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 “the dozens.”
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.