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Most Influential Black Musicians: 20 Great Artists Who Changed Music
List & Guides

Most Influential Black Musicians: 20 Great Artists Who Changed Music

From Aretha Franklin to Prince and Miles Davis, the most influential black musicians of all time have made the music world what it is today.

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The roots of pop, jazz, soul, R&B, hip-hop, gospel, house, folk and disco music can all be traced to black musicians. So many of today’s most popular genres, trends and artists just wouldn’t exist without the work of the most influential black musicians of the 20th century, all of whom helped lay the groundwork for music as we know and love it today.

This list of the 20 most influential black musicians of all time ranges from Aretha Franklin to Prince and Miles Davis, but it is just a small selection of the hundreds of black artists, singers, musicians and producers who have shaped popular culture.

20: Frankie Knuckles (1955-2014)

New York City native and Chicago house legend Frankie Knuckles is often referred to as The Godfather Of House Music – a big title, but one that highlights the impact of his career. His production techniques and use of “peaks and valleys” helped influence the EDM scene as well as all subgenres of electronic music while also influencing pop acts such as Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. Knuckles passed away in 2014, but he remains an underappreciated influence not just on electronic music, but also on popular music as we know it today.

Must hear: Frankie Knuckles Presents Your Love

19: Gregory Coleman (1944-2006)

One of the most influential black musicians you’ve never heard of (though have certainly heard), Gregory Coleman never received the critical praise he deserved, passing away in 2006 with his influence relatively unknown. While his work as a drummer with The Winstons may be overlooked, the six-second drum break he played in the middle of their 1969 track Amen, Brother will be instantly recognisable to music fans around the world, and has become one of the most-sampled drum breaks across hip-hop, drum’n’bass and jungle music. N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton is one of the most notable tracks to loop it, with The Prodigy, David Bowie, Oasis, Chase And Status and more also using the “Amen break”. In 2015, music fans joined together to raise £24,000 for Richard Spencer, the frontman of The Winstons, who had received no royalties from the thousands of samples over the years, despite owning the copyright for the original track.

Must hear
: Amen, Brother

18: Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996)

With the nicknames Queen Of Jazz and The First Lady Of Song, Ella Fitzgerald is among the most influential black musicians of jazz’s golden age. Born in 1917, Fitzgerald made her start touring with the famous Chick Webb Orchestra, with whom she made a name for herself before going solo. Fitzgerald was one of the first female jazz artists to break through in America, and hits such as Dream A Little Dream Of Me and It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) are timeless classics. During her career she collaborated with the likes of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, and her music has influenced 21st-century singers, Lana Del Rey, Lady Gaga and Adele among them.

Must hear: It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)

17: Sam Cooke (1931-1964)

Hailed as The King Of Soul, Sam Cooke was one of the first music superstars, his remarkable vocal performances helping to move soul music into the mainstream. Cooke would inspire many acts during his career, including the likes of Al Green, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder. Today he is perhaps best known for his powerful song A Change Is Gonna Come: first released in 1964, it became one of the defining tracks of the civil-rights movement in the US and has inspired covers by everyone from Otis Redding to Aretha Franklin, including a version by UK soul singer Mica Paris on her 2020 album, Gospel.

Must hear: A Change Is Gonna Come

16: Nina Simone (1933-2003)

Nina Simone brought warmth, intensity and emotion to every song that she sang during her time in the spotlight. Singles such as I Put A Spell On You and Feeling Good demonstrated her enchanting and soulful voice, which was ever present in the 40-plus years she was active. Though her contributions to music have sometimes been overshadowed by those from other iconic artists, her status as one of the most influential black musicians in history is assured: female singers such as Beyoncé, Madonna and Sade have emphasised how much they have been influenced by Nina Simone, while rappers Kanye West, Jay-Z and Lil Wayne have often interpolated samples from Simone’s music into their songs.

Must hear: Mississippi Goddam

15: Marvin Gaye (1939-1984)

Marvin Gaye is one of the true icons of the R&B scene. His classic 1973 album, Let’s Get It On, is filled with soulful rhythms, while 1971’s What’s Going On is an incredible work that continues to speak to political injustice. From questioning the American war in Vietnam (What’s Happening Brother) to discussing entrenched societal racism (Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)), the album’s influence on modern-day hip-hop artists like Common or Kendrick Lamar is clear to see, while the mid-2010s court case between Gaye’s estate and singer Robin Thicke became one of the biggest copyright lawsuits of recent years, further highlighting Marvin Gaye’s standing as one of the most influential black musicians of all time.

Must hear: What’s Going On

14: Billie Holiday (1915-1959)

Known as Lady Day, Billie Holiday was one of 20th-century music’s first icons. Holiday’s singing style was unique, as she treated her voice like an instrument, often changing the tempo and delivery of words to great effect. Strange Fruit, released in 1939, remains her best-known track and would become strongly connected to the civil-rights movement that followed in the decades after.

Must hear: Strange Fruit

13: Grandmaster Flash (1958-)

It’s near impossible to spotlight just one single figure who revolutionised hip-hop music. DJs, rappers and producers like Dr Dre, The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur, Afrika Bambaataa and Rakim all deserve their dues for helping shape the genre into what it is today, but for the purposes of this list of the most influential black musicians, we’re highlighting Joseph Saddler, more commonly known as Grandmaster Flash. His pioneering work in the 70s and 80s – which included inventing the scratching technique – helped lay the groundwork for all the hip-hop artists who followed. Featuring seven minutes of incredible rapping over a funk-infused beat, the 1982 cut The Message, released by Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five, remains one of the greatest hip-hop tracks of all time. And it had a message, too, pushing hip-hop into realms of social commentary. In 2007, the group became the first hip-hop collective to be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.

Must hear: The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash And The Wheels Of Steel

12: Michael Jackson (1958-2009)

One of the most influential black musicians in any genre, Michael Jackson’s impact is undeniable – though his later career was dogged by controversy. Jackson started out with his brothers in the Motown act Jackson 5, before going solo and releasing timeless albums such as the R&B-infused Off The Wall and more traditional pop records the likes of Thriller and Bad. Throughout his life, Jackson was always at the forefront of musical trends, and he redefined the music video format with Thriller, which remains one of the best music videos of all time. His discography more than earns him the title of King Of Pop.

Must hear: Thriller

11: Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970)

With his headline performance at 1969’s Woodstock Festival, Jimi Hendrix showed the whole world that he was one of the best guitarists of all time, cementing his place among the world’s most influential black musicians in the process. His improvisational ability and pioneering studio techniques helped define psychedelic rock while also influencing the future of blues music. Songs such as Purple Haze and Hey Joe remain spellbinding listens; it is heartbreaking to think that his career lasted less than five years, due to his premature death, in 1970, aged 27.

Must hear: Voodoo Child (Slight Return)

10: Bob Marley (1945-1981)

Without a doubt the most famous reggae singer ever, Bob Marley took the world by storm in the 60s and 70s. As leader of The Wailers, his music was not just passionate, groove-filled and catchy to listen to, it also carried real-world messages. Such songs as Get Up, Stand Up and Redemption Song helped to spread a message of unity and peace in divided times, as Marley taught the world about the Rastafarian movement. Continuing to inspire generation after generation, they remain as relevant now as they did upon first release.

Must hear: Get Up, Stand Up

9: Prince (1958-2016)

Prince is one of the most diverse artists the world has ever seen: his music flowed from pop to funk to soul to rock to R&B as he flawlessly merged genres in such iconic tracks as Purple Rain, 1999, Raspberry Beret and When Doves Cry. His incredible falsetto, flamboyant personality and unbelievable performances had a huge impact on the music scene, and, as one of the most influential black musicians of the 80s, his influence can still be heard in all genres of music, including those he didn’t pioneer himself, like hip-hop.

Must hear: When Doves Cry

8: Stevie Wonder (1950-)

Stevie Wonder is a one-of-a-kind musician. Despite losing his eyesight at a young age, by 13 he would become the youngest artist to top the Billboard charts, and he’s still creating brilliant music. Wonder was always on the cusp of the latest trends and music technology; performing almost as a one-man band, he was also one of the first musicians to experiment with sampling, synthesisers and vocoders. He has a talent for blending R&B, electronica, pop, soul, funk and jazz, and he even influenced hip-hop. Throughout his career he’s used his platform to support various important causes: he was one of the leading campaigners to make Martin Luther King, Jr,’s birthday a national holiday in the US, and in 2020 he released two politically charged singles in support of another wave of Black Lives Matter protests.

Must hear: Living For The City

7: Muddy Waters (1913-1983)

One of the most influential black musicians in both the blues and rock’n’roll genres, Muddy Waters has been cited by Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC as a formative influence, while The Rolling Stones even named themselves after Waters’ 1950 track Rollin’ Stone. Hailed as The Father Of Modern Chicago Blues, Waters’ DNA can still be traced in modern rock music.

Must hear: Mannish Boy

6: Miles Davis (1926-1991)

Throughout a career that spanned five decades, Miles Davis was always at the forefront of jazz. In his early years, he collaborated with some of the founding fathers of bebop, such as Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, but he always challenged his audience’s expectations. His 1959 album Kind Of Blue is essential, while other records, such as 1970’s Bitches Brew, helped birth the fusion genre. Hip-hop legends the likes of Madlib and The Notorious B.I.G. sampled him, while singers such as John Legend and Damon Albarn have emphasised Davis’ influence and inspiration.

Must hear: So What

5: Louis Armstrong (1901-1971)

As one of the best-known jazz artists of all time, Louis Armstrong helped to change the world with his unique trumpet playing and voice. The fact he made a career for himself at a time when many white audiences weren’t open to listening to what was then termed “race music” ensures him his place among the most influential black musicians of all time; hits like What A Wonderful World and Dream A Little Dream Of Me brought jazz into the mainstream and broke racial barriers.

Must hear: What A Wonderful World

4: Aretha Franklin (1942-2018)

When Aretha Franklin passed away, in 2018, the world lost a true legend of soul music. Such hits as Respect, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman and I Say A Little Prayer, and albums the likes of I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You and Lady Soul helped make her name as one of the best 60s female singers, but only scratch the surface of an incredible discography that earns Franklin her place among the world’s most influential black musicians. There was a strong connection to gospel music throughout her work, as her musical journey saw her start off singing in her father’s church and touring as part of his “gospel caravan”, but in her long and illustrious career, Franklin took her gospel roots and interpolated them into other genres, among them jazz, R&B, blues and even rock’n’roll. Her influence is clear to see not only in modern-day acts like Ariana Grande, who performed at the late soul icon’s funeral, but also in other genres like country music (Dolly Parton has highlighted how her own career was influenced by Franklin’s beautiful talents).

Must hear
: I Say A Little Prayer

3: James Brown (1933-2006)

The Godfather Of Soul, aka Soul Brother No.1 and The Minister Of The New New Super Heavy Funk – if you listen to hit songs like Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine and Get Up Offa That Thing, the energy, excitement and passion within James Brown’s vocals is spectacular, and the music world has a lot to thank him for. Not only did he effectively singlehandedly invent funk, but his music became a crucial foundation stone in hip-hop. Brown helped to develop multiple genres and influenced countless musicians, but he also influenced the music world in other ways. He toured constantly throughout his life, bringing his high-octane stage presence to each and every show, as well as being the originator of many dance trends – he was doing the moonwalk years before by Michael Jackson.

Must hear
: Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine

2: Chuck Berry (1926-2017)

Hits like Johnny B Goode, Maybellene and Roll Over Beethoven practically invented rock’n’roll, ensuring Chuck Berry would be forever remembered as one of the most influential black musicians of all time. His guitar playing inspired some of the biggest names in music to pick up an axe and try to write a tune, and his songs were covered by the likes of Grateful Dead, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, The Beatles and David Bowie. Chuck Berry’s impact on music is undeniable.

Must hear: Johnny B Goode

1: Little Richard (1932-2020)

Little Richard’s 1955 single Tutti Frutti was one of the very first tracks by a black artist to break through racial barriers and succeed with white American audiences, as well as being successful in the UK. In a career that lasted over six decades, Little Richard (real name Richard Penniman) was cited by Paul McCartney as an influence on his singing voice, and inspired other pioneering rock’n’roll artists, among them like Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Elton John and Bob Dylan. Topping our list of the most influential black musicians of all time, Little Richard was a true showman and an incredible musician who brought rock’n’roll to the masses, – as you’d expect from a man nicknamed, variously, The Originator and The Innovator.

Must hear: Tutti Frutti

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