The duets album is that thing of beauty where two artists, who are stellar on their own, come together to make magic. Like a dance, a great duet requires chemistry and fire; someone takes the lead, the other follows, then the rhythm changes and roles reverse, demonstrating the talent of each singer as well as their ability to use that talent to make their partner shine. Any singer can attempt a duet but not all singers have the intuition necessary for the give and take, the art of making listeners believe that perhaps there is something real (be it romance or friendship) behind the scenes. The illusion can make or break it.
There are many fabulous one-off duet songs that have been released over the years (“Under Pressure,” anyone?) but the focus for our piece here is the album: Can the artists generate sparks for an entire longplay? To be considered for this list, each pairing consists of two artists (no various artist pairings) who have had at least one solo album or standalone single under their belt at the time of recording. It was tough to narrow down but here are 10 albums where two voices come together in harmony, love and heartbreak, creating something truly unforgettable.
We all know there’s not a lot more gut-wrenching than a break-up album inspired by the ending of a real-life relationship. But what about an album recorded by a recently divorced couple? Golden Ring (1976) is just such an album. George Jones and Tammy Wynette married in 1969 and recorded six duets albums together, becoming known as Mr. & Mrs. Country Music, when they split up in 1975. And because their careers had been so intertwined with each other’s for so long, they continued to record and perform together; Golden Ring the first album released after the divorce. The poignancy on songs like the title track, which went to number one on the country charts, about a couple who buy a ring at a pawn shop but it eventually ends up back in a pawn shop, is made more heartbreaking by the knowledge of their divorce. “Cryin’ Time” is another tearjerker as well as the longing love of “Near You.” The incredible vocals of both Jones (gentle, barely hanging on by a thread) and Wynette (strong, but a quake around the corner) will knock you on your ass.
There are good duets albums and then there’s Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway (1972). Both Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway studied music at Howard University, though not concurrently, and formed a friendship. In 1971 they recorded an inspired cover of Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend,” infusing it with a bring-to-your-knees passion that practically redefines the song. Its success spurred album sessions that featured other covers (“You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” and “Baby I Love You,” among others) and originals like “Be Real Black For Me” which implores black listeners to celebrate and love their blackness. The biggest hit off the album is “Where Is The Love,” a smooth as silk pop song about a couple who part due to one or both still being in love with someone else. “For All We Know” is a gut punch and traditional hymn “Come Ye Disconsolate” is brought to gospel-influenced heights. An exploration of love’s highs and lows, the album ends with “Mood,” a subdued instrumental with Flack on piano and Hathaway on electric piano and caps off this album as an artistic achievement.
Those less familiar with country in the ’60s will see the album cover for Just the Two of Us (1968), recognize Porter Wagoner’s and Dolly Parton’s kitschy smiles, and write it off as bubblegum sap, but fans know different. We know that rhinestone suit-wearing Wagoner and the early-in-her-career Parton could drive a pit into your stomach over songs about infidelity, hard times and failing love. Just the Two of Us was the second of 13 duets albums they would record together and we’re talking bleak on songs like “Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark” written by Parton about a couple losing a child and “The Party,” also written by Parton about a married couple blaming themselves for going out and having fun while tragedy hits their kids at home. The upbeat “We’ll Get Ahead Someday” seems like a stick-together-and-we’ll-make-it anthem until you realize the lyrics describe a couple fighting over money problems rather than buckling down together to overcome them. Their cover of “The Dark End of the Street,” a well-known soul ballad, is pure heartache. If you haven’t had a chance to check out the Wagoner & Parton discography yet, Just the Two of Us will have you down the rabbit hole in no time.
Sometimes you just want to be uplifted by a together-forever, love-conquers-all attitude. Enter Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Their first album United (1967) is an undisputed classic but it’s time to shine a light on their second album, You’re All I Need (1968), known for hits like “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and “You’re All I Need To Get By.” Unlike United, Gaye and Terrell sing together in the studio for several songs, and their chemistry and camaraderie just bursts off the record grooves (listen to “I Can’t Help But Love You”). Recording sessions for the bulk of the album occurred before Terrell’s collapse on stage in late ’67 when it was discovered she had a malignant brain tumor, but after recovering from her first of an eventual eight surgeries, she made it back into the studio to record her vocals for “You’re All I Need To Get By.” Written and produced by couple and songwriting team Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, the song opens with a repeated background vocal, Gaye softly begins the first verse, and Terrell asserts her steady presence as Gaye leaps with joy. Then the music swells with both Gaye and Terrell joining together in a beautiful harmony that rises and falls with breathtaking emotion. You’re All I Need is the real deal.
To borrow from the title of a Stevie Nicks song she sang with Don Henley, the vocals of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong on their first duets album, Ella and Louis (1956), are the very definition of “leather and lace.” With his gravelly voice that could bury itself into baritone depths, and her smooth, effortless style that brought heaven down on a cloud, Ella and Louis is an afternoon indoors on a rainy day, a light breeze on a cool spring morning and a cuddle in front of a warm fire, all rolled into one. Despite the rise of rock ’n’ roll in popular music at the time, Fitzgerald had proven interest in old standards was still strong by the success of Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book earlier that year. Backed by the Oscar Peterson Quartet, Fitzgerald and Armstrong deliver a showcase of standards written by the likes of Irving Berlin and the Gershwins. Ballads like “Isn’t This A Lovely Day?” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “Cheek to Cheek” are delivered with a tender sincerity that lingers in the background long after the record has ended.
If creepy cowboy pop rocks your fringe jackets then you probably already know about Nancy & Lee (1968) by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood. Hazlewood had produced Sinatra’s first few albums, singing on several successful singles with her, and then decided they should capitalize on this success by including those singles on a full album. The result was Nancy & Lee, which peaked at No. 13 on the Billboard album charts, and garnered contemporary acclaim as well as cult status over the years. Hazlewood’s dry baritone is offset by Sinatra’s youthful exuberance on covers of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and “Jackson” and as well as the Hazlewood-penned “Sundown, Sundown,” “Sand” and “Lady Bird.” Other standout tracks include the cover “Elusive Dreams” about a woman who loves her partner so much she’ll follow him anywhere no matter the foolish schemes he dreams up, and “Summer Wine” about a man who spends the night with a woman only to wake up and discover his silver spurs and money have been taken. But personal favorite “Some Velvet Morning” is a psychedelic dream of morning after blues, dark sexual tension and Greek mythology. Ambitious and alluring, Nancy & Lee deserves frequent spins.
Peabo Bryson and Roberta Flack were no strangers to working together when they recorded 1983’s Born to Love. Both Bryson and Flack had already established careers as R&B solo artists and reliable duets partners (Flack is so great, I had to pick her twice). Flack had helped on vocals for Minnie Riperton’s posthumously released Love Lives Forever (1980), on which Bryson also contributed vocals. Then they teamed up for a live album in 1980 (Live & More) and finally went all in with hit album Born to Love. At a time when the Quiet Storm radio format was increasingly popular with adult audiences looking for slow, sexy jams, Born to Love hit the spot and then some. It’s perhaps best known for hit single “Tonight, I Celebrate My Love,” an earnest tribute to love but also a celebration of getting busy, but Bryson and Flack appeal to mature audiences with sincere romantic ballads like “Blame It On Me,” “Maybe” and “Can We Find Love Again.” And in the time-honored tradition of genre crossovers, Bryson and Flack take on country song “I Just Came Here to Dance” with smooth grooves. Absolutely made for candle-lit sexy times.
Cheek to Cheek (2014) is just a fun record. Like he did in the ’90s, Tony Bennett brings jazz standards to young audiences by teaming up with pop icon Lady Gaga. They first recorded “The Lady is a Tramp” for Bennett’s Duets II (2011) and Bennett was impressed enough to want to work with her for a whole album. For fans of old jazz standards it’s always great to hear a different singer’s interpretation and phrasing of well-loved songs. Even some of those familiar with Gaga’s music were surprised at how comfortable she could slide into big swinging tracks like “Anything Goes” and “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” as well as tackle more complicated numbers like “Lush Life,” on which she sings solo. While the chemistry between them is more of the proud mentor-mentee variety, Bennett appears reinvigorated on this album, letting Gaga dive in and show off her vocal chops, but he also shows how it’s done in the wistful “But Beautiful” and the sparkly “Cheek to Cheek.” Seriously, just sit back and enjoy the ride on this one.
Two of Stax’s hottest stars at the time, Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, joined together to show fans what a male-female duets soul album could really sound like on 1967’s King & Queen. The album declares its royal title supremacy, but the best part is how the King and Queen face off rather than reign together. Redding’s downhome energetic style weaves around and challenges Thomas’ more polished pop but she more than holds her own, neither side giving an inch on 10 covers and one original (“Ooh Carla, Ooh Otis”). It leads off with a cover of Eddie Floyd’s “Knock On Wood,” and the chemistry between Redding and Thomas sizzles. They even give Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston a run for their money in their own take of “It Takes Two.” Other album highlights include a slow-burn version of “Tell It Like It Is,” the toe-tapping “Lovey Dovey” and the hilarious back-and-forth of “Tramp” on which Thomas takes on the role of a superficial woman who criticizes Redding for his unfashionable style but he doesn’t care. Fun, lighthearted, King & Queen is an essential album for all who breathe air.
In just over a 17-year period, Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty released 11 studio albums together and their incredible chemistry and soaring vocals earned them chart-toppers and iconic status as one of the best country duos ever, and they were never really a couple! It was a professional partnership that made believers out of all who heard them. If you really want to hear Lynn and Twitty belt it out, listen to the title track that starts off their third album Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man (1973). About a love that spans two states and is separated by the Mississippi River, the duo sing about how they won’t let a river keep them from hooking up. Funny and upbeat, it really sets the tone for the rest of the album that runs the gamut between declarations of love, ending love (“Release Me” and “For Heaven’s Sake”) and infidelity on songs like “Our Conscience, You and Me” and “As Good As A Lonely Girl Can Be,” which blames the absences of a lover for her wayward ways. If you like your Lynn feisty and your Twitty unapologetically sexy, this album is for you.
Marcella Hemmeter is a freelance writer and adjunct professor living in Maryland by way of California. When she's not busy meeting deadlines she frequently laments the lack of tamalerias near her house.