We’ve just completed Black Music Month, 2015, and with that comes the last of my special four-part series of the 100 Greatest Black Musicians of All Time. To recap, we began this journey with Part I in early June and presented 25 artists each week, which led us here.
Before we get into the Top 25, I thought I’d give you some statistics about this special Top 100 list because that’s what numbers guys like me love the most.
Of the 100 entries on the list, 52 of them are male soloists, 28 of them are women. The remaining 20 are groups. There are also 10 more groups that are given co-billing with their famous lead singers although in each of those cases, it’s clearly the lead singer who is the focus of the entry.
In the genre breakdown, there are 11 jazz artists, five of whom were bandleaders (Ellington, Basie, Davis, Jordan and Coltrane). There are nine rap acts, all of whom have already been accounted for in the first three parts (the highest being 2Pac). There are three traditional blues artists, while several more of the other listed artists have dabbled in blues at one time or another.
Similarly, there are two singers whose careers were devoted to gospel but several other musicians who displayed their gospel roots at one point or another. There are only one pure reggae and one pure country artist, although other singers, namely the eclectic Lionel Richie and Ray Charles, each reached #1 on the country charts. Several others, including Richie and Stevie Wonder, dabbled in reggae.
For the most part, every other artist is primarily R&B/soul, pop or rock and roll.
Another key number is 52. Besides the fact that there are 52 male soloists on the list, there are also 52 acts that have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Interestingly enough, these 52 artists represent about half of the total number of black musicians that have been inducted since the museum opened in Cleveland in 1986.
Fifty-two also represents the number of artists on this list that have passed away. That number includes groups who’ve lost key members over the years. Sixteen of those acts are among the 25 remaining in Part IV…which begins now.
If you need a refresher on who ranked in the first 75 positions, please click the following links:
Part I: Nos. 100 – 76
Part II: Nos. 75 – 51
Part III: Nos. 50 – 26
Finally, here is the culmination of this countdown and who I consider to be the 25 greatest black musical artists of all time…
25. Mariah Carey. Why she’s this high on the list: That unmatchable four-range vocal octave. Plus, no other woman has had as many solo Number One singles as Mariah Carey. She’s had 18 #1 songs on the Billboard Hot 100. Only the Beatles have had more. She was the biggest-selling female pop star of the 1990s, with only Garth Brooks selling more albums than she did during that decade. She’s also among the top-selling artists of all time having sold well over 100 million copies in the 1990s alone.
With numbers that astounding, a good question might be why isn’t she ranked higher?
A large reason for me is that some of her numbers were tainted by asterisks. For example, Mariah’s sales were somewhat manufactured by the shrewd marketing tactics of her label, Columbia Records. Her singles sales, for example, were often enhanced by low-ball pricing schemes (sometimes as low as 49 cents) to increase sales numbers tracked by Billboard. This was in a market where most singles (either CD or cassette) normally sold for roughly $3.49. This allowed cheaply-priced songs like “One Sweet Day” (with Boyz II Men) to spend extra time at #1 due to their highly discounted sales volume.
Another asterisk is that many labels in the late 1990s were withholding songs from having single releases to increase full-length album sales. This made the individual tracks unable to chart during a Billboard policy where a commercially available single was required for eligibility. Because Columbia Records took a different approach by allowing Mariah’s singles to be released to stores, they were able to chart – and chart very highly – in a relatively weak competitive field.
Was Mariah the only one to benefit from this kind of marketing? No. But it was more the norm than the exception in her case, especially with each new #1 and the recognition by a very chart-savvy Columbia Records how close their top artist was getting to achieving historic chart feats.
But even with the dubious nature of her chart successes, no one could deny her rare four-octave vocal range, especially at her peak. It was a voice any singer would be happy to have – along with all those #1 hits.
Memorable songs: “Vision of Love,” “Love Takes Time,” “Dreamlover,” “Hero,” “Fantasy,” “Always Be My Baby,” “All I Want for Christmas (Is You),” “Breakdown,” “Thank God I Found You,” “We Belong Together,” “Shake It Off” and “Don’t Forget About Us.”
24. Janet Jackson. Why she’s this high on the list: One might argue that she rode the coattails of her late brother Michael, but being a member of the Jackson family was not a guarantee of superstardom. Just look at the remaining Jackson family members. The only one besides Janet and Michael whom you could argue had a respectable solo singing career was Jermaine (and he wasn’t even among the 250-plus artists I considered for this list).
So Janet gets credit for being the one Jackson besides Michael who forged her own superstar success – first with the 1986 breakout album, Control, which set the stage for many video-oriented dance/pop female acts to come, then with several multi-platinum #1 albums that took her into the 2000s. With that success, Janet has secured many chart accomplishments and bragging rights. For example, she’s the only artist to have seven top-five hits from the same album (Rhythm Nation 1814), the only artist to have songs from the same album (again, Rhythm Nation 1814) reach #1 in three different calendar years (“Miss You Much,” 1989; “Escapade” and “Black Cat,” 1990; and “Love Will Never Do Without You,” 1991), and the only artist to have 18 consecutive top-ten singles on the Billboard Hot 100.
She’s no Aretha, Whitney, Patti or Mariah when it comes to belting out tunes, nor has she ever claimed to be. She has, however, used her melodic soprano-like vocals to deliver pop radio staples for 30-plus years. And it looks like she’s ready to make her presence felt again. When her new single “No Sleeep” entered the Hot 100 this past week at #67, it made her one of the few women to have songs reach the chart in four separate decades (’80s, ’90s, ’00s, ’10s).
Memorable songs: “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” “Nasty,” “When I Think of You,” “Control,” “The Pleasure Principle,” “Miss You Much,” “Escapade,” “Alright,” “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” “That’s The Way Love Goes,” “If,” “Again,” “Scream” and “All For You.”
23. Earth Wind & Fire. Why they’re this high on the list: No other nine-member band made music like they did during the 1970s – particularly during EWF’s classic period between 1973 and 1980. Primarily known for their heavily brass-infused musical arrangements and Phillip Bailey’s near-perfect falsetto, EWF’s many landmark albums during that period made them one of the few black bands that were able to repeatedly attain the sales and chart heights that they achieved. And the band’s stage shows were among the most elaborate – setting a new high bar for musicians of any race or musical genre.
Earth, Wind & Fire’s music often included messages of spirituality and love – pretty heavy topics but fitting for their times. The band – particularly between 1973 and 1977 – also incorporated African rhythms and unique instruments (like the kalimba – an African thumb piano) into their music, while giving it just enough of a pop/funk twist to allow it to crossover. And they did that to perfection with classic albums such as Head to the Sky, Open Our Eyes, That’s the Way of the World, Gratitude, Spirit, All-n-All, and I Am…all of which were certified platinum.
The significance of a self-contained, nine-member band like EWF having the success it did cannot be overstated. Groups of that size who played real instruments were the norm back then and we took for granted that this would always be the case. The advent of new music production technology and the exorbitant costs of having to pay so many musicians would eliminate that musical element during the 1980s and beyond. But we were blessed to have it while we did. The “Elements of the Universe,” as EWF was often called, gave us some of the most memorable classics of their heyday, and many are still radio staples today. They were rightfully inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.
Memorable songs: “Keep Your Head to the Sky,” “Mighty, Mighty,” “Devotion,” “Shining Star,” “That’s the Way of the World,” “Reasons,” “All ‘Bout Love,” “Sing A Song,” “Can’t Hide Love,” “Getaway,” “On Your Face,” “Spirit,” “Serpentine Fire,” “Fantasy,” “I’ll Write a Song for You,” “Be Ever Wonderful,” “Love’s Holiday,” “September,” “Boogie Wonderland,” “In The Stone,” “After the Love Has Gone,” “Can’t Let Go,” “Let’s Groove” and “Fall in Love With Me.”
22. Ella Fitzgerald. Why she’s this high on the list: This “First Lady of Song” is one of the first names that come to mind when you mention jazz female artists, and rightfully so. Her improvisational style – particularly her scat singing ability – was unmatched by anyone who dared try. She managed a career that spanned six decades and she played with some of the greatest jazz musicians of all time (several of whom are on this list), including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and the Ink Spots.
In a field dominated by men, Fitzgerald even served as “nominal” bandleader when she took over Chick Webb’s band after his passing in 1939 (she was only 22 at the time). In just three years, Ella and her Famous Orchestra recorded nearly 150 songs to varying degrees of success.
It was during her solo career after the orchestra disbanded that Fitzgerald became most successful. While recording for Decca Records, she helped popularize the bebop style of jazz and gave the genre some of its most influential records of the 1940s. When she left Decca for Verve, Ella helped popularized the Great American Songbook series of albums where she dedicated complete projects to each composer. Among them were Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook (1956) and Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book (1957).
Ella Fitzgerald’s awards include the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1967), Kennedy Center Medal of Honor Award, Society of Singers Lifetime Achievement Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She also received an honorary doctorate of Music from Harvard University.
Memorable songs: “(If You Can’t Sing It) You’ll Have to Swing It” (with Chick Webb), “Goodnight, My Love,” “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall” (with the Ink Spots), “The Lady is a Tramp,” “That’s My Desire” and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
21. Miles Davis. Why he’s this high on the list: Yet another of the jazz greats on this list, Miles is considered one of the most influential jazz musicians of the 20th century. He paid his dues first as a sideman for jazz greats like Billy Eckstine, then as a full-fledged member of bands led by legends like Charlie Parker (both Eckstine and Parker are near-misses on this list, by the way). When Davis became a bandleader himself, he became one of the best-selling jazz artists of all time. His 1959 Kind of Blue album (which I’m enjoying as I type this) has been certified quadruple platinum by the R.I.A.A. for four million copies shipped, making it the highest-certified true jazz album of all time. Many in jazz circles (i.e., those who’d know) consider it to be THE best jazz album of all time. To boot, his 1970 album, Bitches Brew, which is also considered a jazz must-have, is among the ten best-selling jazz albums at one million copies shipped.
Unlike many of his contemporaries who specialized in one type or another, Davis was skilled at playing multiple instruments, including the trumpet, flugelhorn, piano/organ and synthesizer. According to Wikipedia, Davis was also at the forefront of several types of jazz, including bebop, cool jazz, hard bop, modal jazz and jazz fusion. His improvisational style – particularly in the recording studio where spontaneous sessions were often recorded in very few takes – places him among the most highly respected musicians of all time – of any genre.
Appropriately, Miles Davis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.
Memorable songs: Any track from either of the aforementioned two albums, Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew, plus tracks from ‘Round About Midnight, Birth of the Cool, and Miles Ahead.
20. The Temptations (incl. David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Dennis Edwards). Why they’re this high on the list: For the eight-year period between 1964 and 1972, this was the top American male singing group on the pop and R&B charts. Only the Beatles and Rolling Stones, both from Britain, were bigger on the pop singles charts during that timeframe, and no group – British or American, male or female – was bigger on the soul charts.
With songs written and produced primarily by William “Smokey” Robinson and later by Norman Whitfield, this five-man ensemble, whose classic lineup featured Ruffin and Kendricks trading lead vocals from 1964 to ’68, gave us classics like their staple, “My Girl,” and “I Wish It Would Rain,” among many others. Their stage presence was honed with immaculate dance routines that became their signature. The combination of their music, the signature dance moves and Motown’s promotional machine made them stars of an international stage not seen by many black groups before them. In total, with Edwards replacing Ruffin in ’68, they recorded four #1 pop and 15 #1 R&B hits, and dozens of other chart singles over nearly 30 years.
The “Tempting Tempts,” as they were sometimes known, have certainly endured their share of tragedies over the years, with both Kendrick and Ruffin dying in their 50s after years of internal conflicts and ill-fated reunions with other members of the group. Paul Williams and Melvin Franklin also died relatively young. Although the band still tours and has probably gone through more members than any other on this list, the only living founding member from their classic mid-’60s lineup is Otis Williams, who still performs with the current version of the group.
Memorable songs: “My Girl,” “Ain’t to Proud to Beg,” “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep,” “I Know I’m Losing You,” “You’re My Everything,” “I Wish It Would Rain,” “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” (with Diana Ross & the Supremes), “I Can’t Get Next To You,” “Ball of Confusion,” “Just My Imagination,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” “Shaky Ground,” and “Standing on the Top.”
19. Isley Brothers. Why they’re this high on the list: Because no other R&B band had the staying power that this brother act from Cincinnati did. As proof, they are the only R&B band – or band of any type – that can claim to have a top 50 hit in each of six consecutive decades. Their biggest Hot 100 hits of each decade:
1950s – “Shout” (#47); 1960s – “It’s Your Thing” (#3); 1970s – “Fight The Power” (#4); 1980s – “Don’t Say Goodnight (It’s Time For Love)” (#39); 1990s – “Down Low (Nobody Has to Know) -with R. Kelly (#4); and 2000s – “Contagious” (#19).
And that’s not to mention the dozens of other songs they’ve charted with – over 70 in total on either the pop or R&B charts. To achieve their chart success, the Isleys led the charge on creativity and innovation by blending R&B, funk and rock (and even folk rock) music styles. This was particularly true during the group’s peak period when younger brothers Ernie, Marvin and brother-in-law Chris Jasper joined older brothers Ronald, O’Kelly and Rudolph to make up their classic lineup.
The Isleys went through several changes, first with the three older brothers performing as a trio in the 1950s and singing with RCA-Victor and later Motown Records, then as a sextet during the 1970s with the three younger members now included. Their classic period (1973 – 1980) saw the band recording several million-selling platinum albums on its own record label, T-Neck Records (distributed by CBS). After their last T-Neck top-ten R&B hit in 1983, the three younger members broke off and in 1984 formed Isley-Jasper-Isley and hit with the #1 R&B song, “Caravan of Love.” Then, after various incarnations of the group with brothers coming and going, lead singer Ronald teamed up with R. Kelly to record the ’90s #1 R&B hit, “Down Low,” billing it as R. Kelly featuring the Isley Brothers.
Even more impressive than their historic chart feats and multiple incarnations was the band’s versatility. The Isley Brothers were one of the few groups that could give you hard rockers one minute (“Livin’ in the Life,” “The Pride,” “Fight The Power”), folksy remakes of pop-rock tunes the next (“Lay Lady Lay” and “Summer Breeze”), and then turn around and give you some of the best baby-making soul music of all time (“Don’t Say Goodnight,” “For the Love Of You” and “Between the Sheets”).
And let’s not forget the impact they’ve had on hip-hop. Some of the biggest hits of the ’90s used their tunes as foundations, like Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa” (sampled “Between The Sheets”); and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s “Tha Crossroads” (sampled “Make Me Say It Again Girl”).
Simply put, the Isley Brothers, in one form or another, are the most venerable group of black musicians to ever grace radio. And their induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 simply underscored their status as legends.
Memorable songs: “Shout,” “Twist and Shout,” “It’s Your Thing,” “Work To Do,” “Love the One You’re With,” “Pop That Thang,” “That Lady,” “Summer Breeze,” “Live It Up,” “Fight the Power,” “For the Love of You,” “Who Loves You Better,” “Harvest for the World,” “The Pride,” “Livin’ in the Life,” “Footsteps in the Dark,” “Voyage to Atlantis,” “Don’t Say Goodnight,” “Between the Sheets,” “Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)” (with R. Kelly) and “Contagious.”
18. Bob Marley. Why he’s this high on the list: No other person has done more for reggae music than Bob Marley. First as leader of his group, the Wailers, then as a solo artist, he achieved international fame and critical acclaim and eventually sold over 75 million records worldwide. His “Legend” album is the only reggae album certified by the R.I.A.A. as Diamond (meaning 10 million or more in sales).
Marley was a converted Rastafari whose dreadlocks were his signature look. In his short career, which ended upon his death at age 36, he brought a sense of spirituality into his music. His universal themes of love and social awareness given him success in several countries, including the UK, the US and his home country of Jamaica.
He has received several awards an honors, including Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee (1994), Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2001), Jamaican Order of Merit (the country’s third-highest honor – 1981) and Peace Medal of the Third World from the United Nations.
Memorable songs: “One Love,” “Get Up, Stand Up,” “I Shot the Sheriff,” “No Woman, No Cry,” “Roots, Rock, Reggae,” “Exodus,” “Jamming,” “Is This Love,” “Could You Be Loved,” “Three Little Birds,” “Redemption Song” and “Buffalo Soldier.”
17. Whitney Houston. Why she’s this high on the list: During her prime – and even beyond it – the late Whitney Houston was the princess of pop music. In 1985, just before turning 22, she melted our hearts with several #1 pop and R&B singles and a soaring voice that sent chills down the spines of many.
In the mid-1980s, her unprecedented chart successes were amazing not only because she was a woman, but because she was an African-American one at a time when it previously had been hard for black artists – especially black women – to achieve such crossover acceptance. In 1987, she became the first woman to début at #1 on Billboard’s album chart with her album Whitney. The following year, when she reached #1 with “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?” she became the first (and still the only) artist to have seven consecutive #1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100. The most prior to that had been six (the Bee Gees in 1978-79).
Her success continued with four more #1 pop hits, a rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” that is still among the most acclaimed of all time (during Super Bowl XXV in 1991), and a critical role in one of the biggest selling soundtrack albums of all time (Bodyguard). Her “I Will Always Love You” is still the biggest-selling single by a female artist at 20 million copies sold worldwide.
Whitney’s story is a tragic one – with an abrupt ending in February 2012. But the music she gave us will live forever, and she’ll always be considered one of the greatest singers of all time.
Memorable songs: “You Give Good Love,” “Saving All My Love For You,” “How Will I Know,” “Greatest Love of All,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” “So Emotional,” “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” “All the Man That I Need,” “I Will Always Love You,” “I’m Every Woman,” “I Have Nothing,” “Exhale (Shoop Shoop),” “I Love the Lord,” “It’s Not Right, but It’s Okay” and “Million Dollar Bill.”
16. Louis Armstrong. Why he’s this high on the list: As one of the most influential jazz artists of the 20th century, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an “early influence” on rock and roll. He was a renown trumpeter and scat singer who was also known for his gravely voice and affable character.
Most jazz musicians on this list had one thing in common: their unique ability to improvise, in life but most importantly in their music. They usually started from humble beginnings but somehow paved a pathway to prominence in music circles, gaining credibility with peers, critics and music fans alike. Louis Armstrong was no exception. The list of artists who sang Armstrong’s praises reads like a Who’s Who of Jazz, with the late Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Bing Crosby among them.
To me, Armstrong’s most impressive accomplishment was on the record charts, where he became the artist who finally dethroned the Beatles during their initial invasion in 1964. From January to April that year, the Fab Four had back-to-back-to-back #1 singles with “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You” and “Can’t Buy Me Love” each taking successive turns at the top. It wasn’t until Louis Armstrong’s “Hello Dolly” replaced that third Beatles song that someone other than group from Liverpool had a #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100.
He is also one of the five jazz greats name-checked in Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” with the line: “there’s Basie, Miller, Satchmo and the King of all, ‘Sir Duke.’ And with a voice like Ella’s ringing out, there’s no way the band can lose.”
Here are just a few of Louis Armstrong’s other accolades: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, Hollywood Walk of Fame, Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame and Grammy Hall of Fame.
Memorable songs: “St. Louis Blues,” “Heebie Jeebies,” “West End Blues,” “Weather Bird,” “Blue Yodel,” “All of Me,” “Hello Dolly!” and “What a Wonderful World.”
15. Prince. Why he’s this high on the list: Many of the artists who made it this high on the list did so on their own terms. They often waged battles with their management or their record labels to get the royalty deals that they rightfully deserved or the right to release the music they wanted and not what the label desired. A notorious example is Prince, whose long and often tumultuous relationship with Warner Brothers Records included a dark period in which the Artist at one point dropped his name in favor of an unpronounceable symbol and had the word “slave” painted on his face to reflect the tyrannical label-artist relationship he sought to change.
Before it came to that, Prince had become one of the most prolific pop, R&B, rock and even new-wave artists of an era. With a professional recording career that began with 1978’s coy but brash “Soft and Wet” and carried right on through the 1990s, Prince racked up more gold or platinum certified albums in the fifteen years between 1979 and 1996 than any other artist. This may have been due to the fact that he often released an album each year – and sometimes two, which was unheard of during an era in which most artists – particularly superstars of his caliber – would milk an album for two years and not release a follow-up for three or four.
Prince kept up this frenetic album-release pace partly to fulfill his WB contract and hasten his divorce from the label, which eventually happened in 1996. But he also did it because he could. He is said to have written and/or recorded close to a thousand songs in the past 40 years. If James Brown was the hardest working man in show business, then a strong case can be made for Prince being the second-hardest.
Besides his legendary success as a singer/songwriter, Prince was also a Svengali in music, responsible for launching (and notoriously controlling) the careers of many others, including The Time (which featured Morris Day, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis), Appolonia and Vanity Six, Sheila E., the Family (remember them?), the Revolution and the New Power Generation.
The Grammy and Academy-Award winning genius was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.
Memorable songs: “Soft and Wet,” “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” “Uptown,” “Dirty Mind,” “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore,” “Controversy,” “1999,” “Little Red Corvette,” “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” “When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Erotic City,” “The Beautiful Ones,” “Darling Nicki,” “Raspberry Beret,” “Pop Life,” “Kiss,” “Sign o’ the Times,” “U Got The Look,” “Sexy MF,” “Adore,” “Thieves in the Temple,” “Diamonds and Pearls” and “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.”
14. Jimi Hendrix. Why he’s this high on the list: Because he’s a rock guitar god. The late Jimi Hendrix is regarded by many (fans and legendary musicians alike) as one of the greatest guitarists ever. In fact, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (to which he was inducted in 1992) refers to him as perhaps the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music. Rolling Stone magazine ranks him as the greatest guitarist of all time and the sixth greatest musician of all time.
Hendrix’s significance to rock and roll as a black guitarist is legendary. He basically reclaimed a genre that had been originated by the likes of Chuck Berry and Little Richard before him. But he took what those guys started and innovated a style that no one before him had done. To quote the technical terms used in Wikipedia, Hendrix “expanded the range and vocabulary of the electric guitar into areas no musician had ventured before. His creative application of such effects as wah-wah and distortion forever transformed the sound of rock and roll.”
The entry goes on to state that Hendrix “synthesized diverse genres including blues, R&B, soul, British Rock and American folk music, 1950s rock and roll and jazz.” He “contributed much to the development of hard rock, heavy metal, funk, post-punk and hip-hop music.”
The list of musicians influenced by Hendrix is long, and includes Prince, George Clinton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Ernie Isley and Funkadelic’s Eddie Hazel, among countless others.
The number of accolades he has received is even more impressive: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee (1992), UK Music Hall of Fame (2005), Library of Congress recognition for his legendary album, Are You Experienced (2005), a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (1991), Grammy Hall of Fame awards for “Purple Haze” (2000) and “All Along the Watchtower” (2001).
Memorable songs: “Purple Haze,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” “Foxey Lady,” “Hey Joe,” “Little Wing,” “The Wind Cries Mary” and “Machine Gun.”
13. B.B. King. Why he’s this high on the list: Not many artists are so special that their guitar has a name – and that guitar also has its own Wikipedia entry. “Lucille” was actually the name given to many of this Blues King’s guitars over the years, and the story of how the guitars (mostly of the Gibson variety) got their name is better saved for another article (or you can Google it).
The late B.B. King – born Riley B. King in Mississippi – easily stands as one of America’s greatest musicians. He’s viewed by many in the music industry as one of the greatest guitarists ever (he ranks #6 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of all-time guitar greats). With a career that dated back to the 1949s, King was also one of the most influential blues guitarists of all time, inspiring such acts as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, the Allman Brothers, Jimmie Ray Vaughan, and Robert Cray. King performed well into his seventies, sometimes 300 shows per year.
B.B. King carried the flag for blues music for his entire career, rarely wavering in attempts to crossover to more mainstream audiences (he did it for a bit in the 1950s but got right back to what he did best before the ’60s arrived).
Here are just some of the accolades given this iconic blues legend, a/k/a the King of the Blues: 15 Grammy Awards between 1971 and 2009, Honorary Doctorate of Music (Yale University, 1977), Blues Hall of Fame (1980), Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1987), Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (also 1987), the Kennedy Center Honors (1995), Presidential Medal of Freedom (2006), Honorary Doctorate in Music (Brown University, 2007), and a Mississippi Blues Trail marker commemorating his birthplace.
B.B. King left us just seven weeks ago in May 2015, but his legacy and his legend will live forever.
Memorable songs: “Three O’Clock Blues,” “You Upset Me, Baby,” “Everyday I Have the Blues,” “Sweet Sixteen,” “Don’t Answer the Door,” “Why I Sing the Blues,” “The Thrill is Gone,” “Chains and Things” and “To Know You is to Love You.”
12. Little Richard. Why he’s this high on the list: The best thing about writing this article these past four weeks is that artists who sometimes don’t get their due recognition can get recognized here. Little Richard is one of those artists who was always singing his own praises as a rock and roll pioneer during the genre’s beginnings in the 1950s, yet proper credit seemed to elude him. I’m happy to report that – amidst the many rock and roll pioneers on this top 100 list – Little Richard ranks among the two highest.
Musically, many of the other legendary rock musicians could arguably compete with Richard, who was born Richard Wayne Pettiman in 1932. But none could bring the amount of energy and excitement to music that Richard did with his performances. He was described as “dynamic, completely uninhibited and wild” by some, which was in complete contrast with most of his peers. He was flamboyant and even androgynous before either word became associated with rock music.
His records sold millions during the 1950s and he regularly crossed over to mainstream audiences at a time when segregation – even in the music world – ruled the day. His rhythm and blues songs were among those copied by the likes of Pat Boone, Elvis Presley and Bill Haley to forge rock and roll in 1956.
Fortunately for music historians and fans, Little Richard was around long enough to remind us who started it all…and he’s still here lest we forget: Little Richard is the true Father of Rock and Roll as we know it.
Memorable songs: “Tutti Fruity,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” “Rip It Up,” “Ready Teddy,” “The Girl Can’t Help It,” “Lucille,” “Jenny, Jenny,” “Keep A-Knockin’,” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly.”
11. Nat “King” Cole. Why he’s this high on the list: Legendary soul and pop crooner Nat King Cole was born in 1919. His musical contributions began as a teenager in the 1930s and lasted until his untimely death in 1965.
First as part of the King Cole Trio and later as a solo artist, Cole released hundreds of albums and singles, many of which topped the charts before the “Rock Era” began in 1955. His immense success during the 1940s and ’50s made him a lightning rod on racial issues as he dealt with bigotry at the hands of whites, and resentment from blacks who felt he wasn’t taking enough of a stand on civil rights issues. He later became more involved in those causes as the movement grew in the early 1960s.
His death in 1965 seemingly marked the end of one era in black pop music (jazz-oriented soul crooners) and the beginning of another (Motown-influenced pop/soul). Still, his contributions to popular music cannot be overstated.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, and his “The Christmas Song” is still one of the most-played songs each holiday season and of all time.
Memorable songs: “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting…),” “Get Your Kicks (On Route 66),” “Mona Lisa,” “Too Young,” “Unforgettable” (in a virtual duet with daughter Natalie), “Smile,” “Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup,” “Ramblin’ Rose” and “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer.”
10. Louis Jordan. Why he’s this high on the list: Many readers will likely not be familiar with Louis Jordan mainly due to the passage of so much time and that he hasn’t been around to tell his story like Little Richard and Chuck Berry have (Jordan died 40 years ago and would be 108 if he were alive today). Suffice it to say that Jordan was a pioneer in music whose popularity peaked in the 1940s. He is referred to in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as “the Father of Rhythm & Blues” and “the Grandfather of Rock ‘n’ Roll. He was a bandleader whose success on the charts was exceeded by few from the late 1930s through the early ’50s, but more importantly, he was one who was among the first to breakdown the color barrier as his songs were popular among black and white audiences.
Jordan’s music contained instrumental and vocal stylings that led to the popularization of the genre that would later be called rock and roll. The best example of this was probably his classic 1949 R&B hit, “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” a song that had all the elements of rock and roll a good seven years before the genre “began.” Jordan was easily the top artist of the 1940s as many of his songs topped the R&B charts, including “Fish Fry,” which spent 12 weeks at #1, something that wouldn’t happen again for 45 years (R. Kelly’s “Bump N’ Grind”).
The number of accomplishments by this man would hold up well against that of any singer of any era. During the height of his popularity from 1942-50, he generated 18 No. 1 singles with another 36 that reached top ten on the “race” or R&B charts. He was the originator of novelty records, with titles like “You’re My Meat,” “What’s the Use of Getting Sober (When You’re Gonna Get Drunk Again)” – which was his first #1 record – and “The Chicks I Pick are Slender, Tender and Fine.” He was dubbed the King of the Jukebox at a time when that was the primary means of music consumption in the U.S.
He was one of the first to record “soundies” to promote his music, which were the precursors to what we now know as music videos. He was also the lead vocalist on his records, something that was unusual for jazz bandleaders of his day. One could even argue that his music served as the first true rap records, as several of his vocals were delivered in rapid-fire, syncopated, spoken-word fashion…essentially the main elements of hip-hop as we know it now.
It’s unfortunate that he isn’t more well known to music lovers of this generation, because Louis Jordan is a true legend among legends in black music.
Memorable songs: “You’re My Meat,” “You Run Your Mouth, I’ll Run My Business,” “Knock Me A Kiss,” “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town,” “What’s the Use of Getting Sober,” “Ration Blues,” “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens,” “Ain’t That Like A Woman,” “Caldonia,” “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” and “Saturday Night Fish Fry.”
9. Marvin Gaye. Why he’s this high on the list: Love songs? Check. Protest music? Check. Carnal themes? You bet. Concept albums? Yep. Disco and funk? No problem. Whatever could be done on wax during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, Marvin did it. He was arguably the most versatile artist of his era…not only because of the various themes he tackled, but also for the diverse ways in which he tackled them.
For starters, Marvin had a natural three-octave vocal range, with the ability to sing baritone, tenor and falsetto – often in the same song. “What’s Going On” and “Let’s Get it On” were prime examples where all three were featured. He also used some songs to showcase just one style. For example, “Got to Give it Up” was all falsetto. “I Want You” was mostly his baritone. “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” featured his high tenor voice. All of them (along with ten of his other hits) reached #1 on either the pop or soul chart – or both.
As the quintessential artist, Gaye was the first on Motown’s classic roster to fight for his creative independence from the label’s legendary stable of writers when he grew weary of the upbeat dance and jangly pop fare he and the others had made so popular throughout the sixties. He was a troubled man living in troubled times and wanted that reflected in his music. Much of his despair was caused by the illness and death of his longtime duet partner, Tammi Terrell, followed by the ongoing war in Vietnam and acts of police brutality he witnessed against those who protested it. This personal turmoil inspired perhaps his greatest work – and the first he wrote and produced for himself: the concept album, What’s Going On.
The huge success of that album and its three singles: the title track plus “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” and “Mercy, Mercy Me (the Ecology),” set the stage for other Motown legends like Stevie Wonder to write and produce their own material throughout the ’70s and beyond. It’s reasonable to say that had Marvin not fought for his artistic freedom with What’s Going On and later Lets Get It On, we might not have Stevie’s Songs in the Key of Life.
All told, Marvin’s contributions were as important to soul and R&B as anyone’s. It turns out that the only thing stopping him from soaring to even higher heights was himself, with sometimes years separating his later projects due to struggles with drug addiction and taxation issues forcing him to leave the country. Case in point: there were over five years separating 1977’s “Got to Give It Up” and his next top-40 hit, 1982’s “Sexual Healing.”
He died at age 44 on April Fools Day 1984 from a gunshot wound inflicted by his father. He was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame in 2014.
Memorable songs: “Stubborn Kind of Fellow,” “Pride and Joy,” “How Sweet it Is (To Be Loved By You),” “Ain’t That Peculiar,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Your Precious Love,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” “You’re All I Need to Get By” (the last four with Tammi Terrell), “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby,” “What’s Going On,” “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology),” “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler), “Trouble Man,” “Let’s Get it On,” “Come Get to This,” “Distant Lover,” “My Mistake” (with Diana Ross), “I Want You,” “Got to Give it Up” and “Sexual Healing.”
8. Diana Ross/Supremes. Why she/they are this high on the list: One doesn’t have to win many awards to be considered a master in her field. One doesn’t have to have the most powerful of singing voices to be one of the world’s greatest performers. And one doesn’t have to be well-liked to be ranked among the most respected all-around entertainers of all time!
That’s the story of Diana Ross, perhaps the most accomplished singer of all time on the American pop charts with a combination of 18 Number One singles on the Billboard Hot 100 between her Supremes hits and those on her own or with Lionel Richie. You can make it 19 if you add her contribution to USA for Africa’s “We Are the World,” which I have done for all the other contributing artists on this list.
Now some of you will try to detract from her success by saying she only had five solo chart-toppers (plus “Endless Love” with Richie) when others like Mariah Carey, Rihanna, Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson have #1 numbers in the double digits. But I think everyone will agree that Diana’s twelve #1 singles as leader of the Supremes were primarily the result of her vocals and commercial appeal. Heck, several of their songs featured background vocals by Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard that were muted to a very low volume, further showcasing Diana’s status in the group.
Now I’m not saying that Mary and Flo (and later Cindy Birdsong) were not important to the group’s huge success – rivaled only by the Beatles on the U.S. singles charts between 1964 and ’69. But even Motown’s top brass knew who the breadwinner was when he changed the name to Diana Ross & the Supremes in 1967 and later recorded several of their songs without Mary’s or Cindy’s vocals – instead opting for studio musicians to sing background.
When Diana Ross left the trio in 1969, the Supremes continued on with moderate success in the 1970s with songs like “Up the Ladder to the Roof,” “Stoned Love” and “Nathan Jones.” But Diana rose to even higher heights as a solo artist. By 1984, before the advent of Madonna, Whitney, Janet, Mariah, and the others, Diana Ross was the biggest female solo star in pop music history – having topped the chart more than any other woman.
Today, at the age of 71, “the Boss” still reigns supreme as she continues to tour to the delight of her worldwide fans. And while she may not have won a proper Grammy during her career – her only one is a Lifetime Achievement Award, she will always be considered one of the greatest entertainers in music history.
Memorable songs: “Where Did Our Love Go?,” “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “I Hear a Symphony,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “You Keep Me Hanging On,” “Love is Here (and Now You’re Gone),” “The Happening,” “Reflections,” “In and Out of Love,” “Love Child,” “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” (with the Temptations), “Someday We’ll Be Together” (all with the Supremes; “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Remember Me,” “Good Morning Heartache,” “Touch Me In the Morning,” “Love Hangover,” “The Boss,” “Upside Down,” “I’m Coming Out,” “It’s My Turn,” “Endless Love” (with Lionel Richie), “Mirror, Mirror,” “Muscles,” “Swept Away” and “Missing You.”
7. Billie Holiday. Why she’s this high on the list: “Lady Day” – as she was dubbed by one of her accompanying sax players – could take a novelty pop song like “Yankee Doodle” and turn it into a jazz standard, then turn around and provide the musical narrative to her era’s darkest social injustices with “Strange Fruit.” She could do all of this effortlessly with a voice and vocal ability that basically set the table for the R&B and pop vocalists who would follow her in the decades to come.
Billie Holiday was the quintessential female jazz and pop music vocalist whose troubled upbringing and later adult life likely contributed to her ability to take mediocre pop songs and turn them into classic standards. After all, she had made the best of bad situations since she was a young child after her father left and her mother had turned to prostitution to make ends meet. As a teen, she was passed from household to household and eventually turned to prostitution herself before she discovered that music was her calling.
Holiday’s meager beginnings extended into her music career early on as she often recorded for labels that couldn’t afford to pay her royalties or have extravagant music arrangements to accompany her vocals. So Holiday did what she became known for – she improvised. Her ability to manipulate phrasing and tempo allowed her to infuse life into otherwise lifeless tracks. Her voice essentially became the music’s main instrument.
Holiday’s was a life filled with struggles as she battled poverty, racism, her loved ones and a drug/alcohol addiction she couldn’t kick, but she had minor victories throughout – with her music being associated with most of them. For instance, her post-incarceration performance at Carnegie Hall in 1948 won her critical praise and led to a regular gig on Broadway.
Unfortunately, that gig was short-lived, which proved to be a metaphor for Holiday’s life as she died in 1959 at the young age of 44. Still, she remains prominently placed among all jazz singers on this list and served as a musical inspiration to the many women whose careers are also documented here.
Memorable songs: “Riffin’ the Scotch,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Twenty-four Hours A Day,” “Yankee Doodle Never Went to Town,” “I’m Gonna Lock My Heart,” “Summertime,” “Strange Fruit,” “Fine and Mellow,” “Embraceable You,” “God Bless the Child,” “Trav’lin’ Light,” “Lover Man,” “Good Morning Heartache” and “Lady Sings the Blues.”
6. Duke Ellington. Why he’s this high on the list: I believe “Sir Duke” Ellington is the greatest bandleader of all time. Born in 1899, he led his orchestra from 1923 until his death in 1974. He was a true leader in the sense that he often showcased the other musicians in his band, giving them featured spotlights and recording songs that highlighted their contributions. Several of those musicians remained with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra throughout.
Although he was a true jazz pioneer, the late Ellington was a reluctant jazz artist in that he didn’t like his music being pigeonholed in the genre, preferring instead to have his music referred to as “American Music.” For a time, especially during the 1920s and ’30s, his was the most popular brand of American music out there.
Duke Ellington gained fame in the 1920s as part of the Harlem Renaissance and particularly during his famous residency at the Cotton Club there. He was a pianist and composer who worked with many legendary musicians – several whose legends he helped create. He could excel at giving you three-minute short sides, or longer pieces that sometimes took up to four sides of a two-record set to record.
In the 1930s, Ellington introduced us to Billie Holiday (who sang on his “A Rhapsody of Negro Life,” from his short film Symphony in Black, which won an Academy Award for its category). He also later performed or recorded with Count Basie, John Coltrane, and Ella Fitzgerald – the latter of whom paid tribute to him with her “Great American Songbook” contribution, Duke Ellington Songbook.
Other tributes to him include Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” which was recorded two years after his death and reached #1 on both pop and soul charts, and the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Sophisticated Ladies, which was based on Ellington’s music.
A fellow American jazz artist and music historian who died just two weeks ago, Gunther Alexander Schuller, wrote of Ellington 25 years ago:
Ellington composed incessantly to the very last days of his life. Music was indeed his mistress; it was his total life and his commitment to it was incomparable and unalterable. In jazz he was a giant among giants. And in 20th Century music, he may yet be recognized as one of the half-dozen greatest masters of all time.
With this ranking of #6 on the Greatest Black Artists list, it’s safe to say I agree with him.
Memorable songs: “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Mood Indigo,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” “Cocktails for Two,” “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Black, Brown and Beige” and “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.”
5. Ray Charles. Why he’s this high on the list: He’s simply “The Genius.” He’s arguably the creator of soul music and he ranks the highest on this list of all the pioneers of rock and roll (before it became known as such). He excelled in soul, gospel, country, R&B and rock, which makes him one of the most versatile artists on this list as well. He is in the inaugural class of inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
I actually tear up just typing this as I researched some of the obstacles Ray Charles had to overcome on his way to superstardom in the 1940s and ’50s. The death of his younger brother in a drowning accident, his own blindness (at the age of seven) due to glaucoma and the eventual death of his mother. These events were excellently depicted in the 2004 Oscar-winning film, Ray, which still ranks as my favorite biographical motion-picture tribute to any musician.
Ray Charles went from childhood poverty to becoming one of the first African-Americans to land a lucrative recording contract with a major record label (ABC-Paramount Records), in which he retained control of his own master recordings. That was after an incredible stint with Atlantic Records where he had been instrumental in the founding and development of soul music. He was one of the few black artists to enjoy major crossover success during the pre-Motown era of the late ’50s/early ’60s.
Although he wrote much of his 1950s soul stuff with Atlantic Records, like “I Got a Woman,” his biggest success was with songs penned by others while he was with ABC-Paramount. Examples were 1960’s “Georgia on My Mind” (later named the state’s official song) and 1961’s “Hit The Road Jack.” His 1962 version of the country classic “I Can’t Stop Loving You” from his album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music topped the R&B and pop charts, but failed to dent the country charts. That was no problem for Ray, who later notched that feather in his cap with the #1 country single “Seven Spanish Angels” – his duet with Willie Nelson in 1981.
Ray Charles’ further solidified his legendary status in the ’80s and beyond with his memorable ad lib performance on USA for Africa’s “We Are The World,” which reached #1 R&B and pop in 1985, and again on his collaboration with Quincy Jones and Chaka Khan on their remake of the Brothers Johnson hit “I’ll Be Good to You” – another #1 R&B hit for Charles in 1990.
All told, this Rock and Roll Hall of Fame legend has left an indelible mark on American music of all genres and will forever be remembered as one of the greatest of all time!
Memorable songs: “I’ve Got a Woman,” “A Fool for You,” “What’d I Say,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Hit the Road Jack,” “One Mint Julip,” “Unchain My Heart,” “You Don’t Know Me,” “You Are My Sunshine,” “Busted,” “Crying Time,” “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” “America the Beautiful,” “Seven Spanish Angels” and “I’ll Be Good to You.”
4. Aretha Franklin. Why she’s this high on the list: In music history, perhaps no other record label was as important to the advancement of soul music as Atlantic Records. And no woman on the Atlantic label roster was more important to that movement than Aretha Franklin.
Sure, others have come along and tried to emulate her success while the industry created faux-music-royalty titles like “Queen of Rock,” “Queen of Pop, “Queen of Hip-Hop/Soul,” and others to legitimize their accomplishments. And while all those women have done much for popular music during the 20th century and beyond, none has done more than Ms. Franklin. The fact is: Aretha Franklin is the Queen of all that stuff and more.
While conquering soul music in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Aretha had a major impact on rock, pop, blues and just about anything else you could put on wax. Hers was the voice of black America at a very important time in African-American history. It was a voice rooted in gospel and honed through years of belting out classics like her first major hit, “I Never Loved A Man” and “Respect.”
Aretha was crowned the Queen of Soul early on and certainly consummated the title when it came to chart accomplishments. First, in the category of quantity, she’s not only managed to achieve more #1 R&B chart singles than anyone (only Stevie Wonder is tied with 20), but she also has had more Hot 100 pop chart hits than any other woman with 73. Aretha became the first woman to place 100 songs on the Billboard R&B charts just last year when her rendition of Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep” was listed, giving her a chart span of 54 years! Thus, she’s now been charting longer than any woman alive today.
She’s proved her resilience and versatility with #1 pop hits that spanned 20 years – from 1967’s soul classic “Respect” to 1987’s dance-pop “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me” (with George Michael). She even delved into a hybrid new jack/funk with the 1994 comeback hit, “A Rose is Still a Rose,” a somewhat metaphorical title produced by Lauryn Hill, which let folks know that Aretha will always be Aretha despite all the pretenders to her throne.
In 1998, Her Majesty’s nearly impromptu stand-in performance of the opera aria “Nessun Dorma” for Luciano Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammy Awards received international acclaim, further proof that – even in the latter part of her career – Aretha was one of the most versatile and vocally gifted singers of any generation.
Here’s just a sample of the awards and honors she’s received: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1987), UK Music Hall of Fame (2005), Presidential Medal of Freedom (2005), and the GMA Gospel Music Hall of Fame (2012). She also has honorary doctorates in Music from Harvard, Princeton and Yale.
All of these accomplishments easily make Aretha the top woman on this list.
Memorable songs: “I Never Loved A Man,” “Respect,” “(You Make Me Feel A) Natural Woman,” “Think,” “Chain of Fools,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Rock Steady,” “Day Dreaming,” “Master of Eyes,” “Angel,” “Until You Come Back to Me,” “I’m In Love,” “Something He Can Feel,” “Jump to It,” “Get It Right,” “Freeway of Love,” “Who’s Zooming Who?” and “A Rose is Still a Rose.”
3. Stevie Wonder. Why he’s this high on the list: As with several others on this list, one could easily ask why he isn’t ranked higher. He’s a one-of-a-kind Rock and Roll Hall of Fame musician whose talents spanned singing, playing many instruments, songwriting, producing – and doing all of this with a disability that makes all of his accomplishments in music all the more remarkable.
His career now spans 53 years, dating back to his earliest Motown recordings, including the 1963 breakthrough hit, “Fingertips.” His last #1 single was the 1986 collabo with Dionne Warwick, “That’s What Friends Are For,” but his songs have laid the sampling foundation for more recent artists, including Coolio and the #1 song of 1995, “Gangsta’s Paradise.” That smash borrowed from Stevie’s “Pastime Paradise” off his landmark album Songs in the Key Of Life. I don’t need to remind anyone over the age of 40 how significant that album was to Stevie or to music in general.
Stevie Wonder has been considered a musical genius by many. His legendary career with Motown has made him one of the most prolific singer/songwriters of all time. No other artist has had more #1 songs on the R&B chart than him (21, counting “We Are The World”). He’s also had 10 (or eleven) number one pop hits. He’s even enjoyed a renaissance the past year with his highly successful tour featuring a start-to-finish performance of his landmark album Songs in the Key of Life. I was fortunate enough to see it in 2014 and to say he didn’t disappoint would be a huge understatement.
Stevie Wonder has become my favorite artist of all time, so it was a bit tough to rank him behind two others, but my objectivity ultimately got the better of me on this one. It’s also a bit of an injustice to limit the list of memorable songs for this artist considering the many classics he’s given us over the decades. But I’ll give it a shot…
Memorable songs: “Fingertips,” “Uptight,” “I Was Made to Love Her,” “Signed, Sealed Delivered (I’m Yours),” “Heaven Help Us All,” “Superwoman/Where Were You When I Needed You,” “Superstition,” “Living for the City,” “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing,” “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” “I Wish,” “Sir Duke,” “Isn’t She Lovely,” “As,” “Another Star,” “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” “Send One Your Love,” “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” “I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It,” “Happy Birthday,” “That Girl,” “Do I Do, ” “Ribbon in the Sky,” “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and “Part-Time Lover.”
2. James Brown. Why he’s ranked this high: He’s the “Godfather of Soul.” It’s a title bestowed upon him decades ago and appropriately so. James Brown was not just any musician. He was at once a prolific dancer, a renown singer, an innovator, an activist, and a bandleader (Famous Flames, the JBs). No one else has had the kind of impact he had on so many musical genres (soul, funk, R&B and hip-hop come to mind). No one else has had the amount of influence that he had on so many other musical artists (Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson and Jay Z are just three of the highest profile examples).
Even his chart successes were unprecedented and unduplicated. The man known as “Mr. Dynamite” has charted on the Billboard Hot 100 and Soul/R&B charts more than any other artist (with the exception of Elvis on the pop charts). And that’s not even counting all the songs that sample Brown’s music.
I deliberated long and hard over which of the top three artists should be the highest. Readers can certainly make a strong case for why any of them should be #1 on this list. Certainly even Michael, if he were alive today, would probably testify about how much of an influence JB had on him. The famous dance moves, the excitement and energy on stage, and at times even the music. As a case in point, Michael famously paid homage to the man when he gave JB his “cape” while both were onstage honoring Brown during the BET Awards in 2003. In the end, after considering all the evidence, I decided that Brown should be ranked #2 because – while he was certainly influential – his music was more limited in reach. JB’s music didn’t appeal to as many audiences as the artist at #1. His songs were also somewhat one-dimensional, for example, I can picture him shouting “hit me!” on a majority of his hit singles.
That said, here are just some of the reasons that he almost took the top spot on this list:
- Born in extreme poverty in Barnwell, South Carolina, Brown rose to superstardom to record more chart hits than any other R&B artist, including 44 gold records.
- He recorded over 70 studio albums, 14 live albums, and four dozen compilation albums. He would sometimes release four or five albums in one year – living up to his title as the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.
- No other singer has had more of his songs sampled in R&B and rap/hip-hop songs than JB.
- James Brown is properly credited as the progenitor of funk music and the grandfather of rap.
- He is one of the first to bring socially conscious music to the forefront with songs like “Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.” That 1968 song was instrumental in changing the model for blacks, who theretofore had been referred to as “colored” or “negro.” Any earlier references to us as “black” was likely to result in fisticuffs before Brown made “black” beautiful with that civil rights-era anthem.
Like any legend worth his weight in gold records, Brown was a controversial man. He simultaneously offended blacks and whites during one of the country’s most tumultuous times. African-Americans were offended by his affiliation with the Republican Party, his endorsement of President Richard Nixon, and his non-violent stance on protest during the civil rights era. Whites were offended by the aforementioned “Say it Loud,” which, after its release, essentially ended JB’s top-ten pop crossover success in the late 1960s and beyond.
Here are just some of the accolades afforded James Brown over his career: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (inaugural member, 1986), Georgia Music Hall of Fame (1983), Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1992), a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (1997), Songwriters Hall of Fame (2000), BMI Urban Icon (2002), the UK Music Hall of Fame (2006), Kennedy Center Honors recipient (2003) and #7 on the Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. He also received the BET Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2003…an award presented to him by the late Michael Jackson.
James Brown died on Christmas Day in 2006, after which he was given an honorary Doctorate in Music from Paine College in his hometown of Augusta, Ga.
Memorable songs: “Please, Please, Please,” “Try Me,” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” “Cold Sweat,” “I Got the Feelin’,” “Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” “Mother Popcorn,” “Get Up/Sex Machine,” “Super Bad,” “Hot Pants,” “Make it Funky,” “Talking Loud and Saying Nothing,” “Get on the Good Foot,” “The Payback,” “My Thang,” “Papa Don’t Take No Mess,” “Get Up Offa That Thing,” “Living in America” and “Static.”
1. Michael Jackson (solo and with the Jackson 5 and the Jacksons). Why he’s ranked Number One: It’s clear that the only reason the Jackson brothers are mentioned here is Michael Jackson. Except for a few Jermaine-led songs, Michael sang lead on all the group’s hits – either with Motown or Epic records. The group, either under Motown’s wing as the Jackson 5 or later with Epic records as the Jacksons (without Jermaine), achieved dozens of hits (including four #1 pop singles and six #1 R&B songs) with Michael as the leader. However, without him, they clearly wouldn’t be on the list.
All of that said, when you add up the brothers’ hits and that of Michael as a solo artist, he’s easily the biggest artist of the past 45 years, dating back to the Jackson 5’s 1969 début single “I Want You Back” and continuing through his and the group’s hits in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. Even after his death in 2009, he managed to top the charts again with several of his recordings experiencing a major sales resurgence.
But his success on the charts only tells part of the story of this icon among icons. The King of Pop took music to another level with his Quincy Jones-produced albums Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad. Their combined worldwide sales alone are approaching 150 million copies. The music videos that accompanied the songs from those albums are among the most innovative of all time. Two videos from Thriller – “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” – were instrumental in bringing black music to MTV at a time when the network had previously declined to feature such artists. The video for the title track, “Thriller,” was unprecedented – both in length and in content – and is routinely recognized as one of the best music shorts of all time.
Certainly a case could be made for either Stevie Wonder or James Brown or even Aretha Franklin to be ranked the greatest black musician of all time. But Michael’s success was nothing short of phenomenal, especially considering when the second major phase of it occurred. When Stevie, Aretha and James experienced the bulk of their success, African-American music was considered more a part of the mainstream. Soul and Motown had been big in the 1960s and a multitude of artists benefitted from its success, including Aretha, Stevie and JB. Even the Jackson 5 were beneficiaries when they hit the scene in 1969. But by the time Michael hit a resurgence in the early-1980s with his Off the Wall and Thriller albums, black music was at its lowest point in terms of radio acceptance and popularity. Michael single-handedly revived it, returning it to heights never seen in any era, and not seen since.
Michael was a worldwide figure whose immense popularity was incomparable. He was at once more popular internationally than he was domestically. His tragic death in 2009 only underscored that popularity when millions of his records were sold (again) during the ensuing months.
It has been 33 years since Thriller – the biggest-selling album of all time – was released, but the album and its videos are still having an impact on the way music and videos are produced to this day. For instance, the use of syncopated group dance routines in the music video to “Beat It” was groundbreaking in 1983, and it’s a style that continues to be employed in music videos today.
To put it simply, Michael jackson is the greatest entertainer of all time, and the #1 artist on this list. I could write an article of this length about Michael Jackson alone and break it into four parts. Even his humanitarian efforts through the years would be enough to fill one of those chapters. To limit his list of memorable songs would be a slap in the face to the many other worthy tunes that I’ll likely omit, but, just as I did for every other artist on the list, I gotta do it…
Memorable songs: “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save,” “I’ll Be There,” “Mama’s Pearl,” “Never Can Say Goodbye,” “Dancing Machine,” “I Am Love” (all by the Jackson 5); “Enjoy Yourself,” “Show You the Way to Go,” “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground),” “Lovely One,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “State of Shock,” “Torture,” (all by the Jacksons); “Got to Be There,” “Ben,” “Just a Little Bit of You,” “Don’t Stop til You Get Enough,” “Rock With You,” “Off the Wall,” “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” “Human Nature,” “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” “Thriller,” “Say, Say, Say,” (with Paul McCartney), “I Just Can’t Stop Lovin’ You,” “Bad,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Man in the Mirror,” “Dirty Diana,” “Smooth Criminal,” “Black or White,” “Remember the Time,” “Scream” (with Janet), “You Are Not Alone,” “This Time Around” (with Notorious B.I.G.), and “Butterflies.”
And that’s it, my countdown of the 100 Greatest Black Musicians of All Time. I hope you enjoyed it. If you missed any of the other parts, they’re available by clicking any of the following links.
Part I – #100 – 76
Part II – #75 – 51
Part III – #50 – 26.
To hear songs by the artists in Part IV, please click the following special playlist I’ve created on Spotify.
And to see my special listing of the Greatest Black Producers/Songwriters of all time click here.
As always, thanks for all the love and support,