Skip to main content

Enter your email below to be the first to hear about new releases, upcoming events, and more from Dig!

Please enter a valid email address
Please accept the terms
Most Influential Black Musicians: 30 Great Artists Who Changed Music
List & Guides

Most Influential Black Musicians: 30 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.


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 30 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.

Listen to our Black History Month playlist here, and check out our list of the most influential Black musicians, below.

30: 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

29: Tina Turner (1939-)

In a lifetime in music, Tina Turner has been there, done that, got the stiletto heels. But while her triumphant-tragic-triumphant story is often told, and her voice is known the world over, it’s still not entirely appreciated just how much she did for music in another way. In the 60s, when Black female musicians were often regarded as trivial artists or as vocal decoration for other (usually less talented) singers, Tina stood out as a figure with power, becoming both the first female and the first Black artist featured on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. Her command of the stage, as well as her vocal art, made her a formidable presence, and her strutting dancing was legendary. But she was not entirely thought of as a soul singer, soulful though she was: Tina rocked. So when The Who and director Ken Russell sought an Acid Queen for the movie version of Tommy, Turner was the perfect choice: sassy, tough and assertive. She helped teach Mick Jagger to dance, showing him how to move for the 60s dance The Pony; Jagger learned well, accepting this memo from Turner with good grace, admitting he was knocked out when he first saw The Ike And Tina Turner Revue live in the US. Vocally, she held sway over Janis Joplin and Fantasia, and her uncompromising, in-control stage presence gave a template to Beyoncé. Even Lady Gaga and Madonna’s legs-akimbo moves owe something to the “Queen Of Rock’n’Roll”. For further evidence of her status as one of the most influential Black musicians in history, just turn to her signature anthem, The Best: adopted by President Biden for his acceptance speech, it was also used throughout Schitt’s Creek, becoming an LGBTQ+ anthem in the process.

Must hear: The Best

28: 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)

27: Big Joe Turner (1911-1985)

Big Joe Turner was famous from the 30s to the 70s, yet he is largely forgotten today. What did this hero do? He started rock’n’roll. Turner was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and sang for pennies on street corners as a child. In his teens he earned a living as a bartender, singing behind the counter in nightclubs. These places were noisy, and Turner had to develop a loud voice just to be heard. He retained this skill and frequently didn’t bother with a mic on stage: he could be heard anyway. Other singers, notably Al Green, adopted this as a stage trick, further cementing Turner’s place among the most influential Black musicians of all time.

Teamed with boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson, Turner played all-nighters in his hometown before being given a showcase at Carnegie Hall, in New York City, in 1938, where he rocked a white audience who’d never seen the real-deal blues before. Hit records followed, such as Cherry Red, Me And Piney Brown and Roll ’Em Pete – all landmarks. His take of Around The Clock Blues made a Wynonie Harris song raunchier, influencing Chuck Berry’s Reelin’ And Rockin’ and numerous similar records. Turner shouted the blues with Count Basie’s band and Jay McShann, and his witty ways were a big influence on the king of jumpin’ jive, Louis Jordan.

Turner joined Atlantic Records in 1951 and hit with Honey Hush and, in 1954, Shake Rattle And Roll. The latter was one of the foundation stones of rock’n’roll, cleaned up for airplay in a version by Bill Haley, and then recorded more authentically by Elvis Presley; Buddy Holly was another fan. Big Joe Turner boasted that he never changed, yet as music shifted from blues shouting to boogie-woogie to swing to R&B to rock’n’roll – developments partly of his making – this huge, amiable figure still thrived. As he sang in Honey Hush: he let it roll like a big wheel.

Must hear: Shake, Rattle And Roll

26: 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

25: Sylvia Robinson (1935-2011)

If Sylvia Robinson had been just a singer, she would still be remembered as one of the most influential Black musicians of all time. But as a writer, label-owner, producer and talent-spotter, she was a (largely unsung) genius. Sylvia was born in Harlem, New York City, in 1935, and began her recording career as Little Sylvia in 1950. She formed a duo, Mickey & Sylvia, with the dazzling guitarist-vocalist Mickey Baker, hitting big with the exotic R&B tune Love Is Strange. In 1961, Sylvia played guitar on Ike And Tina Turner’s It’s Gonna Work Out Fine, and married Joe Robinson three years later. In the mid-60s they opened a record label, All Platinum, releasing soul, jazz and R&B on an array of imprints, and made a key signing in 1968: classy vocal trio The Moments, who churned out hits for more than a decade.

While the All Platinum sound was often raw compared to that of the label’s more sophisticated rivals, such as Philadelphia International, the company hit with The Rimshots, Retta Young, Shirley & Company, Donny Elbert and Robinson herself, with 1973’s suggestive Pillow Talk, a likely inspiration for Donna Summer’s earliest hits. As the Black disco boom Robinson’s label helped create was swamped by bandwagon-climbers, All Platinum foundered. However, the wily entrepreneur noticed a trend in New York and created a company to capture it: Sugar Hill. It was the first label to seriously document a new music called hip-hop, bringing the world talents such as Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash And The Furious 5, female crew The Sequence and mixed-gender outfit Positive Force, and even laid the foundations for conscious rap through Melle Mel’s The Message. Sylvia’s contribution is often overlooked, but she did everything in US Black music for four decades. Without her foresight, would hip-hop have achieved its commercial potential?

Must hear: Next Time I See You

24: Ornette Coleman (1930-2015)

“He’s playing it all wrong.” He was – but that’s good. In the second half of the 50s, jazz was offered many interrelated styles: cool, hard bop, swing, traditional, Third Stream, soul jazz and modal. Many were delivered by artists who saw their work as a way to liberate their soul at a time when Black consciousness was growing in the face of racism. But these musical styles mostly stuck to rules of melody and rhythm. Then came alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, who blew the doors wide open for free musical expression, creating a sound that really was liberated.

Coleman didn’t bother with chasing the chords from old Broadway songs to their conclusion, or verses and choruses, or even “heads” – opening themes that returned after several minutes of improvisation. His thing was to play as you felt it, though he did offer compositions, too, such as his classic Lonely Woman. He gathered like-minded brilliant young players such as cornet star Don Cherry (father of pop star Neneh Cherry) and bassist Charlie Haden, who helped Coleman deliver the sound in his mind. He stopped using a pianist, freeing his music from chordal restrictions. His third album, and first for Atlantic, 1959’s The Shape Of Jazz To Come, put Coleman at the forefront of free jazz by more or less inventing it.

Like his work or loathe it, all of jazz had an opinion about this comparative beginner. Further records, among them Change Of The Century and Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, established Coleman as one of music’s greatest explorers, and they exerted a huge sway over hundreds of avant-garde improvisers, including Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane, and also influenced rock musicians such as Lou Reed, The Stooges and MC5. Coleman showed that the limits to creativity were often self-imposed, and that freedom wasn’t only about physical conditions, it was also about how you chose to express yourself.

Must hear: Lonely Woman

23: Charlie Parker (1920-1955)

He’s playing it all wrong!” He wasn’t, but that was the cry of many jazz musicians when they first heard Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, the man who invented bebop and, therefore, modern jazz. The alto saxophonist grew up in Kansas City and played with swing and boogie bands, growing increasingly frustrated before he came up with a method of soloing that enabled him to use the 12-note chromatic scale, and realised this might deliver a different style of music. By the time the lightning-quick player was gigging at late-night dives in New York City in the early 40s, he was confounding the expectations of listeners. This was the birth of bebop.

Established musicians were baffled by what Parker played, but young guns such as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk understood perfectly. However, “Bird”, as he was known, was barely able to commit it to record until 1945, owing to a trade dispute which had ended recording sessions for three years. When they finally did appear, his releases for the Dial and Savoy labels became a sensation, and jazz fans divided into traditionalists and modernists as a result – a split that still resonates (even the youth cult called “mod” can be traced back to Parker’s modernism).

Parker’s playing influenced Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Coltrane, Miles, Lou Donaldson and almost all other modern jazz and funk musicians, whatever instrument they played (organ legend Jimmy Smith was a Parkerphile). Charlie Parker recast music in his image, but, beset by drug problems that led to harassment by the police, he died aged just 34, a genius who never received the reward he deserved, even if he was acclaimed. But musically, Bird lives…

Must hear: Scrapple From The Apple

22: 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

21: 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

20: 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

19: 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

18: George Clinton (1941-)

There were tacit protocols for US Black music in the late 60s: artists had to be slick and sing soul or funk, ideally while wearing suits and dancing in a line. Romantic lyrics were acceptable, as was the occasional protest song, as long as it sounded like it was religious. There were exceptions, such as Sly And The Family Stone, but they were of mixed heritage and from San Francisco, where anything goes, baby; and Jimi Hendrix, who had to leave the US to win recognition. But when the Parliament and Funkadelic groups beamed down from planet Loose Booty in 1968, they laughed at such protocols. They’d tried that smooth shit already, it didn’t work. That they laughed was another taboo-breaker: music was meant to be serious because life was serious. But they mocked anything and everything. They were funky – at times earnest – but, as a bunch of Black hippies, they knew life was tilted against them, so how could they play by its rules?

At the heart of this rebel army was George Clinton, singer, barber, cosmic voyager – and an architect of the future of 70s Black music. It was an uphill struggle: though Funkadelic’s albums hit the soul charts as they built a grass-roots following, Parliament didn’t break big until 1975, and Funkadelic waited another three years for a huge chart album, One Nation Under A Groove. But they were already influential. A Clinton co-write, I’ll Bet You, was covered by Jackson 5 on the huge-selling ABC album, and Johnny Taylor hit with I Wanna Testify (also covered by Queen’s Roger Taylor). The Temptations’ shift into psychedelic soul was partly inspired by their producer Norman Whitfield’s fascination with Parliament when he saw them gigging in Detroit; McKinley Jackson’s Politicians was another band under Clinton and co’s influence.

The “Parliafunkadelicment Thang” proved it was cool for a Black funk group to explore the cosmos, and many others followed; Earth, Wind And Fire’s cosmic stage set was perhaps built to compete with Parliament’s. After the collapse of the P-Funk empire in 1981, Clinton had solo hits that explored electronic possibilities, then watched his work inspire hip-hop stars Digital Underground, Snoop Dogg and De La Soul. The guy is a mutha- and fatha-funker to thousands.

Must hear: Electro-Cuties

17: 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

16: 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)

15: 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

14: Smokey Robinson (1940-)

Everybody knows a Smokey Robinson song: My Girl, Tears Of A Clown, The Tracks Of My Tears, Who’s Lovin’ You… his songbook alone is enough for the Motown legend to find a place on this list of the most influential Black musicians of all time. His unique voice became a key part of the 60s pop revolution with The Miracles, and he was still enjoying huge hits into the 80s as a solo artist. He wrote for The Temptations, The Supremes, The Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells, and cover versions of his compositions became hits for The Beatles, Otis Redding, Jackson 5, King Curtis and The (English) Beat, among others. Robinson also produced Kim Weston, Brenda Holloway, Chris Clark and most of the Motown artists mentioned above. His hit 1975 album, Quiet Storm, gave its name to an entire style of smooth soul built for mature late-night listening. Beyond this, there was one other aspect of Smokey’s amazing career that gave him unique control over his own music and that of others: he spent nearly 20 years as the Vice President of Motown Records while the label was still at its peak, putting a consummate artist at the heart of a success-obsessed business. Now that’s influence.

Must hear: Just My Soul Responding

13: U-Roy (1941-2021)

U-Roy (Ewart Beckford to his church-organist mother) was a founding father of reggae DJs – toasters, MCs, chatters, whatever you want to call them. That makes him a key figure in the birth of rap, even if rap didn’t really acknowledge this for years. There were reggae MCs (masters of ceremonies) on sound systems in Jamaica and the UK before U-Roy came along, but he expanded their art of speaking occasional lines of jive and one-word exhortations into another realm, chanting coherent, meaningful lyrics that entertained and informed the crowd.

U-Roy took the mic on several sound systems in Jamaica before becoming the main entertainer on King Tubby’s Home Town Hi-Fi circa 1968. Tubby’s had an electronically brilliant sound and an unmatched selection of exclusive music, and U-Roy’s articulate verses over other people’s records made it Jamaica’s most respected sound system of the late 60s. After several false starts on record, U-Roy arrived at Treasure Isle studio in 1970, where producer Duke Reid and engineer Byron Smith gave him free rein over some of the greatest reggae and rocksteady tracks ever recorded, resulting in a string of hits that ruled Jamaica’s charts across 1970 and 1971, among them Wake The Town, This Station Rule The Nation, Version Galore and Tom Drunk, and U-Roy’s classic debut album, Version Galore. Numerous other talented chatters emerged in his wake, such as Dennis Alcapone, I-Roy and Big Youth, free to do their thing after U-Roy’s breakthrough.

“Daddy U-Roy” was acknowledged as the pioneer by reggae fans, and continued to score success with albums produced by Prince Tony Robinson which saw release worldwide through the mid-70s. He founded his own sound system, Stur-Gav, and in the 80s and 90s saw second-generation Jamaicans in the US adapt his style to funky beats to create hip-hop, just as he inspired Jamaican MCs galore. His commitment to Rastafarianism made him one of the ambassadors for the faith concurrent with Bob Marley, with whom he worked, even if his superstardom remained at a grass-roots rather than a pop chart level.

Must hear: Wake The Town

12: 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

11: 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

10: 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

9: Nile Rodgers (1952-)

There was hardly a hint that Nile Rodgers was going to become so influential when Chic hit with Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah) in 1977; it took some time for fans and critics to notice the disco group’s audio identity, which continued to inform the best Nile Rodgers songs throughout the decades that followed. Bernard Edwards’ imaginative bass grooves entwined with Rodgers’ skin-tight guitar patterns, underpinned by the John Bonham-influenced drums of drummer Tony Thompson, and, within a year, Chic were massive. Soon, Rodgers and Edwards were writing and producing for Sister Sledge (We Are Family), Sheila B Devotion (Spacer) and Norma Jean Wright (Saturday), and despite disputes over the album Diana with Diana Ross, it was a smash.

When Chic temporarily split, Rodgers remained an in-demand producer for everyone from David Bowie to Duran Duran, INXS, Madonna, Mick Jagger, Grace Jones, Sheena Easton and more, while the best Chic songs became a foundation stone for hip-hip just as they’d influenced Blondie (Rapture) and Queen (Another One Bites The Dust). Numerous serious health problems have dogged Rodgers over the years, and Edwards tragically died in 1996 while the pair were gigging in Japan, which affected Rodgers badly. Rodgers’ 2013 collaboration with Daft Punk led to several global hits, including the glorious Get Lucky, setting in stone Rodgers’ status as one of the most influential Black musicians of all time. The personification of positive vibes, he’s delivered good times to millions of people.

Must hear: Chic Cheer

8: 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

7: Robert Johnson (1911-1938)

He cut only two albums’ worth of material, in an era before albums existed. For years, nobody knew what he looked like. His guitar playing could be rudimentary by modern standards, his voice was as raw as a lion’s breakfast, and even in his home territory of the Mississippi Delta, hardly anybody had heard of him during his lifetime. When talent scout John Hammond tried to give him a break with a Carnegie Hall booking, he was already dead, aged just 27, and we don’t really know what (or who) killed him. Much of his legend is merely mythical: could he really have made a pact with the devil in order to become a great bluesman? Yet Robert Johnson remains magnetic, and his songs echo down the decades. When the compilation album King Of The Delta Blues Singers was released in 1961, it was perfectly timed to attract the numerous young British musicians who were becoming interested in the blues. Eric Clapton was one; Keith Richards another; Robert Plant and Jimmy Page are devotees. Elmore James made Johnson’s Dust My Broom a standard, and Sweet Home Chicago, Crossroad Blues (aka Crossroads) and Love In Vain are staples of blues jams the world over. Hellhound On My Trail set a template for the bluesman as a hard-living, drifting, haunted lone wolf. Little wonder that Bob Dylan, another elusive figure, is an acolyte. Johnson’s dirt-road trail goes on, touching the world even though he had no clue how important he’d become.

Must hear: Cross Road Blues

6: 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

5: 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

4: Ray Charles (1930-2004)

Brother Ray was a giant. Blind from childhood, the singer and piano player cut a swathe through rhythm’n’blues music in the 50s, was a founding father of soul and a pioneer as an African-American musician singing country music. He handled jazz and funk with ease, owned a record label in a period when few Black artists had a stake in the business, and his groups became a breeding ground for talent such as David “Fathead” Newman and Hank Crawford. His backing vocalists, The Raelettes, included noted female soul singers such as Margie Hendricks, Minnie Riperton, Mable John (the first female artist signed to Tamla Records) and Susaye Greene of The Supremes. But, above all else, Ray Charles became one of the most influential Black musicians to a whole host of future stars.

Ike And Tina Turner’s Ikettes were modelled on The Raelettes. Numerous UK and US acts covered Charles’ songs, with What’d I Say being adopted by Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis, Bobby Darin, The Beatles, Eric Burdon And The Animals and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers – among others. Solomon Burke not only covered it, his own Everybody Needs Somebody To Love was likely written in order to make a similar gospel-styled impact. Similar responses met most of the other recordings that reliably stack up among the best Ray Charles songs, including Georgia On My Mind, I Got A Woman and Hit The Road Jack. Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison, Steve Winwood, Billy Joel and Roger Waters have all acknowledged a debt to the man rightfully nicknamed “The Genius”, who also took a stand for full integration at the venues he played, and set up charities for disabled kids. Ray Charles didn’t believe being born poor, Black and blind should hold him back. It didn’t.

Must hear: I Got A Woman

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

Extra words: Ian McCann

Find out why 60s and 70s Black music will “resonate through time”.

More Like This

Best Joni Mitchell Albums: Her Complete Discography, Ranked And Reviewed
List & Guides

Best Joni Mitchell Albums: Her Complete Discography, Ranked And Reviewed

The best Joni Mitchell albums chart not only their creator’s artistic journey, but also the development of songwriting as an art form.

‘Batman’ At 35: A Track-By-Track Guide To Prince’s Dark Knight Soundtrack
List & Guides

‘Batman’ At 35: A Track-By-Track Guide To Prince’s Dark Knight Soundtrack

Sung from the perspective the film’s main characters, each song on Prince’s ‘Batman’ album furthered his own explorations of light and dark.

Sign up to our newsletter

Be the first to hear about new releases, upcoming events, and more from Dig!

Sign Up