18 Of The Most Famous Musicians From Illinois You Should Know

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

The rich musical heritage of Illinois dates back to the mid and late 19th century with Chicago being the center for the development of the widely popular modern music genres. It’s most famous for the development of highly acclaimed electric (or Chicago-style) blues music. 

The music scene in Illinois grew exponentially during the early part of the 20th century and, by 1950, musicians from Illinois started topping the Billboard music charts. Since then, the music scene in the state of Illinois has produced numerous award-winning musicians. Let’s touch upon the lives and careers of some of these prominent personalities in this post. Let’s get into it.

Related: Read our post on other influential musicians from America here.

1. Ludacris

Born in Champaign, Illinois, Christopher Bryan Bridges, more popularly known as Ludacris, spent his formative years in Atlanta.

He was inclined towards Hip-Hop from a young age, as he started rapping when he was only nine years old. 

After graduating high school, Ludacris went on to study at Georgia State University, where he completed his degree in music management.

In 1998, he made his rap debut on Hip-Hop producer Timbaland’s hit single “Fat Rabbit.”

He reached the pinnacle of his music career in 2006 when he won a Grammy award for his album “Release Therapy.”

Related: Read about more famous musicians from Georgia here.

2. Miles Davis

Referred to as “the man who changed music” by Rolling Stone, Miles Davis played a crucial role in the development of jazz.

He was born in Illinois, where he graduated high school, and then traveled to New York to study music at the Juilliard School.

The famous jazz trumpeter released the iconic album Kind of Blue, considered by many to be the greatest jazz album in history.

His memorable quote sums up the impact he had on music, “The way you change and help music is by trying to invent new ways to play.”

3. Verdine White (Earth, Wind, and Fire)

Hailing from a well-educated family in Chicago, Illinois, Verdine White went against the wishes of his parents to pursue a career in music.

From a young age, the Earth, Wind, and Fire legend developed an interest in learning the upright bass.

During his teenage years, White performed at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. From there, he transitioned into the role of a professional electric bass player.

Throughout his career with the EWF, he won several accolades including eight Grammys and four American Music Awards.

4. Patti Smith

Patti Smith is a world-renown singer, songwriter, and producer. Born in Chicago, Patti grew up as a teenager in New Jersey, where she did her schooling and took an interest in jazz and poetry.

The New York Times called her the “Godmother of Punk” due to her contributions to the genre. 

In 2007, she got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

Related: For more girl rock singers like Patti, check out our post here.

5. Benny Goodman

“The King of Swing,” as he’s referred to more commonly, Benny Goodman was a renowned clarinetist and a bandleader.

He amassed huge popularity in the 1930s as he led the first band to perform at Carnegie Hall.

He credited a lot of his success, as a clarinetist, to his childhood mentor, Franz Schoepp, a member of the Chicago Symphony. 

In 1986, Goodman received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for his services to classical jazz.

6. Herbie Hancock

Born in Chicago, Illinois, Herbie Hancock began his love affair with music at a young age.

As an eleven-year-old, Herbie played a piano rendition of the Mozart concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and shocked everyone with his immense talent.

During his stint with trumpeter Donald Byrd’s group in New York City, Herbie toured alongside Jazz icon Miles Davis.

In an illustrious career that spanned five decades, he won 14 Grammy awards.

7. Alison Krauss (Union Station)

Alison Krauss began learning classical violin at age five and eventually transitioned into bluegrass.

She quickly came into her own as a fiddler and won the Illinois State Fiddling championship at 12.

She won her first Grammy award for only her third album, I’ve Got That Old Feeling.

Fast forward to 2012, Krauss was awarded her 24th Grammy for her album with the Union Station – the band that she shared numerous accolades with.

8. Donny Hathaway

A “soul legend,” as described by Rolling Stone magazine, Donny Hathaway was one of the biggest names in soul music at the start of the 1970s. 

In 1971, he collaborated with his Howard University classmate Roberta Flack and the two went on a golden run, producing hit after hit.

Despite his successful career, Hathaway struggled with mental health issues, as he was found dead at his New York house in 1979.

9. Peter Cetera (Chicago)

Peter Cetera, born in Illinois, was the lead singer for the famous pop/jazz-rock band Chicago.

During his stint with the band, he featured in 17 albums, three of which went platinum, and nearly all the rest went gold.

After leaving the group due to musical differences, Cetera went on to produce several Grammy-nominated albums.

His famous single, “Glory of Love,” from the sequel of the original Karate Kid, is still a fan favorite. 

10. Bob Corritore

Bob Corritore is a Chicago blues veteran and one of the most sought-after traditional blues harmonica players in the Industry.

Corritore completed a bachelor of business administration degree from the University of Tulsa and later pursued an informal education in music.

He got his big break at the age of 23 when he performed alongside the likes of Louis and Dave Myers.

Bob has received several accolades, including Blues Music Award and a nomination for a Grammy award. These days, Bob hosts his radio show, “Those London Blues,” on KZZ.

11. Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam)

Hailing from the small town of Evanston, Illinois, Eddie Vedder grew up to become the lead vocalist for the Seattle-based rock band Pearl Jam.

In 1994, Pearl Jam won a Grammy award for their hit single, Spin the Black Circle.

In 2007, Eddie made his solo debut with a movie soundtrack and found huge success, propelling his career to new heights.

He published his second solo album, Ukelele Songs, in 2011.

12. Ray Manzarek (The Doors)

Ray Manzarek, originally from Chicago, moved to Los Angeles in 1962 to study film at UCLA.

In 1965, Manzarek, along with singer Jim Morrison, guitarist Robbie Krieger, and drummer John Densmore formed the Doors.

As a group, the doors bagged numerous awards. In 1993, they got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Following a hard-fought battle with gallbladder cancer, the Doors keyboardist died in 2013.

13. Bruce Johnston (The Beach Boys)

Well-known as a guitarist and a keyboard player for the Beach Boys, Bruce Johnston was born on June 27, 1942, in Illinois.

Although he was born in Illinois, his family moved to LA, where he grew up and studied classical piano, playing gigs with local bands.

He released numerous albums and singles, all of which contributed to his success. Bruce had a notable career as a pop music artist and is popularly associated with The Beach Boys.

14. Curtis Mayfield

Curtis Mayfield was a self-taught guitarist, violinist, vocalist, songwriter, and music producer.

He started his music career with ‘The Impressions’ as a vocalist and guitarist and became the first African-American to establish his own music company.  In 1970, he left ‘The Impressions to work as a solo artist.

After an accident, his entire body below his neck became paralyzed. This incident didn’t halt his growth, as he continued to work and received the Grammy Award in 1995. 

15. Minnie Riperton

Minnie Riperton went to the Lincoln Center of Chicago to learn music and became an Opera singer.

At 15 years of age, she became associated with ‘The Gems’ as a lead vocalist.

In 1970, she released her solo album named ‘Come to my Garden.’ However, it was not a huge success.

Four years later, her album ‘Perfect Angel’ was released, it was co-produced by her husband and gained a massive amount of commercial success.

16. Robby Steinhardt

Robby Steinhardt was born in Chicago, where he worked as a violinist and vocalist for a rock band known as Kansas. However, he soon left the Kansas band to form his own group.

Between 1990-1996, Steinhardt worked for the Storm Bringer band. 

Moreover, in 2020, he started working on his solo album with Michael T. Franklin, which was released after his death in 2021.

17. Burl Ives

Burl Ives was an actor, singer, and radio person. Initially, he was a folk singer with his first hit song named ‘Lavender Blue’ in 1949.

Ives recorded albums for Encyclopedia Britannica Films. During his late 50s, he released a significant number of albums.

Later, his interest shifted to country music, as his country music gained a tremendous amount of success. He won a Grammy award for the best country western recording.

On April 14, 1995, he passed away due to oral cancer.

18. Jennifer Hudson

And finally, but by no means least, we have Jennifer Hudson who is a well-known singer and actress born in Chicago in 1981.

At the age of 7 years, she started singing for church choirs, and, as a teenager, she performed in musical theaters and local talent shows.

In 2001, Jennifer studied music at Kennedy King College, and eight years later, she received a grammy award for her Rhythm and Blues album.

During 2017-18, Jennifer performed as a coach in a television singing show known as ‘The Voice’. She is, to this date, making significant contributions to the music industry.

Summing Up Our List of Great Musicians From Illinois

While not the most world-famous state the United States has to offer, there have been quite a few notable musicians native to its borders.

Hopefully, now you have a deeper appreciation for these musicians and their histories.

If you noticed a prominent Illinois musician missing from our list, let us know!

Photo of author

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.