Your Guide to the Best R&B Singles of 1979

01
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Your Guide to the Best R&B Singles of 1979

Kool and the Gang
Kool and the Gang.

The year 1979 was the last great flowering of disco, and arguably the last great flowering of classic R&B before electrofunk and quiet storm took over, hip-hop changed the rules of black music forever, and an invasion of sharp-looking white Brits arrived, armed with keyboards, to ironically offer up their take on classic soul, funk and Motown. In the meantime, however, R&B stayed busy getting jazzier, lighter, and naughtier -- and crossing over to a degree it would arguably never manage again.

Here are the greatest R&B hits of 1979, excluding, as always, those which have already made my pop Top 10 list!

02
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"Got to Be Real," Cheryl Lynn

With the assured vocal sweep of a disco diva and the wicked (if light) snap of pure funk, there was no way Cheryl Lynn could have avoided her one wondrous hit. In fact, her whole origin story is a time capsule of can't-miss disco-era ascension: robbed of a win on "The Gong Show," grabbing great notices in a production of "The Wiz," then getting taken in under the wing of a Toto member and songwriter David Foster. And even if she never saw the US Top 40 again, she remained a presence on the R&B charts, mentored by everyone from Ray Parker Jr. to Luther Vandross to the Jimmy Jam-Terry Lewis production team.

03
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"Cruisin'," Smokey Robinson

Seems as if everyone in R&B was in bed in 1979 and feeling unashamed about it to boot, but leave it to Smokey, that most conservative of soul men, to make the act sound not just natural but ephemeral. Who else but the guy who wrote "I Second That Emotion" would go out of his way to let his lady know "this is not a one night stand"? Fidelity as a sacrament was always Robinson's motif, and he may never have nailed that ideal as perfectly (again, no pun intended) as he did with this lush ballad. A perfect blend of the sensual and the angelic, it later moved no less than Bruce Springsteen to declare it the greatest song he'd ever heard. Not even the spectre of that Huey Lewis and Gwyneth Paltrow cover can damage its eternal shine.

04
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"Reunited," Peaches & Herb

Not, as has often been cited, a cover of an old Intruders ballad called "We'll Be United," this crossover smash still came with an old-school pedigree in the persons of Dino Fekaris and Freddie Perren, songwriters and producers who'd helped craft the Jackson 5's earlier hits then hit a long career skid they were just starting to come out of. Indeed, "Reunited" -- which also reignited the career of minor '60s duo Peaches & Herb -- was THE dedication song of '79, its innocence so winning that it blew up all over pop and R&B. It gave Fekaris and Perren the impetus to release this other thing they'd been working on called "I Will Survive." Many, many Seventies kids subsequently found "Reunited" and Gloria Gaynor's "Survive" to be the bookends of their adolescence: first the romantic happy ending, then the realization it wasn't necessary.

05
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"Ring My Bell," Anita Ward

It was originally intended for wholesome teen sweetheart Stacy Lattisaw, the bell in question residing on the bottom of her telephone, but when that didn't work out, Anita Ward took over and put that bell in some other metaphorical location. Actually, the rewrite was pretty domestic, if no less adult -- once her man gets home and she's done with the dishes, it's on. Not that anyone needed to pay attention to the lyrics with that hook, a minor-key set of vocal chimes interrupted only by that most Seventies of instruments, the syndrum (which made a "boooop" sound that sounded like aliens were getting down). Whatever the process, it worked, with the song going #1 disco, R&B, pop, UK, and probably all over Europe to boot. And yet a car crash and some business disputes conspired to make sure Ward never made the top 20 of any chart, ever again.

06
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"Bustin' Loose," Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers

Chuck had already established his bonafides as a true funk-soul legend by the time his biggest hit rolled along, having helped create one of the most sampled instrumentals with "Ashley's Roachclip" and then transforming the D.C. scene with his rolling, roiling "go-go" beat, which went on to have a large (if brief) influence in hip-hop. His signature song, however, comes from a classic soul stance -- a little jazz organ, some blues vocals, a fat horn section, gospel call-and-response, and just a hint of that go-go feel in the bongos. He certainly does sound like he's about to break into a rap in that intro, though. A true bridge between eras.

07
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"Ladies' Night," Kool & the Gang

One of the jazziest yet toughest funk outfits of the early 70s -- you remember, "Jungle Boogie" and "Hollywood Swinging" -- caught the disco bug a little late, but their metamorphosis into slick, smooth dancefloor celebration was so light in nature that it could (and did) survive just about any trend that popped up before the rise of hip-hop. It was a classic formula, in this case engineered by songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer Deodato: get a new lead singer with sex appeal, water down the groove, and crossover with big fat hooks. Kool etc. knocked it out of the park on their first attempt, staying jazzy and funky but translating it to the glitter ball suburbanites; this canny call to arms for single ladies still works during the drink special.

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"(Not Just) Knee Deep," Funkadelic

Collegiate rap heroes De La Soul eventually restructured this P-Funk jam as one of hip-hop's earliest crossover jams (1991's "Me, Myself, and I"), but get past that iconic synth riff and descending bassline (also reminiscent of later Snoop and Dre hits) and what you find is an even more uptempo piano-jazz workout, spinning out into infinity as is George Clinton's wont -- and detailing a very special "freak of the week" that leads the mothership into some surprisingly sexy, not just sophomoric, wordplay. By Clinton's standards it's practically a love song, graced in its long version by some incendiary Michael Hampton rock-guitar explosions. Oh, and the word "twerk" is coined in here somewhere.

09
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"Turn Off the Lights," Teddy Pendergrass

No pun intended, but it'd be hard to think of a more, um, tumescent R&B ballad, even for the disco era, than this Teddy epic. The date-night plot is simple, but direct: soap each other up in the shower, give each other a hot oil massage, and then see where things go from there, wink wink. But what might seem like a silly and dated loverman spiel in lesser hands retains all its power in Teddy's, as he expertly moves between quiet reassurance and what can only be described as the roar of a lion in full heat. Perhaps no other soul man understood the art of seduction like Pendergrass did -- his shift from seduction to climax is so smooth you barely realize it's happening.

10
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"I Wanna Be Your Lover," Prince

Prince once said he knew how to make a hit single by the time he made his second album, and the Purple One was right: only 21, he'd already taken the Stevie Wonder route and become his own one-man band, and after hitting the porn a little too hard for pop with his first single, "Soft and Wet," he soon learned, in classic R&B fashion, to sneak the smut in under the radar ("I wanna be the only one who makes you come... runnin'"). Most of the elements of his famed "Minneapolis Sound" aren't present yet, but he was already making a mark: those 4/4 keyboard stabs on the chorus, for example, which became a standard of '80s pop.

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"Rapper's Delight," Sugarhill Gang

Hip-hop was a '70s construction. believe it or not, straight out of Bronx block parties, But while its first big crossover hit was done by three guys from Jersey, it hardly mattered -- pop radio, which didn't know what to make of this stuff any more than R&B did, simply skipped to all the stuff about eating a bad dinner at a friend's house ("then you run to the store for quick relief from a bottle of Kaopectate!") and labeled this one a novelty. It wasn't, exactly -- there was enough actual party MCing going on to actually rep the scene it came from -- but even replicating (not sampling) the riff from Chic's "Good Times" didn't get it taken seriously. Within two years that would change forever.