The minute you start talking about any type of “greatest” list, the notion immediately invites loud debate. Billboard’s tally of the 35 greatest R&B artists of all time is no exception. Naysayers will no doubt quickly note the absence of Rihanna, whose impressive success is more heavily rooted in pop than R&B. And those singers whose iconic status stemmed primarily from fronting groups rather than as a solo artist were not included. Among other factors taken into consideration: game-changing influence and enduring musical legacy.
10. Al Green
You can’t talk about soul music without devoting a good portion of the conversation to Al Green. When the sharecropper’s son teamed up in the ’70s with mentor/Memphis record producer Willie Mitchell, magic was sparked. His emotive, gospel-honed falsetto unerringly exuded the joy, ache and sexual tension that come with romance on such classics as “Tired of Being Alone,” “Let’s Stay Together,” “I’m Still in Love With You” and “Love and Happiness.”
Descended from R&B/gospel/pop royalty—mom Cissy (Sweet Inspirations member whose group did backing vocals for Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin) and cousin Dionne Warwick — Whitney Houston hit the ground running in 1985 with debut single/first R&B No. 1 “You Give Good Love.” Her powerful, soaring four-octave mezzo-soprano netted Houston, aka The Voice, immediate superstardom through a spate of subsequent hits and top-selling soundtracks (The Bodyguard, Waiting to Exhale, The Preacher’s Wife). Her enduring legacy is credited with influencing such singers as Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson.
Prince’s innovative fusion of R&B/soul, funk, jazz, rock and more put the singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist and hometown Minneapolis on the map in 1978 with “Soft and Wet.” Then it kicked in full force a year later with his first R&B No. 1 “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” Prince’s fearlessness — from his adventurous guitar riffs to his multi-personality vocals — is the propelling force behind such seminal albums as 1999, Purple Rain, Sign O the Times and Diamonds and Pearls.
Marvin Gaye’s sensuous tenor had already left an impressive imprint during a ‘60s run that included engaging duets with Tammi Terrell and a spirited revamp of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Then the preacher’s kid answered his true calling — and redefined R&B/soul — with the socially themed 1971 landmark album What’s Going On. Gaye’s battle between spirituality versus sexuality erupted on the provocative follow-up Let’s Get It On. He soared back into limelight in 1983 with “Sexual Healing” and — at the opposite end of the spectrum — a soulful reading of the National Anthem. Still a formidable influence after his tragic 1984 death, Gaye made headlines last year when his “Got to Give it Up” was the focus of a sampling lawsuit involving Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.”
The Godfather of Soul. Soul Brother No. 1. Hardest-working man in show business. James Brown was all that and more during a six-decade career that influenced the advent of funk and brought black pride into the musical conversation. Brown’s gritty, street-edged vocals — a cross between singing and talking — also laid the foundation for rap/hip-hop. And his high-energy concerts, capped by his dizzying dance moves and infamous cape routine, set the tone for Michael Jackson, among others.
Twelve years after Ray Charles fathered the genre, gospel-reared singer/songwriter/musician Aretha Franklin took soul to unprecedented heights with her 1967 breakout “Respect.” Subsequent gems like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Think” and “Call Me” followed, as did the unquestionable sobriquet Queen of Soul. Franklin’s distinctive mezzo-soprano still reigns supreme, having recently reprised “Amazing Grace” for Pope Francis.
Nicknamed “The Genius” for his skills as a singer, songwriter, musician and composer, Ray Charles set off a firestorm in 1955. That’s when he scored his first No. 1 single, “I’ve Got a Woman” — and simultaneously pioneered the soul genre with his game-changing combination of R&B, gospel and blues. Despite naysayers who tagged the booty-shaking blend as blasphemous and sexually suggestive, Charles racked up such classics as “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” “What’d I Say” and “Hit the Road Jack.”
With his piercing green eyes, sweet falsetto and prolific pen, William “Smokey” Robinson has kept females swooning since the ‘60s when he and his group The Miracles helped put Motown on the map with such love-charged hits as “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” and “Ooo Baby Baby.” Then R&B poet laureate Robinson further stoked those romantic flames with a string of formidable solo hits including “Baby Come Close,” “Cruisin’” and “Being With You.”
Over the course of his five-decade career, Steveland Morris has often been dubbed the eighth wonder of the world. Blind since birth but blessed with natural gifts as a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Wonder is one of the few artists able to successfully transition from teen to adult stardom. Along his colorful journey, the Motown mainstay churned out a series of pioneering and still influential albums, including his signature masterpiece Songs in the Key of Life.
A dynamic force as the pre-teen frontman of chart-topping family group The Jackson 5, Michael Jackson moonwalked his way into solo superstardom. More than 30 years after its debut, the singer/songwriter’s multi-platinum Thriller remains one of the best-selling albums of all time. Between his supple tenor and mesmerizing footwork, Jackson reigns as the ultimate showman influencing current (Usher, Chris Brown, Justin Timberlake) and future generations.