June is African-American Music Appreciation Month (previously known as Black Music Month). Ever since 1977, when then-President Jimmy Carter declared that each June would be recognized as such, the month has been a time to commemorate and celebrate the many contributions that African-Americans have made to music in this country. Each U.S. president since Carter has upheld the tradition and President Barack Obama, in 2009, changed the name to its current designation.
As 2015 is the first year of djrobblog.com, I thought this would be a great opportunity to recognize the most important black musicians of all time with a special countdown. Like my other lists, this one will come with the usual facts and figures.
It’ll also generate mixed reactions from readers who may or may not see some of their favorites on the list. But here’s the thing, this is not a listing of my favorites either. It’s my attempt to give an objective look at the black artists who have done the most to shape American music over the past century.
Artists on this djrobblog list are ranked based on the following seven criteria: 1. Musical Influence 2. Innovation/Invention 3. Longevity/Endurance 4. Record Sales/Chart Performance 5. Historic Significance/Accomplishments 6. Contribution to others’ success 7. Awards/Recognition Artists were considered eligible regardless of genre.
In other words, this is not strictly a ranking of soul or R&B/hip-hop artists. If a black musician made significant contributions to jazz, blues, reggae, country, rock or any other genre, he or she was eligible.
This is not strictly a singer’s list, either. Artists who also made strides as instrumentalists (several jazz musicians fell in this category) also qualified. Likewise, several musicians who were also noted for writing or producing work for themselves or others received special consideration in the rankings. In those cases, the artist had to have significant work as a lead recording artist, with their own music being as noteworthy as the stuff they produced or wrote for others. This stipulation allowed singer/songwriter/producers like Ashford & Simpson to be included, while Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and others more known for their production work did not qualify.
Additionally, artists who were once members of a group but also had solo success were given credit for their group’s work as well as their solo stuff, particularly if the group’s success was primarily due to the individual’s involvement.
In such cases, the group is co-listed with the solo artist and neither one has its own entry on the list. However, the solo artist gets primary billing on the list if that artist is clearly the reason for where the acts jointly rank. You’ll see this in cases like Diana Ross/Supremes, Chaka Khan/Rufus, Lionel Richie/Commodores and Michael Jackson/The Jacksons.
In cases where groups clearly had success due to multiple members’ involvement, then the group is listed first, followed by the individual members. This will be reflected in groups like New Edition, N.W.A. and the Temptations, whose various members share the same ranking on the list as their groups.
An asterisk is needed for this scenario, however. The 1960s group the Impressions owe their success to two key leaders, Jerry Butler and later Curtis Mayfield. Because both men made significant names for themselves after leaving the Impressions, and because the Impressions’ success was clearly due to each man’s contributions, Butler and Mayfield are each credited for their respective group leadership roles and are afforded their own rankings on this list. Because both Butler and Mayfield have separate rankings, the Impressions as a group are not listed. A similar scenario exists for the Drifters and their two key members, Ben E. King and Clyde McPhatter.
Finally, although this is considered an “all time” ranking, this list is in actuality limited to musicians of just the past 100 years or so. It was difficult to go back before 1920 and compare those artists to the more contemporary ones. Circumstances and sounds were far too different then. In fact, it proved challenging to even compare artists that fell within the eligible 100-year window given the wide variety of genres and styles that have evolved over the past century. Nonetheless, I’ve come up with a list that attempts to to do just that.
There’s a special DJRob playlist of key songs from these artists available on Spotify, which you can hear by clicking here.
So here it is, Part 1 of the djrobblog countdown of the 100 Greatest Black Musicians of All Time:
100. Millie Jackson. Why she’s on the list: She put the “B” in bitch long before Lil’ Kim and others were even allowed to say the word. She didn’t have a lot of chart success, but Millie Jackson pushed the raunch envelope during the 1970s and ’80s with provocative albums and even more inappropriate album cover art (her Back to the Shit album depicts her sitting on a toilet). Memorable songs: “It Hurts So Good,” “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want To Be Right,” “If You’re Not In Love By Monday.”
99. Mary Wells. Why she’s on the list: For a moment, she was Motown’s First Lady. She gave the legendary record label its first #1 pop hit with the Smokey Robinson-penned, “My Guy” in 1964. She unexpectedly left the label that same year at the height of her popularity, a decision that likely led to her demise in the music business. She was the first black woman to have a #1 single on Billboard’s Hot 100, and the first solo woman of any race to have three consecutive top tens. Memorable songs: “You Beat Me to the Punch,” “Two Lovers,” “My Guy.”
98. Buddy Guy. Why he’s on the list: The Chicago blues circuit owes a lot of its popularity to this Louisiana-to-Chicago transplant. One of the oldest living legends on this Greatest 100 list, he is cited by many rock and roll guitar legends as having been their influence, including such superstars as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Memorable songs: “Hoodoo Man Blues,” “I Left My Blues in San Francisco” and “Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues.”
97. Lou Rawls. Why he’s on the list: This soulful, smooth and mellow crooner with baritone voice was about as unique and recognizable as they came. South side Chicago was his home, but his biggest success came when he signed with Philadelphia International Records in 1976 and gave us classics like “You’ll Never Find” and “Lady Love.” Memorable songs: Those two, plus “Love Is A Hurtin’ Thing,” “Natural Man” and “See You When I Git There.”
96. Ben E. King. Why he’s on the list: As temporary lead singer of the ever-changing group, The Drifters, and later as a solo act, the late Ben E. King gave us classics like “There Goes My Baby,” “This Magic Moment,” “Save The Last Dance for Me,” “Stand By Me” and “Supernatural Thing.” He was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, along with the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, for his role in the Drifters.
95. Wilson Pickett. Why he’s on the list: As Wikipedia puts it, Pickett was a “major player” in the development of R&B music, with over 50 songs that hit the R&B charts, many of which crossed over to pop. He recorded for two of the most soul-friendly labels of all time, Stax and Atlantic Records, and became a key reason for those companies’ rich soul music legacies. Memorable songs: “In the Midnight Hour,” “Land of 1,000 Dances,” “Don’t Knock My Love.”
94. Clyde McPhatter. Why he’s on the list: The original Drifter, McPhatter had many hits with the group and as a solo artist. He was instrumental in advancing the popularity of doo-wop and R&B during a time when it was still just beginning to crossover to pop audiences. He is the first artist ever to be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice: first for his Drifters success and then for his solo work. Memorable songs: “Money Honey” (with the Drifters), “Treasure of Love,” “A Lover’s Question.”
93. Toni Braxton. Why she’s on the list: She’s one of the biggest selling artists of the 1990s, having sold 40 million albums. Her “Un-break My Heart” is one of the ten biggest selling singles of all time by a female, with world-wide sales of 10 million copies. Having performed at the Super Bowl (SB XXXIV in 2000), and with a Las Vegas residency under her belt, there’s not much this superstar hasn’t accomplished. Memorable songs: “Breathe Again,” “You Mean The World To Me,” “You’re Makin’ Me High” and “He Wasn’t Man Enough.”
92. Teddy Pendergrass/Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. Why he/they are on the list: Teddy Pendergrass was the reason for Harold Melvin’s success, which manifested itself when Teddy took over lead vocals for the group in 1972 with their first major hit, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.” When Teddy left the group in 1976, his solo career took off. He became the first major sex symbol of R&B with classics like “Close The Door,” “Turn Off the Lights” and “Love T.K.O.” Other memorable songs: “Wake Up Everybody” and “Bad Luck ” (both with Harold Melvin/Blue Notes), and “The Whole Town’s Laughing At Me.”
91. Ohio Players. Why they’re on the list: They’re one of the original figures in funk-oriented R&B music. Their brand of funk was sprinkled on both ballads and uptempo classics alike, and their provocative album covers (usually featuring scantily clad women with seductive poses with suggestive props) were legendary. They were the first “funk” group to hit #1 on the pop chart and they did it twice: first with “Fire” in 1975, then with “Love Rollercoaster” the following year. Memorable hits: “Skin Tight,” “Sweet Sticky Thing,” “Who’d She Coo” and the two #1 singles mentioned above.
90. Public Enemy. Why they’re on the list: They were the pioneers of rap with a conscience. Over two decades after the civil rights movement ended, Chuck D. and company took the silly out of rap and reminded blacks of our relative standing in America at a time we (and the rest of America) weren’t ready to hear it during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Public Enemy had a pulse on young black America with classics like “Fight The Power” and “Can’t Truss It.” Other memorable songs include: “Bring the Noise,” “911 is a Joke” and “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.”
89. Isaac Hayes. Why he’s on the list: Primarily known for his music score for the 1970s Blaxploitation film, Shaft, R&R Hall of Famer Isaac Hayes was also one of the creative forces behind the Memphis-based Stax Records label. He served as an in-house writer, session musician and producer for the label. He wrote “Soul Man” by Sam & Dave, along with several other Stax classics. Memorable songs: “I Stand Accused,” “Walk On By,” “Theme from Shaft” and “Don’t Let Go.”
88. LL Cool J. Why he’s on the list: No other solo rapper has managed to stay relevant for as long as L.L. Cool J. And his is a career that now spans 30 years, dating back to “I Can’t Live Without My Radio.” First with music, then with acting, and now with an annual hosting gig at the music industry’s biggest event, the Grammys, LL Cool J has charted a success path that few expected when his “Radio” was blaring on turntables in 1985. Memorable songs: “I Need Love,” “I’m Bad,” “Goin’ Back To Cali,” “Rock The Bells” and “Mama Said Knock You Out.”
87. Bill Withers. Why he’s on the list: Withers is probably one of the most under-appreciated musicians on this chart. He isn’t the most commercially successful artist (then again, neither are 98 of the other acts on this list), however, his music is timeless and he finally received his due when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just this year. Memorable songs: “Lean On Me,” “Use Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lovely Day” and “Just the Two of Us” (with Grover Washington, Jr.).
86. Run-DMC. Why they’re on the list: Without their innovative rock-and-rap approach to hip-hop in the early 1980s, rap music might not be as successful (and accessible to mainstream America) as it has been for the past nearly-30 years. Their hard-edged, guitar-driven “Rock Box” was unheard of when it was released in 1984 and they never looked back. Joining forces with rock legends and fellow rock hall of famers, Aerosmith, Run-DMC broke down racial barriers with their 1986 classic, “Walk This Way.” Other memorable songs: “It’s Like That,” “Jam Master Jay,” “My Adidas” and “It’s Tricky.”
85. Spinners. Why they’re on the list: This group, like the Drifters before them, managed to succeed with several different lead singers, most notably the late Bobby Smith and Philippe Wynne with whom they scored their biggest hits in the 1970s. Memorable songs include (along with their leads in parentheses): “It’s A Shame” (G. C. Cameron); “I’ll Be Around,” “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love,” “Games People Play” (Bobby Smith); “Mighty Love,” “Sadie” and “Rubberband Man” (Philippé Wynne); “Workin’ My Way Back To You”/”Forgive Me Girl” and “Cupid”/”I’ve Loved You For a Long Time”(Jonathan Edwards).
84. Shirley Caesar. Why she’s on the list: She’s the “First Lady of Gospel Music” with eleven Grammys, 13 Stellar Awards and 18 Dove Awards to her credit. She’s one of the few gospel artists to have sold records in the millions and she’s influenced many others, including Mavis Staples, Candi Staton (remember her?). She’s in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame with over 40 albums under her belt. Memorable songs: “No Charge,” “Blessed Assurance,” “He’s Working It Out For You” and “Hold My Mule.” 83. Alicia Keys. Why she’s on the list: Keys is a noted singer, songwriter, producer, pianist and philanthropist who has won many awards in her 14 years of popularity. When she debuted in 2001, she was considered the first new artist of the millennium with the ability to change music, which she did by incorporating classical piano into her unique blend of R&B, soul, hip-hop and even jazz. Memorable songs: “Fallin’,” “You Don’t Know My Name,” “Diary,” “No One,” “Karma” and “Empire State of Mind.”
82. Kool & the Gang. Why they’re on the list: Not many music acts can have a successful career, fall off the radar, then reinvent themselves later and have even more success the second time around. That’s what happened with Kool & the Gang when former lead singer, J. T. Taylor joined the group in the late 1970s and began a continuous string of nine years worth of pop and R&B hits. Memorable songs: “Jungle Boogie,” “Hollywood Swinging,” “Funky Stuff,” “Ladies’ Night,” “Celebration,” “Take My Heart,” “Get Down On It,” “Misled,” and “Cherish.”
81. Rihanna. Why she’s on the list: For the past ten years, she’s been a constant force in the pop and R&B music fields, having topped the Billboard Hot 100 thirteen times (ten of those as the lead artist). She’s also sold over 100 million records worldwide in those ten years, placing her among the biggest-selling artists of all time. (Spoiler alert, she’s the only artist in the entire Top 100 who had never charted before 2005.) Memorable songs: “SOS,” “Umbrella,” “Live Your Life,” “What’s My Name,” “Only Girl (in the World)” and “We Found Love.”
80. The Notorious B.I.G. Why he’s on the list: Dubbed the greatest story-teller in hip-hop during the 1990s, Biggie Smalls was one of the most respected street poets of all time. His murder in 1997 was like a punch to the gut of the hip-hop community and left a void that has yet to be filled (in my opinion). His Life After Death album proved prophetic when it generated two #1 pop singles after his death, making him the first artist (rap or otherwise) to accomplish that. Memorable songs: “Juicy,” “Big Poppa,” “Get Money,” “One More Chance/Stay With Me,” “Hypnotize,” “I Got A Story To Tell” and “Mo Money, Mo Problems.”
79. TLC. Why they’re on the list: In 1992, this trio of eclectic personalities succeeded out of the box with their in-your-face top-ten pop/R&B debut crossover “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” (not a remake of the Motown classic). In the next seven years, they managed to become the biggest-selling American female group in music history (65 million records sold). Unfortunately, the tragic death of Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes in 2002 ended their good fortunes. Memorable songs: “What About Your Friends,” “Baby, Baby, Baby,” “Hat 2 Da Back,” “Creep,” “Waterfalls,” and “No Scrubs.”
78. N.W.A. (Ice Cube/Dr. Dré/Eazy E). Why they’re on the list: They changed the rap game. What had been for the most part a safe, sometimes silly and occasionally informative music genre suddenly became dangerous with the success of N.W.A.’s “gangsta rap” in the late 1980s/early ’90s. When their Efil4zaggin’ (spelled backwards, Niggaz4life) reached #1 on the Billboard 200 in 1991, rap and popular music was pretty much never the same. Key members Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy E were no slouches on the solo front as well. Memorable songs: “Straight Outta Compton,” “Fuck Tha Police” and “Appetite For Destruction” (all by N.W.A.); “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang,” “The Next Episode” (both by Dr. Dre); “It Was a Good Day” and “Check Yo Self” (Ice Cube); “Eazy-Duz-It” (Eazy E).
77. Roberta Flack. Why she’s on the list: Before there was Alicia Keys and Lauryn Hill, there was Roberta Flack. In the 1970s, she could do no wrong, releasing sonic classic after classic. “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (1972) and “Killing Me Softly With His Song” (1973) both won Record and Song of the Year Grammys and reached #1 on the Billboard pop charts, making her the first African-American solo female singer to have two solo #1 pop hits (she later added to that by becoming the first to have a third with “Feel Like Making Love”). Memorable songs: The two mentioned above, plus “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” “Where Is The Love,” “The Closer I Get To You,” and “Back Together Again.”
76. Boyz II Men. Why they’re on the list: This Motown quartet had the magic touch during the 1990s, with five #1 songs that spent a total of 50 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. Only three other recording acts have amassed more weeks at #1, Elvis Presley, The Beatles and Mariah Carey…and they all did it with far more songs. The Boyz’ collaboration with Mariah, “One Sweet Day,” still holds the Hot 100 chart record for most weeks at Number One (16). Memorable hits: “Motownphilly,” “End of the Road,” “Water Runs Dry,” “Uhh Ahh,” “I’ll Make Love to You,” “On Bended Knee” and “A Song For Mama.”
So those are the first 25 artists on this special ranking of the 100 Greatest Black Artists of All Time. Didn’t see an artist you expected to see? They may be higher…or they may not have made the cut.
As always, please feel free to comment about your favorite artist that may or may not be ranked where you thought they would. To access a special djrobblog Spotify playlist of these artists’ key songs, click here. DJRob