10 Must-Hear Live Albums: R&B + Soul Edition

From Sam Cooke to Alicia Keys, these concert LPs stand the test of time.

Written by Emilee Lindner • Photography by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images • March 6, 2017

Lalah Hathaway - Lalah Hathaway Live (2015)

For her 2015 live album, which won Best R&B Album at the 2017 Grammy Awards, Lalah Hathaway made a pointed decision to record at Los Angeles’ Troubadour, the same venue where her father recorded much of his 1972 album Donny Hathaway Live. It’s her seventh album, and includes her cover of her dad’s “Little Ghetto Boy,” along with the single, “Angel,” and the heartwarming lullaby for the soul, “Mirror”—“Sometimes you gotta make the mirror your best friend, and maybe then you’ll find some peace within,” Hathaway sings in a sultry, low alto so smooth and effortless that it’ll cradle you into tranquility. Funded through Pledge Music, the album was produced by Terrace Martin and Robert Glasper, who appears on “Lean on Me.”

Aretha Franklin - Live at Fillmore West (1971)

It doesn’t get any more seminal than this. Aretha’s in-your-face dose of old-school soul was recorded at Fillmore West in San Francisco, where, legend has it, producer Jerry Wexler wanted to capitalize on the hippie culture in the area. To do that, Franklin covered Stephen Stills’ “Love The One You’re With,” The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Bread’s “Make It With You.” She also did a version of fellow Motown hitmaker Diana Ross’ “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand).” Ray Charles joined the Queen of Soul for a duet on “Spirit in the Dark.” Don’t worry, Franklin’s fantastic version of “Respect” is on there too. With big brass, a passionate group of backup singers and a bass that thumped all over the place, Aretha busted out her legendary vocals and provided grooves on a Fender Rhodes piano. She's got a handful of 2017 dates in store, so be sure to catch her live.

Al Jarreau - Look to the Rainbow Live (1977)

While Al Jarreau’s first love was jazz, his 1977 live album Look to the Rainbow is just as much rhythm and blues as it is jazz. A Fender Rhodes dishes up a delicious smattering of soul, with Jarreau’s skilled scatting sprinkled throughout. The album was recorded in Montreux, Switzerland, and Berlin, and it propelled his fame in Europe. Look to the Rainbow Live went on to win a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album—the vocals, which has Jarreau using his voice as the primary instrument, are the best part of the LP.

Alicia Keys - Unplugged (2005)

With the insane success of her first two albums, Songs in A Minor and The Diary of Alicia Keys, Alicia Keys took to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to play acoustic versions of her hits, along with covers of Gladys Knight’s “If I [Were] Your Woman” (meshed with Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By”), Brenda Holloway’s “Every Little Bit Hurts” and The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses,” recorded with special guest Adam Levine. While it’s the music you come for, Keys’ onstage banter becomes crucial to the experience as she explains why each song heals her heart. Keys’ and her backup singers seem to have their souls synced and their voices tangled in a dreamy, elated celebration of love. The Unplugged album went to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and earned Keys four Grammy nominations.

Stevie Wonder - Stevie Wonder Live (1970)

“You gonna be completely obliterated in the next couple of minutes by one of the super talents of all time.” That’s how Stevie Wonder is introduced at the beginning of his 1970 live album. The live recording is the first of his adult career, having made The 12 Year Old Genius in 1962. The live album doesn’t contain a lot of his hits, which would come a few years further into his career, but you can find “My Cherie Amour” and “For Once In My Life.” Wonder covers Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” with a brassy flair, showing off the range of his golden pipes. Catch Stevie in concert this spring.

Sam Cooke - Live at the Harlem Square Club (1985)

What would a soul albums list be without the man who helped invent soul? Sam Cooke recorded this live album in Miami’s Harlem Square Club in 1963, but after obtaining the live tracks, his label dubbed the performance too gritty for the pop image they had groomed for Cooke. They filed away the album until 1985, when they finally released it. Cooke’s voice has an extra rasp to it on the recording, as opposed to the smooth voice on his radio singles, and the atmosphere of the crowded club was captured with background chatter and whoops, transcending any listener to the throwback show.

Erykah Badu - Live (1997)

As soon as you pop on Erykah Badu’s 1997 live album, you’re transported. The album opens up with a magical mist of an introduction, beckoning Badu to enter the stage by chanting her name. Badu comes through with soulful songs from her debut album, Baduizm, and a conversation with the audience about spirituality and life. The album and its single, “Tyrone” (beloved and sassy and even more rousing with the audience’s screams during every “screw you” moment), were both nominated for Grammys. The LP went double platinum and made it into the top five of the Billboard 200 albums chart. Coincidentally, during the recording of Live, Badu was pregnant with son Seven, who was born on the day of the album’s release. Catch Erykah in concert this spring.

Beyoncé - Live at Wembley (2004)

No matter which era of Beyoncé is your favorite, you should never forget her very first solo tour, where she proved what she could do after Destiny’s Child. The live album was recorded at Wembley Arena on her Dangerously in Love Tour. The dramatic stage theatrics seen in the album’s accompanying DVD was just the start of her visual direction and inspired artists, like Miranda Lambert, funnily enough, to amp up their stage show. With favorites “Baby Boy” and “Crazy in Love,” the album also has Beyoncé diving into a Destiny’s Child medley and covering Vanity 6 and Little Willie John.

Luther Vandross - Live Radio City Music Hall (2003)

Smooth jam king Luther Vandross recorded the last concert of his career at Radio City Music Hall, two months before he would suffer from a stroke. Nevertheless, the album is filled to the brim with Vandross’ unique energy, often showing up the studio versions of his songs. Favorites like “Never Too Much,” “Here and Now” and “Stop to Love” appear on the disc, and Vandross includes his covers of “Superstar” and “A House Is Not A Home.” It’s definitely an album you’ll want to listen to while snuggling with a special someone.

Bill Withers - Live at Carnegie Hall (1972)

Bill Withers took his popular Still Bill tracks to Carnegie Hall in New York, where the humble songwriter became dramatic showman, full of soul and style. Withers staples “Lean on Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Use Me” were all played at the show, but one of the true album standouts is the solemn and bluesy “I Can’t Write Left-Handed,” a song that Withers claims is not political, while going on to sing about the effects of war—like a man who lost his arm in Vietnam. He ends his set with a groovy, clap-along medley of “Harlem” and Withers’ “Cold Baloney,” which he wrote for The Isley Brothers. “I like to leave y’all singing,” Withers says during the performance. He leads fans through a call-and-response, and as the crowd is still rowdy, the album fades away.

Ready for more great concert albums? Check out 10 Must-Hear Live Rock Albums and 10 Must-Hear Live Pop Albums.