50 most important African American music artists of all time

50 most important African American music artists of all time

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Billie Holiday, Chuck Berry, James Brown, Louis Armstrong, Led Belly, B.B. King, Sam Cooke and Mahalia Jackson.

That should just about cover every major musical genre from the last 150 years or so. And what all of those artists have in common is that they are African American.

Most popular American music genres began with Black performers. And now is the time to honor that fact.

With it being African American Music Appreciation Month, we decided to count down the 50 most important Black music artists of all time in the United States.

As you can imagine, this wasn’t an easy list. First, these are American artists, which is why you won’t see artists like Bob Marley or Fela Kuti. Second, there are more than 100 musicians and singers that could have made the cut. To highlight that fact, here are our honorable mentions:

Al Green, Bad Brains, Big Bill Broonzy, Big Joe Turner, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, DJ Kool Herc, Donna Summer, Earth, Wind & Fire, Etta James, Jackie Wilson, Jay-Z, Jelly Roll Morton, John Lee Hooker, Lonnie Johnson, Ma Rainey, Martha and the Vandellas, Odetta, Ornette Coleman, Roy Brown, Scott Joplin, Son House, The Drifters, The Four Tops, The Isley Brothers, Tupac Shakur, Whitney Houston, Willie Dixon and Wyonie Harris.

None of those artists made the cut. Yet, you could make a case for each. Heck, the list of honorable mentions could have and (should have) been long, but we couldn’t go on forever.

Here’s who did make the cut — the 50 most important African American music artists of all time based on influence, body of work and cultural impact.

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50. Howlin’ Wolf

Sometimes overshadowed in the history of Chicago blues by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf’s influence on the city and his overall impact on the blues genre can’t be denied. Chester Arthur Burnett possessed one of the most powerful and distinct voices in the history of the blues, which served as the driving force behind versions of some of the genre’s standards, including “Spoonful” and “Smokestack Lightnin.‘”

Thelonious Monk

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49. Thelonious Monk

An essential figure in bebop and a pioneer of modern jazz. Thelonious Monk’s style and uncanny ability as a performer paved the way for future artists, while his innovation on the piano was second to none.

Little Walter

Black Knight Records

48. Little Walter

Influenced by Sonny Boy Williamson and Louis Jordan, Little Walter took the blues harp to new heights. He is, arguably, as important to his instrument (the blues harmonica) as Jimi Hendrix is to the guitar and Louis Armstrong is to the trumpet.

Dinah Washington

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47. Dinah Washington

Dinah Washington has been called “the most popular black female recording artist of the 1950s.” Her success, at a time when the recording industry wasn’t necessarily friendly to women or Black performers, was astonishing. Her work would pave the way for the pop stardom for future Black female artists.


Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

46. N.W.A.

N.W.A. didn’t invent gangsta rap (Schoolly D did). But the group brought it to the masses, forever changing the hardcore nature of rap that artists like Tupac Shakur, The Notorious B.I.G. and Snoop Dogg would follow. N.W.A. also spawned the influential solo careers of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube.

Tina Turner


45. Tina Turner

It’s impossible to write the story of Tina Turner without mentioning Ike Turner, a highly influential (and controversial) figure himself in the history of Black music. However, Turner’s voice and ability as a performer were second to none both as part of Ike & Tina and as a solo performer who took the 1980s by storm. She changed the way the rock and roll industry and fans viewed African-American female performers.

Grandmaster Flash

Richard Bailey/Elektra Records

44. Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five

Following the innovations of DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash would take the art of turntablism to the next level, developing many of the techniques that would serve as the backbone for the formation of hip hop. Then, with The Furious Five, he would release “The Message,” a socially conscious song that would push rap music beyond just a playful party genre.

Curtis Mayfield

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43. Curtis Mayfield

As the leader of The Impressions, Curtis Mayfield marked the moment when social and political awareness invaded soul music with the group’s landmark single “People Get Ready.” It was a watershed moment in music history. That alone might be enough to put Mayfield on this list. But his solo career was equally as remarkable, redefining R&B and funk music while influencing the likes of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone.

Ruth Brown


42. Ruth Brown

There’s a reason Ruth Brown’s induction performance opens “The Power of Rock Experience” film inside the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Connor Theater. She may very well have been the first “Queen of R&B,” establishing Atlantic Records as a hitmaking force that would drive the careers of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Wilson Pickett. Brown would experience a career resurgence in the 1980s that would help her finally garner the admiration she deserved.

Parliament Funkadelic


41. George Clinton/Parliament-Funkadelic

George Clinton had his hands in a lot of things. But his legacy is headlined by two impactful groups: Funkadelic and Parliament. The former became the driving force behind psychedelic funk, while the latter would put on a high-energy stage show that would influence numerous performers, from funk to hip hop.

The Miracles

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40. Smokey Robinson and The Miracles

Smokey Robinson’s greatest achievement was serving as the songwriting force that helped build Motown Records. But his group, The Miracles, was also the label’s first supergroup. Smokey Robinson and The Miracles was responsible for releasing some of Motown’s first big hits, including “Shop Around” and “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me.” Not to mention, the landmark songs that would come out later, such as “Tracks of My Tears” and “The Tears of a Clown.”

Bo Diddley

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39. Bo Diddley

Few artists were as essential in transitioning blues music to what would become rock and roll as Bo Diddley. Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry would all take cues from Diddley. Yet, his use of different techniques and rhythms would also prove a major influence on popular music for generations to come, including hip hop.

Marian Anderson

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38. Marian Anderson

Marian Anderson became a singing sensation decades before the Civil Rights Movement reached its peak in the 1960s, which means she faced an even bigger struggle than most artists on this list. Despite being a popular star, Anderson faced racism throughout the 1930s and 1940s and, yet, still managed to break down barriers. Her 1939 performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of an integrated audience of more than 75,000 people stands as one of the greatest moments in the fight for equality both in the music industry and culture in general.

Louis Jordan

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37. Louis Jordan

Louis Jordan had a profound impact on several African-American music genres that evolved during the first half of the 20th century. He simplified swing music. He helped make jump blues, jazz and boogie-woogie mainstream forces. Jordan’s legendary work would serve as a precursor to modern blues, rock and roll and R&B music.

Nina Simone

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36. Nina Simone

It might be harder to name an artist Nina Simone didn’t influence. The list includes Aretha Franklin, Beyonce, Madonna, Kanye West, Bono, Lauryn Hill, Cat Stevens, Mary J. Blige, Van Morrison, Sade and numerous others. Simone’s voice stands as one of the most versatile and powerful in music history, tackling various genres including gospel, folk, jazz, blues and R&B. Simone accomplished all of this while also serving as a leading civil rights activist her time.

Sly Stone

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35. Sly & The Family Stone

Aside from James Brown, perhaps no artist was a greater force in the growth of funk music than Sly Stone. Sly & The Family Stone would help push funk and psychedelic soul into the mainstream. But it was the group’s later period or darker, more socially conscious music that would prove even more influential, bringing together a variety of genres and diverse musicians to push the boundaries of how popular music could be created.

Public Enemy

Def Jam

34. Public Enemy

Simply from a sonic standpoint, Public Enemy was highly influential on hip hop. The band’s use of jazz and funk to create hard-hitting, dense beats (courtesy of the Bomb Squad) would set a new template for rap groups. With that as the backdrops, Chuck D and Flavor Flav’s political commentary would prove a game charged. Despite its unrelenting message, PE would still conquer the charts, proving that you didn’t have to sacrifice ideals to go gold.

The Temptations

Spectrum Audio UK

33. The Temptations

It took longer than most Motown groups were used to, but The Temptations eventually became the iconic label’s signature act. The group’s vocal harmonies, style and dancing would become the blueprint for soul groups moving forward with a collection of songs that would become some of the most coveted in music history.

Otis REdding

Elaine Mayes

32. Otis Redding

Driven by his gospel background, Otis Redding would become, perhaps, the greatest voice in soul music history, as well as one of the great live performers of all time. But his influence wasn’t limited to R&B. Redding’s voice would also be studied by some of the great rock singers of the 1960s and ’70s (Robert Plant, Rod Stewart, etc.) in developing their blues sound.

T-Bone Walker

Vinyl Lovers

31. T-Bone Walker

B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan. All get credited as being the greatest blues guitarist of all time. But that crown goes to T-Bone Walker, who pioneered electric blues by becoming the first artist to make the electric guitar a solo instrument and a true centerpiece of his stunning live shows.



30. Run-DMC

Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” (or even Blondie’s “Rapture”) often get credit for being the first mainstream hip-hop songs. But they were not indicative of what the genre would become. Run-DMC would become the first act to establish the blueprint for rap stardom, beginning with “Sucker M.C.‘s” before moving on to much bigger things. That would include the birth of mainstream rap-rock with the cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.”

Lead Belly

Rough Guides

29. Lead Belly

Lead Belly was a virtuoso of his time who could play several instruments and became as influential on early folk music as any white artist. His powerful voice was ahead of its time, while his rendition of songs like “Goodnight Irene,” “Midnight Special” and “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” (See: Nirvana’s amazing “MTV Unplugged” version) are standards of the genre.

Nat King Cole

Archive Photos

28. Nat “King” Cole

Considered by many to be the greatest jazz singer of all time, Nat “King” Cole pioneered the style of jazzy, smooth crooning that became popular in the 1940s. Cole would also go on to create the template for the jazz ensemble with his iconic trio, before becoming a huge TV and movie star at a time when the transition from music to film was by no means a regular occurrence.

The Supremes


27. The Supremes

The greatest female singing group of all time that released an astonishing 12 No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100. Led by Diana Ross, The Supremes would help pave the way for every Black female performer that followed with an influence that extended to Broadway and film with “Dreamgirls.”

Bessie Smith

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26. Bessie Smith

Along with Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith would serve as one of the early and most influential voices in blues music. More than any other woman, Smith brought the sound to the mainstream, allowing her to perform in front of the biggest audiences of the day while setting the standard for generations of blues singers that followed.

Sam Cooke

AP Photo

25. Sam Cooke

The ultimate soul voice. Name your favorite soul singer and they were influenced by Sam Cooke, from Al Green and Aretha Franklin to Usher and John Legend. Few Black artists of the 1950s would prove as popular as Cooke, who used his success to fight for equality and the ability for African-American artists to perform in front of integrated audiences and gain control of their music in the recording industry.

WC Handy

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24. WC Handy

When you’re known as the “Father of the Blues,” you rank among the most influential artists in all of music history. Handy didn’t invent the blues. But it was his early songs that first used the word “blues” that would become the genre’s first published songs to reach a national audience.

Charlie Parker

Verve Records

23. Charlie Parker

When you think of jazz and the hipster vibes that go with it, you think of Charlie Parker. The man known as “Bird” was the master of the saxophone and the most important figure in the instrument’s history. Parker was also one of the first jazz artists to create truly complex and advanced compositions, changing the way jazz music would be created from the late 1930s onward.

Mahalia Jackson

Courtesy of The Cleveland Playhouse

22. Mahalia Jackson

A civil rights activist considered one of the most important figures in the history of gospel music. Mahalia Jackson’s voice was definitive and her work as an activist would bring her close to the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. Jackson would go on to become a primary influence for future legends like Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, Ruth Brown and Solomon Burke.

Little Richard

AP Photo

21. Little Richard

As important to the development of rock and roll as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis or anyone you can name. Little Richard’s impact wasn’t just limited to his music. His live shows would make him the archetype for the rock and roll performer, helping him influence everything from rock and R&B to funk and hip hop.

Prince Rodgers Nelson

AP Photo/Phil Sandlin

20. Prince

Prince was a musical talent like no other. He had the performance skills of James Brown. The ability of a classically trained musician that allowed him to be able to play more than 30 instruments. He had the vision to give the world “Purple Rain.” And he was both prolific and diverse, releasing 39 albums during his lifetime that ranged in style from rock, funk and R&B to new wave, pop industrial music and hip hop.

BB King


19. B.B. King

B.B. King is the first name that comes to mind when you think of the blues. He is the artist most responsible for spreading its popularity. Everything from King’s stunning guitar playing to his thrilling voice has become a staple of American culture. There isn’t a blues guitarist who came after B.B. King that attempted to imitate his string-bending style.

Marvin Gaye

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18. Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye spent the 1960s becoming Motown’s biggest solo star and one of the biggest soul artists in the world. However, it was his work in the 1970s that would make an even bigger impact. “What’s Going On” was a landmark achievement in the R&B genre, as Gaye became one of the first soul artists on his level to dedicate an entire album to social issues. His production work on “What’s Going On” and iconic albums that followed, such as “Let’s Get It On” and “I Want You,” would go on to influence the future of R&B music, including quiet storm and neo-soul.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

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17. Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Before Elvis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry, there was a woman and her name was Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Moving away from her gospel roots, Tharpe plugged into an electric guitar in the late 1930s and became a rock star before the men considered the pioneers of rock and roll had dreamt of doing so. She’s the “Godmother of rock and roll” who influenced every musician traditionally identified with helping launch the genre during the 1950s.

Fats Domino

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16. Fats Domino

Fats Domino was the rock and roll pioneer who brought the genre to the masses and, most importantly, bringing black music to white teenagers. Domino became a massive star during the 1950s. But his music went beyond rock and roll. Built on New Orleans rhythm and blues, Domino’s music would go on to impact various genres, including ska music with his single “Be My Guest.”

Ella Fitzgerald

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15. Ella Fitzgerald

Few things brought more fans to jazz music than Ella Fitzgerald’s straightforward singing voice, which became a true global sensation. Not only did Fitzgerald perform with the who’s who of jazz artists, but her singing style would also go on to influence some of the biggest pop stars and most important singers in the world, including Amy Winehouse, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, Michael Buble, Aretha Franklin, Ruth Brown and Diana Ross.

John Coltrane

Don Schlitten, Abramorama

14. John Coltrane

John Coltrane was a titan of jazz music whose innovation helped spawn free jazz and reshape the genre with landmark albums, including “Love Supreme.” Yet, his impact wasn’t limited to that genre. Like Miles Davis, Coltrane would have a tremendous impact on rock and roll. His improvisations proved forward-thinking enough to inspire psychedelic rockers like Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix and The Doors.

Michael Jackson


13. Michael Jackson

The biggest pop star and greatest performer of all time not named Elvis Presley? Or maybe even surpassing The King. Michael Jackson became a breakout star as a youth with The Jackson 5. But few could have predicted just how larger than life he would become as a solo star. The studio albums released during his lifetime were monster records, including the blockbuster, “Thriller.” Jackson’s unprecedented success would transform the touring industry and break down color barriers on MTV while influencing a countless number of performers.

Stevie Wonder


12. Stevie Wonder

It was said the world didn’t know what a true musical genius was until a young Stevie Wonder arrived on the scene. He was just 13 when he landed his first No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Fingertips.” Wonder would continue to release hit after hit until moving into his most creative and groundbreaking period in the 1970s when he transformed R&B into a broader art form on a collection of albums that few acts this side of the Beatles could match.

Muddy Waters

Ross William Hamilton

11. Muddy Waters

The greatest figure in Chicago blues, Muddy Waters would go on to become the defining artist when it came to Delta Blues. Led by Waters, the genre would become the most impactful style of music for the British blues bands that would invade America and gain mass popularity in the 1960s and ’70s. One of Waters’ songs would even give The Rolling Stones their name.

Billie Holiday

AP Photo

10. Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday wasn’t just, arguably, the greatest singer of all time. Her vocal improvisations and phrasing, rooted in jazz, would become a hallmark of popular music throughout the 20th century. But Holiday also took her music to new heights, by putting her career on the line with “Strange Fruit” in 1939. The song was an outcry against the lynching of African Americans that would become an integral part of the Civil Rights Movement.

Robert Johnson

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9. Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson has become a mythical figure whose life and death are rooted in mystery. One thing we know is true is that he was the first master of the Delta Blues. Yet, he wasn’t the biggest blues star of his time. Johnson’s impact wouldn’t reach such epic heights until after his death in 1938. Muddy Waters, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker and other blues players would become vocal about Johnson’s influence. As would the pioneers of rock and roll who would use Johnson’s blues style as the foundation for an emerging genre that would change the world.

Duke Ellington

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8. Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington’s name is as synonymous with jazz as anyone. But he was not only the greatest bandleader in jazz history. He was also one of the greatest bandleaders and composers in various genres of music, including classical, blues, gospel, swing and pop music. A prolific and inventive writer, Ellington would take jazz from a more basic state and turn it into an artistic endeavor, inspiring every great jazz performer of the 20th century.

Ray Charles

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7. Ray Charles

But combining blues, gospel and R&B, Ray Charles would pioneer soul music. In doing so, he would influence countless musicians, including The Isley Brothers, Al Green, Bobby Womack, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and others. Charles’ success would earn him a record deal that was unheard of the recording industry. Had things ended there, he’d be considered all-time great. Though during a time of racial unrest, Charles shocked everyone by recording an album full of country songs — “Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music” — that would become the backbone of his tremendous legacy.

Aretha Franklin

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6. Aretha Franklin

Black or white, Aretha Franklin is the most important woman in the history of popular music, the “Queen of Soul,” and one of the defining voices of the last 100 years. Originally a gospel singer, Franklin would merge her church singing background with an R&B style that would rule over the pop charts. It would serve as the blueprint for female pop singers during the second half of the 20th century to modern stars like Beyonce, Adele and Christina Aguilera.

Chuck Berry

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5. Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry didn’t invent rock and roll all by his lonesome. But he was the man who took rhythm and blues and transformed it into a new genre that would ever change popular music. Songs like “Maybellene,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Rock and Roll Music” would showcase the core elements of what rock and roll would become. The sound, the format and the style were built on the music Berry created. To some extent, everyone who followed was a copycat.

Louis Armstrong

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4. Louis Armstrong

Not just one of the most influential music figures in American history. But one of the most important figures in general. No artist is more responsible for the sounds of modern jazz more than Louis Armstrong. Others like Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton were also key. However, it was Armstrong’s charisma as a performer, technical skill and knack for melody that would make jazz the solo driven genre, including improvisation, that it would become. It would also make Armstrong the genre’s first great superstar.

Jimi Hendrix

AP Photo

3. Jimi Hendrix

No artist is more important to the evolution of their instrument than Jimi Hendrix was with the guitar. Hendrix drew influence from Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker and others. But they could not have predicted the power and emotion Hendrix would bring guitar playing. His technique and innovation with things like tone, distortion and feedback were game-changers. His hard-hitting, blues-driven rock would go on to inspire hard rock, heavy metal, grunge and even hip hop. You could make the case that Jimi Hendrix influenced more artists than any act not named the Beatles.

James Brown

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2. James Brown

A lot of things in a list like this are up for debate. But here are two facts we know: James Brown’s landmark recordings mark the origins of funk music. And he is the most sampled musician of all time. Funk brought a new type of rhythm to African-American music that was as danceable as anything that had ever been released. The genre’s impact (and Brown specifically) would go on to serve as the building blocks for hip-hop, as Brown’s hits would be spun on turntables at rapped over from the 1970s to modern-day. Quite simply, R&B, hip hop and dance music wouldn’t be what they are today without James Brown.

Miles Davis

BPI/Sony Music

1. Miles Davis

There are other artists on this list directly responsible for the creation of musical genres. But, perhaps, no musician, black or white, embodies the spirit of American music than Miles Davis. Not only is the most iconic figure in jazz, which has been dubbed “American’s original art form.” But Davis’ evolution as an artist, which took him from basic jazz principles to cool jazz to rock, funk and even hip hop, represents the ever-changing musical landscape of America. His ability to adapt and experiment, and do it on genius levels, is unparalleled music history.

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