bhmCompiling a list of the Top 10 black musicians of all time is, frankly, impossible.  The black experience in America has given rise to . . .  one of the greatest explosions of art in the history of human civilization.  There are literally thousands of musicians who should be mentioned in this discussion – people like John Coltrane, Lena Horne, Gil Scott-Heron, Marvin Gaye, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Stevie Wonder, Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, Nat King Cole, and on and on and on.  However, for the purposes of this list, Thriller has chosen artists based not only on the music they made, but on their social and political impact.  Occasionally, one musician has been chosen to represent an entire field for reasons that will be explained.  Also, there are many artists like Bob Marley, Hugh Masekela and Ladysmith Black Mambazo who deserve credit for furthering the cause of racial equality.  But, this is an American celebration, so it will focus on American musicians.  Ultimately, to be in the Top 10, music isn’t enough.  The artist must also have done something to advance the cause, to change the reality, to lead the way toward a better day.

louis-armstrong10.  Louis Armstrong

In Miles Davis’ excellent autobiography, he says that Louis Armstrong did more to change the way the trumpet is played – and as a result, the way jazz is played – than anyone else.  We’ll take his word for it.  In fact, Armstrong’s silly, jovial personality often overshadows his phenomenal impact on American music.  He moved jazz away from group improvisation and into an era of the soloist.  Without that shift, there is no Miles Davis or John Coltrane.  Of course, Davis is also scathingly critical of Armstrong’s personality, which Davis saw as a degrading attempt to appeal to white people.  That might have been true, but Armstrong came from a different era.  In fact, he was one of the first black performers to “cross over” to a white audience.  Of course, that should never have been the first priority of a black musician, but in a country where the power structure rested with the bitterly racist white majority, Armstrong’s popularity made him a trailblazer.  He was a major part of the shifting cultural and political status of blacks in America, and he deserves credit as such.

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billie9.  Billie Holiday

While Armstrong changed jazz trumpet, Holiday changed jazz vocals.  Her delivery – the way she would play with the phrasing and tempo, singing behind the beat, sculpting the words – was so radically original that it spawned an entire generation of singers in her wake, including people like Frank Sinatra, who credited Holiday as a major influence.  But, Holiday’s importance cuts deeper than music.  First and foremost, she was a strong female presence in an era where black women were mostly forced to occupy the lowest rung of society.  Holiday, along with other legends like Ella Fitzgerald, was a different kind of black woman – one who could command a room and demand respect with the sheer power of her talent and personality.  But, unlike Fitzgerald, Holiday was also political, singing a song that foreshadowed the Civil Rights movement, “Strange Fruit.”

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aretha8.  Aretha Franklin

In some ways, Franklin is the direct descendant of Holiday.  While Holiday helped start a shift in attitudes toward black women, Franklin threw that process into overdrive when she turned a fairly chauvinistic Otis Redding song into an anthem for both civil rights and women’s rights.  But, Franklin is so much more than “Respect.”  Although the 1960s saw great shifts in the treatment of minorities and women, it was still an era where a strong, independent woman was a very rare commodity.  Franklin was a diva because she had to be.  She demanded respect because she lived in a country that still didn’t give it freely to black women (and wouldn’t for several decades).  On top of all that, there is still the issue of raw talent that must be dealt with.  Franklin is regularly cited as the greatest singer in the history of recorded music, and she most likely is.  But she is also an excellent gospel pianist, a phenomenal songwriter and an icon.

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krs7.  KRS-ONE

Admittedly, KRS-ONE is a strange choice to be this high on the list.  No disrespect, but his personal impact does not quite match up to the names listed below him.  However, he was chosen for what he represents as much as for his music.  After revisiting his Thriller interview, and considering how best to represent hip-hop on this list, we decided that KRS-ONE was the best representative.  He has spent most of his adult life promoting hip-hop as a culture rather than just music.  He understands the social, political and artistic importance of the genre.  He understands the value of graffiti art, break-dancing, beat-boxing and rapping.  And, he knows where hip-hop came from because he was there at the beginning.  Hip-hop is one of the great art forms of the 20th century and is one of America’s greatest exports to the world, like jazz, blues and rock & roll before it.  And, as KRS-ONE says in his interview, it is the product of the Civil Rights movement.  It is the first form of black music that wasn’t co-opted by white artists, and as a result, black artists made most of the money.  And, with people like Russell Simmons, Jay-Z, Sean Combs and many other hip-hop executives, even the mostly white world of record labels has been changed.

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curtis6.  Curtis Mayfield

Mayfield’s career began in 1956 with the Impressions, but his legacy is 1970s soul.  He went solo in 1970 with Curtis, an intensely political album.  It is a testament to his integrity as an artist that he started the album with “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go,” a song that is frightening, funky, soulful and political as a motherfucker.  He could just as easily have led off with the infectious “Move On Up,” but he was called to more serious work.  Mayfield’s contribution to the black struggle was immense – songs like “We’re a Winner,” “Keep on Keeping On,” “Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey)” – but it goes far beyond music.  Mayfield founded his own record label, Curtom, and released most of his solo work on it, as well as writing, producing and releasing works for other artists like the Staples Singers, Baby Huey and others.  Although he was not the first black man to start his own label, the music business was still a world dominated by white people.  Mayfield’s incredible success with albums like Super Fly helped pave the way for the hip-hop generation and proved that a black artist could be successful on his own terms.

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miles5.  Miles Davis

Miles Davis is jazz.  He defined a genre that would take over the world and establish American music as a hot commodity.  Davis and his compatriots – including Coltrane, Monk, Mingus, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington and Count Basie – opened up the way for rhythm & blues, rock & roll and hip-hop to dominate the world in succeeding generations.  And, while the list of jazz players responsible for the genre’s worldwide success could fill several volumes, no one personifies the unparalleled cool of jazz like Davis.  On top of his musical contributions, he was one of the first black artists to openly flout the white establishment.  He was abrasive, defiant and uncooperative, but also brilliant.  He refused to make faces, dance or act a fool like many black artists did (or perhaps were forced to do) in the early part of the 20th century, and he adamantly resisted anything that he saw as “watering down” his music for a white audience.  It is impossible to explain the sheer guts it took to do those things in the 1940s and ’50s.

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michael4.  Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson’s life was never his own.  His story is the stuff of Greek tragedy – a man with unlimited talent and ambition whose undoing lay within that talent and ambition.  There are endless speculations on the last half of Jackson’s life – how a beloved singer with the most popular album of all time turned into a grotesque shell of his former self, addicted to plastic surgery and pain medication, charged with (but never convicted of) child molestation.  But perhaps the only way to understand it is to recognize that his life was never his own.  He was thrust into the spotlight before he was 10 years old and from that moment on, he was always “Michael Jackson.”  Sadly, for those who were born too late to experience him before his dramatic fall from grace, it is hard to understand just how huge, how influential, how goddamned cool Michael Jackson was.  At 10 years old, he was already one of the greatest natural singers of all time.  He only got better for the next decade and a half.  Jackson was an artist not just with his voice or his music, but with his body.  He was the only person in the universe who could out-dance James Brown (arguably).  And, after the release of Thriller, Jackson owned the globe.  He took black music to people who might not have ever been interested in it before.  He is the third-most successful recording artist of all time, with 750 million albums sold worldwide.  But, perhaps the greatest testament to his impact is this:  Ask just about any DJ for one song that will always get people dancing, regardless of age, race, nationality, etc.  More often than not, you’ll get a Michael Jackson song as the answer.

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sam-cooke3.  Sam Cooke

Thriller has interviewed a Who’s Who of 1960s soul musicians (yes, you will eventually get to read these interviews), and one name pops up again and again:  Sam Cooke.  His influence and presence are ubiquitous in the minds of his peeers, most of whom went on to become more famous and have longer careers than he did.  Cooke’s life was cut short in a tragic, violent incident that is still shrouded in mystery.  He died at 33-years-old in 1964, just as the ’60s were getting started, really, but even in that short time, Cooke proved how great he was.  He could do anything with his voice – raw soul, sanctified gospel, smooth pop.  Like Louis Armstrong before him, Cooke was a “cross over” artist, bringing soul music and gospel to a white audience.  But, Cooke was more than just a cross over.  In 1961, he started his own label – SAR Records – with two associates.  Although Motown was just coming into existence around the same time, the idea of a black man owning his own record label was still unheard of and quite radical in 1961.  He quickly created a publishing imprint and a management firm, but his crowning achievement was the song, “A Change is Gonna Come,” released after his death.  It just might be the greatest song ever recorded, showing where Cooke was heading as an artist.  Sadly, we will never know how great he could have been.

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jamesbrown2.  James Brown

There is no word big enough to describe James Brown.  “Genius” doesn’t even come close – he was something more, something better.  Here was a man who had mastery over rhythm like no one before or since – with his voice, with his body, with his grunts and groans.  But he was also a student of music.  He could walk you through the different eras of music, from classical baroque to funk, and explain what each one took from the others, where the beats were placed, and what it all meant in context.  He was such a perfectionist that he fined his band members for missing notes.  The result was the tightest band in the history of music.  Brown was to bandleaders what Alexander the Great was to world conquerors.  He was untouchable.  No one was in his league.  On top of defining funk music, Brown was also a stellar singer.  His ballads are almost impossibly beautiful.  But, more than that, he was a leader of his people.  Like Miles Davis before him, Brown didn’t bow to the white establishment.  He was outrageous, rich, powerful and arrogant.  He owned a plane in an era when that sort of thing simply was unheard of for a black man.  His performance the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated is often credited with preventing rioting.  And, his most socially important song, “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” became the anthem for the Civil Rights movement in the late-’60s and early ’70s.  As if that wasn’t enough, there is no hip-hop without James Brown.  He is the most sampled artist in hip-hop history.

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smokey1. Smokey Robinson

As hard as it is to pick a list of the most important black musicians, it is harder still to try to explain Smokey Robinson’s importance in a few sentences.  It is not an overstatement to say that without Robinson, the entire world would be different.  There might not be a Barack Obama – that is how important Robinson is politically.  There certainly wouldn’t be a Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Temptations and on and on – that’s how important he is musically.  Even the Beatles wanted to be Smokey Robinson. The man defined the Motown sound along with people like Lamont Dozier, the Funk Brothers and the Holland Brothers.    Look at the list of songs he wrote – “My Girl,” “My Guy,” “The Tracks of My Tears,” “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me,” “Ooo Baby Baby,” “I Second That Emotion,” and literally hundreds upon hundreds of others – and it is clear that Robinson was on another level.  But, he was also instrumental in the rise of Motown.  He wrote songs for the Miracles, but just as often wrote and produced for other artists on the label, turning it into a powerhouse.  He was Berry Gordy’s right hand man, in charge of finding new talent, grooming young acts and generally being as active in the business side of running a label as he was in the creative side of it.  Without Robinson, there is no Motown, and Motown was the most important black-owned business of the 20th century.  It radically changed the image of black people in America and the music of the world.  Without the Motown songbook, the last fifty-odd years of popular music would not exist.  And, the fact that a black-owned business could literally dominate the entire world was a fatal blow to the prevailing sentiment of racism, that black people were not capable of the same achievements as whites and should confine themselves to a lower plight.  That shift in perception was instrumental in the Civil Rights movement, and Robinson was largely responsible for it.

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  1. [...] Top 10 – The Most Important Black Musicians of All Time « Thriller … In some ways, Franklin is the direct descendant of Holiday. While Holiday helped start a shift in attitudes toward black women, Franklin threw that process into overdrive when she turned a fairly chauvinistic Otis Redding song into an anthem for . He has spent most of his adult life promoting hip-hop as a culture rather than just music. He understands the social, political and artistic importance of the genre. He understands the value of graffiti art, break-dancing, [...]

  2. [...] rest is here: Top 10 – The Most Important Black Musicians of All Time « Thriller … February 16th, 2011 | Tags: advance-the-cause, armstrong, artist-must, change-the-reality, [...]

  3. [...] the beat, sculpting the words – was so radically original that it spawned an entire … “jazz trumpet” – Google Blog Search This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged Black, Important, most, Musicians, Thriller, [...]

  4. Drew Atria on Tuesday 15, 2011

    I love your magazine, its contents, its soul and its direction. Kudos.

  5. Afrobutterfly on Tuesday 15, 2011

    Well, I don’t “agree” with this list per se, but I certainly appreciate the meaty commentary and your willingness to even attempt such a compilation… That said, I’d argue that Chuck Berry and (depending on how far you’re willing to go back) Robert Johnson should rate higher than anybody here with the possible exception of Brown. And that KRS-One gets a nod over both (and, for that matter, a guy like Chuck D) suggests you may have overweighted activism at the expense of the music… Whatevs. Keep up the good work.

  6. B.O on Tuesday 15, 2011

    “based not only on the music they made, but on their social and political impact.”

    Using this as the criteria, I’d have to take and Sam Cooke off that list. He legacy is just too limited. Each of the points you made could be contributed to other artists, many of whom I feel did it better than Sam.

    For one, you seem real hooked on black label ownership throughout the article. I agree in terms of the size and scope of Motown/Barry Gordy it gets into another category, but Excelsior was started by the René brothers twenty years before Cooke started his label and I don’t think that qualifies them to be on this list.

    Jackie Wilson recorded smooth R & B vocal material contemporaneously to Cookie, and I’ll take “Reet Petite” over “Twistin’ The Night Away” anytime.

    An artist like Sly Stone recorded material just as political as Cooke, did so more consistently, and was more active in social causes. In fact, Sly is someone I think would fit better in this list than Sam…

    Another substitute, perhaps the biggest hole in the list, is Ray Charles. First of all, his influence is undeniable. R & B, rock, and soul are all deeply influenced by his stylings. His recording of country material of course can’t be overstated.

    his political influence is more subtle, although of course being a black superstar in the 50’s is inherently political. His material is markedly black, but he was always willing to crossover. He went from being banned from Georgia to his version of “Georgia on my Mind” becoming the state song. There was that recent hubbub over the national anthem being performed in a “black” way, but my childhood is peppered with instances of Ray putting some soul into “America The Beautiful.”

    Also…Nat “King” Cole: first black guy with a national TV show, smooth as hell and never had to take Sinatra’s shit (a la Davis Jr.)

    -Fletcher Henderson basically invented big band, thus bringing jazz into the pop stage.

    -His recorded material is lacking (though I freaking love “Ballad for Americans”) but Paul Robeson was a black singer who caused controversy in the White House, something that didn’t happen again until Kanye West.

    -Jimi Hendrix is like Cooke in that his output is limited, but his impact is bigger musically. Also, Christgau called him a “psychedelic Uncle Tom.” What more do you want?

  7. Thriller on Tuesday 15, 2011

    Thanks, B.O. for reading and replying. Iit was an impossible list to make, and everyone you mentioned could make a very strong case for being there. I think Ray Charles has the strongest one. But, as for taking Sam Cooke off – yes, many of the points about him could be contributed to other artists, however, you couldn’t contribute all of those points to any one of those artists. I stand behind Cooke because he combines the smoothness of Wilson and Cole (NKC is my favorite singer of all time, by the way, and was very hard to leave off this list), the crossover potential of Charles, the politics of Stone and the label-owning quality of the Rene brothers. And, although his musical impact might seem to be smaller than Hendrix, I can tell you that Sam Cooke’s name is the only one that comes up in literally every interview I’ve ever done with soul musicians from Lamont Dozier, to Bobby Womack, to Solomon Burke, to Billy Cox (who played with Hendrix), and on and on. I think he was hugely influential in a much more subtle way, which makes it seem like he wasn’t that influential. But, I am the first to admit that this list could have had 10 completely other people and still been viable.

  8. Thriller on Tuesday 15, 2011

    Thanks Afrobutterfly! I agree with you that Chuck Berry and Robert Johnson are both prime candidates. However, I think their musical impact is bigger than their social/political one, and I wanted artists that had both. Still, I’m glad this list got so many people talking, because that’s really the point. I mean, it’s an impossible list to make, but a fun one to attempt. As for Chuck D – you’re totally right. To be completely honest, there are a lot of rappers who I would have picked before KRS-ONE, but I didn’t have interviews with any of them that I could link to. So, self-promotion (and the fact that I do think KRS embodies the best parts of hip-hop, and was very influential in its early days, although not necessarily as good as PE or many others) won the day in that case.

  9. ifeanyichukwu on Tuesday 15, 2011

    honestly i never thouhgt of smokey robinson to be that great in achievements, however i have always seen michael as the greatest after james brown…