Black History: 100 Greatest Black Musicians – Part III

For the past two weeks, I’ve presented the special DJRob Black Music Month countdown of the 100 Greatest Black Musicians of All Time.

It’s a countdown of black artists who have (in my humble opinion) contributed the most to American music over the past nearly 100 years.

Over that time, African-American musicians have made strides in many genres of popular music, including rock and roll, blues, jazz, pop, country, gospel and even opera.  Hence, the countdown is not limited to R&B, soul or hip-hop music.  It considers all genres and all eras of the post WWII era of recorded music history.  Instrumentalists and vocalists, groups and solo artists alike were all deemed eligible for the rankings.  What better way to pay tribute to all these legendary performers than by remembering their many contributions to popular music and culture with a special countdown.

As mentioned in Part I of this series, I used the following criteria in coming up with this set of rankings:

  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

We are halfway through the list with two more weeks to go.  This week I have positions 50 – 26.  By the end of June, I’ll be posting the top 25 greatest black musicians of all time.  Between this article and Part 4, I’ll also have a special ranking of the top 20 black music producers/songwriters of all time.

To see positions 100 – 76, please follow this link: Part I

To see positions 75 – 51, please follow this link: Part II

You can also hear the music by all the artists by clicking here: Nos. 100-76; and here: Nos. 75-51, to access my special Spotify playlists of all the memorable songs mentioned in the articles.

Now let’s pick up with Part III of my special countdown of the 100 Greatest Black Musicans of All Time, with numbers 50 – 26:

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John Coltrane’s rendition of “My Favorite Things” is 13 minutes of pure listening pleasure.

50.  John Coltrane.  Why he’s on the list:  I’m listening to his “My Favorite Things” as I type this and I’m wondering if he shouldn’t be ranked higher.  Perhaps the most complex jazz musician that ever lived, Coltrane was certainly one of the most influential.  He specialized in saxophone – playing tenor, alto and soprano sax – and his name is synonymous with many forms of jazz, including sub genres like avant-garde, hard bop, modal jazz and free jazz.  He’s played with the likes of Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, both of whom are also on this list of greatest musicians.  Coltrane died young (age 40 in 1967), but his legacy has certainly lived on and, in fact, has grown in the decades since.   Memorable songs:  “My Favorite Things,” “Giant Steps,” “Naima,” “Equinox,” “A Love Supreme” and “My One and Only Love” (with Johnny Hartman).

 

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Rock and Roll Hall of Fame legend Al Green achieved all of his biggest hits in the 1970s in a musical partnership with producer Willie Mitchell.

49.  Al Green.  Why he’s on the list:  The Reverend Al Green is on many lists, including Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time (#66), the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Gospel Music Association’s Gospel Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  He also is a Lifetime Achievement Award recipient from BET, has a BMI Icon Award and most recently became a Kennedy Center Honors recipient.  He has eight Grammys for his gospel performances alone and is considered one of “the Last of the Great Soul Singers.”  Memorable songs: “Tired of Being Alone,” “Let’s Stay Together,” “I’m Still in Love with You,” “You Ought to be with Me,” “Call Me (Come Back Home),” “Love and Happiness,” “Look What You Done For Me” and “Full of Fire.”

 

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Count Basie is one of the four legendary artists called out in Stevie Wonder’s classic #1 hit, “Sir Duke,” from 1977.

48.  Count Basie.  Why he’s on the list:  The legendary Count Basie was a pianist and organist who started his own jazz orchestra in 1936 and led it for nearly 50 years (until his death in 1984).  According to Wikipedia, Basie (with his band) innovated the use of two ‘split’ tenor saxophones (a tenor sax player on either side of an alto sax player) at a time when most bands had just one tenor.  He also was noted for “emphasizing the rhythm section, and riffing with a big band,” among other innovations.  In fact, Basie was key to the success of the big band and swing music eras.  As a testament to his stature in the jazz community, he either performed or recorded with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Quincy Jones and Sarah Vaughan.  His Grammy Award winnings for jazz performances spans 26 years (from 1958 to ’84).   Memorable songs:  “One O’Clock Jump,” “April in Paris,” “Lil’ Darlin’,” “Splanky,” “Sleepwalker’s Serenade” and “Ain’t Misbehavin'” (with Ella Fitzgerald).

 

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Forever known for their Motown hits, the Four Tops also had a respectable run of hits during their association with ABC/Dunhill during the ’70s.

47.  Four Tops.  Why they’re on the list:  Except for the Temptations, this was Motown Records premier male recording group during the 1960s, racking up hit record after hit record with a slew of songs created by the legendary Holland-Dozier-Holland.  Unlike most of the groups on this list, they maintained their original lineup of Levi Stubbs (lead singer), Duke Fakir, Obie Benson and Lawrence Payton for 44 years (from 1953 – 97) until the issue was forced with the death of Payton in ’97.  Benson and Stubbs died afterwards, leaving Fakir as the only original member.  When H-D-H left Motown’s stable of writers in 1967, the hits slowed down for the Four Tops.  But they had renewed success when they left Motown for ABC-Dunhill in the 1970s, which continued with Casablanca Records in the 1980s.  Memorable songs:  “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” “It’s the Same Old Song,” “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” “Bernadette,” “Walk Away Renee,” “Still Water (Love),” “Keeper of the Castle,” “Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got” and “When She Was My Girl.”

 

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The late Donna Summer is arguably the biggest disco star ever. She may be the only disco solo act ever inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

46.  Donna Summer.  Why she’s on the list:  There are several artists on this list who can lay claim to one royal crown or another.  However, there will never be another Queen of Disco, the crown Summer earned during the late 1970s.  From the time she moaned her way onto radio with “Love to Love You Baby” in 1975 to the end of the decade when her Bad Girls LP became the 2nd-biggest disco album in history (behind “Saturday Night Fever”), the late Donna Summer practically owned the genre.  She even extended its life when she gave disco a rock-leaning edge (“Hot Stuff” and “Bad Girls”) – a move that likely allowed her not to become an industry casualty when disco was declared dead merely months after Bad Girls fizzled out.  She managed to succeed well into the 1980s.  Memorable songs:  the above-mentioned plus “Spring Affair,” “I Feel Love,” “Last Dance,” “MacArthur Park,” “Dim All the Lights,” “Love is in Control (Finger on the Trigger),” “State of Independence” and “This Time I Know It’s For Real.”

 

Dinah Washington was one of the earliest black crossover artists during the 1950s.

45.  Dinah Washington.  Why she’s on the list:  In her short 39 years of living, she left her mark by recorded in a number of musical styles including jazz, blues, R&B and pop.  She was considered the most successful black female recording artist of the 1950s and was so popular that she was sometimes criticized for allegedly “selling out” to commercialism.  She gave herself the title “Queen of the Blues” and she essentially lived up to it.  In 1993, she was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a fitting recognition for this artist who was cited as an influence by many, including Aretha Franklin.  Memorable songs:”I Wanna Be Loved,” “What a Diff’rence a Day Made,” “Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes),” “A Rockin’ Good Way (To Mess Around and Fall In Love),” “September in the Rain,” and “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby.”

 

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As of this typing, we’re only 10 days from the tenth anniversary of Luther Vandross’ passing (July 1, 2005).

44.  Luther Vandross.  Why he’s on the list:  Because he’s Luther.  A better question may be why he’s not ranked higher.  The answer to that one is tough competition.  Still, Luther Vandross was the premier R&B vocalist of his generation, even if he didn’t always have the chart numbers to prove it.  He “only” had six Number One songs on the R&B chart (and none topped the pop chart – a fact that reportedly always bothered Vandross).  By comparison, Freddie Jackson, who had ten #1 R&B singles during the same timeframe, didn’t make this list.  That’s because we’re still hearing and singing many of Luther’s hits today.  Vandross, the man with three lives (first as a background singer and commercial jingle artist, then as a studio singer with groups like Chic and Change, and finally as a solo artist), achieved his greatest success with his Epic Records catalog between 1981 and ’91.  He wrote some of his own music but had the enviable ability to remake others’ hits into his own signature tunes.  Classic examples include “Superstar” (Carpenters) and “A House is Not a Home” (Dionne Warwick).  Other memorable songs: “Searchin'” and “The Glow of Love” (with Change); “Never Too Much,” “Bad Boy (Havin’ A Party),” “Forever, For Always, For Love,” “Better Love,” “Wait for Love,” “Stop to Love,” “There’s Nothing Better Than Love,” “Here and Now,” “Power of Love/Love Power,” “Dance With My Father.”

 

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The many faces of the late Dizzy Gillespie usually bore one strong common feature: those bulging cheeks.

43.  Dizzy Gillespie.  Why he’s on the list:  As a child, I used to refer to Gillespie as the man with muscles in his cheeks.  And those “muscles” helped make him one of the most celebrated and complex jazz trumpeters in music history.  According to Wikipedia, Gillespie was a “trumpet virtuoso and improviser…adding layers of harmonic complexity previously unheard of in jazz.  His beret and horn-rimmed spectacles, his scat singing, his bent horn, pouched cheeks and his light-hearted personality were essential in popularizing bebop.”  He taught and influenced many other musicians, including Miles Davis, Chuck Mangione and Wynton Marsalis.  From 1937 to ’92 as a lead artist, he released nearly 90 albums.  He also performed or recorded as a sideman (or featured artist) with many greats including Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones and even Stevie Wonder (“Do I Do”).  Memorable songs: “A Night in Tunisia,” “Tin Tin Deo,” “Be Bop,” “Salt Peanuts,” “Groovin’ High” and “Autumn Leaves.”

 

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The late Barry White could arguably be considered the founder of Disco music, with lush strings and four-on-the-floor bass drum arrangements on many of his early hits.

42.  Barry White.  Why he’s on the list:  The “Maestro” Barry White innovated an approach to R&B that was instrumental in advancing the cause for disco music in its earliest days.  During the first half of the 1970s, White infused full string sections into his otherwise R&B-flavored hits and gave them enough of a pop edge to crossover and sell millions of copies in the process.  It often goes unsaid, but if it hadn’t been for the success of songs like “Love’s Theme,” “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe,” and “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything” in 1974, disco music may not have had the success it achieved later in the decade with songs by the Bee Gees, Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor and many others.  But we’d be remiss in referring to Barry White as a disco artist.  He was much more.  His brand of R&B and pop was characterized by full orchestral arrangements and even more unique accompanying rhythm tracks.  White’s influence on American music was immeasurable and his death on the Fourth of July, 2003, only punctuated his status as an American music icon.  Memorable songs: the above-mentioned, plus “I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby,” “Never, Never Gonna Give Ya Up,” “What Am I Gonna Do With You,” “It’s Ecstasy (When You Lay Down Next to Me),” “Oh What A Night For Dancin’,” “Your Sweetness Is My Weakness,” “The Secret Garden” (with Quincy Jones) and “Practice What You Preach.”

 

The late Jackie Wilson was immortalized in the joint-Marvin Gaye tribute song “Nightshift” by the Commodores in 1984, shortly after Wilson’s and Gaye’s deaths.

41.  Jackie Wilson.  Why he’s on the list:  If there ever was a distinction between Rhythm & Blues (or R&B) and soul music, those lines were forever blurred when the late Jackie Wilson came along.  “Mr. Excitement,” as he was known, was an important figure in the transition of R&B (primarily the 1940s and ’50s genre) into soul (1960s and ’70s).  His nickname was attributed to him due to the fervor with which he performed on stage, often doing splits, spins, slides, and even back-flips, dynamic dance moves that later inspired such legends as James Brown, Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley.  His music repertoire was nothing to sneeze at either.  He recorded over 50 hit singles, including six #1 R&B hits and 14 top-20 pop hits.  Memorable songs: “Lonely Teardrops,” “Doggin’ Around,” “Night,” “Baby Workout” and “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.”

 

The late Curtis Mayfield was one of several artists on this list whose deaths followed tragic incidents which affected their quality of life during their last years.

40.  Curtis Mayfield/Impressions.  Why he’s on the list:  The late Mayfield was an icon among icons and is one of the few artists to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice – once for his work with the Impressions, and then as a solo artist.  His work with the Impressions essentially established the group as a soulful, socially-conscious band whose records often included messages of hope and encouragement for a downtrodden race of people during the civil rights era. Some of those songs still resonate today with the increasingly tense race relations in America and the seemingly weekly reminders that the country still hasn’t evolved from where it was 50 years ago during Mayfield’s heyday.  During his very successful solo career in the ’70s, he scored the highly successful Superfly and Claudine soundtracks as well as several hits for others, including Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin.  Memorable songs: “It’s All Right,” “Keep on Pushing,” “Amen,” “People Get Ready” and “We’re a Winner” (all with the Impressions); and “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Going to Go,” “Freddie’s Dead,” “Superfly,” “Pusherman” and “Kung Fu.”

 

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Chaka Khan was at least five different women in her classic video for “I’m Every Woman,” a song remade – with Khan’s blessing – by the late Whitney Houston in 1992.

39.  Chaka Khan/Rufus.  Why she/they are on the list:  The group Rufus, featuring Chaka Khan, emerged in 1974 with “Tell Me Something Good,” and followed that with tunes that became R&B radio staples during the second half of the decade.  However, it wasn’t until the legendary Chaka Khan broke out on her own that people really began to appreciate what made Rufus so special.  After recording her iconic “I’m Every Woman” in 1978, she did double duty as a solo artist and as Rufus’ lead singer until she left the group for good in 1983.  Khan has reportedly sold 70 million records worldwide (including hits with Rufus), and has often been dubbed the “Queen of Funk.”  Her last commercially viable album, 2007’s Funk This, bears witness to this.  I had the privilege of seeing Khan perform a concert in 2012 and she was in top form, performing the songs in their original keys and with an energy that did their original versions justice.  Memorable songs: “Tell Me Something Good,” “You Got the Love,” “Once You Get Started,” “Sweet Thing,” “Fools Paradise,” “At Midnight (My Love Will Lift You Up),” “Hollywood,” “Everlasting Love,” “Stay,” “Do You Love What You Feel,” “Ain’t Nobody” (all with Rufus); “I’m Every Woman,” “Clouds,” “Papillon (a/k/a Hot Butterfly),” “What ‘Cha Gonna Do For Me,” “Got To Be There,” “I Feel For You,” “Through the Fire” and “Angel.”

 

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George Clinton hasn’t reaped all the financial benefits of his classic repertoire of hits from the 1970s, but many rap musicians have.

38.  George Clinton/Parliament/Funkadelic/Bootsy Collins.  Why he/they are on the list:  Funk music pioneer George Clinton and his dual ensembles Parliament and Funkadelic have had a profound impact on popular music that cannot be overstated.  It is reported that Clinton’s music is the 2nd-most sampled in hip-hop behind that of James Brown.  Using Brown and Sly Stone as influences, Clinton forged a unique style of funk from the mid-1970s to early ’80s that experimented with technology (mostly keyboards and synthesizers) and which allowed him to stand alone in the funk music field.  He and his P-funk associates (including for a time, Bootsy Collins) regularly churned out hit after hit, including six Number One R&B singles (“Flashlight,” “Bootzilla,” “One Nation Under a Groove,” “Aqua Boogie,” “(Not Just) Knee Deep” and “Atomic Dog”).  Clinton, Collins and 13 other members of the Parliament-Funkadelic entourage were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.  Memorable songs:  the #1 tunes mentioned above, along with “Chocolate City,” “Tear the Roof off the Sucker (Give up the Funk),” “P. Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up),” “Theme from the Black Hole,” “Agony of DeFeet” (all Parliament); “Cholly (Funk Getting Ready to Roll!)” (Funkadelic); and “The Pinocchio Theory” (Bootsy’s Rubber Band).

 

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Dionne Warwick is one of the most accomplished singers of all time, with a chart run spanning nearly 30 years.

37.  Dionne Warwick.  Why she’s on the list:  Warwick is one of the most enduring artists of all time, having begun her career in 1962 (professionally) and having #1 pop hits as late as 1986 (“That’s What Friends Are For”).  Excluding album cuts and songs by featured acts, Dionne Warwick has charted more singles on the pop chart than any woman other than Aretha Franklin.  She’s also sold over 100 million records worldwide, making her one of the biggest-selling acts of any genre of all time.  By teaming with the legendary songwriting/production team of Hal David and Burt Bacharach, Warwick began a partnership that produced many 1960s classics, several of which have been remade by other artists (“Walk On By,” ” A House is Not a Home,” “Don’t Make Me Over,” “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “I Say a Little Prayer” just to name a few).  She is often relegated to being “Whitney Houston’s cousin,” but I view that as a slight, after all Dionne came first, and her catalog certainly stands alone as one of the most iconic in music history.  Memorable songs: the above Bacharach/David tunes, plus “Valley of the Dolls,” “Alfie,” “Then Came You” (with the Spinners); “I’ll Never Love This Way Again,” “Deja Vu,” “Heartbreaker,” “That’s What Friends are For,” and “Love Power” (with Jeffrey Osborne).

 

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Kanye West’s last six albums have reached #1 and sold millions of copies. His only one not to top the chart: College Dropout, which peaked at #2 in ’04 (but still sold millions).

36.  Kanye West.  Why he’s on the list:  While some may not like what he does or what comes out of his mouth, this rapper out of Chicago has left an indelible mark on music over the past dozen years, ever since his landmark album, The College Dropout, dropped in 2004.  Every album he’s released since then (six of ’em) have reached #1 – a feat that not many other rappers can claim (only Jay Z and Eminem have had more chart toppers).  West has also sold nearly 100 million albums and song downloads in this country alone, making him one of the biggest-selling artists of all time in any genre.  His songs have gone from spiritual to pensive to all-out rants.  They’ve embodied West at his rapping best – usually with a drawn-out drawl that has inspired others like Childish Gambino and Drake.  West has even experimented with singing, specifically with his 2008 album, 808s and Heartbreak, which produced the Autotune-enhanced hits, “Love Lockdown” and “Heartless.”  Simply put, Kanye West – love him or hate him – is one of the most prolific musicians of this or any generation.  Memorable songs: “Through the Wire,” “Jesus Walks,” “Slow Jamz” (with Jamie Foxx and Twista), “Gold Digger,” “Stronger,” “Lockdown,’ “Heartless,” “Paranoid,” “American Boy” and “Niggas in Paris.”

 

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I snapped a picture of this image of Tina during a recent visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. She was inducted in 1991.

35.  Tina Turner (Ike & Tina Turner).  Why she’s on the list:  Tina Turner would likely have been a candidate for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (with her  late husband Ike) even before her legendary resurgence in 1984 with the album Private Dancer and its landmark single, “What’s Love Got to Do With It.”  But that comeback success clearly cemented her rightful place in the museum.  Thanks to that 1984 album and single, the world was allowed to see the uniquely talented Turner reach a level of popularity not seen by any other African-American female whose primary genre of choice was rock and roll.  It set off a string of hits that would carry her through the rest of the 1980s and beyond.  She’s among the many members of music royalty on this list, with Turner arguably donning the crown of “Queen of Rock and Roll.”  She’s sold over 100 million records and ranks among the top-selling concert performers in history.  Memorable songs: “A Fool in Love,” “River Deep – Mountain High” and “Proud Mary” (as Ike & Tina Turner); “Let’s Stay Together,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “Better Be Good to Me,” “Private Dancer,” “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” “One of the Living,” “Typical Male” and “The Best.”

 

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Gladys Knight & the Pips are often overlooked when discussing the greatest black artists of all time, but not here. They’re clearly among the best.

34.  Gladys Knight & the Pips.  Why they’re on the list:  Gladys Knight & the Pips are one of the few groups whose career of Number One R&B hits spanned three decades (from 1961’s “Every Beat of My Heart” to 1987’s “Love Overboard”).  Even more impressively, the resilient quartet recorded ten #1 songs for five different record labels, including King (Vee-Jay), Soul (Motown), Buddah, Columbia, and MCA Records.  No other artist or group has ever accomplished that.  If you include her turn as one of the “Friends” in Dionne Warwick’s “That’s What Friends are For” (on Warner Bros.), then Gladys Knight has had eleven #1 R&B hits on six different labels.  Knight has been called the “Empress of Soul,” likely because the title “Queen of Soul” has been reserved for another legendary artist coming up in Part 4, and we all know that Gladys is truly deserving of a royal title given her legendary career with the Pips – a career that led to the group being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.  Memorable songs: “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” “Friendship Train,” “If I Were Your Woman,” “Neither One of Us,” “Midnight Train to Georgia,” “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination,” “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me,” “On and On,” “Make Yours a Happy Home,” “I Feel A Song (In My Heart),” “The Way We Were/Try to Remember,” “Part Time Love,” “Baby Don’t Change Your Mind,” “Landlord,” “Save the Overtime for Me,” “Love Overboard.”

 

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There are only five acts on this list who are in their 30s or younger: Rihanna (27), Alicia Keys (34), Usher (36), Kanye West (37) and Beyonce at 33.

33.  Beyonce/Destiny’s Child.  Why she/they are on the list:  Beyonce Knowles – has been churning out hits for nearly 18 years.  Either solo or with DC, she’s topped the R&B and pop charts 12 and nine times, respectively.  She’s the only solo woman in history with a minimum of five albums to have all of them reach #1 on the Billboard 200.  The most recent of those, Beyonce, became legendary in 2013 when it sold over a million copies in under two weeks after being released to iTunes with zero promotion, making her name synonymous with any other artist’s attempt to do that in future years.  In 2009, she was named the top-selling female artist of the 2000s, and Time Magazine has ranked her among the 100 most influential people in the world for the last two years.   She’s topped record charts in many other countries, including the UK, Canada, Finland, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, France, Italy, Ireland, Spain, Norway, Australia, New Zealand, and the Netherlands.  She’s sold over 135 million records/downloads worldwide.  Memorable songs: “No, No, No,” “Say My Name,” “Jumpin’, Jumpin’,” “Independent Women, Pt. 2,” “Lose My Breath” (all with Destiny’s Child); “Crazy in Love,” “Baby Boy,” “Me, Myself & I,” “Check on It,” “Irreplaceable,” “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” “Halo,” “Love on Top,” “Party” and “Drunk in Love.”

 

Billboard Magazine has ranked R. Kelly as the most successful R&B artist of all time. On my list, which includes all genres of music, he ranks #32.

32.  R. Kelly.  Why he’s on the list:  In 2010, Billboard Magazine compiled a ranking of the biggest R&B artists of the previous 25 years, and R. Kelly placed at the top.  Since hitting the scene in 1992 as a leader of the group Public Announcement (with whom he recorded two #1 R&B hits: “Honey Love” and “Slow Dance (Hey Mr. DJ)”), R. Kelly has been a major force in the black music community.  The artist broke from Public Announcement in 1993 and released his first solo album, which produced the song that would eventually break the record for most weeks at #1 on the R&B chart (“Bump n’ Grind,” 12 weeks).  A rapid succession of hugely popular albums and singles followed during the ensuing ten years, eventually racking up over 100 million in worldwide sales and making R. Kelly one of the best-selling musical artists of all time.  Memorable songs: “Bump ‘N Grind,” “Your Body’s Calling,” “You Remind Me of Something,” “I Can’t Sleep Baby (If I),” “Down Low (Nobody Has to Know),” “I Believe I Can Fly,” “I’m Your Angel,” “I Wish,” “Fiesta,” “Ignition” and “Step in the Name of Love.”

 

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Smokey Robinson’s songs have been covered by many artists, including the Jackson 5, Linda Ronstadt, Aretha Franklin and others.

31.  Smokey Robinson/The Miracles.  Why he/they are on the list:  Smokey Robinson has a velvety smooth voice that is unmistakeable.  As the 1980s pop group ABC once sang in their 1987 tribute single, “When Smokey sings, I hear violins.”  They weren’t alone.  This legendary Motown artist graced us with it in 1960 with the label’s first big hit, “Shop Around,” and he was still hitting the pop top ten 27 years later with “One Heartbeat” and “Just to See Her,” while still with Motown.  Robinson’s name is nearly as synonymous with Motown Records as the label’s founder Berry Gordy.  After all, Smokey served as the label’s Vice President under Gordy (until 1988) and as its chief songwriter during the early 1960s producing big hits for the Temptations, Mary Wells, the Marvelettes and Marvin Gaye.  Smokey’s “Quiet Storm” is credited with starting the adult-leaning “quiet storm” format of late-night R&B radio during the 1970s.   Memorable songs: “Shop Around,” “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” “I Second That Emotion,” “Going to a Go-Go,” “Ooh Baby Baby,” “The Tracks of My Tears,” “The Love I Saw In You Was Just a Mirage,” “Tears of a Clown” (all with the Miracles): “Quiet Storm,” “Baby That’s Backatcha,” “Cruisin’,” “Being With You,” “Ebony Eyes” (with Rick James), “Just to See Her” and “One Heartbeat.”

 

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Jay Z dropped the hyphen from his name during the past couple years, but the man with many names can still be called “Jigga,” “Hova,” or simply Shawn Carter.

30.  Jay Z.  Why he’s on the list:  When rapper Shawn Carter, a/k/a Jay-Z (he’s since dropped the hyphen) rapped in 1997’s “I Love the Dough” (with Biggie Smalls) that he’d “play the charts like the Beatles,” little did we know how prophetic that lyric line would be.  Since then, Jay Z has racked up more Number One albums (13) on Billboard’s main album chart than anyone besides the Beatles.  That’s more than Elvis, more than the Eagles, more than Elton, more than Michael (who probably didn’t even release 13), more than Bruce, more than Madonna and more than Mariah.  In a rap career that now spans nearly 20 years, Jay Z has clearly become the most prolific hip-hop star in the genre’s history and is one of the world’s best-selling artists of any genre of all time.  That any rapper can say that is amazing to me.  Memorable songs:  “Ain’t No Nigga,” “Can I Get A…,” “Hard Knock Life,” “99 Problems,” “Encore,” “’03 Bonnie & Clyde,” “Change Clothes” “Empire State of Mind” and “Niggas in Paris.”

to see a complete list of all the #1 rap albums in chart history, click here.

 

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Tupac (“2Pac”) Shakur is considered the greatest rapper of all time by many.  He would have been 44 this year.

29.  2pac (Tupac Shakur).  Why he’s on the list:  So if Jay-Z is the most successful black rapper from a commercial standpoint, why does he rank below the immortal Tupac Shakur?  As one of my best friend’s put it, 2pac (Shakur’s stage name) was the “John Lennon of hip-hop.”  Like Lennon, he was troubled by the state of affairs in the world, particularly here in America, and he took to pen and paper and a microphone to call out those issues.  While many people (including myself at times during his short life) took umbrage with his tone and delivery, no one could argue with his impact on the hip-hop community.  He achieved a combination of commercial and critical acclaim that was rare for any rapper – especially one as outspoken as he was during his prime.  At least twelve 2Pac albums have sold a million copies or more (eight of them after his death).  Two of them have been certified “Diamond” by the R.I.A.A. (Diamond equals 10 million copies sold), something no other rapper can claim.  He’s influenced more rappers than any other MC in the game and consistently ranks as the greatest rapper of all time on many notable lists.  As such, he’s also the top rapper on this list of 100 Greatest by DJRob.  Memorable songs: “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” “I Get Around,” “Keep Ya Head Up,” “Dear Mama,” “California Love,” “How Do U Want It,” “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” and “Hail Mary.”

 

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Singing and holding up an index finger could be symbolic of the many Number One hits that Lionel Richie has penned over his 40 years in the business.

28.  Lionel Richie/Commodores.  Why he/they are on the list:  The Commodores are on the list because of Lionel Richie.  Lionel Richie is on the list because of his immensely successful career as the leader of the group and as a singer/songwriter on his own during the 1970s and ’80s.  One could argue that the best and worst thing that ever happened to the Commodores was “Three Times a Lady.”  The ballad became the group’s first #1 pop hit in 1978 and showcased Richie’s abilities as a balladeer and songwriter.  It setup their next #1 pop hit, “Still,” in ’79, but more importantly, set the stage for Richie to begin writing and producing songs for other artists like Kenny Rogers.  The writing was on the wall by 1981 when Richie left the Commodores and embarked on a solo career in which he continued writing and recording #1 hits.  He wrote #1 songs in nine consecutive years (1978-86) and ranked as one of the most successful solo artists of the 1980s.  His superstardom faded in the 1990s, but he made a valiant comeback in 2012 with the country album Tuskegee that topped the Billboard 200 and became one of the best-selling albums of the year.  Memorable songs: “Machine Gun,” “Slippery When Wet,” “Sweet Love,” “Just to be Close to You,” “Easy,” “Brick House,” “Sail On,” “Lady You Bring Me Up,” “Jesus is Love,” (all with the Commodores); “Endless Love,” “Truly,” “You Are,” “All Night Long (All Night),” “Hello,” “Love Will Find a Way,” “Say You, Say Me” and “Dancin’ on the Ceiling.”

 

Only three artists in the Top 100 list have not seen their 34th birthdays, Rihanna and Beyonce (both of whom are still living), and Sam Cooke, who was killed just weeks shy of his 34th in December 1964.

27.  Sam Cooke.  Why he’s on the list:  Sam Cooke’s life was tragically cut short at age 33 in 1964.  This means that Sam Cooke accomplished in a very short time what very few artists did in sometimes twice as many years.  Cooke is commonly viewed as one of the greatest singers of all time, with an ability to meld his gospel roots into R&B and soul the way few others did.  He’s often cited as the reason soul music’s popularity grew in the 1960s and ’70s, allowing many other artists to reap the benefits.  Rolling Stone magazine ranked him as the 4th-greatest singer of all time, behind Aretha, Ray Charles and Elvis.  The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame fittingly inducted him as a charter member in 1986.  Memorable songs: “You Send Me,” “(What a) Wonderful World,” “Chain Gang,” “Cupid,” “Bring it on Home to Me,” “Another Saturday Night” and “A Change is Gonna Come.”

 

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Chuck Berry is the oldest living artist on this countdown at 88 years old. He recorded many hits for the famous Chess Records label, including his #1 hit, “My Ding-a-Ling” in 1972.

26.  Chuck Berry.  Why he’s on the list:  Among the many artists who could legitimately lay claim to having done so, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly which artist actually started rock and roll.  There are so many influential black artists of the early rhythm and blues era on this list (and even some that didn’t make it) who could be credited with founding rock and roll, including Fats Domino and Little Richard among them.  But one could make a strong case that rock and roll belonged to Berry, not just because of the music he made (which included the major lead-guitar elements that later characterized rock), but because of the style and attitude that he brought with it.  For instance, he has long been known for his legendary dance moves, like the “duck walk” and his one-legged hop routine, both of which made him a legend on stage.  Appropriately, he was among the first to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when it was founded in 1986.  Memorable songs: “Maybellene,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “No Particular Place to Go” and “My Ding-a-Ling.”

And there you have ’em, from No. 50 (John Coltrane) to No. 26 (Chuck Berry).

To hear the memorable songs mentioned for the above 25 artists, click here to access my special DJRob playlist on Spotify.

For Part I (#100 – #76), click here.

For Part II (#75 – #51), click here.

For Part IV (#25 – #1), click here.

And check this link for my countdown of the Top Black Music Producers of the past 55 years.

DJRob

 

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3 thoughts on “Black History: 100 Greatest Black Musicians – Part III”

  1. I’m a huge fan of songs that are rarely heard but recorded by artists as B sides. Many of the artists listed have done such. I’m reminded of Dionne Warwick’s Trains and Boats and Planes.

  2. This list is good but it is laughable without Prince , Sly , Marley and Michael on it. Don’t even think I saw Marvin that’s just out right ridiculous. But good list though . Certainly a lot of deserving people made it.

    1. You read Part III of the list, which was Numbers 50-26. You have to read Part IV (Numbers 25 – 1) to find the names you mentioned. Also check out Part I (No. 100 – 76) and Part II (No. 75 – 51) while you’re at it. The links to the other parts are in each article. Enjoy!

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