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Top 8 Most Famous Black Singers Of The 1960s

It wouldn’t be fair to say that African-American singers were at their best in the 60s. There were plenty of them, and good ones as well, as we shall see. 

But great singers, like Billie Holiday, had been lighting up music for many years before that. If you are looking for the most famous black singers of the 1960s, you won’t have to look too far.

As the 60s took hold… 

…something was in the air. Well known African-American singers in the 60s were taking a hold of music and giving it a shake. But, there was another African-American-led impetus besides music.

The Civil Rights Movement began to shake America. And Sam Cooke was doing the same with songs like “Shake.”

Many of the artists we are going to look at included messages of social and racial equality in their songs. Some of those songs are still played today. Many of these artists were inspired by “slave music” and sometimes referred to it. Others just focused on the future.

But, for many… 

The arrival of these famous black singers in the 60s heralded something new. There are too many to include, and I have tended to focus on Pop music. 

So, apologies to Ella Fitzgerald and others like her. Nevertheless, let’s make a start and take a look at a few. The 60s rocked, and these singers contributed.

Top 8 Most Famous Black Singers Of The 1960s

Ray Charles

Most Famous Black Singers Of The 1960s

Here was a man that was an inspiration to so many. Many of his contemporaries referred to him at the time as “The Genius.” Ray Charles himself preferred to be called just “Brother Ray.”

Born in Georgia in 1930, he became a towering figure in the history of not only African-American music but all music. He wasn’t born blind; he lost his sight as a young boy. Probably from untreated glaucoma. In some ways, that was harder to cope with than never having seen anything at all.

He covered all the genres in his inimitable way…

And he produced classic songs in all of them. In R&B with “What’d I Say, Pt. 1 & 2”, or in Country with one of his famous recordings, “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Or jazz crossovers like “Hit the Road Jack.”

And, he could give you some Rock n Roll with the best of them like this 50s track “Mess Around.” But, of all of the songs, my favorite was always “Georgia on My Mind.”

Ray had his run-ins with the law over substance abuse… 

And he was sued by a venue for walking out and refusing to play when he realized the audience was segregated. The latter was applauded by many at the time and certainly would be now.

When you have a giant in the music world like this, not much needs to be said. No pretense, no ego, just a great singer and musician. As Billy Joel said of him, “He was more important to music than Elvis Presley’. I would agree with that.

Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin

Known as the “Queen of Soul,” Aretha is another important black singer in the 1960s who made an enormous mark on music. Born in Memphis, her father was a Baptist minister, and her mother was a singer and pianist. 

After a couple of house moves, they ended up in Detroit. Her parents split when she was young, and life was hard, but not financially. Her father’s pulsating sermons earned him a lot of money and near-celebrity status. Martin Luther King was known to have visited the family home.

Aretha started singing gospel, but as she grew older, she knew she wanted to do more. She moved back to New York with her father as her manager.

Her first major success…

Well, that came six years after her first release when she covered Otis Redding’s “Respect.” It was a major “Civil Rights Anthem,” but it was also used by women in feminist movements. It became a song she will forever be associated with.

More success followed as she established herself as a Soul music icon with songs like “Think.” That was included in that memorable clip from the film, The Blues Brothers. The big records keep stacking up, and “I Say a Little Prayer” was one of her all-time biggest.

She covered songs by The Beatles and Paul Simon as well as Smokey Robinson demonstrating her versatility and her ability to put her unique style on everything she sang. With over 75 million records sold, one cannot fail to see what an impact she had.

Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder

The names keep coming like a “who’s who” of the greatest black artists of the 60s. But, the time of the 60s was different for Mr. Wonder. Because, back then, he was known as “Little” Stevie Wonder.

As an artist and a multi-instrumentalist, he is a level above many of his contemporaries. As a blind-from-birth artist, he is nothing short of a sensation. Singer and songwriter, it seems he can play virtually anything. And his use of synthesized sounds changed music in the 60s and 70s.

It was 1964… 

That was when we first sat up and took notice when a 14-year-old came on our TVs clutching his harmonica and sang, “Hey Harmonica Man.”

The following year he released Up-Tight, and his career took off. Throughout the rest of the 60s, he released material that was just getting better and better. Songs like “I Was Made To Love Her” from 1967 and “For Once In My Life” from 1968.

The “Little” Stevie had been dropped now. He was hardly that anymore. And, for the next 40 years and more, we had a string of great records. The boy had turned into a man and a legend, and it all started in the 60s.

Nina Simone

Nina Simone

Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Wymone. She was, in many ways, a unique African American 60s singer. She was another whose music crossed over genres with ease. Nina sang Jazz, R&B, and Blues, as well as Pop songs, and excelled in all of them.

Simone had an interesting beginning to her career… 

She had to work under the assumed name of Nina Simone. This was to avoid her family recognizing that she was working in clubs, which would have been frowned upon.

Her breakthrough came in 1960 with her recording of Gershwin’s “Summertime.” Her voice seems to feel the emotion of the song. It was highly thought of but failed to make an impact on the charts.

Quite popular across the pond…

She seems to have been more appreciated in the UK than in her homeland. “I Put A Spell On You” made it into the Top 50 in the UK but failed in America.

A similar story was seen in the excellent Bee Gees song “To Love Somebody.” And the equally stunning “Ain’t Got No I’ve Got Life” taken from the musical “Hair.” Both of those hit the Top 5 in the UK but failed in America.

Maybe it was because, in the 60s, she set herself on a confrontation with some. She was putting out records that didn’t just hint at racial equality; it said it. There were very few doing that at the time. “Mississippi Goddam” was the first of what she would call her “protest songs,” which was released in 1964.

Singer, songwriter, and activist… 

Nina Simone had plenty to say and often did. One of the best female African-American singers of the 60s. But, whilst her political stance was important in the 60s, let’s not forget the music. Easily one of the most famous black singers of the 1960s.

Otis Redding

Otis Redding

As far as Soul music was concerned in the 60s, Otis was “The Man.” I was very fortunate to have been at the Hammersmith Odeon in London in 1967 for his concert. An unforgettable evening just six months before the plane crash that took his life at the age of 26.

His distinctive and powerful voice took you by the shirt collar and gave you a good shake. Songs like “Mr. Pitiful,” “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” “Respect,” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” and 1966 “Try A Little Tenderness” all demonstrate that fact.

All became classics of the period… 

And they all established him as probably the Soul voice of the 60s. After his death, his legacy lived on. Not least because of the song, “(Sitting On) The Dock Of The Bay.”

“The Dock Of The Bay” became his most successful single, reaching #3 in the UK and #1 in America. His style, dynamic stage performance, and exceptional voice inspired many others who were to follow. And he still inspires today.

If you haven’t heard his full repertoire of Soul classics, then a good place to start is The Very Best Of Otis Redding.

Etta James

Etta James

Born in Los Angeles as Jamesetta Hawkins, Etta James was another who took vocals to another level. She had a voice that was distinctive, gritty, and powerful. Her performances earned her the title of the “Matriarch of the Blues.”

Yet another singer who could cross genre borders… 

Etta James was equally at home with Blues, R&B, Rock n Roll, Jazz, Gospel, or Soul music. But, she is probably most known for bridging the gap between Rock n Roll and R&B.

She survived what would only be called a traumatic childhood which we don’t need to go into here. Despite all this, she rose to become what some have called one of the “greatest voices of the century.”

She gave us one of the great albums of the period, At Last, released in 1960. And her versions of “I’d Rather Go Blind” and “Something’s Got A Hold On Me” are legendary.

Throughout her life, she suffered from various issues…

Drug abuse was one. She was imprisoned for a while and always seemed to have many legal problems. But, she made a comeback in 1980, releasing the album, Seven Year Itch.

If you haven’t heard it, it is worth a listen. How would you describe her vocal style? She took no prisoners…none at all.

Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye

One of the big names on the expanding Motown label, Marvin Gaye, was given the nickname “The Prince of Motown.” He had been in a quartet at first and then worked as a backing singer before he got his big break.

He had several modest successful records… 

Then he released “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).” That got him in at #49 on the UK chart and #6 in America. 

There followed some great tracks which were not released initially in the UK. “Ain’t That Peculiar” reached #8 in America, as did “I’ll Be Doggone.” Both were released in 1965.

He was as much known and loved for singing some great duets. Firstly, with Kim Weston on “It Takes Two” and then “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” with the great Tammi Terrell. And, also with Tammi, perhaps the best of the duets, “You’re All I Need To Get By.”

Many singers are remembered for one track in particular… 

With Marvin Gaye, that is a no-brainer – “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” One of the great tracks of the 60s. It cemented his reputation as one of the great artists, not just in Motown, but everywhere. 

His tragic death at a relatively young age after a family argument was one of the great losses to the music industry.

Dionne WarwickDionne Warwick

When people discuss the most famous black singers of the 1960s, Dionne Warwick is sometimes forgotten. But, she had more songs in the charts and sold more records than some others combined. 

She was also the biggest-selling artist of what you could call the “Rock Era.” And that was without releasing what you would call any “Rock” songs. But she was far more than that. Her collaborations with Burt Bacharach and Hal David are legendary and produced some of the most memorable songs of the 60s.

How it started…

Dionne was raised in a musical family that even had its own family singing group. She studied music, which is how she got to work as a demo singer for Burt Bacharach. He knew a voice when he heard one, and this was a voice he could work with.

Her first success was with “Don’t Make Me Over” in 1962, reaching #21 in America. There followed a string of what some would refer to as the great music of the period.

Walk on By,” “Trains and Boats and Planes,” “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” and my personal favorite of all of them, “A House Is Not A Home.” All of them were written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. 

There are far too many more to include here…

The list is endless. She sold over 100 million records, and she is just about to embark on a world farewell tour. There are a lot of singers who consider themselves “special” or “legends.” We all know who they are. Dionne Warwick doesn’t think that; she just is one.

She was more than just one of the great singers, not only of the 60s but for many years after. Dionne had something that one or two on this list did not have. Dignity. 

She didn’t try to set herself above others or destroy others’ careers for her own personal gain. A special voice and a special lady. She just sang with that voice, and it was, and to an extent still is, some voice. 

Want to Find More Amazing African-American Musicians?

Well, chec out our thoughts on the Best Donna Summer Songs of All Time, the Best Tina Turner Songs of All Time, the Best Songs By Al Green, the Best Songs by The Commodores, and the Best John Legend Songs of All Time for more great song selections.

Also, take a look at our in-depth reviews of the Best Headphones for Music, the Most Comfortable Headphones, the Best Sound Quality Earbuds, the Best Bass Earbuds, as well as the Best True Wireless Earbuds you can buy in 2023.

Most Famous Black Singers Of The 1960s – Final Thoughts

So who did 60s music belong to? There is some debate about that, and there always will be, I suppose. Some put forward the point that African-American artists, especially from Stax and Motown, dominated music in the 60s. 

That wouldn’t be quite true, of course, as they are forgetting one thing. The Beatles. And forgetting all those that they dragged on behind them. 

What black singers did in the 60s falls into two categories…

Firstly, they created great music and laid the foundations for their development and those following. Secondly, it was more than just music for them, and us. They made contributions, in some cases, huge contributions to social and racial equality.

Their influence and music are still with us. But the real winners were us in just about every way. They all contributed so much.

Until next time, happy listening.

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About Warren Barrett

Warren has spent nearly half a century (now that's a long time!) as an ink-stained wretch writing for music magazines and websites and has no plans on giving up soon.

He is curious about all types of music and instruments apart from any genre with 'Urban' in the title. He's also not so keen on Plastic Potted Plants, Reality TV, and any movies with Kevin Costner in them.

He lives in Delaware with his wife Wendy and lots of great memories...

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