Setting aside highly mainstream artists of the era that enjoyed at least as much success on Billboard's pop charts as on the niche R&B charts (Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Prince, Lionel Richie and Whitney Houston are the most obvious examples), the '80s still harbored numerous important purveyors of urban contemporary music. As modern R&B artists began to combine soul, funk and dance styles in new ways, the music that pleased audiences became as varied as ever. Here's a look - in no particular order - at some of the decade's most successful and influential old school artists of the genre.
One of the latest and most quintessential practitioners of the steamy, ballad-dominated subgenre of quiet storm, Jackson was a regular chart-topper on the R&B charts during the latter half of the '80s. And although he never achieved the crossover pop success of similar crooners like Luther Vandross, Jackson can be distinguished by his uniquely melodic yet firmly soulful sound. The memorable and soothing "You Are My Lady" became his biggest hit and probably still stands as Jackson's most well-known track, climbing to No. 12 on the pop charts. However, by the end of the decade - after only five years on the scene - Jackson had amassed seven No. 1 singles on the R&B charts. One of the final highlights of the latter years of old-school R&B.
2. Rick James
Though undoubtedly an artist known most among modern audiences for his notoriety and appearance in comedic pop culture references, James was a powerhouse R&B figure throughout the '80s. As one of the leading funk-inspired singers of the era, James is justifiably remembered for his up-tempo, highly danceable offerings such as "Give It to Me Baby," "Super Freak" and "Cold Blooded." However, a versatile singing voice and eclectic approach allowed James to shine as a genuine soul singer as well as producer and trend setter. Though it failed to become a major hit, "Ebony Eyes" - a 1983 collaboration with Smokey Robinson - effectively showcases a Rick James far more complex and intriguing than the caricature with which so many are familiar.
A perfect fit for the smooth sounds favored by '80s R&B and pop audiences, Osborne excelled as a significant artist for the entire decade of the '80s. I've always thought of him as a particularly pop-oriented singer, but a closer look at Osborne's chart history reveals that his peak on the Hot 100 ("Love Power," a 1987 duet with Dionne Warwick) fell short of the Top 10. Nonetheless, "On the Wings of Love," "Stay With Me Tonight," and "You Should Be Mine (the Woo-Woo Song)" remain classic tunes of the period, achieving such distinction through multiple layers of songwriting quality and execution. Ultimately, though, Osborne's rich, velvety baritone spoke (or sang) for itself.
The funk-influenced R&B band Cameo may be best remembered for the codpieces worn by band members in the music videos for late-'80s hits "Word Up!" and "You Make Me Work." At least I hope that's not just me. However, the group also displayed a remarkably workmanlike approach to its career, releasing nine studio albums during the decade and remaining a constant force on the R&B charts. Perhaps more than any other major R&B artist of the period save for Prince, Cameo combined dance music, funk and a bit of a rock edge in surprising, often thrilling ways. Rock and pop audiences couldn't help but become aware of Cameo for a number of reasons beyond its memorable image, but I'm not sure how well general audiences grasp the group's overall impact.
Mainstream pop success always eluded her, but King shines as one of the era's finest R&B singers and one of the most common names at the top of Billboard's niche R&B and dance charts. It's not hard to see why this artist had plenty of admirers, and it may just be a matter of pride rather than regret that urban audiences always displayed a far more obvious appreciation of King's talents than did general music audiences. In 1981 and 1982, respectively, King registered dual No. 1 hits on two separate occasions, placing "I'm in Love" and "Love Come Down" at the pinnacle of the R&B and dance charts. This mean feat may have helped King flirt with pop stardom, as these tracks also made the Top 40, but as an R&B artist she remains a mainstay.
6. The Gap Band
When I was grooving to the Gap Band's 1982 hit "You Dropped a Bomb on Me" as a 10-year-old music novice, I never would have conceived that the group hailed from Tulsa, Oklahoma, not to mention the social significance of the group's name. In fact, I just learned that one of the most successful funk, dance and R&B combos of the '80s derived its name from streets involved in the tragic 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. Of course, fans of major early-'80s R&B hits like "Early in the Morning," "Outstanding," and "Party Train" were distracted by the group's infectiously danceable sound, so perhaps they couldn't have been expected to know the history. Still, without ever breaking the U.S. pop Top 20, the Gap Band exemplified the R&B strains of the decade.
As one of R&B and pop music's most accomplished belters, LaBelle has enjoyed the longest career of anyone on this list. Other holdover artists like Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick certainly had their moments during the '80s, but their '60s and '70s success had been so bright that it tended to overshadow their later work. Not so with LaBelle, who moved into her most visible period as a solo artist around 1983, with her first of seven Top 10 R&B singles, "If Only You Knew," climbing all the way to the No. 1 spot. LaBelle dazzled pop audiences at times, especially with "New Attitude" and "On My Own" (a No. 1 pop duet with Michael McDonald), but her vocal and musical range appealed to R&B audiences even more consistently.
Though she enjoyed her first major pop music success by exploiting the late-'70s disco craze, showbiz veteran Mills spent the '80s as one of R&B's most consistent performers. Her 1980 crossover hit "Never Knew Love Like This Before" clung to a disco approach but immediately announced Mills as a rising female superstar vocalist. And while she remained a constant presence on the R&B and dance charts during the first half of the decade, Mills reached her full potential as a hitmaker with a run that included five No. 1 R&B hits between 1986 and 1989. "I Feel Good All Over" and "Home" failed to make an impact on the pop charts, but it was more than consolation for Mills' voice to work its magic on genuine R&B ballads.
9. The Whispers
Even if I failed to become aware of this versatile R&B group until its 1987 crossover smash "Rock Steady," I wouldn't have needed that kind of mainstream success to recognize the Whispers as one of the finest artists of the genre during both the '70s and '80s. But the quintet reached another level with its '80s output, compiling six Top 5 R&B hits including two No. 1 smashes in the aforementioned, still highly enjoyable "Rock Steady" and 1980's "And the Beat Goes On." Providing a necessary link between smooth '70s soul and the more eclectic R&B sounds of the '80s, the Whispers were chameleonic without selling out their classic soul integrity. Favoring versatility over trends, this is a male vocal group that may never be appreciated enough.
10. Atlantic Starr
It would be easy to think that crossover pop hits "Secret Lovers" and "Always" tell the bulk of the story about Atlantic Starr, one of the '80s groups most adept at alternating male and female lead vocals. However, the band paid dues as a fixture on the R&B charts, ultimately enjoying nine Top 10 hits there and recording many other modestly successful tunes throughout the decade. Songs like "Touch a Four Leaf Clover" and "If Your Heart Isn't It" exemplified the best characteristics of the old-school, quiet storm approach to R&B: romantic lyrics laid over soft, sexy beats and pleasant melodies. There may be little groundbreaking here, but for audiences looking for late night listening, Atlantic Starr has always delivered remarkably well.