Playlist: Songs for Cheaters

Classic pop songs about forbidden love

Worried cheaters?
Worried cheaters?. Mads Perch/Stone/Getty Images

The enduring appeal of forbidden love made cheating love songs a secret part of the classic pop of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. And while there were lots of songs about unfaithful lovers and spouses, only a few in rock history dealt with what life was like for those on the inside — the actual Other Women and Other Men who found themselves entangled in love triangles they didn't see coming. These types of scandalous tunes were once entirely the domain of blues and country songs since those genres tended to deal with life on its most basic level.

Once the sexual revolution kicked into high gear, though, and casual sex started to become a way of life, more and more top 40 songs began to wrestle with the issue of what happens when you find yourself loving someone you shouldn't.

  1. "(You Can Have My Husband B ut Please) Don't Mess With My Man," Irma Thomas
    This song is self-explanatory — and even for hard '50s R&B, scandalous, partly because this wild stomper was being sung by the future Queen of New Orleans Soul when she was just 19... and already on her second husband!
  2. "Sally Go 'Round the Roses," The Jaynetts
    One of the eeriest and most inscrutable rock records of all time, this girl group classic is now considered by some to be a quiet anthem about cheating, lesbianism, or prostitution. The title comes from an innocent schoolyard chant, but if the roses are the only ones you can confess your "secret" to...
  3. "Walk on By," Leroy Van Dyke
    Country and Western music obviously broached this subject well before the pop mainstream dared to look at it, but Leroy's 1961 smash was still pretty direct for its day, leading to a whole strain of honky-tonk classics about cheatin' and lyin.'
  1. "The Dark End of the Street," James Carr
    An early Muscle Shoals classic, designed by Dan Penn and Chips Moman to be "the best cheating song, ever." They might be right — it was covered notably by Percy Sledge, who knew a thing or three about turning impossible romantic situations into soul nirvana.
  2. "Slip Away," Clarence Carter
    Few songs capture the ache of part-time love like this aching ballad, another Muscle Shoals triumph and the one which turned Carter from a failed bluesman into a soul powerhouse. The way he wails on the line "What would I give?" speaks (or rather sings) volumes.
  1. "Angel of the Morning," Merillee Rush
    Country-pop star Juice Newton had such success with her revamped version in 1981 that not a lot of folks even remember the original, which was almost as big a hit. Rush's tremulous delivery reveals just how much females were putting on the line back in 1968 — risking not just their heart but their social standing by being The Other Woman.
  2. "I Was Checkin' Out She Was Checkin' In," Don Covay
    The sadly underrated Covay was adept at blues, soul, and something he called "country funk," and this rare top 40 hit of his contains elements of all those styles. A sort of companion piece to Johnnie Taylor's "Who's Making Love," it shows in painful detail how cheating on someone else can backfire on the cheater, trapping them in a double headlock of awful secrets.
  3. "Tryin' to Love Two," William Bell
    The demands of family, career, and relationships can make holding down multiple relationships very difficult indeed, more so when one of those relationships covers up a lie about the other. Bell is most famous for the aching regret of "You Don't Miss Your Water," which could well be played as the sequel to this proto-disco classic.
  4. "Love the One You're With," Stephen Stills
    A clarion call for the new sexual permissiveness, the only big solo hit for this Buffalo Springfield/CSNY member made quite an impression, covered by a legion of artists who seemed to agree that living for the moment, despite your commitments, could be exhilarating. Stills got the title phrase from a saying of Billy Preston's, but the "fisted glove" idea... probably not.
  1. "(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don't Want to Be Right," Luther Ingram
    Perhaps the king of all cheating songs, if only because Luther gets into so much detail about what's at stake. Apparently, even the families and friends of these two know what's going on, which makes the silky, slow soul of this number a deliciously ticking time bomb. The intro somehow sounds like transgression; the rest sounds almost noble. Almost.
  2. "Breaking Up Somebody's Home," Ann Peebles
    Ann, on the other hand, doesn't seem to care at all, despite the fact that her own backup singers are advising her "don't break it up." Maybe it's the undeniable sexy thump of the famous Hi rhythm section egging her on, but the lady behind "I Can't Stand the Rain" practically explodes in frustration. Clearly, it's about to get real.
  3. "Me and Mrs. Jones," Billy Paul
    One of the biggest hits on this playlist and that has a lot to do with the expert atmosphere: seductive yet romantic, shamed yet determined, sad and noble. "Mrs. Jones" and Billy are "making plans," yet are "careful not to build our hopes up too high." Rhyming "wrong" and "strong" was the most natural thing he could have done.
  1. "Torn Between Two Lovers," Mary MacGregor
    The soft-rock wave was starting to pick up on the concept by this time, leading to a decade's worth of overshare on the part of some achingly sensitive people. Mary's so sensitive, in fact, that she thinks you should be fine with this arrangement, despite her indiscretion. Shades of Jefferson Airplane's "Triad," though that classic didn't involve actual cheating per se.
  2. "Daytime Friends (and Night Time Lovers)," Kenny Rogers
    Then again, "lovers" rhyming with "discovers" is also pretty impressive. And necessary, too, because the twist here is that the two in question know each other already, and therefore have to look at each other all day, knowing what's going to keep happening. The Other Man is, in fact, this poor guy's best friend. Ouch.
  3. "Heaven's Just a Sin Away," The Kendalls
    The first hit for this father-daughter duo was aptly named indeed, as Jeannie's sweet vocals made cheating seem like its own reward. (Father Royce is either mixed too low or integrated too perfectly in the harmony to be heard much.) It also unleashed a slew of country hits for the two, almost all of which were based around the same theme.
  4. "Change of Heart," Bread
    The kings of awkward romantic moments (just check out their lyrics), Bread specialized in unhappy endings, but this latter-day album track makes sure everything ends up okay. That is, except for the unlucky guy she's already seeing, who gets a pretty cavalier sendoff: "When you change your heart / save yourself and forget all the rest."
  1. "Sweet Thing," Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan
    A beautiful and ironic declaration of romantic fidelity that just happens to be directed at a married man. With lines like "I wish you were my lover / But you act so undercover," delivered as only Chaka can, it set the standard for modern R&B over the next two decades. It all boils down to the first two lines: "I will love you anyway / Even if you cannot stay."
  2. "No Tell Lover," Chicago
    An oddly indifferent-sounding ballad from Chicago's first comeback, and also very soulful, even as it eased the group into their upcoming Adult Contemporary incarnation. It's unclear who's cheating on who here, but Peter Cetera does specifically drop the word "affair" before urging, "Walk away if you see me coming."
  3. "The Agony and the Ecstasy," Smokey Robinson
    The man who invented Quiet Storm would naturally have to have a place on this list, even if he did steal the incredibly accurate title from a novel about Michaelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel. The awkward nobility comes on full force here, even if Smokey seems dazed as to how he got here and why his other woman puts up with his situation. Apparently, it started out as a one-night stand, so the answer may lie between the sheets.
  4. "Kiss and Say Goodbye," Manhattans
    Was there ever a sadder #1 hit? The song's spoken intro alone, which sets up the rest of the song, proved too emotionally powerful to excise from the 45 release, and you can hear why - it's the culmination of every hard breakup in vocal group history, followed by a devastating tenor performance and an ad-lib that must have sent lots of doomed lovers straight to the bar.
  1. "Layla," Derek and the Dominoes
    Critic Dave Marsh famously said that this song's effect was as emotional and visceral as "witnessing a murder or a suicide." And yes, Eric Clapton's ode to his best friend George Harrison's wife, Patti Boyd, cuts so deep as to be almost painful to hear. Good thing it rocks so hard — at least until the equally famous piano coda, which sounds like your forbidden love kissing you one last time and driving away, slowly, for good.