One of the purposes of my Top 10 lists is to discuss the music that moves me, whether the influence is obvious in my own music or not. This is a case where the connection is a bit more direct, since I’ve taken a lot from classic R&B/soul records and worked to incorporate it into what I do without casting aside the authentic elements of jazz. Here are some tracks/players that have helped open my ears and expand my vocabulary.
Probably the toughest part of making this list (aside from the usual “how can I omit so-and-so?”) was deciding where to draw the line as to what constituted R&B. I decided, ultimately, to stay away from people more closely associated with rock (Little Richard, Johnnie Johnson, Fats Domino, etc.), jazz (Nina Simone, Herbie Hancock, etc.) or blues (Otis Spann, Pete Johnson, etc.) even though in all of those cases the argument could pretty easily be made that they warrant inclusion.
That said, here’s the Top 10 (plus a couple bonus ones from the tough-to-categorize department).
1 ) Aretha Franklin: “Dr. Feelgood”
Love is indeed serious business when being framed by this kind of piano playing. Have mercy! It seems silly to claim that someone as celebrated as Aretha is “underrated,” but she is really one of the baddest piano players in R&B/pop history. The assertiveness and soul of this performance stand out to me, but there are a good number of others that I could have picked. I’ll refrain from turning this into a whole ‘nother list, but others I was tempted to pick included “Think” (for its incredible drive), “You Send Me” (for it’s gorgeous intro), “Night Time is the Right Time” (for having a full-on piano solo in the middle) and “Respect” (for the “wait, she plays PIANO on that tune too?” factor for the uninitiated).
2 ) Donny Hathaway: “The Ghetto (live)”
If this were a list of top R&B keyboard solos then this track would be a no-brainer #1 (and as it is, it’s pretty close). I love Donny’s playing (whether piano, organ or electric piano) regardless of setting, but this song is an absolute tour de force of nuance, energy, chops, harmonic sophistication and all-around funky badness. If you are not hip to Donny Hathaway (in general or more specifically the live stuff), listen to this and prepare your jaw to drop.
3 ) Stevie Wonder: “Superstition”
Picking a single Stevie Wonder keyboard performance for a list like this one is both impossible and easy. Impossible because he has dozens upon dozens of classic songs, and the majority of these contain sublime work on at least one keyboard. Easy because there are few sounds as iconic from the last 50 years as his Clavinet riff on “Superstition.” Also check out the level of nuance to his phrasing. The main riff itself is ridiculously funky, but you’ll notice that there’s a long list of cover versions of this song, from Stevie Ray Vaughan to the band that played at your cousin’s wedding. None of them have the same buoyancy as the original, and much of that is due to the subtle articulations and phrasings that elevate Mr. Wonder’s playing from merely funky to perfect.
4 ) Charles Hodges: “Love and Happiness” by Al Green
The Hodges brothers were essential to Willie Mitchell’s production work on Green’s classic 70s tunes, and this tune is a great example of that. The variety of timbres in the organ playing is pretty stunning, as is the groove. And, of course, there’s the glissando with which the organ introduces itself when the song’s groove kicks in. For these ears, that’s the single greatest “organ moment” ever.
5 ) Art Neville: “Ease Back” by the Meters
I discovered Art Neville first through the Neville Brothers, one of my favorite groups (I almost put their “Voo Doo” here on account of his electric piano solo). Unlike most R&B fans, then, I went backwards from there to the Meters with my own listening. I’ll admit that the variety, singing and (on their best records) songwriting of the Nevilles still draws me in a little more (which I suppose is part of the larger admission that I’m not a big listener of instrumental R&B), but to hear great grooves and Art’s influential keyboard work, the Meters are the bottom line. This is my personal favorite organ rave-up of his (though, of course, you can’t go wrong with the swamp boogie of “Cissy Strut”).
6 ) Spooner Oldham: “I’ve Never Loved A Man (the Way I Love You)” by Aretha Franklin
If the organ intro to Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” (see above) is my favorite single moment for R&B organ playing, the electric piano intro to this song inhabits similarly hallowed ground. Oldham’s playing with the Muscle Shoals session band is one of the major sounds in R&B history, and with all due respect to Aretha’s own contributions here, I can’t imagine this groundbreaking song (the hit with which she announced herself) resonating the same way without this riff.
7 ) Bernie Worrell: “Flash Light” by Parliament
I’m not necessarily a big synthesizer guy – when used tastefully (see Wonder, Stevie) I love ‘em, but the texture in and of itself does not make my heart go pitter-patter (or do anything else, really). But in the hands of Bernie Worrell (who also sounds great on other keyboards, by the way – I almost included his clavinet work on Funkadelic’s “Red Hot Mama” on the list), analog synths are expressive, creative and funky. I picked this song because, on top of the usual badness, his synth bass line on “Flash Light” is unbelievably funky, not to mention hugely influential.
8 ) Earl Van Dyke : “I Hear It Through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye
Motown recordings are full of excellent keyboard work, especially piano, so that could easily be its own Top 10 list. That said, many of them are somewhat masked by heavily-textured arrangements. That’s one of the things I love about Marvin Gaye’s version of Whitfield/Strong’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” There are many things that made this song as successful as it was (and so much more successful than Gladys Knight and the Pips’ version from the same year, itself a big hit), which of course included Gaye’s vocals and the song itself. But Van Dyke’s opening piano riff and his soulful playing throughout are not only great but in this case given enough space to really stand out. Van Dyke was the ringleader of Motown’s house band (the Funk Brothers) for years, and this is my favorite example of him as a player (though for those interested, there are some extremely funky instrumental albums from this era as well).
9 ) Booker T. Jones: “Time is Tight” by Booker T. and the M.G.’s
Booker T. probably deserves a lifetime achievement award (which, I suppose, he got when he and the M.G.’s became Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees) for all the great keyboard parts he created on records by Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Eddie Floyd and others on the Stax roster. But let’s give an assist to Stax owner Jim Stewart for presenting the label’s house band as a full-fledged group (something that, by comparison, Motown’s Berry Gordy was less inclined to do). The ubiquitous “Green Onions” was the group’s biggest hit, but coming in second is this infectious number featuring a particularly sly organ performance by Jones.
10 ) Chris Jasper: “Lay Away” by the Isley Brothers
I’m a sucker for 1970s Isley Brothers, and the sophisticated keyboard work of honorary brother (technically brother-in-law) Jasper is a nice component of many of their songs, whether through laying down the rich harmonies of “Harvest for the World” or the more textural keyboard colors of “For the Love of You.” I picked this one because it shows off his driving, bluesy piano work, with a nice organ detour partway through.
Honorable Mention #1: Professor Longhair: “Big Chief”
I’m really at a loss as to how one should categorize ‘Fess. Blues? R&B? Swamp boogie? I tend to put him in his own category, a category that also includes the playing of disciples like Dr. John and James Booker. However, if one categorizes him as an R&B artist (which is a perfectly legitimate choice) then he absolutely is “Top 10” material and has easily 10 songs off the top of my head that are worthy. I’m a little partial to “Tipitina” because I love his vocals as well, but this song is the ideal jumping-off point for anybody’s love affair with his piano.
Honorable Mention #2: Eddie Green: “Ain’t It the Truth” by Catalyst
I know I said that jazz musicians playing funk didn’t count on this list, but I honestly have no idea where the proper place is to categorize Catalyst, the inexplicably obscure early jazz-funk-fusion-etc. band from Philly (thanks to my friend and former student Omer Shemesh for hipping me to them when he was studying with me at CCSU). They did some pretty great straight-ahead jazz (Green’s “Shorter Street” is my personal favorite) and Green has legit jazz credentials. But the not quite 3 minutes of this song represent some of the funkiest electric piano in recorded history.