AS WRITTEN: The Top 10 Greatest R&B/Soul Songwriters of All TimePublished by on Thursday, December 8, 2011 at 2:12 pm.
“Sometimes, you get a feeling, and the feeling comes over you, and you know that you’re being used by God, your God-given talents are inspiring others with your love for creating music, ” said legendary singer/songwriter Valerie Simpson, one half of songwriting duo Ashford & Simpson, as she presented the Record of the Year award at this year’s Soul Train Awards. In the world of R&B and soul, strong lyrics are everything, and finding the right balance of creativity and technique is definitely the work of some higher power. In honor of the craft of songwriting, Centric has compiled our list of the greatest R&B and soul songwriters of all time (in no particular order).
1. Ashford and Simpson
Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson will forever be known as one of music’s greatest songwriting duos. Their knack for creating classic soul music helped catapult the husband and wife creative team into success in the late 60’s with a slew of hits written for artists on Motown Records— “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “Your Precious Love”, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”, and “You’re All I Need to Get By,” among them. Their success would continue throughout the 70’s and 80’s, as they wrote Chaka Khan’s 1978 hit “I’m Every Woman,” and released 16 albums as a duo, including four gold records—Send It, Is It Still Good To Ya, Stay Free, and Solid. Sadly, Ashford succumbed to throat cancer this year.
2. Smokey Robinson
When you think of the Motown sound, the name Smokey Robinson should instantly come to mind. The singer/songwriter and music executive helped shape what would become a musical revolution. In 1959, Robinson got his start as the lead singer and founding member of The Miracles. The group released several hits including, “Shop Around” (1960), “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” (1962), and “Ooh Baby Baby” (1965). During this time, Robinson also penned hits for other acts on the label, most notably 1964’s “My Girl” by The Temptations and ”My Guy” by Mary Wells. Robinson went solo in 1972 and continued producing a slew of R&B hits and releasing 24 albums, the last being 2009’s Time Flies When You’re Having Fun.
3. Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds
After penning over 75 Billboard Top 10 hits, it’s safe to say that Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds knows how to write a song. The Indiana native got his start as a musician in the 70’s playing with Bootsy Collins—who gave him his nickname. He first flexed his songwriting skills with Midnight Star’s 1983 R&B hit, “Slow Jam,” and he went on to write and cultivate the sounds of some of the 80’s and 90’s biggest performers including, Bobby Brown, Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, Pebbles, and Johnny Gill. Most recently he co-wrote Beyonce’s “Best Thing I Never Had” off her latest album, 4.
4. Diane Warren
As the first songwriter in Billboard history to have seven singles on the Billboard chart by seven different artists at the same time, Warren is undeniably a songwriting heavy-weight. For nearly three decades, Warren has crafted a career on penning heart-wrenching love songs of romance, heartbreak and personal strength; sang by the likes of Celine Dion (“Because You Loved Me”), Whitney Houston (“I Learned from the Best”), Toni Braxton (“Un-Break My Heart”) and Brandy (“Have You Ever”). Did we forget to mention she also penned Debarge’s 1985 R&B chart topping hit, “Rhythm of The Night”? Amazing, right?
5. Stevie Wonder
Dubbed “the eighth wonder of the world,” by record label producers early on in his career, the multi-Grammy Award winning singer/songwriter/producer and musician’s contributions to music are as broad as his many talents. With a unique style, marked by brilliantly executed melismas (also known as “runs”), and infectious lyrics and melodies; Wonder has not only written musical masterpieces for his self, but for a roster of other artists including, Chaka Khan (“Tell Me Something Good”), The Spinners (“It’s A Shame”), Jermaine Jackson (“Let’s Get Serious”) and Whitney Houston (“We Didn’t Know”).
6. Teddy Riley
Credited as the creator of the new jack swing genre of music, Riley’s work as an artist/songwriter/producer has solidified him as legendary. He’s produced hits for Michael Jackson, Keith Sweat, Doug E. Fresh, SWV, and the late Heavy D. If his production creds weren’t just cause for acclaim, he helped form two of the biggest R&B groups of the 90’s—Guy and BlackStreet—and discovered production duo, The Neptunes (Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo).
7. Gamble and Huff
Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff—known best as Gamble and Huff—cultivated what would be known as “The Sound of Philadelphia.” The pair formed Philadelphia International Records in 1971, and went on to pen soul classics for The O’Jays (1972’s “Backstabbers”), Billy Paul (1972’s “Me & Mrs. Jones), and Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes (1975’s “Wake Up Everybody”).
8. Norman Whitfield
The late songwriter/producer is credited with creating the psychedelic soul sound of the late 60’s. His list of hits reads like a timeline of music history. For The Temptations alone he wrote, “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg, “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep,” “Just My Imagination (Running Away From Me), and “Ball of Confusion (That’s What The World is Today.” He also penned “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”—made popular by both Gladys Knight & The Pips and Marvin Gaye; not to mention several hits for Rose Royce, including the band’s smash 1976 hit “Car Wash.” Whitfield passed in 2008, due to complications from diabetes.
9. R. Kelly
From his sexually-suggestive slow jams to his ballads about love and heartbreak, R. Kelly has managed to create a sound that has fans proclaiming him “The King of R&B. “ As a songwriter the Grammy Award winning star has not only penned all of his hits, but those of Gerald Levert, Kelly Price, Whitney Houston, Jennifer Hudson, Charlie Wilson, The Isley Brothers, and the late Aaliyah. Although he’s personal life is shrouded in controversy, his music reigns supreme.
10. Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis
You can’t turn on the radio without hearing a song written and produced by this musical duo. The two Minnesota natives met in high school and formed the band Flyte Time, which evolved into The Time, when singer Morris Day joined. Under the tutelage of Prince, the pair toured the world, but soon became known for their highly stylized form of R&B. Both Jam and Lewis have crafted hits for a long list of artists, including Cherrelle, Alexander O’Neal, Mariah Carey, Karyn White, Mary J. Blige, Boyz II Men, Ralph Tresvant, Usher, and most notably Janet Jackson.
Honorable Mention: Ester Dean
While her name might not be a household name, her music more than likely stays in rotation on your local radio station or ipod—Beyonce’s “Countdown,” Mary J. Blige’s “I Am,” Ciara’s “Never Ever,” Rihanna’s “Rude Boy” and “What’s My Name,” Robin Thicke’s “Sex Therapy,” and Usher’s “Hot Tottie,” and “Lil’ Freak.” Outside of R&B, she’s also got major footing in the pop world (Katy Perry’s “Firework” anyone?). Dean , who is a talented singer in her own right, is expecting to release her debut album next year.
—Justin Dwayne Joseph/Blair Bedford