Black Music Sunday: Valentine’s Day is around the corner. What’s your favorite love song?

It’s Super Bowl Sunday—which we have covered here at “Black Music Sunday” in the past—but with Valentine’s Day on Wednesday, we’re going to get into love song mode.

R&B and soul artists have been singing about love since the genre took hold in the 1940s, and they’re still going strong today. Usher headlining the 2024 Super Bowl halftime show is a testimony to that. He’s also paying tribute to R&B artists of the past.

But let’s not forget rocker Tracy Chapman, who got her flowers onstage at the Grammys last week for her duet with Luke Combs. “Fast Car” is a heartbreaking, visceral ballad, but Chapman has also written some powerful love songs.

With thousands of love songs to choose from, I won’t be able to include them all, so check out some past Valentine’s Day selections: In 2022, we featured Houston Person, Etta Jones, Etta James, Ben Webster, and Johnny Hartman with John Coltrane. And in 2021, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Arthur Prysock, Nat and Natalie Cole, Miles Davis, and Ben Webster sung their hearts out for us. 

Truthfully, I could probably write a music story every day and never scratch the surface of the plethora of songs about love.

”Black Music Sunday” is a weekly series highlighting all things Black music with nearly 200 stories covering performers, genres, history, and more, each featuring its own vibrant soundtrack. I hope you’ll find some familiar tunes and perhaps an introduction to something new.

Still thinking about Tracy Chapman, I have to play “Baby Can I Hold You.” Here’s a live version of the 1988 hit:


Sorry Is all that you can't say
Years gone by and still
Words don't come easily
Like sorry like sorry Forgive me Is all that you can't say
Years gone by and still
Words don't come easily
Like forgive me forgive me    
But you can say baby
Baby can I hold you tonight?
Maybe if I told you the right words
At the right time you'd be mine    
I love you Is all that you can't say
Years gone by and still
Words don't come easily
Like I love you
I love you    
But you can say baby
Baby can I hold you tonight?
Maybe if I told you the right words
Ooh, at the right time you'd be mine  
Baby can I hold you tonight?
Maybe if I told you the right words
At the right time you'd be mine
You'd be mine
You'd be mine

Here’s some (authorized) biographical background from the “About Tracy Chapman” site, written by Nigel Williamson in 2001:

Born and raised by her mother in Cleveland, Ohio, she began writing poetry and short stories at an early age. Tracy’s first instrument was a ukulele that her mother bought her at three years old because she recognized that she loved music, and was later stolen by the girl across the street from them. There wasn’t much money in the family but her mother saved money from the household food money to purchase it from a neighborhood store.

An academic scholarship sent her to high school in Connecticut, where she played at chapel services, Her mother bought her first guitar when she was away in boarding school when she started playing coffee house at school with a borrowed guitar. Later, the school chaplain Reverend Robert Tate organized a collection to buy her a new guitar. (He was thanked years later in the credits on her first album.)

At Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, she studied anthropology and honed her musical skills on the Boston folk circuit, playing guitar and singing on the streets of Harvard Square and performing at local coffeehouses and the campus folk club. By 1987, she had signed to Elektra, a label with a proud singer-songwriter history dating back to the 1960s heyday of the genre. Her self-titled debut album, produced by David Kershenbaum, was released in early 1988 and its warm, passionate and heartfelt songs announced the arrival of a compelling talent. At the time, the record was a breath of fresh air. By the late 1980s, music was dominated by synths and drum machines and the simplicity and sincerity of Chapman’s approach was hugely refreshing. The songs themselves were full of sharp observation, deeply rooted in her personal experience of growing up poor in a working-class community in the inner city.

Journalist Sarah Smarsh wrote about one of those 1988 songs for Oxford American in 2022.

“For My Lover”

Tracy Chapman on the rewards of risk and love

Being in love is a state of madness that may compromise decision-making abilities. Sacrifices made for a romantic partner should, therefore, be examined.

In Tracy Chapman’s “For My Lover,” from her 1988 debut Tracy Chapman, the narrator acknowledges that others think she’s nuts and wonders whether the relationship is worth the losses and risks she has incurred: doing time in a Virginia jail, coming up with bail money, lying to authorities to cover for her love.

The chorus, though, returns to her conclusion: It’s the world, not her, that’s crazy. I believe her. When Chapman sings “you” over and over with her iconic contralto, it doesn’t sound like codependency. It sounds like ardent longing and frustrated adoration, conditions that plenty of good, sane, worthwhile partnerships will endure in hard times.

Those hard times echo in the instrumentation. Chapman’s guitar licks are simple and haunting, like something one might strum in a county cell where a small square of light streams from a high window with bars across it. Steel guitarist Ed Black pulls one note down the scale for a full measure, again and again, suggesting the long arc of justice bending down to find the forgotten. The end of the song contains a muffled harmonica, such as that you might hear through a wall.

Give it a listen:

Chapman sang of going to jail for her lover, but Prince rocked the world with “I Would Die 4 U.” This rousing live performance, according to the Prince Vault, came during a Nov. 20, 1984 concert at Maryland’s Capital Center.

Goldies Parade has some interesting details of Prince’s beginnings.

A bemused Oprah Winfrey asked Prince in 1996 why he, a superstar, still chose to live in Minnesota “of all places”. He responded simply “I will always live in Minneapolis. It’s so cold it keeps the bad people out.” Minneapolis was Prince’s home town since birth and indeed remained his base throughout even during the height and length of his career that ultimately spanned four decades. The place greatly influenced Prince’s music. Lying at the far north of the US on its border with Canada, winters in the state of Minnesota indeed average lows of -14C. In the interwar period approximately 2 million blacks fled America’s southern states to seek refuge from racism in what witnessed the country’s largest internal migration in its history. They were headed north in search of tolerant society, and skilled and better paid work. A mere 4,646 made their way to Minneapolis by 1940, a figure doubtlessly low due to its uninviting winters.

Prince Rogers Nelson was born at the city’s Mount Sinai Hospital on 7th June 1958. His father, John Lewis Nelson (1916-2001) a pianist from Louisiana, named Prince after his band – New Orleans jazz outfit Prince Rogers Trio (incidentally a four-piece band). His wife and Prince’s mother, Mattie Della Shaw (1933-2002) was the band’s singer. John and Mattie married in 1956. and joined the exodus north. They headed to Minneapolis, a city that adjoined the state capital St Paul and together was known as The Twin Cities. Despite choosing to live in the city where the black community represented only 1 percent of the population, Minneapolis enjoyed a reputation for racial tolerance, owing to its particularly large Scandinavian community.

Prince’s website has wonderful notes and photos on his childhood and high school days.

Prince’s classmates at Central High School knew that he was a talented musician, and a dedicated one; halfway through sophomore year he had quit the basketball team and was dedicating every free moment to jamming in the music room. But he had an aversion to joining the school band or taking formal lessons — a fact that was noted in his first piece of press ever, a 1976 article in the student newspaper the Central High Pioneer: “He likes Central a great deal, because his music teachers let him work on his own.” Instead, Prince preferred to get most of his music education from their stereo, spending hours with André in the Anderson’s basement listening to rock and folk artists like Joni Mitchell, Maria Muldaur, and Carlos Santana on FM station KQRS, and exploring the rich history of R&B, soul, and funk via the black community radio station KUXL, an AM channel that was only broadcast to a small section of North Minneapolis.

At his January 2016 Piano and a Microphone show, Prince recalled his days listening to KUXL

From Grand Funk Railroad to Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix to the Jackson 5, Prince listened eagerly and learned it all. Grand Central was starting to get booked not just at community centers in North Minneapolis but at high school proms and homecoming dances across South, and Prince knew that he would have to learn a wide variety of Top 40 hits to appeal to the white teenagers in all parts of the city.

I could write an entire story about Prince’s love songs. I won’t, but here’s a great review of them by Prince historian and YouTuber Eloy Lasanta, which was posted to his “Prince’s Friend” channel and produced for Valentine’s Day 2020.

From the YouTube video notes:

Songs discussed are: 1000 X’s & O’s, Adore, Baby,Betcha By Golly Wow, Call My Name,Forever In My Life, Friend Lover Sister Mother Wife, Future Baby Mama,Love Like Jazz, Most Beautiful Girl In the World, The One, Pink Cashmere, Savior, She Loves Me 4 Me, She’s Always in My Hair, Somewhere Here On Earth, Space (Universal Love Remix), and Walk In Sand.

“Forever in My Life” is Lasanta’s top pick. Here it is:

Since we’ve heard from the Prince, it’s time to bring on the Queen herself, Aretha Franklin. Her biography on the Academy of Achievement website covers the basics of her background.

Aretha Franklin was born in Memphis Tennessee, but at an early age, her family moved, first to Buffalo, New York, and finally to Detroit, Michigan, where she spent her formative years.  Although Aretha Franklin spent much of her adult life in New York and Los Angeles, she would always regard Detroit as her hometown and returned to the city for the last three decades of her life.

Aretha’s mother died when she was ten, and she was raised by her father, a Baptist minister.  For 33 years, Rev. C. L. Franklin was pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit.  Rev. Franklin was not only a popular pastor but an influential civil rights activist, in demand for speaking engagements around the country.  Several of his sermons were recorded and issued as phonograph records. Admirers called him the “man with the million-dollar voice.”  Notable figures from the civil rights movement were regular visitors to New Bethel Church and were welcome guests in the Franklin home.  The country’s premier gospel singers — Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward — as well as secular jazz and blues musicians, also paid calls on Rev. Franklin, Aretha, and her brothers and sister.

Aretha’s father encouraged her to sing.  When she was very small, her father would stand her on a chair to be seen from the pews when she sang in church.  She learned to play piano by ear, although she resisted formal lessons, and by age ten, she could foresee a career as a gospel singer. In her teens, she joined the junior choir that traveled with her father on his speaking engagements.  While in California, the Franklins met the young Sam Cooke, lead singer with the gospel group the Soul Stirrers; they followed his career with interest as he left the Soul Stirrers to focus instead on secular pop music.  Sam Cooke’s success made a deep impression on young Aretha, who began to wonder if she too might pursue a music career outside of the church.

And aren’t we blessed that she did? 

Franklin demonstrates such intensity in “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).” Music blogger altrockchick gives it a blunt review:

Aretha adheres tightly to the storyline in the bluesy title track (and her first top ten hit), “I Never Loved a Man (The Way That I Love You).” Her ability to convincingly oscillate from disgust at her man’s deplorable behavior to expression of irresistible attraction is so genuine and so real-life that it gives you the shivers. When she gives us that throaty whisper in the chorus, supported by a brief patch of harmony, you can visualize her lips getting closer to his and her nipples hardening. The way she comps herself on the piano is pretty impressive as well, especially in the second verse where she forces her piano to break through to the front of the sound field. The horns on this piece are particularly tight and supportive, but goddamn—when Aretha really gets into a song, she fucking owns it.

Have a listen. 

One of the things about Aretha that I admire so much? When she covers a song that was already a hit for other artists, she makes it her own. Consider “This Girl’s in Love With You,” written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, which started out as Herb Alpert’s “This Guy’s in Love with You.”

A shift of genders made it a hit for Dionne Warwick, but check out The Queen’s interpretation!

I’ll close out The Queen’s section with a song about how love makes you feel. It’s a performance that will make you feel the love and respect between an artist and a songwriter—in this case, Carole King. I can’t count the number of times I’ve watched this performance of “A Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center.

As PBS “News Hour” notes

Singer-songwriter Carole King, 73, was one of the six honorees to receive 2015 Kennedy Center Honors in a year-end gala in the nation’s capital. Among the hundreds of compositions credited to her is 1967’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” a single co-written by King and made famous by soul singer Aretha Franklin.

Tuesday night, Franklin took the stage and sang what has become a staple for the Queen of Soul. From the moment Franklin appeared on stage in a floor-length fur coat, it was a master class in how to be a diva.

Franklin commanded the piano.

King gesticulated wildly in approval.

Not even a minute into the performance, the camera cut to President Obama wiping away a tear.

I’ll close today with one of the greatest R&B love songs of all time, according to a slew of makers of such lists. And this one has recently been posted to social media for a non-musical, political reason.

Democratic Rep. Al Green for Texas left the hospital on Tuesday, and arrived on the floor of the House to cast his ballot against the bogus Republican impeachment proceedings that were underway against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

Congressman Al Green, D-Texas, was brought into the House Chamber in a wheelchair Tuesday afternoon, wearing hospital scrubs and socks, to cast his vote against impeaching Secretary Mayorkas, blocking the impeachment. HERO! “I was determined to cast the vote long before - I had…

— Leia🌻 (@TheSWPrincess) February 7, 2024

Democrats stuck together and were able to block the Republicans—for now. Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of social references to another Al Green and his 1972 major hit “Let’s Stay Together,” which is in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Green, whose career has had ups and downs, is honored in The Arkansas Encyclopedia.

Al Green is one of Arkansas’s best-known singers, with a career that has ranged from rhythm and blues (R&B) to pop to gospel and a combination. Green’s distinctive falsetto singing style continues to thrill fans old and young, and he remains an active soul singer from an era that also produced Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and Marvin Gaye.

Al Greene (he later dropped the last “e”) was born on April 13, 1946, in Forrest City (St. Francis County) and grew up in a large African American family that sang gospel music. When his sharecropper father moved the family to Grand Rapids, Michigan, Green was only nine but sang with his siblings in the Green Brothers. When he began listening to the non-gospel sounds of Jackie Wilson, Green’s father dismissed sixteen-year-old Green from the group.

Green was later recruited by a local band, the Creations, later renamed Al Green and the Soul Mates, and in 1967, they recorded a single, “Back Up Train,” which hit No. 5 on the R&B charts. After a couple of years of struggling, Green was in a Midland, Texas, club in 1969 when he met Willie Mitchell, a Memphis, Tennessee, bandleader and an executive with that city’s soul record label, Hi Records. Mitchell persuaded Green to move to Memphis and let Mitchell shape his career and sound.

Green’s first chart hit, “Tired of Being Alone,” reached No. 11 in 1971. It was followed at the end of that year by his only No. 1 hit, “Let’s Stay Together.” He had six other Top 10 hits, all released between 1972 and 1974.

Here he is live on “Soul Train” in 1973 singing “Love and Happiness.” I never missed an episode.

My final Green selection is both an album and its titular hit single, “I’m Still in Love with You.” I still sing this to my husband, and he sings it to me.

As a sidebar: Few of us will forget when then President Barack Obama was at the Apollo Theater in Harlem for a fundraising event in January 2012 and sang the opening line from “Let’s Stay Together.”

As I asked in the headline, what are your favorite love songs?  Join me in the comments for many, many more love songs, and please share your favorites. My husband and I will have the speakers on high. 

Happy Super Bowl Sunday … of love!