Without R&B, there’d be no hip-hop, no rap and no soul. Not to mention funk, disco, rock ‘n roll, and contemporary R&B.
But without the best R&B artistes of all-time leading the charge, there’d simply be no R&B music, period.
Narrowing down the best of the best from a genre brimming with incredible talent, such rich history, and a sound evolution few other music categories could fathom... requires a little respect, not to mention nuance.
So join us as we explore four sub-categories: classic R&B artistes that paved the way, popular R&B artistes – both male and female – that broke into the mainstream, and the top R&B groups of all time by decade.
In this article:
CLASSIC R&B ARTISTES THAT PAVED THE WAY
These classic R&B artistes possessed all the hallmarks of the traditional R&B style, from the echoes of rock ‘n roll, the inclusion of the electric guitar, and a soulful twist on gospel and blues traditions.
Beyond box-ticking and categorisation, these iconic figures pushed R&B to new heights with musical contributions that evolved the genre.
As the genre evolved, so did classic R&B artiste Marvin Gaye.
His early career was heavy on the classic R&B and Motown flavour with signature sounds like “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow” (1962), “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” (1965) and “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” (1967).
Gaye later delved into soul, funk, disco and pop. And with the 1971 release of “What's Going On”, Gaye took R&B in a political direction, discussing themes like police brutality – a subsequent inspiration for hip-hop artistes.
One of Gaye's final fingerprints on the legacy of R&B was his 1982 album, Midnight Love which included his post-disco classic “Sexual Healing”, a track which won Gaye “Best Male R&B Vocal Performance” at the 1983 Grammy Awards.
If it weren't for Gaye’s untimely death in 1984, the “Prince of Soul” would've likely been a driving force for even more R&B evolutions.
Ray Charles, aka “The Genius”, was a legend of R&B who changed the course of the genre and music forever.
He first set the world on fire with his 1955 chart-topping single, “I've Got A Woman”, a trailblazing track which essentially pioneered the soul music genre by combining blues, gospel, jazz and more into one dynamic melting pot.
Another notable example of this fusion was Charles’ 1962 Grammy Award-winning song “Hit The Road Jack”.
Charles would later add pop and country music to his blend of R&B.
His rendition of Don Gibson’s “I Can't Stop Loving You” was an example of this. It was his only number-one hit in the UK and topped the R&B charts for ten weeks.
Aretha Franklin continued Charles’ legacy with her 1967 track “Respect”.
The soul supernova launched Franklin to superstardom and won her “Best Rhythm & Blues Recording” and “Best Rhythm & Blues Solo Vocal Performance, Female” at the 1968 Grammy Awards.
While songs like “Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” were breakout hits, Franklin had been on the music scene since the early 1960s.
The “Queen of Soul” is one of the world's best-selling artistes and recorded 20 number-one R&B singles in her career.
POPULAR MALE R&B ARTISTS THAT BROKE INTO THE MAINSTREAM
We’ve taken a cross-section of popular male R&B artistes from different periods, considering their popularity with fans and how they influenced their peers.
These picks are not just well-known; they’re also among the best male R&B artistes of all time.
Usher was an integral part of the contemporary R&B genre reaching notable success in the late 1990s and 2000s.
Usher's 1997 album, My Way, produced his first number-one track, “Nice & Slow”. Meanwhile, the 2001 album 8701 saw “U Remind Me” and “U Got It Bad” also reach number one.
The album 8701 contributed to Usher’s first Grammy Award wins, including “Best Male R&B Vocal Performance” in 2002. But the 2004 album Confessions cemented Usher as a singing and dancing R&B tour de force like his inspiration, Michael Jackson.
Singles like “Yeah”, “Burn” and “Confessions Part II” inspired future artistes like Justin Bieber.
A child prodigy, Stevie Wonder signed with his first record label (Motown's Tamla) at age 11.
By age 13, he reached number one with his 1963 track “Fingertips”. Wonder rivalled elders-come contemporaries Gaye and Charles with his pioneering push to reshape the conventions of R&B (particularly during the 1970s).
Wonder mixed R&B, pop, soul, gospel, funk, jazz and electronic music/synthesisers with socially conscious messaging to create his signature and influential style.
Some inspirational tracks from his five-decade-plus career include “Superstition” (1972), “Living For The City” (1973) and his 1982 duet with Paul McCartney, “Ebony And Ivory”.
His 1976 album Songs In The Key Of Life is cited as his most influential work, and it won him a Grammy for “Album of the Year”. Practically a one-man band, Wonder brought R&B into the album era and influenced artistes like Erykah Badu and Jackson.
Michael Jackson is arguably one of the best male R&B artistes of all time and he’s the only entrant to make this list twice (more on that later).
Don't let his “King Of Pop” epithet fool you. The inclusion of R&B in Jackson’s music and his influence on the genre is undeniable.
Jackson first made waves in the music world as the child-star lead singer of the family pop group, The Jackson 5. In 1979 he released his debut solo album. Off The Wall was influenced by R&B, disco, funk and pop.
Off The Wall single, “Don't Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”, reached number one on Billboard's Hot 100 chart, and Jackson subsequently won “Favourite Soul/R&B Single” at American Music Awards for the track.
His later albums Thriller (1982), Bad (1987) and Dangerous (1991) heralded the arrival of contemporary R&B.
Beyond that, Jackson’s performance style influenced future R&B stars like Chris Brown, Usher and Justin Timberlake.
POPULAR FEMALE R&B ARTISTES THAT BROKE INTO THE MAINSTREAM
There’s one thing our picks for most popular female R&B artistes have in common, records; they've sold a ton of them. For perspective, the only person that’s pipped any of them to the post regarding record sales is the “Queen of Pop” herself, Madonna.
Sales aside, these R&B legends elevated the genre to mainstream status in their own right.
Few could rival Mariah Carey’s influence during the “Golden Age” of R&B when contemporary R&B came to the fore.
From 1995's “Fantasy” (her 1995 collaboration with Ol' Dirty Bastard) to 1997's "Honey," Carey encapsulates the smooth hip-hop and R&B vibe that was so prevalent in the 90s.
Carey’s 1995 hit collaboration “One Sweet Day” with Boyz II Men is another contemporary R&B classic.
Some of her later R&B classics include “Heartbreaker” (1999), “We Belong Together” (2005), and “Obsessed” (2009). The aptly named “Songbird Supreme” is the third best-selling female artiste with over 220 million albums sold during her career.
Rihanna is the second best-selling female artiste of all time selling over 250 million albums in her career.
Her greatest influence, Madonna, covets the top spot – which is fitting as Rihanna has cited she wanted to be the “Black Madonna”.
Like her idol, Rihanna makes reinvention look easy with a career that has explored multiple music genres and styles. Be that dance hall, Reggae, pop, disco, or rock, and always an element of R&B.
Signature tracks include “Pon De Replay”, “Umbrella” and “Only Girl (In the World)”. Rihanna has claimed the number-one spot on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart 14 times and has influenced artistes like Billie Eilish, Bad Gyal, Lorde and Rita Ora.
There are few accolades Whitney Houston didn't manage to achieve during her three-decade-long career.
According to The Guinness Book of World Records, Houston has won more awards (over 600 in total) than any other female artiste in history.
“The Voice” burst onto the scene with her self-titled debut album in 1985, boasting classic tracks like “Saving All My Love For You” and “How Will I Know”.
Houston continued to experience phenomenal success with her famous rendition of “I Will Always Love You” for The Bodyguard soundtrack. The song became the best-selling single by a female artiste, selling 20 million physical copies.
Houston set the tone for contemporary R&B, and her mainstream success made it possible for fellow R&B singers Janet Jackson and Anita Baker to follow suit.
THE TOP R&B GROUPS OF ALL TIME BY DECADE
With so many incredible ensembles, it wasn’t easy to narrow down the top R&B groups of all time. The entries on this list were superstars of their particular decade, standing out among their peers, but they also had a powerful impact on R&B’s direction of travel.
P.S. – You didn’t think we’d leave Diana Ross and Beyoncé off the list, did you? We just had to get a little creative.
1960S: THE SUPREMES
Spearheaded by R&B diva Diana Ross, The Supremes had twelve number one hits on the Billboard Hot 100 chart throughout the 1960s.
Some of these classics included “Where Did Our Love Go”, “Stop! In the Name Of Love” and “Baby Love”.
Berry Gordy Jr’s (Motown Records founder) decision to change the group’s name to “Diana Ross & the Supremes” in 1967 – and thus centring Ross’ pop-friendly voice, set a precedent for the modern girl band.
Both the Broadway play and subsequent 2006 film, Dreamgirls, were loosely based upon Gordy’s move to make R&B mainstream.
The Supremes remain among the best-selling female groups of all time, influencing the playbook for commercially successful girl groups like Destiny’s Child and The Pussycat Dolls.
1970S: THE JACKSON 5
The Jackson 5, later known as the Jacksons, consisted of brothers Michael, Jermain, Jackie, Tito and Marlon Jackson.
Although they were founded in 1964, their Motown Records signing in 1968 meant they were on the right path toward the “Jacksonmania” of 1970 to 1972.
The Jackson 5 were the first group to debut with four consecutive Billboard Hot 100 number one hits with their signature tracks “I Want You Back” (1969), “ABC” (1970), “The Love You Save” (1970) and “I'll Be There” (1970).
The Jacksons Victory tour in 1984 included 55 stadium shows for around two million people, grossing a record-setting US$75 million.
The group set the blueprint for subsequent generations of boy bands like New Kids On The Block, Backstreet Boys and New Edition.
1980S: THE POINTER SISTERS
The Pointer Sisters broke into the mainstream in the 1970s and achieved the height of their success from the early to mid-1980s: gaining 13 US top 20 hits from 1973 to 1985. Aside from R&B, the group explored rock, country, bebop, disco, pop, funk and soul.
The Pointer Sisters won three Grammy Awards in total.
The group undoubtedly influenced the fun pop craze of the 1990s with their upbeat style. Some of their signature sounds include “I'm So Excited”, “Jump (For My Love)”, “Automatic”, “Fire”, and “Fairytale”.
1990S: BOYZ II MEN
Members of Boyz II Men were the spokesmen of smooth, hip-hop-inspired contemporary R&B throughout the 1990s.
Unlike other R&B groups, all four members in Boyz II Men were lead singers, rather than having some members be backup singers. This pioneering move established their unforgettable style.
The group skyrocketed into the mainstream with their first studio album Cooleyhighharmony, in 1991; it went platinum nine times.
Boyz II Men later sold over 64 million albums globally and won three Grammys. Classic R&B hits include “One Sweet Day” with Carey, “I'll Make Love To You”, and “End Of The Road”.
2000S: DESTINY’S CHILD
Destiny’s Child gained a modicum of mainstream recognition in 1998 with their hit single “No, No, No” and continued to experience chart success with classic 1999 tracks like “Bills, Bills, Bills” and “Say My Name”.
But it wasn't until the early 2000s, when the most long-standing lineup, Beyoncé Knowles, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams, finally came to fruition, that they really dominated the charts.
In October 2000, the trio released “Independent Women Part 1”, and the track spent eleven weeks in the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Later releases include “Lose My Breath”, “Soldier”, and “Girl”. With three Grammys to their name and a host of hit songs, it’s hard to deny Destiny’s Child their place as R&B icons.
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Writer | Rachael Hope
Rachael Hope is a writer and visual artist. She loves to explore the connections between creativity in all its forms and broader culture. When not being creative herself, you’ll find her practising yoga or exploring nature.