15 Of The Most Famous Black Singers Of The 1960s

Some of the most well-known and best-loved artists of the 60s were African-American singers. These black artists rocked the airwaves while the Civil Rights movement rocked the United States. 

Many of these artists used their music to communicate powerful messages in support of social equality and racial justice. Others wrote hundreds of enduring classics still heard in American pop culture today.

In this post, we have compiled a list of 15 of the greatest and most famous black singers of the 1960s to showcase their incredible contributions to history and culture.

1. Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin was often referred to as “The Queen of Soul,” and for good reason. She remains one of the best-selling music artists of all time, with over 75 million records sold.

Her career was helped in large part by one of the most distinctive and powerful voices in popular music.

As a child, Franklin sang in a gospel choir signing with Columbia Records at just 18 years old. She scored her first major hit in 1967 with her rendition of Otis Redding’s “Respect.” The song was hailed as a Civil Rights and feminist anthem, and to this day, it remains her signature song. 

2. Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye earned his nicknames “The Prince of Motown” and “The Prince of Soul” by pioneering the Motown movement during the 1960s. His songs “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” “What’s Going On?” and “Sexual Healing” remain widely popular and are still covered by artists of all genres.

Gaye began his career as part of the vocal quartet The Marquees but rose to solo fame in the early 1960s after the group disbanded. His initial success came with the 1963 release of the single “Pride and Joy.” His life was cut tragically short in 1984, when his father killed him during a fight. 

Besides numerous awards during his lifetime, Gaye has also multiple posthumous accolades, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award,

3. Etta James

Etta James, born Jamesetta Hawkins, is known for bridging the gap between rhythm and blues and rock and roll. Her distinctive, gritty vocals have earned her the title of “The Matriarch of the Blues.” She has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame.

James had a rough childhood that included abuse from her vocal coach, an absent father, and a mother who was frequently not around. 

Despite living through this trauma (and addiction), she became one of the best-selling singers of the 1960s. Her debut album At Last, which includes the songs “At Last,” and “A Sunday Kind of Love,” is considered a classic. She won 17 Blues Music Awards and six Grammys during her career.

4. Stevie Wonder

Stevland Hardaway Morris, whose more familiar stage name is Stevie Wonder, is an accomplished singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. He plays the piano, drums, guitar, and bass, and his use of electronic synthesizers helped redefine the soul music genre during the 1960s and 1970s.

Wonder was born blind due to a condition that prevented the eyes from developing properly. He was signed at the incredibly young age of 11, and by the end of the 1960s had already written and released multiple number one and top 100 hits.

5. Nina Simone

Nina Simone, born Eunice Kathleen Wymone, was a genre-crossing vocalist and passionate Civil Rights activist. Her music spanned jazz, blues, classical, R&B, and pop.

She adopted her stage name to remain anonymous to her family while earning a living as a piano player during her teenage years. 

Songs like “Mississippi Goddamn” and “Old Jim Crow” addressed racial inequality directly in a way that many artists in the US at the time did not.

As well as recording albums with political messages, Simone spoke at Civil Rights rallies and vocally supported Malcolm X.

6. James Brown

James Brown had many nicknames, including “The Godfather of Soul,” “Soul Brother No. 1,” and “Mr. Dynamite.”

He is one of the best-selling artists of all time and was a driving force behind the development of the soul movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Brown began performing during the early 1950s, but it wasn’t until a live performance at the Apollo Theatre in 1961 that he made a successful breakthrough. The album Live at the Apollo became his hallmark and marked the beginning of a long career.

In 1965, the release of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” launched Brown to international stardom.

7. Diana Ross

Diana Ross is best known as the lead singer of The Supremes, an all-female Motown vocal group that released some of the biggest hits of the 1960s and 1970s.

Songs like “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” and “Come See About Me,” endure as classics, making them one of the best-selling of all time.

Ross found success at just 15 with the vocal group The Primettes, who sang with Smokey Robinson and auditioned for many Motown executives. I

n 1961, the group changed its name to The Supremes. They had their first hit in 1963 with “When The Lovelight Starts Shining in His Eyes.” Ross went on to have a successful solo career after the group disbanded in 1977.

8. Otis Redding

Otis Redding earned his nickname “The King of Soul” with his distinctive and powerful vocal style.

His voice influenced many other artists during the 1960S and continues to be an inspiration for singers today.

Redding’s iconic single “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” is his best-known work. Although Redding was tragically killed in a plane crash at the age of only 26, his musical contributions have been recognized with numerous posthumous accolades.

These include several Grammys and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

9. Dionne Warwick

Dionne Warwick is one of the most-charted vocalists of all time, and the most-charted female vocalist of the rock era.

Warwick was born into a musical family and grew up singing with her family group The Drinkards. She studied music at Hartt College of Music, where her initial work as a demo singer for Burt Bacharach led to her recording contract.

She rose to fame in 1962 with her first single “Don’t Make Me Over” and went on to huge success.

Over her career she sold more than 100 million records worldwide and has received six Grammys, making her one of the best-selling and most-awarded artists in music history.

10. Wilson Pickett

Wilson Pickett was a major driving force and influencer of American soul music. He rose to fame in the mid 1906s with songs like “In the Midnight Hour” and “634-5789,” which became soul hits. Many of his songs are better known as performed by other artists.

Pickett was nominated for five Grammys during his career and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his contributions to American soul music.

His remake of “Mustang Sally” remains an iconic version of the song.

11. Patty Labelle

Patty Labelle was born Patricia Louise Holt and is frequently referred to as “The Godmother of Soul.”

Her recording of “Lady Marmalade” is one of the most well-regarded recordings of all time, and has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Labelle rose to fame while fronting the all-female vocal group Patty Labelle and the Bluebelles in the early 1960s.

After the group split up in 1976, Labelle went on to thrive as a solo singer, becoming a mainstream artist in the mid-1980s when she featured in the soundtrack for the movie Beverly Hills Cop

12. Ray Charles

According to many, Ray Charles was one of the most iconic singers and pianists of all time. Contemporaries often referred to him by his nickname “The Genius.”

However, Charles himself preferred to go by the more modest moniker “Brother Ray.”

Charles was one of the first artists to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In his career, he won 18 Grammys and produced countless hits that are popular to this day.

He has been cited as an influence on Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and Pink Floyd, among many others.

13. Gladys Knight

Gladys Knight, “The Empress of Soul,” was the long-time frontwoman of the band The Pips.

They wrote many of the Motown hits that are often attributed to other artists—most notably, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” “Tainted Love,” and “Midnight Train to Georgia.”

Knight earned three Grammy awards with The Pips and four more after she left the group in the late 1970s.

Knight had a successful solo career well into the 2000s and has had multiple number one hit singles and albums.

14.  Smokey Robinson

Smokey Robinson was born William Robinson Jr in Detroit. He was given the nickname “Smokey” during his childhood by an uncle.

Robinson is best known as the founder and frontman of the Motown group The Miracles, who were active from 1955 to 1977.

He was a prolific songwriter as well as a frontman, penning many of the Motown hits of the 1960s for various other groups. Songs he wrote include “My Guy,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “My Girl,” and “Get Ready.”

15. Al Green

Many refer to Al Green as “One of the Last Great Soul Singers.” He is best known for records he released during the early 1970s, but his career began in 1968 with the release of “Back Up Train,” which charted in the Cash Box Top 100.

Green’s most prominent hits include “Tired of Being Alone,” “Let’s Stay Together,” and “Take Me to the River.” After an incident with a former partner that resulted in her suicide, Green turned to religion and become a pastor. 

During this time, he released a lot of gospel before returning to secular music in 1988. 

Summing Up Our List Of Famous 1960s Black Singers

These black artists not only dominated the airwaves during the 1960s and paved the way for generations of singers, but many also contributed to a critical social movement that redefined society. 

The influence of these incredible artists can still be felt to this day.

If you’re not familiar with some on this list, give them a listen and start discovering their incredible works!

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Written by Laura Macmillan
Laura has over 12 years experience teaching both classical and jazz saxophone and clarinet. She now resides in California where she works as a session and live performer.