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Top 9 Most Famous Black Singers Of The 1970s

It had been a long hard journey over many years. And some of the most famous black singers of the 1970s had seen difficult times. “The Times They Are A-Changin,” so sang Bob Dylan, and they certainly were. 

We had come from a president who made a four-time Olympic gold medal winner travel up to the post-games reception in the goods lift. Because he was black. We had come through the Civil Rights movement and seen the great Blues and Jazz musicians who had been “accepted.” 

And we had come through the 60s and saw more African-American singers make their mark, and on to the 70s.

The age of the African-American singer had arrived… 

Yes, there was still Glam-Pop and heavy rockers, but there was now a real alternative. Let’s take a look at some of the singers who made such an impact during the 70s.


Top 9 Most Famous Black Singers Of The 1970s

Stevie Wonder

Most Famous Black Singers Of The 1970s

He had arrived on the scene in the 60s as “Little” Steve Wonder. Songs Like “Uptight” and “I Was Made To Love Her” established him as a major artist. 

His music was maturing all the time, and when he released For Once In My Life in 1968, we knew he was here to stay. Therefore, any discussion about the best black singers of the 70s will need to start with this musical genius.

As most of us know…

Stevie had been blind from birth. And, in some circles, he was seen as a follow-up to Ray Charles, which was an honor indeed. But, during the 70s, he changed the sound of music with his synthesized sounds. And he made his views plain through some inspired lyrics.

He started the decade with the Pop sound of Signed, Sealed, Delivered in 1970. But, the “Little” was long gone now, and the man was making statements and great music. “Superstition” made us all sit up and take notice, followed by “Living For The City.”

But he was also able to record great tunes in different styles. Two memorable examples are “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” and “Isn’t She Lovely.” Then there were albums like Innervisions and Talking Book, to name just two.

He was moving ahead of most of his contemporaries…

As an artist, a multi-instrumentalist, and a performer. And, just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, he gave us “Sir Duke” in 1977.

His tribute to two greats, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. Taken from another sensational album, Songs In The Key Of Life.

He is still with us, but it was in the 70s when he made his mark in a big way. And that mark is still being felt today, making him one of the greatest black singers of the 70s.

Bill Withers 

Bill Withers

Bill Withers was born in a small West Virginia mining town in 1938, where his father was a miner. Despite a troubled childhood and being raised by aunts, he became one of the most well-known African-American singers in the 1970s.

He had to overcome a stutter when he spoke, which prevented him from making many friends due to his self-consciousness over the problem. How brave was it to consider a career in music?

He went down the music road after leaving the Navy. He went to live in Los Angeles and worked in factories building aircraft. In the evenings, he would record demos he paid for and sing at clubs in the evening.

Perseverance Pays Off

It certainly did for Withers. Bill got a record contract, and Booker T. Jones was assigned to help him record the first album. That first album was called Just As I Am and was released in 1971.

He was still working in the factory when the album was released. Ironically, the album cover shows him carrying his lunch box at work.

The album was a huge success… 

And, it was a surprise to Withers, who still didn’t quit work for a while, worried about his future security. One of the songs on the album was a song he will forever be associated with, “Ain’t No Sunshine.”

“Ain’t No Sunshine” was his first UK release, peaking at #40 and reaching #3 in America. Interestingly, it was first released as a B-side, but that was soon changed due to its evident popularity.

The repetitive “I know” that formed a memorable part of the song came about because he hadn’t finished the lyrics. The producer left it in.

The rest of the 70s became a little quieter for him… 

He toured extensively and recorded another five albums, but without the same impact. He found more success in the 80s, but it was the 70s that established him as an artist, songwriter, and performer.

Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald

It is not beyond the realms of reality that you could include the lady in a list that might encompass any time frame from the 50s on.

During the 70s, it is fair to say she had done it all and sang with most of the big bands. She continued to record and perform, and in the 70s, that meant some more live albums.

Ella In London was recorded at Ronnie Scott’s in London in 1974. Then there is her memorable performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in 1975.

By this time…

Ella was able to pick and choose her repertoire and sang what to her were her favorites. She also released some great albums with the jazz masters of the time. For example, Ella and Oscar Original Jazz Classics Remasters and with jazz guitarist Joe Pass, Fitzgerald & Pass…Again.

During the 70s, there was a rise in female singer-songwriters. Ella wasn’t afraid to add her style to some of their work. For instance, she sang Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend” with Count Basie and his orchestra with Tommy Flanagan.

One of the greatest singers we have ever had. The 70s was just another decade of her outstanding career, which is why she is one of the most famous black singers of the 1970s.

Tina Turner

Tina Turner

Let’s change the mood now and move to another popular black singer of the 70s, Tina Turner. Anna Mae Bullock, as she was born, began singing in church when she was very young. One of her earliest memories is of picking cotton in the township of Nutbush, Tennessee. Yes, that one.

She burst onto the scene in the 60s with songs like “River Deep Mountain High” with then-husband Ike and his band. The success she enjoyed made her the focal point of the band, which didn’t go down too well in some quarters. They split up in 1976, and she started a solo career.

A Downturn

During the latter half of the 70s, you could say there was a downturn in her popularity. Some might argue that she was recording great Rock songs, as in Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” which she did with Ike in 1975, and The Who’s “Acid Queen” in 1976.

But they weren’t really her style. It wasn’t until the 80s that she made one of the great musical comebacks with her album, Private Dancer.

The album brought her back firmly into the public eye. You could argue that the 70s weren’t her greatest and most successful period. However, she was still around, and when you are talking about successful 1970s African-American singers, she cannot be ignored.

Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye

One of the big names of the Motown record label, he was known as the “Prince of Motown.” He had made his name as a backing singer in the early days, but once he got the chance in the 60s, he took it. 

By the start of the 70s, he had already recorded some of the great Motown classics, such as “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” He continued to see success during the 70s, with songs like “Abraham, Martin & John” and “The Onion Song,” with probably his best female singing partner Tammi Terrell.

Tragedy follows triumph…

Gaye and his career were deeply affected by the sudden death of his singing partner Tammi in the first months of 1970. It gave him a new perspective on life as he became very disillusioned with the music business. His next work after Terrell’s passing was the controversial, What’s Going On.

It was inspired by scenes of police beating unarmed protesters against the Vietnam war in Berkeley, California. When the single and the album were finished, Berry Gordy, Motown’s notorious boss, refused to sanction its release.

Gaye and Gordy were like two stags butting heads in the end. Gaye said he would record no more material until this song had been released. Gordy backed down. It became his biggest-selling single album and gave us two great singles, “Mercy Mercy Me” and “Inner City Blues.”

He continued to record through the 70s… 

 But, by his standards, those works were considered modest successes. It wasn’t until the 80s that he hit the #1 spot again. As far as 70s music and African-American singers go, he was a huge influence on people and music in general.

Donna Summer

Donna Summer

If there was one genre of music that people think of when talking about 70s music, it was disco. And, at the head of the queue was Donna Summer. It has to be said, one reason why some artists had a downturn in fortunes for a while was that the “new kid on the block” took over.

She got her breakthrough in Holland with the release of her first album, Lady of the Night. On that album was her first single entitled “The Hostage.” But, it was in 1976 that she achieved international stardom with her massive hit “Love To Love You Baby” from the album of the same name. 

It was released first in Holland and then, due to its enormous success, in the rest of the world. The song reached #4 in the UK despite an initial ban and #2 in America. “Love To Love You Baby” became one of disco’s hottest songs.

By this time…

She had been living in Europe for many years and was well-known in music circles but unknown in her home country. “Love To Love You Baby” may have brought her international fame, but it also gave her plenty of problems. 

An overtly sexual image created for her was encouraged by mostly male audiences that sometimes spilled over into concert problems. One, in particular, was where she had to flee the stage and get to her caravan, which was then surrounded by male members of the audience.

In 1979, she released what became her most popular album, Bad Girls. She had stirred things up a bit and made her contribution to the disco-loving hedonistic 70s.

Gloria Gaynor

Gloria Gaynor

Let’s stay with Disco once more and include Gloria Gaynor. She was different in so many ways from Donna Summer and her style of sexually-charged music. Gaynor sang easy-to-listen-to Pop songs that were fine-tuned for the Disco market, and it worked perfectly.

She released a couple of singles in the 60s… 

But, it was 1974 and the song “Never Can Say Goodbye” that brought her instant recognition. It was also the title of her first album. The song was also released by The Jackson 5 in 1971, but it is Gloria’s version that most remember. It reached #2 in the UK and #9 in America and was a big disco hit.

She followed that up with some well-known covers, “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and “Walk On By.” But, she cemented her place as one of the Queens of Disco in 1978 with a song that became an anthem, “I Will Survive.” It was not only a disco hit but became an anthem for women all over the world. 

Disco’s Decline

The demonization of the flourishing Disco genre reached its peak in Chicago when a riot broke out at Comiskey park in 1979. They were burning disco records and associated items.

Five thousand “anti-disco” rioters broke into the stadium and caused mayhem. I shall make no comment other than to say I suppose we were lucky they didn’t start burning books as well.

However, it did start the decline of disco, which was already struggling a bit. And, with it went Gloria Gaynor and other artists like her. She continued to record and still does.

Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin

Here is a lady that had an enormous impact on music, but not especially in the 70s. However, she was still contributing to music across a range of genres in that period. Given her status, it would not be right to exclude her.

She had raised the bar as a soul singer in the 60s with songs like “Think” and “I Say a Little Prayer.” She recorded a range of songs during the decade that were met with various levels of success. Her most popular was probably “Spanish Harlem,” which reached #14 in the UK and #2 in America.

A life of music…

Aretha’s father had been a well-known evangelist whose raucous sermons earned him plenty of money and what we would call today celebrity status. Her first experience of music was singing gospel songs at church, something she always stayed close to.

She released a gospel album, Amazing Grace, in 1972. But, her gospel recordings were never as popular as her Soul contributions. In her career, which extended on either side of the 70s, she sold over 75 million records.

Some Honorable Mentions

Other artists’ careers seemed to take a slight downturn in the 70s. There were several reasons for that. But, they had nothing to do with them as performers. However, I am going to mention them here as they still had an influence. 

All had great careers in the 60s, and in two cases in the 50s, and then returned with more great material in the 80s. They are:

  • Ray Charles.
  • Nina Simone.
  • Dionne Warwick.
  • The Supremes.

And so, the final entry on the list of the most famous black singers of the 1970s

Roberta Flack

Roberta Flack

Roberta Flack came from nowhere to produce three magnificent records of the 70s. She made a small impact in 1971 with her cover of the Carole King song “You’ve Got a Friend” with Donny Hathaway.

But, it was the following year that she made a huge impact with “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” That song went to #14 in the UK and #1 in America. In a way, it was the song that opened the floodgates. 

Suddenly, gentle ballads with meaningful lyrics were popular again…

She followed it up in 1973 with “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” That reached #6 in the UK and #1 in America. More was to follow in 1974 with “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” That only reached #34 in the UK but was #1 in America and two other countries.

Three songs that made a big impact on the 70s, and songs that immediately come to mind when you mention the most famous black singers from the 1970s.

Searching for More Spectacular Singers?

If so, have a look at our detailed articles on the Most Famous Black Country Singers, the Most Famous Black Singers Of The 1960s, the Most Famous Blues Singers, the Best Female Singers, and the Most Famous Gospel Singers Of All Time for more amazing vocal performances.

Also, you will want to listen to them. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Sound Quality Earbuds, the Best True Wireless Earbuds, the Most Comfortable Earbuds, the Best iPhone Earbuds, and the Best Cheap Earbuds Under $100 you can buy in 2023.

Most Famous Black Singers Of The 1970s – Final Thoughts

You may have noticed that I have not included some names you may think should have been on the list. I suppose we all have our favorites, and we judge them as singers in many ways.

For me, these are the special ones. The ones that got on with the job of making great music. No histrionics or over-inflated egos. No exaggeration of their self-importance, just great songs well sung. That is what this list has been all about.

Until next time, happy listening.

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About Joseph L. Hollen

Joseph is a session musician, writer, and filmmaker from south Florida. He has recorded a number of albums and made numerous short films, as well as contributing music to shorts and commercials. 

He doesn't get as much time to practice and play as he used to, but still manages (just about!) to fulfill all his session requests. According to Joseph, it just gets harder as you get older; you rely on what you learned decades ago and can play without thinking. Thankfully that's what most producers still want from him.

He is a devout gear heat and has been collecting musical instruments all his life. As his wife, Jill, keeps on saying, "You're very good at buying nice instruments, but terrible at selling them!".

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