So who is the greatest R&B artist? There have been so many great artists that have spanned the decades, its difficult to choose. Each artist brings something unique and the legendary stories behind them. R&B can be traced right back to the 1930s but it was not until after World War Two that it truly began to take the form that we all know and love today. Here is a list of some of the standout artists that we think helped shape R&B over the years.
Rhythm and Blues, commonly abbreviated as R&B, is a genre of popular music that originated in African American communities in the 1940s. It’s a rich, soulful sound characterized by strong backbeats and influenced by jazz, gospel, and blues.
A Rich Legacy: Rhythm and Blues
It is hard to mistake Marvin Gaye’s silky voice. His back catalogue included unforgettable love songs and used his music to raise social issues of the time. His iconic album “What’s Going On” is still as popular and relevant today than ever. Not only was he the Motown Label’s greatest singers but he could also play the drums as well. He was known as the “Prince of Motown” at the high of his powers.
Gaye began his career at Motown Records in the early 1960s, initially as a session drummer before transitioning to singing. His early hits with Motown, such as “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” and duets with Tammi Terrell like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” showcased his smooth vocal style and charisma.
Gaye continued to enjoy success throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, with hits like “Let’s Get It On” and “Sexual Healing.” However, his life was marked by personal struggles, including battles with depression and substance abuse. His life tragically ended on April 1, 1984, when he was fatally shot by his father. Gaye’s death was a profound loss to the music world, but his legacy as a pioneer in soul and R&B endures.
With the help of The Jackson 5, Michael Jackson was unstoppable. So, it was no great surprise that the artist would go on to conquer not just R&B but the world of music and popular culture. He produced one of the most popular albums of all time in Thriller.
Jackson’s music career began at a young age as the lead singer of the Jackson 5, a group formed with his siblings. The group achieved phenomenal success with hits like “I Want You Back” and “ABC,” making them a staple in the Motown era.
Jackson’s solo career reached unprecedented heights with the release of his album “Thriller” in 1982, which remains the best-selling album of all time. His music videos for songs like “Thriller,” “Beat It,” and “Billie Jean” revolutionized the medium, and his distinctive sound and style influenced generations of artists across various genres.
While Jackson’s contribution to music and pop culture is immense, his life was also marked by controversy, including legal battles and health issues. Despite these challenges, his status as a music legend remains undisputed. Jackson passed away on June 25, 2009, but his influence on music, dance, and popular culture continues to resonate worldwide.
As we all know, Beyonce is a force of nature. Over the last 20 years, she has become one of the most successful R&B artists. After leaving Destiny’s Child, her 2003 breakout album Dangerously in Love pushed her career into overdrive. Over her glittering career, she has sold over 200 million albums around the world and managed to pick up 22 Grammy Awards for her work.
Beyoncé first gained fame in the late 1990s as the lead singer of Destiny’s Child, one of the best-selling girl groups of all time. With hits like “Say My Name” and “Survivor,” the group set new standards for R&B and pop music.
Beyoncé’s solo career, marked by her debut album “Dangerously in Love” (2003), brought even greater success. Her powerful vocals, dynamic performances, and innovative music videos, particularly for songs like “Crazy in Love” and “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” have made her a global icon.
From one great girl group to another! Diana Ross was the lead singer in Motown group The Supremes where she notched up hits such as “Baby Love”, “Come See About Me” and many more hits. before she decided to go solo in the 1960s. She then went solo and gained iconic status in the 1970s. She also moved into movies where she was nominated for an Oscar for “Lady Sings The Blues” She is known for her glamorous stage persona and paved the way for many modern female artists.
Ross rose to fame in the 1960s as the lead singer of The Supremes, one of Motown’s most successful acts. With hits like “Where Did Our Love Go” and “Stop! In the Name of Love,” The Supremes became synonymous with the Motown sound.
After leaving The Supremes in 1970, Ross launched a highly successful solo career, with hits like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “I’m Coming Out.” Her role in the film “Lady Sings the Blues” also showcased her talents as an actress.
Often hailed as “The Genius,” Ray Charles blended R&B with gospel, pioneering soul music. His hits like “Georgia On My Mind” and “Hit the Road Jack” remain timeless.
Charles lost his sight by the age of seven, but his determination led him to develop exceptional musical talent, particularly in piano and composition. His early years were marked by hardship, but his passion for music was a constant source of strength.
In the 1950s, Charles gained fame with hits like “I Got a Woman” and “Georgia on My Mind.” His ability to blend gospel with rhythm and blues created a new genre of music, soul, paving the way for future artists.
Ray Charles’s impact on music is immeasurable. He broke down racial and genre barriers in the music industry and is remembered as a pioneer who reshaped the American music landscape.
There is only one way to describe Aretha Franklin, she was musical royalty! Nobody could come close for vocal range and quality. She was an icon to many artists and her career spanned the 1960s, 70, 80s and 90s. She is remembered for hit such as “Respect”, You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Think” and “Call Me”. Many argue that Aretha Franklin is one of the best singers to have graced the music industry.
Franklin was born into a musical family; her father was a well-known Baptist minister and gospel singer, and her mother was a pianist and vocalist. This rich musical upbringing in Detroit played a crucial role in shaping her musical talents. Franklin started singing in her father’s church and soon became a celebrated figure in the gospel music world.
In the early 1960s, Franklin transitioned from gospel music to secular R&B and soul music. She signed with Atlantic Records, where she recorded some of her most iconic songs, including “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” These hits not only showcased her extraordinary vocal abilities but also her skill as a pianist and her interpretative depth.
“Respect,” originally written and recorded by Otis Redding, became an anthem for civil rights and feminist movements, thanks to Franklin’s powerful rendition. Her music resonated with the social and cultural changes of the time, earning her widespread acclaim and respect.
Throughout her career, Franklin won numerous awards, including 18 Grammy Awards, and became the first female artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Her influence on soul, R&B, gospel, and pop music is immeasurable, and she is often celebrated as one of the greatest singers of all time.
Known as the “Godfather of Soul,” Brown’s energetic performances and unique vocal style influenced the development of several music genres. Brown began his career in gospel music in Georgia. He gained fame in the 1950s with the rhythm and blues vocal group the Famous Flames, with hits like “Please, Please, Please” and “Try Me.” His live performances were dynamic and highly energetic, marked by his unique dance moves and unforgettable stage presence.
In the 1960s, Brown transformed into a bandleader and began exploring new sounds that would later define funk music. His song “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” is considered a seminal track in the development of funk, characterized by a more rhythmic, groove-oriented approach. This was followed by other hits like “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.”
A child prodigy, Wonder has been a critical figure in R&B, known for his harmonica skills, keyboard prowess, and social commentary in songs like “Superstition.” Wonder showed an early affinity for music, learning to play instruments such as the piano, harmonica, and drums by the age of nine. His extraordinary talent was recognized by Motown Records’ Berry Gordy, who signed him at the age of 11. His first hit, “Fingertips,” was recorded live when he was just 12 years old, showcasing his incredible skill as a musician and performer.
In the 1970s, Wonder achieved critical and commercial success with albums like “Talking Book,” “Innervisions,” and “Songs in the Key of Life.” These works are known for their fusion of different genres, including soul, funk, rock, and jazz, and for their thoughtful exploration of social, political, and personal themes.
Wonder was also a pioneer in his use of electronic instruments and studio techniques. He was one of the first musicians to make extensive use of synthesizers, bringing them to the forefront of popular music. His innovative use of the Hohner Clavinet and the Moog synthesizer has influenced countless artists and genres.
Redding’s emotive singing style in hits like “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” made him an iconic figure in soul music. Redding’s big break came in 1962 when he performed at the Apollo Theater’s amateur night, leading to a recording session with Stax Records in Memphis. His second single, “These Arms of Mine,” was a commercial success and marked the beginning of his rise to fame.
Otis Redding was known for his passionate, gritty voice and powerful delivery. He combined elements of gospel, blues, and soul, creating a distinctive sound that resonated deeply with audiences. His ability to convey emotion through his singing, particularly in ballads, set him apart from his contemporaries.
Redding’s performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 was a defining moment in his career and is often considered one of the greatest live performances in music history. His hits, including “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” “Try a Little Tenderness,” and “Respect” (later famously covered by Aretha Franklin), have become timeless classics.
Houston’s exceptional vocal range and emotive power placed her among the best R&B artists, with hits like “I Will Always Love You.” Houston grew up in a musical family — her mother, Cissy Houston, was a noted gospel singer, her cousin was Dionne Warwick, and her godmother was Aretha Franklin. This rich musical environment helped shape Houston’s unique vocal style. She started singing in the church choir and later embarked on a modeling career before transitioning to music.
Whitney Houston’s self-titled debut album was released in 1985 and was a massive success, yielding hits like “Saving All My Love for You,” “How Will I Know,” and “Greatest Love of All.” Her powerful, controlled vocals and pop-R&B crossover appeal quickly made her a household name.
Houston’s 1992 film debut in “The Bodyguard” catapulted her to even greater fame. The film’s soundtrack featured her iconic rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” which became one of the best-selling singles of all time. Houston became the most awarded female artist of all time, according to Guinness World Records, with numerous Grammy Awards, Billboard Awards, and other accolades to her name.
Known as the “King of Soul,” Cooke’s smooth vocals and pioneering soul tracks like “A Change Is Gonna Come” had a lasting influence on R&B. Cooke’s journey into music began in his childhood, singing in the local church choir led by his father, a Baptist minister. His early exposure to gospel music laid the foundation for his unique vocal style. He first achieved significant attention as the lead singer of the Soul Stirrers, a popular gospel group in the 1950s.
In 1957, Cooke transitioned from gospel to secular music, a move that was controversial at the time but paved the way for his groundbreaking career in popular music. His first pop single, “You Send Me,” was a massive hit, showcasing his smooth, emotive style that would become his trademark.
Vandross was known for his silky, smooth voice and romantic ballads, solidifying his place in R&B history. Vandross grew up in a musical family, and his love for music was evident from a young age. He was influenced by soulful artists like Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick. Vandross attended Western Michigan University but soon left to pursue a career in music.
Vandross’s career began as a background vocalist for several artists, including David Bowie, with whom he sang and arranged vocals on the album “Young Americans.” His work as a session singer and a vocalist for commercial jingles showcased his distinct voice, setting the stage for his solo career.
In 1981, Vandross released his debut album, “Never Too Much,” which included the hit title track and marked the beginning of his success as a solo artist. He became known for his romantic ballads and smooth, sophisticated sound, with hits like “Here and Now,” “Dance with My Father,” and “Endless Love” (a duet with Mariah Carey).
Keys’ blend of classical piano skills with soulful R&B has earned her numerous awards and critical acclaim. Keys showed an extraordinary talent for music from a young age. She began classical piano lessons at the age of seven and was composing her songs by the time she was a teenager. She attended the prestigious Professional Performing Arts School in Manhattan, where she honed her skills in music theory and composition.
Alicia Keys burst onto the music scene in 2001 with her debut album, “Songs in A Minor,” which included the hit single “Fallin’.” The album was a critical and commercial success, showcasing her skills as a pianist, singer, and songwriter. Her blend of classical piano into contemporary R&B and soul was both innovative and refreshing.
Throughout her career, Keys has demonstrated a remarkable range, both musically and thematically. Her albums, such as “The Diary of Alicia Keys,” “As I Am,” and “Girl on Fire,” feature a mix of introspective ballads, empowering anthems, and social commentary. Her music often explores themes of love, identity, empowerment, and social justice.
Known for his smooth vocals and charismatic performances, Usher has been a dominant figure in R&B since the late 1990s. Usher began singing in his church choir in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and moved to Atlanta with his family at the age of 12. His big break came at 14 when he appeared on the TV show “Star Search” and was subsequently signed to LaFace Records. His debut album, “Usher,” was released in 1994, but it was his second album, “My Way,” in 1997, that catapulted him to stardom with hits like “You Make Me Wanna…” and “Nice & Slow.”
Usher’s early 2000s albums, “8701” and “Confessions,” solidified his status as a top R&B artist. “Confessions” was particularly successful, featuring hits like “Yeah!,” “Burn,” and “Confessions Part II.” These albums showcased not only his vocal and dance talents but also his ability to connect with audiences through relatable themes of love, heartbreak, and personal growth.
Mary J. Blige
Blige, often called the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul,” is known for her deep, soulful voice and emotional lyrics. Blige began her career as a backing vocalist in 1989, but her life changed when she signed with Uptown Records and released her debut album, “What’s the 411?” in 1992. The album, produced by Sean “Puffy” Combs, was a groundbreaking fusion of soulful vocals with hip-hop beats, featuring hits like “Real Love” and “You Remind Me.”
Over the years, Blige has released a series of successful albums that delve into themes of pain, resilience, and empowerment, resonating with a wide audience. Albums like “My Life,” “Share My World,” and “The Breakthrough” showcase her ability to blend gritty, realistic storytelling with soulful, powerful singing.
Prince showed an interest in music from a very young age, teaching himself to play various instruments, including piano, guitar, and drums. His debut album, “For You” (1978), which he recorded, produced, and played all 27 instruments, heralded the arrival of a musical prodigy. His follow-up albums, such as “Prince” (1979) and “Dirty Mind” (1980), began to shape his unique blend of funk, rock, and R&B.
Prince’s fifth album, “1999” (1982), was a breakthrough success, featuring hit singles like “Little Red Corvette” and “1999.” However, it was his 1984 album “Purple Rain,” which served as the soundtrack to the film of the same name, that catapulted him to international superstardom. The album is widely regarded as one of the greatest albums in music history, showcasing Prince’s musical versatility and creativity.
In 1993, during a highly publicized dispute with his record label, Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, often referred to as “The Love Symbol.” During this period, he was often called “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.” This change underscored his challenges against traditional music industry practices and his commitment to artistic freedom.
Turner’s journey to stardom began in the late 1950s when she joined Ike Turner’s band, the Kings of Rhythm, and soon after, the duo formed the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. Their high-energy performances and hits like “Proud Mary” and “River Deep – Mountain High” made them one of the most explosive acts in the soul and rock scenes during the 1960s and early 1970s. However, this period was also marked by Ike’s abusive behavior towards Tina.
In the mid-1970s, Turner courageously left Ike, embarking on a solo career that would take her to even greater heights. Her 1984 album “Private Dancer” was a phenomenal success, featuring hits like “What’s Love Got to Do with It” and the title track “Private Dancer.” This album marked a remarkable comeback and showcased Turner’s unique blend of rock, soul, and pop.
Turner was for her raw, energetic performances that redefine the standards of stage presence, especially for female artists. Her career has been decorated with numerous awards, including multiple Grammys. She has also been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, both as a duo with Ike and as a solo artist.
Fitzgerald faced a challenging childhood, marked by the loss of her mother and tumultuous years during the Great Depression. Her music career began in 1934, when she won an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. She soon joined the Chick Webb Orchestra, where she gained prominence with hits like “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.”
Following Webb’s death in 1939, Fitzgerald led the band before embarking on a solo career. She became known for her remarkable range and flexibility, her ability to mimic instrumental sounds, and her flawless sense of rhythm. Her songbook series, which celebrated composers like George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Duke Ellington, is particularly noted for showcasing her versatile and sophisticated vocal style.
While primarily known for jazz, Fitzgerald’s musical interests spanned various genres, including swing, bebop, traditional pop, and blues. Her collaborations with other jazz legends like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie further cemented her status as a jazz icon.
Ella Fitzgerald’s contribution to music was recognized with numerous awards and honors, including 13 Grammy Awards, the National Medal of Arts, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her ability to interpret and deliver songs in a unique, vibrant style made her a beloved figure not only in jazz but in 20th-century music as a whole.
Growing up in a poor neighborhood in Detroit, Smokey developed a passion for music early on. He formed the vocal group The Miracles in 1955 while still in high school. The group’s blend of doo-wop, soul, and R&B set the foundation for Robinson’s illustrious career.
The Miracles became one of the first acts signed to Motown Records, founded by Berry Gordy. Robinson’s work with The Miracles produced numerous hits, including classics like “Shop Around,” “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” and “The Tracks of My Tears.” These songs showcased not only his unique vocal style but also his extraordinary talent as a songwriter.
Robinson’s impact at Motown extends beyond his performances. He was also a prolific songwriter, penning hits for other Motown artists like The Temptations (“My Girl”) and Mary Wells (“My Guy”). In 1961, he became Motown’s Vice President, a role he held for over two decades, shaping the label’s artistic direction and contributing significantly to its success.
In the early 1970s, Robinson left The Miracles to focus on a solo career. His solo work continued to garner acclaim, with hits like “Cruisin'” and “Being With You.” These songs underscored his ability to evolve with changing musical tastes while maintaining his signature style.
Khan’s journey into music began in her teenage years, influenced by the rich musical culture of Chicago. She initially gained attention as the frontwoman of the funk band Rufus in the 1970s. The band’s blend of rock, pop, and funk, coupled with Khan’s powerful vocals, led to several hit songs, including “Tell Me Something Good,” written by Stevie Wonder, which won the band a Grammy Award.
In 1978, Khan embarked on a solo career, achieving even greater success. Her debut solo album “Chaka” included the hit single “I’m Every Woman,” which became an anthem for female empowerment. Throughout the 1980s, she released a string of successful albums and singles, including “Ain’t Nobody,” “I Feel for You,” and “Through the Fire,” cementing her status as a music icon.
Chaka Khan’s versatility as an artist is evident in her ability to cross genres effortlessly. Her work includes collaborations with a wide range of artists, from Ry Cooder to Prince, showcasing her adaptability and wide-ranging musical influence. Her rendition of Prince’s “I Feel for You” is particularly notable for its innovative fusion of R&B, rap, and electronic music.
Legend’s breakthrough came through collaborations with established artists like Lauryn Hill, for whom he played piano on the track “Everything Is Everything.” His association with Kanye West, who signed him to his label, was pivotal in his rise to fame. Legend’s debut album “Get Lifted” (2004), featuring the hit single “Ordinary People,” won him the Grammy for Best New Artist.
John Legend is known for his smooth, expressive voice and his ability to blend R&B with soul, gospel, and pop elements. His music often touches on themes of love, social issues, and human experiences, making it relatable and heartfelt. Albums like “Once Again” (2006) and “Love in the Future” (2013) showcase his versatility and skill as a musician and storyteller. For more information on his early life and career, you can read Explore the Amazing Career of John Legend.
Hill’s music career began with the Fugees, a group she joined in high school. The Fugees, consisting of Hill, Wyclef Jean, and Pras Michel, rose to fame in the mid-1990s. Their second album, “The Score” (1996), was a critical and commercial success, blending elements of hip-hop, soul, and Caribbean music. Hill’s unique rapping style and soulful singing on tracks like “Killing Me Softly” and “Ready or Not” played a significant role in the album’s success, establishing her as a formidable talent in the music industry.
Hill’s solo debut album, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” (1998), is a landmark in R&B and hip-hop. The album reflects her personal experiences and touches on themes of love, motherhood, spirituality, and social issues. It won widespread critical acclaim for its raw honesty, lyrical depth, and innovative blending of genres. Songs like “Doo Wop (That Thing),” “Ex-Factor,” and “Everything Is Everything” not only topped charts but also earned Hill five Grammy Awards, making her the first woman to win that many in one night.
Mariah Carey, often hailed as one of the most successful and influential vocalists in the realm of Rhythm and Blues (R&B), has an illustrious career that blends the soulfulness of R&B with the appeal of pop music. Born on March 27, 1970, in Huntington, New York, Carey burst onto the music scene in 1990 with her self-titled debut album, which showcased her extraordinary five-octave vocal range and emotive singing style. Her early work, particularly songs like “Vision of Love” and “Love Takes Time,” exhibited a strong R&B influence, characterized by soulful melodies, lush vocal arrangements, and heartfelt lyrics.
Carey’s contribution to R&B is notable for how she seamlessly integrates traditional elements of the genre with pop, soul, and later, hip-hop. In the mid-1990s, Carey began to infuse more pronounced R&B and hip-hop elements into her music, as seen in her collaborations with Ol’ Dirty Bastard in the remix of “Fantasy” and Boyz II Men in “One Sweet Day.” This blend of styles was groundbreaking and played a significant role in popularizing the fusion of R&B with hip-hop among mainstream audiences.
Her album “Butterfly” (1997) marked a significant shift in her artistic style, delving deeper into R&B and hip-hop while maintaining her pop sensibility. This era of Carey’s music, including songs like “Honey” and “My All,” featured more contemporary R&B sounds, incorporating urban beats and collaborations with hip-hop artists. This transition not only showcased her versatility as an artist but also cemented her status as a trendsetter in the industry.
The legacy of these R&B artists is not just in their music, but in their profound impact on culture, fashion, and social issues. Each artist brought their unique flavor to R&B, influencing generations of musicians and fans alike. Their contributions continue to echo through the ever-evolving landscape of rhythm and blues.