10 Black Singers from the 1960s Who Changed Music Forever
The 1960s was a monumental decade for music with the introduction of new genres and artists that would make their mark. Rock music and the best R&B songs emerged during this era to become two of the most popular categories of the time. It also marked the introduction of Motown music, which gave us soul, funk, blues, and a mash-up of other popular music genres by African American artists.
Today, when people think of music from the ‘60s, they often think of the music of Motown. However, regardless of the music label, Victrola has compiled a list of the 10 Black singers from the 60s that changed music forever and still hold a place in history as some of the greatest of all time.
#1 Ray Charles
As one of the pioneers of the soul music genre, Ray Charles was known for his upbeat piano-and-vocal performances, though his slower tune “Georgia on My Mind” is one of his most notable. Elvis Presley also released a version of his song "What'd I Say." He recorded a remarkable 62 studio albums, seven of which were live versions, with numerous compilation albums as part of his discography as well.
Throughout his career, Charles also sang gospel, pop music, R&B songs, and was part of the integration of country music with these sounds. In fact, his 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music was his first to go number one on the Billboard 200. He was an artist without limits on his musical talent and inspired musicians from all genres during his reign.
#2 Gladys Knight
Living up to her moniker “Empress of Soul,” Gladys Knight was another prolific Black singer from the ‘60s leader in the soul music scene, headlining her group The Pips to release hit singles including “Midnight Train to Georgia,” and “That’s What Friends Are For,” two instantly recognizable songs even to today.
She collected numerous number-ones as part of Motown Records throughout the mid-60s, though received greater success heading into the 1970s. Known for her emotive sound and magnetic stage presence, Knight is a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and Grammy Award-winning artist.
#3 Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson deftly bridged generations by first performing with his family’s music group, the Jackson 5, and later as a solo act as the “King of Pop.” As the eighth and youngest member of the Jackson family, he made his professional singing debut in 1964 and only continued to grow in popularity with hit single after hit single.
During the 1960s, as part of the Jackson 5, he delivered popular hits including “ABC,” “I Want You Back,” and “I’ll Be There” via the Motown recording label. He carried his childhood success and experience into emerging as a solo artist in 1971, and the rest is history. Throughout the span of 10 solo studio albums, he broke musical records and boundaries to secure a legacy as one of the greatest musical acts of all time.
#4 Diana Ross
When it comes to iconic African American singers from the ‘60s, Diana Ross immediately comes to mind as the lead vocal of the popular Motown group, the Supremes, which is still one of the best-selling girl groups of all time. Together they delivered twelve number one hits, including “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” and “Where Did Our Love Go,” which dominated the airwaves during this era of music.
Her rise during this time also solidified her stance as a black music icon as she launched her solo career in 1970 and continued her dominance on the Billboard charts and in entertainment, selling over 75 million records worldwide and releasing 25 studio albums.
#5 Marvin Gaye
As one of the pioneering artists of the sound of the ‘60s, Marvin Gaye has been dubbed the “Prince of Motown” and established a career that would span several decades. Known for his smooth vocals and culturally and politically rich themes in black music, his contribution during this era set the tone during this time of change in America.
With a mix of R&B soul, pop, and jazz, he released hit singles including “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” “You’re All I Need to Get By,” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” the latter two which he sang a duet with Tammi Terrell. Right near the end of the ‘60s, he recorded his first number one hit, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” and solidified his position as a changemaker in the music world.
#6 Aretha Franklin
The “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin is not only one of the most prolific Black singers from the ‘60s but one of the world’s best-selling artists of all time. With gospel roots, she embarked on a soul-singing career at the age of 18. She achieved commercial success starting in the mid-’60s with a string of hits, including “Chain of Fools,” “(You Make Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and “I Say a Little Prayer.”
She recorded back-to-back albums I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You in 1967 and Lady Soul in 1968 and continued strong well into the ‘70s and late ‘80s with some of the best soul songs. Many female artists credit her as inspiration for their own music and she is revered across all genres for her talent and legacy in the industry.
#7 James Brown
Though dubbed the “Godfather of Soul,” James Brown had a vastly different stage presence. Instead of the typical laid-back style of soulful hits, he delivered rousing performances punctuated with screams and shouts, in revival style, of his hit singles through the late ‘60s and into the early ‘80s. As with many other Black artists of the time, he was backed by gospel roots, but incorporated funk and blues into his iconic sound to create hit singles like “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”
His artistry pushed the music genre forward as he was unapologetically unsubtle in his musical delivery, a true performer both in the studio and on stage. He amassed 17 number-one singles on the Billboard R&B charts and has been initiated into numerous musical halls of fame.
#8 Stevie Wonder
As one of the youngest Black singers from the ‘60s to record on the Motown label, Stevie Wonder incorporated all different genres into his music and has continued to inspire and influence modern-day musicians. He was only 13 years old when he achieved his first number-one hit, “Fingertips,” in 1963.
This early success set the groundwork for what we become his most successful decade to follow in the 1970s with Grammy award-winning albums, Inversions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, and Songs in the Key of Life. Rather than having the backing vocal support of a group or extensive instrumentation through a multi-piece band, he was essentially a one-man show.
He sang, played piano, synthesizer, and harmonica, the latter of which is beloved. To put it simply, Stevie Wonder made music that was fun and continues to be a favorite of fans of all music genres to this day.
#9 Smokey Robinson
Smokey Robinson is a musical jack of all trades, performing and writing for multiple artists spanning several decades. He is best known for being the lead singer of the popular Motown group, the Miracles, throughout the mid-’50s and into the early ‘70s.
However, it was his single “Shop Around,” which debuted in 1960 that became the first million-selling hit record for the Motown label, and started the spark of 26 top 40 hits with the Miracles, including “I Second That Emotion” and “Tears of a Clown.”
Though, it wasn’t only his success with his own group that cements him as a changemaker of the ‘60s music scene. He wrote and produced hits for other major artists during the decade, including The Four Tops, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and The Marvelettes.
#10 The Temptations
Strong vocal groups were prominent during the 1960s, and the Temptations were no exception. As another black artist part of the Motown label, they recorded hit albums throughout the decade and into the 1970s. Originally made up of five performers, both vocalists and dancers, the group formed in 1960 and quickly rose to fame with hit singles including “My Girl,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” and “I Wish It Would Rain.”
Though the group has changed members throughout the years, their collective sound and discography remain iconic. They infuse R&B, soul, and funk into their music and helped shape the sound of the era. Over the course of their career, they released 14 number-one singles on the R&B charts as well as four singles that made it to the top of the Billboard Hot 100.
The Motown era represents a place in American history when Black singers dominated the airwaves and widened their listening audiences to attract the masses. Though not all spent their entire careers as part of the iconic music label, the majority of Black singers from the 1960s had some connection to the Detroit sound, which continues to be a favorite among many today.
This time in American history changed the way of music forever by opening the doors for other styles of music and more artists to receive their due time in the spotlight. Take a musical tour with these great artists when you listen to the Hitsville: Hitsville: The Making Of Motown. So visit our record store today.