What would music sound like today if Mozart had taken up fox tossing instead of composition? What if Miles Davis had run a hardware store? What if Jimi Hendrix had left his guitar behind to focus on his military career? What if Kurt Cobain had been diagnosed (correctly) with clinical depression and cured with Prozac?
Would the world be a different place?
Let’s say John Lennon calls in sick the day his Quarrymen are scheduled to gig a church picnic. He never meets Paul McCartney, the Beatles never exist and, presumably, neither does much of what we recognize as popular music today.
Fortunately, history is written in vinyl. It cannot be altered. Less fortunately, those noted above are no longer with us. Actually, that’s probably for the best in the case of Mozart, 259 years of age this past month.
Still, those of us alive today are luckier than perhaps we realize. The late 20th century was a wildly inventive and pluralistic time in the history of music. We are the lucky few in the epochal yawning canyon of time to bear direct witness to the invention, proliferation, commoditization, and, eventually, the cultural embedding of infinite forms, genres, subgenres, movements, cultural phenomena, artistic institutions, and canonized figures.
Depending on your age, you may have experienced the birth of EDM, Hip Hop, New Wave, Punk, Funk, Fusion, Disco, Soul, Motown, Rock, Rock and Roll, Salsa, Afrobeat, Bossa Nova, Tropicália, Bebop, Electric Blues, Doo-Wop, Reggae, Ska, Dub, and whatever category you think Weird Al Yankovich fits into.
The point is that at this very moment, as we speak, there are those in our midst who are still alive but who will be survived far into the future by their musical achievements. It is the objective of this list to provide as far-reaching and representative a sampling of our living musical treasures as possible.
Aaaand…just so you don’t get your hopes up beforehand, Yankovich didn’t actually make the cut.
Narrowing it down to 50 people was not easy, so we had to start with a few basic qualifications:
So, this one is pretty self-explanatory. In order to be included on this list, you have to be alive or at least not dead. Undead is something of a gray area reserved for guys like Ozzy Osbourne and Iggy Pop.
Dead but presumed living lacks the necessary empirical basis for inclusion and justifies the absence of Elvis Presley. The reverse is true for those who are living but presumed dead, accounting for Paul McCartney’s eligibility.
[*Our list was originally published in the Spring of 2015. Sadly, since that time, three of these luminaries have passed on, leaving us for that great gig in the sky. Check out our piece In Memoriam of those recently departed.—Editors]
The single most essential qualification is the sphere of influence carved out by an individual musician. Influence may be indicated by an artist’s commercial impact, artistic imprint, and overarching vitality to their respective genre. On their own, each of these qualifications may describe countless musicians who didn’t make the list. Selling a lot of records does not alone make one an important artist. Celine Dion, I’m looking in your direction.
Ultimately, through a combination of factors, each artist included here has produced an impact with staying power, if not through sustained individual popularity, then through the sustained permeation of his or her music in the work of others. For instance, nobody hangs out with Chuck Berry anymore, but his riffs are to rock and roll what Shakespeare’s prose is to the theater.
This qualification was among the trickiest to navigate. Importance is dictated by the degree to which an artist is seen as the representative figure in a given genre. This status may be accorded because the individual in question innovated a new form, raised a form to new heights of excellence, subverted the conventions of an existing form, altered the historical course of a form, or rocketed a form to new commercial strata.
There are countless Kings, Queens, Godfathers, and Godmothers on this list. There are also two Princes, which I can assure you is not a Spin Doctors reference. There are virtuosos, studio wizards, and business moguls on this list — those who helped to explore uncharted sounds, redefine sonic textures, and further brand identity in their chosen media.
This means that many included here will be rather advanced in age, some of them retired and more visible through their accomplishments and impact than through their personal presence. In essence, though, this list should serve as a starting point for a truly comprehensive overview of popular music over the past 50 years through the lens of those who shaped it and live to tell.
Relevance concerns the degree to which some musical forms are well-represented here, whereas others appear to be less so. You’ll notice a healthy crop of rock musicians, a decent sampling of hip hop artists, and a handful of pop artists here, but a dearth of classical composers, opera singers, or, let’s say, Tuvan throat singers. All respect to the latter genres (and all apologies to throat-singing enthusiasts), but the periods of greatest, most prolific, and most excellent invention for these genres are many centuries in the past.
To be certain, each of these forms has seen its own bursts of creativity, exploration, and expanded visibility in the last century. And to the extent that is appropriate, some of these moments are accounted for here. But the scales tilt largely toward those figures who helped configure and reconfigure the musical idioms with the greatest artistic and commercial penetration in our recent history.
A note about the many, many painful exclusions that marked the completion of a list like this. I hear you. If I’m reading this list, and I don’t see Roger Waters, Keith Richards, or Michael Stipe, I’m like,
Yo! What gives?
You’d probably say it in a way that sounds less like Arthur Fonzarelli, but still, you’re probably wondering how we can justify a list that doesn’t have Pink Floyd’s musical architect, the Rolling Stones' riffmeister, or R.E.M.’s definitive alt-rock frontman.
Stated simply, there’s no way of knowing what the future might have held for Waters had he not partnered with David Gilmour; Keith Richards had Mick Jagger never made his acquaintance; Michael Stipe without Peter Buck’s shimmering guitar work. So how do you include one over the other?
In a list of influential bands, these guys are all over the place. In a list of influential artists, they are but a few of the most difficult cuts here. Others who didn’t make the list were simply the victims of space limitations. For those musicians, many on equal artistic footing with those included here, we promise to revisit and expand this list in the future. It broke my heart to give some of these greats the ax. I’ll make it up to you with the next 50.
But with these excuses behind us, we submit a list for your consideration that attempts to highlight those living giants — some current and some on the cusp of the great beyond — who have had a defining impact on music today. The list here gives us the opportunity to express our appreciation and offer our recognition to those still living who have collectively and individually defined everything we hear today.
No doubt, you’ll have your points of disagreement. You’ll take issue with those that are missing. You’ll take exception to some who are included. But ultimately, you will come away from this list with an encompassing sense of the kaleidoscopic musical rush that has been this past century.
The musicians are listed in alphabetical order, together with information about the principal musical genre they worked in, their country of origin, and their year of birth.
Find artists by name:
- Tony Allen
- Charles Aznavour
- Harry Belafonte
- Tony Bennett
- Chuck Berry
- David Bowie
- Garth Brooks
- David Bryne
- Ron Carter
- Jimmy Cliff
- George Clinton
- Ry Cooder
- James Cotton
- Danger Mouse
- Dr. Dre
- Dr. John
- Bob Dylan
- Aretha Franklin
- Joao Gilberto
- Philip Glass
- Dave Grohl
- Herbie Hancock
- Zakir Hussain
- B.B. King
- Carole King
- Kool Herc
- Little Richard
- Paul McCartney
- Giorgio Moroder
- Ennio Morricone
- Nana Mouskouri
- Youssou N’Dour
- Willie Nelson
- Ozzy Osbourne
- Johnny Pacheco
- Dolly Parton
- Iggy Pop
- Prince Buster
- A.R. Rahman
- Smokey Robinson
- Nile Rodgers
- Bruce Springsteen
- Tina Turner
- Caetano Veloso
- Neil Young
[*Our list was originally published in October of 2015. Since that time, three musicians on our list left us for that great gig in the sky. Check out our piece In Memoriam of those recently departed.—Editors]
The 50 Most Important Living Musicians
1. Tony Allen – Afrobeat
Nigeria of the late ‘60s was bursting with musical invention and political resistance. At the center of this fertile scene was percussionist Tony Allen, the premier drummer and a key architect of the sound known as Afrobeat
Born in Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous city, Allen taught himself to drum. His only formal education was through his father’s record collection, which largely consisted of traditional Yoruba, a form of percussive folk music highly popular throughout West Africa. While working as an engineer for a local radio station, Allen was also exposed to American jazz and a burgeoning Ghanaian highlife scene, distinguished by upbeat, Western-inflected, but distinctly African pop music.
Joining with Fela Kuti in 1964, Allen formed highlife combo Koola Lobitas. This collaboration would set both musicians on a path toward legendary status. Following their 1969 tour through a United States riven by protest, Fela, Allen, and company returned home with a new mission.
Renaming his unit Fela and Africa '70, Kuti adapted a new musical approach that took direct aim at Nigeria’s military dictatorship. With Allen at the kit, Africa '70 created a highly charged, politically provocative musical hybrid called Afrobeat. Afrobeat turned highlife loose with long instrumental grooves, politically provocative themes, soulful exhortations, and — courtesy of Tony Allen — furiously-paced polyrhythmic beats. Africa '70 gave way to an explosion of creativity, spawning a legion of like-minded young musicians and proliferating its sound throughout the Caribbean and Latin America.
Over a matter of disputed royalties, Tony Allen departed his bandleader in the late 1970s, taking a few of Fela’s sidemen with him. Allen’s solo career not only continued to expand on the creative terrain occupied by Afrobeat, but also led to his coinage of Afrofunk. Increasingly compelled by the role of western forms like rock, electronic music, and hip hop, Tony Allen has become well-known for his collaborations with younger musicians like Blur’s Damon Albarn, Air, and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
To be certain, the late Fela Kuti was the leading force in the creation of Afrobeat. As bandleader, multi-instrumentalist, singer, and outsized persona, Fela was not just Africa’s most important popular musician, but also a spiritual and political leader fulfilling a role not unlike that which Bob Marley occupied for Jamaica. As his musical foil and the only member of Fela’s band also responsible for authoring his own arrangements, Tony Allen is a key architect without whom there would be no Afrobeat.
Allen continues to assert his relevance to date. With more than 70 records already under his belt as a bandleader, sideman, and collaborator, Allen earned widespread acclaim for a solo album released just last year, at age 74.
2. Charles Aznavour – Chanson/French Pop
Frank Sinatra may no longer be with us, but we still have France’s equivalent. Charles Aznavour is among history’s most prolific and successful vocal artists and a revered figure in French pop music. The French-Armenian is also, in all probability, the most famous individual of Armenian descent in the world.
Born in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood of Paris’s sixth arrondissement (the epicenter of the Existentialist movement in the 1950s), Aznavour’s life in entertainment was determined early on. He dropped out of school at the age of nine to focus on performing. The bold choice allowed him to hone his skills as an actor, singer, and dancer before he even entered his teens. When he was old enough, he transitioned into nightclub singing and was a seasoned pro at 22 when the legendary Édith Piaf discovered the tenor and invited him on tour.
Piaf would be a tremendous influence on Aznavour, who opened frequently for her at the iconic Moulin Rouge. She helped the young singer train his voice, ultimately preparing for his development into one of the most prolific vocalists of the 20th Century. Once the hits started coming, they came fast and furious. What’s more, they never let up. Aznavour’s versatility as a singer was highlighted by his multilingualism, a fact which allowed him to record songs in no fewer than seven languages.
His discography is a thing of humbling enormity. In 1953, Aznavour began a run of productivity that, at present, includes 50 studio albums, 58 EPs, 18 Live albums, more than 180 million units sold, more than 80 films acted, and an estimated total of 1200 songs written.
Aznavour is as well recognized for his efforts as an Armenian statesman and dignitary. In addition to being a member of the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, Aznavour is a Permanent Delegate of Armenia to UNESCO and the U.N., as well as Armenia’s ambassador to Switzerland. Voters around the world also saw fit, in 1998, to name him as Entertainer of the Century in a CNN/Time Magazine poll.
Still, more remarkable than any of these accomplishments is the fact that in 2014, at the ripe age of 90, Aznavour embarked on his most recent tour.
3. Harry Belafonte – Calypso
Harry Belafonte’s remarkable career as a singer and entertainer is surpassed only by his accomplishments as an advocate for human rights. Born in Harlem, Belafonte lived with his grandmother in her native Jamaica during his formative years, where he was exposed to traditional Caribbean music. Returning to New York in his teens, Belafonte graduated from George Washington High School before serving in the U.S. Navy during WWII.
Belafonte signed to Victor in 1952, but made his first big splash with Calypso in 1956. The LP brought both the singer and Caribbean music to a significantly wider audience, becoming the first album in U.S. history to sell one million copies in a year and earning Belafonte his title as
King of Calypso.
This marked America’s first mainstream exposure to music of the Caribbean and prefigured its eventual infusion into jazz, R&B, and rock. Songs like
Banana Boat (Day-O) and
Jump in the Line became hi-fi party staples. As Belafonte enjoyed widespread critical and commercial success, he also became an uncompromisingly vocal participant in the Civil Rights movement. He refused to perform in the segregated South during the late 1950s and established a meaningful friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr.
In fact, Belafonte constantly placed himself on the front lines for such moments, performing at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, becoming a leading critic of Apartheid in South Africa, roundly lambasting America’s foreign policies during the War on Terror, and serving his post as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador since 1987.
In addition to becoming the figure most closely identified with calypso music, even to the present day, Belafonte dedicated his career to exploring Western music in all its forms, dabbling in blues, gospel, folk, and standards to equal acclaim. Over a recording, performing, and acting career spanning a staggering seven decades, Belafonte has been the recipient of an Emmy, a Tony, three Grammys (a Lifetime Achievement Award among them), and a National Medal of Arts.
4. Tony Bennett – Vocal Jazz
Tony Bennett is the last of the great crooners. Born into an Italian family in the ethnic enclave of Astoria, New York, the young Tony Benedetto got his first look at show business in the days of vaudeville, where his uncle was a tap dancer. Though his family endured the Great Depression in bitter poverty, his parents instilled in him a love for art, literature, and music.
Tony began his music career at a young age, working as a singing waiter in nearby Italian restaurants. Though he studied music formally at New York’s School of Industrial Art, hard times forced him to drop out and pursue paying work at 16. Even as he worked a series of menial day jobs, Benedetto continued to gig at night right up until being drafted into the U.S. Army in 1944. Benedetto saw heavy combat as an infantryman in France and Germany toward the end of the war and even took part in the liberation of a Nazi Concentration Camp.
In spite of the nightmarish experience he endured on the battlefront, the G.I. Bill made it possible for Tony to study at the American Theatre Wing upon his discharge in 1946. Though Tony managed a few recordings without registering on the pop radar, he did come to the attention of the rising Broadway star Pearl Bailey. She invited Tony to open for her. He did so and, as fortune would have it, performed to a house that included a summarily impressed Bob Hope.
Hope dubbed the young singer Tony Bennett and invited him on tour. The following year, he signed to Columbia Records and launched into a decade of dramatic success. With hits like
Boulevard of Broken Dreams,
Blue Velvet, and
Rags to Riches, Bennett established himself as a suave and sophisticated counterpoint to Sinatra’s streetwise tough guy.
The result was something of a cultural phenomenon. Before there was Elvis, before the Beatles, Tony Bennett’s appearances in the pre — rock and roll era were known to attract gaggles of shrieking female fans.
In the late ‘50s, Bennett also earned musical credibility beyond the Billboard landscape, recording with leading jazz masters like Herbie Mann, Art Blakey, and Chico Hamilton. This credibility may also account for his ability to remain relevant into the early ‘60s, even after the first surge of rock and roll. Indeed, 1962 would be a landmark year for Bennett, who headlined a star-studded bill at Carnegie Hall, performed at the opening broadcast of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, and released what remains his signature song, the breezy and perfectly evocative
I Left My Heart in San Francisco.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Tony Bennett enriched his legacy by successfully courting the MTV audience. Appearances on the Late Show With David Letterman, the Simpsons, and MTV Unplugged suddenly made Tony Bennett hip again.
It also garnered a resurgence of attention, acclaim, and recognition for the aging star. Indeed, the last 20 years have been something of a victory lap for Bennett, who continues not only to perform into his 80s but to collect all manner of accolades. He is the winner of an astonishing 17 Grammy Awards, two Emmys, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He also continues to surprise audiences by collaborating with major contemporary artists like K.D. Lang, Christina Aguilera, and Lady Gaga.
5. Chuck Berry – Rock and Roll
His guitar riffs may be among the most important and imitated sounds of the late 20th Century. His musical output in the mid-to-late ‘50s made him among the most consequential architects of rock and roll and laid the foundation for the generation of rockers to come. Born to a middle-class St. Louis family, Chuck Berry’s development benefited from the rich musical tapestry around him. Though never formally educated in music, he absorbed the soul of the bluesmen, the showmanship of the R&B shouters, and the crossover appeal of the hillbilly country singers that surrounded him.
By the time he was attending Sumner High School in the early ‘40s, he was performing in public with his own R&B combo. His professional development would be put on hiatus starting in 1944 as he served a three-year prison sentence for armed robbery. This would be Berry’s first major encounter in a life filled with legal scrapes and less-than-savory behavior.
On the bright side, his time in prison gave him a chance to focus on his singing. So excellent was the vocal quartet he fronted that they even booked a few gigs outside the prison walls. This was not exactly his big break, though. That wouldn’t come until 1955, when he signed with Chess Records.
Maybellene, his very first single, Berry had a million-seller, an R&B #1, and a #5 on the mainstream charts. It was also the first in a string of crossover hits. In addition to his silver-tongued wordplay, incendiary fretwork, and flashy stage presence, Berry dealt in themes that were in perfect harmony with a surging youth culture. Songs about girls, cars, and school were omnipresent in his performances. Over the next five years, Berry released
Roll Over Beethoven,
Rock and Roll Music,
Sweet Little Sixteen, and
Johnny B. Goode. This is basically the rock and roll equivalent of Prometheus gifting fire to humanity.
His influence may well have achieved an even greater reach beginning in the mid-‘60s, when a new crop of musicians on both sides of the Atlantic began knowingly and proudly stealing his licks. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Beach Boys — arguably the three most consequential rock bands of their time — all explicitly declared their debt to Berry. His songs were an important keystone in each band’s early performing repertoire and his incisive lead-in riffs were unabashedly co-opted in their early (and massively successful) songwriting exploits. Even as rock entered its more experimental phase in the late ‘60s, Berry’s songbook remained a necessary building block for every aspiring guitarist.
In many ways, Berry’s important musical accomplishments were at an end by the early ‘60s — and yet any discussion of the idiom which dominated popular music through the next four decades absolutely must begin with Chuck Berry. Indeed, he was a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s inaugural class of inductees, making him Ty Cobb to Elvis Presley’s Babe Ruth.
6. Beyoncé – Rhythm & Blues
7. Jay-Z – Hip Hop
So, we admit that we’re cheating a bit on this one. Both Beyoncé and Jay-Z command enough influence and importance in music today that either justifies an individual entry on this list. However, taken together, Jay and Bey comprise the most powerful couple in music today, possibly ever. R&B’s most dynamic singer and live performer, Beyoncé Knowles had already established herself as, arguably, the most successful artist of the decade before marrying rap superstar and business mogul Jay-Z in 2008. Together, the couple keeps company with President Obama and has a shared net worth of nearly $1 billion. They can also sleep soundly at night knowing that they have, both separately and together, shaped the face of popular music in the 21st Century.
Houston-born Beyoncé demonstrated tremendous vocal range from an extremely young age, rising through a circuit of talent shows both on her own and with a series of all-girl singing combos. She made music the primary focus of her education at both the High School for the Performing and Visual arts and Alief Elsik High School. By 1996, performing under the name Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé and company earned a contract with Columbia Records. Starting with their self-titled debut in 1998, Destiny’s Child began a three year run of chart success and award show recognition. However, Beyoncé emerged as the trio’s clear superstar, ultimately leading to the group’s split.
By the time Beyoncé was ready for a solo career, Shawn Carter was already one of the most successful artists in history. Born and raised in a housing project in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, Carter attended the George Westinghouse Career and Technical Education High School. Though Carter did not graduate, legend has it he engaged in lyrical battles during lunch break with a young Christopher Wallace, the future Biggie Smalls. Early mentors for the emergent rapper include Jaz-O, an inspiration for his performing moniker, and old school guru Big Daddy Kane, who gave Carter his first gig. Unable to secure a contract, Jay-Z formed his own Roc-A-Fella Records in 1995 and released his landmark debut, Reasonable Doubt, the following year. It announced the arrival of a major force in the game, featuring appearances by Biggie and paving the way for a deal with Def Jam.
Though in mourning over Biggie’s drive-by shooting death in 1997, Jay-Z teamed with Puff Daddy for the platinum followup, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. Over the ensuing five years, Jay-Z emerged as the top rapper in the business and, through the increasingly powerful status of Roc-A-Fella, a top businessman as well. Hugely successful collaborations with Mariah Carey, Ja Rule, and UGK also helped make Jay-Z a crossover star during rap’s ascension into uncontested Billboard dominance. His work also showcased up-and-coming talents like Kanye West, the Neptunes, and most importantly, a recently solo Beyoncé.
The two teamed together on his
03 Bonnie & Clyde and her
Crazy in Love. The former was a hit but the latter was an absolute smash, marking Beyoncé’s first visit to Billboard’s top spot, which she occupied for eight weeks. Selling more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, the song is one of the best-selling singles of all time. More importantly, these collaborations marked the beginning of an enduring romantic partnership for the pair.
More than a decade later, they are a model of matrimonial fortitude and equal partnership. With roughly 135 million records sold, 17 Grammys snagged, and more than $400 million in net worth, Beyoncé is at once the top-selling female artist of the millennium, the most frequently nominated Grammy winner ever, and the highest-paid black musician in history. With more than 100 million records sold, 19 Grammys snagged, and a record 13 #1 albums charted, Jay-Z is among the most-decorated and commercially successful rappers of all time. Together, they are the music industry’s most unstoppable force.
8. Bono – Rock
Paul Hewson is one of the most famous people in the world. Of course, you know him better as Bono, lead singer of the Irish stadium behemoth, U2. Behind the trademark bug-eyed sunglasses and golden falsetto is one of the most visible and accomplished figures in music history. His constant humanitarian efforts, his working relationship with presidents and prime ministers, and the world-conquering success of his band’s albums and tours make Bono a figure of towering cultural importance beyond his music. But of course, U2’s music also casts a shadow as long as its 35-year history.
Paul was born to a religious family in Dublin, Ireland. His spiritual upbringing would figure prominently into his life and music. But his real evolution as a musician came when he began attending the Mount Temple Comprehensive School, where he met his future bandmates and earned the nickname Bonovox (translated from the Latin for
good voice). Bono and his mates found that they weren’t particularly good at covering the Stones or Beach Boys, so they began writing their own compositions. Taking their name in 1976, U2 managed a contract with Island Records and released Boy in 1980. Their debut earned critical praise for Bono’s impassioned delivery and the band’s militant post-punk frankness. Minor Billboard success only hinted at the band’s achievements over the coming decade.
From the political pointedness of 1983’s War to the proto alt-country majesty of 1987’s The Joshua Tree to the electrofunk undercurrent of 1991’s Achtung Baby, U2 was arguably the most important rock band of the decade. Their stadium-filing tours, airwave-dominating singles, and album-oriented precision made the band, and particularly their frontman, a global phenomenon. Ultimately, the elements of punk, new wave, and arena rock that U2 fused together became a sound all their own, and one to which future stadium acts like Radiohead, Coldplay, and Muse owe an incalculable debt.
Over the course of the ‘90s, U2 redefined the enormity and spectacle of the live rock show. Playing to ever-larger audiences, the band dedicated its considerable resources to creating an enveloping sonic and visual experience even for audiences numbering in the tens of thousands. As a singer, Bono elevated the bar first set by Mick Jagger, using his tremendous passion and charisma to create intimacy in even the most expansive venues.
As the frontman of U2, Bono is the chief lyricist and, without question, the reason its albums have shipped to the tune of 150 million worldwide. They are also the recipients of a stunning 22 Grammy Awards and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Bono may also be rock’s greatest humanitarian. His efforts at promoting debt relief for developing nations and his work to spotlight poverty in Africa have granted him a key to the White House and perhaps even a genuine impact on global policy. Time magazine named him 2005’s Person of the Year.
9. David Bowie – Rock
UPDATE: David Bowie’s death in January of 2016 shocked the world. Bowie had privately battled cancer but ultimately succumbed to the illness at the age of 69. He released his final full-length record, Lazarus, the week he died.
There are few figures who can be said to have advanced the imagery, theatricality, and artistic palette of rock music as has David Bowie. Over the course of his 50-year career, Bowie has constantly redefined himself, undertaking complete reinvention of his music, his appearance, and the characters that he himself has inhabited. Known alternately as
The Thin White Duke,
The Dame, and quite a few others, perhaps his reputation as the
Rock and Roll Chameleon is most fitting. Bowie’s tremendous influence is based as much on his ability to create music of both artistic and commercial merit as for the role he played in shattering expectations of what a rock star should be.
Born in the Brixton district of South London, young David Jones was a gifted but rebellious child. At the age of nine, he found an outlet for that rebellion. His father returned from a trip to America with a clutch of rock and roll 45s. Among them were Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, and Little Richard. The music changed his life. He took up the ukulele and began performing with his friends. Even then, his provocative stage presence captivated classmates and teachers at the Bromley Technical High School.
In the early ‘60s, Bowie took on his stage name to avoid confusion with Davy Jones of the Monkees (imagine making that mistake!). In 1969, Bowie tapped into the global psyche by releasing the single
Space Oddity just five days ahead of the Apollo 11 launch. The majestic interstellar tragedy hit #5 in the U.K.
In 1972, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars would deliver Bowie to superstardom. A concept album centering around an androgynous rock and roll messiah from another planet, performances of Ziggy saw Bowie and his band donning elaborate Martian costumes and playing with spaced-out majesty. As Bowie shot to stardom, his seemingly paradoxical cross-dressing machismo established a template for image-conscious glam, punk, new wave, and hair metal bands yet to come.
Through the ‘70s and ‘80s, Bowie enjoyed continued success on both the album and singles charts in spite of his willful tendency to veer sharply off course of his previous triumphs. From the
plastic soul of his mid-70s work, to the German minimalism of his late-70s albums, to his New Romantic pop in the early-80s, Bowie sustained an enviable relationship with the Billboard charts. Still, his musical curiosity never waned.
Over the course of his career, Bowie has sold something in the range of 140 million albums worldwide, amounting to nine Platinum records in the U.K. and five in the U.S. Bowie is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and, though offered the title of Commander of the British Empire and Knighthood in 2000 and 2003 respectively, Bowie declined both.
10. Garth Brooks – Modern Country
Garth Brooks is as responsible as any one musician for the sound known as modern country. Never a favorite among discerning music snobs (and particularly not during the phase of his career when he inexplicably assumed the identity of glam rocker Chris Gaines), Brooks nonetheless achieved a level of mainstream commercial success theretofore unseen in his genre — or any other, for that matter. Taking country music from the pickup trucks and dirt roads south of the Mason-Dixon Line into the suburban living rooms of Yankees everywhere, his accessible themes, lovelorn honk, and lite-FM rock riffs nationalized country music.
The Tulsa-born Brooks excelled as an athlete in high school and earned a track scholarship to Oklahoma State University. He competed in javelin and graduated with a degree in advertising in 1984. Though Brooks enjoyed country music, his first love was sensitive singer-songwriter soft rock like James Taylor and Dan Fogelberg. This influence would serve him well when he moved to Nashville in search of fame.
He would find it quickly with his self-titled debut in 1989. The album reached #2 on the country charts and 13th on Billboard, launching the most successful country album career in history. The following year’s No Fences spent 23 consecutive weeks at #1 on the country charts and peaked at #3 on the pop charts. The next year, Ropin' in the Wind became the first country album to debut at #1 on the country charts.
In three short years, Brooks was a household name. His trademark headset microphone and slickly produced stage show outfitted country music’s blue collar anthems and patriotism with arena rock panache and ambition. Brooks joined the storied Grand Ole Opry in 1990 and carried country music into a new stratosphere of sales, in the process driving the Nashville sound to something more closely resembling arena rock acts like Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel than Hank Williams.
Brooks is a Country Music Hall of Famer, winner of two Grammys, and recipient of 17 American Music Awards, including recognition as
Artist of the ‘90s. This title is well-deserved, as nobody has sold more than Brooks’s 70 million records since 1989. He is only surpassed on the all-time list by the Beatles and Elvis Presley.
11. David Byrne – New Wave
David Byrne is the thinking man’s rocker. The idiosyncratic singer, songwriter, and ambient composer may well be the single greatest influence coursing through today’s rock radio consciousness. While groups like R.E.M., the Pixies, and the Cure all deserve mention in this category, The Taking Heads best represent the nervy arthouse ethos of new wave, the lyrical obscurity of alternative, and the addictive hookiness of today’s beardly hipster bands. All owe a debt to David Byrne for their right to be weird and successful all at once.
Born in Dumbarton, Scotland, Byrne’s family relocated several times during his youth before ultimately settling in Baltimore when he was nine. By this time, Byrne was already adept at the guitar, accordion, harmonica, and violin. Studying music first at the Rhode Island School of Design and thereafter the Maryland Institute College of Art, Byrne ultimately dropped out of school to pursue music in New York. His arrival there could not have come at a better time. His off-kilter vocals, quirky songwriting, and staccato time signatures were perfectly at home in the burgeoning punk scene.
Forming the Talking Heads in 1975, Byrne rose to recognition as part of the wild CBGB scene that give birth to punk legends like the Ramones, Television, and Blondie. Among them, the Talking Heads stood out for their intelligence and conscious artiness. In 1977, their breakthrough hit,
Psycho Killer, burned up the charts while the Son of Sam terrorized New York.
Over the course of eight albums, David Byrne was responsible for the lion’s share of writing, as well as for his band’s musical eclecticism. Albums like Fear of Music (1979) and Speaking in Tongues (1985) produced substantial charting hits while incorporating elements of Brazilian music, African polyrhythms, and the synthesizers that would define new wave. As to the latter, the Talking Heads were the most essential trailblazer in a genre that shot the Police, Duran Duran, and the Cars to megastardom. Byrne’s contributions to the MTV era may best be captured in the band’s groundbreaking Stop Making Sense (1984), an ingenious concert documentary (not to mention album) directed by Jonathan Demme. Its imagery and performance aesthetics make it a template-setting document in the music video medium.
Though the Talking Heads disbanded at the end of the ‘80s, Byrne’s solo career continues to distinguish him. Starting with 1981’s highly influential ambient record, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981), Byrne has lent his name to a series of solo works that touch on all manner of world, electronic, and even dance music. David Byrne was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Talking Heads in 2002 and is the owner of a Grammy, Oscar, and Golden Globe.
12. Ron Carter – Jazz
Ron Carter is, bar none, the single most recorded bassist in music history. With more than 2000 (not a typo!!) album appearances under his belt, it is pretty difficult to imagine anybody ever touching Carter for prolificacy. Of course, in order to be invited to that many sessions, it goes without saying that his fluid, elegant, and perceptive bass lines have been virtually unequaled in the past 50 years.
Born in Ferndale, Michigan, Carter began his musical development on the cello at the age of 10. Due to the barriers preventing African Americans from penetrating the world of classical music, he switched to the bass. Carter earned a bachelor’s degree from the Eastman School of Music and a master’s from the Manhattan School of Music, performing in their respective Philharmonic Orchestras. However, his extracurricular jazz activities thrust Carter into the middle of a burgeoning post-bop scene. Before he was even out of grad school, he was performing and recording with other future legends like Eric Dolphy (alto sax), Mal Waldron (piano), and Roy Haynes (drums).
His next move would set the course of his career at a lightning pace. Joining with Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet in the early '60s, he spent the next decade redefining jazz alongside Herbie Hancock (piano), Wayne Shorter (sax), and Tony Williams (drums). His association with Davis pushed Carter into wildly experimental territory and led to a period of flirtation with the electric bass. Typically a stand-up player, he helped to define the fusion genre with his bandmates by grounding their space-funk exploration with his slippery-but-thick walking bass lines.
The ‘60s also earned Carter his reputation as among the most sought-after session players in circulation. During this decade, he lent his sonorous tone to records by Hancock, Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Lee Morgan (trumpet), Horace Silver (piano), George Benson (guitar), Chico Hamilton (drums), and countless others. In the ‘70s, he emerged as a respected bandleader in his own right, fronting various combos comprised of the scene’s greatest musicians. He would become an important exponent of the Third Stream movement, which blurs the lines between jazz and classical music, as well.
Through the next two decades, Carter was essentially the house bassist for the great CTI Records. During the label’s period of maximum importance, Carter sat in on innumerable sessions for jazzers like Stanley Turrentine (sax), Kenny Burrell (guitar), Paul Desmond (alto sax), Milt Jackson (vibes), Herbie Mann (flute), and pretty much everybody else of any importance to recorded jazz at the time.
In the '90s and '00s, Carter showed no signs of slowing, even basking in the appreciation of musicians outside the jazz bubble. Hip hop pioneers, A Tribe Called Quest, tapped Carter for a guest appearance on their now-classic The Low End Theory (1991), even as Carter continued to release his own work at a pace of roughly an album a year. Ron Carter is a member of the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame, a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the City College of New York, and (unless anybody out there can think of another candidate) likely the most-recorded musician alive today.
13. Jimmy Cliff – Reggae
Jimmy Cliff wasn’t reggae’s biggest star, but he was its first. Though he spent the better part of his career in the all-eclipsing shadow of Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff is the man who paved the way out of Kingston for all who followed. And while so many of the genre’s key architects are sadly no longer with us, Jimmy Cliff remains a vibrant artist, giving us a direct line of sight into the birth of reggae. There is nobody alive today who was more instrumental to the proliferation of Jamaican music on a global scale.
Born and raised in the small town of Somerton, St. James Parish, southeast of Montego Bay, Cliff was inspired to take up songwriting by the American R&B that blasted out of sound systems in the neighborhood around him. He relocated to the capital to attend Kingston Technical School, but spent the better part of his time outside the classroom passing his homemade recordings off to area producers. He had little success until he convinced the proprietor of an area record store, Leslie Kong, to become his producer. Kong agreed and helped Cliff score his first hit at age 14.
Hurricane Hattie made Cliff a local sensation in 1962, its mellow vibe, sunny disposition, and uniquely accented backbeat representing an inflection point in Jamaica’s music. Its incorporation of mento, calypso, and American R&B makes it among the earliest examples of reggae music. His subsequent releases enjoyed the same level of success — so much so that he was selected to represent his country at the 1964 World’s Fair, an appearance which earned him a deal with Island Records.
His true break into global stardom came in 1972, when Cliff starred in the classic Jamaican blaxploitation film, The Harder They Come. In addition to his compelling performance, Cliff provided the soundtrack with a few of his most dramatic performances (
Many Rivers to Cross,
The Harder They Come). He was joined by a collection of artists and songs that would define the genre for international audiences.
It would also help to bridge the gap between Jamaica and record hounds in America and the U.K. Bob Marley would ultimately walk across this bridge. But as Marley’s star grew, Cliff steadily persevered as one of the genre’s most consistent and independent artists, exploring rock, pop, African music, punk, and electronica. A member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a Grammy winner just two years ago, Cliff is also the only musician, living or otherwise, ever to be awarded Jamaica’s Order of Merit.
14. George Clinton – Funk
The wonderfully strange man featured next is George Clinton. Though Clinton was born in Kannapolis, North Carolina, he truly began his musical development when his family moved to Central Jersey. This was where Clinton formed the Parliaments in the early ‘60s. Performing out of the back of his Plainfield Barbershop, the Parliaments dabbled mostly in Motown and doo-wop fare, hinting in no way at the radical path that would make George Clinton the Godfather of Funk.
In 1969, the Parliaments disbanded, leaving the name under record company ownership. It was at this point that Clinton was presumably abducted by aliens, intravenously fed LSD, and returned to Earth in rainbow dreadlocks and a diaper. Naturally, these factors would make Clinton the preeminent influence (alongside James Brown, of course) on the future history of funk, rap, hip hop, and rock.
Over the course of the '70s, Clinton presided over not one but two units, each of which helped to define funk at its most schizophrenic. Funkadelic’s gritty psychedelic soul served as a blueprint both for the conceptual approach to record-making and the sharp-tongued street journalism that would eventually shape hip hop at its most innovative. If Funkadelic’s legacy wasn’t enough on its own, Clinton began to also focus his attention on Parliament in the mid-‘70s. Even as Funkadelic was writing the book on psychedelic soul, Parliament set the mold for grimy, horn-heavy funk. Taken together, Parliament-Funkadelic created a mind-blowing live experience in which as many as 50 musicians might crowd the stage with glorious color and noise.
With 1978’s Funkadelic release, One Nation Under a Groove, Clinton achieved a masterpiece of confluence, the moment of greatest mainstream visibility for Funkadelic and the record on which all the moving parts in the Clinton kingdom came together. One Nation emerged on the back side of the funk movement, the front side of disco, and as a prelude to hip hop. This is Clinton’s greatest commercial and political manifesto, calling for global unity around the impulse to boogie. Clinton solidified his status as a patron saint of hip hop through his much-celebrated early ‘90s collaborations with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. Both cite Clinton as a seminal influence.
Today, Clinton continues to tour off and on with various members of his P-Funk All-Stars and is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
15. Ry Cooder – World
There’s a good chance you own an album containing contributions from this journeyman multi-instrumentalist. And yet, you could easily walk by him on the street without knowing you just brushed shoulders with a legend. In addition to his countless contributions as one of rock’s top hired guns, he has lent his own name to the proliferation of countless international folk forms.
Ry Cooder was a musical prodigy, learning to play the guitar almost as soon as he could walk. Cooder graduated from Santa Monica High School and studied at Reed College before ultimately departing to pursue music. This was a fortuitous time to be a gifted slide guitarist in L.A. The scene was bursting with art, music, and creativity. Many a future legend was cultivated under the warm Southern California sun, beginning with Taj Mahal. Cooder formed a prescient blues-rock combo called The Rising Sons with the future bluesmaster in 1966.
His next collaboration came when he joined the outlandish Captain Beefheart (formerly of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention) for his 1967 debut. Safe As Milk is a landmark recording of the gonzo subgenre, an album whose guttural eccentricities are made palatable by Cooder’s slippery tone. Over the next several years, Cooder proved himself the right man in the right place at nearly every turn, contributing his guitar work to classic records including Randy Newman’s 12 Songs (1970), Little Feat’s self-titled debut (1971) and, most importantly, the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed (1969) and Sticky Fingers (1971).
As a solo artist, Cooder produced 10 studio albums and four film soundtracks between 1970 and 1982, nearly every one manifesting as its own hybrid genre study. Touching on blues, country, folk, Tex-Mex, vaudeville, gospel, calypso — and just about any genre domestic or international that you can name — Cooder eschewed pop stardom in favor of a life in musical pilgrimage.
By the late ‘80s, this notion of pilgrimage transformed Cooder into one of the foremost champions of what is commonly called World Music. Though we concede that
World is a fairly ethnocentric catch-all for non-Western music, it truly qualifies in Cooder’s case. Beginning with 1993’s Indian-inflected Meeting by the River, Cooder initiated a series of collaborations with leading world musicians, routinely helping to bring global exposure to regional phenomena.
Most famously, Cooder opted to violate America’s travel ban to Cuba in order to record with local legends like Compay Segundo, Rubén González, and Ibrahim Ferrer (all now deceased). Cooder helped bring Cuba’s musical tradition, obscured by political isolation, to international attention. The collaboration also resulted in 1997’s most surprising hit record, with Buena Vista Social Club, which became an Academy Award — nominated documentary two years later.
16. James Cotton – Blues
James Cotton is one of the very last of a dying breed — the Delta Bluesman. Of the genres represented on this list, perhaps none is so ravaged by time. We have precious few living links to the world they inhabited. That James Cotton is still alive is a fact to be cherished. Born in Tunica, Mississippi, Cotton’s first exposure to music was through his mother Hattie’s harmonica playing. Though she was not particularly adept at the instrument, her playing fascinated James. He received his first harp for Christmas one year and quickly surpassed his first mentor.
Like many of the black families living in the segregated Delta, Cotton’s family worked as sharecroppers. Because he was too young to cut cotton, he sat in the shade and played music for his parents and siblings as they worked the fields. He took his first great leap as a musician when he first heard Sonny Boy Williamson on the radio. The legendary Williamson had gained widespread fame through his King Biscuit Time broadcasts and Cotton became one of his most avid admirers.
At the age of nine, Cotton suddenly lost both of his parents. His uncle, showing a remarkable prescience, took the boy to nearby Helena, Arkansas, to meet his idol. Williamson informally adopted the recently orphaned Cotton and made him his opening act. Cotton was far too young to enter the juke joints they played, but earned his tips by blowing harmonica on the front stoops.
When Williamson’s band unraveled, Cotton journeyed to Memphis and earned his way through his teenage years as a street performer and shoeshiner. One night, Cotton caught wind of a Howlin' Wolf performance in town. He rushed over with his harp, introduced himself, and before the age of 15, found himself on tour with another blues legend.
In 1954, when Cotton joined yet a third blues legend — Muddy Waters — he began an association that would last more than a decade, during which he would help cut some of Waters’s most iconic recordings. In the ‘60s, Cotton struck out on his own with the James Cotton Band, exploring similar psychedelic blues terrain as artists like Jimi Hendrix and Canned Heat. He doubled down on this transition by opening for Janis Joplin in 1967.
Over the course of the next several decades, James Cotton accompanied a mighty list of musicians, live and in studio, including Santana, B.B. King, the Grateful Dead, and Taj Mahal. Cotton was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2006 and remains a flesh-and-blood connection to the ghosts of blues lore. James Cotton is the greatest living blues harpist, a title he defends by performing live even to this day.
17. Danger Mouse – Trip Hop
White Plains, New York, native Brian Burton may well be the finest pop-smith of the post-rock era. Nearly every production that he touches turns to gold. The producer, DJ, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist seems almost compulsively driven to forge one felicitous musical partnership after another, leaving a litany of perfect pop gems in his wake.
A child of the '90s, Burton’s tastes reflect the eclectic utopianism of the decade, with his most important work often deconstructing the already-thin lines between hip hop, trip hop, dub, soul, indie rock, electronica, and psychedelia. The result is almost always a delectable chunk of ear candy.
Burton scored his first DJ gigs while at the University of Georgia. Shy about performing in public, Burton took to wearing a mouse suit while spinning his first parties. It was thus that he adopted the Danger Mouse tag. By the early 2000s, Danger Mouse had relocated to the musically fertile New Cross ward of South London. In 2004, Danger Mouse created what may be the most famous
mash-up of all time. Collaging a series of remixes merging songs from Jay-Z’s The Black Album and the Beatles' The White Album, Danger Mouse began distributing his The Grey Album CD to friends and supporters.
The mash-up rapidly gained cult status as online copies of the record spread like wildfire. Indeed, so successful was this bootleg project that EMI ordered a cease and desist — this in spite of the fact that Ringo, Macca, and Hova all offered their artistic praise for the project.
Thanks to EMI’s lawsuit, even the square entertainment business caught wind of the bootleg, with no less mainstream a publication than Entertainment Weekly naming it 2004’s Album of the Year. With his next project, Danger Mouse would produce a strong contender for Album of the Decade. In 2005, Danger sat at the controls for Demon Days, the sophomore masterpiece by Damon Albarn’s future funk, trip hop collective Gorillaz. A concept record foretelling the apocalypse against the backdrop of the War on Terror, Demon Days owed its deeply evocative textures, brilliantly foraged samples, and paradoxically radio-friendly tenor to Burton’s ear.
For his next collaboration, Danger Mouse stepped out from behind the controls to form the duo Gnarls Barkley with Dirty South legend CeeLo Green. Gnarls Barkley’s first single,
Crazy, owns the distinction of being the first to reach #1 on the U.K. charts through online downloads only. Their debut album, St. Elsewhere, earned the pair a Grammy for Best Alternative Record of the year.
It also made Burton one of the most sought-after producers in the business and, consequently, one of the most consistent. Collaborations with MF Doom (The Mouse and the Mask), Norah Jones (Little Broken Hearts), and Beck (Modern Guilt) helped to strengthen Burton’s production résumé. His production work for the Black Keys helped transform the relatively nondescript blues rock duo into one of the biggest touring acts in the world.
In 2009, Esquire magazine named Danger Mouse on its list of
The 75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century.
18. Dr. Dre – Hip Hop
Dr. Dre is the most important purveyor of Gangsta Rap and the key architect of its most musically compelling subgenre, West Coast G-Funk. At the height of Dre’s musical influence, gangsta was the defining oeuvre of a hip hop industry on its way from the underground to the top of the Billboard charts. In many ways, his contributions both as a rapper and a producer helped to usher hip hop into a new and bigger phase, pushing the genre from the spare beats and predictable R&B breaks of old school into a dense, laid-back style that draws from a far deeper well of funk, fusion, blaxploitation, and jazz samples. As a talent scout, impresario, and businessman, Dr. Dre’s influence over the music business is all encompassing today.
Andre Young was born in the black L.A. barrio called Compton. Young struggled in school and transferred several times to escape the permeating influence of gang violence. Following a brief tenure at the Chester Adult School, Andre dropped out and, joining with Ice Cube and Eazy-E in 1986, changed the face of popular music.
With N.W.A., Dre helped rap some of the starkest, frankest, and most frightening street poetry ever recorded. With their debut, Straight Outta Compton, N.W.A. opened a window into black life in the L.A. ghettos, detailing a violent world in ways that had never been outlined so bluntly, in music or elsewhere. So evocative was their message that their label, Ruthless Records, even earned itself a cautionary letter from the FBI.
At the height of its success, Dr. Dre departed N.W.A. to become the flagship artist at Death Row Records, subsequently releasing 1992’s The Chronic, which stands today as a strong contender for the greatest hip hop record ever pressed. Smoothing out N.W.A.’s rough edges, Dre innovated a slow, drawling, groove-heavy production style fueled by Funkadelic and Ohio Players samples. He also introduced a shy, lanky stoner named Snoop Dogg, who instantly emerged as rap’s most charismatic young talent. With consequently inescapable MTV and radio smash hits
Nuthin' but a ‘G' Thang, and
Let Me Ride, The Chronic went triple platinum, earned Dre a Grammy, and segued directly into Snoop’s '93 debut, Doggystyle.
Over the course of the next decade, Dr. Dre had the Midas touch, launching some of the most successful careers in rap history through discovery, musical collaboration, and production, including Tupac Shakur, Eminem, 50 Cent, and — the current king of West Coast rap — Kendrick Lamaar. All this and Dr. Dre was ranked by Forbes in 2014 as the highest-paid musician alive. The six-time Grammy Winner recently completed a deal which sent his Beats by Dre line of audiophile headphones to Apple, Inc., for a reported $3 billion, making him hip hop’s top-ranking millionaire.
19. Dr. John – New Orleans Blues
Mac Rebennack proved that funk truly is the best medicine. Known better by his medical moniker, Dr. John is the greatest living musical ambassador of the Crescent City. The buoyant, eccentric, oddball singer embodies the boundary-breaking, genre-bending, foot-stomping, voodoo stew that is New Orleans music.
In spite of his self-appointed title, the good Dr. was never much of a student. He attended a Jesuit high school, but fared poorly because he spent his nights playing guitar in the city’s booming after-hours scene. That — and the fact that he was usually stoned out of his gourd — did not help his grades. When the Jesuit fathers offered him a choice between his studies and his music, he ended his formal relationship with school and gleaned much of his education from the pimps, prostitutes, and hustlers that surrounded him.
There was one teacher who had an impact on Mac. New Orleans boogie woogie pianist Professor Longhair attracted the young guitarist’s attention with his joyful bounce and his flashy attire. Like Mac, Professor Longhair did not come by his title through formal schooling, but few in New Orleans would question the man’s authority. Mac cut his teeth backing the Professor and other local legends in his early teens.
Though his career was just getting started, Mac’s guitar-playing days came to an end early. While coming to the defense of a bandmate in a bar brawl during a Jackson, Mississippi, gig, Mac’s finger was blown off by a gunshot. It was then that he adopted the piano. After moving to L.A. and adopting his stage name, Dr. John became a member of the famed Wrecking Crew, a roster of L.A.’s most sought-after studio musicians.
Dr. John backed artists as diverse as Sonny & Cher, Canned Heat, and Frank Zappa, while forging his own identity as
The Night Tripper, a shamanic, psychedelic, hoodoo man whose live performances drew equally on bayou country medicine shows of the 19th century and the monster-movie performance-art of Screamin' Jay Hawkins. On his 1968 debut, Gris Gris, Dr. John stirred up a hallucinogenic potion of psychedelic smoke, Santería chanting, and Frenchman’s Street bounce.
In spite of a lifelong struggle with addiction, Dr. John was compulsively prolific, producing a raft of critically embraced and alluringly strange records through the 1970s. With the end the psychedelic era, albums like Dr. John’s Gumbo (1972) and In the Right Place (1973) represented a concerted shift in direction. Both would become Big Easy standards. It was along this path that Dr. John would ultimately stride for much of his career, incorporating the jazz, rock, blues, funk, and zydeco around him and ultimately authoring a style that can only be described as his. Often imitated but never equaled, this Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, winner of six Grammy Awards, and honorary Doctor (finally) of Fine Arts courtesy of Tulane University, is New Orleans music.
20. Bob Dylan – Rock
There is no songwriter who exerted a greater influence on popular music in the 20th Century than Bob Dylan. Born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth and raised in the small city of Hibbing in Minnesota’s desolate Mesabi Iron Range, the singer picked up his first guitar after hearing Elvis Presley and Little Richard on the radio. He wouldn’t discover folk music until enrolling in the University of Minnesota. Zimmerman was drawn to the beatnik coffee house scene in the big city. He changed his name to Dylan (in honor of the great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas) and began performing around town.
After one year in college, Dylan dropped out and moved to Greenwich Village. Here, he rose to fame as the leading figure in a major folk revival. Taking cues from his idol, Woody Guthrie, Dylan inserted himself into the heart of a burgeoning anti-war and Civil Rights movements, writing and performing socially conscious and ingeniously literate original compositions.
In 1963, his Freewheelin' Bob Dylan would become the artistic high-water mark of the Greenwich movement. In the ensuing years, Dylan would prove mercurial and resistant to categorization, though all the more innovative for his work. As the Vietnam conflict boiled over into war, Dylan shocked his folkie supporters by departing the protest movement. In rock circles, the moment that he
plugged in at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival remains a watershed event, marking Dylan’s transformation into a fast-talking, surrealist hipster.
It was during this contentious time that he also produced his very best and most important work in Bringing It All Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revisited (1965), and Blonde on Blonde (1966). Indeed, it could be argued that with every movement of great importance in the history of rock, from psychedelia in the mid-60s to country-rock in the late '60s, from singer-songwriter confessional in the early-70s to slick stadium rock by the start of the ‘80s, Dylan has been a catalyst.
All told, Bob Dylan has moved more than 100 million records, earned a Grammy, an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a Pulitzer Prize, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. He is also a member of the Rock and Roll, Nashville Songwriters, and Songwriters Halls of Fame.
21. Aretha Franklin – Soul
Aretha Franklin was born in Memphis, Tennessee, but her family relocated to Detroit when the future diva was still young. Aretha’s father was a charismatic preacher and her mother, a gifted piano player and singer. Not only did their influence provide Aretha with a highly musical upbringing, but her father’s popularity also made her home a hip celebrity hangout. Among the frequent visitors to the Franklin household were Sam Cooke, Clara Ward, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Clearly, the young Aretha kept good company for an aspiring singer. She began her performing career by singing in her father’s traveling preacher show, an enterprise that was religious but highly lucrative. To be sure, Aretha’s father recognized the power of his daughter’s voice early on. When Sam Cooke departed gospel music to begin performing in the secular world, Aretha decided to follow in his footsteps with her father’s support.
She catapulted to stardom through a series of studio albums in the late ‘60s, highlighted by I Never Loved a Man The Way That I Love You, Lady Soul, and Aretha Now. These albums were pure soul, powered by Franklin’s commanding vocal presence and the crack musicians of Alabama’s famed Muscle Shoals studio. Her take on Otis Redding’s
Respect would be of particular importance to the soul genre and, indeed, to the Civil and Women’s Rights movements.
It remains an anthem of empowerment and one of the most representative musical moments of the ‘60s. The Queen of Soul maintained her relevance with a pop makeover à la the Pointer Sisters in the 1980s, reinforcing her place as a commercial powerhouse.
In 1987, Franklin became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an accomplishment which is underlined by 18 Grammy wins and 75 million records sold. Aretha is also the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and holds honorary doctorate degrees from Princeton, Yale, and Berklee College of Music.
22. João Gilberto – Bossa Nova
Singer and guitarist João Gilberto is among the most pivotal figures in Brazil’s rich musical history. Born in the northeastern state of Bahia, Gilberto showed his musical aptitude early on. He acquired his first guitar, a gift from his grandfather, at age 14 and immediately started a band, playing select tunes from Brazil’s popular samba scene and dabbling in a few American jazz standards.
Though Gilberto struggled through years of depression and artistic despair, a change of scenery in the late ‘50s would have a monumental impact on his music, and on the history of popular music in general. Moving to the countryside, Gilberto conjured a melodic variation on traditional samba music that traded the percussive nature of the latter for a breezy harmonic style of play. It was in this setting that Gilberto composed
Bim-Bom, often cited as the first bossa nova tune.
Literally translated to
the new style, Gilberto’s sound was such a radical departure from musical convention that his father, upon hearing it, had his son committed. Fortunately, therapists disagreed with his father’s diagnosis and discharged him after only a week. This freed Gilberto to travel back to Rio de Janeiro, where he connected with an old friend named Antônio Carlos Jobim.
Gilberto provided guitar accompaniment to Jobim on a 1957 recording, bringing bossa nova to the attention of Rio’s musical inner circles. Gilberto’s style quickly became the subject of intrigue and imitation. With his 1959 debut, Chega de Saudade, Gilberto applied his distinctive style to both traditional samba and a host of new Jobim compositions. The result was a landmark recording, the first bossa nova hit, and the launchpad for a genre that would sweep both Brazil and American jazz circles.
Indeed, by the early ‘60s, there was nary a hip lounge in the United States that wasn’t soundtracking cocktail hour with some variation on bossa nova’s laid-back grooves. Widely-recognized jazz masters like flautist Herbie Mann and saxophonist Stan Getz embraced bossa nova and Gilberto himself. In fact, it would be his collaboration with Stan Getz that made bossa nova a global phenomenon. The centerpiece of 1962’s Getz/Gilberto LP was the Jobim-penned
The Girl from Ipanema.
Now a standard the world over,
The Girl from Ipanema typifies the wispy ultra-coolness of the genre. Over the next two decades, Gilberto worked and lived in North America, splitting time between the United States and Mexico. During the '60s and '70s, Gilberto built on his international reputation as one of the world’s most formidable guitarists and as the leading purveyor of bossa nova.
23. Philip Glass – Classical
Philip Glass is one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, a remarkable achievement considering how willfully he has pursued the avant-garde throughout his 50-year career. Distinguished among classical composers because he also remains a performing musician, Philip Glass earns the distinction of having embraced experimental independence through his
minimalist and "classicist" styles, while simultaneously earning the embrace of popular culture, whether through the admiration of more mainstream musicians or through the various honors that have highlighted his lifetime of musical achievement.
Born in Baltimore to Lithuanian immigrants, Glass was blessed with a father who owned a record store. This meant that his personal collection was comprised substantially of the store’s classical overflow. This early exposure helped shape Glass into a prodigy. His flute-playing was so advanced that he gained admission into a University of Chicago music program when just 15 years old. He would move over to the keyboard during his subsequent time at Juilliard, where he also began his study of composition.
A 1964 Fulbright Scholarship earned Glass a trip to Paris, which exposed him to the city’s booming experimental art, music, and theater scenes. It was during his time there that he began experimenting with the repetitive structure and dissonant minimalism that would become his trademarks. Exposure, in the late 60s, to the sitar ragas of Ravi Shankar also had an impact on this approach.
Glass returned to New York in 1967 and — teaming with Steve Reich and other emergent experimental composers of the scene — began a period of tremendous productivity, producing no fewer than nine compositions during the next year and a half. Live experimental performances were met with enthusiasm and brought Glass into close contact with New York’s bohemian elite. As his harmonic approach became denser and more complex in the early ‘70s, Glass faced harsh criticism from classical purists. And yet, his reputation among popular musicians with a taste for the avant-garde brought him admiration from artists challenging convention in their own fields, like Brian Eno, John Cale, and David Bowie.
Then, in 1975, Glass transitioned into a more rhythmically and harmonically structured compositional approach, producing his first opera with Einstein on the Beach. Critics who were receptive to his subversion of traditional forms rated this as a seminal musical accomplishment. In addition to delivering Glass as one of the form’s most challenging composers, this success helped him to achieve greater popular visibility, particularly as he began scoring television and film in the later part of the decade. For something really interesting, check out the trippy, choral layering that Glass was commissioned to compose for a series of Sesame Street animated shorts called
Geometry of a Circle.
The variety and conceptual conceits of his various projects over the past 30 years are simply too great and complex to outline here. But as the titular head of the Philip Glass ensemble and as a composer of unmatched prolificacy, Glass has helped to constantly redefine and broaden the palette of classical and popular music. His film scores have also earned Glass three Academy Award nominations and a Golden Globe win.
24. Dave Grohl – Grunge
Who would have guessed it? More than 20 years since Kurt Cobain’s epoch-defining suicide and it’s Nirvana’s powerful but unassuming drummer who wields an enormous influence over the music business today. Dave Grohl was always the friendly fire-starter hiding on the drum stool in the back while Cobain glowered up front. All respect to Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, but Grohl is not just grunge’s last-man-standing. Today, he stands head and shoulders above his '90s contemporaries.
Born in Warren, Ohio, Grohl’s family relocated to Springfield, Virginia, when he was still young. Grohl was a popular student at the Bishop Ireton and Annandale High Schools but ultimately dropped out at 17 and dedicated his full attention to a career in punk. In 1986, he successfully auditioned to replace the departed drummer of Dischord label stalwarts, Scream. Grohl spent the next four years touring the world with the hardcore unit, gaining a reputation as a fierce drummer and solid bandmate. This reputation earned him a seat with Nirvana just as they approached superstardom.
Grohl’s heavy hands helped deliver the stadium-sized punch needed to move Nirvana from cult status to the top of the charts. Indeed, this is where 1991’s Nevermind ultimately landed. The single and MTV video for
Smells Like Teen Spirit provided an anthem of disenchantment for the slacker generation. It also opened the pop music door wide open for the cast of freaks, punks, and weirdos that made radio in the 1990s so wonderfully diverse and exciting. Groups like Sonic Youth, the Flaming Lips, and the Butthole Surfers got the call-up from their respective indie labels to the majors. Groups like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains rode the grunge wave to massive record sales. At the center of the alternative boom, Nirvana released two more masterpieces with In Utero (1993) and (posthumously) MTV Unplugged in New York (1994).
And then, Kurt Cobain took his own life with a shotgun, effectively ending Nirvana’s brief but earth-shattering run. Then, Dave Grohl did something that nobody expected. He stepped out from Kurt Cobain’s dark shadow and proved himself one of the most amiable, reliable, and profitable guys in the game. Taking his own songs into the studio for the first time and playing all the instruments, Grohl released a 1995 solo debut under the misleading name, The Foo Fighters. It was a surprise smash hit; so Grohol assembled a touring band and never looked back. Eight studio records later, the Foo Fighters are winners of four Grammys for Best Rock Album and a lucrative touring mainstay in an era where hard rock bands often struggle to fill stadiums.
Dave Grohl’s tireless productivity and his amazing capacity to be seemingly everywhere at once makes him something of a spokesperson for alternative rock. His collaborations are so diverse, colorful, and constant that it’s hard to believe Grohl has time to lead his own band. The list includes David Bowie, Nine Inch Nails, Queens of the Stone Age, Puff Daddy, and every album by Tenacious D.
Grohl also made his directorial debut in 2013, releasing Sound City (about the legendary Los Angeles studio of the same name) and earning universally positive reviews. It may be partly because everybody likes Dave Grohl so much, but the film is the owner of a highly unusual 100% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
25. Herbie Hancock – Jazz
Herbie Hancock is a jazz musician by label only. The impact that his work had first in the world of jazz, then fusion, and subsequently funk, hip hop, and electronica, render the pianist among the most influential musicians in any genre.
The Chicago-born prodigy began his education as a student of classical music at the age of seven and quickly gained recognition for his perceptive ear and natural finesse. At 11, Herbie performed a Mozart Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony. As he entered his teens, cool jazz and bop were changing the course of music, a fact which influenced Hancock to shift his focus. Pianists Bill Evans and Chris Anderson had a particular impact on Hancock’s direction as he studied music and electrical engineering at Grinnell College.
It was at Anderson’s advice that Hancock teamed with two young players also on their way to altering the course of jazz: Donald Byrd (trumpet) and Coleman Hawkins (sax). As the young musicians cut their teeth together, Herbie Hancock assembled another group of rising stars, including Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Dexter Gordon (sax), and Billy Higgins (drums), to record his 1962 debut, Takin' Off for Blue Note. The album’s
Watermelon Man would become a hit later that year courtesy of a cover by Latin jazzer Mongo Santamaria. In addition to putting Hancock on the map, it would bring him to the attention of jazz music’s great navigator, Miles Davis.
Hancock joined with Davis, Shorter, Carter, and Tony Williams (drums) and — from 1964 to 1969 — they collectively reinvented the jazz wheel as the most daring, forward-looking post-bop unit playing. Over time, the Quintet moved into increasingly controversial territory, piercing through traditional jazz pretensions with African rhythms, blues-based tones, and electronic instrumentation (most particularly Hancock’s emergent-trademark Rhodes electric piano).
Fusion albums like Miles in the Sky (1968), Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968), and In a Silent Way (1969) summarily freaked out the jazz establishment. Hancock took this cue in his solo career and ran with it. For the first part of the 1970s, he struck out with his own combo to record a series of daring experimental records, toying with funk, blaxploitation, and free jazz before launching his Head Hunters in 1973. By unabashedly incorporating elements of funk, soul, and rock into electronically fueled jazz, The Head Hunters became a premier fusion group and a crossover success. Their self-titled debut, once again, infuriated purists, but thrilled fellow musicians and consumers, the latter of whom made it the best-selling jazz album to that point.
The Head Hunters spent the better part of the ‘70s erasing the lines between jazz and funk, in the process helping to at least partially inform the birth of hip hop (a genre in which Herbie and his Head Hunters have been ruthlessly sampled).
In addition to his skills as a musician, Hancock had long been fascinated with, and educated in, electronics. This informed his turn toward synth-driven fusion in the early ‘80s, spawning an unlikely MTV era new wave hit with
Rock It and placing Hancock’s permanent stamp on yet another emergent genre.
26. Zakir Hussain – Indian Fusion
Zakir Hussain is a revolutionary figure in Indian music and among the most revered percussionists in the world. The tabla player was certainly born with the right pedigree. The son of sitar master Ravi Shankar’s frequent accompanist, Alla Rakha, Zakir Hussain is the musical liaison between Western and Indian music. His influence is couched in his constant cross-border collaborations and the brilliant works of fusion they have produced.
Born in Mumbai, Hussain’s upbringing made his life in music a foregone conclusion. Hussain was treating audiences to his supple and eclectic style from the age of 12. By 1970, a 19-year-old Hussain was onstage in America with Shankar and his father, who had by now achieved global fame for their association with The Beatles and their performance at Woodstock.
The exposure to Western music would place the talented musician squarely in the middle of the fusion era. Jazz, rock, and world music were converging in exciting new ways and Hussain thrust himself into the mix. As the leader of the Tal Vadya Rhythm Band and, subsequently, the Diga Rhythm band, Hussain emerged as the leading purveyor of Indian-inflected fusion. The late ‘70s saw Hussain undertake a series of collaborations aimed at Western audiences. His band backed the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart on a self-titled '76 release and Hussain undertook a three-year partnership with fusion guitar virtuoso John McLaughlin called Shakti.
Through the 1980s, Zakir Hussain established himself as a solo artist of global importance. His '87 solo debut, Making Music, is considered a landmark transcontinental fusion record. His collaborative credits include albums by George Harrison, Van Morrison, Tito Puente, Pharaoh Sanders, Billy Cobham, and Bill Laswell (via the progressive world supergroup, Tabla Beat Science).
Today, he is likely the most decorated living Indian musician. In 1988, he became the youngest musician ever to earn the Padma Shri, the fourth-highest civilian honor awarded by the Indian government. In 2002, he topped that by earning the Padma Bhushan, India’s third-highest civilian honor. He is also a recipient of the U.S. National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honor bestowed to artists by the National Endowment for the Arts.
27. B.B. King – Blues
Update: In May of 2015, the legendary bluesman died of complications related to diabetes, a condition he battled for 30 years. He was 89.
B.B. King has two famous voices, the one that comes through in his singing and the one that manifests through Lucille, his black hollow-body Gibson guitar. Though B.B. traces his personal and musical roots to the Mississippi Delta, he is more correctly associated with the post-war Chicago Blues sound. This rocking, electrified take on the blues would bring B.B. to ever-wider audiences over the course of his illustrious career. He is the definitive modern bluesman, a keystone artist in the evolution of rock music, and inarguably one of the most skilled and imitated guitarists in history.
Born Riley B. King in a Berclair, Mississippi, cabin on the grounds of a cotton plantation, King’s first gigs were as a singer in his church’s gospel choir. Around the age of 12, he acquired his first acoustic guitar. It was King’s great fortune that his mother’s first cousin was legendary Delta bluesman Bukka White. White schooled King on the finer points of the acoustic guitar and even took the kid for his first visit to Memphis.
In 1949, B.B. King plugged in for the first time and began building his reputation through relentless touring. Through the early ‘50s, he led his band to juke joints and dance halls coast-to-coast, a strategy which paid off with a Billboard R&B #1,
3 O’Clock Blues, in 1952. Almost immediately, B.B. ascended to the top of the blues tower, racking up an uninterrupted series of R&B charters. His stamina as a live performer also became a thing of legend. King is said to have performed an incomprehensible 342 shows in 1956.
By the 1960s, B.B. had earned his title as
King of the Blues. This status was reinforced as the late ‘60s gave way to a new generation of blues enthusiasts like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Steve Miller. When the Grammy-winning
The Thrill is Gone reached the pop charts in 1970, King had effectively established himself as the biggest crossover star of his genre.
Also, if there’s a Hall of Fame, B.B. King is probably in it. He was inducted into the Blues Hall in 1980, the Rock Hall in '87, and the R&B Hall in 2014. King is the owner of 16 Grammys, including a Lifetime Achievement Award. He is also the recipient of a Presidential Medal of the Arts and a Medal of Freedom. Most remarkably, King is on the cusp of 90 and continues to perform an average of 100 shows a year.
28. Carole King – Singer-Songwriter
Even before Carole King was a household name, her contributions to popular music were enormous. Perhaps more than any artist before her, Carole King cracked the door open for female songwriters. In an era before Bob Dylan and the Beatles spawned legions of songwriting rockers, hits were produced by professionals songwriters in office buildings. The most famous of these was New York’s Brill Building, which is a misnomer because Brill is actually a catch-all for the hotbed of music-biz action concentrated on the 1600 block of Broadway in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Alongside future stars like Burt Bacharach, Neil Diamond, and Paul Simon, Carole King used a pen and a piano to define pop radio in the ‘60s. Then, she went on to dominate it in the ‘70s.
Carole Klein was born in Manhattan and raised in Brooklyn, where she began taking piano lessons at the age of four. She started her first band while still a student at James Madison High School and changed her name to the more show-biz friendly King. While attending Queens College, she met, married, and initiated a fruitful musical partnership with Gerry Goffin.
Both dropped out of college, took on odd-jobs, and began moonlighting as songwriters for Don Kirshner’s Aldon Music, which was technically across the street from Brill. With King composing the music and Goffin authoring lyrics, they scored their first hit in 1960, and it was a big one. The Shirelles'
Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow became the first black girl group song to hit #1, opening the floodgates for one of the defining sounds of the era.
A string of now-standard hits followed for the Goffin-King songwriting partnership, including Little Eva’s
The Loco-Motion, The Monkees'
Pleasant Valley Sunday, The Drifters'
Up On the Roof, and Aretha Franklin’s immortal take on
(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.
As the ‘60s drew to a close, the Brill’s dominance was at an end. Sadly, so too was the Goffin-King marriage and musical partnership. Rock music was turning its attention to more personal and confessional work and a movement of singer-songwriters in Southern California stood at the front of the transition. King moved to L.A. and joined with artists like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell in the so-called Laurel Canyon scene.
In 1971, King’s Tapestry emerged as one of the defining albums of its era, ultimately selling more than 25 million copies and spending 15 weeks at the top spot on the charts. Its four Grammys included a win for Album of the Year and made King the first woman to earn a Song of the Year Grammy.
Though she has performed with decreasing frequency in recent years, King’s legacy is more than assured. According to Billboard, her 118 writing credits on the Billboard Hot 100 make her the most successful female songwriter of the rock era. She is a member of the Rock and Roll and Songwriters Halls of Fame, as well as the only woman ever to receive the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.
29. Kool Herc – Hip Hop
Before coming to dominate popular music over the past 20 years, hip hop emerged organically from black urban enclaves during the late 1970s. If one man can be called a starting point, most historians would identify Jamaican-born, Bronx-raised Clive Campbell, much better known as Kool Herc.
The Bronx-based DJ is often identified as the first to experiment with the breakbeat, using two turntables and a heaping of funk, soul, and salsa vinyl to spin lengthy, danceable instrumental stretches at neighborhood block parties and barbecues. Herc and his musical partners used these instrumental bridges to shout rhythmic and rhyming encouragement to party revelers. Their style of spoken street poetry emerged from a bevy of parallel traditions in black culture, including the call-and-response singing seen in gospel and soul, the syncopated spoken-word
toasting emanating from Jamaican dance hall DJ stands, and the inventively ribald lyrical content of a black insult-comedy tradition called
Taken together and fused with Kool Herc’s deep funk predilections, this evolved into what is known as rap. As the disco era waned and the ‘80s began, Kool Herc’s influence loomed incredibly large, even if the man himself chose never to make the leap into mainstream visibility. Protégés like Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa would go on to register massive hits that are considered defining early works of the genre. Though Kool Herc is not a household name, he is widely recognized as the pioneering force in the advent of hip hop, and thus substantially responsible for the structural basis of nearly everything we hear on the radio today.
Today, the building where Kool Herc lived and DJ’ed his first parties, 1520 Sedgewick Ave. in the Bronx, is a protected building and is on the National and State Historic Registers, having been formally recognized by New York State officials as
the birthplace of hip hop.
30. Little Richard – Rock and Roll
Richard Penniman was born to a family of 12 children in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Macon, Georgia. His father was a church deacon and a moonshiner, two seemingly antithetical occupations that may well have prefigured Richard’s own predilection for both the spiritual and the lascivious. In fact, Penniman’s church-rearing gave him the opportunity to sing in front of his first audiences while still a child.
‘Lil Richard, as he was known for his diminutive stature, demonstrated a proclivity for rambunctious hooting and hollering, whether at home or at the church. Indeed, there were occasions when even the members of his enthusiastic gospel choir were forced to hush the young boy’s outrageous exultation. At the outset, Richard was influenced by the great gospel champions of the day, particularly Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
While a student at Hudson High School in Macon, Penniman struggled in his academic pursuits, but his musical gifts could not be missed. He picked up the alto sax while still in school and mastered it almost immediately, earning a spot in the school’s marching band. Adopting Little Richard as his performing name, he turned his attention from school to securing constant work on the Chitlin Circuit. In the early ‘50s, Richard moved to the piano and began molding the boogie woogie style that would make him famous.
In 1953, Little Richard formed the Upsetters, his own hard-charging R&B combo, distinguished for their infectious bounce and Richard’s increasingly flamboyant persona. His whooping falsetto and sensual scream — the
devil’s music as far as his church upbringing was concerned — earned the band sufficient reputation to score a 1955 deal with the definitive New Orleans label, Specialty.
His first single was
Tutti Frutti, a hyper-sexual, scat boogie that reached #2 on the R&B charts and #17 on the non-segregated charts. He followed with
Long Tall Sally in 1956, his first #1. Following were another seven charting hits that year. By the time he released his debut LP, Here’s Little Richard, in 1957, he had garnered 18 hit singles. He was among the visible and threatening of rock and roll’s first-wave superstars.
Most particularly, his live shows were truly barrier-smashing events. His frenetic stage presence, wildly physical piano playing, and flashy, even effeminate attire, jewelry, and makeup, all helped set the mold for rock and roll’s androgynous, rebellious, and risqué reputation. More importantly, Little Richard’s appeal was so widespread that it inherently shattered invisible racial lines. His performances during a racially charged time in American history routinely drew black and white teenagers, a fact which earned Little Richard particular ire in the eyes of KKK members and Southern white politicians. White supremacists routinely picketed Richard’s shows.
The scene inside was typically even wilder, with Richard’s performance coaxing his audiences to emotional frenzy. And yet, after a three-year run that made him rich and famous, Richard found it impossible to reconcile his spirituality with a life in service to the devil’s music. He left the business, enrolled to study theology at Oakwood College, and started his own ministry.
Over the next several decades, Richard bounced between gospel and secular music, but always maintained his status as a Founding Father of Rock and Roll. A member of the Songwriters and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame, Little Richard is widely viewed today as among the genre’s foremost innovators.
31. Madonna – Pop
When Madonna first made the scene in the early ‘80s, she was roundly dismissed by critics as a flash-in-the-pan pop princess. Thirty-five years on, most of those guys are probably writing coupon copy for local supermarket circulars. Madonna, by contrast, is the reigning Queen of Pop.
Madonna Louise Ciccone was born in Bay City, Michigan, and raised in the suburbs of Detroit by devoutly Catholic parents. Though a bright student and the recipient of a dance scholarship to the University of Michigan, she nonetheless dropped out after her sophomore year and sojourned in New York at the height of both the punk and disco eras in that city. These seemingly antithetical cultural movements would both have a formative effect on Ciccone, who landed her first major gig as a backup dancer for touring disco singer Patrick Hernandez.
In 1979, Madonna formed her own band, a short-lived punk outfit called The Breakfast Club. Though she started out on drums, her personality quickly earned her duties as lead vocalist. Over the next two years, though, she embraced the lean, synthy textures of the club scene and proved uncommonly adept at delivering hooks, eventually coming to the attention of Sire records.
She released released her self-titled debut in September of 1983 and, by October, scored her first Top 40 hit with
Borderline followed by cracking the Top Ten in early '84, launching a streak of 17 consecutive Top Ten entries.
With 1984’s Like a Virgin, Madonna had become an absolute cultural sensation. Performing the title track during a live performance at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards, she famously humped the stage while wearing a wedding dress and veil. To date, this remains among the most iconic performances in pop history, a declaratively sexual statement from a strong and independent woman, roughly the female equivalent of Elvis Presley gyrating on The Ed Sullivan Show 30 years earlier.
It also launched Madonna as the female counterpart to Michael Jackson, a trailblazer in the music video medium. As MTV was beginning its decade-long reign over youth culture, Madonna was a true innovator. Incorporating risqué imagery, controversial ideas, and evocative cinematic production values into her music and videos, Madonna emerged as the top female performer in the business.
In a medium where women are more typically judged by their appearance and their youth than their bravado and their talent, Madonna has succeeded in creating overtly sexual music while remaining stubbornly relevant. Among the reasons for her continued success and her incalculable influence on popular music is a 30-year career distinguished by the highest quality of songwriting. Whether through her own pen or through collaborations with the top pop-smiths in the game, Madonna has benefited from some of the greatest confectionary pop hooks to grace the radio.
She has also ceaselessly transformed her image, pushed boundaries, teased taboos, and embraced the empowerment of her fellow female artists. The result is a legacy that gave birth to Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and basically the entire mega-spectacle performance aesthetic that drives the touring pop business today.
Madonna is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, founder of Maverick Records, and — according to the Guinness Book of World Records — the best-selling female artist of all time with more than 300 million records sold worldwide.
32. Paul McCartney – Rock
Along with John Lennon, Paul McCartney was half of the most important songwriting duo in the history of recorded music. The Beatles marked an inflection point, a moment when the force of popular music was powerful enough to move cultural mountains, to widen generation gaps, to signal a new and consequential identity for the world’s youth. If Lennon was the soul of The Beatles, McCartney was the brain. Ever the perfectionist, McCartney was the chief architect of the Beatles' most ambitious and convention-shattering accomplishments.
The young McCartney excelled as a student, a fact which gained him admission into the reputable Liverpool Institute. His enrollment at the grammar school led to a chance 1954 meeting with George Harrison. His next chance meeting was at a 1957 church picnic, where he took in a spirited performance by a band called the Quarrymen. Paul approached the singer and introduced himself. This was the beginning of his musical partnership with John Lennon, one that would rewrite the rule book for popular music. Harrison joined a year later and, by 1960, they had dubbed themselves The Beatles. When Ringo Starr joined on drums in 1962, the most famous foursome in music was born.
With the release of their first single,
Love Me Do, in 1963, the Beatles touched off a fan hysteria, media fascination, and merchandising blitzkrieg never previously experienced by a music act. The firestorm of attention became known as Beatlemania, a phenomenon fueled by four distinct, clever, and disarmingly charismatic young Brits. Their arrival at JFK Airport in February of 1964 signaled the start of the British Invasion, a period in rock and roll history that brought the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Animals, the Kinks, and countless other groundbreaking British acts stateside.
Their subsequent appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show would beam the Beatles into an estimated 73 million homes. The U.S. tour that followed was marked by pandemonium, as the Beatles found themselves the focus of intense, passionate, and utterly chaotic mass expressions of fandom. At the center of this mania, McCartney and Lennon were songwriters, lyricists, and hook-makers without equal. Even as the Beatles achieved uncontested dominance over the Billboard charts — holding an unprecedented 12 spots on the Billboard Hot 100 in the week of April 4, 1964, including the top five — they also broadened the complexity, depth, and sophistication that was considered acceptable in popular music.
Indeed, by 1965, Paul McCartney had emerged as the chief visionary and musical director of the Beatles (as well as its bassist). His ambition as a songwriter led the Beatles into uncharted waters for a pop band during the mid and late ‘60s. With Rubber Soul (1965), Revolver (1966), and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), McCartney pushed his fellow bandmates (often to the point of irreparable disagreement) to use the evolving LP format to create lasting musical achievements within a rock milieu in its most rapid period of evolution.
In the 45 years since the Beatles broke up, McCartney has produced a body of work that has been frequently brilliant, often bold, and always on the cutting edge. From his globetrotting stadium tours with Wings in the 1970s, to a series of duets with King of Pop Michael Jackson in the ‘80s, to his most recent collaboration with hip hop fashionista Kanye West, McCartney has persisted in being relevant, inventive, and accessible.
Both with the Beatles and as a solo artist, McCartney has accumulated sales of over 100 million albums and over 100 million singles. With more than 264 certified units sold worldwide, nobody has moved more records than the Beatles. And McCartney’s composition,
Yesterday, has also been recognized by the RIAA as the single most recorded song of all time.
McCartney has twice been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, both as a Beatle and as a solo artist, and in 1997, was knighted by the British Crown.
33. Giorgio Moroder – Disco
If you had to trace EDM to a single, solitary source (other then an electrical outlet of course), disco giant Giorgio Moroder would be a great starting point. Today, electronic beats, synthesizers, and discotheque whimsy are de rigueur for every hipster band in tight pants and EDM (electronic dance music) rules urban nightlife, two facts for which Moroder deserves equal credit and blame.
Born in the Italian village of Ortisei, Moroder got his start on more traditional pop music instruments like the guitar and bass. He toured Europe with an array of bands in the early ‘70s before ultimately discovering the German discothèque scene. Here, Moroder began to make a name for himself, producing endearingly sleazy, danceable synth tracks that predicted the rise of disco. When Moroder met Donna Summer, it initiated a partnership that virtually defined the genre. In 1975, the two conceptualized a 17-minute disco opus called
Love to Love You Baby. The song’s sensuality made it a hit, but its lush, languorous, and indulgent production made it a game-changer.
What followed was a string of hits that defined disco and made Donna Summer its queen. Moroder’s sneaky synth lines and brightly colored electrofunk helped groom Summer into the era’s biggest and most sustainable star. It also gave Moroder the opportunity to enter the 1980s as an in-demand musician and producer, particularly as a composer of scores. In the mid-'80s, he wrote songs, performed score work, and produced soundtracks for Midnight Express (1978), Flashdance (1983), and Top Gun (1986). All told, these recordings earned Moroder three Oscars, a Grammy, and in Top Gun, one of the biggest selling records of all time.
Today, Moroder’s influence looms larger than ever through the rising dominance of the EDM scene. His instrumentation, rhythms, and electronic eccentricities all drive the sounds that dominate club floors and raves today.
34. Ennio Morricone – Film Score
Ennio Morricone is the most prolific and influential composer of film music in the history of the medium. His evocative soundscapes, particularly those from the spaghetti Western genre that flowered through the '60s and '70s, helped to elevate the role of the score in cinema. At his best, Morricone was responsible for adding a depth, dimension, suspense, and character to the films he scored, combining elements of traditional orchestration with heavy, exotic instrumentation to produce a spellbinding musical texture. With more than 500 film scores and 100 classical works under his belt, nobody can touch the octogenarian for productivity.
Born in Rome to a trumpet-playing father, Morricone showed his talents for composition as early as six years old. His father taught him to sing and play the trumpet, both of which he studied with precocious brilliance at the National Academy of Santa Cecilia. Though his program at the musical conservatory was to last four years, the 12-year-old Morricone mastered it in just six months. By the completion of his studies, Morricone’s focus was trained entirely on composition.
Still devastated by World War II, Italy of the early 1950s was not brimming with opportunities for a serious classical musician or composer. Thus, Morricone found work scoring radio and television. The late ‘50s and early ‘60s also saw Morricone’s arrangements and compositions paired with a number of prominent international pop stars, including Mario Lanza, Paul Anka, and Françoise Hardy.
But his work in film would define his career, reaching a particular peak during the boom of Italian Western cinema in the middle of the decade. Through soundtracks like A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965) — both for films directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood — Morricone established himself as a composer of groundbreaking unpredictability. His musical collaging in the Western genre is as iconic as the films themselves. His use of whips, gunshots, eerie chanting, and jew’s harps produced a sound that, accurate or not, is what we associate with the Old West.
Morricone peaked with the soundtrack to Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966), the title track of which is pretty much the music you automatically hear in your head when you picture cowboys dueling. It also became a crossover hit when covered by Hugo Montenegro. Morricone’s rising success both through the Leone/Eastwood trilogy and his work in comedy during the ‘70s, helped him make the leap from Italian cinema to Hollywood. There, he would proceed to dominate the medium, producing music for notable films like Days of Heaven (1978), The Mission (1980), The Untouchables (1987), Frantic (1988), In the Line of Fire (1993), Disclosure (1994), and (presumably all the non-rap parts of) Bulworth (1998).
In addition to producing a body of work that could fill the Grand Canyon, Morricone has also been recognized with three Academy Awards, two Golden Globes, and 11 Italian critic — appointed Nastro d’Argento trophies.
35. Nana Mouskouri – Entekhno/Greek Folk
On a global scale, there is no female artist in history who is more prolific than Nana Mouskouri. Gifted with a distinctive soprano tone — said to be the result of having been born with only one vocal chord — Mouskouri is fluent in seven languages and, based on her recorded output, capable of singing in at least six others. These gifts and a prolificacy in vocal jazz, French chanson, and modern Greek Folk (known locally as entekhno, derived from the older folk tradition known as rebetiko) have helped Mouskouri to move more than 300 million records worldwide.
Mouskouri was born on the island of Crete but her family moved to Athens when she was just three. Much of her early life was cast in the shadow of Nazi occupation and her father was an active part of the local resistance. At the end of the war’s hostilities, Mouskouri began singing lessons, influenced in particular by the popular radio singers of the day, including Édith Piaf, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra. In 1950, she had excelled enough to gain entry into the Athens Conservatoire, where she trained formally in opera.
This association persisted until 1957, when Nana began to explore jazz. She began performing in local Athens nightclubs, but when word reached authorities at the Conservatoire, she was summarily dismissed. This gave her the chance to leap fully into jazz music. Taking first prize at two consecutive Greek song festivals in 1959 and 1960, Mouskouri earned a recording contract.
The next year, she recorded the soundtrack to a German documentary about Greece. The lead single,
Weisse Rosen aus Athen, sold a million copies in Germany. The year after, she teamed up with Motown mastermind Quincy Jones for her first English-language record, a feat which she repeated during a 1965 pairing with Calypso King Harry Belafonte. Then, in 1967, having settled permanently in Paris, she recorded
Le jour où la colombe (1967), a massive hit that made her a superstar. To put it simply, Mouskouri promptly conquered every country where she ever released a record.
Her British LP, Over and Over, proved the same in 1969. The next 30 years saw Mouskouri in a phase of prolificacy that may have no equal in recorded music history. In the '70s and ‘80s, she appears to have averaged roughly five to six releases in a year. Her official discography lists a mind-boggling 14 releases in just 1976. For a point of comparison, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers formed in 1976 and they just released their 13th studio album last year so…yeah.
Back home in Greece, Mouskouri has worked closely with most of her country’s greatest popular composers, including Mikis Theodorakis, Manos Hadjidakis, and Stavros Xarchakos.
By 2008, with well over 100 recordings under her belt and a rigorous touring schedule of roughly 100 shows a year in her résumé, Mouskouri announced her retirement. Today, her efforts are largely dedicated to humanitarian causes through her role as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and as one of Greece’s greatest living cultural icons.
36. Youssou N’Dour – Mbalax/Senegalese Pop
Though known only marginally to American audiences for his occasional (and extremely successful) crossover work in the English language, Youssou N’Dour may well be the most famous singer in all of Africa today. This is certainly true of his stature in Senegal. He is not just his home country’s most celebrated musician, he is also a genuine political force.
Born in Senegal’s capital city, Dakar, N’Dour inherited his musical propensities from his mother, a poet, singer, and story-teller in the griot oral tradition. N’Dour gleaned much from this tradition, ultimately incorporating it into a decidedly more modern musical collage. By his late teens, N’Dour was a skilled percussionist and an arresting singer. At 19, he joined the Star Band de Dakar, an Afro-Cuban combo and Dakar’s biggest musical attraction. N’Dour soon emerged as the group’s unquestioned star.
He was also its frontman by the age of 21, when he rebranded the group as Super Étoile de Dakar. It is worth noting that several of the Star Band’s former members went on to form the also massively influential (and still active) Afro-Cuban combo Orchestra Baobab. With Super Étoile, N’Dour would pioneer a uniquely Senegalese genre called mbalax, an uptempo style of play that draws on the cheery instrumentation of African High Life, the rhythms and backbeats of Caribbean music, and the arrangements and conventions of American pop.
The blend made N’Dour’s group a top draw in Africa and led to extensive world touring in the mid-'80s. His tours of Europe in 1984 and North America in 1985 would be especially successful and fruitful. Moved by his charisma and vocal talent, both Paul Simon (Graceland) and Peter Gabriel (So) invited N’Dour to collaborate on major label releases. Both records proved massive hits. Likewise, both records earned universal critical praise for their compelling invocation of African polyrhythms and vocal layering.
As N’Dour’s star was rising, he also committed himself to visible global activism. His performance alongside Gabriel, Sting, and Bruce Springsteen during 1988’s Amnesty International Human Rights Now! tour cemented his reputation both as a dynamic singer and as a vocal supporter of human rights. With the release of his first internationally distributed album, 1989’s The Lion, N’Dour initiated a series of globally acclaimed and commercially successful recordings, eventually earning an American Grammy for 2005’s Egypt.
N’Dour is also a cultural icon in Senegal for his tireless efforts as a political activist. N’Dour is the Goodwill Ambassador of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, a member of the World Future Council, and his nation’s Tourism and Culture Minister in the cabinet of the current prime minister. In 2012, N’Dour even mounted a campaign (unsuccessfully, but a campaign nonetheless) to become Senegal’s president.
37. Willie Nelson – Country
In addition to being one of the most revered, recognized, and beloved figures in country music history, Willie Nelson just seems like he’d be a ton of fun to hang out with. A leading figure of the outlaw country movement, one of the best-selling artists in the genre’s history, and among the last men standing from his generation, Willie Nelson provided one of the most powerful voices of resistance against the Nashville country establishment, helping make the world of country music more colorful, more creative, and more inclusive.
Willie Nelson was born at the height of the Great Depression in the 300-person town of Abbott out in Hill County, Texas. Willie’s grandfather bought him his first guitar when he was six years old and by nine, he was in his first band. It was a polka band, but a band nonetheless. By the time he reached his early teens, Nelson was gigging regularly at the local honky tonks armed with a growing arsenal of Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, and Hank Snow songs. After graduating high school and serving in the Air Force, Nelson studied agriculture at Baylor University.
In 1954, Nelson dropped out of school to pursue a career in music and spent the remainder of the decade struggling. His first bevy of recordings failed to make a dent and he endured a series of odd jobs, including work as a night-club bouncer, a dishwasher, and a Bible salesman. In 1960, Willie Nelson moved to Nashville and quickly made friends with local royalty like Faron Young and Ray Price. Both recorded songs written by the struggling Nelson and Price even invited him to play bass in his touring band. It was while touring that Nelson met country star Patsy Cline, who recorded his
Crazy and turned it into a megahit.
In 1961, Nelson earned a contract with Liberty, where he recorded his first hits before moving over to RCA and mid-level country stardom three years later. Though he joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1965 and rose to relatively consistent charting success by the end of the decade, Nelson had grown frustrated with his RCA contract and the restrictive nature of the Nashville scene. He announced his retirement in the early ‘70s and moved to Austin.
The musically robust Texas city had a rejuvenating effect on Nelson. As the hippie culture blossomed around him, Nelson found that his unique mix of country music, jazz standards, and, increasingly, rock tuning, made him a steadily growing draw in the local scene. When he returned to professional recording in 1973, it was as the first country artist on the Atlantic Records label. That year’s Shotgun Willie earned critical praise and signaled the advent of a new movement called
outlaw country. Backed by ace Tex-Mex rockers from the Sir Douglas Quintet, Nelson’s work helped to blaze an alternative country path away from the sanitized, conservative, and increasingly outdated sounds of Nashville.
The success of Shotgun Willie opened the door for a contract with Columbia and 1975’s The Red Headed Stranger, his first truly massive commercial hit and still a standard-bearer of the genre. The next several years saw him collaborating with major supporters and fellow outlaw countrymen Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Merle Haggard. In 1977, an album of pop standards called Stardust became a genre-crossing hit, delivering Nelson to mainstream audiences.
He never looked back, spending the next several decades comfortably straddling the line between rock and country, performing and recording with a remarkably diverse roster of friends and followers, including Bob Dylan, Toby Keith, Phish, Sheryl Crow, Snoop Dogg, Ray Charles, and Neil Young, to name just a few. In the mid-'80s, he also formed the outlaw country supergroup The Highwaymen with Kristofferson, Jennings, and Johnny Cash. Their self-titled record enjoyed platinum status and their tour was a great success. So too have been Willie’s constant festival appearances alongside the current crop of touring hippie jam bands. More than any country musician, he has succeeded in attracting audiences of every kind, from genre purists, to rock and roll fanatics, to pot-smoking noodle heads.
And since 1985, he has worked alongside Neil Young and John Mellencamp to put on the annual Farm Aid concert, an event which raises millions annually to support American agriculture and which earned Willie passage into the National Agriculture Hall of Fame in 2011. He is also a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, and holder of an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music.
38. Ozzy Osbourne – Heavy Metal
Ozzy Osbourne is the Godfather of Heavy Metal. His contributions as a singer, a bandleader, and a crafter of image are all formative ingredients to the often critically derided but commercially potent subgenre. Osbourne has outlasted the critical derision and discredited those who might have dismissed his music as puerile in its time, standing today as the uncontested emissary of metal — rock and roll’s Prince of Darkness.
Osbourne was born to a poor family in the industrialized city of Birmingham in the U.K. Though he struggled with hyperactivity and a poor attention span in school, he found his direction at the age of 14, when he heard the Beatles on the radio. From the first time he heard
She Loves You in 1963, he knew he wanted to be a rock star. He was finished with school by the age of 15, and moved into a series of depressing jobs, including stints as a tool-making apprentice and a slaughterhouse worker. He also dabbled in light burglary, a profession which earned him a six-week stay in prison while still in his teens.
Upon his release, Ozzy dedicated his focus to a career in music. After a brief stint on backup vocals for the Magic Lanterns (who scored a minor U.K. hit with 1968’s
Shame Shame), Ozzy met bassist Geezer Butler and joined his band, The Rare Breed. In late 1969, they recruited Tony Iommi and Bill Ward, solidifying the classic lineup of Black Sabbath. Inspired to create music that elicited the same giddy thrill that people experienced from watching horror films, his band indulged in occult imagery and a slow, sludgy, doom-laden musical approach. Outfitting their songs with gloomy, plodding blues riffs and lightning fast instrumental bridges, Black Sabbath laid the metal blueprint on their self-titled 1970 debut and five subsequent classic Osbourne-fronted records.
Though the band endured a critical slogging for their ultra-simple, sometimes even schlocky approach, their impact on fans was undeniable. Warner Brothers had initially signed the band with little expectation, perhaps even viewing their cheap horror film motifs as a novelty. But their music immediately keyed in to something primal among their fans. At the center was Ozzy, whose cackling howl had a decidedly authentic touch of witchcraft in it.
Ozzy’s personal antics helped to drive sales and fuel the mythology that he was, in all actuality, in league with the devil. The impression was helped by his growing substance abuse and alcoholism, which made him wildly unpredictable and often brought him to blows with his own bandmates. As Sabbath’s success and influence launched a thousand heavy metal bands into the next decade, Ozzy would start the ‘80s alone.
His bandmates dismissed Ozzy in the late 70’s as his behavior began to detract from his abilities as a performer. Though Ozzy descended into his addictions, Warner head Don Arden dispatched his daughter and employee Sharon to mind his investment. She dragged Ozzy out of his hole, took control of his career, and ultimately married him. She also helped him to reinvent himself as a solo artist, fronting a band called the Blizzard of Ozz.
This enterprise, powered by a partnership with brilliant young guitarist Randy Rhoads, brought Ozzy to even greater fame. Once again, his drug-induced behavior helped to earn him plenty of press, particularly in 1982 when he bit the head off of a dove during a meeting with CBS executives and, once again, in 1984, when he bit the head off of a bat in a live concert. Also, for events involving public urination and the Alamo, Osbourne was banned from entering San Antonio, Texas, for a decade.
Osbourne was setting the mold for heavy metal’s trademark musical characteristics and its debauched image. By the 1980s, bands like Metallica, Motley Crue, and Iron Maiden had cast an Aqua Net across the industry, all owing a major debt to Sabbath and Ozzy. His influence grew even larger in the ‘90s, as the alternative boom paved the way for big-selling, metal-influenced groups like Soundgarden, Tool, and Nine Inch Nails. His Ozzfest became a successful and long-running annual event featuring a clutch of current artists owing a debt to his work.
More surprising was Ozzy’s second life as a reality TV Star on MTV’s The Osbournes. He, Sharon, and their children entered suburban households everywhere, starring in the most-watched show in the network’s history and giving viewers the opportunity to see the Prince of Darkness in silk pajamas. Today, Black Sabbath is reunited and continues to tour intermittently, while Ozzy enjoys his enduring status as the original Monster of Metal.
39. Johnny Pacheco – Salsa
(Dominican Republic; 1935)
Johnny Pacheco owns the distinction of having coined the genre for which he was also the leading musical force. As a purveyor of numerous Latin forms, including guaracha, cha cha, and son, Pacheco was a global superstar. And as the founder and musical visionary behind the Fania label, he became the first and most influential champion of what he called
salsa. Pacheco’s work did nothing less than usher in a new era of unbridled creativity and artistic integration of Latin music in America.
Born in the Dominican Republic to a father who played clarinet and fronted the Santa Cecilia Orchestra, Pacheco began playing the clarinet as a young boy. When he was 11, Pacheco’s family relocated to New York, where the child proved a natural study at nearly every instrument he picked up. He made his focus percussion, however, when he enrolled in the prestigious Juilliard School.
Pacheco began performing live as a backing musician in the late ‘50s and, by 1960, was fronting his own band. His obvious gifts and a growing enthusiasm for Latin music in the record industry earned him a quick contract. Pacheco seized the opportunity by introducing a dance craze (dance crazes were a big thing in the early ‘60s) called Pachanga. In the space of three years, Pacheco had become a global star, even holding the distinction of being the first Latin artist to headline the famed Apollo Theater.
He parlayed his fame into a partnership with Jerry Masucci, the creation of Fania Records, and the assembly of its incredible stable of groundbreaking musicians, the Fania All-Stars. Fania is to Latin music what Stax is to soul. With Pacheco as its foreman, Fania constructed the hybrid genre known as salsa, a form of distinctly Nuyorican Latin soul that served as a platform for an expansion of Latin music’s international appeal and creative vocabulary. House musicians of note included Ray Barretto, Willie Colón, Héctor Lavoe, Rubén Blades, and Celia Cruz. Guest collaborators comprise a veritable who’s who of crossover Latin superstars, including Tito Puente, Joe Bataan, and Mongo Santamaría.
In the ‘70s, the Fania All-Stars emerged as an international touring unit, releasing a series of acclaimed albums and serving as the foremost name in Latin music, while also offering a springboard to all the musicians cited above. Pacheco’s vision made it possible for each of these and countless other Latin stars to embark on their own now-genre-defining recording careers.
Today, Pacheco is largely retired from performing, but the Fania All-Stars continue to circle the globe. Pacheco is a member of the International Latin Music Hall of Fame and a recipient of the Dominican Republic’s Medal of Honor.
40. Dolly Parton – Country
Dolly Parton was one of 12 children born to a poor tobacco farmer in a one-room cabin just north of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, not far from Knoxville, Tennessee. Sounds like a great start to a country song. Actually, it was the start to roughly 3000 country songs. Today, Dolly sits on top of an empire of songwriting royalties, film credits, and product branding, an incredible upward mobility attributable to the fact that she was writing music by the time she turned seven. She got her first guitar the next year and, by ten, was making regular appearances on Knoxville’s The Cas Walker Show. The little blond prodigy made her studio and Grand Ole Opry debuts both at the age of 13.
These early experiences assured Parton’s path and the minute she graduated from high school, she took off for Nashville. In spite of her pin-up good looks and her emotive voice, it was her gift as a songwriter that first helped her earn her keep, scoring Top Ten singles for the likes of Bill Phillips and Skeeter Davis. Though Parton nailed down a record contract with Monument Records when she was just 19, her producers pushed her toward poppier material and away from the country music that she loved.
It was not until country superstar Porter Wagoner recognized Parton’s distinctive talents and offered her a weekly slot on his television show that she achieved fame. Her duets with Wagoner became not only a beloved staple of his program but, starting in 1967, launched an unprecedented six-year run at the charts. As Wagoner and Parton scored a seemingly endless string of hits, Parton signed to RCA and began her own solo career, as well.
She charted her first #1 single in 1971 and, two years later, surpassed it with 1973’s country masterpiece,
Jolene. Parton’s reputation as a southern beauty with a hardscrabble resolve had grown enough that she struck out on her own the following year. In 1974, Parton wrote her #1 hit,
I Will Always Love You, in tribute to Wagoner. Soon thereafter, her own celebrity would far surpass that of her mentor.
Over the remainder of the ‘70s, Dolly Parton was a fixture on the country charts, landing eight singles at the top spot between '74 and '80. Then, in the ‘80s, Dolly set her sights on fame beyond the world of country. As her music veered decidedly into the realm of mainstream pop, Dolly also branched out into acting. The greatest synergy of her pursuits came in 1980, when Dolly starred in 9 to 5 alongside Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, and recorded the hit song of the same title. Parton achieved the exceedingly rare feat of owning a #1 single on the country, pop, and adult-contemporary charts, as well as earning an Academy Award Nomination for the film.
From there, Dolly Parton would achieve a level of celebrity and success never before seen by a female country singer. Her achievement of mainstream appeal and her strong feminine presence helped pave the way for future country pop stars like Shania Twain and Taylor Swift. Also, unlike most country singers, she has her own theme park.
This member of both the Country Music and Songwriters Halls of Fame is at once the most decorated and best-selling female country artist ever. With 25 country #1’s and 41 Top Ten albums, Parton has no commercial equal in country music. And with 46 Grammy nominations (eight wins), she is tied with the mighty Beyoncé for first place among all women. Parton also owns the special distinction of having been nominated for an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony.
41. Iggy Pop – Punk Rock
Iggy Pop is either a genius or a madman. Frankly, one could make a strong argument that both are true. Born and raised in a trailer park in Ypsilanti, Michigan, James Osterberg’s first love was drumming, a pursuit that would occupy most of his attention while attending high school in nearby Ann Arbor. Osterberg moved through a series of bands before landing a seat at the kit for a local garage combo, called The Iguanas.
Though the Iguanas were short-lived, the name and persona of Iggy Pop were born out of this experience. Iggy gained admission into the University of Michigan, but ultimately dropped out in favor of an education in the blues. Regarding Ann Arbor’s music scene as somewhat inauthentic, Iggy traveled to Chicago to train with real bluesmen like Big Walter Horton and James Cotton.
Sleeping in what he describes as a crack in the ground near a sewage treatment plant, Iggy spent his time in Chicago learning showmanship from true masters of the form. This education would be revelatory, giving Iggy everything he needed to unwittingly invent punk rock.
Returning to Ann Arbor and convening with local friends Ron and Scott Asheton and bassist Dave Alexander, Iggy formed the Psychedelic Stooges. (They eventually dropped the ‘Psychedelic' from their handle.) Though Iggy was informed by the entertaining antics of Chicago’s flashy bluesmen, the Stooges' sound owed a far greater debt to the organic rock and roll phenomenon known as Garage Rock. Pulling in elements of psychedelia, electric blues, and surf rock, the Stooges churned their ingredients in a blender and splattered them all over audiences.
Iggy Pop proved a natural innovator in the field of performance art, taking a cue from Jim Morrison and embarking on some of the most aggressive and confrontational music ever thrust before an audience. While the Stooges bludgeoned listeners with their savage instrumental attack and deliriously loud arrangements, Iggy would shatter bottles and cut himself with the broken glass, strip down to nothing, and dive into the crowd. In fact, legend has it that Mr. Pop invented the stage dive and, consequently, the crowd surf, both eventual staples of the punk, grunge, and alternative concert experience.
More importantly, the band’s studied primitivism, musical minimalism, and show-stopping insanity verily wrote the book on punk rock roughly a decade before the term entered music’s popular lexicon. As par for the punk course, the Stooges recorded two landmark albums that nobody bought before completely imploding. But with The Stooges (1969) and Fun House (1970), Iggy and his band scribed the template for controlled chaos.
Though neither of these records reached a mainstream audience, Iggy’s legend as a terrifying and exhilarating performer was growing. So, too, was his heroin addiction, a fact which led to the group’s demise in 1971. In the same year, Iggy met David Bowie, who was just then on the path to massive success. Bowie offered to share this success with his new friend and produced an Iggy and the Stooges reunion, minus Dave Alexander. Raw Power (1973) was the result. Once again, Iggy upped the ante, producing an album of gritty, howling intensity that sold very few copies, but had a career-making influence on those who did buy it.
This was also the beginning of an incredibly valuable association with David Bowie. Iggy and the Stooges broke up a second time, again due to Pop’s heroin addiction. It was then that he sought treatment at a mental institution — a time in which Bowie was one of his few constant visitors. Once Iggy was discharged, he joined Bowie on a musical pilgrimage to Berlin, where both sought self-guided drug detoxification.
Without comment on their rehabilitation efforts, their time in Germany and their respective collaborations would produce Iggy’s finest solo work, when, in 1977, he released The Idiot and Lust for Life. Both were produced by Bowie, generated positive critical attention, and even helped the underground icon crack the Billboard album charts. Where his Stooges recordings predicted punk, the ominous electro-pop of his Bowie records prefigured the post-punk and new wave fascinations of influential groups like Public Image Ltd, the Joy Division, and New Order.
Throughout the '80s and '90s, Iggy Pop’s recorded output has been spotty, a fact owed to his on-again/off-again battle with heroin addiction and period of general artistic listlessness. However, in the last two decades, his status as the Godfather of Punk and his singularity as a performer have earned him a place in the pantheon. Among elder statesmen, he is frequently tapped by musicians from subsequent generations for contribution and credibility. This includes collaborations with Guns ’n Roses, White Zombie, and — believe it or not — a stint opening for Madonna during her 2004 World Tour.
Iggy also got the chance to reunite with his old buddies from the Stooges, embarking on a triumphant reunion tour in the early and mid-2000s that allowed the band to bask in the glow of a reputation 30 years in the making, while exposing its music to a whole new generation of listeners. Though verging on 60 years of age at the time, Iggy’s performances were as artistically destructive and confrontational as ever, living proof that he is punk’s first wild child.
In 2010, Iggy Pop and the Stooges were collectively inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
42. Prince – Rhythm & Blues
Update: Prince Rogers Nelson died suddenly in April of 2016 at the age of 57. The world mourned his passing as rumors swirled that Prince had secretly struggled with an increasingly severe addiction to prescription pain killers.
Prince is among the most arresting showmen this side of James Brown. The Purple One redefined R&B in the 1980s by incorporating new wave synth pop, post-Parliament funk, and Hendrixian guitar pyrotechnics, consequently innovating the Minneapolis sound and lording over a seemingly unlikely hotbed for funk’s next step forward. An enormous force on the Billboard charts over the last 30 years, Prince’s flamboyant attire, commanding stage presence, and airy royal persona belie an inscrutably mysterious figure. His well-crafted image is as influential as his music, inviting mythology and reverence in equal measure.
Born to musical parents in Minneapolis, Prince Rogers Nelson made his compositional debut at the age of seven with the decidedly characteristic
Funk Machine. While attending the city’s Central High School, Prince played piano in a series of party bands, including Grand Central and Champagne. He worked with a mixed-bag of funk and rock, including covers by Sly & The Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, and Earth, Wind & Fire. Prince showed an inimitable capacity for performance that earned him a record deal at 17.
On his debut, For You (1978), Prince announced the arrival of a remarkable new talent by playing no fewer than all of the album’s 20+ instrumental parts, including guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, synthesizers, and clavinet. Though the album was compositionally uneven and performed modestly on the R&B charts, his self-titled release the following year earned Prince his first glowing reviews and mainstream Billboard success.
Over the coming decade, Prince would shatter barriers for black artists in rock and roll, as well as through the rising medium of MTV. With albums like Controversy (1981) and 1999 (1982), Prince stood alongside only Michael Jackson in terms of music video exposure for a black artist. Hits like
Little Red Corvette and
1999 became staples of the medium and established Prince’s provocative and alluring public image.
Then, in 1984, Prince performed and starred in a film called Purple Rain, the meta-fictional story of his rise to fame. In addition to his acclaimed acting and the quintessential importance of the film’s music sequences to the evolution of the music video form, the soundtrack became one of the biggest-selling records of all time. Thanks to omnipresent hits like
When Doves Cry,
Let’s Go Crazy, and the title track, Purple Rain is the definitive funk record of the decade. It also owns the fun distinction — for its highly sexualized
Darling Nikki — of having inspired the creation of the Parental Advisory sticker in popular music. If that wasn’t enough, Purple Rain also earned Prince an Academy Award.
Over the ensuing years, Prince’s impenetrable public persona has only served to build his legend. In the early ‘90s, in an effort to extricate himself from what he viewed as an exploitive record deal with Warner Brothers, he legally changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol. Until 2000, Prince was
the artist formerly known as Prince. Now, he is
the artist formerly known as the artist formerly known as Prince or — in the shorthand —
His influence as a performer and as a celebrity is substantial. This Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, inducted during his first year of eligibility in 2004, has won seven Grammys and has moved more than 100 million records globally. His live performances remain, to date, a model of showmanship, instrumental virtuosity, and royal genius.
43. Prince Buster – Ska
Prince Buster’s influence on popular music is considerable. Frequently identified as a godfather of the ska and rocksteady genres, his prolific output in the 1960s helped forge the sounds that became his country’s chief global export. Kingston-born Cecil Campbell first explored his interest in popular music as a student at the St. Anne’s School. As a young teen, he participated in local after-school performances with a singing troupe specializing in Frankie Lymon songs.
Rock and Roll permeated Jamaican youth culture in the ‘50s, particularly by way of roving street parties called
sound systems. The sound system was an important part of urban culture in Jamaica. Here, DJs would roll up with turntables, amps, and a staff of organizers to throw street parties. Typically, these parties were fueled by American rock, soul, and R&B records, and were an early forerunner of hip hop block parties in American cities a few decades on.
As a youth, Campbell learned the ropes by working with Clement Coxsone Dodd (also a future ska legend in the making) on one of the city’s most popular sound systems before founding his own
Voice of the People.
As was common sound system practice at the time, Campbell intended to stock his with American recordings and so planned a record-buying expedition to the U.S. But when he was unable to gain entry through a farming work program, he came up with another plan. Adopting his royal title, Prince Buster gathered some local musicians together and made his first recordings in 1961. His collaboration with nearby Rastafarian drummers and his own exposure to a Jamaican-American hybrid called mento music led to a wholly original island sound.
His extensive recordings throughout the early ‘60s form the foundation for nearly all forms of popular music emergent from Jamaica thereafter, from ska and rocksteady to reggae and dancehall. As each of these styles gained international prominence, the value of Prince Buster’s musical contributions multiplied. From Bob Marley’s world-conquering proliferation of reggae to the two-toned ska revival that seems to bubble up in the U.K. every 10 years or so, to the dubstep textures of EDM, Prince Buster’s fingerprints are everywhere.
In 2001, Prince Buster was recognized by his own government for his contributions to music with an Order of Distinction.
44. A.R. Rahman – Tamil Cinema Score
Known as the
Mozart of Madras (now known as Chennai), Indian singer, multi-instrumentalist, composer, and conductor A.R. Rahman is one of the most widely heard musicians in the world. To say nothing of his prodigious album sales, his music is omnipresent in the world’s second-most-populous nation and, increasingly, throughout the world. Though Rahman only began recording film scores a shade over 20 years ago, the composer’s recorded legacy could dwarf the entire musical output of several small countries. India’s film industry — particularly in fertile contexts such as Bollywood (in Mumbai, formerly Bombay) and Kollywood (in the Kodambakkam neighorhood of Chennai, capital of Tamil Nadu) — is famous for the breakneck pace at which it produces movies. A.R. Rahman has proven a musician uniquely up to the task of scoring all of them. OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but seriously, if you have a free month, Google his discography and try to wrap your head around that.
Born in Chennai, Rahman was reared into his future field by his father, R.K. Shekhar, himself a prolific score composer and conductor. In fact, A.R. got his start working the keyboards for some of his father’s compositions. Though his father passed away when A.R. was still young, the boy branched out by adding piano, guitar, and synthesizers to his repertoire. Joining an orchestra by the age of 11, Rahman worked under the tutelage of Tamil Nadu’s leading Hindustani orchestra conductors.
After graduating with a degree in Western Classical Music from the Trinity College of Music, Rahman initiated his career in a most brilliant way. Building a high-tech recording studio in his own backyard in 1992, Rahman gave himself the means to record prolifically. He did exactly that, beginning with a Tamil film called Roja (1992). The soundtrack was immediately hailed as a landmark achievement in Tamil film music, introducing Western orchestral elements and melodic composition to a genre that had historically employed only traditional Indian instrumentation. This was not only a breakthrough for the popular appeal of Tamil film music; it also constructed the musical schematic for all future Indian scoring and soundtracking.
It won Rahman a National Film Award for Best Music Direction, making him the very first composer to do so through his debut work. Though Roja remains among the most important achievements in Indian music, it was only the beginning of a celebrated career. The 1990s saw Rahman helm more than 100 film scores and soundtracks, frequently contributing his own instrumental and vocal work. Rahman would also become a pioneer in the incorporation of electronic elements and synthesizers into his music, which nonetheless still drew substantially (and satisfyingly) on the thundering rhythms, impassioned singing, and Hindi instrumentation that distinguish Indian music.
Over the 2000s, Rahman rose to even wider acclaim, particularly as the musical director for international crossover Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Scoring a Golden Globe and two Oscars for his work in the film, Rahman not only became the first Asian to do so but also brought the musical conventions of Kollywood and Bollywood to a wider international audience. The sounds that had been so fundamental to India’s musical identity achieved popular penetration with record-buyers in the U.S. and beyond. Following his international breakthrough, Rahman became a highly sought score composer in Hollywood and the recipient of an insane amount of recognition.
Within the context of Indian cinema, he is the winner of four National Film Awards, 15 Filmfare Awards, and 13 Filmfare Awards South. By some estimates, he has moved roughly 350 million units worldwide and his prolificacy only continues to grow.
45. Smokey Robinson – Soul
If Motown can be called a genre (and I think it can), Robinson is its defining artist. As much as producers like Quincy Jones and musicians like Stevie Wonder deserve inclusion here (and as much as their exclusion warrants complaint), Robinson was at once a face of the Motown operation and a key part of its brain trust. Smokey Robinson played a determinant role in the formation, output, and leadership of the world’s greatest hit-making factory. His sweet, sophisticated singing, his debonair image, and his authorship of some of the greatest hooks human ears have ever beheld helped make Motown into the biggest little record company of its time.
Born in a poor part of Detroit and raised by his sister, Robinson excelled as a student, athlete, and singer while attending Northern High School. It was the third of these pursuits that most compelled him, though, as he aspired to follow in the footsteps of R&B radio heroes like Billy Ward (
60 Minute Man) and Barrett Strong (
Money [That’s What I Want]). Teaming up with a few childhood friends, Smokey formed the Miracles in 1955 and started gigging throughout Detroit.
A chance meeting with aspiring songwriter Berry Gordy in 1957 would help Robinson secure his first few single releases and though Smokey did enroll in college in the winter of 1959, his first record dropped two months later. He left school to focus on his music, a move that paid off when Gordy formed Motown in 1960. The Miracles released
Shop Around through the new label and quickly scored Motown its first million-seller.
Smokey Robinson and the Miracles proceeded to soundtrack the coming decade, scoring a total of 26 top-40 hits, including unimpeachable pop gems like
You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me,
I Second That Emotion,
The Tracks of My Tears, and the
Tears of a Clown. Smokey’s songwriting genius was not merely reserved for his own work, though. As one of Motown’s most prolific pens, he also authored mega-hits for Mary Wells (
My Guy), The Marvelettes (
Don’t Mess With Bill), and, most importantly, The Temptations (
The Way Yo Do the Things You Do).
In addition to sustained chart success as a solo act throughout the ‘70s, Smokey also served as Motown’s vice president for a period and maintained his association with the groundbreaking company until its sale in the early 1990s. Today, Robinson is a member of the Rock and Roll and Songwriters Halls of Fame, the owner of a National Medal of Arts, and a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors.
46. Nile Rodgers – Disco
The conventional wisdom is that disco died somewhere between the time that Jimmy Carter left office and the first Delorean rolled off the production line. Nile Rodgers’s persistent relevance offers a strong argument to the contrary. When disco gave way to the MTV era, its synthesizers, dance loops, and (for lack of a better word) sparkle, persisted in the work of the decade’s biggest stars. Nile Rodgers is one of the prime reasons for this. As a musician, producer, and collaborator, Rodgers has been either out in front or pulling the strings from above while unleashing an endless string of hits on the world.
Born in New York City, Rodgers didn’t pick up his first guitar until he was 16. A quick study, however, he mastered the instrument sufficiently to earn admission into the prestigious Juilliard School. Nonetheless, he dropped out in 1970 when he earned his first paying music gig. If you ever wondered why the music from groundbreaking children’s television show Sesame Street was so funky, Nile Rodgers is at least one answer. The working musician successfully auditioned for a spot in the show’s house band. Here, Rodgers fell in with a group of ambitious young musicians who aspired to stardom even beyond the glamour of Muppeteering. Among the group were a pre-fame Luther Vandross, future David Bowie sideman Carlos Alomar, and, most importantly, Rodgers’s lifelong musical partner Bernard Edwards.
Rodgers moved off of Sesame Street and into a stint in the legendary Apollo Theater’s house band before formally teaming with Edwards. After moving through a number of mildly successful incarnations, Rodgers and Edwards tapped into New York’s burgeoning dance-club scene and took on the name Chic in 1977. They strutted instantly into the disco zeitgeist. Their late ‘70s hits, including
Dance, Dance, Dance, and
Good Times, captured the frivolous and promiscuous spirit of the time, powering the disco genre to ever-higher heights of popularity and excess.
Even as 1979’s
Disco Sucks cultural movement took hold, Chic occupied the top spot on the Billboard charts, not just scoring a #1 with their own band, but penning, performing, and producing an R&B #1 in Sister Sledge’s
We Are Family. Indeed, it was Rodgers’s work in support of other artists that would ultimately help him to reach his greatest achievements. As disco’s popularity waned in the 1970s, Rodgers appropriated its slick production values and danceable impulses to rattle off one of the most incredible streaks of collaborative success in music history.
Over the course of the 1980s, his production, writing, or guitar work shaped countless era-defining records, including David Bowie’s Let’s Dance (1983), Madonna’s Like a Virgin (1984), Duran Duran’s Arena, and the B-52’s Cosmic Thing (1989). He continued to release his own solo albums during this time, but, increasingly, his greatest impact was in support of — honestly — far too many projects to name.
Well before 2013, Nile Rodgers had compiled enough performance, composition, and production credits to fill a phonebook. And the funky licks that he laid down as a guitarist for Chic and in his session work have been sampled so often that they course through the lifeblood of old school hip hop.
Remarkably, this key sonic navigator of the disco and MTV eras was also partially responsible for the song that dominated radio playlists and dance floors in the summer of 2013. His collaboration with Daft Punk and Pharrell on
Get Lucky earned Rodgers three Grammys and reminded a whole new generation of fans that Nile Rodgers is a figure of towering importance in the history of popular music.
47. Bruce Springsteen – Rock
Perhaps no other rock and roll musician has captured with the level of empathy, clarity, and conviction the American working class experience as has Bruce Springsteen. From his stadium-rattling rockers to his acoustic Dust Bowl balladry, Springsteen has dedicated his gifts as a songwriter to rhapsodizing the hard luck losers and blue collar heroes, living the American Dream while constantly shining a spotlight on those whose dreams have gone sour. At the core of his marathon performances and studio output is his unrivaled passion, the generosity with which he leaves it all out there, and the unflagging hope that gives buoyancy to even his darkest work.
Born to a struggling family in Freehold, New Jersey, Bruce’s life was changed first by witnessing Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show and, a few years later, The Beatles. At his behest, his mother took out a loan to buy him a Kent guitar when he was 16. Still, home life was not always pleasant for Bruce, who clashed frequently with his out-of-work father. He often recalls that the two least popular things in his house were he and his guitar. Though Bruce graduated from Freehold Regional High School, he was cripplingly shy and seemed to care a great deal more about his music than his studies. He logged a few months at Ocean County College, but dropped out to start the first of countless pre-fame bands.
Bruce toured so extensively at this time that recordings can be readily located by bands like The Castiles, Earth, and Steel Mill, the last of which brought him into contact with many of his future E Street Band co-conspirators, most importantly Stevie Van Zandt (guitar) and the late, great Clarence Clemons (sax). By 1970, Springsteen had developed into a captivating performer, demonstrating incredible lyrical dexterity, emotional depth, and yet, an innate playfulness. A small legend was growing around this live draw, especially in the Jersey Shore, Philly, and New York markets where he gigged constantly.
His breakthrough came through a contract with Columbia Records, which released his first two records, Greetings From Asbury Park, New Jersey (1973) and The Wild, the Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle (1974). In spite of a few radio hits, favorable reviews, and modest press, both records failed to translate into the success anticipated. Yet, the buzz around Springsteen continued to grow as he worked toward the release of his first monster hit. As the epic Born To Run hit the album charts, Springsteen pulled off the markedly rare feat of gracing the covers of both Time and Newsweek in the same October week of 1975.
Once Springsteen had arrived, his stay at the top would be permanent. Classic records like Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978), The River (1980), and Nebraska (1982) would follow, pairing critical and commercial success. Then, with 1984’s Born in the U.S.A., Springsteen’s anthemic riffs and subversive patriotism rendered him among the top artists in the world. No fewer than seven of its 10 tracks charted as singles, with the album ultimately moving more than 30 million copies worldwide. It remains one of the biggest-selling albums of all time and suddenly, the mighty E Street Band was selling out arenas and stadiums. Their concerts had also become, and still remain, an experience of rock and roll transcendence. Springsteen’s shows play like old church tent revivals, with his running time typically eclipsing three hours and his audiences often enduring an emotionally draining, even cathartic event with every ticket purchase.
Today, Springsteen continues to record constantly, earning his 10th #1 album with 2012’s Wrecking Ball, a mark which ties The Boss for third with Elvis in that category. Springsteen has sold more than 120 million records worldwide, owns 20 Grammys, has won an Academy Award, and is a member of the Songwriters and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame, as well as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
48. Tina Turner – Rock and Roll
Depending on your point of reference, Tina Turner is arguably the most successful female artist in rock history. Her amazing longevity, throttling performances, and sustained draw as a live act have earned Turner her title as The Queen of Rock and Roll. She has also enjoyed a much-deserved critical adulation, only magnified by her perseverance in the face of a difficult upbringing and a nightmarish road to fame. Tina Turner has emerged on the other side of life’s challenges as one of the most celebrated artists in her genre.
Turner began life as Anna Mae Bullock in the Tennessee town of Nutbush, whose present-day population is substantially below 300 people. Anna first performed as a child in her family’s Baptist church, but she harbored few expectations of ever becoming a professional musician. She was a cheerleader and a basketball player in high school, and — following a transfer to the St. Louis area — graduated from Sumner High School in 1958 with plans of becoming a nurse.
While working as a nurse’s aid, she and her sister became regulars at the city’s vibrant nightclub scene. Among this scene’s most popular acts was Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm. (Turner’s band already laid claim to the unique distinction of recording, in 1951, what many historians identify as the very first Rock and Roll song,
Rocket 88, under the name Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats.)
Anna was transfixed by Turner and introduced herself during intermission. He beckoned her to the microphone and, after a single performance, invited her to join the band. She almost immediately became its primary attraction.
Through the early ‘60s, Tina’s husky vocals, provocative dancing, and authoritative stage presence made Ike & Tina a premier touring act. Tina gave Ike’s seasoned combo a sexy, explosive, even dangerous quality that helped the act rise above its peers on the chitlin' circuit. Ike and Tina also entered into a romantic relationship, though it was one famously marked by psychological and physical abuse.
When they partnered with Wall of Sound impresario Phil Spector in 1965, Ike and Tina began a run at the charts with iconic performances like
River Deep-Mountain High, (1966), Creedence Clearwater Revival’s immortal
Proud Mary (1971), and the autobiographical
Nutbush City Limits (1973). Turner also contributed a memorable performance as The Acid Queen in the Who’s film adaptation of their rock opera, Tommy, in 1975.
The following year, Tina filed for divorce from Ike and, upon winning her freedom, began her solo career. Though chart success was scarce in the late ‘70s and the turn of the decade, she remained a live knockout. Then, in 1984, she released the record Private Dancer, launching a Top Ten hit with
What’s Love Got To Do With It and earning her greatest success as an artist yet. The album earned her four Grammys that year and set her on a course for a fertile decade both live and in the studio. A particular highlight of this period would be her record-setting performance alongside Paul McCartney, where both landed in the Guinness Book of World Records for attracting an audience of 184,000 to a Rio de Janeiro soccer stadium.
Today, Turner is a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, a winner of eight Grammys, and owner of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She is also said to have sold more concert tickets than any other solo performer in history in spite of the fact that performances have been particularly rare over the past decade.
49. Caetano Veloso – Tropicália
Brazil is the place of origin for countless musical innovations, many of them exclusively homegrown. But what might be its most widely inventive and exciting genre is deeply informed by outside influence. When you combine Brazil’s own distinct sonic flavors with the experimentation, eccentricity, and psychedelic indulgence of Western pop music, you get Caetano Veloso. The Bahia-born singer and guitarist is frequently recognized as the starting point for an eclectic genre called tropicália in Portuguese (also known as tropicalismo).
Merging the rhythms of samba and bossa nova with rock instrumentation and the boldly experimental pop craftsmanship pioneered by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Veloso helped to bring Brazil’s musical traditions into the rock and roll era. As a teenager, Veloso was drawn to literature, cinema, and music. It was the groundbreaking bossa nova of João Gilberto that ultimately called him to a life in the third of these pursuits. He even followed in the geographical footsteps of his mentor, first to Bahia’s capital city, Salvador, and thereafter to Rio de Janeiro.
Veloso saw Gilberto as a true innovator of Brazilian music, a title he would very soon earn for himself. The music scene in Rio of the late 1960s was exploding with vibrancy and creativity. Veloso fell in with a group of musicians that included Gal Costa, Tom Ze, Os Mutantes, and lifelong collaborator Gilberto Gil. Collectively, these young musicians pushed the boundaries of traditional Brazilian music, infusing its familiar rhythms and instrumentation with electric guitars, swirling organs, and surrealist themes.
These musicians stood at the forefront of a daring musical movement. So daring was tropicália, in fact, that Brazil’s military dictatorship feared for its political impact. As the leading exponents of an unfamiliar (and therefore subversive) musical movement, the left-leaning Veloso and Gil were imprisoned in 1969. After a few months in captivity, both were exiled. They spent the next several years in London. Veloso remembers this as a trying but artistically fruitful period.
By 1972, Veloso and Gil had earned the right to return to their home country. Once back in Brazil, Veloso emerged as one of Brazil’s most prolific and adventurous musicians. His incorporation of folk forms from throughout the world distinguished his prodigious output and, by the '80s, had earned him global acclaim and recognition.
If tropicália is the consequence of liberal borrowing from Western pop, its impact has also had the reverse effect. The rhythmic idiosyncrasies and genre-smashing philosophy of Veloso’s music has burrowed its way into work by contemporary artists like the Talking Heads and Beck. He continues to extend this influence by recording and performing with relative regularity. In fact, as recently as 2012, Veloso was recognized as the Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year.
He added this award to a mantle that includes nine Latin Grammys and two American Grammys, the sum total of which makes him the most decorated Brazilian musician in history.
50. Neil Young – Rock
Neil Young is one of rock music’s most tireless rebels, a famously temperamental songwriter with an almost perverse resistance to expectation. Known for his sour, quavering vocals and ragged guitar playing, Young was a voice of protest in the ‘60s, the most rewarding artist of the album-oriented ‘70s, and the godfather to a new generation with the explosion of grunge in the ‘90s. Throughout, Young has thrived in spite of his tendencies to alienate critics, defy audiences, embark on his own flights of experimental fancy, and release throwaway genre exercises regardless of their total lack of commercial viability.
The Ontario-born musician was a frail and sickly child who fell in love with rock and roll through the radio. He idolized Elvis Presley, but his first instrument was the ukulele. While at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, Young moved to guitar and formed his first band, an instrumental rock combo called The Squires.
His early days performing in Canada brought Young into direct contact with many of the leading voices of the coming era. He and Stephen Stills crossed paths as their respective bands toured Ontario. He shared the stage with fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell before both emigrated to the U.S. He even performed in the Mynah Byrds with future funkster Rick James.
These contacts would prove immediately fruitful upon Neil’s departure for California in 1966. Oddly enough, it was on the exact day of his arrival in L.A. that Stills spotted Neil’s hearse (that’s right, he drove a hearse) in traffic and flagged him down. The Buffalo Springfield was basically formed in a strip mall parking lot that afternoon.
Young would soon be a witness to the Sunset Strip Curfew Riots (chronicled in Stills’s
For What It’s Worth) while with the Buffalo Springfield. Then, as a member of supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, he performed at Woodstock and inserted himself as a documentarian of the protest movement with 1970’s Kent State Massacre anthem,
Across the coming decade, Neil Young — often accompanied by the gloriously sloppy blue-collar backers, Crazy Horse — chronicled the sputtering disappointment of the 1970s. Albums like After the Gold Rush (1970), Harvest (1972), On the Beach (1974), and Tonight’s the Night (1975) perfectly captured the insecurity, malaise, and disillusionment of the transitional period that followed Watergate and the Vietnam War.
Young capped off a decade of remarkable consistency with the groundbreaking live recording and documentary, Rust Never Sleeps.
Hey Hey My My established Neil Young’s credentials with a new generation of punks whose raison d'être lay in rejecting all that came before them. Punk was protest in 1979. That Young so seamlessly recognized and dispatched to the next battlefront would distinguish him among his peers. His 1979 album would achieve Platinum status and its accompanying film continues to generate critical fawning to present date.
Rolling Stone and the Village Voice both named Neil Young the artist of the 1970s. Though the ‘80s is something of a lost period musically for Young, the end of the decade saw him rise again with reinvigorated purpose. In 1989, as the Berlin Wall fell, Young released the album Freedom, which contained de facto post — Cold War anthem,
Rockin' In the Free World.
In 1990, Young released the live album Ragged Glory and followed it with an all-conquering tour. Both made good on the promise of Freedom, launching Crazy Horse headlong into the thick of the emergent grunge movement. Of 1991, Neil Young recalls,
the Gulf War was raging. I figure that the guitar-playing was a soundtrack for CNN.
Indeed, of the preceding generation, perhaps Neil Young succeeded in remaining most relevant, anchored by his relationship and frequent performance with those grunge monsters, Pearl Jam. Today, as a solo artist and a former member of Buffalo Springfield, the Godfather of Grunge is a two-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.