1. Nina Simone
Being turned down for admission to a music school for the color of her skin changed Nina Simone. Little did she know that after her first album was released in 1957, she would go on to record 39 more over the next 16 years. The High Priestess of Soul had a lot to say, which was why being inducted into the Grammys made sense. Her lyrics spoke beyond entertainment, and the impact she had on the culture was why she was awarded three honorary degrees.
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2. James Brown
It’s probably unsurprising that James Brown started his career in music as a gospel singer. That kind of soul comes from somewhere, and he belted it. Getting picked to head up an R&B group was the natural next step, and it was in the mid-50s when he started getting known across the US due to his innate ability to scream on key. You probably have heard his most famous song, “I Got You (I Feel Good).” A career spanning six decades was quite a journey for the man who once danced for pennies as a boy.
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3. Roberta Flack
In 1968, Roberta Flack got the break she had been hoping for in the music industry. Pretty soon, she was making albums and had three songs hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 list. The content she made throughout nine albums also resulted in thirteen award nominations and four wins. She is a graduate of Howard University and the first black woman to teach at an all-white school.
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4. Luther Vandross
In 1981, Luther Vandross’ first album sold more than a million copies. That was just the first toe-dip in the water of success for this soulful singer. It was probably a pleasant surprise for someone who had found R&B music in high school after his father passed away. But it wasn’t shocking for us because his talents were evident as early as 1972 after Broadway chose his song for The Wiz musical. He went on to sell over 40 million albums and take home eight Grammys.
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5. Barry White
In the early 70s, Barry White decided to bless us with his unmistakable voice. The public has been obsessed ever since. He wasn’t only a singer, though. In addition to the Grammy-winning songs, he also wrote, produced, and arranged music. After 106 gold albums—41 of which were platinum—he earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
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6. Bobby Womack
The smooth sounds of Bobby Womack graced the airwaves after the release of his first solo album in 1968. It wasn’t the first time the audiences had heard him, though. In the early 50s, he stood out as the leader of his family group, The Valentinos.
He went on to have 45 top singles and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The reason he had that many songs perform so well was his songwriting talent. He even wrote The Rolling Stones’ first number-one hit.
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7. Ben E. King
Not every major hit is timeless. However, Ben E. King’s release of “Stand By Me” in 1961 not only put him on the soul map but placed him firmly in the hearts of music lovers everywhere. Following that success, he went on to have four more occasions where his music landed the number-one spot. Another long-time favorite of his is “Save The Last Dance For Me,” but it was for his time with The Drifters that he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Next: Our complete list of the best black musicians of all time
8. Jackie Wilson
The year was 1957, and Jackie Wilson had finally arrived on the music scene. The following year, his song landed the number-one spot for the first of many. In total, he accumulated 14 top hits. Once a prominent boxer, it was clear that when he had his sights set on something and gave it his all. In fact, it was while performing that he had a heart attack, after the line, “My heart is crying.” He never fully recovered, but he was still revered by the likes of artists such as Elvis Presley, who paid a portion of his medical bills.
9. Wilson Pickett
Could there be a better way to introduce your sound to the world than to name an album The Exciting Wilson Pickett? That’s exactly what this soul singer did in 1966. Wilson Pickett is labeled as one of the major players involved in the creation of soul music. Thanks to 50 chart-topping songs, he helped bring legitimacy to an entire genre. He even got Jimi Hendrix in on the act when they performed together in 1966.
10. Erykah Badu
The country was going through some sort of mood when Erykah Badu made herself known in the late 90s. It’s not often that even critics laud your work, but that’s exactly what happened. When her debut album was released, it was at number two on the charts. Since then, she’s amassed 59 award nominations and has won 16 so far. Originally known as MC Apples, she has had an interesting life beyond music. This includes studying quantum physics, becoming a doula, and tracing her ancestors back to Cameroon.
11. Curtis Mayfield
Not getting the kind of career leverage he wanted in a group, Curtis Mayfield set his sights on a solo career in 1970. That started a string of soulful hits throughout the following decades. However, his voice could never keep up with all the songs he wrote, which were 1,400 in total. There are supposedly around 140 songs that he recorded but never released.
12. Sade Adu
Born in Nigeria, Sade Adu’s family moved to England when she was a young child. While studying art in her early 20s, she joined a band. Realizing her pipes were meant for something bigger, she formed the band, Sade. The next year, she had the best-selling debut by a British female singer. After 23 singles, nine albums, and four awards, her biggest hit was “Smooth Operator.”
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13. Etta James
Knowing what you want to do with your life at an early age is a gift. Etta James started getting serious about singing as a teen, forming a trio in the early 50s. By 1955, she had her first of several hits. She was kind of the jack of all genres for a while and sang in the following musical categories: soul, rock and roll, R&B, gospel, jazz, and the blues.
Over the course of her career, she won 24 awards, including three Grammys and a Lifetime Achievement Award. She ranks high on the top singers of all-time lists, and the songstress was dubbed one of the greatest voices of the century when she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
14. Otis Redding
Being referred to as the voice of soul speaks volumes. Otis Redding’s style was emotional and one that many of his fans relate to. Given that honor, it’s kind of sad he couldn’t continue exploring his talents over the years due to an untimely death at 26.
He only had one number-one hit, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” in 1968, but awards didn’t stop because he was no longer around. He still won two Grammys and a Lifetime Achievement Award. He has also been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Black Music & Entertainment Walk of Fame.
15. Teddy Pendergrass
Teddy Pendergrass started in music as the lead singer of Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes in the early 70s. Going solo isn’t always a win for every artist. Fortunately for him, his first album sold more than a million copies in 1977. As an African American, he set a new record after five albums in a row went platinum.
A car accident halted his career for a short time, but it did not stop him. He was paralyzed but still able to perform until he retired in 2007. In total, he had 10 songs make the Billboard charts. To add some dimension to his songs, he taught himself how to play the drums.
16. Al Green
Starting the 70s off with a new sound, Al Green released his first single in 1970, which led to four gold singles in a row. Surprisingly, he only had one number-one hit, “Let’s Stay Together.” However, he amassed 11 Grammys and a Lifetime Achievement Award. Not to mention, the BMI Icon Award, Lifetime Achievement Award, top singer of all time rank, and being voted one of the last great soul singers. Following a personal tragedy, he became a reverend with a passion for gospel music.
17. Anita Baker
Being the highest-selling female singer of an entire decade is no easy task. Toward the end of the 70s, Anita Baker joined a funk band. Wanting to branch out with a different sound, she was ready to go solo. Throughout the 80s, she had seven number-one hits and sold almost 90 million albums. These impressive numbers come from someone who didn’t release an album until 1983. Since then, she’s had four platinum and two gold records. The mezzo-soprano has taken home eight Grammys.
18. Smokey Robinson
As a child, Smokey Robinson was a huge fan of westerns. He loved his nickname, Smokey Joe, because he thought it sounded like a cowboy’s name. That unique perspective stuck, and he turned from being interested in life on the range to his true love, music. He joined The Miracles in 1955 and churned out bops with them for the next 17 years. Eventually, exiting the R&B group was a great decision for his career.
In 1973, he released his first of several successful records. Between the charting music of his group and his solo career, he has won a Grammy Legend and a Lifetime Achievement Award. He’s also part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Black Music and Entertainment Walk of Fame and was awarded the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for his work in the music industry.
19. Irma Thomas
The Soul Queen of New Orleans let the people know about her talent starting in 1959. That’s when her first single “Don’t Mess With My Man” was playing everywhere. Irma Thomas went on to become a Grammy award winner and eventually branched out into blues, gospel, and even pop.
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20. Percy Sledge
Percy Sledge began building on his natural talent in the 60s before releasing his first album, The Percy Sledge Way, in 1967. That’s around the same time that the gold-certified, biggest song of his career came out, “When A Man Loves A Woman.” His soulful sound was at its peak during the 60s and 70s. Eventually, he won the Career Achievement Award and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The mid-90s sprouted a new division of soul called neo or progressive soul. Maxwell was sort of a pioneer of the venture. Molding that new sound throughout five albums, he has had several songs chart, three of which reached gold status. His impact goes beyond music, and he’s won two NAACP image awards in addition to three Grammys and six Soul Train Music Awards.
22. Tammi Terrell
Motown splashed industry professional Tammi Terrell all over the radio when they put out her first album in 1969, Irresistible. By that time, she had been singing for nearly a decade, starting as a teenager. One of the things she was known for was the great duets with Marvin Gaye. She ended up having seven singles hit the top of the charts. Unfortunately, she wouldn’t live long enough to promote her album. She died in 1970 from brain cancer.
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23. Tina Turner
Tina Turner started singing professionally at 16 but it wasn’t until she was 44 that she became a solo act. By then, she had solidified her name in the music industry for generations to come. She has earned 12 Grammys, four of which are for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. The Queen of Rock and Roll has sold more than 100 million albums and is one of the best-selling female artists of all time.
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24. Isaac Hayes
Before going solo, Isaac Hayes had been working with other artists throughout the 60s. In 1967, he was ready to go his own way, and his second album propelled him to stardom. He won several Grammys, but the people of Ghana also saw him as someone special. He was an honorary king of the Ada region. Despite his royal status, he continued to be highly active in the industry until his passing in 2008.
25. Marvin Gaye
You’d probably be surprised to hear that Marvin Gaye had a wildly interesting life despite being short. For one, he was originally in a boy band. He was also in the Air Force and wanted to try playing in the NFL. Singing his soul out was what fit best, and there are nine awards to prove it. Unfortunately, he was gone too soon, but he still managed to have three number-one songs, 18 top hits, and 56 songs to chart. One of those songs came about many years after his passing.
26. Mary Wells
Mary Wells may not have known it at the time, but when she started singing in 1960, she’d be in it for the long haul. In 1982, she came out with 16 albums and had 27 charted singles. That includes her taking a period of time off to raise a family. She had the honor of being the first Motown artist to get a Grammy nomination. Her highest charting song “My Guy” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Later, she was inducted into the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame.
27. Chaka Khan
Since 1978, Chaka Khan has come out with 46 singles, five top hits, and four top twenty albums. Oh, let’s not forget the 10 Grammys. In 2012, she was inducted into the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame. In addition to her musical success, she has her own line of gourmet chocolates called Chakalates.
28. Ray Charles
In 1949, the teenage Ray Charles let his magical genius out into the world with the first single “Confession Blues.” He didn’t have to wait for success, it started right from the beginning. Within a few years, he was working with one of the most prominent studios in the industry, Atlantic Records.
He went on to have 86 songs hit the Billboard charts, which led to 18 Grammys and a Lifetime Achievement Award. The music he put out was so prolific that a whopping 10 selections from his discography have been added to the Grammy Hall of Fame. Starting to play piano at five definitely had its advantages.
29. Lou Rawls
Lou Rawls’ first album was geared toward jazz fans. It was his next two that he used the opportunity to bare his soul. These put him on the map and made it possible for him to continue spreading the good sounds for more than 60 albums, which sold more than 40 million copies.
Confusingly enough, he only won three Grammys. None of which were for his biggest song “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine.” Despite not getting the recognition he deserved, he was given credit for something else. On the album Tobacco Route, there are songs that use a spoken monologue. This opened the door to what we now know as rap.
30. David Ruffin
Motown’s first act to win at the Grammys was The Temptations. Tenor David Ruffin was a proud member of the group through the 60s, then jumped into a solo career in 1969. Due to personal issues, he had a hard time sustaining his solo success despite being highly sought after. He was named one of the top 100 singers of all time by Rolling Stone magazine. He was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his work with The Temptations.
31. Stevie Wonder
Ten number-one pop hits. Twenty number-one R&B hits. Nineteen Grammys. A hundred million albums sold. That’s quite a resume, but Stevie Wonder pulls it off well. Heck, he even has an Oscar. It all started when he became obsessed with music as a young child.
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While still in elementary school, he could already play the harmonica, drums, and his beloved piano. Anyone around him could quickly recognize him as a prodigy. By 12, he had released an album. At 13, he was the youngest to ever top the charts. After a long and successful career, he is part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
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.