Among standard vocal ranges, tenor is widely considered the highest for a male singer. Men who sing tenor often can reach one octave above “middle C” without using their head voice (also known as falsetto).
In musical theater and opera, the story’s hero or main love interest is usually written for the leading tenor. Tenors can display a light, almost airy quality to flourish their songs with trills and other vocal tricks. Or, they can have a heavy sound with a gravitas that still reaches the highest notes.
And to celebrate these amazing singers, below is our list of 21 of the greatest and most famous tenor singers of all time. Let’s get started.
1. Luciano Pavarotti
Quite simply the most famous tenor in history is Luciano Pavarotti. He mixed a long career in the world’s most renowned opera houses with a hitmaker’s ability to perform pop music.
Fans called him the “King Of The High C’s” because he could reach that high note an octave above idle C without the vocal strain that others display.
Pavarotti was a part of “The Three Tenors” with Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo. They sang the National Anthem at the 1990 World Cup final before embarking on a series of concerts in Los Angeles and elsewhere.
He became almost synonymous with the Italian aria “Nessun Dorma” (The Lion Sleeps) among his dozens of recordings.
Related: Our list of the greatest opera singers.
2. Steve Perry
The most recognizable tenor voice in rock-n-roll history, Steve Perry was the lead singer of Journey from 1977 through 1987 where he sang a string of hit songs, including “Faithfully,” “Open Arms,” and “Lights.”
Perry was born in the small town of Hanford, California, to a Portuguese family. He kicked around Northern California for several years trying to start bands or sing in others before he landed with Journey.
During the next decade, Journey made eight albums, including Escape, which reached the top of the Billboard charts in 1981. They also provided the soundtrack for a Japanese movie entitled Dream After Dream.
Despite parting ways on less than amicable terms, Perry and his bandmates were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017.
3. Andrea Bocelli
Blind since the age of 12, Andrea Bocelli is famous in both opera and popular music circles.
He has sold more than 75 million records since 1994 when he won the Sanremo Music Festival in Italy and signed a major recording contract. Five years later, Bocelli won the Grammy for Best New Artist.
One of his most popular songs is “The Prayer.” He recorded it as a duet with Celine Dion for the animated movie Quest For Camelot. It won a Golden Globe for Best Original Song and was nominated for an Academy Award in the same category.
Bocelli has since toured the world numerous times, singing opera classics and popular songs to audiences.
Related: Most famous blind singers of all time.
4. Michael Jackson
Called “The King Of Pop” for his enormous success as a singer, songwriter, dancer, and performer, Michael Jackson’s album Thriller is still the greatest selling album of all time with more than 50 million copies sold worldwide. In all, Jackson has sold more than 400 million records.
His tenor voice soars in original songs such as “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and the title track, whose 15-minute video was a sensation in the early days of MTV (Music Television).
Jackson was born in Gary, Indiana, and gained initial acclaim as the youngest member of the Jackson 5.
Before his untimely death, he went on to win 15 Grammy awards and 13 of his songs reached #1 on the American pop charts.
5. Enrico Caruso
Before Luciano Pavarotti was born, the most recognizable tenor of all time was Enrico Caruso.
He gained his fame by becoming one of the first to embrace the new medium of audio recordings soon after Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. He made hundreds of recordings before his death.
Caruso was originally from Naples, Italy, and began singing professionally there. He was well-regarded for taking on the roles of Canio in “Pagliacci” and Duke in “Rigoletto.”
He spent his later years in New York City, where he sang many roles at the Metropolitan Opera and made records for the Victor Talking Machine Company.
Related: The most famous male opera singers.
6. Freddie Mercury
Mercury’s magnificent tenor highlighted signature songs like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “We Are The Champions,” “Under Pressure,” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”
Born in Zanzibar, Mercury’s family fled that country’s revolution in 1964 and landed in Middlesex, England. After attending boarding school and studying music, he helped form Queen and became its lead singer.
Mercury was one of the first and most famous artists to contract Acquired Immuno-deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), which was confirmed in 1987.
He ultimately died of complications from the disease in 1991. He has been posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll, Songwriters, and UK Music halls of fame.
Related: Our post on the most famous LGTBQ singers.
7. Luther Vandross
A rhythm and blues superstar with a mysterious, intimate, and soulful tenor voice, Luther Vandross used his pipes to express painful emotion.
Mariah Carey called it intimidating just to stand next to him when they recorded a cover of “Endless Love” in the mid-1990s.
He was well-known for providing the tenor vocals on other noted duets, such as “The Closer I Get to You” with Beyonce and “The Best Things In Life Are Free” with Janet Jackson.
Vandross earned eight Grammy Awards, including four for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.
8. Placido Domingo
Since he was 16, opera lovers have considered Placido Domingo one of the greatest in the world. He’s certainly also the busiest. Domingo began performing internationally in 1957 and has sung more than 150 operatic roles in the past 60-plus years.
In addition, Domingo sang several lead roles in operatic movies, where he displayed artistry in both singing and acting.
More recently, he has conducted many operas and served both the Washington National Opera and Los Angeles Opera as their general director.
Domingo gained more international fame when he joined Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras to sing the National Anthem for the 1990 World Cup Final. Known as “The Three Tenors,” they toured the world.
In 1996, he began to host an international singing competition, known as Operalia, for young performers. That competition has now been staged more than 25 times.
9. Art Garfunkel
The second half of the iconic American folk duet Simon & Garfunkel, Art Garfunkel is well-known for his extremely high vocal range and uncanny ability to create searing harmonies. Paul Simon might have written the music and lyrics, but it was Garfunkel who made them live.
The New York-based duo’s most influential song turned out to be the “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which allowed Garfunkel to display his tenor strength alone.
In addition, he has performed in movies and on the Broadway stage. Garfunkel earned eight Grammy awards during his long career and was an early inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
10. Sam Cooke
American singer Sam Cooke is one tenor whose life and career were cut short due to violence. Before he was tragically killed by the manager of a Los Angeles motel, Cooke was widely regarded as the “King Of Soul” thanks to his distinctive tenor range.
In a career that lasted less than a decade, he released several hit songs, including “Cupid,” “Chain Gang,” and “Twistin’ The Night Away.” In all, 29 Cooke songs reached the Billboard Top 40 charts.
Cooke was also well-known for his participation in the fight for civil rights alongside Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and football player Jim Brown.
Related: Read our list of famous soul singers here.
11. Jose Carreras
The youngest and vocally brightest of the Three Tenors, Jose Carreras began singing tenor at the age of 11 in his birthplace of Barcelona.
He has since performed approximately 70 tenor roles throughout the world. Although from Spain, Carreras is known for his well-regarded interpretations of Italian opera.
After a public bout with leukemia, Carreras returned to the stage to perform with Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo for the World Cup Finals in 1990. Two years later, he was music director of the 1992 Olympic Games in his hometown of Barcelona.
In the years since, Carreras has raised more than $70 million for leukemia awareness, treatment, and cure research through a foundation he set up in the mid-1990s.
Related: More famous singers from Spain.
12. Hugh Jackman
Known for a host of movie roles, including Wolverine, Hugh Jackman has been a leading man on the Broadway and musical theater stage for more than two decades.
He voiced the role of Jean Valjean in the movie adaptation of Les Miserables and reprised the role of Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man on Broadway.
Jackman has also been seen in Oklahoma!, Carousel, and The Boy from Oz. He has won two Tony Awards as well as Grammy, Emmy, and Golden Globe awards.
Queen Elizabeth II even appointed Jackman a Companion of the Order of Australia for his service to the performing arts.
13. Jonathan Groff
One of the youngest performers on our list, Jonathan Groff is a noted musical theater tenor, whose breakout role came in the 2006 original production of Spring Awakening. Groff received a Tony nomination for Best Actor in a Musical for that role when he was just 21.
In addition, he is known for originating the role of King George III in Hamilton, for which he was nominated for his second Tony award. Groff appeared on the cast recording of Hamilton, which won the Grammy award.
Children may know Groff as the voice of Kristoff and Sven in the Frozen movies. Older readers might recall that he had a recurring tenor role on the television series Glee from 2009 to 2015.
14. Smokey Robinson
William Robinson, more known as Smokey, founded two Motown groups: The Miracles and The Temptations.
His sweet tenor voice led to famous songs such as “My Girl” and “I Second That Emotion.” In the 1960s, Robinson produced more than 25 hit singles for his groups and other Motown artists.
Although he continued to perform as a member of the Temptations and as a solo artist, Robinson also worked as a Vice President of Motown Records under famed boss Berry Gordy.
These duties made it difficult for him to devote as much time to singing. Still, he wrote and produced numerous hit songs over the years for various singers and groups.
Robinson was one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.
15. Jussi Bjorling
Johan Jonatan Björling, popularly known as Jussi Björling, was born to sing. His parents were well-known singers in Sweden, which led to Björling being introduced to music at an early age.
Eventually, Björling grew up to become one of the world’s most eminent opera singers before World War II. By his 20th birthday, he had already debuted at the Royal Swedish Opera, where he eventually sang approximately 60 roles with the national opera company.
Björling’s talent took him all over the world. He headlined at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the San Francisco Opera, and the Chicago Opera numerous times between 1938 and 1941.
After World War II, he returned to American opera houses to perform and King Gustaf V of Sweden gave Björling the high honor of Royal Court Singer.
16. Robert Plant
Described by some as “The Greatest Voice In Rock,” Robert Plant was the lead singer of Led Zeppelin for the entirety of the band’s existence throughout the 1970s. That includes writing and singing the ultra-famous “Stairway To Heaven.”
During his heyday, Plant was known for his charismatic and stylish performances. He had curly blond hair and often performed bare-chested. With Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones and Roger Daltrey of The Who, Plant helped create a sort of Three Tenors of rock in the 1960s and 1970s.
Plant has enjoyed a long solo career in the years after Led Zeppelin’s breakup. He has also teamed with former bandmate Jimmy Page on occasion.
17. Marvin Gaye
Famed Motown singer and songwriter Marvin Gaye provided his tenor voice to classic pop hits “I Heard it Through The Grapevine” and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).”
He won two Grammys and is widely regarded as having performed one of the great renditions of the “Star-Spangled Banner” at the opening of the 1983 NBA All-Star Game.
Gaye was taken too soon when his father, Marvin Sr., fatally shot him during an argument in 1984. He was inducted into three music halls of fame and presented with the Grammy for lifetime achievement after his untimely passing.
18. George Michael
Another pop sensation from England, George Michael was a member of the successful group Wham! before he embarked on a long solo career.
His album Faith sold nearly 25 million copies and produced four hit singles: “Father Figure,” “One More Try,” “Monkey,” and the title track. Faith won the 1989 Grammy award for Album of the Year.
Two years later, he teamed up with Elton John to create the international hit duet “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me.” His duet of “I Knew You Were Waiting” with Aretha Franklin was also a smash hit.
Michael raised millions of dollars for AIDS research. He passed away of heart disease at age 53.
19. Mario Lanza
American singer and actor Mario Lanza was one of filmdom’s most known and respected tenors. He got his start as a performer at the age of 16 and appeared in several operas before signing a lucrative contract with MGM Studios.
His most notable film role was playing Enrico Caruso in The Great Caruso. The movie’s soundtrack provided Lanza with the opportunity to sell millions of records and get his hits on the radio.
Lanza died young, at only 38. This was attributed to his penchant for overeating and drinking alcohol. The role of Johnny Fontane in two Godfather movies was said to be based on the late tenor.
20. Frankie Valli
It’s rare to have a Broadway musical written about your life and artistry, but Frankie Valli is one of a select few.
The musical Jersey Boys was conceived and produced around his time as the frontman of the Four Seasons vocal group. His ultra-high falsetto voice was an unmistakable part of the group and helped him enjoy success during several solo endeavors.
The Four Seasons had a string of #1 songs in the 1960s and 1970s. They include “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like A Man,” and “December 1963 (Oh, What a Night).” As a solo artist, Valli’s hits include “Can’t Take My Eye Off Of You” and “Grease.”
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Valli’s quartet in 1990 and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame enshrined them nine years later.
21. Beniamino Gigli
Italian singer Beniamino Gigli is probably the least well-known operatic tenor on our list because he failed to record his singing in the early 1900s when he was at his peak. Nevertheless, he was well-regarded by those in the know.
Between 1914 and 1920, Gigli debuted at Italian opera houses such as Las Scala, Palermo, Naples, and Rome. He performed internationally in far-flung places such as Buenos Aires, Argentina, and New York City.
Gigli acquired a degree of infamy in his later career after he recorded the anthem “Giovinezza” for Italian dictator Benito Mussolini during World War II.
After the end of the war, he continued to sing in concerts and operas throughout the world. He also appeared in about two dozen movies as an actor.
Summing Up Our List Of The Greatest Tenors
When you think of tenors, your thoughts might automatically conjure up images of theatrical operas sung by archetypes like Luciano Pavarotti.
Yet, as this list shows, the tenor range is not confined to the world of classical music. After all, many bands and popular acts employ tenors to sing their songs with the sort of gravitas necessary to deliver incredible music.
This list of 21 tenors showcases the variety of talented artists categorized as tenors. Some might be surprising, but their talent is without question.