Since the 1940s, R&B has taken over airwaves and souls with emotional ballads and meaningful lyrics. Throughout the decades, rhythm and blues have evolved to reflect what’s going on in the world and yet still remain relatable.
Some artists belting it out have stood out more than others. Journey along with us as we take the time to go through this list of the 45 best R&B artists of all time, in no particular order.
1. Aretha Franklin
The “Queen of Soul” knew how to belt it better than anyone else. She has been referred to many times as one of the greatest musical artists. She not only sang but also wrote and played the piano. Aretha Franklin sold more than 75 million albums in her lifetime, solidifying her as one of the best-selling musicians in history.
2. Whitney Houston
Coming from a musical background helped those around Whitney Houston to recognize her abilities at an early age. After her debut in the 80s, it didn’t take long for her to be dubbed “The Voice” due to her amazing vocal range and exceptional talent. Not only is she one of the top-selling R&B artists of all time, with over 200 million albums sold, but she is also rated one of the best singers ever, period.
3. Michael Jackson
The “King of Pop” started performing as a young kid after watching his dad work on turning his brothers into a singing group. Michael Jackson was known for more than his voice. He was also a dancer, songwriter, and philanthropist. After having 47 songs on the top 100 list and selling 750 million albums, he is one of the most significant cultural icons of the 20th century.
When Usher first hit the scene in the mid-90s, he had already been singing for years. His mother entered him into a singing contest as a preteen. That smooth voice caught the attention of major record executives and the rest was history. To date, he’s sold over 100 million albums, making him one of the most successful recording artists.
5. Donna Summer
The “Queen of Disco” became a hit in the 70s when disco was just starting out. Donna Summer helped catapult the genre above and beyond everyone’s expectations. However, she also dominated R&B charts with her songs. Fans all over the world fell in love with the dance music, which helped her have 14 albums go gold or multi-platinum. Donna also won five Grammys and six American Music Awards.
6. Mariah Carey
The “Songbird Supreme” has reigned over the R&B and pop charts since her first hit in 1990. Even though she’s had one monster hit after another, Mariah Carey might have reached immortality with the most popular holiday song of all time, “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” The “Queen of Christmas” has gone on to make 15 albums and has sold 220 million copies worldwide.
7. Diana Ross
Diana Ross started her career as the lead singer of the most successful act for Motown Records, The Supremes. After amassing a following, she went on to a solo music career as well as acting. Diana has long been considered one of the 20 greatest R&B artists for her contributions as part of The Supremes and in her own name.
8. Ray Charles
Not everyone can dabble in various genres and still be a success. Ray Charles pushed back not only on his own music but also on the racial barriers of his time. Once, when performing in Georgia, he canceled a concert because of the treatment of him and his band members. Ray wasn’t one to back down. His talent gave him the nickname, The Genius, which he used to become one of the best R&B artists of all time.
9. Tina Turner
Starting with the group Kings of Rhythm in the late 50s, it didn’t take long for audiences to notice the real star behind the music. Tina Turner helped them find fans across the globe before breaking out on her own years later. The “Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll” became one of the most influential women in music.
10. Barry White
The deepness of Barry White’s voice helped boost him to superstar status in the 70s. He had one hit after another during the peak of the disco era but continued recording new music for four decades. Barry influenced R&B with the topics he wrote about and his smooth style. He sold over 100 million albums.
The R&B singer from Barbados had a jolt to her career when successful rapper Jay-Z supported signing her to the record label he was head of. Rihanna’s mega-hit “Umbrella” wasn’t her first single but it was the one that grabbed everyone’s attention in the mid-2000s. Since then, she’s sold over 250 million albums and has become a self-made billionaire through all of her business endeavors.
12. Alicia Keys
Just as many artists were beginning to dig deep into autotune, Alicia Keys came out with a song that was just her voice, then followed with her piano playing. It was an instant hit that probably was aided by the fact that she was classically trained. Alicia’s immense talent had been evident at a young age since she started composing at 12 and was brought onto a record label at 15. She was the top certified artist of the millennium as a female R&B singer.
13. The Weeknd
While his Super Bowl performance had more of a pop, high-energy direction, The Weeknd is known for his diverse subject matter. He has explored a multitude of topics for his albums. Having such varied interests is one of the reasons he has such a massive fanbase. The Weeknd’s songwriting is versatile and unique, just as his beats can represent a number of moods.
14. James Brown
When someone asks you how you are, if you’re not tempted to shout, “I feel good,” then you need to get back to your playlist. James Brown left his mark on music after rising to fame in the 50s and continuing his career for six decades. Not only was he into R&B, but he’s viewed as the “Godfather of Funk.”
15. Mary J. Blige
Winner of nine Grammys, four American Music Awards, and 10 Billboard Music Awards, Mary J. Blige has easily earned the title “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul.” She has put out 14 albums and sold 75 million copies since stepping on the scene in 1992.
16. Marvin Gaye
The 1960s Motown can thank Marvin Gaye for the vibe it had. He started out playing for other musicians that were part of the label. Over time, he branched out onto his own and started his solo career. The “Prince of Motown” earned praise from a variety of other genre artists. Throughout his short-lived career, Marvin recorded 25 albums.
Most musicians have one instrument as a specialty. Prince could play several instruments at an expert level. He was also prone to write hit songs, not just for himself but for other artists as well. Prince had a unique stage persona, which was enough to gain him a legion of fans. From that voice to his wild shows, he is viewed as perhaps the greatest of his generation.
18. Sam Cooke
Originally a gospel singer, Sam Cooke took his career to new heights in the late 50s into the R&B and soul genres. Being one of the early innovators in this brand of music, he is considered one of the most influential artists to hit the music scene. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to continue breaking barriers as he should have, but he did leave us with 14 studio albums.
19. Lionel Richie
Telling the ladies everything they wanted to hear is what helped Lionel Richie get noticed. That started when he was the lead singer for the funk band, Commodores. It wasn’t long before he broke out on his own and became one of the most successful artists in music, with over 100 million albums sold and a litany of awards.
20. Stevie Wonder
Conquering several genres is something only the greats can do. Included on that list is the groundbreaking and talented Stevie Wonder. He does a little bit of everything, singing, songwriting, piano playing, and putting on amazing shows. Stevie has changed R&B, pop, jazz, funk, soul, and gospel forever. Record sales can reflect that, at over 100 million sold.
Performing in one way or another since childhood, Beyoncé got her start in the late 90s as part of the girl group, Destiny’s Child. She has since had her name on albums that have sold over 220 million copies. Always trying new things, in 2016, Beyoncé released a visual album by surprise, and the initiative struck a chord with other artists.
22. Patti LaBelle
The “Godmother of Soul” was already believed to be a star before she ever hit the stage professionally. Patti LaBelle’s career started when she had a group named after her, Patti LaBelle And The Bluebelles. Eventually, she cut the flowers off and went out on her own. Patti is one of the most well-respected women in the industry.
Fortunate enough to have connections with people who could help her career, Aaliyah’s beautiful voice was sought after at a young age. She attracted the likes of big-named artists to support her endeavors and before long she was making her own music. The “Princess of R&B” wasn’t with us long enough for us to see what she could do, but she did leave us with three albums and a string of top hits.
24. Etta James
In 1961, Etta James recorded a song that would be played at weddings probably until the end of time. While “At Last” was a huge hit, it wasn’t her first foray into music. She originally became popular in 1955 during her introduction to the R&B charts. Etta continued to release music until 2011, the year before she departed this earth. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame called her one of the greatest voices of the century.
25. Otis Redding
The “King of Soul” was highly regarded as having the best voice in music as well as being the best R&B singer. He was another that was gone too soon, but his soulful sound lives on through six studio albums.
26. Jason Derulo
Starting a music career during the transition of the industry has changed the metrics of what’s successful. In an era where album sales aren’t what they used to be, Jason Derulo has sold over 30 million copies of his singles, 11 of which have reached platinum status.
27. Toni Braxton
In the 90s, Toni Braxton was everywhere. She is one of the top-selling female artists of all time. Toni has won seven Grammys, nine Billboard Awards, seven American Music Awards, and many others. Her songs about heartbreak, sexual tension, and empowerment remain as popular as her sultry voice.
28. Keith Sweat
When it comes to collectively enticing a generation of young women, Keith Sweat knew exactly what he was doing. His self-titled album went quadruple platinum. In total, Keith has released 13 studio albums, even contributing to a new genre called new jack swing.
29. Luther Vandross
Once a backup singer for several hit-makers, it wasn’t until the early 80s that Luther Vandross was able to get his own album going. His talent helped make his first single a quick chart-topper. For the next two decades, he continued putting out silky love songs that kept the R&B stations busy.
Starting his career as part of the group Swing Mob, Ginuwine got the attention of record execs who wanted to take him solo. His appeal to the female audience helped him get noticed by hoards of fans. Ginuwine has had several albums go either gold or platinum.
In 2004, Ciara released her first of seven albums so far. The first album was certified triple platinum. In the years since she introduced herself to the public, she has been known for collaborating often with other artists and musicians in other genres. Across seven albums, in singles alone, Ciara has sold 22 million copies.
A larger audience got to get a glimpse at the super talented R&B singer when she participated in the remake of the popular song “Lady Marmalade” in 2001. However, Mýa had been in a league of her own for years beforehand. In total, she has released eight studio albums and was voted in the top 100 best artists of the 2000s.
33. Teddy Pendergrass
Starting in 1971, Teddy Pendergrass released 14 albums and was nominated for five Grammys. Essentially, he was coming out with one hit after the other. Before his solo fame, Teddy was part of a group called Harold Melvin And The Blue Notes. He grew a supportive and lifelong friendship with a singer who was in a similar-sounding band, Patti LaBelle.
34. Al Green
It’s not every day you hear about a pastor who becomes one of the most notable artists to hit the stage. He went beyond gospel to bring his soul sound to R&B, starting in 1967. Al Green is now part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his years of contributions to music.
35. Smokey Robinson
Getting his start with the music group, The Miracles, Smokey Robinson used his time to beef up his skills. He was the principal songwriter and did much of the producing during the group’s tenure. Motown used his sweet sounds to appeal to the ladies, which earned him six gold records.
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Being one of the most well-known entertainers in R&B, Ne-Yo puts in the work. Not only does he sing the songs he writes, but he has also become admired for his dancing and acting. In fact, he writes hits for several other artists in the business as well. Out of 14 Grammy nominations, he’s taken home the award three times.
37. Janet Jackson
Not many worldwide musical sensations start out as childhood actresses. But Janet Jackson has always forged her own path. From elaborate shows to sexually charged singles, she continues to push the boundaries of R&B and music in general. To date, she’s sold over 160 million albums.
38. Erykah Badu
When your style is so unique that it requires a new association, you know what has been created is something legit. That’s the story of Erykah Badu, whose music is also attributed to the neo-soul category. Her work in the 90s and 2000s made her a well-known figure throughout R&B, as has her collaborations and acting.
Before shooting to fame at the turn of the century, Sisqó was part of a group called Dru Hill. The R&B singer was propelled into the limelight through a venture working with Will Smith. After recording the lines for “Wild Wild West,” Sisqó unleashed his first solo album. His first single “The Thong Song” was such a massive hit that he eventually refused to continue playing it.
Traveling with a gospel choir at 10 helped set Monica apart from her peers. Since joining the R&B scene in 1993, she has been known as one of the most successful urban singers of the late 90s. Monica is also the youngest musical act to have two songs on the R&B and Singles charts at the same time. She’s also noted as being the first female R&B artist to enjoy success on the Billboard charts over three back-to-back decades.
Due to her layering technique, Brandy has been dubbed the “Vocal Bible.” It probably helps that she performed solos at church as young as two years old. After much success through competitions, she was offered work as a backup singer in the early 90s. She is both a singer and actress simultaneously. So far, Brandy has made seven studio albums.
One of the few performers to play multiple instruments, Maxwell was born to stand out. Not only is his R&B career flourished since the 90s, but he also started and contributed heavily to the neo-soul movement. Maxwell has three Grammys under his belt, six Soul Train Awards, and two NAACP Image Awards.
43. Bill Withers
For almost two decades, Bill Withers wrote and sang a multitude of hits. In the 70s, there was no one who came close to his style and talent. Today, he’s part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as well as the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Some might even say he’s the best thing to come out of his home state since he was voted the Best Musical Artist From West Virginia, and they even named a road after him.
44. Chaka Khan
Very rarely can any artist say that their career was five decades long. However, Chaka Khan has adapted to the ebbs and flows of the genre to continue making classics. Of course, she had no idea what magical career awaited when she joined the funk group Rufus in the 70s. She has earned 10 Grammys and has sold over 70 million copies of her albums.
45. Curtis Mayfield
Curtis Mayfield has been called the soul behind African American music. He played guitar, wrote poignant songs, and produced several albums. This came after he was part of The Impressions in the 50s. After being paralyzed from the neck down in 1990, Curtis continued making music for years. He was inducted into four different halls of fame for both his work with The Impressions and as a solo artist.
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