This article is a celebration of black family musical acts, in conjunction with Black History Month 2016.
With Black History Month – officially known as National African-American History Month – now upon us, the occasion serves as a reminder of the struggles our ancestors as Africans, and later Americans, endured to gain the human dignities that every human being should have, dignities and basic rights that were denied a race of people through institutionalized slavery and oppression.
It’s also a reminder of the many contributions that blacks have made to American and world history and to the growth and development of this nation into the world power that it is today.
Black History Month is particularly important to the institution of family. Race-based oppression took – and continues to take – a particular toll on the black family, an effect that continues to impact blacks to this day. Statistics show that African-Americans are disproportionately born to single-parent homes, which itself can be traced back to slavery and is a fact that has, over time, created a different norm for the black family than others.
But even in its fragmented state, the black family has been resilient. The absence of the nuclear family has given more importance to the extended family, a large part of which plays a significant role in our children’s upbringing. Stories of African-Americans who overcome the most extreme odds abound throughout history.
And it’s the black family unit that, when it is unified, can be one of the strongest forces known to man.
The same holds true in music. Some of the most important, most popular and most beloved black recording acts in music history have been of the family variety.
Black families have been game-changers in popular music, whether they’ve been all sisters, brothers, or a combination of siblings, married couples or even parent-child groupings.
Think about it, without the success of the Jackson 5, there would’ve been no Off the Wall and no Thriller. A black man would not own the biggest selling album in recorded music history.
Without the union of Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, we wouldn’t have had some of the most iconic pop and R&B songs of all time like “You’re All I Need to Get By,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “I’m Every Woman.”
Roebuck “Pops” Staples and his three daughters, Mavis, Cleotha and Yvonne showed us that the family that plays and prays together stays together.
And groups like Gladys Knight & the Pips and Isley Brothers reminded us that the extended family can be just as important as the immediate one when they welcomed cousins and in-laws to the fold.
This article is dedicated to all those family acts and more.
What follows is the DJRob ranking of the 25 greatest black musical family acts in American history. These are the family based musicians who, over time, have had the most success, the most impact and the most influence on American music history.
To be eligible, at least half of the group had to be related, either by blood or by marriage. Some exceptions were made for groups in which family members played a key role in the artists’ creative direction or success. Innovation and longevity both played a large part in the rankings as well. Some of the acts that didn’t make the cut because of the above are included below the countdown as honorable mentions.
I had more than 30 family based acts from which to choose. Read on to see where – or if – your favorite family acts are listed. And, of course, feel free to comment at the bottom of the article as I’m sure your opinions will differ from mine, and I welcome them!
Like Sly Stone once said, “it’s a family affair,” so let’s get the countdown started now…
25. Mary Mary.
Family connection: Sisters Tina and Erica Campbell
Legacy: Their 2000 single “Shackles (Praise You)” is the only one by a female gospel act to reach the top ten on the Billboard Hot 100. The duo is largely credited with expanding gospel to a more urban-contemporary audience in the ’00s.
Notable: The name Mary Mary comes from the two famous Marys of the Bible (Mary, mother of Jesus; and Mary Magdalene)
24. The Five Stairsteps/ Invisible Man’s Band.
Family connection: Five Burke siblings – Alohe, Clarence, Jr., James, Dennis and Kenneth “Keni.”
Legacy: Before the Jackson 5, they were dubbed the “First Family of Soul.” Their “O-o-h Child” from 1970 was a top-ten pop hit and top-20 R&B. Four of the brothers later formed the Invisible Man’s Band and in 1980 had the top-ten R&B single, “All Night Thing.”
Notable: Keni is the same Keni Burke that recorded the R&B hit, “Risin’ to the Top” in 1983.
23. After 7.
Family connection: Brothers Melvin and Kevon Edmonds, along with friend Keith Mitchell.
Legacy: The group recorded seven top-ten R&B hits in the 1980s and ’90s, including songs like “Nights Like This,” “Can’t Stop,” and “Ready or Not,” the latter two of which also reached the pop top ten and were certified gold.
Notable: Kevon and Melvin are the brothers of super producer Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, who co-produced all the group’s biggest hits.
22. Neville Brothers.
Family connection: Four brothers – Aaron, Art, Cyril and Ivan Neville
Legacy: The group is one of New Orleans’ most popular bands. They’re a Grammy-winning act who’ve recorded over a dozen studio and live albums between 1978 and 2004.
Notable: Aaron Neville has had a respectable solo career, which included a #2 duet with Linda Ronstadt, “Don’t Know Much” in 1989.
21. Clark Sisters.
Family connection: Four sisters: Jacky, Elbernita, Dorinda and Karen
Legacy: The Grammy-winning group has recorded 16 albums and are the largest-selling female gospel group in history. Popular tunes include “Is My Living in Vain?” and “You Brought the Sunshine.”
Notable: “You Brought the Sunshine” is modeled after Stevie Wonder’s “Master Blaster (Jammin’).” It reached the top 30 on both the Billboard R&B singles chart and the Dance/Disco chart in 1983.
20. Jones Girls.
Family connection: Three sisters – Shirley, Brenda and Valorie (deceased)
Legacy: The Jones Girls recorded for the famed Philly International record label and rose to prominence in the late-1970s/early-’80s with hit singles “You Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else,” “Who Can I Run To?” and “Nights Over Egypt.”
Notable: Shirley (pictured center above) had a successful solo career, which included a #1 R&B hit “Do You Get Enough Love.” The girl group X-scape re-recorded “Who Can I Run To?” in 1993 and took the song to #1 R&B.
Family connection: Five brothers – Ralph, Arthur (“Pooch”), Antone (“Chubby”), Feliciano (“Butch”) and Perry (“Tiny”)
Legacy: The Tavares brothers recorded several hit singles in the 1970s and ’80s, including a dozen top-ten R&B singles, three of which reached #1: “She’s Gone” (yes, a remake of the Daryl Hall & John Oates song), “It Only Takes A Minute” (also a top-ten pop hit), and “Whodunit.”
Notable: Did you know that Rhode Island has a Music Hall of Fame? Well, Tavares (who were born there) are in it.
18. Be-Be & Ce-Ce Winans/The Winans.
Family connection: The legendary Winans family of gospel music, including siblings Benjamin “BeBe” and Priscilla “CeCe,” along with The Winans Brothers: Ronald, Marvin, Carvin and Michael.
Legacy: BeBe and CeCe Winans have had #1 R&B singles with “Addictive Love” and “I’ll Take You There,” a remake of the Staple Singers’ hit. They’ve received many Dove and Grammy awards. The Winans Brothers have actually won more Grammys than their two famous younger siblings BeBe & CeCe, and have three #1 Billboard Gospel chart albums to their credit.
Notable: The Winans have four other siblings besides the six pictured, including David, Daniel, Angelique and Debra. All of them have been involved in music and the Winans are perhaps the family with the largest number of different credited configurations of any family in any genre.
Family connection: Nine siblings – Olympia Ann, Leon, Charmaine, James, Edmund, Joseph (“Ricky”), Angelia (“Angie”), Patricia (“Pat”) and Foster.
Legacy: The group recorded three top-40 pop hits and several more R&B chart hits. The biggest three were “Boogie Fever,” “Hot Line” and “High School Dance.”
Notable: Youngest sibling, Foster, had a top 25 pop hit before the group became popular, with 1973’s “Misdemeanor.” Oldest brother Leon went on to become a hugely successful record producer in the 1980s for Solar Records (Whispers, Lakeside, Shalamar).
Family connection: Three Hutchinson sisters – Jeanette, Sheila and Wanda. Jeanette was later replaced by younger sister Pamela.
Legacy: The group recorded one of the biggest R&B chart hits of the 1970s with “Best of My Love,” which was also the third-biggest pop hit of 1977. Other major hits by the Hutchinsons included “Boogie Wonderland” (with Earth, Wind & Fire) and “I Don’t Want To Lose Your Love.” “Don’t Ask My Neighbor” – also from 1977’s Rejoice album – was one of the original quiet-storm radio classics.
Notable: The Emotions had only small success before they connected with Earth Wind & Fire leader Maurice White, who produced their biggest hits, beginning with 1976’s Flowers album.
15. Sister Sledge.
Family connection: Four sisters – Kathy, Kim, Joni and Debbie
Legacy: The group had huge singles in 1979 including “He’s The Greatest Dancer” and “Lost In Music” from the We Are Family album (oh, yeah, the title track was a big hit, too). Respectable follow-ups included “Got To Love Somebody,” “My Guy” (remake of the Mary Wells Motown hit), and “All The Man That I Need” (the one remade by Whitney Houston).
Notable: Sister Sledge’s biggest hits were written and produced by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards for the Chic Organization (and all of Chic’s musicians and singers performed on those hits). “We Are Family” was adopted as the theme song for the Pittsburgh Pirates during their 1979 World Series Championship run.
14. Tony! Toni! Toné!.
Family connection: Two Wiggins brothers – Dwayne and Charles Ray (who later changed his name to Raphael Saadiq, and their cousin Timothy Riley.
Legacy: They recorded several big hits during the 1980s and ’90s, including the gold-certified singles “Feels Good,” “Anniversary” and “If I Had No Loot.” In all, twelve of their songs reached the R&B top ten, including five #1s.
Notable: Raphael Saadiq had a successful solo career and recorded as a member of the super-trio Lucy Pearl (featuring Dawn Robinson of En Vogue and Ali Shaheed Mohammed of A Tribe Called Quest).
13. Jodeci/K-Ci & JoJo.
Family connection: Two sets of brothers – The Haileys: Cedric “K-Ci” and Joel “JoJo”, and The DeGrates: Donald (“Devonte Swing”) and Dalvin.
Legacy: Jodeci was one of the pioneers of new-jack swing and recorded several huge singles in the 1990s, including four #1 R&B hits, “Forever My Lady,” “Stay,” “Come and Talk To Me,” and “Cry For You.” K-Ci and JoJo went on to become a successful duo in the 1990s. They had a worldwide #1 pop hit in 1998 with “All My Life” and teamed up with 2pac on his #1 pop hit, “How Do U Want It?” two years earlier.
Notable: Jodeci may be the only quartet composed of two sets of brothers in R&B history.
12. Brothers Johnson.
Family connection: Two brothers, George and Louis (deceased).
Legacy: The Brothers Johnson had several big hits in the 1970s and early ’80s, including “I’ll Be Good To You,” “Strawberry Letter 23” and “Stomp” – all #1 R&B singles. The brothers performed as session musicians on a number of big hits by other artists, including albums by their legendary producer Quincy Jones.
Notable: In one of their most memorable hits, “Strawberry Letter 23,” the song’s title is never spoken in the lyrics. Instead, George sings, “a present, it’s from you…Strawberry Letter 22…” That’s because the song was the protagonist’s reply to love letter 22, and as such, the song itself was “Strawberry Letter 23.”
11. Ike & Tina Turner.
Family connection: Married couple Ike (deceased) and Tina Turner.
Legacy: Their troubled marriage was well documented after it ended, but, dysfunction aside, their union produced one of the best-known rock-and-roll acts of the 1960s and ’70s. Their biggest hit was a remake of Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary,” which hit the top five on the pop chart.
Notable: Tina’s 1980s solo career was one of the biggest comeback stories in popular music history. Her “What’s Love Got To Do With It” was a #1 hit in 1984 that became the title of a biopic about the troubled relationship between her and Ike.
10. Mills Brothers.
Family connection: Four brothers – John Jr., Herbert, Harry and Donald (all deceased). Father John Sr. replaced John Jr. when Junior died in 1936 (at age 25).
Legacy: The quartet has reportedly recorded over 2,000 songs and sold 50 million copies of their records. They had over 30 top-ten popular records between 1931 and 1952. Some of their hits include “You Always Hurt the One You Love” and “The Glow-Worm.”
Notable: The Mills Bros. became the first African-American group to give a command performance before British Royalty in 1934. They also appeared in 20 motion pictures between 1932 and 1956.
9. Gap Band.
Family connection: Three Wilson brothers – Ronnie, Charlie and Robert (deceased).
Legacy: One of the pioneering bands of funk/R&B. Charlie Wilson’s gospel-tinged vocals powered such smash hits as “Burn Rubber,” “Early In The Morning,” “You Dropped a Bomb on Me,” “Outstanding” and “Party Train.”
Notable: Charlie Wilson went on to have a successful solo career more than two decades after the band’s original success. He’s now considered an elder statesman of contemporary R&B music. The GAP band’s name comes from three streets in their hometown of Tulsa, OK: Greenwood, Archer and Pine Streets.
8. Staple Singers.
Family connection: Father – Roebuck (deceased), and three daughters – Mavis, Cleotha (deceased) and Yvonne.
Legacy: The only father/daughter act to have two #1 pop hits, “I’ll Take You There” and “Let’s Do It Again,” – the latter the title track from the motion picture starring Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier and John Amos. They also had other R&B chart-toppers, including the gold-selling “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)” and “Respect Yourself.”
Notable: The Staple Singers were one of the most successful acts to merge gospel, R&B and pop music styles. The character “Biggie Smalls” from Let’s Do It Again was adopted by the late Notorious B.I.G. as his nickname.
Family connection: Five siblings – Bunny, Eldra (“El”), Mark, Randy and James
Legacy: Motown’s second-most popular family act, after the Jacksons. Their biggest hits include classics like “Rhythm of the Night,” “Time Will Reveal,” and “I Like It.” Their “Stay With Me” from 1984’s In A Special Way album has become one of the most successfully sampled songs in R&B/hip-hop history, and powered such hits as “One More Chance” (Notorious B.I.G.) and “Foolish” (Ashanti), the two of which spent a combined 19 weeks at #1 R&B/Hip-Hop.
Notable: Two other brothers, Bobby (deceased) and Tommy, formed the 1970s group Switch, and had a couple of big R&B hits with “There’ll Never Be” and “I Call Your Name.”
6. Pointer Sisters.
Family connection: Four sisters – Ruth, Anita, June (deceased) and Bonnie
Legacy: The most successful all-sister act in R&B music history. Their top-ten pop hits included “Fire,” “He’s So Shy,” “Slowhand,” “I’m So Excited,” “Automatic,” “Jump (For My Love)” and “Neutron Dance.” Ironically, their only #1 R&B hit predated all their pop success – “How Long (Betcha Got a Chick on the Side)” in 1975.
Notable: Bonnie left the group in 1979 and recorded a successful solo single, “Heaven Must Have Sent You,” which just missed the pop top ten (#11 in October).
5. Ashford & Simpson.
Family connection: Married couple Nick Ashford (deceased) and Valerie Simpson
Legacy: Aside from being one of the most successful and prolific songwriting teams in music history, the duo recorded many of their own songs, including “It Just Seems to Hang On,” “Is It Still Good To Ya,” “Found a Cure,” “Street Corner,” and “Solid.” They also performed on the #1 R&B hit by Quincy Jones, “Stuff Like That,” in 1978.
Notable: Imagine a world without songs like “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” “The Boss,” “I’m Every Woman,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Your Precious Love,” and “You’re All I Need To Get By.” I can’t.
4. Sly & the Family Stone.
Family connection: The Stone siblings – Sylvester (“Sly”), Freddie and Rose, plus four other members – Larry Graham, Greg Errico, Cynthia Robinson (deceased) and Jerry Martini.
Legacy: One of the first rock/soul/funk groups to blend race and gender and have massive success with the formula. They had three #1 pop hits with “Everyday People,” “Thank U Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin” and “Family Affair.”
Notable: Sly & the Family Stone was a major influence for rock superstar Prince, particularly his one-time ’80s band The Revolution. Larry Graham, Sly Stone’s bassist, went on to form Graham Central Station, which had its own hits. He also had a decent solo career, scoring #1 hits both by himself and with GCS.
3. Gladys Knight & the Pips.
Family connection: Sister Gladys Knight, Brother Merald (“Bubba”) Knight and two cousins, William Guest (deceased) and Edward Patten (deceased)
Legacy: One of the longest-lasting and most successful R&B acts of all time, related or otherwise. They had major success over a four-decade period, with songs like “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “If I Were Your Woman,” “Neither One of Us,” “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” “On And On,” “Love Overboard,” and their biggest hit, “Midnight Train to Georgia.”
Notable: Gladys Knight is still releasing new material, with a song “Just A Little” and video just issued in late 2015. She turns 72 in May 2016.
2. Isley Brothers.
Family connection: Five brothers – Rudolph, Ronald, O’Kelly (deceased), Ernie and Marvin (deceased), plus brother-in-law Chris Jasper.
Legacy: Another long-lasting legendary band whose hits date back to the 1950s. Their biggest success occurred in the 1970s and early ’80s with a series of chart-topping, million-selling albums and big hit singles, like “Fight The Power,” “That Lady,” “Who Loves You Better,” “For the Love of You,” “Livin’ in the Life,” and “Between the Sheets.” They continued to generate hits through the 1990s and 2000s with songs like “Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)” (with R. Kelly) and “Contagious.”
Notable: Their first Billboard Hot 100 chart hit was “Shout” in 1959 and their last was “Contagious” in 2001, making them the black group with the longest span of charting hits in Hot 100 history.
1. Jackson 5/Jacksons.
Family connection: Six brothers, including Jackie, Jermaine, Tito, Marlon and Michael (deceased), plus little brother Randy, who joined the group after Jermaine left in 1975.
Legacy: Was there any question that this would be the top family act on the list? The Jacksons are the first family of music, period. Not only were the brothers successful in two different incarnations, but six (of the nine total) siblings have charted hits on their own, including Michael, Jermaine, Janet, Rebbie, LaToya and Marlon. Their list of hits are too many to name, and leaving any of them out would be an injustice. Suffice it to say that the Jackson family will likely never be topped in terms of its impact on popular music and popular culture. Joe may have been a tough father on his brood of nine, but I doubt this group of kids from Gary, Indiana would have been as successful without his style of discipline and his determination.
Notable: Michael Jackson’s Thriller was recently certified for 30 million copies sold in the U.S., moving it ahead of the Eagles Greatest Hits album, with which it had been tied for the past couple years. Thriller still ranks as the world’s largest-selling album with reportedly over 65 million copies sold during the past 33 years since its first release.
Atlantic Starr, The Boys, The Braxtons, Clipse, Guy, Hawkins Singers, H-Town, Jagged Edge, Pace Sisters, Soul 4 Real, Whispers
So there you have it. Feel free to click here (link to be activated later today), to access a special DJRob playlist featuring all the acts in this special Black History Month family countdown.
And please feel free to give me your opinion of this list. Who did I leave out? Who should have been excluded? Your opinion matters, so let me have it!
As always, thanks for the love and support of djrobblog.
And Happy Black History Month!