18 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Singers Of All Time

Each year, thousands of singers all over the world set out for stardom. However, only a handful actually catch that big break, and even fewer will become household names.

Those who do reach the stars leave a legacy important to music history, helping to influence up-and-coming musicians. Without their contribution, the industry would not be the same as it is now.

From Taylor Swift to Nat King Cole, here are 18 of the greatest and most famous singers to ever grace the stage. Read on!

1. Whitney Houston

With a career spanning over three decades, Whitney Houston is one of the most successful singers of all time. Before she made it onto the big stage, she was wowing audiences by singing in the gospel choir at church.

Houston’s eponymous first album debuted in 1985 and contained plenty of hit R&B singles like “Saving All My Love for You,” which also earned the singer her first Grammy.

In the 1990s, Houston ventured into the movie business and starred in The Bodyguard with Kevin Costner, and she recorded her biggest hit “I Will Always Love You” for the soundtrack of the movie.

While Houston continued to win Grammys and make big hits, her personal life, wasn’t such a big success. Despite her attempts to turn things around with new music, Houston passed away in 2012 by accidental drowning.

2. Mariah Carey

Having sold over 200 million records, Mariah Carey is one of the best-selling music artists. Along with five Grammy awards, she’s also had 18 different Billboard #1 singles, which is more than any other solo artist.

During the 1980s and ‘90s, Carey was able to collaborate with other R&B and hip-hop singers, including Whitney Houston and Boyz II Men, and released several hits. She also crafted one of her most prolific songs, “All I Want For Christmas Is You.”

However, it wasn’t until her 11th studio album that Carey became the #2 solo artist for chart-topping singles, even surpassing Elvis Presley. Beyond her success on the charts, Carey also became a judge on American Idol in 2013 and came out with her own memoir in 2020.

3. Freddie Mercury

Born in Zanzibar, Freddie Mercury spent most of his early years in boarding school until his family fled to London in 1964. A few years later, he joined a couple of bands until he eventually created Queen with his bandmates.

Queen began to gain traction with their third album, Sheer Heart Attack, which fused hard rock with glam rock. Their fourth album contained “Bohemian Rhapsody,” one of Queen’s biggest hits, and Mercury gained a reputation as a lavish showman.

One interesting fact about Mercury is that he was born with four extra teeth. Not only did this give him a bucktooth grin, but the singer believed it was responsible for his impressive vocal range, so he never had the extra teeth taken out.

While Queen continued to see more success with hits like “We Are the Champions,” Mercury ultimately passed away from AIDS-related pneumonia in 1991.

4. Louis Armstrong

Born in 1901 in New Orleans, Louisiana, Louis Armstrong learned to play the coronet perfectly while he was detained in the Colored Waif’s Home for boys when he was a teen.

A few years after his release, a chance meeting had him join Joe “King” Oliver’s band. His three years tenure with King resulted in him emerging as one of the most in-demand cornetists in town.

Armstrong was also an exceptional composer. He wrote more than fifty songs. His first big hit, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” helped him secure a role in his first Broadway musical.

Most of his songs have since emerged as jazz standards. He had 31 song chart appearances, and some of his biggest hits included “What a Wonderful World” and “Hello, Dolly.”

Unfortunately, his later years were plagued with health issues that sidelined his performances, and Armstrong passed in his sleep in 1971.

5. Frank Sinatra

Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1915, Frank Sinatra became a singer after being inspired watching Bing Crosby. After singing at local nightclubs, he joined the band Dorsey and played with them for two years before deciding to pursue a solo career.

Some of Sinatra’s biggest hits included “Strangers in the Night” and “My Way,” and his fame even allowed him to perform at the White House.

Along with creating some chart-topping singles with his jazzy, baritone voice, Sinatra also dipped his toe into the world of acting. He starred in films like Higher and Higher and even won awards for his performance in The House I Live In.

Sinatra’s career in show business ultimately spanned more than half a century by the time he passed due to a heart attack. However, his legacy lives on in the 59 studio albums he released.

6. Madonna

Queen of Pop Madonna Louise Ciccone has certainly made her mark on the music world by selling more than 300 million records, although she had humble beginnings in Michigan.

After dropping out of college, Madonna briefly worked as a showgirl before becoming the lead singer and drummer of the pop-punk band Breakfast Club. Eventually, she ventured out on her own, and her first hit as a solo artist, “Everybody,” topped the dance charts.

While her first album had a few hits, Madonna’s rise to fame was solidified with her second album, Like a Virgin. The song also included a controversial music video, and she used this momentum to push even more social boundaries with “Like a Prayer.”

Beyond her music, Madonna’s erotic book Sex would become the best-selling coffee-table book ever, and the star even managed to snag roles on both the big screen and the London West End stage.

7. Beyoncé

“Single Ladies” singer Beyoncé Knowles’ career began as a member of the R&B group Destiny’s Child in the late 1990s. They quickly became one of the most prolific R&B acts, with smash hits like “Say My Name.”

While she was playing with the group, Beyoncé began exploring solo success as an artist. She later released her debut album, Dangerously in Love, in 2003. It became a commercial success, selling over eight million copies worldwide.

Beyoncé has released several successful albums throughout her career, including B’Day and I Am… Sasha Fierce. She has also had many hit singles, including “Crazy in Love” and “Run the World (Girls).”

When her sixth album, Lemonade, debuted at #1 on the charts, Beyoncé became the first artist to have all her albums reach the top of the music charts. She has also earned an impressive 28 Grammy awards throughout her career.

8. Taylor Swift

A talented singer-songwriter, Taylor Swift began writing her own songs as early as the age of twelve. At 16, she landed her first record deal, with her first single, “Tim McGraw,” hitting #10 on the country music charts.

Swift started winning awards with her second album, Fearless, and she even became the youngest artist to ever win Grammy Album of the Year.

Her next couple of albums were departures from her country music style, but after her first six albums got sold by the record label, Swift decided to re-record those albums, starting with her hit “Love Story,” from the Fearless album. 

Swift has seen even more success with re-recordings, and after her album Folklore won Album of the Year at the Grammys, she became the first female solo artist to win the award three times.

9. Justin Bieber

Born in Canada, Justin Bieber got his first taste of fame when he went viral on YouTube and signed a record deal with Usher. His first smash hit, “Baby,” broke into the Top 10 on Billboard, and he even became the first solo artist with four singles in the Top 40 before the release of a debut album.

Bieber’s first album, My World, ended up going platinum, and although the pop star faced no shortage of backlash, he continued to break records—he was featured on “Despacito” in 2017, which broke the record for the longest time in the Top 100’s #1 spot.

Beiber has also become the youngest artist to have seven albums reach the Top 200, and has since cleaned up his bad-boy persona from the early 2010s.

10. Adele Laurie Adkins

Throughout her career as a solo artist, Adele Laurie Adkins has collected a whopping 15 Grammy records. She credits her musical awakening as a teenager to listening to Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald.

After graduating from performing arts school, Adele posted some demos to MySpace. This gained the attention of XL Recordings, and she signed her first record deal.

Adele’s first album, 19, had “Chasing Pavements.” This song cemented her fame, and the album 21 only included even more smash hits.

After “Rolling in the Deep” and “Someone Like You” became chart-toppers, Adele became one of the few artists to ever achieve the milestone of having two Top 5 singles and Top 5 albums at the same time.

In between releases for her other albums, 25 and 30, Adele recorded music for the soundtrack of a James Bond movie and gave birth to her first child in 2012.

11. Ella Fitzgerald

First Lady of Song Ella Fitzgerald was born in 1917. She is considered as one of jazz’s greatest singers and highly recognized for her purity of tone, flawless diction, phrasing, timing, intonation, and impeccable ability, precisely in her scat singing.

She made her first recording, “Love and Kisses,” when she was 17, and her song “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” became her first hit. Her biggest hit, however, is the song “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” the single version featuring Louis Armstrong.

She has won 14 Grammy awards throughout her music career and was also awarded a Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievement and the National Medal of Arts.

In 1993, she was diagnosed with chronic diabetes, which led to her death in 1996. By this time, Fitzgerald was already recognized as one of the best-selling jazz vocal recording artists in history.

12. Billie Holiday

American jazz artist and swing music singer Billie Holiday was born in 1915 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States. She first came into the limelight in the 1930s with a distinct style and refurbished the conventions of contemporary swinging and performance.

During her adolescence, she spent most of her time singing with the records of iconoclasts Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. Some of her best songs include “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Billie’s Blues,” and “Them Their Eyes”; however, her biggest hit, “Carelessly,” trended at #1 on the charts.

Despite her thriving career as a jazz singer, Holiday lost her battle with drug addiction in 1959, although her legacy has lived on—she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, and her autobiography was made into the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues.

13. Tony Bennett 

Born in 1926, Anthony Dominick Benedetto, popularly known as Tony Bennett, is a renowned American jazz singer based in the United States. He pursued music at the New York High School of Industrial Arts but later dropped out at 16.

In the initial stages of his music career, Bennett got his inspiration from Judy Garland, and Louis Armstrong, among others. He has made recordings with renowned jazz musicians throughout his music journey, some of the collaborations giving birth to new albums.

Today, Bennett is most associated with his biggest hit, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” He has sold more than 50 million records globally and was honored with a lifetime achievement award from ASCAP and the United Nations with its citizen of the global award.

Even approaching his 90th birthday, Bennett continued to win awards for his music, especially when collaborating with Lady Gaga on Cheek to Cheek in 2014.

14. Celine Dion

Born in a musical family, Celine Dion started performing when she was still a toddler. By the age of 12, she had her first record deal. Dion released nine award-winning French albums by the time she was 18 and decided to create her first English album, Unison.

However, she cemented her fame when she recorded the theme song for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in 1992, which earned her a Grammy. She would go on to perform at the Olympic Games and record “My Heart Will Go On” for the Titanic film.

After receiving the honorable National Order of Quebec from Canada in 1998, Dion was on and off the stage for the next several years so she could focus on her family, her late husband, and her own health struggles.

15. Barbra Streisand

Our next singer, Barbra Streisand, may have gone on to win eight Grammy awards and sell over 140 million records, but her origins as a singer were humble.

Streisand began her career as a nightclub singer in the early 1960s and then had a major debut in Broadway’s I Can Get it For You Wholesale. From there, she released several successful albums throughout her career, including The Barbra Streisand Album (1964), Color Me Barbra (1966), and A Star Is Born (1976).

She has also had many hit singles, including “The Way We Were,” “Woman in Love,” and “Evergreen.” Outside of music, Streisand also experimented on the big screen with her show My Name is Barbra.

Her success in the music industry, Broadway, and film has made Streisand one of only fourteen people to collect an Emmy, Oscar, Grammy, and Tony award.

16. Michael Jackson

Beginning as a member of the Jackson Five in the late ’60s, Michael Jackson later signed a solo record deal with Epic Records, and his first hit album came in 1979 with Off the Wall.

Jackson went on to release several successful albums throughout his career, including Thriller (1982), Bad (1987), and Dangerous (1991). He also had many hit singles, like “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Black or White.” Thriller still holds the title of the best-selling album of all time.

Right before a comeback career in 2009, Jackson died after suffering cardiac arrest. By this time, though, he had collected thirteen Grammy awards and sold over 750 million records, making him one of the world’s best-selling artists of all time.

17. Eartha Kitt

In 1927, Eartha Kitt was born in South Carolina. She and her family eventually relocated to New York City. At the age of 16, she joined her dance troupe at Katherine Dunham.

She toured with the group and sang in clubs, but fame came when she appeared in the Broadway review, New Faces of 1952. The next year, she released the song “Santa Baby,” which emerged at #4 on the US charts.

She went on to release more songs, including “Love for Sale,” “I want to Be Evil,” and “Folks Tales of the Tribes of Africa.” These hits earned her a Grammy nomination, but Kitt also became a household name after she made it to the big screen when she starred in St. Louis Blues with Nat King Cole. 

Despite Kitt’s impressive work ethic that had her working well into her 70s, the singer passed away from colon cancer in 2008.

18. Nat King Cole

Popularly known as Nat King Cole, Nathaniel Adams Coles was a legendary African American singer, jazz pianist, and actor. He was born in 1919 in Montgomery, Alabama, United States, and grew up in Chicago.

While working for a club, he was asked to form a band by the owner. Cole put together the King Cole Trio, and this was when Cole made it onto the music charts for the first time.

After the Trio, Cole pursued a solo career. He was well-known worldwide for his soft baritone voice and singles such as “The Christmas Song,” “Mona Lisa,” and “Nature Boy.”

He also made history in 1956 to be the first African American performer to host their own variety show, and although he continued to have more roles on the big screen, Cole was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1965 and succumbed to the disease soon after.

Summing Up Our List Of the Greatest Singers Of All Time

Despite the many singers that pop up on the radio and streaming platforms, not all will earn a spot in the history books.

However, those we have selected managed to become household names with impressive legacies.

Their music continues to live on and has inspired those who listen to their songs and who follow in their footsteps. Because of these greats, we will never have a shortage of aspiring music artists. 

Photo of author
Written by Laura Macmillan
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.