Last week, to kick off my celebration of African-American Music Appreciation Month, I presented the first part of a special countdown of the 100 Greatest Black Musicians of All Time with positions 100 through 76. This week in Part 2, I have positions 75 – 51. If you didn’t see your favorite artist on last week’s list, perhaps you’ll see them this week, or during the next two weeks as I complete the countdown.
This week’s list includes artists from a variety of music genres that black musicians have excelled in over the past 50-plus years. There are soul, jazz, blues, country, rap, disco, pop, gospel and hip-hop artists in this part of the rankings. There’s even an artist who laid claim to creating “punk funk.”
There are artists who got their start in the 1930s, and others who charted as recently as this year. Thirteen of these artists (out of 25) have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (in all 52 of the artists on the overall list of 100 have accomplished this).
Many of the artists on the 100 Black Musicians list have been self-contained, either writing or producing (or doing both) for their own hits – as well as those of other artists. Examples that come to mind are Prince, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, and Marvin Gaye. Those artists’ respective rankings on the Top 100 certainly reflect the multiple singing/songwriting, instrumentalist and production talents they possessed (as you’ll find out in the next couple weeks).
However, some popular artists relied on the writing and production talents of others to achieve their success. Singers like Whitney Houston and Diana Ross, for example, were never credited with writing or producing any of their own songs, but they’ve certainly benefitted from the likes of Narada Michael Walden, L.A. Reid & Babyface, Bernard Edwards & Nile Rodgers, and Holland-Dozier-Holland whose creations had immeasurable impact on the singers’ careers.
In the next week or so (in between Parts 3 and 4 of the Top 100 countdown), I’ll have a special intermittent countdown of the most important black music writer/producers of the past 55 years. You’ll see where names like Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Teddy Riley, Quincy Jones, Sean “Puffy” Combs, Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson, and many others rank.
In the meantime, let’s pickup the countdown of the 100 Greatest Black Musicians of All Time with Number 75. For last week’s rankings of artists from No. 100 – 76, click here).
And to hear the great music of the artists in this part of the countdown, click here to access my special playlist on Spotify.
75. Booker T. Jones (of Booker T. & the MGs). Why he’s on the list: As frontman of the 1960s Memphis soul band, Booker T. & the M.G.s, made a name for himself with the legendary Stax record label as a lead artist and as a session musician. He is mostly known for his signature organ playing, which distinguished his music from many of the other soul artists charting at the time. Memorable hits include: “Green Onions,” “Time is Tight” and “Hang ‘Em High.”
74. Nina Simone. Why she’s on the list: It’s not because of her chart success. In that category, she’s probably one of the least accomplished artists among the Top 100, having accomplished only one top 40 pop hit and two top ten R&B singles. However, Nina’s legend has grown since her death in 2003 and she is highly regarded as one of the pioneers of socially conscious music. She was at once a singer, songwriter, pianist and civil rights activist who was instrumental during the peak of the movement in the mid-1960s. Memorable songs: “I Loves You, Porgy,” “Mississippi Goddamn” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”
73. The Staple Singers. Why they’re on the list: This family act from Chicago blended gospel, soul and pop to come up with a sound that was uniquely theirs. They were one of five family acts in the 1970s to have at least two #1 pop singles (the others were the Jackson 5, Sly & the Family Stone, the Carpenters and the Bee Gees). They were inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. Memorable songs include: “I’ll Take You There,” “Respect Yourself,” “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)” and “Let’s Do It Again.”
72. Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. Why they’re on the list: This legendary hip-hop group from South Bronx was one of the first to put rap music on wax when they recorded for Sugar Hill Records in the early 1980s. They followed acts like the Sugar Hill Gang and Sequence on the same label, but their music was more iconic. “The Message” is cited as one of the most important rap songs in the genre’s history. Other memorable songs: “Freedom,” “Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” “Message II – Survival” and “White Lines.”
71. Rick James. Why he’s on the list: The late Rick James was the King of “Punk Funk,” a sub-genre of music that combined the elements of heavy rock and soul/R&B music. He scored big as a solo artist and as an in-house producer for Motown Records from the late 1970s through early 1980s. He was largely responsible for the success of Motown acts like Teena Marie and the Mary Jane Girls, as well as for an early-’80s comeback effort by the legendary Temptations. Memorable songs: “You and I,” “Mary Jane,” “Bustin’ Out,” “Give It To Me Baby,” “Super Freak,” “Fire and Desire,” and “Cold Blooded.”
70. Charley Pride. Why he’s on the list: Before Lionel Richie and Darius Rucker, there was Charley Pride. He was one of the most successful country music artists from the 1960s – 1980s. This may not seem like a big deal now, but for a black man to accomplish the things Pride did during his heyday was incredible. In 1967, he became the first black performer to appear at the Grand Ole Opry in 26 years. He had 29 singles that topped the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart from 1969 – 1983. It would be nearly 25 years before another black solo artist (Rucker) had a #1 country hit. Memorable songs: “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’,” “All I Have to Offer You (Is Me)” and “(I’m So) Afraid of Losing You Again.”
69. Gap Band/Charlie Wilson. Why they’re on the list: This R&B/funk trio of brothers (Charlie, Ronnie and Robert Wilson from Tulsa Oklahoma) gained prominence during the late 1970s/early 1980s. Unfortunately for them, the early 1980s was probably the worst time in American music history for R&B artists to gain pop radio play as it came on the heels of the backlash against disco and anything that sounded remotely like it by black acts. So the Gap Band’s success was primarily limited to the R&B charts (except for two moderately successful crossover singles from their Gap Band IV album in 1982). Charlie’s reemergence as a solo artist nearly a quarter century after the group’s first success has essentially cemented the Gap Band/Charlie Wilson’s place on this list. Memorable hits: “I Don’t Believe You Wanna Get Up & Dance (Oops Upside Your Head),” “Burn Rubber,” “Early In The Morning,” “You Dropped a Bomb on Me,” “Outstanding” and “Party Train” (all Gap Band); “There Goes My Baby” (Charlie Wilson).
68. Jerry Butler. Why he’s on the list: The “Ice Man” is now a Chicago politician, but his first claim to fame was as the original lead singer of the legendary R&B vocal group The Impressions and then as a solo artist. His Impressions work was short-lived, but the group was ultimately inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, by virtue of which Butler was also inducted. He continued to work with other legends during his solo career, including fellow Impression Curtis Mayfield and legendary writers/producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. His distinctively soulful voice practically ensures that his musical legacy will outlive his political one. Memorable songs: “For Your Precious Love” (with the Impressions); “He Will Break Your Heart,” “Hey Western Union Man,” “Only the Strong Survive” and “Ain’t Understanding Mellow” (with Brenda Lee Eager).
67. New Edition (Bobby Brown, Ralph Tresvant, Johnny Gill, Bell Biv Devoe). Why they’re on the list: This “boy band” from the early-to-mid 1980s was the first of its kind to be successful since the Jackson 5 a decade earlier. More importantly, this was perhaps the only group besides the Beatles to have all of its members record #1 singles – albeit on the R&B charts – on their own away from the group. Memorable songs: “Candy Girl,” “Cool It Now,” “Mr. Telephone Man,” “If It Isn’t Love” and “Can You Stand the Rain.” Memorable songs from each member (all #1 singles): “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Every Little Step” (Bobby Brown); “Rub You The Right Way” and “My, My, My” (Johnny Gill); “Poison” (Bell Biv Devoe); “Sensitivity (Ralph Tresvant).
66. Muddy Waters. Why he’s on the list: Muddy Waters is one of several blues legends on this chart. He is in both the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Having blurred the lines between blues and folk music, he won six Grammy awards in the category of “Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk” between 1972 and 1980. He is considered by many to be the most important post-World War II blues artist and definitely one of the most influential. Memorable songs: “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Mannish Boy” and “Got My Mojo Working.”
65. Lena Horne. Why she’s on the list: This legendary stage and film actress was also a noted singer. For proof, look no further than her discography, which spanned 72 years (all while she was alive) from 1934 (Dance with Your Gods) to 2006 (Seasons of a Life). Aside from her lengthy music repertoire, she was also a civil rights activist – an ironic role for a woman who had long before been accepted by mainstream white America in Hollywood. She’s won Grammys and Tonys, an NAACP Image Award (for Outstanding Jazz Artist), and a whole host of other honors. Memorable songs: “Stormy Weather,” “It’s Love,” “The Lady is a Tramp” and “Summertime” (from “Porgy and Bess”).
64. Mary J. Blige. Why she’s on the list: Mary J. Blige was dubbed the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul upon the release of her début album 23 years ago. That’s a risky claim and a hefty title to live up to after one’s first album, but she’s done exactly that. She is largely responsible for the merging of R&B and hip-hop music by having regularly collaborated with hip-hop artists at a time when rap was still coming into prominence. This set the stage for many R&B singers to follow. (The trend caused Billboard Magazine to rename its R&B charts as “R&B/Hip-Hop” – a name that has stuck for nearly 15 years.) Blige, in her early days, also eschewed the pop-friendly image that some of the biggest female stars of the day embraced (Janet, Madonna, Mariah and Whitney), and she managed to succeed on her own terms. Memorable songs: “Real Love,” “Love No Limit,” “Be Happy,” “My Life,” “Not Gon’ Cry,” “Family Affair,” “Be Without You” and “Just Fine.”
63. Usher. Why he’s on the list: Usher Raymond, IV has knocked out hits for over two decades, dating back to his first top-ten R&B single, “Think Of You” from 1994. He’s had 13 #1 R&B singles and nine #1 Hot 100 (pop) singles since then. He’s also sold nearly 70 million records worldwide. During his peak year of popularity, 2004, Usher’s Confessions album sold over 10 million copies in America alone, and generated four #1 pop singles, which racked up a record-setting 28 combined weeks at #1, the most by any artist during a single calendar year. Memorable songs: “You Make Me Wanna…,” “U Don’t Have to Call,” “Yeah!,” “Caught Up,” “Hey Daddy (Daddy’s Home)” and “OMG.”
62. Thelonious Monk. Why he’s on the list: According to Wikipedia, legendary jazz pianist Monk is the second-most recorded jazz composer after Duke Ellington. So prestigious is Monk that he’s one of only five jazz artists to ever be featured on the cover of Time Magazine. Long considered a “giant of jazz,” Monk recorded with the likes of other jazz legends, notably Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie. His professional recordings spanned from 1947 to 1971 and reflect his unique improvisational style and keen ear for melody. Memorable songs: “‘Round Midnight,” “Monk’s Dream,” “Body and Soul” and “Ruby, My Dear.”
61. Etta James. Why she’s on the list: Several blues artists are on this list, but Etta James is probably the one most known for having bridged the gap between R&B and rock and roll. Here’s a sampling of the accolades given her during her lifetime: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1993), Blues Hall of Fame (2001), Grammy Hall of Fame (twice), and #22 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. She’s most known for her signature song, “At Last,” but several other tunes line her catalog. Memorable songs: “All I Could Do Was Cry,” “My Dearest Darling,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” “At Last,” “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” and “Tell Mama.”
60. Sly & the Family Stone. Why they’re on the list: Led by Sylvester “Sly” Stone, this family act was instrumental in combining rock, soul, funk and psychedelic music forms, and they had major success doing it. Key group member, Larry Graham, is said to have invented the “slapping technique” of bass guitar playing, which later characterized their funkier sound. They were groundbreaking in terms of their make-up as well, consisting of a mixed-race and mixed-gender line-up that became one of the first to achieve their level of success with such a membership. Memorable songs: “Dance to the Music,” “Everyday People,” “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” “Stand,” “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” “Everybody Is a Star,” “Family Affair,” “Runnin’ Away” and “If You Want Me to Stay.”
59. The Ink Spots. Why they’re on the list: This quartet of singers originally formed in Indianapolis and was very instrumental in breaking down racial barriers in America during the 1930s and ’40s, at least in the world of entertainment. In 1936, they were the first African-Americans to appear on TV. During the 1940s, they placed over 30 hits on the US pop charts, including 18 top tens and five #1 songs. They’re 1939 single, “If I Didn’t Care,” is reportedly the 7th-best-selling single of all time, having sold 19 millions copies. In 1989, they were inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Memorable songs: “If I Didn’t Care,” “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow and Me),” “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall,” “To Each His Own” and “The Gypsy.”
58. Patti LaBelle. Why she’s on the list: She’s the mother of reinvention, having had successful careers in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s with completely different musical approaches in each decade. First as a member of Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, she recorded three top 40/R&B crossover hits, most notably, “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman” in 1962. Then, after a name change and adopting space-alien personas (at least for their stage shows), the group LaBelle hit #1 pop with the iconic “Lady Marmalade” in 1975. Patti then went solo and had major R&B chart success with #1 songs like “If Only You Knew” and “On My Own” (with Michael McDonald), which also became her second #1 pop hit after “Marmalade.” Then she tried her hand at new jack swing in the ’90s with her top-ten R&B hit, “The Right Kinda Lover” in 1994. And this is not to even mention how legendary her live concert performances have been. Memorable songs: “Lady Marmalade,” “What Can I Do For You,” “You Are My Friend,” “If Only You Knew,” “Love, Need & Want You,” “New Attitude,” “On My Own” and “Right Kinda Lover.”
57. Ruth Brown. Why she’s on the list: Before there was Aretha Franklin, there was Ruth Brown. Many artists on this list had the good fortune of recording for the legendary Atlantic Records label, but the label was able to sign many of them because of the success of artists like Brown, whose contributions during the 1950s made Atlantic “the house that Ruth built.” She became known as the “queen of R&B” before other acts adopted similar royal nicknames for various related genres in later decades. In the short time she charted between 1949 and 1959, she recorded 21 top-ten R&B hits, with five of them reaching #1. Memorable songs: “Teardrops from My Eyes,” “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean,” “Mambo Baby,” “Lucky Lips” and “This Little Girl’s Gone Rockin’.”
56. Fats Domino. Why he’s on the list: Fats is another rock and roll pioneer – one of many on this list – who also succeeded in R&B, piano blues, country, pop and jazz. He had 37 top-40 hits in America, mostly during the 1950s as the rock and roll genre was building in popularity and as blacks were typically prevented from achieving the kind of success Fats did. His songs were recorded by rock music legends John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Domino has even been credited with influencing ska music (a cousin of the reggae genre) with the way his rhythms accentuated the offbeat in the song “Be My Guest.” Other memorable songs: “The Fat Man,” “Ain’t That A Shame,” “Blueberry Hill” and “I’m Walkin’.”
55. O’Jays. Why they’re on the list: They were largely responsible for ushering in Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philly Soul sound, with several million-selling singles and albums during the 1970s. Constant O’Jays members and group founders Eddie Levert and Walter Williams have soldiered on for 57 years while the remaining membership has varied over that time. Their unique vocal styles are instantly recognizable as both Levert and Williams’ have contributed lead roles to their many hits. The O’Jays were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005. Memorable songs: “Back Stabbers,” “Love Train,” “For the Love of Money,” “I Love Music,” “Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby (Sweet Tender Love),” “Livin’ for the Weekend” and “Use Ta Be My Girl.”
54. Sarah Vaughan. Why she’s on the list: It has been said that, with vocal training, Sarah Vaughan could have gone as far as Leontyne Price (who just missed this list by the way) did in the opera field. Not that it would have been necessary, as Vaughan was a legend in her own right…in the jazz field. She’s considered by music critics to have one of the greatest natural voices ever. Here’s a quote from Wikipedia: “Vaughan had a large vocal range of soprano through a female baritone, exceptional body, volume, a variety of vocal textures, and superb and highly personal vocal control.” (The quote is excerpted from a review by Martin Williams of The Jazz Tradition, Nov. 11, 1992.). Memorable songs: “Mean to Me,” “Body and Soul,” “Black Coffee,” “My Funny Valentine” and “Broken Hearted Melody.”
53. Otis Redding. Why he’s on the list: During the 1950s and ’60s, the world of pure soul music could be seen as belonging to Atlantic Records and its subsidiary labels, including the Stax/Volt imprint to which Otis Redding was signed. As part of the legendary Stax roster of Memphis soul artists, Redding brought with him a rawness and a gritty emotional edge that had rarely been heard in music before the mid-1960s. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted him in 1989, said it best: Redding’s name is “synonymous with the term soul, music that arose out of the black experience in America…” Memorable songs: “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” “Respect,” “Try a Little Tenderness,” “Tramp” and “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,”
52. Mahalia Jackson. Why she’s on the list: She’s the “Queen of Gospel Music.” Mahalia Jackson took gospel music to unprecedented levels during the 1940s and ’50s when she played before international audiences who at once declared her the “world’s greatest gospel singer” (a moniker that would eventually become the title of one of albums in 1954). While she never recorded secular music (a vow to herself that she kept throughout her career), her music was sometimes criticized by gospel purists for its jazzy and orchestral arrangements. It didn’t stop her from continuing to use her music and popularity to champion causes like the civil rights movement. She participated in both the 1956 Montgomery (Alabama) bus boycott and the 1963 March on Washington, DC. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted her in 1997 as an early rock and roll influence. Memorable songs: “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “We Shall Overcome,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “How I Got Over.”
51. Johnny Mathis. Why he’s on the list: You may not know this, but according to Guinness Book of World Records writer Paul Gambaccini, Johnny Mathis has sold 350 million records worldwide. Of course, that’s a hefty claim and one that I cannot verify, but even if he’s sold a third of that amount, it still makes him one of the biggest-selling black artists in music history. The fact that he’s had 73 different albums reach the Billboard charts also bodes well for the sales stat. Known as a singer of easy-listening pop standards, Mathis didn’t achieve a No. 1 R&B single until he teamed with soul singer Deniece Williams in 1978 for the classic duet “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late.” Other memorable songs: “It’s Not For Me To Say,” “Misty,” Chances Are” and “Wonderful, Wonderful.”
And that’s it for Part 2 of this special countdown.
Here’s a link to Part 3 of this special for Black Music Month with Numbers 50-26.
To see Part 4 for the artists ranked from 25 to 1, please click here.
For a recap of Part 1 for the artists ranked from 100 to 76, please click here.
And to hear the key songs from the artists from both parts of the countdown, click here.