If you remember the glory years of VH1's biography series Behind the Music, then watch Unsung. It's the best music program on television right now.
The concept behind the series is simple: Retell the histories of black music artists who either didn't go pop or didn't achieve the fame they deserved. The stories that result are far more interesting than the blow up/get sick/have a family member die/cop a drug addiction/recover older-but-wiser treadmill that eventually made Behind the Music so predictable. The Unsung producers have exhibited good timing, too. They recorded the final interview with Vesta Williams (best known for the late-'80s quiet storm ballad "Congratulations") before she died in 2011, as well as one of R&B heroine Teena Marie's final on-camera interviews before she passed in 2010.
Unsung's stories also include that of David Ruffin, who not only made a power play for leadership of The Temptations that led to his being kicked out of the group, but also was notorious for abusing women, and yes, he indeed smacked then-girlfriend Tammi Terrell with a motorcycle helmet. Ruffin was no saint, and interviews with former colleagues and family members admirably explored the qualities that made him one of the most brilliant singers of his generation without brushing over his ugly contradictions. There was an episode on Terrell, too, and how she teamed up with Marvin Gaye to record timeless love songs like "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," only to die from a brain tumor at the tragically young age of 24.
One of its most heartbreaking episodes featured Con Funk Shun, the Oakland-to-Atlanta band that dominated R&B airwaves in the early '80s despite only two minor pop hits ("Ffun" and "Too Tight"). Its surviving members are haunted by regrets over kicking out its founding drummer, Louis McCall, who then suffered a nervous breakdown. His subsequent 1997 murder remains unsolved. In contrast, Ray Parker, Jr.'s episode is hilarious; even his friends laughed when he evolved from a bassist and songwriter for Raydio to the reedy-voiced star who made "Ghostbusters." "You can't sing!" they said. But the end of the episode shows Ray Parker driving up to his big mansion in the hills and flopping on a beach chair by his big-ass pool. Call it poetic justice.
Unsung is manna for music nerds. It's true that the series has deviated from its original mission. Recent stories include George Clinton (who is hardly unsung) and Sly & the Family Stone, though an interview with the notoriously reclusive Sly Stone himself makes that one worthwhile. Overall, you'd be hard-pressed to get this information anywhere else, and I often find myself taking notes during the show. I mean, where else are you going to learn about the careers of Miki Howard and Angela Bofill? I'm not the only one, either: Rhapsody streams usually spike for artists featured on the program.
So in honor of the show's seventh season, which launched January 21, I've assembled a playlist of the many stars featured during its first six seasons. I left out anyone inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame -- Clinton, Ruffin, Bootsy Collins, Florence Ballard of The Supremes, Sly, Bobby Womack and The O'Jays. These amount to trivial exceptions, though, as the resulting playlist teems with 45 artists and nearly four hours of incredible soul music. Dive in and have fun.