The Purple One, who was later to be known by his actual first name Prince, and later still The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, is legendary for his musical prowess. Indeed, as a youngster, he showed an incredible talent for instruments and rhythm. As an adult, he not only wrote his own songs and sang but played multiple instruments on his albums. A guitar virtuoso, it was also said that he was able to play more than two dozen other instruments.
He also set a record by becoming the first artist to simultaneously hold three number-one spots for his song, album, and film, Purple Rain. His music, particularly that which he released in the 80s, has solidly cemented his place in American pop culture.
2. Louis Armstrong
It’s hard to imagine the city of New Orleans, or the jazz genre, without Louis Armstrong—or as he was commonly known, Satchmo. An impressive trumpet player and talented singer, his uniquely gravely voice and original style of trumpet playing made him a staple in the New Orleans musical scene.
He landed his first job as a musician playing bugle and cornet with a riverboat band and attributed music with leading him away from a career in crime. At a time when many white listeners did not want to engage with black musicians, Armstrong forged a way. He is best remembered for his top hit, “What A Wonderful World,” which didn’t become one during his lifetime.
3. Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin was not only a soul music legend but a larger-than-life personality who performed regularly until her death in 2018. She started out singing with her father in his church, a member of his touring group who was known as the “gospel caravan.”
While gospel music clearly continued to influence Franklin and her music throughout her life, her decades-long career expanded into multiple genres—from R&B to jazz and blues to Motown-tinged rock. She was the recipient of 18 Grammys and had over 100 singles that earned a spot on the Billboard charts. Her album has sold over 75 million copies worldwide.
4. Ray Charles
Ray Charles, also known as Brother Ray, was a leading pioneer in R&B, soul, jazz, and even country music. His piano talents were revealed as a child; blind from a young age, he was able to compose songs and play songs by ear.
Charles’ influence extended into multiple genres of music, and he collaborated with numerous musical legends—Elvis Presley, Bobby Darin, and Jerry Lee Lewis were some of them. He also put in an iconic appearance as the owner of a music shop in the pivotal comedy film, The Blues Brothers.
5. B.B. King
B.B. King was a man of many talents, and he had the resume to back it up. Banned from singing the blues as a child, he was versed in the genre by an older cousin who he sang with on the sly. As he grew in skill, he developed his own sophisticated guitar style, which involved long and complicated blues solos that would greatly influence future electric guitar players.
The magazine AllMusic even called him the “most important electric guitarist of the 20th century.” In 1987, he was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
6. Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix was a guitar player like no other. Despite a career that lasted only five years—ending with his unfortunate death at the age of 27—he left behind a musical legacy that continues to influence popular culture today.
He is best remembered for his headlining performance at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. His raw performances were a true spectacle; it was often said that Hendrix appeared to be in his own world when playing the guitar for an audience.
7. Sam Cooke
While James Brown is heralded as the Godfather of Soul, Sam Cooke has been called its King. He is largely responsible for bringing soul music to the larger American audience and is famous for releasing multiple songs about protest, which contributed to the soundtrack of the civil rights movement.
8. Sister Rosetta Tharpe
A one-of-a-kind performer, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, could play guitar like no other. Her church-lady exterior hid soulful and raw energy and prodigious songwriting talent. Her songs run the gamut from gospel to R&B to rock, and she is widely regarded as the Godmother of Rock ‘N’ Roll. Despite her gospel leanings and upbringing, Tharpe never considered herself lucky in love and was marthried multiple times.
9. Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker is remembered as the inventor of bebop music, the predecessor to the modern jazz sound. He was an alto saxophonist and a singer with a unique style of playing that boggled most mainstream musicians but came to be accepted by the larger music community.
While Parker undoubtedly had a fantastic amount of natural musical talent, peers and others admired him for his work ethic and continual desire to improve his work.
10. Nina Simone
Born as Eunice Waymon, the singer known as Nina Simone had a voice so strong that artists from Beyoncé to Madonna have cited her as an influence. She grew up in the church, with a Methodist minister, and started out singing gospel.
Even when she moved on to other genres, she maintained that same gospel influence. Prior to her death in 2003, she had performed her torch songs for more than 40 years, leaving an indelible mark on the world of soul.
11. Chuck Berry
While fans of Elvis Presley dubbed him the King of Rock ‘N’ Roll, those in the know consider Chuck Berry to be one of the foremost inventors of the genre. With a troubled background behind him—he spent three years in jail for robbery—the young man turned to music to soothe himself. It was seminal artist, Muddy Waters, who introduced Berry to the record executives and helped him get his career off the ground with the song “Maybellene.”
His string of hit songs after includes “Roll Over Beethoven” and most popularly, “Johnny B. Goode” with its rousing chorus. Berry was one of the most prolific and talented artists of the 50s and 60s, and his songs have been covered by some of the biggest musical names in the world—from Presley to Buddy Holly to The Beatles.
12. Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday, or Lady Day to her fans, is remembered as one of the finest female voices of the century. A troubled child, she was raised by a single mother who was frequently called to the school to deal with her daughter’s truancy and misbehavior. Holiday remembers her childhood as a rough one, saying that she lived in poverty and was forced to help the family with work by the age of six years old.
She was discovered by the producer John Hammond when she was 18 years old. She was unique in her use of vocals, choosing to change tempos and her enunciation of words. Her song, “Strange Fruit,” was adopted by the civil rights movement and became her signature song.
13. George Clinton
George Clinton was a musical rebel who bucked against the typical look and sound of Black bands of the 60s. Instead of choreographed performances and suits, his audiences got a new and innovative funk sound that told of things to come. His wild fashion style and dance moves were, and continue to be, emulated by performers all over the world.
He has played with multiple bands, including the Parliament, who released only two singles before breaking up, and a later version of the group, who would also become his longtime bandmates, Funkadelic. Clinton cites artists from a variety of musical genres as his influences and considers his music a mixture of every possible style of sound, naming himself as a fan of everyone from Frank Zappa to Sly Stone to Jimi Hendrix.
14. Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder is truly a wonder, and one of the most unique and accomplished musicians of all time. Despite being blind, he released decades worth of R&B, funk, and jazz music and inspired fans with his piano virtuosity. In fact, he holds the record for the youngest musical artist to ever make it onto the Billboard chart, accomplishing that feat at the tender age of thirteen.
Wonder was not blind at birth but lost his sight as an infant as the result of improper treatment while he was in the hospital incubator.
15. Smokey Robinson
One of a number of Black artists to come out of the Motown revolution of the 60s, Smokey Robinson’s band The Miracles released crossover hit after hit for more than two decades. In addition to releasing hit songs like “My Girl” and “Tears Of A Clown,” he also wrote music for other musical giants, including English Beat, Otis Redding, and The Jackson 5, to name a few.
Robinson is credited with writing an incredible 4,000 plus songs in his career, including dozens of top 40 hits like the ones mentioned above and “I Second That Emotion.”
16. Frankie Knuckles
He may have been born Francis Warren Nicholls, Jr., but fans of the pioneering DJ and record producer knew him better as Frankie Knuckles. He was a part of the burgeoning house music boom in 80s Chicago and would go on to win a Grammy for his remixing skills, the first artist to receive this new and innovative award.
Considered by many to be the Godfather of House Music, he left an indelible impression on the new form of music that he helped to birth. Knuckles’ discography includes two full-length albums, along with 22 singles and a compilation album.
17. Michael Jackson
Raised in the music industry, Michael Jackson started out young, singing and dancing with his brothers in the band, The Jackson Five. But, it was his solo career that would make him a permanent pop culture fixture.
He released his solo album, Thriller, in 1984 to widespread critical and audience acclaim. The record remains, to this day, one of the best-selling albums of all time, and Jackson’s iconic dance moves continue to be imitated and emulated by other artists and fans the world over. His extended music video for the song “Thriller” also set the pace for story-driven videos. Jackson’s career was so unique that the singer holds 39 different Guinness World Records and is regarded as the most-awarded artist in the history of music.
18. Miles Davis
Miles Davis tops two lists—best trumpet players and best jazz musicians. As a child, he was taught trumpet by a friend of his father’s. While his mother originally disapproved of the hobby, she relented when she saw how naturally talented her son was. He played music for more than five decades, growing his repertoire with the times.
His album, Kind Of Blue, was released in 1959 and established him as a jazz force to be reckoned with. Later albums of his, such as Bitches Brew, recorded in the 70s, leaned decidedly more toward the growing funk and hip hop genres. Davis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007 and honored for his work in influencing the birth of rock music.
19. Muddy Waters
Muddy Waters is widely considered one of the most influential Black musicians in history. Working in both the rock and roll and blues genres, he inspired generations of musicians with his emotion-laden renditions of original and classic blues songs.
An accomplished singer and guitar player, he is best remembered for the song “Mannish Boy.” Interestingly, one of his biggest fans is the singer of the classic rock band, AC/DC, Angus Young, who has cited him as the inspiration for their biggest hit, “You Shook Me All Night Long.”
20. James Brown
James Brown earned more than a few nicknames —most notably Soul Brother No. 1 and The Godfather of Soul—for his hit songs and pedal-to-the-metal, all-out performance style. His songs feature heavy soul riffs, and he is one of the originators of the funk sound that led the disco movement of the 70s.
His influence can be felt all the way to today, and his hyped-up, all-out stage presence inspired generations of musicians to come. In his prodigious career, Brown has landed in the Billboard Top 100 chart more than 96 times and has had over 100 songs on the R&B chart.
21. Robert Johnson
Considering the size of his musical legacy, it’s hard to believe that Robert Johnson only released about two albums worth of music during his short career. He died at the tender age of 27, leaving behind his incredible music and a legend that endures to this day.
Famously, it is said that Johnson made a deal with the devil in exchange for his musical talents. While he did not have a trained voice, it was his very unique, raw voice quality and music-writing abilities that made him a legend. No wonder he has several movies based on his life released or in the works.
22. Tina Turner
The iconic Tina Turner helped pave the way for black female artists for decades to come. In the 60s, she became the first black artist to grace the cover the of the hallowed Rolling Stone magazine, which is something that was unheard of for black women back then. Instead of being relegated to a backup roll for less talented singers, Tina trailblazed a path for mainstream black women to follow in decades to follow. This list would simply be incomplete without the presence of Tina Turner, and that’s a fact.
Jay-Z, born Shawn Corey Carter, is a record producer and rapper who founded the Roc Nation entertainment agency. His work with fellow artists, and being the CEO of Def Jam has made him a name as one of the founding fathers of modern hip hop. His most famous song is “Empire State Of Mind,” on which he collaborated with famed singer Alicia Keys. The duo scored a number-one hit with the song, which was also the first number one for him.
24. Tom Morello
While Tom Morello may be best known for his guitar, songwriting, and singing skills, it is his political activism that fuels him. He comes by his concern for social issues honestly as the son of the first Kenyan ambassador to the United Nations, although he grew up in Illinois under the tutelage of an American mother.
Morello began his career when he joined his first band at the age of 13. After graduating with a political science degree from Harvard, he got back to rocking and has since toured and played with some of the all-time greats and spent a decade leading up the famous rock band, Rage Against The Machine. He has created music in multiple genres throughout his multi-decade career.
25. Bob Marley
Bob Marley takes the top spot as the world’s best-known reggae artist and is remembered for his passionate music and his commitment to justice and peace. His band, The Wailers, is largely credited with bringing reggae to America in the 60s. Marley’s music has become such a cultural staple that his songs, “Is This Love,” “Three Little Birds,” and “No Woman No Cry” are commonly covered by artists and have appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows through the years.
Eric Clapton scored a hit when, in 1974, he covered the iconic Bob Marley And The Wailers song, “I Shot The Sheriff.” In addition to his undeniable influence on music, Marley was known for introducing a larger audience to the Rastafarian lifestyle and beliefs.
Hollis, Queens born and raised band, Run-DMC, has long been considered a pioneer of hip hop culture. In the 80s, they released a self-titled album that made them the first hip hop group to get certified Gold. They quickly became MTV regulars, and even performed on hit TV shows like American Bandstand.
The band was also one of the first on the new hip hop scene to step out of their comfort zone and join up with artists in other genres when they famously collaborated with classic rock band Aerosmith to create a hip-hop/rock mashup of their top hit, “Walk This Way,” in 1986. Run DMC is also famous for being part of the crew of new hip hop artists to pioneer the unique fashion style and dance moves that the genre would become known for.
27. Dr. Dre
Born Andre Young, Dr. Dre started out young, listening to music and dancing from childhood onward. He is one of the pioneers of modern hip hop and is also considered a founder of the West Coast Funk style of rap, creating music that added in the signature synthesizer and beat-heavy sound that would make him famous.
He is also known for his time with the pivotal 80s rap band, NWA. From 1986 and into the 2020s, he produced dozens of songs and paved the way for new rap artists like Eminem and 50 Cent. His popularity continues even today, and he was even tapped to play the halftime Super Bowl show in 2022, along with musicians Snoop Dogg and Eminem.
28. Mary J. Blige
Mary J. Blige has done it all. From songwriting and singing to acting, she has truly earned her nickname, The Queen of Hip Hop Soul. Signed to the Uptown Records label in 1988, she spent several decades creating the R&B music that has earned her nine Grammy Awards to date.
For a singer who began her career as a backup performer, she has certainly come a long way. Billboard Magazine named her the most successful R&B performer of the last quarter century and has also rated her song “Be Without You” the most successful hip hop and R&B song of all time.
29. Nat King Cole
Nat King Cole’s smooth voice and incredible piano-playing ability made him an instant star and the first African American to host his own TV series. He began his career at the age of 15, leaving school early to practice and perform. His first gig was with a jazz trio. The rest, as they say, is history. His daughter, Natalie King Cole, was a famous and respected singer in her own right and recorded a duet of her father’s most famous song, “Unforgettable.”
30. Otis Redding
Otis Redding is remembered as one of the Motown greats, a part of the growing pop and R&B hit machine of the 60s. His iconic song, (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay,” was recorded shortly before his tragic death in 1967. His music, however, continues to influence popular culture and has been featured in multiple movies and television shows, including the iconic 80’s John Hughes movie, “Pretty In Pink.”
31. Chaka Khan
Chaka Khan’s five-decade-plus career has seen her as both a solo artist and a member of multiple groups. She began in the 70s as the singer for the funk group, Rufus, before setting out on her own.
A singer, songwriter, and percussionist, she is famous for being the first musical artist to record a hit with a rapper—1984’s iconic “I Feel For You.” Her prolific career and musical talents have earned her four Grammy Awards. A few of her other popular songs include “Sweet Thing,” “Stay,” and “Tell Me Something Good.”
32. Bo Diddley
Bo Diddley is one of the key figures to bring the world of blues to meet with the burgeoning genre of rock and roll. His work has been cited as an influence by many pivotal artists, including the likes of Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, and even The Beatles.
A talented guitarist, he was the recipient of multiple awards, most notably the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In addition to his musical work, he appeared in numerous films and television shows throughout his extensive career.
33. Alicia Keys
Alicia Keys is a classically trained pianist who was already busy composing her own songs at the age of 12. She was signed to Columbia Records before the age of 16, and her 2001 album, Songs In A Minor, sold 12 million plus copies all around the world.
She is the recipient of fifteen Grammy awards and 30 nominations. Some of her most popular songs include “If I Ain’t Got You” and her duet with Usher, “My Boo.” The former is her most famous song, which was nominated for two Grammy awards.
34. John Coltrane
John Coltrane was a multi-talented musician and bandleader who is considered one of the most influential figures in the history of 20th-century jazz music. He not only played jazz saxophone, but he also helped to pioneer a more freeform kind of music, which became known as free jazz.
He was famous for backing other influential musicians, like Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis, on recordings and performances. His music also appears in numerous television shows and movies.
35. Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye is one of the originators of the American R&B sound. His album, Let’s Get It On, was released to great critical acclaim in 1973. It explores themes of political injustice, touching upon topics like racism and the ongoing Vietnam War.
In 2019, a new video highlighting the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and other modern societal problems were mentioned in his song, “What’s Goin’ On.” Gaye was the recipient of two Grammy awards, from twelve nominations.
The list of amazing black musical artists could continue indefinitely. Their influence extends far beyond just R&B, crossing over into all genres of music. Black artists have always, and continue to, leave their mark on not just musical styles and trends, but also in the adjoining worlds of arts, cultural trends, and fashions.
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
Liam’s lifelong love for music makes his role at Music Grotto such a rewarding one. He loves researching, writing and editing music content for Music Grotto.