The 1960s make some think of Woodstock and war, but the decade brings up great memories of terrific R&B music with superlative harmonies for others. And sweet dance moves. While the pop and rock charts had hits from the Beatles and Rolling Stones of the world, Motown and other labels brought the world solid music created by true entertainers, musicians, and showmen.
Here are some of the best Black Male Singing Groups of the 60s.
After forming in the mid-60s, the Delfonics bounced around between a few record labels before knocking one out of the park with “La La (Means I Love You),” “Didn’t I “Blow Your Mind This Time),” and “Ready or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide From Love).”
Though The Delfonics never had a number one hit (“La La” peaked at number two), founder William “Poogie” Hart’s distinctive falsetto made a mark. The group’s music is instantly recognizable and often shows up on film soundtracks.
The group splintered in 1975, becoming two incarnations of the same act. This caused confusion, as the groups often shared members and toured simultaneously. The remaining members—Hart and his brother and co-founder of the Delfonics Wilbert Hart—continue performing today.
While “Oh What a Nite” was a big hit for the Dells in the 1950s, their status as R&B legends remains rooted in the 1960s. The Illinois group together lived through a terrible car accident that nearly killed Michael McGill and injured the other members. That was in the ’50s.
After recovering, they landed a gig as the opening act and backup singers for Dinah Washington. Johnny Funches, who wrote “Oh What a Nite,” decided against touring anymore and left the group. That was the last member to leave, making the Dells perhaps the most stable of all the 1960s R&B groups.
They charted with “Wear It on Our Face,” “Stay in My Corner,” “Always Together,” and a 1969 remake of “Oh What a Nite.” That remake hit number one and solidified the Dells as R&B royalty. They label-hopped in the 70s and 80s, scoring hits here and there, but their heyday was the 1960s.
The Drifters constitute something of a headache in terms of defining who its members were or even which incarnation of the group was the “real” one. The Drifters’ name was owned by George Treadwell, a trumpet player and band manager who paid the singers as session musicians. This meant there wasn’t a lot of money in being a Drifter, so personnel changed frequently.
Some singers would even form their own versions of The Drifters. What’s not disputed is that this group—in the constant state of flux it was—dropped hit after hit, including “This Magic Moment,” number one “Save the Last Dance for Me,” signature single “Under the Boardwalk,” and “Ain’t It the Truth.”
The list of members of the Drifters—a quartet—contains more than 60 names, so to say that this group had some instability is an understatement. Still, the music speaks for itself.
The Four Tops
While this Detroit quartet started out in the mid-1950s, it wouldn’t be until 1963 that they landed a recording deal with Workshop records. The project they created there never saw the light of day, but that was good news, as label exec Berry Gordy switched The Four Tops over to Motown, and the rest was kismet.
The group’s time at Motown produced several top ten hits and three number ones. They are well known for “Bernadette,” “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” and their signature hit, “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.”
More than 60 years after they first formed, The Four Tops continue singing into the 21st century.
The Impressions stormed the music world with a string of 19 R&B hits. This isn’t surprising considering that Curtis Mayfield, a driving force in 1960s music, was at the helm.
Initially, the group went by “The Roosters” and hadn’t heard of Mayfield when they formed in 1958. Sam Gooden and his Tennessee friends headed for Chicago, met up with Mayfield, juggled some personnel, and signed with ABC-Paramount Records.
The run of hits they produced included “It’s All Right,” “Gypsy Woman,” and “Keep on Pushing,” to name a few. But the biggest smash was the socially-conscious “People Get Ready,” which cemented the group as the conscience of soul music.
Mayfield left in 1970, though The Impressions kept at it, even recording with Eric Clapton and releasing a single of their own in 2013.
The Isley Brothers
Three brothers from Cincinnati, Ohio, started in the late 1950s singing three-part harmony. Rudolph, Ronald, and O’Kelly Isley would record some of soul music’s most important and influential tracks and eventually develop into a full-scale band.
The gospel-infused funk and soul of “It’s Your Thing” (which netted them a Grammy Award) arose from the men’s frustration with Berry Gordy’s micromanagement and control of his Motown artists. The Isley Brothers released it on their own label.
Problems with Gordy’s management style notwithstanding, the group had big hits under his tutelage. “Shout” has charted seven times, covered by different artists, and the Isley’s version gained new acclaim when it was featured in 1978’s “Animal House.”
“Twist and Shout” was a huge success, too, and the Isleys continue playing, even appearing on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series in 2021.
Little Anthony and The Imperials
Founded in 1957 as The Chesters, The Imperials weathered personnel changes for a couple of years before settling into what is now known as the classic line-up: Clarence Collins, Ernest Wright, Sammy Strain, and Anthony “Little Anthony” Gourdine.
The group recorded throughout the 1960s (and even had a hit in 1975), charting with songs like “I’m Hypnotized,” “Don’t Tie Me Down,” and “Goin’ Out of My Head.” While Little Anthony and the Imperials are considered a 1960s group, their biggest hit, “Tears on My Pillow,” reached number four in 1958.
They appeared on, among others, “Soul Train” and “American Bandstand,” TV appearances that fueled their success throughout the tumultuous 1960s.
The Manhattans (oddly, from New Jersey) started their career path in the mid-1960s. As such, they might be thought of as more of a 70s act. Still, their first charting single was 1965’s “I Wanna Be Your Everything,” followed by seven more R&B Top 40 hits in that decade.
When lead singer and founding member George “Smitty” Smith fell ill in 1970, the group started looking for a replacement, which started a cascade of revolving-door stints in the group by various members. Chaos eventually set in (even though they had a number four hit in 1983), and eventually, the courts had to step in.
Twenty-first-century audiences must delineate between “The Manhattans (of Sonny Bivins)” and “The Manhattans feat Gerald Alston,” court-ordered identifiers for use in promoting live shows.
Ohio natives Eddie Levert, William Powell, and Walter Williams formed The O’Jays at the end of the 1950s. In the 60s, they added guitarist and songwriter Frank Little, Jr. and enjoyed a run of minor hits like “Do the Jerk” and “Pretty Words.”
As the 60s drew to a close, The O’Jays had greater success on the charts with “Lipstick Traces” and “I’ll Be Sweeter Tomorrow,” though that greater success never broke into the Top 40. It wasn’t until the 70s—and “Love Train,” “I Love Music,” and “For The Love of Money,” among others—that their sound found its way to enormous audiences that would embrace them for the rest of the century.
Questions about the veracity of their influence can be answered easily. Listen to modern-day hits from artists like Heavy D & The Boyz, Erykah Badu, and Drake, who are just a few of the many who have sampled hit songs from the O’Jays in their artistic creations.
The O’Jays were awarded BET’s Life Time Achievement Award in 2009.
Sam and Dave
The duo that gave us “Hold On, I’m Comin’” and “Soul Man” belong near the top of this list, but since it’s alphabetical, they land here.
Sam Moore and Dave Prater grew up soaked in gospel music, so the fact that their live performances were legendary not only owes to that upbringing but also makes perfect sense.
The pair had moderate success in the early 1960s, leaving their native Miami, Florida, for New York before settling in with Memphis-based Stax Records. They scored their first number one hit in 1966 with “Hold On, I’m Comin,’” and they produced enough good stuff to merit a greatest hits album in 1969. Soon after, the pair would split.
Over the next decade, Sam and Dave would reunite to accolades from live audiences around the world. They kept moving forward, recording with legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius and even opening for The Clash for some reason.
The duo gave their final performance in 1981 and reportedly have not spoken to each other since.
Smokey Robinson and The Miracles
The Miracles were hitmakers before Smokey Robinson added his name to the group (although he was singing with them from the beginning). The singers cut their first single, “Got a Job,” in 1958, but their true success—and they were huge stars—came in the ’60s.
In addition to hits like “Who’s Lovin’ You,” “The Tracks of My Tears,” and “Way Over There,” members of the group Ronald White, Bobby Rogers, Marv Tarplin, Pete Moore, and Robinson wrote smash hits for other groups, including “My Girl” for The Temptations, “My Guy” for Mary Wells, and Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar.” The cultural footprint of the group can’t be overstated.
Bob Dylan allegedly called Robinson “America’s greatest living poet.” While there’s scant evidence to prove this, Robinson has alluded to speaking to Dylan about it, so maybe that’s all the proof we need.
The Tams liked to wear tam-o’shanter hats when they sang, and that’s where the Atlanta, Georgia, group got its name. Brothers Joseph and Charles Pope teamed with some high school buddies to form The Four Dots in the 1950s, and near the end of that decade, they added Floyd Ashton, became a quintet, and started making what would be known as Carolina beach music.
While casting about for a record deal and fame and fortune, the group convinced record producer Bill Lowry to record a demo for them—one song only that immediately gained popularity. Lowry signed them, and The Tams hit the charts with “What Kind Of Fool (Do You Think I Am),” “Hey Girl, “It’s Better to Have Loved a Life,” and their crowd-pleaser “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy.”
In the 21st century, both Pope men have gone on to their great rewards, but former member Albert Cottle’s son, “Little Red,” leads the group today. They aren’t’ the box office draw they used to be, but their hits are classics.
No list of this kind would be complete without the Temptations. While the line-up has changed over the past 60 years—yes, they’re still going strong—the original five members were David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin, and Paul Williams.
These five entertainers brought the hits, giving the world “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “My Girl,” and a host of others. With Smokey Robinson writing much of their music, it’s not surprising that the group had hits.
But perhaps the biggest contribution to music the Temptations made was appearing on shows like Johnny Carson’s eponymous talk show, “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and others. White Americans had few other ways to find themselves exposed to music like what the Temptations were making, and these appearances paved the way for hundreds of subsequent black artists.
Top Black Male Singing Groups of the 60s, Final Thoughts
There’s no getting around it— music today would not be nearly what it is without the influence and input from African-American artists over the past 200 years. The Black Male Singing Groups of the 60s were part of just one chapter of that outsize influence, and groups like the Temptations and The Four Tops made music that still resonates today.