Now, this is a radio station I wish I could go back and hear, as the early ’80s became the mid-’80s. Detroit is known for progressive Black radio — it was one of the first markets to really take to Prince, for example — but this is beyond. Not only are there R&B hits from the likes of Lionel Richie (following up a #1), Cameo (a future #1), and DeBarge (a recent #1), there’s some early freestyle from Jenny Burton and Xena, a surprising amount of electro and rap (some you may know by Run-DMC and Planet Patrol, and some you likely don’t by Captain Rock and Felix & Jarvis), and a handful of very weird pop crossovers from Culture Club, Pat Benatar, and Yes! Actually, to be fair, “Miss Me Blind” isn’t so odd: that made it to #8 on the Black Singles chart in April. Yes and Benatar, however, didn’t come anywhere near the Black top 10.
Fun sidebar fact: two-and-a-half months later, on the chart of April 28, ’84, there were three songs in the top 10 by non-Black, non-American artists.
Thanks to a brief aircheck I recently heard, I can tell you that not only did WJLB have Laid Back playlisted in February, but Chicago’s WGCI was playing it in early January!
I wish this playlist were in ranked, instead of alphabetical, order, but you take what you can get. A closer examination:
“Action,” Evelyn King: King transitioned gracefully from disco (’77’s “Shame”) to post-disco (’81’s “I’m in Love”) and synth-R&B (’82’s “Love Come Down”); this leans harder on the electro and does it pretty well, though as opposed to the top 10 placings of those three aforementioned singles (the last two #1s), this only got to #16 Soul. But you likely won’t be disappointed if you spend five minutes in a dark room with it.
“Body Talk,” the Deele: The Deele were Antonio “L.A.” Reid and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds’ group before they were, well, L.A. and Babyface — and they weren’t even its leaders. This, their first single, made it to #3 Soul, and is just average electro-funk.
“Didn’t Know I Loved You,” Planet Patrol: This one’s just plain bizarre: an electro/hip hop cover of a Gary Glitter song (#4 UK/#35 US, 1972), played fairly straight.
“Encore,” Cheryl Lynn: One week away from knocking Patti LaBelle (below) off the top and giving Lynn her second Soul #1, this also gave Jimmy “Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis their first-ever chart-topper as writers and producers, setting the stage for a rather impressive career (that’s still ongoing). Of Lynn’s four previous albums, three had spun off one top 5 Soul record apiece (including her ’78 #1 “Got to Be Real,” which crazily only made it to #11 pop), so it wasn’t necessarily surprising to see this top the chart — except that the first two singles from its parent album, Preppie, had flopped out at #77 and #85! Her previous hit was the all-time-classic Luther Vandross duet, “If This World Were Mine,” which made it to #3 in early ’83 — but this did better, slipping in for a solitary week at #1 between the four-week run of LaBelle and the five-week run of, ahem, Rockwell (see below). This is one of my favorite records of the entire decade, an immaculate marriage of song, production, singer, and era. Not to mention that you can very much hear templates for things on Control in this jam.
“Hard Times”/”Jam Master Jay,” Run-DMC: “Hard Times” was the second single from Run-DMC’s eponymous debut album, and made it to #11, four notches higher than “It’s Like That.” Brilliant, fully-formed hip hop.
“If Only You Knew,” Patti LaBelle: The current #1 Soul single, nearing the end of a four-week run atop the chart, was, amazingly, LaBelle’s first-ever solo top ten on the chart. This stately ballad reinvigorated LaBelle’s career. She had another pair of top 10s in ’84, a #3 duet with Bobby Womack (“Love Has Finally Come at Last,” which was top 10 by April, as seen in the chart above; also see “New Music,” below), and this song’s follow-up, the #10 “Love, Need, and Want You,” later famously interpolated on Nelly and Kelly Rowland’s 2002 #1 “Dilemma.” To this day, “Knew” is my favorite LaBelle record; I love how she sings it in her mid-range, almost understatedly. Would end up the #2 Soul single of the year, behind only “When Doves Cry.”
“Irresistible Bitch,” Prince: This was the b-side of “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” the final single from 1999, which only got to #55 Soul/#52 pop — but on the Soul chart this had enough airplay to warrant charting as a double-sided single. And Prince was big enough in Detroit that this was a radio smash there. I mean, you know how great this song is, right?
“Jam the House,” Felix & Jarvis: Like Captain Rock (below), this is non-nationally-charting electro/rap that’s… okay, and that’s about it. Felix & Jarvis had a vocal credit on a Was (Not Was) album the prior year.
“Joystick,” Dazz Band: This penis-as-video game controller has always come off as smarmy and gross to me. And its funk isn’t as good as that of ’82’s “Let It Whip.”
“Karma Chameleon”/”Miss Me Blind,” Culture Club: “Karma Chameleon,” a #1 pop/#67 Soul single, has never been my cup of tea. But “Miss Me Blind” is a joy and a marvel, such a concise, precise pop record — and it climbed to a #5 peak on both the pop and Soul charts in the U.S. I’ve always loved that Boy George worked in a lyrical reference to their first album, Kissing to Be Clever, in this song.
“Let’s Make Love Tonight,” Isley Brothers: Between the Sheets was the Isleys’ first #1 Soul album in three years, and featured the magnificent top 10s “Choosey Lover” and the album’s title track. This was, remarkably, only released as a promotional single, but is arguably just as much of a classic these days, thanks to Quiet Storm R&B radio. Deservedly so, really — the entire album is wall-to-wall bedroom wall bangers, if you catch my drift.
“Love Is A Battlefield,” Pat Benatar: This rock record has a little funk in it, so I can hear it in this company. Not much of a Soul hit, but it (of course) slams. I love the syn-drums here.
“On the Upside,” Xēna: This cracking little earrrrly freestyle single, credited to “Xēna,” is actually by Lisa Fischer — yes, renowned backing singer Lisa Fischer, most well-known for touring with the Rolling Stones and Luther Vandross, and who famously tied for a Grammy win with Patti LaBelle. The song’s lyrical conceit — Fischer starts singing about the downside of love, but then turns it around — is a clever one. This didn’t make the Soul chart, but got to #7 on the (then-named) Dance/Disco chart.
“Owner of a Lonely Heart,” Yes: This only scraped its way into the 70s of the Soul chart (though it did get to #3 Dance — it was a Trevor Horn production, after all), so I have no idea what WJLB was doing with it. But I love that they were fucking with it.
“Remember What You Like,” Jenny Burton: Producer John Robie, who also recorded as C-Bank, made his name working alongside Arthur Baker, and you can absolutely hear it on this lost freestyle record (#10 Dance/#21 Soul) that’s just plain weird and collage-y and full of f/x. Your tolerance/enjoyment of that will determine how much you like this. I find it a bit clattering, but again, YMMV.
“Return of Captain Rock,” Captain Rock: A rapper who never charted anywhere, with a decent enough electro/rap record, end of story. I miss the era of local radio hits.
“Running with the Night,” Lionel Richie: The follow-up to “All Night Long” was destined to be a smash, and this was. I just wish it were more interesting.
“She’s Strange,” Cameo: This brilliant slab of low-key funk would spend the entirety of April topping the Soul chart. Those icy, whining synths, colder than the other side of the moon! Those lyrics, rhyming “Eva Peron” with “Rolling Stones” and calling the song’s subject “the invisible man in drag” while discussing her “light blue aura”! Those syn-drums! “She’s Strange” is simultaneously the sound of its moment and the sound of the future, and I sometimes happily listen to it for two hours on end. Really.
“Somebody’s Watching Me,” Rockwell: If you weren’t Berry Gordy’s son, fella, not only would Michael Jackson not have had anything to do with your dopey song, no one would’ve been watching, or listening to you. This record is unrepentantly stupid.
“Something’s on Your Mind,” D-Train: D-Train represented a very specific brand of New York City post-disco music, slow R&B you could still dance to. I’ve always heard them as the predecessors to Ten City.
“Taxi,” J. Blackfoot: Great talked-sung blues/soul from the Bobby Womack (see below)/Bobby “Blue” Bland school, that amazingly made it to #4 on the Soul chart in an era when this was not the current sound. I love these conversational story-songs, and this is no exception.
“This Means War,” Imagination: In 1981-82 these Brit-soul post-disco kings notched a trio of UK top 5s, including the #2 “Just An Illusion,” which also got to #27 on the US Soul chart. A couple years later, this one (oddly unreleased as a UK single) made it to #29 Soul, their last gasp in the US. You can ride the groove of this one for days.
“Time Will Reveal,” DeBarge: One of the greatest reviews Robert Christgau’s ever written is for this song’s parent album, the glorious In A Special Way: “When first I fell in love with the austere lilt and falsetto fantasy they’ve pinned to plastic here, I thought it was just that I’d finally outgrown the high-energy fixation that’s always blocked my emotional access to falsetto ballads. So I went back to Spinners and Blue Magic, Philip Bailey and my man Russell Thompkins Jr., and indeed, they all struck a little deeper–but only, I soon realized, because the superior skill of these kids had opened me up. I know of no pop music more shameless in its pursuit of pure beauty–not emotional (much less intellectual) expression, just voices joining for their own sweet sake, with the subtle Latinized rhythms (like the close harmonies themselves) working to soften odd melodic shapes and strengthen the music’s weave. High energy doesn’t always manifest itself as speed and volume–sometimes it gets winnowed down to its essence. A+” And y’know, he ain’t wrong. The first of their two Soul #1s had spent five weeks atop the chart in December ’83 and January ’84 — but it still hadn’t gone anywhere, and frankly, never has. Gossamer ballad perfection.
“Touch,” Earth, Wind & Fire: The sound of EWF, sadly, not sure what to do with the synth-funk era. It’s kind of a ballad, kind of not, and not very exciting no matter what it is.
“White Horse,” Laid Back: #5 Soul by April, #1 Dance, #26 pop, and proof that you didn’t have to be from NYC or Miami to make ace electro/proto-freestyle — Laid Back were Danish! If you don’t love this, your feet must be permanently nailed to the earth.
“Fresh,” Tyrone Brunson: This funky bass player got to #14 Soul with the instrumental “The Smurf” the previous year, and to #22 with this instrumental. It’s about thisclose to being jazz/funk fusion, which of course makes me love it all the more.
“Hyperactive!,” Thomas Dolby: “She Blinded Me with Science” did get to #49 Soul, so it’s not so shocking that WJLB would playlist this. Plus, frankly, this has plenty of electro, and even hip-hop energy (in its sampledelic aesthetic) in its DNA. Almost more of a collage than a song, I actually prefer this to “Science.” (Got to #62 pop, non-charter Soul.)
“Let’s Stay Together,” Tina Turner: You know the story on this one, right? Tina, signed to a record deal in the UK, records this Al Green cover with Heaven 17 and gets a Euro-smash (top 20 in six European countries, including #4 in both the Netherlands and the UK). Her US label releases it, and it gets to #26 on the Hot 100 — but #3 Soul and #1 Dance. And the greatest musical comeback of the ’80s, begins. I love the way she sings the song, and Heaven 17’s production is so contemporary yet un-trendy that together they make something new, something that puts the Green original out of your mind. And that’s something. By September, she’d hit #1 on the Hot 100 and #2 Soul with “What’s Love Got to Do With It.”
“Lollipop Luv,” Bryan Loren: At age 18, Loren had a minor candy-soul hit (#23) with this, which is, well, minor candy-soul, but he’d already been working with Cashmere and Fat Larry’s Band at this point. And six years later he’d top the UK chart with the Simpsons’s “Do the Bartman,” allegedly co-written and -produced with his then-pal, Michael Jackson.
“Love Has Finally Come at Last,” Bobby Womack/Patti LaBelle: Anything sung by Womack is gonna have some element of “gutbucket” to it, thanks to that incredible, incredibly unique voice. But this has got to be about the smoothest record of his career, and that’s not actually such a great thing. Womack and LaBelle don’t really mesh, either. That said, it’s hard to say no to anything these two are singing, so call it a wash.