A timeline of Canadian R&B, from its early years to today's golden era
From Salome Bey to Deborah Cox to Daniel Caesar, we celebrate 60 years of the genre
Written by Erin Ashley Lowers.
Canada's musical landscape is not only rich in history but it is also shaped by our ever-changing immigrant culture.
From Jackie Shane to the Weeknd, Canadian R&B/soul has become a humble hero in a world of flashy stadium lights. The genre embodies the saying, "If these walls could talk," its stories nestled in the bodies of dimly lit venues and intimate lounges, continuing to age like fine bottles of whiskey and getting retold to each new generation.
Through its 60-year history, R&B/soul has always been a gold thread stitching Canada's musical landscape together, and we're celebrating its journey from the early years to today's golden era.
With a wave of immigrants from the Caribbean arriving in Canada during the 1960s and, more specifically, in Toronto, the local music scene started to incorporate more distant sounds. Genres like funk and the emerging R&B/soul music got a little more flavouring via ska, rocksteady and reggae artists, a development that would be documented through the compilation album Jamaica to Toronto: Soul Funk and Reggae 1967-1974, created by DJ Sipreano and Light in the Attic.
The result of serious crate-digging, the project featured Black artists from the Caribbean and America who settled in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal — acts such as Eddie Spencer, Willie McGhie, the Cougars and Johnnie Osborne.
While a flight from Jamaica to Toronto took roughly eight hours at that time, for American artists like Nashville's Jackie Shane and New Jersey's Salome Bey, the road to Canada was more direct.
And so, the circuit began, and venues like Sapphire Tavern and the Bluenote (Toronto), Esquire Show Bar and Soul Heaven (Montreal), and even Arrow Club and the Club Unusual (Halifax) became the spaces for R&B/soul music to flourish.
In the 1950s, Shane joined a travelling carnival with the hope of escaping the Jim Crow South and arrived in Cornwall, Ont., in 1959 before moving to Montreal in 1960. While there, Shane, still presenting as a man, was asked to sing onstage by Frank Motley, an American R&B and jazz bandleader working in Canada. It would be a life-changing moment. Shane became the lead vocalist for the Motley Crew and would soon relocate to Toronto and release a cover of William Bell's "Any Other Way" in 1963.
In contrast to Bell's original version, Shane's cover called on dramatic horns and stuttering drums. While Shane would be compared to Etta James, she was steadfast in her unique style and brought the soul of the south to the north. "Any Other Way" would reach No. 2 on Toronto's CHUM Chart, as well as No. 124 on Billboard's Heatseeker chart in 1963, becoming the first victory for R&B/soul in Canada and a pioneering moment for the industry at home.
Salome Bey picked up where Shane left off. After relocating to Toronto in the early '60s, Bey found herself performing in the local jazz club circuit and quickly acquired the title "Canada's first lady of the blues." Not only was the title well-deserved, but it also made sense while listening to a song like "Hit the Nail Right on the Head."
Dripped in layers of strings, drums and horns, the song was an extension of the work Bey had been doing with her siblings (Andy & the Bey Sisters), except it allowed her to be the star. Floating effortlessly over the record, Bey's deep voice merged jazz and soul elements to create a style that would be indicative of years to come — including her Grammy Award-winning work on Broadway's Your Arms too Short to Box with God: A Soaring Celebration in Song and Dance.
Though many people were coming to Canada to make music, the trend of artists moving across the border for greener pastures started to be normalized as artists like Harrison Kennedy moved from Hamilton, Ont., to Detroit to join funk-soul group Chairmen of the Board.
Before R&B/soul music knew the begging, pleading, and down-on-bended-knee, in-the-rain dance choreography, it knew "Give me Just a Little More Time." The honey-covered single was full of emotion and would reach No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the U.K., sell more than one million copies by May 1970 and go gold. For Canadians, Harrison's involvement would open up the idea of world success for years to come.
Toronto-based funk-R&B ensemble Crack of Dawn, loosely modelled after Earth, Wind & Fire, would make history by becoming the first Black Canadian group to sign a contract with a major record label — a critical moment for the industry at large. After being discovered by American producer Bob Gallo in Toronto's Little Jamaica neighbourhood, the group would land a deal with Columbia Records in 1975 and release its debut self-titled album the following year, which included the pop-oriented single "It's Alright (This Feeling)."
Showing versatility and crossover appeal, "It's Alright (This Feeling)" would usher in a new era of cross-genre collaboration for Canadian R&B/soul music, and in the process, also make it more palatable for an audience yet to jump on the soul train.
The '80s would observe another change within the music industry as the famed Juno Awards would introduce a dedicated category for best R&B/soul recording in 1985. Liberty Silver, a Detroit-born, Toronto-based singer, became the first Black recipient of the award and would also become the first Black woman to win a Juno Award, for her album Lost Somewhere Inside Your Love. But it was a soft, piano-driven single of the same name that would bring forth a future of Canadian R&B/soul powerhouse ballads.
After winning the Juno Award for best R&B/soul recording in 1986 for his album Love is a Contact Sport, Ohio-raised but Toronto-based singer Billy Newton-Davis would release his second album, Spellbound, in 1989. It resulted in his biggest Canadian record to date, "Can't Live With You," featuring Celine Dion. Seeing that this was just Dion's second English single in her career, the traditionally styled duet marked a seminal moment by introducing a working partnership between the English and French markets for R&B/soul music.
On the brink of a new decade came the start of another shift that would change the landscape for Canadian R&B/soul for years to come. In 1990, Denham Jolly founded Milestone Radio Inc. and would apply to the CRTC for a licence to operate an "urban" music station. Unfortunately, he would be denied several times over the next decade despite hip hop and R&B/soul artists being sought after by American labels instead of the support needed at home, igniting a long-standing battle faced by R&B/soul artists in Canada.
Made up of Chin Injeti, Ivana Santilli and MC Mystic, Toronto group Bass is Base created music that was true to its name: funky, soulful and full of life. After releasing its debut album, First Impressions for the Bottom Jigglers, on its own label, SoulShack, Bass is Base honed in on all the elements of funk music, both sonically and vocally, as each member doubled their roles in the group: Injeti (vocalist, bassist), Santilli (keyboard, singer) and MC Mystic (percussion, rapping).
Their single "Funkmobile" quickly gained attention, and the video, supported by MuchMusic, revealed that they were a multi-race group in a predominantly Black genre, indicating an upcoming shift in the industry once again.
After signing with then Arista Records president Clive Davis in 1992, Deborah Cox released her debut self-titled album in 1995. She quickly became a Top 40 success in Canada and would peak at No. 4 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart with the release of "Sentimental." Cox would also earn two Juno Awards for the album in 1995 and 1996, and was nominated for best new artist at the American Music Awards in 1997. But it was her 1998 single "Nobody's Supposed to be Here" that would cement her place in R&B/soul music history.
The certified platinum single would fall in line with the heart-tugging songs from R&B divas like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, and highlight Cox's electric vocal range and superior emotion. The song would spend 14 consecutive weeks at No. 1 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles chart.
Though she had already had success and earned Grammy nominations for her work with Quincy Jones, Windsor, Ontario-raised singer Tamia's big break came with the release of her debut self-titled album in 1998. While fellow R&B artists Brandy and Mario Winans recorded the reference track, it was Tamia's stripped vocals and pop sound that led the single to reach cult classic status in the R&B/soul world. Peaking at No. 7 on the U.S. Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart, a remix single featuring Talib Kweli would be released and be considered a timeless classic in both the R&B and hip hop worlds.
After 10 years of fighting to create an on-air home for R&B/soul in Canada, Jolly was finally awarded a radio show licence from the CRTC. In 2001, the nation would see the first significant "urban" radio station in the form of Flow 93.5 FM, which would breathe new life into Canada's Black music infrastructure. While rap music had already gained some support within the industry, a more lucid R&B sound, which now also extended to pop, would finally get some much-needed nourishment.
With the '90s spotlight still shining on Canada a decade later, several artists signed with major American labels, including Glenn Lewis (Epic Records), Jully Black (Universal Music Canada), Remy Shand (Motown) and Jacksoul (Sony Music Canada/BMG). Likewise, independent artists such as Ivana Santilli and Massari would create their own success stories and shape the scene for more independent artists to come.
As R&B continued to grow within Canada, a new generation of artists, including Kreesha Turner, Keshia Chante, Divine Brown and Melanie Fiona, rapidly rose. However, after Drake released his So Far Gone mixtape in 2009, the direction of R&B music in Canada would change forever.
Toronto singer Jully Black bravely took on the big band swing song "Seven Day Fool," first recorded by Etta James in 1961, as the first single for her second album, Revival. Re-released in 2007 and backed by production from Black Eyed Peas drummer and songwriter Keith Harris, "Seven Day Fool" became a widely distributed single in Canada and Black's first Top 10 single on the Canadian Hot 100. With the success of the single, Black would become the first solo Black female vocalist nominated for the Junos' single of the year in 27 years. A decade later, Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers would cover the song on their album No Good Deed.
After starting her career in the Toronto-based group the Renaissance (which included Drake), Melanie Fiona took her first solo steps in 2009, releasing her debut album, The Bridge. The album's third single, "It Kills Me," would create a space for Fiona to quickly climb the ranks from local favourite to international breakout star. Sampling "(Hey There) Lonely Girl" by the Softones, the song proved to be a ballad-worthy single equipped with depth, pain and drama. "It Kills Me" would strike the No. 1 spot on the U.S. Billboard R&B charts for nine weeks and also earn Fiona a Grammy nod for best R&B female vocal performance. The success of "It Kills Me," as well as The Bridge at large, would enable Fiona to unveil a new layer of success for women in Canadian R&B.
The nation already knew Drake from his acting career, but by the mid-2000s, Drake re-emerged as a rapper on the Toronto music scene. He became known in the battle scene before releasing his first two mixtapes to critical acclaim. With "Best I Ever Had' permeating the airwaves, Drake followed up with "Successful," featuring R&B singer Trey Songz. Conceptually, the slow jam was the perfect balance between hip hop and R&B, but in an unexpected twist, Songz wasn't the only one singing on the single. The reverb-driven harmony from Drake allowed him to enter the R&B space while alternating between worlds — it was something the hip hop community had seen before (Kanye West, for example), but it would be a revolutionary moment not only for Drake but also the decade in R&B music ahead.
By the 2010s, Canada's talent pool had not only grown abundantly, but its artists had also started to become household names globally. As Drake and the Weeknd emerged as global superstars, more Canadian artists, such as PartyNextDoor, began to shape their own space in the genre. Even pop sensation Justin Bieber released his own R&B album, Journals, in 2013.
The dark, moody production would become known as the Toronto sound, and it was mimicked worldwide.
While melancholy sonics were trendy, artists like Tanika Charles, Daniel Caesar, Shay Lia, Charlotte Day Wilson and dvsn would rise and continue to hold on to soul music's deep roots by adding their unique spins. Meanwhile, Jessie Reyez, Terrell Morris, Kallitechnis, Sara Diamond and others would modify R&B by adding distinctive sounds pulled from other genres.
In December 2010, the Weeknd, then unknown, would upload three songs to his YouTube page: "What You Need," "Loft Music" and "The Morning." Three months later, he released the critically acclaimed project House of Balloons, produced by Canadians Illangelo and Doc McKinney, and launched his career as a faceless and mysterious figure in Toronto's music scene.
Originally recorded for that 2011 mixtape, "Wicked Games" would resurface as the Weeknd's first official single in 2012. By 2013, the song had gone double platinum and was featured in the movie Southpaw, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker and Rachel McAdams. "Wicked Games" would not only create a new sonic wave with alternative R&B in Canada, but it would also launch the Weeknd's mainstream career.
Nearing the end of the 2010s, a young R&B crooner from Oshawa started bouncing from house to house and playing sets in Toronto's Trinity Bellwoods Park before his big break in 2017 with the release of the Kali Uchis-featuring single, "Get You." Soft yet traditional, modern yet bold, the single serves as a summary of Canadian R&B/soul music history.
"Get You" is as much of an emotional single as it is a power duet, and yet it's stripped down to reveal vocals in their purest form. It could be argued that Caesar single-handedly brought back the most accomplished sounds of soul and gospel music to Canadian R&B, but by successfully breaking through the dark clouds of the music at the beginning of the decade, he paved space for Canada's newest generation of R&B/Soul singers.
Additional listening: PartyNextDoor, "Break From Toronto;" Shay Lia, "Feels;" Tanika Charles, "Soul Run;" Kallitechnis, "Muse;" dvsn, "The Line;" Jessie Reyez, "Shutter Island;" Charlotte Day Wilson, "Work;" Terrell Morris, "Pretty Life;" Nasaya featuring Sara Diamond, "Patterns."
As the 2010s created a space for R&B and soul music to be respected separately, it also made space for alternative styles to flourish and expand beyond Canadian borders. From production to cadences, delivery styles and sampling methods, it became apparent that Canada's R&B/soul scene had officially exploded into the world. For the first time since the 1960s, no longer were Canadian artists relying on the American market to support them — they were finally getting recognition and deciding where they wanted to create, live and exist without the constant pressure of needing to leave for financial freedom.
One thing that Canadian R&B/soul's 60-year journey has taught us is that it adapts beautifully to its circumstances. Whether underfunded, neglected and taken for granted on one hand, or extolled, copied and admired on the other, somewhere between Canada's flannel sheets lays a bed of talent that will always be smoothing out the wrinkles in our musical soundscape.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.