Chart Watch

Chart Watch Extra: Michael’s Music Lives On

Chart Watch

June 25 will mark one year since the sudden, shocking death of Michael Jackson. While it's still hard to hard to imagine that this artist who was part of our lives for nearly 40 years is gone, he would be gratified to know that his music lives on. Jackson has nine of the 17 best-selling R&B oldies in digital history, according to figures compiled by Nielsen SoundScan. He makes a clean sweep of the top five with "Thriller," "Billie Jean" and "Beat It," all from his landmark album Thriller; "Man In The Mirror," the gospel-tinged smash from Bad; and "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," the disco-flavored lead single from Off The Wall.

Nielsen/SoundScan has long maintained a running list of the 200 best-selling songs in digital history. On Jan. 10, the research firm added separate charts for various genres, including R&B/hip-hop. Until April 25, that chart was 200-deep. On May 2, they cut the genre lists to 100 titles. (Boo!) I extracted this list of best-selling R&B oldies (which I define as songs that are at least 15 years old) from the final top 200 R&B/hip-hop list. (I was able to update the tallies on the songs that ranked #101 to #200 by using another search function on the Nielsen/SoundScan site.)

The oldest songs on this list are Etta James' 1961 ballad "At Last" and the Temptations' 1965 classic "My Girl." While both songs were R&B hits at the time, only "My Girl" was a crossover hit. "At Last," incredibly, stalled at #47 on the Hot 100.

Three songs on this list are from the early '70s: the Jackson 5's "ABC," Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" and Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On." Like "My Girl," these songs were all released on the Motown family of labels.

This column is a companion piece to a Chart Watch Extra that ran in April which showed the best-selling country oldies. (If you missed it, here's a link). What I like about these lists is that they show the oldies that are still active in today's market. On these lists, it doesn't matter how big a song was in its day, or how many Grammys it won, or how many critics' lists it made. It's all about how well the song is connecting with today's downloading music fans.

Here are the best-selling R&B oldies (defined as songs that are at least 15 years old). The tally after the song title is the number of digital sales, through this week. I include the songs' peak positions on Hot R&B Singles and the Hot 100 (which I call "pop" for short).

1. Michael Jackson, "Thriller," 2,343,000. Everybody knows you can't release seven singles from one album. Evidently Jackson didn't get the memo, because this was the seventh single (and the seventh top 10 hit) from Thriller. Rod Temperton wrote the song, which hit #3 R&B and #4 pop in 1984. The late Vincent Price did the spooky rap on the album version. The song has been a Halloween perennial since 1983.

2. Michael Jackson, "Billie Jean," 1,882,000. Even more than the Off The Wall singles, this striking record proved that Jackson was all grown up. Jackson wrote the song, which hit #1 R&B and #1 pop in 1983. He performed it on the Motown 25 special, where he introduced the moonwalk to universal acclaim. David Cook sang the song en route to his victory on American Idol in 2008.

3. Michael Jackson, "Beat It," 1,575,000. Rock and R&B were almost completely separate fields until Jackson came along with this genre-bridging smash. Jackson wrote the song, which hit #1 R&B and #1 pop in 1983. Eddie Van Halen played the guitar solo. A remake by Fall Out Boy featuring John Mayer went top 20 in 2008. "Weird Al" Yankovic hit the top 20 in 1984 with a parody titled "Eat It."

4. Michael Jackson, "Man In The Mirror," 1,281,000. This introspective, socially conscious song was one of Jackson's finest singles. It showed that he could explore deeper themes in his work without losing the beat. Glen Ballard and Siedah Garrett co-wrote the song, which hit #1 R&B and #1 pop in 1988. Garrett, the Winans and the Andrae Crouch Choir sang background vocals.

5. Michael Jackson, "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," 1,259,000. This was the first single from Jackson's first album with producer Quincy Jones. It hit #1 R&B and #1 pop in 1979. It was Jackson's first #1 hit as an adult artist. It also brought him his first Grammy. Jackson wrote the song, which jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson covered in 1982.

6. Etta James, "At Last," 1,143,000. This ultra-romantic ballad was already an oldie when James recorded it in 1961. Bandleader Glenn Miller had a hit with the Harry Warren/Mack Gordon song in 1942. James' rendition reached #2 R&B and #47 pop. It was featured in the 1988 movie Rain Man. Beyonce sang the song in the movie Cadillac Records and at President Obama's post-inaugural gala.

7. M.C. Hammer, "U Can't Touch This," 1,113,000. Hammer (Stanley Burrell) wrote this song, which borrows heavily from Rick James' 1981 hit "Super Freak (Part I)." "U Can't Touch This" hit #1 R&B and #8 pop in 1990. The song was featured on a recent episode of Glee.

8. Michael Jackson, "The Way You Make Me Feel," 1,094,000. Jackson wrote this randy song, which hit #1 R&B and #1 pop in 1988. In 1988, in his only solo Grammy performance, Jackson sang this song and "Man In The Mirror." It was one of the greatest performances in Grammy history.

9. Sir Mix-A-Lot, "Baby Got Back," 1,042,000. Sir-Mix-A-Lot (Anthony Ray) wrote this song, which hit #27 R&B and #1 pop in 1992. It was featured on the hit soundtrack to Charlie's Angels in 2000. Jennifer Aniston's character sang it to calm her baby on a memorable episode of Friends.

10. Michael Jackson, "Smooth Criminal," 1,015,000. After Jackson's success with seven singles from Thriller, no one thought twice when this was released as the seventh single from Bad. Jackson wrote the song, which hit #2 R&B and #7 pop in 1989. The video, featuring actor Joe Pesci, was one of Jackson's most elaborate. A 2001 cover version by Alien Ant Farm made the top 30.

11. Michael Jackson, "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)," 1,002,000. James Ingram and Quincy Jones co-wrote this song, which hit #46 R&B and #10 pop in 1983. It was the sixth single from Thriller.

12. Marvin Gaye, "Let's Get It On," 997,000. What's the most erotic song ever to become an across-the-board hit? This smoldering smash, which Gaye co-wrote with Ed Townsend, would be high on anyone's list. The song hit #1 R&B and #1 pop in 1973. Gaye's recording has been featured in many films, including Nine Months and Austin Powers-The Spy Who Shagged Me.

13. Earth, Wind & Fire, "September," 880,000. "Shining Star" and "After The Love Has Gone" were bigger hits for EWF in the '70s, but this has sold better in the digital realm. Albert McKay, Maurice White and Allee Willis co-wrote the exhilarating song, which hit #1 R&B and #8 pop in 1979. It was featured on the Soul Food soundtrack in 1997.

14. The Temptations, "My Girl," 851,000. This graceful ballad is one of the true standards of the last 50 years. Smokey Robinson and Ronnie White co-wrote the song, which hit #1 R&B and #1 pop in 1965. Twenty years later, two members of the Temptations, David Ruffin and Eddie Kendrick, joined Daryl Hall & John Oates for a live medley which featured the song. It went top 20, as did a 1988 cover by Suave. The Temps' version has appeared in such movies as The Big Chill, Born On The Fourth Of July and My Girl.

15. The Jackson 5, "ABC," 849,000. Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. co-wrote this exuberant ditty with Fonce Mizell, Freddie Perren and Deke Richards. It hit #1 R&B and #1 pop. It was featured on the Crooklyn soundtrack in 1994.

16. Gloria Gaynor, "I Will Survive," 840,000. This song started out as the B-side to "Substitute." Never heard of it? You're not alone. "Substitute" "bubbled under" the Hot 100 at #107, but this song went all the way. Dino Fekaris and Freddie Perren co-wrote the disco anthem, which hit #4 R&B and #1 pop in 1979. It appeared in the 1994 film The Adventures Of Priscilla: Queen Of The Desert. Two years later, a version by Chantay Savage made the top 30.

17. Stevie Wonder, "Superstition," 829,000. This supremely funky record was Wonder's first #1 hit on the Hot 100 as an adult artist. (As Little Stevie Wonder, he had topped the chart in 1963 with "Fingertips-Pt 2.") Wonder wrote the song, which also hit #1 R&B in 1973. Stevie Ray Vaughan released a memorable live version in 1986.

The Fine Print: Three of these songs ("Baby Got Back," "P.Y.T." and "I Will Survive") climbed higher on the pop chart than they did on the R&B chart. Most would probably categorize "Baby Got Back" as rap, "P.Y.T." as pop and "I Will Survive" as disco. I left them on the list in the spirit of inclusiveness.

But you have to draw the line somewhere. Nielsen/SoundScan's chart showing the top 200 R&B/hip-hop songs also included two songs by white hip-hop artists which I left off this list. They are Vanilla Ice's 1990 smash "Ice Ice Baby," which has sold 1,098,000 digital copies, and House Of Pain's 1992 hit "Jump Around," which has sold 973,000. These records are hip-hop, which explains their inclusion on Nielsen/SoundScan's list, but they're not  really R&B, which is what I'm focusing on here.

For the record, Ice (Robert Van Winkle) co-wrote the "Ice Ice Baby," which hit #1 pop and #6 R&B. The song samples the bass line from the 1982 hit "Under Pressure" by Queen and David Bowie. Matthew Morrison performed it on a recent episode of Glee.

House of Pain's Erik Schrody co-wrote "Jump Around," which hit #3 pop and #14 R&B. The song samples Bob & Earl's "Harlem Shuffle" (which was later covered by the Rolling Stones) and the chorus line from Kris Kross' "Jump."

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