Son Reynolds, Keith Holland, Maurice White, Philip Bailey, James Pankow, Robert Lamm on stage for NBC Today Show
Chicago and Earth, Wind and Fire Concert, Rockefeller Center, New York, July, 2005. (Courtesy Shutterstock)

By Sean Yoes
AFRO Senior Reporter
syoes@afro.com

How do you name the greatest Rhythm and Blues bands of the 1970’s, arguably the greatest and most influential decade of American Popular Music?

Short answer is, you don’t.

It is virtually impossible to name a group of the “greatest” R&B bands of the 1970’s without potentially excluding dozens of others worthy of such praise.

However, the power and artistry of many of these “Supergroups” have endured across the decades and inspired countless artists transcending multiple genres of art and culture not just music.

Here are nine such Supergroups (in no particular order).

THE JACKSON 5

In 1965, Joe Jackson, a former steel worker and fledgling music impresario from Gary, Indiana formed a band consisting of his five sons: Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Michael. For the first couple of years the band of brothers performed on the chitlin’ circuit and talent shows in and around Gary in the shadow of Chicago just 30 miles away. However, in 1967, Joe Jackson landed the band now known as The Jackson Five an appearance at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem where they won the talent competition. Allegedly after their appearance at the Apollo the young R&B superstar Gladys Knight sent a demo tape of the group to Motown Records, but it apparently was rejected initially. Undaunted, The Jackson Five continued to perform and grow in confidence and power, especially the youngest member of the band, Michael. In July 1968, the Jackson Five opened for Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers at the Regal Theater in Chicago and young Michael’s performance brought the house down. Taylor was so impressed with the brothers that he arranged for an audition and personally escorted them to Motown Records to perform for the man himself, Berry Gordy on July 23, 1968. Gordy signed them to an initial one-year contract three days later. Then after sorting through a contract dispute with their previous label Steeltown Records, the group signed an exclusive seven-year contract with Motown on March 11, 1969. By January 1970, The Jackson Five exploded upon the music scene like an atomic bomb. Their debut album, Diana Ross Presents The Jackson Five (released December 1969) yielded four number one singles: “ABC,” “The Love You Save,” “I’ll Be There” and “I Want You Back.” They became the first recording act to reach the Hot 100 with their first four singles. That first album by the group led by their iconic youngest brother launched “Jacksonmania,” and a tidal wave of publicity including a Saturday morning cartoon series, magazine covers and multiple television specials. In 1971, Motown promoted Michael Jackson as a solo act and the 13-year old superstar scored with the single “Got to Be There.” Then in 1972, Michael scored again with the single “Ben,” from the soundtrack of the same name, about a rat named Ben. Young Michael’s early success was certainly a foreshadowing of things to come. Although the Jackson Five, and later The Jacksons had several subsequent hits after their initial debut, and several of the family members went on to successful solo careers (Janet Jackson was the second most successful of them all) it was Michael who went on to redefine modern Popular Music.

EARTH, WIND AND FIRE

If there was one group that perhaps most embodied the holistic artistic excellence of 1970’s R&B music it is arguably the group known by many as “The Elements,” Earth, Wind and Fire (EWF).

The band that would become EWF was founded in 1969, by the late great Maurice White, who was a former session drummer for Chess Records (which launched the recording careers of Muddy Waters, Etta James, Howlin’ Wolf and Chuck Barry among others) and a former member of the Ramsey Lewis Trio. Originally, White joined with two musician friends in Chicago, Wade Flemons and Don Whitehead and formed a group called “The Salty Peppers” and they secured a recording contract with Capitol Records. 

White subsequently moved to Los Angeles and added members to the band, including his brother bassist Verdine White, who moved to Los Angeles in June 1970. Later that year they added vocalist Donny Hathaway (who went on to a tragically truncated superstar music career) and White began shopping the group’s demo tape and they were signed to Warner Bros. Records. White added more members to the band and changed the name to Earth, Wind and Fire, prompted by White’s study of astrology and the primary elements of his Zodiac sign, Sagittarius. 

EWF released their self-titled debut in February of 1971, with not much acclaim. However, later that year the group made some waves when they performed the soundtrack for legendary filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles’ seminal blaxploitation film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. The band released a second album in November 1971, A Need Of Love, which was well received, yet EWF went through several subsequent roster changes as well. Some members left the group and other notable musicians and singers were added including: saxophonist and flutist Ronnie Laws, keyboardist Larry Dunn and the ethereal vocalist Philip Bailey. In October 1972, came Last Days and Time, which was also well received by critics.

But, it was 1973, when EWF broke through with their first of several blockbuster albums, Head to the Sky. The album included the track “Keep Your Head to the Sky,” arguably the group’s first classic single and the album rose to number two on the Billboard Top Soul Albums chart, and has been certified Platinum.

In 1974, more critical and commercial success followed Earth, Wind and Fire with the release of Open Our Eyes, which reached number one on the Billboard Top Soul Albums chart and has been certified Platinum.

Then in 1975, The Elements released what is acknowledged by most as a musical masterpiece, That’s the Way of the World. Even within the mystical 1970’s, one of the most hallowed decades for American music, That’s the Way of the World (which was actually the soundtrack for a film of the same name produced by Sig Shore) is included amongst the pantheon of the greatest albums of the era alongside Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall.

There were other great successes for EWF in the 1970’s (1977’s All ‘n All is another classic), but That’s the Way of the World, which included the otherworldly “Reasons” as well as the title track, remains the band’s magnum opus. 

THE SPINNERS

In 1954, five friends from Detroit’s Herman Gardens public housing project: Billy Henderson, Henry Fambrough, Pervis Jackson, C.P. Spencer and James Edwards, formed a group called the Domingoes. They would eventually become the Detroit Spinners and then simply, the Spinners. 

The group went through many ups and downs in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Although they were signed by Berry Gordy in 1963, the Spinners didn’t break through as a superstar group until 1972, when they signed with Atlantic Records and were teamed with legendary songwriter Thom Bell. The group’s transition to Atlantic also brought with it the addition of the phenomenal singer Phillippe Wynne (who replaced his cousin G.C. Cameron, who stayed on at Motown because of contractual obligations). What proceeded was a supernova streak of hits over the next few years.

The Spinners scored big in 1973, with their first album under Atlantic, Spinners, charting five Top 100 singles, including two Top Tens. Among those hits was the classic “I’ll Be Around” with Bobby Smith. Three more extraordinary tracks were subsequently released from their Atlantic debut: “Could It Be I’m Falling in Love,” “One of a Kind (Love Affair)” and “Ghetto Child.”

Three more monster hits emerged from their follow-up album, Mighty Love in 1974. “I’m Coming Home,” “Love Don’t Love Nobody,” and the title track all broke into the Top 20 singles. But, the Spinners also notched another classic Soul track that year when they collaborated with Dionne Warwick on “Then Came You,” which made it to number one on the Billboard Hot 100.

In 1975, the album Pick of the Litter yielded “The Games People Play,” which made it to number five on Billboard. In 1976, the album Happiness is Being With the Spinners, produced “The Rubberband Man,” the infectious hit for the group, which reached number two on Billboard. That album capped a brilliant four-year run that saw the Spinners chart several top 20 hits.

THE O’JAYS

November 10, 1973, the Soul trio known as the O’Jays released Ship Ahoy, their second album under the Philadelphia International label. The album, the second in a row certified Platinum by the group, produced the track “For the Love of Money,” which utilized one of the most infectious basslines in the history of modern popular music. And in the process became an anthem against excess. It was just one of many sparkling musical gems for the group founded in 1958, in Canton, Ohio by Eddie Levert, Walter Lee Williams, William Powell, Bobby Massey and Bill Isles. The original members were classmates at Canton McKinley High School and were initially known as The Mascots, then later as The Triumphs. But, by 1963, the group took the name “The O’Jays” a tribute to a popular Cleveland radio disc jockey Eddie O’Jay.

The O’Jays had moderate recording success at best in the 1960’s and they allegedly considered quitting the music business altogether by the early 1970’s. And in 1972, Isles and Massey left the group leaving the O’Jays a trio. That same year the superstar producer duo of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, convinced them to join their Philadelphia International record label. And that’s when everything came together for the group from Canton. The O’Jays scored their first Platinum seller, Backstabbers, that same year.

The album produced by Gamble and Huff, yielded two classics; the album title track, as well as the joyous “Love Train.” Backstabbers rose to number three on the Pop Singles chart and Love Train (released as a single in 1973) became a number one Pop Single. The O’Jays followed the Platinum success of Backstabbers with the aforementioned Ship Ahoy.

More blockbuster albums followed for the trio during the 1970’s, including Family Reunion (1975) and Message in the Music (1976). During the 1970’s the O’Jays notched seven top 20 singles and eight top 20 albums. 

FUNKADELIC

One of the most enigmatic, avant garde and talented bands of any era of Pop Music, Funkadelic was in many ways incomparable. An American funk rock band (they may have invented the genre), Funkadelic was founded in 1968, in Plainfield, New Jersey by the audacious genius George Clinton. 

The group’s self-titled debut album, Funkadelic was released in 1970, and it began a run for the band that over the years included dozens of members. That album was followed by two Funk cult classics, Free Your Mind…and Your A** Will Follow (1970) and Maggot Brain (1971).

The group’s first three studio albums embodied an emerging sub-genre perhaps best described as “Psychedelic Funk and Soul” and would influence scores of bands and solo artists across genres of Rock, Funk and Hip Hop.

In 1974, Clinton revived the band Parliament and the two groups operated under the musical flag of Parliament-Funkadelic, or simply P-Funk. Parliament, less reliant on Rock, and more focused on Funk and R&B, found more mainstream success than Funkadelic. In 1974, Parliament released Up for the Down Stroke and followed up in 1975, with Chocolate City and both were a force on the R&B charts. Later in 1975, Parliament released its most influential album, Mothership Connection.

But, in 1978, it was Funkadelic that released One Nation Under a Groove, the biggest mainstream success of the P-Funk collective. Driven by the title track, One Nation Under a Groove has endured as one of the most important albums of the 1970’s.

THE OHIO PLAYERS

The Ohio Players produced one of the most prodigious sounds in modern popular music featuring towering horn arrangements, hypnotic basslines, thudding percussions with provocative lyrics and vocals (mostly by Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner). When listening deeply to funk Hall of Fame tracks like “Skin Tight” and “Fire,” it seems implausible to refrain from making the “ugly face” indicative of the music digging deep into one’s soul.

The band formed in Dayton, Ohio in 1959, originally as the Ohio Untouchables. But, by 1965, they adopted the moniker Ohio Players, and from 1959 to 1970, the band underwent many roster and format changes. But, at the beginning of the 1970’s the core members of the Ohio Players, Bonner, Ralph “Pee Wee” Middlebrooks, Clarence “Satch” Satchell, William “Billy” Beck, Marvin “Merv” Pierce and Marshall “Rock” Jones, produced some of the most provocative, soul-stirring Funk classics in the history of American music. Three albums in particular during the 1970’s were Funk masterpieces. All three were produced in successive years 1974 and 1975. The aforementioned Skin Tight released in April 1974, yielded the ostentatious album title track, as well as the syrupy sweet ballad, “Heaven Must Be Like This.” The album reached number 11 on the Pop charts and number one on the R&B charts. That same year The Ohio Players released Fire in November, which featured two more classics, the album title track and another lovely ballad, “I Want to Be Free.” Fire climbed to number one on both the Pop and R&B charts.

In 1975, the band followed-up on the success of Skin Tight and Fire with their third Platinum album in a row, Honey. The album produced three more big hits for the Ohio Players, the album title track, which was an unconventional, but melodic ballad, the volatile “Love Rollercoaster,” and the jaunty and sultry “Sweet Sticky Thing.”

In 1979, the core of the Ohio Players unraveled when three of the members formed the group Shadow, ending the run of the one of the most consequential and successful Funk bands of the 1970’s.

THE COMMODORES

The Commodores were a dominant force in the American Funk/Soul genre from the middle of the 1970’s to the end of the decade.

The Commodores perform at Thunder Valley Casino
Resort in Lincoln, California, Feb. 14, 2014. (Courtesy Shutterstock)

The group came together in 1968, in Tuskegee, Alabama when six students from Tuskegee Institute merged two college bands, the Mystics and the Jays. Milan Williams, Michael Gilbert and Andre Callahan from the Jays, and William King, Thomas McClary and Lionel Richie from the Mystics formed the Commodores.

The group dropped their first album Machine Gun in 1974, and the intergalactic funk rhythms of the instrumental album title track made it an instant classic. The Commodores debut album began a steady ascendancy to the upper echelon of American R&B music, as well as the emergence of Richie as one of the most successful singer/songwriters of the last 50 years.

The next year 1975, the Commodores released two albums. Caught in the Act, released in February, yielded another funk classic “Slippery When Wet.” Then in October, Movin’ On produced another hit, the mid-tempo ballad “Sweet Love.”

The Commodores released Hot on the Tracks in June 1976, which produced yet another funky wonder in “Fancy Dancer.” The album also yielded another beautiful ballad, the languid “Just to Be Close to You.”

In 1977, the group released its fifth studio album simply titled, Commodores, arguably the group’s greatest offering. Commodores produced three Hall of Fame calibre classics with the audaciously funky “Brickhouse,” the ethereal ballad “Zoom” and another ballad, the Gospel tinged, melancholy “Easy.”

The band came back in 1978, with Natural High, which produced one of the greatest crossover hits “Three Times a Lady,” a song that became an enormous hit for Country/Pop legend Kenny Rogers.

The Commodores ended the 1970’s with Midnight Magic released in 1979, featuring two more big hits; “Sail On” the mid-tempo ballad with the country twang and a more traditional love ballad, “Still.”

The Commodores had more success in the 1980’s, however their charismatic lead singer/songwriter Richie embarked upon a solo path in 1982, to become one of the most consequential Pop music talents of the 1980’s and 1990’s (and still going strong at age 71).

The Commodores completed seven studio albums in the 1970’s, which yielded the former college classmates from Tuskegee 10 Top 10 R&B singles and made them one of the most successful R&B groups of the decade.

Chaka Khan on stage at Jazz in the Gardens, a two day festival in Miami Gardens, Florida. (2018) (Courtesy Shutterstock)

RUFUS feat. CHAKA KHAN

The Chicago funk band known as Rufus went through a dizzying number of roster and name changes from 1968 to 1972. Although very talented they only had moderate success until 1972, when they met a beautiful, charismatic singer with an otherworldly voice named Chaka Khan.

Two years later in 1974, fueled by Khan’s burgeoning superstardom the group charted two major hits from the Rags to Rufus album released that year, “Tell Me Something Good” (written by Stevie Wonder) and “You Got the Love” (written by Khan and Ray Parker, Jr.). Tell Me Something Good sold a million copies and earned the group it’s first Grammy award. Seizing upon Khan’s supernova appeal the band changed its name to Rufus featuring Chaka Khan. That same year 1974, the band released another album Rufusized, which yielded more Platinum success with the hits “Once You Get Started” and “Please Pardon Me (You Remind Me of a Friend),” which was written by Brenda Russell. Despite the million-selling success enjoyed by the group sparked by the emergence of Khan, strife began to grow allegedly rooted in resentment by some band members who felt the magnetic lead singer overshadowed the band itself. Sultry and Luminous, Khan’s “wild child” persona made her a natural magnet for media attention, which included numerous magazine covers and feature stories focused on her.

Nevertheless, in 1975, the band released Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan, its fourth album and the third with the electric front woman singing lead. And it produced arguably the band’s most enduring classic “Sweet Thing.”

Yet, tensions continued to rise within Rufus, particularly between Khan and the group’s drummer Andre Fischer (which allegedly included a physical altercation between Fishcer and Khan’s husband Richard Holland). Still, the band saw more Platinum success with their 1977 release Ask Rufus. The album included three more major hits: “Hollywood,” “Everlasting Love” and “At Midnight (My Love Will Lift You Up)” The release of Ask Rufus also brought more band roster changes, including the departure of Fischer, as well as loud whispers that Khan’s solo debut was imminent. In 1978, the whispers became a reality when Khan released her self-titled debut. That same year the group released another successful album Street Player, which delivered the beautiful ballad “Stay.” The multi-platinum band ended the 1970’s with the Quincy Jones produced Masterjam released in 1979, which yielded the disco hit “Do You Love What You Feel,” and another uptempo hit “Any Love.” By 1982, Khan was out of the group for good and Rufus released their last studio album. But, it was the 1970’s when Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan soared to international superstardom with six Top Ten R&B albums, including three that reached number one atop the R&B charts.

THE ISLEY BROTHERS

The Isley Brothers: Ronnie, Ernie, Rudolph, O’Kelly, Vernon, Marvin and Chris Jasper (the only non-family member), have been a legit force in American Popular music since the 1950’s. And like their Rock contemporaries the Rolling Stones, the Isleys refuse to stop playing music together. However, the 1970’s was arguably the most prolific decade of this storied band’s legendary career.

The Isley Brothers (Ronald and Ernie) perform in July, 2019 at Pitchfork Musical Festival. (Courtesy Shutterstock)

The Isley Brothers are originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, and come from a musical family. Their father O’Kelly Isley Sr., was a former vaudeville performer and  their mother Sallye guided the Isley boys during their early Gospel career when they began performing in 1954. Tragically, Vernon Isley, who sang lead vocals for their Gospel quartet was struck and killed by a car at age 13, while riding his bike. The devastated brothers disbanded the group.

Eventually, the Isley Brothers came back together as a trio with Ronnie singing lead and he would carry that mantle for decades. The Isleys had some early successes in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s and in 1964, they relocated to Teaneck, New Jersey and formed their own label T-Neck Records. During that time they met a guitar player named Jimi Hendrix, who played with the brothers for a couple of years, before he moved on to redefine Rock music. The Isleys signed with Motown Records in 1965, and in 1966, scored with the Top 40 single “This Old Heart of Mine.” But, they left Motown in 1968 and resurrected the T-Neck label. The next year they notched their second million-selling single “It’s Your Thing,” which also garnered the Isley Brothers their first Grammy. The big breakthrough with “It’s Your Thing” was foreshadowing of things to come in the 1970’s.

In 1971, they released Givin’ It Back, which featured remakes of some Rock and Folk songs like “Love the One You’re With” (Stephen Stills), “Lay Lady Lay” (Bob Dylan) and “Fire and Rain” (James Taylor). The album featured another rising star, Bill Withers on lead guitar. And it marked the inclusion of the two younger Isley Brothers Ernie and Marvin, as well Chris Jasper, a childhood friend from Cincinnati.

Another album Brother, Brother, Brother came in 1972, followed by 3+3, released in 1973, on which Marvin, Ernie and Chris officially joined the band. 3+3 also included two more big hits for the Isley Brothers, “That Lady” and “Summer Breeze.” The album was the first for the Isleys to sell more than two million copies. But, 1975, would bring the Isley Brothers perhaps their most influential and best album, The Heat is On. The double-platinum album, which was the first for the Isleys to reach number one on the Pop chart, featured the incendiary “Fight the Power” and three sumptious ballads “For the Love of You,” “Make Me Say It Again Girl” and “Sensuality.”

Over the next four years the Isley Brothers released an album a year: Harvest for the World (1976), Go for Your Guns (1977), Showdown (1978) and Winner Takes All (1979). And throughout the 1970’s and beyond the Isley Brothers seamlessly incorporated the subtle shifts, as well as the sea changes of the often mercurial music industry. Although inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, the Isleys, through death, illness and other adversity continue a transcendent career that began in 1954.

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Sean Yoes

AFRO Baltimore Editor