover, albeit a racially aware one with a sense of humor, he named an early Funkadelic album Free Your Mind... and Your Ass Will Follow, but by the time the decade hit midpoint, the music was the message, and his two-step path to enlightenment was effectively reversed. This signature song, like all signature songs, endures as its artists' sonic fingerprint, its retinal scan: a series of giggly, interlocking chants bouncing randomly off of a gigantic rubbery bass line, party horns, and a squiggly, futuristic, chrome-plated synth. And, of course, the hook, as always the invitation to Clinton's musical utopia -- "You've got a real type of thing going down, gettin' down / There's a whole lot of rhythm going down."

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"This Masquerade," George Benson

Jazz' most popular guitarist of the late Seventies made his bones early as Miles Davis' go-to guy on a series of recordings a decade earlier, but he actually entered the rock mainstream just before Miles tried, with a truly epic version of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" that proved he could master any genre. So when R&B got slicker in the late '70s, he stepped right into that opening, first with an instrumental that practically invented the "smooth jazz" movement ("Breezin'") and then with this Grammy-winning take on Leon Russell's classic ballad. Turns out Benson's vocal prowess -- combining Stevie Wonder's high end with Billy Stewart's low -- was nearly a match for his guitar work, and he became the epitome of R&B as it entered its final classic phase.

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"Dazz," Brick

Here's how you mix genres and make it stick. Anchor a rock-steady backbeat to some gorgeous, liquid chordal pastels and what do you get? "Dazz, dazz, disco jazz," as the hook explains. With some soaring sax work and not one but a chorus of falsettos dipping down every so often to underscore the party groove -- "Well all right!" -- this was the crossover hit Marvin Gaye should have come up with: a similar stylistic cross-stitch to his "Got to Give it Up," it nonetheless cuts a much thicker slice of the funk. Or, to paraphrase another Black icon of the era, it floats like a butterfly but stings like a bee. Brick would score one more crossover with a organ-based rewrite called "Dusic," which mixed disco with... music?

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"Misty Blue," Dorothy Moore

Malaco Records in Jackson, MS was the last refuge of blues in an increasingly jazzy and funky soul landscape, but they still occasionally managed to lob one into the pop consciousness: Jean Knight's "Mr. Big Stuff," King Floyd's "Groove Me," and then this weepy ballad, which aches in a way not heard since Irma Thomas reigned with New Orleans Soul classics like "It's Raining." But the original was actually designed way back in that era as a custom job for Brenda Lee. Eddy Arnold and Joe Simon both took a stab at it when she declined, but if there was ever a song that needed a woman's touch, it was this one. Dorothy's one-take torch-song wonder nailed it so well it saved the struggling label.

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"Love Hangover," Diana Ross

Miss Ross stayed on top of the pop charts after she left the Supremes behind, which figured, but her already-tenuous grip on the R&B scene kept slipping; she seemed headed for Vegas by the time disco rolled around, or at least Hollywood. That is, until this epic appeared on her radar, a sexy, silky ballad that switched gears midstream and became a equally silky dancefloor filler. The 5th Dimension, another Sixties relic with serious street cred problems, actually recorded a nearly identical version that was released on the same day, but Diana's transmogrification into a sex kitten, helped along by a slightly slower and more deliberate groove, was more believable than Marilyn McCoo's. Perhaps inspired by the recent notoriety of Donna Summer's success, it set the tone for the second half of Ross' career.

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"The Rubberband Man," The Spinners

(Detroit) Spinners co-lead Phillipe Wynne was a perfect instrument for the era of the 12-inch disco record; typically, these Philly Soul giants would begin a song with the stylings of Bobby Smith and then let Wynne play the whole thing out with his seemingly endless ability to ad-lib off the song's central theme. It was fitting, then, that the last big hit he sang on before leaving for a solo career was not only one of the group's biggest but one of their longest: Seven minutes and 22 seconds of Philly Soul at its peak, about half of which was Wynne pingponging back and forth between a punctuated rhythmic breakdown ("doo doo doo doo doo doo doodoo! ") and a chorus praising the contortions of its fictional title character." "How much of this stuff do he think we can stand?," sings Philippe, who may as well have been talking about himself. "So much rhythm, grace, and debonair from one man?"

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"Something He Can Feel." Aretha Franklin

Ree Ree was in the middle of an artistic and commercial slump during the Bicentennial, pretty much persona non grata on the pop charts, even, but the one bright spot during this period was Sparkle, a film musical that was more or less the Dreamgirls of its day but is remembered today mainly for its soundtrack. That's because it combined Curtis Mayfield's songs and production with Aretha's still-formidable pipes, and even though both were struggling with the direction of R&B, it was still an undeniable alliance of musical talent, highlighted by a long and seductive ballad that welded the gospel fire of two soul vets together in the service of the bedroom. Old-school moves, for sure, but still potent.

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"Wake Up Everybody," Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes

Like the Spinners' Wynne, Teddy Pendergrass was a ridiculously gifted vocal improv artist feeling increasingly confined by his lack of identity: too many casual fans still thought his name was Harold. He also went out with an epic, too, in this case the last gasp of R&B's social consciousness, an anthem so potent it lived on for many years afterward in the form of a public service announcement for teacher recruitment. Indeed, the verse that ad used sounds just like one of those movies about troubled inner-city students -- "Wake up all the teachers time to teach a new way / Maybe then they'll listen to what you have to say" -- though the song goes in to wake up doctors and "builders," suggesting an entire Utopia-from-scratch that Teddy's frightening baritone practically demands into existence over the song's final four inspirational minutes.

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"I Want You," Marvin Gaye

Having taken on the "ecology," the War in Vietnam, and heroin addiction with his landmark What's Going On album, Marvin Gaye settled into his lover-man persona for good in the mid-to-late '70s, a period where his records became ever more confessional and his concerts became as intimate as a date night. And where "Let's Get It On" was a seduction suite, this title track set up the theme for a new relationship, specifically Marvin's infatuation with the much younger Janis Hunter. He was about to leave Anna Gordy, sister of Motown head Berry, for Hunter,  and his big hit of '76 perfectly captures his emotional vulnerability over the upheaval -- moody, obsessive, determined, and at once jazzier and funkier than anything he'd previously attempted.

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"Love Ballad," L.T.D.

It's not often that you can listen to a song with the benefit of hindsight and hear the next decade coming, but the generic title of L.T.D.'s first big hit belies its cultural importance -- it's a good five or six years ahead of its time, a song so melodically open-ended, jazz influenced, plaintive, and shockingly deliberate in its pacing that the pop charts had little idea what to do with it. Predicting the future of the genre just as surely as Jerry Butler's "For Your Precious Love" or Sly Stone's "Thank You (Fallettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," it also bolstered the profile of the group's lead, a young man named Jeffrey Osborne, who might be the single most identifiable voice of '80s R&B that didn't wear a rhinestone-studded glove.