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These awesome R&B singers got lost in the shadows of legends

Amanda Parris

Imagine being the sibling of a legend, or the background singer in an iconic group, or just having a voice that everyone mistakes for one more famous than yours.

It's got to be tough. This week, we're recognizing R&B singers who gave us classics but never received the shine they deserved because they were a little too close to legends.

Listen to Marvin's Room, Jan 26th 2018

Marvin's Room with Amanda Parris on CBC Radio


Erma Franklin

Being the sibling of an icon can't be easy, especially if you had dreams of doing the same thing that made them legendary, and even more so if your younger sister is not just a legend, she’s the undisputed Queen of Soul: Aretha Franklin. Even though she was older, Erma Franklin spent much of her life in Aretha’s shadow, singing background vocals on Aretha’s hits like “Respect.” However, in the late ‘60’s, it looked like Erma would finally have her moment. She recorded a song called “Piece of my Heart” and it became a top 10 hit.

Unfortunately, the sparkle of that moment in the limelight was short-lived. A year later, a young singer named Janis Joplin did a cover of the song with her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and history completely forgot there had ever been an R&B original. It seemed that it was Erma’s destiny to move from the shadow of one legend, only to end up the shadow of another.

William DeVaughn

For years I thought this next song was by Curtis Mayfield and for the life of me I couldn’t understand why it was never included on any of his greatest hits compilations. But even though it was a sound Mayfield had made famous and had his signature affirmational lyrics, the song “Be Thankful for What You Got” was actually written and performed by an unknown government employee, William DeVaughn, who just happened to sound exactly like Curtis Mayfield.

The song was a number 1 hit that got played not only on the funk and soul stations but also on gospel radio. In the decades since, it has been sampled countless times by hip-hop artists. Unfortunately, it still frequently gets mistakenly credited to Curtis Mayfield.

Bell Biv DeVoe

One of the best songs of the ‘90’s emerged from a group of guys who, prior to its release, had spent most of their careers relegated to the background. Ricky Bell, Michael Bivens and Ronnie Devoe were the background singers of New Edition who were left behind when Bobby Brown, Ralph Tresvant and Johnny Gill went solo. So they decided to create their own group. They called themselves Bell Biv Devoe and their hit song “Poison” captured the new sound that would soon dominate the airwaves: new jack swing.

Incorporating hip-hop, funk, soul and pop, “Poison” became a club anthem for gen-Xers. Although it doesn't boast the most poetic lyrics in the R&B canon, the song's line “Never trust a big butt and a smile” basically became hip-hop scripture for much of the ‘90’s and Bell Biv Devoe succeeded in carving their own small spot in the R&B canon.

Marvin's Room Playlist for Jan. 26, 2018

  1. Bell Biv Devoe, “Poison”
  2. Bruno Mars feat. Cardi B, “Finesse Remix”
  3. Kendrick Lamar and SZA, “All the Stars”
  4. dvsn, “Morning After”
  5. Adele, “Chasing Pavements”
  6. Cold Specks, “Fools Paradise”
  7. Erma Franklin, “Piece of my Heart”
  8. Adria Kain, “To Die in Love/Faded”
  9. Al Green, “Take me to the River”
  10. Divine Brown, “Gone”
  11. William DeVaughn, “Be Thankful for What You Got”
  12. Fredy V., "Ain’t Going Nowhere"
  13. TRP.P, “Ain’t Havin’ It”