Black male music artists caused a shift in American music in the 1920s. Before that, during the dark period when slavery was active, African Americans brought their melodies from their homelands and sang with soul while working in the fields.
After slavery was abolished and the black population became integrated into the American people, their soulful music started leaking into the American sound in the form of jazz, R&B, reggae, rock, funk, hip-hop, Motown, and doo-wop.
And in this post, we’re going to take a look at 19 of the greatest and most famous black male singers of all time.
1. Stevie Wonder
Starting as a child prodigy, Stevie Wonder became one of the most creative musical figures of the 20th century. He was born with retinopathy because of premature birth, which led to blindness after receiving too much oxygen in an incubator.
This blindness did not stop him from achieving amazing success with very few artists having had as profound an impact on popular music as Stevie Wonder.
Over the course of his more than 50-year career, Wonder has generated an incredible body of work that includes some of the most beloved songs of all time.
From early hits like “Fingertips” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” to timeless classics like “Superstition” and “Isn’t She Lovely,” Wonder’s songs have touched the lives of millions of people around the world.
He has won 25 Grammy Awards, been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and received countless other honors and accolades. Simply put, Stevie Wonder is one of the most legendary and influential figures in popular music history.
Next up we have Prince who was one of the most popular and influential musical artists of the late 20th century.
He was known for his genre-defying music, flamboyant stage presence and frequently pushing the boundaries of gender and sexuality.
Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, he released his debut album, For You in 1978, which reached the top 40 on the Billboard 200 chart. He then went on to achieve mainstream success with a string of highly successful albums, including 1999, Purple Rain, and Sign o’ the Times.
He had multiple number 1 hits, including “When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” and “Kiss.”
Throughout his career, Prince won seven Grammy Awards and an Academy Award but sadly, he died from an accidental drug overdose in April of 2016.
3. James Brown
Known as the “Godfather of Soul,” James Brown was an icon in funk and soul music, climbing to the top in these genres with his unique vocal and musical style.
He helped to pioneer a new style of music called funk, and his electrifying live performances made him one of the most popular entertainers in the world.
Brown’s career began in the early 1950s when he recorded a series of hit singles for the R&B market. However, it was his work in the 1960s that cemented his reputation as a true innovator with hits like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”, “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”.
Brown continued to evolve his sound throughout his career, influencing many artists with his music, as well as his social activism.
4. Marvin Gaye
From his humble beginnings singing in the father’s church in the Moonglows to becoming known as the “Prince of Motown” and “Prince of Soul,” Marvin Gaye left a significant imprint on the music industry.
His music career kicked off in a vocal quartet, The Marquees, in the late 1950s. He then joined The Miracles as a road drummer during the 1960s before pursuing a successful solo career as a singer-songwriter and producing his protest album “What’s Going On” in 1971.
Being such a hit, he wanted to take more risks musically and politically. He departed from the Motown formula, paving the way and inspiring other artists to strive for uniqueness in their music styles.
His controversy was not only political. After his last tour and struggling with substance abuse and depression, he moved back into his parents’ house.
He and his father had a history of violent quarrels, one of which ended in his father shooting and killing him in 1984.
5. Lionel Richie
Starting his career as a founding member of the Commodores, Lionel Richie found success as a solo artist in the R&B industry with his number 1 hit single “Truly.”
He worked with other artists such as Michael Jackson, co-writing the famine relief song “We Are the World” in 1985. Some of his biggest hits include “Hello”, “All Night Long”, and “Dancing on the Ceiling.”
He is still active in music in modern times, being named an American Idol judge on the reboot season in 2018.
6. Ray Charles
One of the most legendary and influential figures in American music history, Ray Charles was nicknamed the “Father of Soul.”
His integration of gospel, pop, R&B, jazz, blues, and country pioneered the genre of soul music in the 1950s creating a unique sound that captivated audiences around the world.
Born in 1930 in Georgia, he began losing his sight at the age of seven. Despite this setback, he went on to develop his musical skills, playing both piano and other instruments.
In the 1950s, he rose to prominence with a series of hit songs, including “I’ve Got a Woman” and “What’d I Say.” He continued to enjoy success throughout his career releasing classic songs like “Unchain My Heart,” “Georgia on My Mind,” and “Hit the Road Jack.”
As you’d expect for someone as great as Charles, he won multiple Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He died in 2004 after suffering from liver failure.
7. Smokey Robinson
The “King of Motown,” Smokey Robinson is credited with 4,000 songs, being second only to Berry Gordy in the sound of Motown.
He had humble beginnings growing up in a rough neighborhood in Michigan and singing in local groups. In the 1950s, he formed the Matadors who later became the world-famous group The Miracles.
In 1960, “Shop Around” became their first big hit and developed quite a following.
He went solo in 1972 and has 37 Top 40 hits including “Tears of a Clown,” “Love Machine,” and “Tracks of My Tears.”
He struggled with a drug addiction in the mid-1980s but later credited his recovery from substance abuse to his faith in his autobiography.
8. Snoop Dogg
Being discovered by Dr. Dre in the early 1990s, Snoop Dogg has evolved into a West Coast rap legend.
As a young child, he was musically inclined and played piano and sang at his Baptist church. He started rapping in the sixth grade and later came to global fame. He has millions of sales in record sales and a career in acting in movies and TV.
His first solo album, “Doggystyle,” was released in 1993 and climbed its way to the top of Billboard’s hip-hop and Top 200 charts. His next album, “The Doggfather,” which was produced without Dr. Dre, still had great success after its release in 1996.
Aside from music and acting, he has his own cannabis business called Leafs by Snoop. This is the first A-list celebrity who launched a brand line of cannabis products.
Drake started his career in the Canadian soap Degrassi: The Next Generation, where he played a wheelchair-bound character by the name of Jimmy Brooks. After seven years, he left the show and became one of the biggest rappers in the world.
In 2007, he released his second mixtape, “Comeback Season,” which took off with his hit single “Replacement Girl.” His first full studio album came in 2010, titled “Thank Me Later.” This album debuted at number 1 on both Canadian and American album charts.
He won his first Grammy for the best rap album in 2013 with his second full studio album, “Take Care.”
10. Bill Withers
After being on tour in the US Navy, Bill Withers first became interested in singing and songwriting at the age of seventeen. He moved to Los Angeles, California, after being discharged from the Navy to pursue a career in music.
He started by recording demos before being signed with Susses Records label in 1970. His debut album “Just As I Am” was released in 1971, with the hit single “Ain’t No Sunshine” reaching number 3 on R&B radio. He later received a Grammy Award for this song as the Best Rhythm & Blues Song.
In 2006 he was the recipient of the ASCAP Rhythm & Soul Heritage Award before his death in 2020 from heart complications.
11. R. Kelly
Being acclaimed as the “King of R&B,” R. Kelly has not always been in the best light in his professional career.
The Grammy Award-winning R&B singer-songwriter gained notoriety due to the child-pornography charges and being arrested multiple times in 2019 for aggravated criminal sexual abuse and sex trafficking charges.
Purely looking at this music career, he had great success on the music charts, with more Top 40 hits than any other male solo artist in the 1990s.
His highly sexualized lyrics and gospel-tinged vocals gave him an edge over other rappers at the time.
Usher began his music career at the young age of 15 years old. He landed a recording contract with LaFace Records, where he released his first album.
He dominated the airwaves for years, with album releases such as Confessions in 2004 and Looking 4 Myself in 2012. Confessions sold more than 1 million copies in its first week of being released.
He has had songs in the number 1 spot on Billboard’s album spot multiple times, as well as several People’s Choice and Grammy Awards.
Along with music, he has worked as a film and stage actor. He landed a spot as a judge/coach on the popular singing competition series The Voice.
13. Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong came to prominence in the 1920s as a jazz trumpeter, singer, and bandleader. He is most known for his songs “Hello, Dolly,” “What a Wonderful World,” “Star Dust,” and “La Vie En Rose.”
His unique vocals and daring trumpet style inspired countless musicians. His charismatic stage presence not only impressed the jazz world but all of the popular music at the time.
Heart and kidney problems finally caught up to him in 1968. They forced him to stop performing. However, he was allowed to perform publicly again in 1970 in Las Vegas. He died just one year later in his sleep.
14. Otis Redding
Known as “the King of Soul,” Otis Redding was discovered after recording “These Arms of Mine.” His song “Sittin on The Dock of the Bay” hit number 1 in 1968.
He was known for his emotional, sincere delivery of lyrics, making him the voice of soul music. Just as his musical career was taking off, he died tragically in a plane crash in 1967. Because of his short music career, he had only 1 number 1 hit song.
15. Luther Vandross
Because of his smooth style and voice, Luther Vandross led the charts in romantic ballads. In 1981, he released his first album, “Never Too Much,” which sold more than a million copies.
Even though he was an R&B phenomenon, it was not until the 1990s that he became an icon in pop. He was his first Grammy for “Here and Now” in 1991, and two in 1992 for “Power of Love.” He won his fourth Grammy in 1997 for “Your Secret Love.”
16. Michael Jackson
Dubbed as the “King of Pop,” Michael Jackson was one of the most recognized performers. He was renowned amongst fellow artists and fans alike for his incredible work ethic, impeccable vocal skills, and complex dance routines.
As a child, he was the lead singer in his family’s Motown group, the Jackson 5. He went on to enjoy a very successful solo career, releasing ‘Thriller’ in 1982, which was one of the best-selling albums in history. His albums Off the Wall and Bad also delivered number 1 hits, astonishing the world with his success.
However, his remarkable career was marred by allegations of child molestation. The multi-talented musical entertainer died of cardiac arrest due to a deadly combination of prescription medications administered by his physician Dr. Conrad Murray, who was later found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
17. Jackie Wilson
Jackie Wilson first joined the group Billy Ward and His Dominoes in 1953. After four years in the group, he branched off to become a solo artist through the 1950s and 1960s. He paved the way for generations of African Americans artists in the genres of R&B and pop.
His first major hit was “Lonely Teardrops,” which was released in 1958. He had more successful songs later released, including “Night,” “Baby Workout,” and “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.”
He collapsed on stage in 1975 and spent the rest of his life in a coma, finally passing away in 1984. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
18. Curtis Mayfield
Making his first recordings in 1958, Curtis Mayfield was a member of The Impressions, a Chicago Soul/R&B group. He was strictly a backup singer in the group, not being allowed to play guitar, produce, or write songs.
He started his solo career in the 1960s. His last recording as a solo artist was in 1995 with “New World Order” After four decades as a producer, artist, and composer.
He was paralyzed after an on-stage accident. This did not stop him from making music. He would lie on his back, singing one line at a time.
19. Chris Brown
Grammy Award-winning Chris Brown has not always had a good reputation in the spotlight. After assaulting former girlfriend Rihanna, he found his songs being dropped from the radio.
His 2011 album F.A.M.E. earned him a Grammy Award. He continued to receive headline attention for brushing with the law.
Being not just a songwriter but also an entertainer, he expanded his career into acting in 2007.
Summing Up Our List Of Famous Black Male Vocalists
As you can see from the list above, black male vocalists have had a large impact on the music industry.
Many are regarded as the princes and kings of their respective genres, and rightfully so.
From their daring lyrics to innovative music styles, they have produced some of the greatest hits ever and attracted millions of listeners worldwide.
Do you think we missed someone off the list? Let us know and we’ll add them.