The 1960s were an iconic decade for music. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan all hailed from this era and produced some of the most famous songs of all time.
These singers, and many more, defined the sound of the ’60s, setting the stage for future generations of musicians.
From soul singers to country crooners, join us for a trip down memory lane as we look at 21 of the most famous singers of the ’60s. Let’s get started.
1. Elvis Presley
Top of the list, we have Elvis Presley. He began his music career when he moved to Memphis at age 13. However, it wasn’t until his rockabilly “Heartbreak Hotel” hit the charts and sold 10 million copies at age 21 that he started his reign as the King of Rock and Roll.
Presley was so popular he was met by crazed fans everywhere he went. His provocative performance style had parents worrying about the morality of American youth.
In the 1960s, Presley focused a great deal on his film career, releasing two or three per year. He released seven albums during that decade, with many songs crossing over to country, R&B, and adult contemporary charts in the US and around the world.
His hit “Are you Lonesome Tonight?” was #1 for six weeks and was his most popular song of the decade, although he had five other #1 hits in the ’60s too.
2. Ray Charles
A unique singer in his own right, Ray Charles was first discovered when he began performing in a band with friends after moving to Seattle at age 18. Although he was blind, he never saw it as a musical impairment.
Charles was a pioneer of the soul music genre, and Quincy Jones called him “the Genius of Soul.” Charles was a crossover success in the 1960s, combining the sounds of country, R&B, and pop music. His two albums, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, both went Gold in 1962.
During the 1960s, Charles still encountered a lot of the same segregation that he had endured growing up in the south. However, he managed to influence singers from Billy Joel to Elvis and Sinatra.
3. Brenda Lee
Nicknamed Little Miss Dynamite, Brenda Lee got her start as a child performer at ten. By 12, she was singing at the Grand Ole Opry and Vegas. She got her big break with her song “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” in 1958 when she was only 13 years old.
Lee’s signature song, “I’m Sorry,” became her second biggest hit in 1960 when she was 15, and she began being compared to Judy Garland. During her earliest years, she toured with stars like Patsy Cline, Mel Tillis, and George Jones.
Lee had 47 songs hit the US charts during the 1960s. Elvis, Ray Charles, and the Beatles were the only artists and groups to surpass this feat. Her musical career ultimately spanned five decades.
4. Aretha Franklin
Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin first toured with her father’s traveling revival show as a child prodigy gospel singer and pianist. While traveling, she befriended gospel greats like Mahalia Jackson and Sam Cooke.
Franklin was only 18 when she first signed a deal with Columbia Records, which released her first album Aretha in 1961.
Her first two Grammy awards came in from her powerful cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” which hit #1 on both the pop and R&B charts.
Franklin dominated the charts in the 1960s, and as a symbol of black empowerment in the civil rights movement, she was asked to sing at Martin Luther King’s funeral.
Related: See where Franklin is in our best soul singers list here.
5. Jimi Hendrix
Guitar legend Jimi Hendrix had a difficult childhood, so music became a sanctuary for him. He got his first guitar at age 16 and soon began performing with his own band. In the early 1960s, he began playing backup for performers like Little Richard and B.B. King.
In 1966, he went to London, where he formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience band. Fans were awed by his stage presence, innovative electric guitar skills, and experimental sound.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience released “Hey Joe” in 1967, which was an instant hit in Britain. They soon followed up with “Purple Haze” and others.
Hendrix won over American music fans at the Monterey Pop Festival, where he lit his guitar on fire. His performance at the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival is also legendary.
Sadly, he passed away in 1970 at age 27 from a drug-related incident.
Related: Learn about other musical artists who died at 27 here.
6. Roy Orbison
The Caruso of Rock Roy Orbison received his first guitar at 6 and created his first band when he was 13. He opened for the Beatles in 1964, receiving 14 encores.
His stage presence might have been lacking, but as Elvis put it, Orbison’s three-octave voice made him “the greatest singer in the world.”
Orbison recorded “Only the Lonely” in 1960 after Elvis and the Everly Brothers turned it down. It came to be considered pivotal to the development of rock music. His persona and lyrics were so popular because they were vulnerable when most other artists of the time were masculine.
He had nine top-10 hits and ten top-40 hits between 1960 and 1965. However, after losing his wife and two oldest sons between 1966 and 1968, he didn’t generate hits again until the ‘80s.
7. Patsy Cline
Country singer Patsy Cline had been performing on local radio stations and entering singing contests for nearly a decade before her 1957 television breakthrough performance of “Walking After Midnight.”
In the early 1960s, she joined the cast of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. She also performed with Johnny Cash, June Carter, and George Jones. She was famously supportive of other country singers like Loretta Lynn, helping to launch their careers.
Cline’s career spanned only eight years before her life was cut short in 1963 after the plane she was in crashed, which also killed other country artists. Amazingly, from the start of the decade up to 1963, she had seven pop-country crossover hits, including “I Fall to Pieces” and “Crazy.”
8. Johnny Cash
One of the best-selling music artists of all time, Johnny Cash, began writing songs at age 12. He taught himself guitar in the military and started playing live shows with friends.
As a part of the Tennessee Three, Cash begged for an audition with Sun Records. Sun didn’t like their gospel-driven songs but agreed to record their original songs, which hit the Billboard charts in 1955.
By the early ‘60s, Cash was a country superstar. He often performed with June Carter, who helped write his signature song, “Ring of Fire.”
His personal life spiraled out of control as his career took off, but he regained traction after his marriage to Carter in 1968.
Nicknamed Man in Black because of his all-black ensemble when performing, Cash’s career spanned fifty years. He sold over 90 million records, released 81 albums, and had 170 singles, with 13 #1 hits. Five of those #1 hits came in the 1960s.
9. Bob Dylan
Ten-time Grammy Award winner Bob Dylan began performing folk and country songs at local cafés as a student at the University of Minnesota.
In 1960, he dropped out of college and moved to New York, where he became a regular at the coffee shops and folk clubs of Greenwich Village. After one of these performances in 1961, he received a rave review in the New York Times.
He released his first album in 1962 and was playing 200 concerts per year by 1964.
He was influenced by Woody Guthrie, and many of his songs were politically charged. His top songs of the 1960s included “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”
He also published eight books featuring paintings and drawings, which have been shown in art galleries across the world.
10. Janis Joplin
Early in the ’60s, Janis Joplin began her career performing various gigs at folk and music festivals.
In 1966, she became the lead singer of a rock band called Big Brother and the Holding Company. After their 1968 album Cheap Thrills became a hit, she parted ways from the group.
She then launched her solo career with a historic performance at Woodstock. She became known for her powerful, gravely, blues-inspired voice and unrestrained sexual style.
In her brief career from 1962 to 1970, she had five Billboard Hot 100 rock singles, most peaking after her drug overdose death in 1970. She recorded four albums, which sold over 18.5 million copies. Her most recognizable songs are “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Piece of My Heart.”
11. Marvin Gaye
Prince of Soul Marvin Gaye singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist in the R&B, soul, gospel, funk, and jazz genres. He began singing in his father’s church and with a group called the New Moonglows in the 1950s. It was with this group that he caught the attention of Motown Records.
He was also known as the Prince of Motown for helping create the 1960s Motown sound, and during the decade, he showcased his musical range with everything from dance hits to duets with singers like Diana Ross and Tammi Terrell.
Gaye’s first solo top-40 hit was “Hitch Hike” in 1962, and in 1968, his song “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” hit #1 in the Billboard Top 100 chart and stayed there for seven weeks.
12. James Brown
Godfather of Soul James Brown got his musical start in an R&B vocal group called the Famous Flames. Their demo tape impressed a talent scout for King Records, and their first song reached #6 on the R&B charts in 1956. They opened for legends like B.B. King and Ray Charles.
The Godfather of Soul’s career spanned over 50 years. However, he recorded his most enduring and popular singles in the 1960s. One of his most recognizable songs of the 1960s is “I Got You (I Feel Good),” released in 1965.
Throughout his career, Brown had 17 singles reach the top of the Billboard R&B charts, and he also holds the record for the most singles on the Billboard Hot 100 that didn’t reach #1.
Related: Learn about other Taurus singers like James Brown here.
13. Sam Cooke
Our next singer, Sam Cooke started out as the lead vocalist for the gospel band the Soul Stirrers at age 15. He developed a following through his recordings with the group and first branched out into a secular solo career in 1957 under the pseudonym Dale Cooke.
In 1960, he signed with RCA and had hit after hit with songs like “Chain Gang” and “Twistin’ the Night Away.” His blend of sensuality, spirituality, soul, and movie-star good looks rocketed him to fame.
His refusal to perform for a segregated audience was one of the first civil disobedience efforts in the 1960s civil rights movement. Sadly, his career and life were cut short when he was shot in a clash with a hotel manager in 1964.
14. Bobby Vinton
When Bobby Vinton was 16, he formed a band that played in clubs around Pittsburgh, which helped fund his college music education. The band appeared on TV Talent Scouts, which resulted in them landing a contract with Epic Records.
Vinton was also known as the Polish Prince since his music honored his Polish heritage.
He had four #1 hits during the 1960s. His most famous song was a cover of “Blue Velvet,“ which reached #1 in 1963 on the Billboard Hot 100. His three other #1 hits were “Roses Are Red (My Love)” (1962), “There! I’ve Said It Again” (1963), and “Mr. Lonely” (1964),
Today, he continues to headline in Atlantic City, Las Vegas, and around the world.
15. Dusty Springfield
An icon of the Swinging Sixties, Dusty Springfield first started performing with her brother Dion, forming the Springfields in the early 1960s.
Their style combined folk and pop, and they had several top-five British hits starting in 1962. Their popularity crossed over to the US charts with their song “Silver Threads and Golden Needles.”
Springfield launched her solo career in 1963, becoming a fixture on pop charts around the world with numerous hits. Interestingly, only “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” hit #1 during the decade (and only in the UK).
The peak of her success came in 1969 with the album Dusty in Memphis, which featured a sound deeply influenced by early 1960s black singers and included the song “Son of a Preacher Man.” The song had a second round of popularity in 1994 after featuring in the film Pulp Fiction.
Related: Did you know Springfield was also a lesbian? Learn about other gay women singers here.
16. Diana Ross
As a teen in the 1960s, Diana Ross began singing with friends in an R&B and pop trio that eventually became known as the Supremes and then later Diana Ross and the Supremes. Motown Records signed them, and they first reached #1 in 1961 with “Where Did Our Love Go?”
With the Supremes, Ross was part of a group with the most Billboard chart-toppers in history, like “You Can’t Hurry Love” and “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.”
Ross left the Supremes to start a solo career in 1969. Ultimately, 27 of her singles reached the Billboard Top 40, including “Aint’ No Mountain High Enough.”
She’s been nominated for a Grammy 12 times and continues touring today.
Referred to as the Goddess of Pop, Cher started out dancing and singing in small clubs along Hollywood’s Sunset Strip and introducing herself to everyone in the music business. In 1962, she met Sonny Bono, who helped her get work as a backup singer for acts like the Ronettes.
She eventually married Bono, who often joined her onstage to sing harmony to help her with stage fright. Their best song was “I Got You Babe,” which reached #1 in 1965.
Meanwhile, Cher was releasing her own solo work, competing with and eventually eclipsing her work with Bono. By the end of the 1960s, their relationship unraveled. Despite this, Cher continued recording. Her biggest hit came in 1998 with the song “Believe.” She attempted retirement in 2005, but it only lasted three years.
18. Stevie Wonder
Blind from infancy, Stevie Wonder was indeed a child wonder. By the time he was 10, he had taught himself to play the harmonica, drums, and piano. He was only 11 when a member of the Motown band the Miracles discovered him and got him a record deal.
In 1962, at age 12, he released his debut album, along with a cover tribute to Ray Charles. That same year, his song “Fingertips” reached #1 on both the Hot 100 chart and the R&B chart, and “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” hit #3 in 1965.
Wonder faced the difficulty of staying relevant as he stopped being a boy wonder and developed into a man. However, he’s probably best known for “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” which he released in 1984.
19. Otis Redding
Another soul legend, Otis Redding joined Little Richard’s former band, the Upsetters, in the late 1950s. By 1960, he’d moved to Los Angeles to release singles. His song “These Arms of Mine” rose to #20 on the R&B charts in 1963.
Redding became known as the King of Soul for his energy in the studio, magnetic stage presence, and sincerity on stage.
He influenced many other singers of the 1960s and continues to influence artists into the present.
Sadly, Redding didn’t live to see his 1967 recording “The Dock of the Bay” reach #1 on the pop and R&B charts. He was only 26 when he died in a plane crash that year.
Second to last, we have Donovan, who got his start in the folk scene at local Scottish clubs. He got a contract with Pye Records in London after sending a 10-track demo tape.
It included his first single, “Catch the Wind,” which was influenced by Woody Guthrie, and some even called him a Bob Dylan clone at first.
By 1966, Donovan had shed his Dylan/Guthrie persona to become one of the first counterculture British pop musicians. He became more creative in his music, immersing himself in blues, jazz, and Eastern music.
Donovan’s biggest hit, “Sunshine Superman,” was released in 1966 and went Gold. He became an international success and hasn’t stopped producing music, with his last single released in 2021 for his 75th birthday.
21. Van Morrison
Last on our list is Van Morrison. He formed the first of several childhood bands in Ireland at the age of 12. By the time he was 17, he was touring Europe with his group, the International Monarchs.
They released their first recording in Germany in 1963. He then went on to perform with the rock band Them, who had three chart hits in 1964 and 1965.
In 1967, Morrison launched his solo career in New York. His song “Brown Eyed Girl” spent sixteen weeks on the charts. In fact, in 2015, it was rated as the most-downloaded song of the 1960s.
The song has been listed as #21, 49, and 110 on VH1, MTV, and Rolling Stone magazine lists, respectively, of the best pop or rock songs of all time.
Summing Up Our list Of Famous ’60s Singers
As evidenced in the list above, the 1960s were home to some of the most famous singers in music history.
The decade gave birth to many genres that crossed racial and cultural boundaries. There was something for everyone, including the groovy bass of singing groups, the hip-gyrating sounds of rock and roll, or the sad ballads of country artists.
We hope you enjoyed learning about famous singers from the 1960s. However, this list is just the tip of the iceberg of all the amazing vocalists active in the decade.
Who did we miss off our list? Let us know, and we’ll add them in!