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 11 of the greatest and most famous black singers of the 1960s to showcase their incredible contributions to history and culture.
Related: We wrote a post about the best black singers of all time here.
1. Aretha Franklin
The first singer on our list is Aretha Franklin. She was often referred to as the Queen of Soul and for good reason. With her distinctive and powerful voice, she remains one of the best-selling music artists of all time, with over 75 million records sold.
As a child, Franklin sang in a gospel choir, and then she signed 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.
Franklin’s 1967 album I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You was listed by Rolling Stone as #1 in their “Women in Rock: 50 Essential Albums” article twice—in 2002 and 2012.
2. Marvin Gaye
Next up, we have the Prince of Soul, Marvin Gaye, who also earned the nickname the Prince of Motown 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 he 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.”
Sadly, his life was cut tragically short in 1984 when his father killed him during a fight. He is, however, very much still remembered as fans continue to listen to his works to this day.
Besides numerous awards during his lifetime, Gaye also has multiple posthumous accolades, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Related: See our post here for more singers that sound similar to Marvin Gaye.
3. Etta James
Born Jamesetta Hawkins, Etta James 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.
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.
James had won 17 Blues Music Awards and six Grammys during her career. In 1993, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and then, in 2001, into the Blues Hall of Fame.
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. Despite this, he was a child prodigy. He was signed at the incredibly young age of 11 in the early 1960s, and by the end of the decade, Wonder had already written and released multiple number-one and top-100 hits.
To show for his amazing talent, Wonder won 25 Grammys, including Album of the Year three times consecutively and a Lifetime Achievement Award!
5. Nina Simone
Born Eunice Kathleen Wymone, Nina Simone 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.
Her songs during the ’60s, 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.
Aside from recording albums with political messages, Simone spoke at civil rights rallies and vocally supported Malcolm X.
In 2018, Simone was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and, three years after, in 2021, into the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame.
6. James Brown
One of the best-selling artists of all time, James Brown was a driving force behind the development of the soul movement of the 1960s and 1970s, thus earning him many nicknames, including the Godfather of Soul, Soul Brother No. 1, and Mr. Dynamite.
Brown began performing during the early 1950s, but it wasn’t until a live performance at the Apollo Theater in 1961 that he made a successful breakthrough. The album Live at the Apollo became his hallmark and marked the beginning of a very long career.
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
Next up, we have Diana Ross, who 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.
Ross found success at just 15 with the vocal group The Primettes, who sang with Smokey Robinson and auditioned for many Motown executives. In 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.” From then on, they released yearly hit songs like “Where Did Our Love Go” (1964), “Stop! In The Name of Love” (1965), “You Can’t Hurry Love” (1966), and “Love Is Here, And Now You’re Gone” (1967), all of which endured as classics, making them best-selling songs of all time.
After the group disbanded in 1977, Ross went on to have a successful solo career.
8. Otis Redding
The King of Soul, Otis Redding, earned his nickname 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.
His 1966 “Try A Little Tenderness,” considered his signature song, was critically acclaimed, peaking at #4 on the R&B chart and #25 on Billboard Hot 100. Another of Redding’s best-known works is the iconic single “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay.”
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
Next on our list is one of the most-charted vocalists of all time and the most-charted female vocalist of the rock era.
Dionne 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
Another major driving force and influencer of American soul music is Wilson Pickett. He rose to fame in the mid-1960s with “In The Midnight Hour,” which peaked at #1 in the R&B chart and sold over a million copies.
Another soul hit was “634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.),” which became #1 on the Billboard Hot Rhythm and Blues Singles, and his remake of “Mustang Sally” remains an iconic version of the song.
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.
11. 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.”
The 1960s for Charles was his crossover decade, in which he had major success in integrating pop music, rhythm and blues, and country music. His single “Georgia On My Mind” garnered him four Grammys!
Charles was one of the first artists to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In his career, he won 18 Grammy Awards, including the four mentioned above, and produced countless hits that are popular to this day.
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!