A man. And a woman. They come together to engage in a rhythmic succession of emotional, passionate movements, one thrusting forward and then the other, until finally, if the magic is there, they become one. Wait, just what do you think is being described here – this is a music site, for chrissakes – I’m talking about duets. Jeez.
There’s something about the vocal interplay between a male and a female, their contrasting voices complementing each other and then intertwining, that, when done right, can create that type of enchanting magic. And so to be clear, in absolutely no way do we intend to diminish the vocal pairings of two men or two women. Obviously. But for the following short Top 10 Duets analysis you will not find any combinations such as Simon & Garfunkel or The Everly Brothers, nor Indigo Girls or The (Dixie) Chicks, by way of example. Just the marriage of two voices resulting from the alchemy of an X and a Y chromosome.
There have been so many such incredible amalgamations throughout music history, some well more renowned than others. So for our countdown what we’re going to do is this: Let’s cover So Much Great Music’s 20 all-time best duets, and as we run through those we’ll also sprinkle in 10 more awesome sets of men and women joining forces in tunes with which you’re likely less familiar. Yeah, that’s 30 songs for what we’d just said would be our Top 10 list, but isn’t it a woman’s and a man’s prerogative to change their mind?
And, just one other introductory notice to ponder: despite the extremely eclectic mix of vocal teams to follow, there will be one individual among them who will emerge as demonstrably preeminent in the category of duets throughout history. Really, without a question. Perhaps you can even guess who it is?
Alright, ladies and gentlemen, let’s get to the ladies and gentlemen.
(Bests in bold; lesser-knowns in italics)
- “Once Upon A Time” – Marvin Gaye & Mary Wells
Marvin Gaye took part in some pretty historic duet partnerships. You may even hear more about them later. A couple less-familiar occurrences, though, additionally took place with none other than Diana Ross, for an album smartly entitled Diana and Marvin, and on this earliest one that paired rising star Gaye with Mary Wells of ‘My Guy’ fame, and which set the scene for all of Gaye’s superstar success to come. The album was Together, recorded way back in 1964, and it included the shuffle beat, cha-cha romancer named ‘Once Upon A Time.’
20. “Up Where We Belong” – Joe Cocker & Jennifer Warnes
Is it sappy? Sure it is. But when Warnes’ silky tones meet Cocker’s gravel-pitted throat on this Grammy-winning, Billboard-topping number, it simply soars. And just try to listen without picturing Richard Gere sweeping Debra Winger up and out of her paper bag factory and throwing on his officer’s hat. I’m not crying, you’re crying.
19. “Solid” – Ashford & Simpson
As songwriters the husband-and-wife team of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson were responsible for creating some of the greatest songs of the Motown catalog (yes, including several notables among this list). As performers, they reached their highest note with this affirmation of love withstanding life’s travails. And the hooky hot-hot-hot-hot-hot-hot-hot-hot chorus remains solid as a rock.
- “Gasoline and Matches” – Buddy Miller & Julie Miller
Another married couple, Nashville’s prolific pairing Buddy & Julie Miller, produce a slightly different, more dangerous sentiment than the typical love song. Off their 2009 album Written in Chalk, winner of Americana Music Association’s album of the year, this track sizzles with ominous energy, their voices shadowing each other eerily in a dark vibe that’s almost, well, incendiary.
18. “I Got You Babe” – Sonny & Cher
Here’s the third consecutive couple in our countdown – but you already knew that – with the tune that eventually put Sonny & Cher in America’s living rooms as hippie countercultural icons. It was the first single off their debut album, 1965’s Look at Us, believed to be Bono’s opposite-sentiment response to Bob Dylan’s bitter 1964 tune ‘It Ain’t Me Babe,’ and became their signature song and biggest-ever hit. And despite its expert production and instrumentation (featuring a prominent oboe plus the famed Wrecking Crew), and the light, waltz-time feel, if hearing it makes you want to smash a clock radio over and over like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, we totally understand.
17. “The Closer I Get To You” – Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway
They both attended Howard University but did not meet until later, each having then been signed as solo artists at Atlantic Records. This 1978 release was the second most notable output of their memorable pairing (stay tuned for the other much higher up the list), appearing on Flack’s album Blue Lights in the Basement. Sadly, it would be one of the last recordings Hathaway would do; he died less than a year later at just 33 after suffering severe bouts of clinical depression. Flack subsequently announced that the song would forever be a dedication to Hathaway, and that all money made from it would be donated to Hathaway’s widow and two children.
- “Something You Got” – B.B. King & Koko Taylor
It’s pretty difficult to think of the King of the Blues as anything different than one of music history’s most distinctive and influential guitarists (which, of course, he was). But B.B. King could belt out the vocals, too. And when he teamed up with the raw and mighty Koko Taylor, often known as the Queen of the Blues, for this R&B standard off King’s 1993’s record Blues Summit (an entire album of duets!), the results were expectedly joyous. They trade guttural shouts and lustful come-ons until the record’s last minute-plus settles into some regal bluesy flirting. A royal pleasure.
16. “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough” – Patty Smythe & Don Henley
Patty Smythe’s smash hits leading her band Scandal (‘The Warrior,’ ‘Goodbye To You’) were already years in the rear-view mirror when she penned this moving rock ballad, and pegged Don Henley to sing it with her. Smythe always possessed a potent, expressive voice – before Sammy Hagar got the gig, she was invited to front Van Halen following David Lee Roth’s departure but turned it down (amazing and true). Yet I think the legendary pipes of Desperado Don Henley could even make a duet with Smythe’s husband John McEnroe sound incredible. Think I’m kidding? You can NOT be serious!
15. “Your Precious Love” – Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
On a series of brilliant collaborations between 1967-1969, the majority of which were written by the famed team of Ashford & Simpson, Gaye and Terrell created some of the most indelible recordings in Motown’s, and really in popular music’s, history. From the first of their trilogy of duet albums, ‘Your Precious Love’ was a follow-up single to – well, we’ll get to that later – and would actually achieve even higher chart success than its more famed predecessor. This soulful blues ballad, with instrumentation from the famed Funk Brothers as well as the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, is sweet, sultry, and simply stupendous.
- “Can’t Let Go” – Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
After a 14-year hiatus (see later for a break following exactly what), this unlikeliest of duos returned in 2021 with their long-anticipated second joint effort, Raise The Roof, once again produced with the deft touch of T-Bone Burnett. Suffice to say that the captivating Krauss and the irrepressible Plant (now 73 years old), have not lost their improbable, irresistible sound. Among numerous standout tracks, the record contains this simmering cover of ‘Can’t Let Go,’ a tune previously made popular by Lucinda Williams on Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. It’s as good an example as any of the understated gossamer these two have been able to spin together, seemingly out of nowhere.
14. “You Don’t Have To Be A Star (To Be in My Show)” – Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis, Jr.
In 1975 married couple Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. left their band, abruptly taking two-fifths of the dimensions away from soul-jazz hitmakers the 5th Dimension. Performing instead as a duo they signed with ABC Records and made their 1976 debut album I Hope We Get to Love in Time with its breakout, Billboard #1 crossover smash ‘You Don’t Have To Be A Star (To Be in My Show).’ Sure, it was a total cheesefest. But there was something hard to resist about it. Davis and McCoo trade parts and harmonize with breezy ease, and the orchestration swirls. But when I noted that the bass was played by all-time low end boss, James Jamerson, I knew I’d found the secret sauce.
13. “Gone at Last” – Paul Simon & Phoebe Snow
From the album I still consider to be my favorite from Paul Simon, Still Crazy After All These Years, came this stomping gospel tune, ‘Gone At Last,’ which, quite surprisingly, was the lead single on a record that also contained ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover,’ ‘My Little Town,’ the title track, and ‘Slip Slidin’ Away’ (sort of). Phoebe Snow, fresh off her success with ‘Poetry Man,’ lent her bluesy contralto growl, a weighty contrast to Simon’s vocal (or, for that matter, to his better-known collaborator, Garfunkel), and the Jesse Dixon Singers contributed their room-filling chants to make this churchy rave-up feel like something different than anything Simon had previously produced, and like nothing else on pop radio. Oh, and stick around for the last 30 seconds into the fadeout when Snow showed off her sweeping four-octave range. That’s no sound of silence.
- “9,999,999 Tears” – Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison
Another country-like couple, until early in 2022 when it was announced they’d end their 26-year marriage, Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison can be considered something of Texas music and songwriting royalty, and were sometimes called “the first couple of Texas” (maybe at least in country music circles). The pair’s biggest album together was 2013’s Cheater’s Game (read nothing into that title; their split was entirely supportive and amicable), on which this tune, ‘9,999,999 Tears,’ nailed what Kyle Coroneos of Saving Country Music called “those true Texas music feels.” The vocals in the chorus blend with a resonance beyond the music. Added Coroneos, “It’s like they were born to sing together.”
12. “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” – Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
The vocal chemistry between Gaye and Terrell was unrivaled, accommodating any melody and sliding just as easily into harmony. This song, the duo’s first release off their second album, You’re All I Need, opens with the chorus, and with both finding uncanny harmonic slots, they effortlessly prove in just four repeated lines that their musical magnetism is every bit intact the second time around. The soothing, melodic ballad is a song of longing between two lovers seeking to bridge their distance, leave behind their fantasies, and re-connect for real. Gaye and Terrell’s love, too, was real, but by all accounts platonic (the vivacious Terrell, though, was reputed to have had romances with David Ruffin of The Temptations, Sam Cooke, and James Brown). Nevertheless, her momentous relationship with Marvin Gaye, musical or otherwise, truly was the real thing.
11. “You’re The One That I Want” – John Travolta & Olivia Newton John
Come on, don’t pretend you don’t like it, scream out the words of it, get up and dance to it. If there’s a universally beloved song this might be it. It was 1978: Travolta, just one year removed from Saturday Night Fever, and Newton-John, about the cutest thing on two feet, teaming up in a blockbuster film musical on a song that became an international smash, hit Billboard’s #1, and remains one of the biggest selling singles in history. Just admit that you love it. It’s alright we all do. It’s electrifying!
- “Shallow” – Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper
Yes, that’s really Bradley Cooper singing. The guy wasn’t already good looking enough, or talented enough as an actor, that he has to also be able to seamlessly carry off an ultra-dramatic duet with the omnipotent Lady Gaga? Well yes, I guess so. The tension, the emotion, the cinematic impact from this pivotal moment in 2018’s remake of A Star Is Born – it all works strikingly well on this slow-burning, operatic wonder. Many had already considered Cooper to be stunning, now he was part of a truly stunning duet. It’s enough to make a regular guy pretty jealous, or maybe that’s just being a little bit sha-ha, sha-ha-ha-low.
10. “Don’t Know Much” – Linda Ronstadt & Aaron Neville
In 1989 few people were unaware of the powers of Linda Ronstadt’s voice. But unless you were from New Orleans you might well have never heard of Aaron Neville. I was fortunate to spend my college years in NOLA (though we never called it that back then), and not infrequently would witness the linebacker-sized Mr. Neville, standing out front of the funk firestorm the Neville Brothers, absolutely melt a packed room at Tipitina’s with the inexplicable wonders of his cosmic falsetto, often discharging a version of ‘Mona Lisa’ that would awe Nat King Cole. The soaring duet ‘Don’t Know Much’ appeared on Ronstadt’s triple-Platinum album Cry Like A Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind and shocked the uninitiated with a brilliant fusion of their two heavenly voices. I don’t know much, but I do know this was a bravado exhibition of singing.
9. “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” – Stevie Nicks & Tom Petty
Here’s the highest voltage pairing of two major rock stars on this list. Although the song appeared on Nicks’ album Bella Donna, her debut solo effort in 1981, it was actually a Heartbreakers tune, written by Tom Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell, who’d planned to record it for Petty’s Hard Promises album. Until music industry majordomo Jimmy Iovine intervened, arranging instead for it to become a duet with Nicks. Iovine, coincidentally, was producing Bella Donna. And Nicks was also Iovine’s girlfriend at the time. Nevertheless, it turned out to be a pretty shrewd modification. The track, billed as by Stevie Nicks & Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, became Nicks’ biggest solo hit and The Heartbreakers biggest hit as well. So, who the hell am I to question Jimmy Iovine. For the next three-plus decades ‘Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around’ was a staple of Nicks’ solo shows, and on July 9, 2017 she performed it together with Petty and The Heartbreakers at the British Summer Time festival at Hyde Park in London. Three months before Petty’s death.
- “Whiskey in Your Water” – Evan Felker & Carrie Rodriguez
In the decade prior to 2019 the Turnpike Troubadours, guided by their unquestioned leader Evan Felker, had become the biggest band in Americana and alternative Country music. And as of late 2021, arguably they are again. In between they were on what was then termed an “indefinite hiatus” widely understood to have been due to Felker’s descent into alcoholism (his marriage also dissolved amidst his brief, tempestuous fling with Miranda Lambert). It must be seen as ironic, then, that his sole output in the interim was this red dirt throwback, with what Rolling Stone called “dusty rock & roll charm to spare.” Carrie Rodriguez, an unheralded Austin songwriter, proves the perfect foil for Felker, chasing his drawling harmonies around while also providing rousing accompaniment on fiddle. “Never know just what you’re thinkin’, when you look at me that way,” they wistfully sing together in the chorus. For the newly sober Felker, let’s hope it’s not more whiskey in his water.
8. “You’re All I Need To Get By” – Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
While performing on stage together at Hampden-Sydney College in Farmville, Virginia, Terrell collapsed, literally falling into Gaye’s arms. She was rushed to the hospital where doctors discovered a malignant tumor in her brain. Over the next 29 months she would undergo eight surgeries, all ultimately unsuccessful, before dying at the unspeakable age of just 24. Despite all his successes still to follow, it is said with understatement that a devastated Gaye never fully recovered, and in the aftermath fell into a prolonged depression (though his emotional demise also likely contributed to his bitterly agitated 1971 masterpiece, What’s Going On). A year following Terrell’s initial diagnosis, Gaye was performing the euphoric ‘You’re All I Need To Get By’ with Stax vocalist Carla Thomas at the Apollo Theater, when Gaye noticed Terrell, who was seated in the front row in her wheelchair, begin to sing along, prompting Gaye to leave the stage to sing the remainder of the song with Terrell, with whom he shared his microphone. It was Terrell’s final performance before her death in March, 1970. The inspirational, gospel-oriented tune, another gem from songwriters Ashford and Simpson, was played at Terrell’s funeral while Gaye gave his brief, tearful eulogy.
7. “Please Read The Letter” – Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
Is it folk? Is it Americana? Is it lite-pop or alt-country? However you may label it, or choose not to, it’s likely the most remarkable second act in the annals of music. Plant, this golden rock god, the heretofore personification of classic rock & roll in all its thrashing, thunderous excesses, literally reinvents himself alongside Krauss, a critically admired but acutely low-key bluegrass-country singer. And together – note, this is definitely not Plant’s show but a true partnership – they cultivate a rarified collection of evocative, delicate, and effortless beauty. And by the way: this utterly unexpected, simultaneously subtle yet spellbinding piece of work, the album entitled Raising Sand? They did it all in 10 days. Among many other awards, it won Album of the Year at both the Grammy’s and the Americana Music Honors. This particularly haunting song, ‘Please Read The Letter’ won the Grammy for Record of the Year. It had been a long time since Plant rock and rolled. But set together with Krauss, it was no longer a lonely, lonely, lonely time.
- “The Golden State” – John Doe & Kathleen Edwards
John Doe, the former bassist and lyricist for late ‘70’s L.A. punk monoliths X, teamed with acclaimed Canadian singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards for this pulsating rocker on Doe’s 2007 solo record A Year in the Wilderness. Only the wondrous force of their disparate voices divinely weaving together could capture the listener’s attention from the formidable production of thrashing guitars and cymbal crashes. Interestingly, Doe’s sessions also produced an alternate version on which Eddie Vedder’s vocals seize the song. That there are few who can outdo Vedder should be self-evident, yet Doe and Edwards’ overpowering take does just that.
6. “Mockingbird” – Carly Simon & James Taylor
I’ll brook simply no mocking of ‘Mockingbird.’ What may have seemed almost a novelty hit to some was in reality a masterful work on multiple levels. Simon and Taylor’s 1974 recording was, of course, a remake (the original, a 1963 R&B ditty by brother and sister duo Inez and Charlie Foxx, based on the lullaby ‘Hush Little Baby’). But Simon’s version – the tune appeared on her album Hotcakes – brought on board some serious heavy-hitters: Dr. John on keyboards, Robbie Robertson on guitar, Jim Keltner on drums, and jazz luminary Michael Brecker playing a pair of absolutely wailing sax solos that conjure Tin Pan Alley and Dixieland. And then there’s the magical overlapping interchange of vocals between pop/rock’s ‘70’s power couple. Despite Carly and James reportedly not having spoken in decades (they married in ’72 and divorced in ’83), the long-treasured tune remains a family affair: in recent years Taylor has performed the song live with their daughter, Sally, while Simon has done so with their son, Ben. That mockingbird can still sing.
5. “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” – Elton John & Kiki Dee
It came out in 1976. MTV wasn’t born until 1981. Yet somehow the image of this video is indelible to the experience of hearing the song. Elton in a lilac windowpane suit that Don Cherry might’ve turned down; Kiki with giant Dorothy Hamill bangs and ill-fitting overalls; and the two of them flirting coquettishly for four adorable minutes. The tune, written by John and Bernie Taupin under pseudonyms, was actually intended as an affectionate pastiche of the Motown duet style. And Dee, an English blue-eyed soul singer signed to Motown who seemed Sir Elton’s ideal match, was really a late replacement for his intended duet partner Dusty Springfield, who withdrew due to illness. The snappy, sweet-sounding single reached #1 in both the UK and US, and remains one of the most irresistible sing-alongs ever. With or without those outfits.
- “The Other Side of Pain” – Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams
The final married couple in our countdown (that’s seven appearances among the 30 selections), are both veterans of the folk-rock, Americana scenes. Multi-instrumentalist Campbell, in particular, has enjoyed lengthy terms with a veritable who’s-who including Bob Dylan’s “Never Ending Tour” band, Little Feat, Black Crowes, and as musical director for Levon Helm’s longtime Midnight Ramble concerts. But it’s Williams whose warm, clear-toned croon resonates as the perfect complement to Campbell’s earthy gruffness on this, the lead track off their 2017 sophomore record as a pair, Contraband Love. The song is an angry, gripping middle finger from a jilted partner to their ex (“I hope someday I can wish you well / ‘cause if that snowball ever makes its way through hell”), but you’d never know it from the triumphal air of their unified harmonies which reasonably do evoke the other side of pain, that being pleasure.
4. “Where Is the Love” – Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway
As magnificent as were several of Roberta Flack’s songs that chronologically sandwiched it (‘First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,’ ‘Killing Me Softly With His Song’ and ‘Feel Like Makin’ Love’), I’m not sure anything could match the pristine beauty she found merging her beguiling vocals with her oft-collaborator Donny Hathaway on the heart-wrenching ballad ‘Where Is The Love.’ My goodness, Chuck Rainey was on bass, Bernard Purdie played drums, and that string arrangement?! Everything impeccably blended together in this immaculate production. This song could leap off a turntable and be hanging in a museum.
3. “Then Came You” – The Spinners & Dionne Warwick
This mid-‘70’s soul/pop classic makes the list with a minor asterisk: rather than two individuals duetting as with every other entry, it’s legendary Dionne Warwick paired with a band. First it’s Bobby Smith joining Warwick in the song’s opening half, then Phillippe Wynne scat-singing and ad-libbing across her later parts. You might say that she rotates between two Spinners. Though one of music history’s biggest hit makers – an incredible 80 of her singles have made the Hot 100 – Dionne’s career was at an ebb in 1974 until famed Philadelphia Sound producer Thom Bell (Stylistics, Delfonics) arranged for this summit, with the resulting recording going to #1 on the Billboard chart, her first ever song to do so. For the acclaimed Spinners, also already riding high as one of soul music’s most successful acts, it was their first pop chart-topper as well. Those seem like good enough reasons for making a small rule-breaking exception.
- “You’re Still Standing There” – Steve Earle & Lucinda Williams
This one is my single favorite of the lesser-knowns on the list, because to me it best exemplifies what, perhaps, is most intriguing about the male/female duet (or probably just duets in general). Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams are both pretty big deals; although possibly still unknown to a segment of mainstream music audiences, they’re both titans of outlaw country/alt-country/Americana/heartland rock/roots/folk/singer-songwriter, etc. All of it. They’re absolute pillars of these overlapping genres, and for many decades now. But it must be said that neither exactly possesses a super singing voice, at least in the traditional sense. Expressive, passionate, textural, and above all, devastatingly real. But operatic warblers they are not. Which brings us to this song, a rollicking track off Earle’s standout 1996 album I Feel Alright. When these two beautiful but imperfect forces integrate for the 2nd chorus, almost reluctantly at first, and then again for the 3rd and 4th choruses in fuller voice, the synthesis just about buckles my knees. A magical concoction, inexplicable, but so much better than the sum of its parts.
2. “It Takes Two” – Marvin Gaye & Kim Weston
“One can have a dream, baby / Two can make that dream so real”
Before Marvin Gaye ever sang a note with Tammi Terrell, beginning a partnership which would be unrivaled in popular music history, he’d already completed another spectacular session with Motown alumna Kim Weston. It was a collection entitled Take Two that yielded the otherworldly – and on-the-nose titled – smash hit single ‘It Takes Two’ (the album was apparently named following the successful release of the single). The verse lines are rattled off, Weston first calling out the “one” then Gaye responding with his “two,” until the chorus brings the one and two together for “It takes two, baby / It takes two, baby / Me and you / Just takes two.” Simple enough, but brilliantly executed throughout. Both were still only in their mid-twenties at the time, but were able to deliver the lines with both buoyancy and poignance, a challenging line to straddle. And the lilting, swaggering three-minute tune flies by on the tangible strength of that connection. Shortly after this album was released, Weston left Motown in a dispute over royalties. Her replacement as Gaye’s new duet partner was Tammi Terrell. It takes two, baby (and not just to tango).
1. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” – Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
The story of Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell is the stuff of legend, the kind Hollywood would write. A love story, as well as a tragedy. And their recordings left off this list could fill another one. ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,’ above all others, became their signature song (and the only tune perfect enough to eclipse the otherwise quintessential nature of a song/sentiment like the preceding ‘It Takes Two’ from obviously landing atop a best-of duets list). It’s intimate and ecstatic, an anthem full of love. I can think of nothing better than the chorus of this number to epitomize the incandescent unity – a oneness – that can occur with the marriage of a male and female voice. And, incredibly, this mountainous pinnacle was the very first release of their remarkable run. Three years later the song was entirely remade and re-recorded by Diana Ross and it became an even bigger hit again, rising to number one on both the pop and R&B singles charts. But Miss Ross sang it alone. And as this, of course, is an accounting of the greatest duets of all time, it remains absolutely clear that even as it relates to a deity like Diana Ross, Marvin and Tammi reign supreme.
And finally for your listening pleasure, here’s the full list from top to bottom. Maybe find yourself a suitable partner and give it a play. Together.
Rob MacMahonJuly 1, 2022 3:22 pm
BG: Dude?! I thought for sure you were gonna salute the brilliant duetting of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood in “Some Velvet Morning” That tune is magically eerie and simply awesome. RMac