There’s something special about the music from the 60s. Whether it’s rock, soul, or pop, each genre of music had an unmistakable sound that instantly transports you back in time. And the singers who brought this sound to life were some of the most talented performers ever to grace a stage.
Among these musical icons, most of them were African-Americans who not only defied expectations and broke barriers but also created timeless music that continues to inspire today.
So, in an effort to pay tribute to these incredible artists, here is our list of the 10 best Black singers of the 60s:
1. Aretha Franklin
To start the list we have the one and only, the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. Born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1942, Aretha grew up in a family steeped in gospel music. Her father was a well-known pastor and her mother was a gifted singer and pianist.
It was in this environment that Aretha developed her own musical talent, first singing in her father’s church choir and later performing in clubs and on tours with gospel groups.
It wasn’t until the early 1960s that Aretha began to gain wider recognition with her recordings for Atlantic Records. And it was her version of “Respect,” originally written and recorded by Otis Redding, that would become her signature song and catapult her to superstardom. Over the next several decades, Aretha would continue to produce hit after hit, earning her the title of the “Queen of Soul”.
Aretha passed away in 2018, due to pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer but what she left behind were songs full of power, emotion, and soul.
2. Marvin Gaye
Another influential and iconic singer from the 60s was Marvin Gaye. The prince of Motown and the Prince of Soul, Marvin was born in Washington D.C. in 1939 and began singing in his father’s church choir as a boy. He received his first taste of fame when he joined the doo-wop group The Marquees in 1960 and, soon after, signed with Motown Records.
During his time at Motown, Marvin released a number of critically acclaimed albums and had several hit singles including “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”. His 1971 album, What’s Going On, is one of the most critically acclaimed albums of all time.
Unfortunately, Marvin’s life was cut short when he was tragically shot and killed by his father in 1984, but his influence on contemporary music was so significant that he has been posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame.
3. Stevie Wonder
The next singer on our list is none other than the multi-talented Stevie Wonder. Born in Saginaw, Michigan in 1950, Stevie was diagnosed with a condition called retinopathy of prematurity, which caused him to lose his sight shortly after birth.
Despite this setback, Stevie Wonder became one of the most successful and influential musicians of the 20th century, known for his soulful voice, incredible songwriting, and virtuosity on multiple instruments.
Stevie’s music career began at the tender age of 11 when he signed with Motown Records. And by age 13 he was already topping the charts with hits like “Fingertips Pt. 2” and “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)”. His career saw a meteoric rise in the 70s and 80s, with him producing hit after hit, including “Superstition,” “Sir Duke,” and “I Just Called To Say I Love You”.
Today, Stevie Wonder Stevie Wonder is considered a musical icon, having won 25 Grammy Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award, and being inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
4. Ray Charles
The fourth singer on our list of the best black singers of the 60s is Ray Charles. Born in Albany, Georgia in 1930, Ray rose to fame with his unique style of music, a blend of blues, swing, jazz and gospel.
As his fame began to grow, he earned the nickname “The Genius,” and it’s not hard to see why. He was a master of his craft, effortlessly blending different styles to create something entirely his own.
But it wasn’t just his voice that set Ray apart. He was an incredible pianist, with a style that was both intricate and effortless. His fingers danced across the keys, creating melodies that were at once familiar and entirely new.
To throw some more icing on the cake, Ray’s hit single “Georgia On My Mind” earned him four Grammy awards. And, by the end of his career, he had won 18 total (5 posthumously), making him one of the most highly decorated singers in history.
5. Diana Ross
Rightfully taking the fifth spot on our list is Diana Ross, one of the most iconic singers of all time.
Born in Detroit in 1944, Diana rose to fame as the lead singer of The Supremes, with whom she released a string of hits like “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “Where Did Our Love Go”. By the time the group disbanded, they had achieved 12 number-one singles on the Billboard Hot 100, and The Supremes had become one of the best-selling girl groups in history.
But Diana Ross was far from done. In fact, her solo career was just getting started. Her debut single, “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” released in 1970, became a huge hit, and it was followed by several other hits like “Love Hangover,” “Upside Down,” and “I’m Coming Out,” solidifying her status as a solo superstar.
6. Nina Simone
Born as Eunice Kathleen Waymon in North Carolina in 1933, Nina Simone is the sixth singer on our list of the best black singers of the 60s. Unlike many other musicians on our list, Nina wasn’t born into music — instead, she was a trained classical pianist and had even earned a scholarship to the prestigious Juilliard School of Music.
However, when she began performing in bars and nightclubs to earn a living, she adopted the stage name “Nina Simone” in order to remain anonymous to her family. This was because her mother, a devout Methodist, disapproved of her playing “the devil’s music” in such establishments.
Nevertheless, Nina Simone went on to become a celebrated singer and songwriter, known for her soulful voice and socially conscious lyrics that addressed issues such as racial inequality and civil rights. Her hits include “Feeling Good,” “I Put a Spell on You,” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”
7. Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix is a name that needs no introduction. Widely regarded as one of the greatest guitarists in music history, Jimi rose to fame with his explosive and experimental style of rock. He released three studio albums before his untimely death in 1970, but those few years were enough to make him an icon.
Apart from his exceptional guitar-playing skills, Jimi Hendrix was also a great vocalist. His unique voice was the perfect complement to his innovative guitar licks, and it helped him create some of the most iconic songs of all time, such as “Purple Haze,” “Hey Joe,” and “The Wind Cries Mary”.
Today, Jimi’s influence is nothing short of legendary, and he is credited with inspiring countless musicians over the years including myself.
8. Ben E. King
Ben E. King, born Benjamin Earl Nelson in 1938, rose to fame as a lead vocalist for The Drifters, and his silky voice was integral to their success; he sang lead on hits like “This Magic Moment” and “Save The Last Dance For Me”.
However, King’s tenure with The Drifters was not without its challenges. In 1960, after a falling out with the group’s management, King decided to strike out on his own and pursue a solo career.
It was a decision that paid off. In 1961, King scored his first solo hit with “Spanish Harlem”, and it was followed by his biggest hit, “Stand By Me” which went on to become one of the most iconic songs of the 20th century.
But he was more than just a singer — Ben E. was also an exceptional songwriter, and his compositional skills were showcased in his biggest hit “Stand By Me”, which has been covered by hundreds of different artists over the years and is still widely considered one of the most popular songs of all time.
King passed away in 2015, but his legacy lives on through his timeless music. He will always be remembered as one of the greatest soul singers of all time.
9. Chubby Checker
Born Ernest Evans in Spring Gulley, South Carolina, in 1941, Chubby Checker grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a young man, he worked at a poultry store and as a shoe shiner before pursuing a career in music.
Checker’s big break came when he recorded a cover of Hank Ballard’s “The Twist” in 1960, which became a huge hit and sparked a dance craze that swept the nation. The song’s popularity led to Checker appearing on numerous television shows, including American Bandstand, where he performed the dance and showcased his energetic stage presence.
Checker followed up the success of “The Twist” with other dance hits, including “Let’s Twist Again,” “The Hucklebuck,” and “Pony Time.”
In addition to his success as a musician, Checker was also a trailblazer in the music industry, becoming one of the first African American artists to achieve crossover success, reaching audiences of all races and nationalities. decades
10. Wilson Pickett
Born in Prattville, Alabama, in 1941 Pickett started his musical career as a member of The Falcons, a group that had some success with hits like “You’re So Fine” and “I Found a Love”. It was during his time with The Falcons that Pickett began to develop his distinctive style, a gritty and powerful voice that would become his trademark.
In 1964, Pickett signed with Atlantic Records and released his first solo single, “If You Need Me,” which became a hit. However, it was his next single, “In the Midnight Hour,” that really put him on the map. The song became a huge success, reaching #21 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the R&B charts.
Despite his success, Pickett’s personal life was often tumultuous, with a history of substance abuse and legal troubles. He nevertheless remained a powerful force in the music industry until his death in 2006, and he is still considered one of the greatest soul singers of all time.
As you saw, the 1960s was a crucial decade for Black music. It saw the emergence of some of the greatest singers and musicians in history, many of whom continue to influence today’s music. Though their styles and personalities varied, they all had one thing in common: the ability to move people with their music. So, if you ever need a little bit of soul to brighten up your day, reach for one of the classic albums from these legendary performers. You won’t be disappointed.