From its inception, R&B has been a genre of evolution. It’s the basis of many genres we know and love today, from soul to funk and rock to modern pop. Passionate lyrics, sultry rhythms, and powerful vocal performances have always marked the genre as one of the most artistic and powerful ones out there. In this article, we’ll dive into the history of rhythm and blues music to deliver the 51 best R&B songs of all time.
1. Respect – Aretha Franklin
What can I say? It’s hard to pick a more influential or famous R&B song than Aretha Franklin’s Respect. I know this one falls a little more into the soul category, but I don’t really care. This one was originally recorded by Otis Redding in 1965 for his third album and was a pretty solid hit then. In 1967, she rearranged the track and found what became her signature single and one of the best-known songs of all time.
It would become a feminist anthem in the 1970s and won two Grammy Awards: Best Rhythm and Blues Recording and Best Rhythm and Blues Solo Vocal Performance, Female. It has even been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, has been selected for the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress, and is largely considered one of the greatest tracks of all time.
Recommended: Songs about respect
2. What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye
What’s Going On was an important song for a lot of reasons. It marked Marvin Gaye’s departure from the Motown Sound, heading towards the signature sound we know him for today. It was inspired by witnessing an incident of police brutality during an anti-Vietnam War protest.
He was inspired by the account of the event and the hot-button questions surrounding the social state of America at the time, eventually coming up with a track that just asked what the heck was actually going on. It spent five weeks on top of the Hot Soul Singles chart and eventually peaked at number two on the Hot 100.
3. Let’s Stay Together – Al Green
Let’s Stay Together was the title track of Al Green’s 1972 album and was a massive hit single. It quickly rose to number one on the Hot 100 and spent 16 weeks in total on that chart while spending nine weeks at number one on the R&B chart. Numerous other artists have covered it at one point or another, though Tina Turner’s version is a standout among them. In 1999, the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and since 2010, it has been preserved in the National Recording Registry.
4. My Girl – The Temptations
My Girl is another one of the most famous R&B songs of all time and one almost everyone has heard at some point in their life. It was recorded by The Temptations for the Motown label and was the group’s first number-one overall single. Written by Smokey Robinson and inspired by his wife, the track first appeared on their 1965 album The Temptations Sing Smokey. It’s a joyous, energetic love ballad that is often considered among the finest songs ever crafted.
5. (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay – Otis Redding
(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay has always been one of the quintessential R&B songs. Otis Redding co-wrote it alongside Steve Cropper, recording it twice in 1967 right before his early death. It eventually rose to the top of the Hot 100 and Hot Rhythm and Blues charts, earning a spot at number 203 on Billboard’s All-Time Hot 100.
6. Stand By Me – Ben. E. King
Stand By Me was derived from a spiritual recording by The Soul Stirrers and was first performed by Ben E. King in 1961. It remains one of the most popular songs of all time, with more than 400 other artists recording the track and even more performing it. His original version of the song has been included in the National Recording Registry but was a hit in 1961 when it reached number four on the Hot 100.
7. When A Man Loves A Woman – Percy Sledge
When A Man Loves A Woman was written by Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright, but was first recorded and performed by Percy Sledge. A massive R&B hit in the 1960s, it took the top spot on both the Hot 100 and R&B Singles charts in the US. Several other artists recorded it and earned hit singles, including Michael Bolton, Bette Midler, and John Wesley Ryles.
8. Let’s Get It On – Marvin Gaye
Let’s Get It On is the most recognizable sex anthem in music history today and it helped establish Marvin Gaye as a sex icon when it was released in 1973. Spiritual healing, sex, and romance are all flawlessly combined in this song making it a landmark track in the soul and R&B genres forever.
9. I Will Survive – Gloria Gaynor
Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive is another incredibly popular song that mostly fits into the R&B category. The empowering feminist anthem was a hit when it was released and is mostly hailed as one of the greatest singles of all time. It topped not only the US Hot 100 but also the UK Singles Chart and Irish Singles Chart.
10. I Got You (I Feel Good) – James Brown
I Got You (I Feel Good) is another iconic R&B song and was the best-selling single of James Brown’s vaunted career. Released on his Out Of Sight album and as a single in 1965, it eventually earned a place in the Grammy Hall of Fame and the hearts of millions.
11. Midnight Train to Georgia – Gladys Knight and the Pips
Midnight Train To Georgia was most famously performed by Gladys Knight And The Pips, serving as their second release after departing Motown Records. It was their first single to reach the top of the Hot 100 and won a 1974 Grammy Award on top of becoming her signature song.
12. Reach Out I’ll Be There – Four Tops
Reach Out I’ll Be There was the title track of the Four Tops’ fourth studio album and is one of the most popular hits to ever come out of the 1960s Motown era. It ended up spending two weeks on top on both the Hot 100 and R&B Singles chart, even reaching the top of the UK Singles Chart in the same year. It often appeared on lists of the greatest songs of all time and was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry.
13. When Doves Cry – Prince
When Doves Cry is an experimental pop and R&B song that truly launched Prince into superstardom. It was his first release to reach the top of the Hot 100, a spot it occupied for four weeks en route to becoming a worldwide hit and the best-selling single of 1984. The music video specifically sparked controversy for being too sexually explicit, though this pushed it to further heights and it was eventually included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.
14. Lean On Me – Bill Withers
Lean On Me was released as the first single from Bill Withers’ 1972 album Still Bill. The uplifting tune quickly took the top spot on both the Soul Singles Chart and the Hot 100, with his original version earning an induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame. It also happens to be one of only nine songs to reach the top of the Hot 100 with versions recorded by two different artists, as Club Nouveau’s cover in 1987 achieved the feat as well.
15. Billie Jean – Michael Jackson
Billie Jean was one of the most celebrated singles from Michael Jackson’s vaunted Thriller album in 1983. Allegedly inspired by events involving groupies and his older brothers during his time with the Jackson 5, it turned into a signature song for him. In 1983, it was one of the biggest tracks of the year and won two Grammys and an American Music Award.
Recommended: Top Michael Jackson songs
16. Blueberry Hill – Fats Domino
Blueberry Hill was first recorded by Sammy Kaye in 1940, but Fats Domino’s 1956 version was the larger success. It became a rock and roll standard, paving the way for the R&B genre as a whole and becoming his biggest commercial hit. Several other versions ended up being recorded, with the likes of Gene Autry, Louis Armstrong, and Gene Krupa.
17. End of the Road – Boyz II Men
Boyz II Men helped repopularize R&B music as one of the premier boy bands of the era. One of their best singles came in the form of End Of The Road, a song that spent a then-record 13 weeks on top of the US Hot 100. It was the biggest single of 1992 and took home two R&B Grammy Awards the following year.
18. Dancing in the Street – Martha & the Vandellas
Dancing In The Street was written by Marvin Gaye, William Stevenson, and Ivy Jo Hunter. In 1964, a recording by Martha & The Vandellas made it a national hit and one of Motown’s signature songs. Several others ended up covering it and finding minor hits, including The Mamas & The Papas, Van Halen, The Kinks, and David Bowie.
19. Superstition – Stevie Wonder
Superstition was the lead single for Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book album in 1972. Discussing superstitions and their negative effects, the song was his first number-one hit in over a decade. Eventually, it won two Grammy Awards—Best Rhythm and Blues Song and Best R&B Vocal Performance Male—and would be remembered as one of the greatest tracks of all time.
20. At Last – Etta James
At Last was originally written for the 1941 musical film Sun Valley Serenade and a version by Glenn Miller in 1942 was a big pop chart hit. Etta James recorded the most famous version of the track in 1960 as an R&B song as the title track of her debut album. Her version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
21. Killing Me Softly With His Song – Roberta Flack
Killing Me Softly With His Song has been released by numerous artists over the years, but Roberta Flack’s version is the one most fondly remembered. Her 1973 recording was a number-one hit that inspired The Fugees to record a cover in 1996. Her version won the 1974 Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and is remembered among the greatest songs of all time.
22. We Are Family – Sister Sledge
We Are Family quickly turned into a huge success and the signature track of Sister Sledge. A song almost everyone knows today, it was a number-one track on the Dance Club Songs chart and several remixes have been released for it. It’s another incredible R&B song included in the National Recording registry.
23. Superfly – Curtis Mayfield
Superfly was the title track of a 1972 film soundtrack of the same name and the second single released from the album. It’s a celebration of the craftiness and determination of the main character in the film, but was a chart hit and is one of the most sampled songs in history. You can hear sections of it in tracks from The Beastie Boys, The Notorious B.I.G., Nelly, and Ice T.
24. If I Ain’t Got You – Alicia Keys
If I Ain’t Got You discusses how material items don’t actually feed your soul. A major R&B release in 2004 and inspired by the death of Aaliyah, the song was the second single released from Alicia Keys’ album The Diary Of Alicia Keys. It spent six weeks on top of the R&B/Hip-Hop charts that year and won Best Female R&B Vocal Performance at the Grammy Awards.
25. What’s Love Got To Do With It – Tina Turner
What’s Love Got To Do With It remains iconic singer Tina Turner’s best-selling single through today. It was written for her fifth studio album Private Dancer in 1984 and became her first and only number-one single on the Hot 100. At the time, she was the oldest female artist to have a number-one hit on the chart. Eventually, it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and was in the top 40 of the RIAA’s Songs of the Century List.
26. Stop! In The Name Of Love – The Supremes
Stop! In The Name Of Love remains one of the greatest singles by a girl’s group in history. In 1965, it took the top spot of the pop singles chart in the US and rose to number two on the soul chart at the same time.
27. We Belong Together – Mariah Carey
We Belong Together was one of the biggest hits of Mariah Carey’s career—barring her Christmas singles, of course. It spent a total of 14 weeks at the number-one spot of the Billboard US Hot 100 and remains one of the most popular modern R&B singles in history.
28. My Guy – Mary Wells
My Guy was written by Smokey Robinson and was a hit single for Mary Wells and the Motown label. It’s a beautiful affirmation of a woman’s dedication to her boyfriend and sees her reject the advances of another man. An all-time classic, this Motown hit was a number-one single on the Hot 100 in 1964.
29. Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone – The Temptations
The Temptations appear on this list quite a bit, but for good reason. While other songs might be better known today, Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone was a signature for the group and one of their most acclaimed songs. This 1972 hit is still being remade by artists today, and it discusses a father who is never around to provide stability for the family.
30. Return of the Mack – Mark Morrison
Return Of The Mack might be one of the most-referenced songs on this entire list. The smooth R&B melodies are everything you could ask for in a classic of the genre, and the choice samples from Genius Of Love are perfect for a golden UK R&B single.
31. Say My Name – Destiny’s Child
Say My Name has all the sass, attitude, and tension you want in a good R&B song. Throwing digs at a cheating boyfriend, Beyoncé’s silky vocals shine through for one of Destiny’s Child’s defining hit singles and one that made a huge splash during their era.
32. Waterfalls – TLC
Waterfalls was an era-defining hit that advocated for safe sex amid the growing AIDS/HIV epidemic of the 1990s. It quickly turned into a major hit for the girl group and became a signature song for them.
33. Untitled (How Does It Feel) – D’Angelo
Untitled (How Does It Feel) came from D’Angelo’s 2000 album Voodoo and is one of the most seductive tracks of all time. While it can be fairly explicit, the slow-building R&B song is the embodiment of the genre and is everything you could ask for in a—fairly—modern R&B single.
34. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough – Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell
Another Motown hit, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough first rose to popularity after it was recorded as a duet by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell in 1967. It again became a hit single when Diana Ross recorded it in 1970, with her version becoming her first number-one hit on the Hot 100 and earning a nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the Grammy Awards.
35. I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch) – Four Tops
I Can’t Help Myself is one of the most famous Motown recordings and was one of the biggest hits of the 1960s. The song spent nine weeks on top of the R&B chart and spent two weeks at number one on the Hot 100 in 1965.
36. I Will Always Love You – Whitney Houston
Iconic singer Whitney Houston released I Will Always Love You for the movie The Bodyguard back in 1992. Her version reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and remains an unforgettable one.
Recommended: Best songs of all time time (iconic tracks)
37. A Change Is Gonna Come – Sam Cooke
A Change Is Gonna Come first appeared on Sam Cooke’s 1964 album Ain’t That Good News. Inspired by events in his life, namely dealing with being turned away from a whites-only motel in Louisiana, the song came to become an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement and one of the most important tracks of his career.
38. Sexual Healing – Marvin Gaye
Sexual Healing appeared on Marvin Gaye’s final album in 1982 titled Midnight Love. The first song he released after leaving the Motown label, was his final top-10 hit on the Hot 100 and reached number three on that chart.
39. Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag – James Brown
Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag was released as a two-part single by James Brown in 1965 and was a major hit for him. It was his first song to reach the top 10 of the Hot 100 and spent eight weeks on top of the R&B chart. It then won him a Grammy Award for Best Rhythm and Blues Recording the following year.
40. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood – Nina Simone
Emotional and soulful lyrics are often what categorize the R&B genre. This single from Nina Simone describes the fear of being misunderstood by others and is one of the most powerful and heart-wrenching R&B ballads in history.
41. How Will I Know – Whitney Houston
How Will I Know remains one of the most beloved R&B songs of all time and is backed up by Whitney Houston’s unmatched vocal talents. It spent two weeks on top of the Hot 100 in 1985 and is still frequently heard on radio stations around the world today. In 2012, Christina Aguilera also covered the track as a tribute to the late Houston, producing another vocal masterpiece.
42. The Boy Is Mine – Brandy and Monica
Brandy and Monica were two of the biggest names in R&B when they released The Boy Is Mine in 1998. It was an instant classic that took the charts by storm. Powerful lyrics, clear references to love, and an amazing sound all made this one incredibly popular.
43. Any Time, Any Place – Janet Jackson
Any Time, Any Place was released in 1993 from Janet Jackson’s self-titled album. The soulful sound of the album earned it two Grammy Awards, and it has appeared in several movies and TV shows. It’s a powerful song for anyone in a relationship that transcends distance or time apart.
44. You’re Makin’ Me High – Toni Braxton
You’re Makin’ Me High was released as the lead single of Toni Braxton’s 1996 album Secrets and was an instant hit. It quickly rose to number one on the Hot 100 and spent four weeks in a row at that spot.
45. It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World – James Brown
This was a huge number-one soul hit in 1966. Written about the relationships between the sexes, the song actually has a bit of a misleading title. While James Brown sings that all the wonders of the modern world were made by men, he also claims they would mean nothing and would have been impossible without women in the picture.
46. I’ll Take You There – The Staple Singers
The Staple Singers are another one of the most influential R&B and gospel groups in music history. Their most famous song is easily I’ll Take You There, a groovy and uplifting tune from 1972. It topped the Billboard R&B chart that year and became one of the most covered tracks of the century.
47. Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time) – The Delfonics
The Delfonics were once one of the most popular groups around and had one of the longest career runs ever. Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time) is one of their most iconic tracks. The groovy beat is everything you could ask for from R&B, and listening to it is a darn good time.
48. Earth Angel – The Penguins
Earth Angel was released as The Penguins’ debut single in 1954 and remains one of the most beloved doo-wop songs of all time. Its original demo was the first independent label release to appear on the national pop charts and it placed within the top 10. Cover versions would abound, but sadly it would be the only hit single ever released by them.
49. I Can’t Stop Loving You – Ray Charles
I Can’t Stop Loving You was originally written by country singer/songwriter Don Gibson in 1957. A country hit single, it was eventually covered by Ray Charles in 1962. That version turned out to be a number-one hit on the Hot 100 and the most successful of the 700-plus other recorded versions of the song.
50. You Send Me – Sam Cooke
You Send Me sent Sam Cooke’s musical career on an incredible trajectory and launched him to massive success. It was an instant number one on the R&B and Hot 100 charts in the US and has been massively influential across several genres. Notably, this song was named one of the 500 most important recordings by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
51. The Bottle – Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson
The Bottle was released in the 1970s and quickly became both a hit single and one of the most influential R&B songs of all time. Describing the pain and struggles people with addictions face, leaves a lasting impression on listeners and gives a true representation of what life is like when faced with those challenges.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
quality content for the Music Grotto website. Dakotah is passionate about music in a wide variety of genres, from hip-hop to country and lo-fi to metal, and he enjoys creating music pieces for Music Grotto.