They may not have held the job of waving a baton before a fancy philharmonic orchestra, but these composers certainly possessed a talent worthy enough for any ensemble. Case in point: Quincy Jones, one of the most Grammy-nominated (79) artists in history, started composing for film and television in the 1960s. The former freelance arranger and seven-time Academy Award nominee is well-noted for his musical contributions.
Orchestras have long appealed to those with classical tastes. However, strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion instruments have found their way into all types of genres including R&B. While there are many who are deserving of recognition for their soulful genius, listed below are four “maestros” who were titans in symphonic soul, funk and R&B music.
Charles Stepney – A Shining Star
One of the most underrated of the “men behind the music” is Charles Stepney. The Chicago arranger, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter was responsible for orchestral arrangements for The Dells at Chess Records and produced Minnie Riperton’s 1969 Chess LP Come to My Garden. A Chess Records sessions musician himself, he also worked with Ramsey Lewis on his gold album Sun Goddess, but it was Stepney’s collaborations with Earth, Wind, and Fire (EWF) that cemented him as one of the most prolific producers, arrangers, and songwriters of the 1970s. Along with the late Maurice White, Stepney co-produced EWF albums That’s the Way of the World, Gratitude (1975), and Spirit (1976). The pair also co-produced The Emotions’ 1976 album Flowers, and Deniece Williams’s 1976 album This is Niecy.
In his posthumous 2016 memoir, White detailed how Stepney played a role in crafting what he called the “EW&F mystique.” For example, in discussing “Can’t Hide Love,” White noted that “it’s the end vocal arrangement in the vamp of the song that people seem to remember. Charles had the strings playing a haunting, almost monastic melody, and Philip and I topped it off. To our fans, it sounded like Philip, and I were monks chanting in an old monastery.”
Prior to the release of EWF’s Spirit LP and while in negotiations to work with Michael Jackson and Barbara Streisand, Charles Stepney suffered a fatal heart attack on May 17, 1976, at the age of 45. To commemorate the work of their father, previously unreleased demos by Stepney were uncovered by his daughters and compiled into an album, Step on Step, which was released in September 2022.
Thom Bell – Soul of Philadelphia Sound
Born in Jamaica and raised in Philadelphia, classically-trained pianist Thom Bell created masterpieces by mixing orchestral strings with funky R&B for artists like The Delfonics, The O’Jays, The Spinners, Dionne Warwick, and Elton John. When he was a teen, Bell teamed up with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff (also legends responsible for the Philly groove) as part of a singing group. Known as The Mighty Three, the trio would go on to form Philadelphia International Records in 1971.
One of Bell’s earliest hits is the 1968 Delfonic song La-La (Means I Love You) with its crisp snare drum and lush melody of strings.
Bell and his songwriting partner Linda Creed penned hits such as Break Up to Make Up, and Betcha by Golly Wow. In 1975, he won the inaugural Grammy Award for Producer of the Year and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006. Thom Bell died on December 22, 2022, at age 79 after a lengthy illness.
Barry White – The Baritone Maestro
Who can ever forget that deep distinct voice singing the language of love in songs like I’ve Got So Much to Give as a swooning orchestra played in the background? White originally formed the 40-piece Love Unlimited Orchestra as a backing band for the girl group of the same name. However, after releasing the instrumental single Love’s Theme in 1973 and having it reach No. 1 on the Billboard Pop charts, White continued making hit albums with the orchestra.
He launched his own label, Unlimited Gold, with CBS/Columbia Records in 1979. In 2023, Rolling Stone ranked the singer-songwriter at number 56 on its list of “200 Greatest Singers of All Time.” Barry White died in 2003 at age 58 after a cardiac arrest.
Isaac Hayes – Hot Buttered Soul
Although he was a major creative force at Stax Records as an in-house songwriter and session musician, Isaac Hayes will forever be remembered as the mastermind writer and conductor behind the Theme from Shaft.
No stranger to relying on orchestral instruments, Hayes’ funky instrumental earned him the 1972 Academy Award for Best Original Song, making him the first African American to win the honor. He dedicated the historic win to the woman who raised him, his grandmother, Rushia Wade. Hayes died in 2008, 10 days shy of his 66th birthday.
Photo: Barry White, 1974 (Fotograaf Onbekend / Anefo via Wikimedia Commons)