While the 1980s are famous for the big hair and leather pants of glam rock, that was only one side of the musical spectrum. Genres like R&B, soul, and hip-hop provided fans with the silky voices of some of the most talented black men of the era. Keep reading to learn more about some of the best black male singing groups of the 80s.
This six-member ensemble is the original boy band, inspiring groups for the following two decades. With hits like “Candy Girl,” “Hit Me Off,” and “Cool It Now,” they combined impressive voice talent with energetic dance moves that kept fans begging for more.
New Edition formed in Boston in 1978, with their first album dropping in 1983. They would reign supreme over the 80s pop charts, setting the stage for groups like Boyz II Men, N*SYNC, or other bands that copied their entertainment formula. Three of the members went on to solo projects, while the remaining three formed a trio that sustained popularity in the 90s.
Their credentials are impressive, with multiple platinum hits, five #1 singles on the Billboard charts, and a gold-status album. It’s no question that New Edition was the foundational boy band of the 80s and had the awards and the charisma to back it up.
Before New Edition, there was the Jacksons, a family band from which came the talents of Michael, Jermaine, Tito, and others. Some consider them the original boy band, though their sound was more old-fashioned than the smooth R&B that the 80s would bring.
Amidst the rise of disco, hair-metal, and other iconic 80s genres, the Jacksons preserved Motown sensibilities in their music. Their infectious energy, colorful style, and groovy dancing catapulted them to the top of the music industry. The group’s success was due in part to the controversial management of their father, Joe Jackson.
The Jacksons were originally named Jackson 5 but changed their title after brother Jermaine‘s departure in the mid-1970s. These days, nearly everyone recognizes their early hits like “I Want You Back” and “I’ll Be There,” which featured a very young Michael Jackson on lead vocals. But the 1980s brought the reunited group an album called Victory as well as the Victory Tour, showing they were still very much active and popular in the entertainment world.
Another band that sprung from the 60s era was the Temptations, a Detroit-based group that signed with Motown Records and quickly became one of the label darlings.
Though their peak fame was in the two decades prior, the Temptations still put on high-octane shows throughout the 80s. In 1984 they put out a late hit called “Treat Her Like a Lady” and also performed the theme song for the Kids in Motion TV show in 1987.
The Temptations won three Grammy Awards and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. They continue to tour today, with all original members and the addition of group founder Otis Williams.
Kool & The Gang
Departing from the soulful R&B and smooth pop hits of their contemporaries, Kool & The Gang put a funky twist on their music. The band was a juggernaut of party hits in the 80s, including “Celebration” and “Get Down On It.”
Their success came from combining the appeal of Motown pop style with an Earth, Wind, and Fire-type eclecticism, borrowing flavors of other genres for a unique and colorful aesthetic. Onstage, they had the energy to match, jumping and moving with the music that made their shows thrilling for the fan to watch as well as listen to.
Kool & the Gang have certainly made their mark on music history. With Grammys, American Music Awards, a Soul Train Legend Award, and places in the Vocal Group Hall of Fame as well as the Songwriters Hall of Fame, they will be remembered for the vivacious zeal and brilliant athleticism they contributed to the music industry.
Continuing the trajectory of R&B-turned-funk was Midnight Star, a lesser-known black group who were unfortunately overshadowed by the fame of bigger bands of the era. They added the element of electro-synth to their music, such as keyboards and vocoder, for a thoroughly 80s sound a la Thomas Dolby or Prince.
Midnight Star put out three albums in the first three years of the 1980s, but it was No Parking On the Dance Floor in 1983 that cemented their popularity. Their cohesiveness would be short-lived, with various breakups and personnel changes in the latter half of the decade, but the group managed to put out a few more singles and sustain through several more years of notoriety.
The Four Tops
Though they formed in the 1960s, this group had staying power that lasted for four decades. Perhaps the most impressive factor is that the original four members remained throughout this time, without a single lineup change.
They did, however, bop around to different producers and record labels, starting with Motown and shifting to pop mainstream before rejoining Motown in the early 80s. Their 1985 album Magic produced a runaway hit, “Sexy Ways,” that almost broke into the top 20 on the R&B charts. Baritone and lead vocalist Levi Stubbs collaborated with Aretha Franklin in 1988 for “If Ever A Love There Was.”
The Four Tops have been inducted into the Vocal Hall of Fame, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Hollywood Walk of Fame, and Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
Late Motown hits were burning up the charts in the 80s, but on the other side of the musical spectrum was a gospel-tinged group with the tightest harmonies around. Take 6, a Christian sextet from Alabama, arrived on the scene in 1980 and surprised the music industry with a rare offering: the ensemble sang entirely in a cappella.
Blending elements of gospel, jazz, contemporary R&B, and even funk for some of their more upbeat tunes, Take 6 won multiple major awards from the Grammys, Dove Awards (Christian version of the Grammys), and a Soul Train Award, among others. During their peak of fame, they appeared onstage with huge names from mainstream music, such as Ray Charles and Whitney Houston.
The Take 6 band members grew up in the Seventh-Day Adventist church, inspiring their spiritual lyrics. Some of their songs drew directly from the book of Psalms or other Bible verses.
The O’Jays were a prolific group in the 1970s who continued to see commercial success throughout the 80s, thanks to their 1979 album Identify Yourself. They also put out an album in 1987 called Let Me Touch You, which included a #1 hit on the R&B charts, “Lovin’ You.”
Like many of the era, the group focused on songs about love and relationships. Most of their hits were ballads, written with a texture that allowed the vocal talent to soar over the backing track. Orchestral strings, brass, and piano filled out the sound for a genuinely late-Motown feel.
The O’Jays added a unique touch to their resume when they starred in a significant film in the early 2000s featuring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Beyonce Knowles. The trio played barbers with incredible vocal harmonies that included the local church choir.
Tony! Toni! Tone!
Despite a strange name, this group did well for themselves in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The trio of two brothers and a cousin relied heavily on funk and soul influences to back up their three-part harmonies and pseudo-hip-hop vocalizing.
Their 1988 debut album, Who?, produced several hit singles, including “Little Walter,” “Baby Doll,” and “Born Not To Know.” It reached certified gold the following year. Tony! Toni! Tone! would go on to mainstream success with Revival in 1990.
According to the group’s founder, D’Wayne Wiggins, the unusual band name came from a joke the men would make, using the phrase as they were getting ready to go out and party. They soon realized it was catchy and decided to stick with it as their official title.
Sometimes, it’s not the peak of fame that makes a band impressive, but their longevity. This was certainly the case with The Dells, a group that formed way back in 1953 but managed to sustain their writing and performing career for several decades afterward.
“I Touched a Dream” hit in 1980, with a delightful mix of 70s soul and Motown influence and firmly stepping into the new decade with an R&B sound. They gained spots in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. Interestingly, Johnny Carter was inducted twice, once for The Dells and once for his prior work with The Flamingos.
The Gap Band
Three brothers from Tulsa, Oklahoma, grew up performing in the church where their father preached, and their mother played piano. Even after forming a funk band and moving to Los Angeles, they retained a strong connection to their hometown, with the Gap Band name as a reference to Tulsa’s black business area.
The group’s music gathered steam in the late 1970s and put out several R&B hits in the year 1980, including “Steppin’ Out” and “I Don’t Believe You Want To Get Up And Dance (Oops, Upside Your Head).” But it’s “You Dropped A Bomb On Me” from 1982 that is perhaps their signature tune, featuring their classic heavy bass lines and funk-tinged vocal stylings.
Unlike their contemporaries, who based their careers on a smooth R&B sound, The Gap Band incorporated funk, boogie, and even disco into their music. They found success in the UK as well as the US, with “Big Fun” reaching #4 on the English charts.
The five members of DeBarge released six albums in the 1980s, the only decade they were active. They are most famous for their hit single, “Rhythm of the Night,” off the album by the same title.
DeBarge was composed of siblings who grew up with a gospel vocalist as their mother. No strangers to music, many of them also played piano, brass, and other instruments in addition to singing. Their band output was a conglomeration of the era’s pop, funk, boogie, and R&B.
The group reached top-10 status on nearly every chart in the 80s, including pop, R&B, and adult contemporary. Unfortunately, by the end of the decade, some of the siblings had fallen into drug use and other trouble. The further splintering of the group occurred when two of the members went solo in the mid-1980s, making DeBarge a prolific but short-lived musical phenomenon.
Ready for the World
Ready for the World is a black male R&B band from Flint, Michigan, that started producing music in the 1980s. One of their most popular songs is called “Oh Sheila,” which is from their album “Ready for the World. The song had its debut in 1985 and hit number one on the R&B charts in the US during the year it came out. Their song “Love You Down” also hit number one in 1986.
Ready for the World has continued to tour and make music into the 21st century, with their latest single, “So Much Life,” being released in 2018. The group comprises three singers, one lead vocalist, a guitarist, a keyboard player, and a drummer.
The band’s album “Ready for the World” hit number 17 on the US charts and number 3 on the US R&B charts in 1985. They hit number 5 on the R&B charts in 1986 with their album “Long Time Coming,” as well. They were managed at the time by MCA Records and have worked with Echo USA and Thump since then.
Best Black Male Singing Groups Of The 80s, Final Thoughts
Drawing from their roots in the Motown of the 60s and funk influence of the 70s, the black male singing groups of the 80s ushered in a new era that combined these elements. Their stage charisma and vocal talent have garnered them awards in multiple halls of fame, as well as countless Grammy and American Music Awards.
We wouldn’t know R&B as it is today without these crucial black singers of the 80s paving the way.