Throughout the development of modern music, black male artists have played a central role. This holds true for various genres such as jazz, blues, soul, funk, rock, and more. These 21 best black male singers of all time changed the course of contemporary music, their legacy continuing well into the modern era.
1. Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye was a singer and songwriter who was instrumental in shaping 1960s Motown. He is commonly nicknamed the Prince of Soul and the Prince of Motown. His most famous songs include “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” and “Ain’t That Peculiar.”
Gaye famously recorded duets with Diana Ross, Kim Weston, Mary Wells, and Tammi Terrell. His 1970s albums Let’s Get It On and What’s Going On enabled him to become one of the first major Motown artists to break free of their production company. He is also known for later releases like “Sexual Healing” in his 1982 album Midnight Love. These songs later held heavy influence over R&B subgenres like neo-soul and quiet storm.
2. Stevie Wonder
Stevland Hardaway Morris, widely known by his stage name Stevie Wonder, is an American singer and songwriter seen as a pioneering influence throughout a range of genres. He has been blind since shortly after he was born and was quickly seen as a child prodigy, recording his first album at 12. His single “Fingertips” hit number one on the 1963 Billboard Hot 100 when he was only 13 years old.
Wonder’s work has impacted artists in various genres such as funk, gospel, soul, jazz, pop, rhythm and blues, and more. His unique implementation of synths and various electronic instruments in his work reshaped the R&B genre in the 1970s. His complex musical pieces brought strong social consciousness to the fore. One of the best-selling musicians in history, he has won 25 Grammys.
3. Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong was a vocalist and trumpeter who ranks as a top influence in jazz history. His career lasted five decades, making him a central thread through many eras. He was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, and began to make a name for himself as a trumpet player in the 1920s. He was instrumental in shifting the genre’s focus from collective improvisation to solo performances.
Armstrong was renowned for his rich, gravelly singing voice and skillful improvisation. He was a skilled scat singer and had a powerful, engaging stage presence. His influence eventually spread across genres and had great popularity with audiences around the globe.
Prince was a singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist who was widely considered one of the greatest musicians of his era. He was famous for his incredible vocal range as well as his flamboyant and androgynous persona.
Prince produced his own albums and led the rise of the Minneapolis sound. His influence spread across many genres and styles like pop, jazz, hip hop, R&B, rock, soul, new wave, funk, and more. He typically played all or most of the instruments recorded in his songs. In 1993, he changed his stage name to an unpronounceable logo symbol, often referred to as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince (TAFKAP) or The Artist. He sold over 120 million albums globally, making him one of the best-selling musicians ever.
5. Lionel Richie
Lionel Richie is a singer, songwriter, and musician who rose to prominence in the 1970s. He began as the co-lead singer of the Commodores. In 1980, he wrote and produced Kenny Rogers’ US Billboard Hot 100 number one single “Lady.” The next year, he recorded “Endless Love” with Diana Ross, which remains to be one of the top 20 best-selling singles ever. It was both artists’ biggest career success.
Richie’s second album, Can’t Slow Down, was released in 1983 and sold more than 20 million copies globally, a record in music history. He was one of the most successful balladeers in the 1980s with over 100 million records sold around the world.
6. Otis Redding
Otis Redding was a singer and songwriter considered to be one of the best singers in American history. He is a top influence in rhythm and blues as well as soul music, so much so that he is called the King of Soul. His singing style took inspiration from gospel music and went on to influence countless artists in the 1960s.
Redding quit school at 15 so he could work to support his family. His first contract, for his hit single “These Arms of Mine,” came as a surprise due to an unscheduled appearance on a Stax recording session in 1962. Stax released his debut album, Pain in My Heart, in 1964, and it eventually took off throughout American pop music. His most iconic song “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” was recorded shortly before he died in a plane accident.
7. James Brown
James Brown was a singer, musician, bandleader, and dancer who was a central figure in the rise of the funk genre. He was known as the Godfather of Soul. His career lasted over 50 years and heavily influenced artists across multiple genres. He was one of the first 10 musicians to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Brown began his career as a gospel singer in Georgia. He first achieved national notoriety in the 1950s as the lead singer of the Famous Flames. He built up a reputation as a charismatic stage performer, and his career peaked in the 1960s with his album Live at the Apollo. At the same time, his major singles achieved great fame, including “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” He is widely considered one of the greatest artists of all time.
8. Bill Withers
Bill Withers was a singer, songwriter, and musician whose career spanned almost 20 years. His top hits include “Grandma’s Hands,” “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean on Me,” and “Just the Two of Us.” Renowned for his smooth baritone voice and unique soul arrangements, Withers won three Grammys and was nominated for an additional six. His songs were some of the most widely covered of the 1970s.
Withers set the record for the longest sustained note ever to hit American charts: an 18-second long high E. He was a key figure in the development of blues, funk, disco, and other genres.
9. Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson was a singer, dancer, and songwriter who is known as the King of Pop. He was one of the most important cultural figures in the 20th century and had a career spanning four decades. His influence on dance, fashion, and music made him a global persona, which was heightened by his highly publicized personal life. His influence spanned genres and dance styles, popularizing the moonwalk and the robot. Jackson received more awards than any other individual musician before him.
Jackson’s career began in 1964 when he and his elder brothers formed the Jackson 5. They later renamed themselves the Jacksons. His solo career began at Motown Records in 1971, and his breakout album, Off the Wall, propelled him to stardom eight years later. Many of his music videos, such as “Thriller,” “Beat It,” and “Billie Jean” are hailed as groundbreaking moments in tearing down racial barriers in the industry. He was key to the early success of MTV.
10. Ray Charles
Ray Charles was a singer, songwriter, and pianist who is considered one of the most influential singers in music history. He was regularly called the Genius by his contemporaries, but he preferred the nickname, Brother Ray. He was blinded during his childhood by what is surmised to have been glaucoma. He went on to trailblaze the soul music genre in the 1950s, recording a brilliant medley of jazz, R&B, blues, and gospel.
Charles was one of the first black musicians to receive artistic control from a mainstream record company. His first career number one hit came in 1960 with “Georgia On My Mind.” He had multiple albums and singles top the charts throughout his career. He said that Nat King Cole was his major influence along with Charles Brown and Louis Jordan. He was lifelong friends with Quincy Jones, with whom he occasionally teamed up for performances.
11. Luther Vandross
Luther Vandross was a record producer, singer, and songwriter who is famous for his sweet, soulful voice. His popularity was largely due to being a solo recording artist, but he was also in constant demand as a background singer throughout his career. Vandross paired up with artists as varied as Bette Midler, Todd Rundgren, Chaka Khan, Diana Ross, Judy Collins, Stevie Wonder, Donna Summer, Ben E. King, and David Bowie.
Vandross became a lead singer for the group Change, whose 1980 gold-certified debut album The Glow of Love made major waves. He went solo with Epic Records in 1981 and released his own debut album, Never Too Much. He went on to sell over 40 million records globally. Vandross won 11 consecutive platinum albums, an R&B record for the time, and was awarded eight Grammys
12. Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke was a singer and songwriter who trailblazed new paths in the soul genre. Known for his distinct vocals, he has been called the King of Soul. He began singing at a young age in Chicago, joining the Soul Stirrers in the 1950s as their lead singer. His short eight-year career saw 29 singles in the Billboard Pop Singles Top 40 and 20 singles in the Top 10 Billboard’s Black Singles chart.
Cooke’s career was cut drastically short in 1964 when he was shot and killed by a Los Angeles motel manager. His work in the soul genre helped give rise to Bobby Womack, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Billy Preston, Aretha Franklin, and Marvin Gaye. He was instrumental in popularizing James Brown and Otis Redding.
13. Nat King Cole
Nat King Cole was a singer, songwriter, actor, and jazz pianist who recorded more than 100 hit songs. His musical style strongly influenced the development of jazz throughout the 20th century, particularly his rich, deep vocals. These talents led him not just to the recording studio, but also to film, television, and even Broadway.
Cole was the first black man to host a TV series in the United States, The Nat King Cole Show, which ran from 1956 to 1957. His most famous songs include “Unforgettable,” “L-O-V-E,” and “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons.”
14. Smokey Robinson
Smokey Robinson is a singer, songwriter, actor, and record producer who founded the Motown vocal group, The Miracles. He was their frontman, main songwriter, and producer. He led the group from its start in 1955, when it was known as the Five Chimes, until he retired from the band in 1972.
Robinson focused more energy on his role as vice president at Motown Records. He returned to touring a year later as a solo artist. However, he remained with Motown until 1990. Eventually, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
15. Curtis Mayfield
Curtis Mayfield was a singer, record producer, songwriter, and guitarist who played a vital role in the development of the soul genre. He was known widely for his politically conscious music. He was first recognized during his time with The Impressions, which gained prominence during the 1950s and 1960s as part of the Civil Rights movement. He went on to work as a highly popular solo artist.
Mayfield’s career began as part of a gospel choir. He was one of the first musicians to bring social issues into soul music. He wrote “People Get Ready” for The Impressions in 1965, which is often ranked one of the greatest songs of all time. He is also remembered for the soundtrack for the 1972 blaxploitation film Super Fly, which addressed poverty, drug abuse, and crime.
16. Barry White
Barry White was a two-time Grammy-winning singer and songwriter. He was famous for his bass-baritone vocals and romantic aesthetic. He was most successful in the 1970s as a solo performer as well as singing with The Love Unlimited Orchestra. He created multiple classic funk, soul, and disco songs, including “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love,” “Babe,” and “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything.”
White recorded 20 albums with many more compilations. Many of these were certified gold and platinum status—20 and 10 singles respectively. White sold more than 100 million records worldwide. He also influenced major musicians including Aretha Franklin, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and Ray Charles.
17. Ronald Isley
Ronald Isley is a singer, songwriter, actor, and record producer best known as the lead singer of The Isley Brothers. While still a teen, he regularly performed with his brothers for church tours. He first appeared on television performing for Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour.
He and his two older brothers moved to New York in 1957 to pursue their music careers. They started out recording doo-wop for local labels and soon made a major deal with RCA in 1959. Their debut single “Shout” was a major success. In the 1980s, the group disbanded after one brother left and another passed away. Ronald Isley continued to perform as a solo act and occasionally with his youngest brother. His career continued into the 2000s.
18. Ben E. King
Ben E. King was a soul and R&B singer best known for the song he sang and co-composed, “Stand By Me.” The song was a U.S. Top 10 song in 1961 before returning to the charts in both the US and the UK in the late 1980s.
King was also famous as a lead singer for the R&B group The Drifters, who topped the charts with their song “Save the Last Dance for Me.” Some of his other notable works include “Spanish Harlem” and “There Goes My Baby.”
19. Chuck Berry
Chuck Berry was a singer, songwriter, and guitarist who was a trailblazer of early rock and roll. For his innumerable contributions to the genre, he is called the Father of Rock and Roll. Berry developed a more refined rhythm and blues feel that set rock and roll on new paths. Some of his most influential songs include “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Rock and Roll Music,” and “Maybellene.”
His lyrics often focused on the challenges of adolescence and consumerist culture. His songs also commonly featured distinctive guitar solos and other instrumental or vocal showmanship. Berry was an established international star by the end of the 1950s, but his career waned by the 1970s due to controversies in his personal life.
20. Jackie Wilson
Jackie Wilson was a singer and performer who was a major component in rhythm and blues’ transition to soul music. Renowned as a master showman, dynamic singer, and stunning performer, he made major strides in rock and roll, pop, and R&B. The industry fittingly dubbed him Mr. Excitement.
Wilson rose to prominence while performing with the R&B vocal group Billy Ward and His Dominoes. In 1957, he began his solo career, eventually going on to have more than 50 chart singles across R&B, easy listening, doo-wop, pop, and soul.
21. Aaron Neville
Aaron Neville is an R&B and soul singer with four platinum albums, four top 10 U.S. hits (including three No. 1s on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart), and was the top artist on the Soul chart across five weeks. He recorded alongside his brothers in the group, Neville Brothers, and is the father of the singer and keyboardist Ivan Neville.
Neville’s first hit single was “Tell It Like It Is,” which was released under Par-Lo in New Orleans. Selling over a million copies, this song was awarded a gold disc. It also topped the R&B charts for five weeks in 1967, eventually losing to the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” in the Hot 100. He regained prominence in 1986 with Orchid in The Storm, an independent release.