15 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Black Singers Of The 1970s

Avatar photo
Written by Laura Macmillan
Last updated

The 70s saw the rise of some of the most influential Black artists we’ve ever seen. These artists gave us countless songs that are still remembered and loved decades later.

From Aretha Franklin to Michael Jackson, these Black musicians have had a lasting impact on the world. Here are 15 of the most famous Black singers of the 1970s.

Related: For more, check out our post about popular black singers here.

1. Michael Jackson

One of the most influential figures of our time, Michael Jackson, began his career in the Jackson 5 with his family in 1964.

The band saw success when it signed to Motown in 1969. A year later, they got their first number-one single, “I Want You Back.”

In the mid-70s, Jackson released several solo albums with Motown. His fifth solo album soared to the top of the charts, where he stayed for his next five solo albums.

Jackson’s singles continuously rose to the tops of the charts as he reached the height of his fame. Even after his untimely death, he is revered around the world.

2. Aretha Franklin

At age ten, Aretha Franklin began her music career singing in church shortly after her mother’s death.

The first single she released with Columbia Records after signing on in 1960 hit number ten on the US R&B chart. She later signed with Atlantic Records.

Her most notable song, “Respect,” is a cover of Otis Redding’s song of the same name. Her interpretation of the song, which changed some lyrics and the arrangement, became revered as a feminist anthem and earned Franklin two Grammys.

Franklin was also an advocate for the Civil Rights Movement and women’s suffrage. These themes often showed in her music.

3. Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder was an instant hit, signing onto Motown Records at the ripe age of 11. 

When he was 13, his single, “Fingertips,” reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts.

In 1972, Wonder’s biggest hit, “Superstition,” was released, reaching number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

At this point, Wonder started to see growth in his career again after a dry spell. He won 25 Grammys throughout his career, including winning the Album of the Year award three times.

4. Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald’s career began in 1935 when she joined Chick Webb’s Orchestra. Fitzgerald saw commercial success with her song “A-Tisket A-Tasket,” which was an arrangement of the nursery rhyme of the same name.

From 1967 into the early 70s, Fitzgerald moved between a few labels, trying out many different genres before settling back into jazz in 1972 when her live album, Jazz at Santa Monica Civic ’72, saw sudden success. 

She continued making music and performing until 1993 when she retired due to health issues.

5. Ray Charles

Ray Charles was an influential musician whose career spanned nearly 60 years. His early years brought him success, releasing many top-ten hits on the R&B charts like “Mary Ann” from his album Ray Charles.

His career saw many hits and misses, but Stevie Wonder credits Charles as being his musical idol.

In the 70s, his career slowed while he wrote and recorded many songs about civil rights and poverty.

His country albums in the 80s saw success with his song “Seven Spanish Angels” featuring Willie Nelson, which topped the U.S. country chart.

6. Billy Henderson

Though Billy Henderson never had a solo career, he’s best known for being one of the lead singers for the American band The Spinners.

The R&B group formed in 1954, but it was not until 1973 that they saw commercial success with their self-titled work released by Atlantic Records.

They saw a string of top ten hits on the R&B charts throughout the 70s and have five Gold Certified albums.

Before working with Atlantic Records, Henderson, and his band were signed to Motown but saw little success.

The Spinners still tour and released a new album in 2021, though the only remaining original member is Henry Fambrough, who was also a lead vocalist.

7. Nina Simone

Nina Simone was a beloved American singer and activist. She started playing jazz at a restaurant in New Jersey in 1954 to fund piano lessons.

She saw success with her debut album with Bethlehem Records but later signed with Colpix Records, which gave her more creative control.

During the late 60s, Simone’s music career slowed as she became involved in the Civil Rights Movement. During this time, her music became more political.

Though her late career consisted largely of performing at jazz clubs, her last album, A Single Woman, peaked at 19 on the US Jazz Charts.

8. Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye saw success early in his career, though he initially struggled to gain footing with his first album.

In September of 1962, Gaye’s single, “Stubborn Kind of Fellow,” reached number eight on the R&B charts. His first number-one hit was “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

His music took a political tone after witnessing police brutality at an anti-war rally in the early 70s. Signed with CBS Records, he won two Grammys.

His 1982 single, “Sexual Healing,” was his greatest success. “Sexual Healing” belonged to his final work, Midnight Love, though there have been several posthumous releases since his untimely death.

9. Diana Ross

Diana Ross first broke into the industry with the Supremes, who are well known for their song “Come See About Me.”

She started her solo career in 1970. Ross’ solo version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” became her first solo hit that same year.

She balanced acting and music and even starred in The Wiz, a version of The Wizard of Oz adapted to capture the experience of Black Americans.

Her most successful album, Diana, was released in 1980 and peaked at #1 in U.S. R&B and #2 on the U.S. chart. Ross’s latest album, titled Thank You, was released in 2021.

10. Tina Turner

Tina Turner started singing in church when she was young, and in 1960, she released her debut single as part of Ike & Turner.

It saw instant success, soaring to number two on the R&B charts and 27 on Billboard Hot 100. Ike & Turner gained mainstream success in the 1970s, topping several charts along the way. They split in 1976, and Turner began her solo career. 

Her 1984 album Private Dancer, released with Capitol Records, was a chart-topper. It revived her career, and her next album, Break Every Rule, saw similar success.

Turner has gone on to write several books, win Grammys, and appear in a documentary about her life.

11. Donna Summer

Donna Summer saw instant success in Europe when she released her 1974 album Lady of the Night

Her next album brought her success in America, charting at number six on the R&B chart. Summer’s most popular album was released in 1979 and titled Bad Girls. It topped the charts in the United States and Canada.

She continued to see commercial success through her next three albums but never lived up to Bad Girls. Summer continued making music until her death in 2012.

12. Gloria Gaynor

Gloria Gaynor initially was a singer in a group called the Soul Satisfiers in the 1960s. In 1975, Gaynor released her debut album with MGM Records, titled Never Can Say Goodbye. This album saw great success with the disco sound making it highly popular in clubs.

Her next album got similar reception, with its singles topping the disco charts. It wasn’t until her widely popular song “I Will Survive” was released in 1978 that she went mainstream. The song was renowned as a feminist anthem.

Unfortunately, due to the demonization of disco, her career fell off for several years. Her music is known for its messages of self-acceptance and upbeat tunes.

13. Lionel Richie

Lionel Richie began his music career as part of the Commodores. He quickly got into songwriting in the 70s. He gained popularity as a singer with his 1981 duet of Endless Love with Diana Ross.

In 1982, Richie released his first solo album. Richie won the Album of the Year Award for his second album, Can’t Slow Down. His third album peaked at the top of the charts with several chart-topping singles like “Hello” and “All Night Long (All Night).”

Though he hasn’t reached the same popularity he had in the 80s, Richie did release a chart-topping album in 2012 titled Tuskegee and is still a favorite artist of many.

14. Maurice White

Maurice White is best known for being the lead singer of Earth, Wind & Fire. White studied music when he was younger and played in nightclubs.

He formed the Pharaohs with two fellow students but left in 1966 to play drums for another band. Then in 1969, he left that trio to work with two friends.

They went on to form Earth, Wind & Fire. Their first four albums did well, all of them breaking into the top 50 on the R&B charts. It wasn’t until their 1975 album, That’s the Way of the World, that they topped both the US charts and R&B charts.

White also produced and composed for other artists. He even worked with Barbra Streisand and Niel Diamond.

15. Bill Withers

Bill Withers started making music after spending almost a decade serving in the Navy. Withers signed onto Sussex Records, and his debut album, Just As I Am, reached the top ten on the R&B charts. His single “Ain’t No Sunshine” saw great success, as did his album Still Bill.

While his career peaked with his second album, he did collaboration work. He collaborated with Grover Washington Jr. to make the song “Just the Two of Us,” which peaked at number two on the US and R&B charts.

Withers has earned a place in the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Summing Up Our List Of Famous 1950s Black Singers

These Black artists have impacted the world of music in a way that will not soon be forgotten.

These singers revolutionized countless genres in the 70s, ranging from Jazz to R&B.

There’s no denying that these singers have left a mark on history.

Photo of author

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.