The 20 Greatest Female R&B Vocalists
The greatest female R&B artists have distinguished themselves through incredible talent, unique creativity, admirable longevity, and worldwide influence. They are recognized merely by their first names: Aretha, Whitney, Diana, Beyonce, Mariah, Tina, Dionne, Chaka, Gladys, and Patti. Here are 20 top female R&B vocalists:
Sade has won four Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist in 1986. Her 1984 debut album, “Diamond Life,” sold over 6 million copies and was the best-selling debut ever by a British female vocalist. Following the release of her multiplatinum “Lovers Rock” album in 2000, she went on a 10-year hiatus, then returned in 2010 with her Grammy Award-winning “Soldier of Love” CD. In 2002, she was named Officer of the Order of the British Empire by Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace for services to music. Technically, Sade isn’t a solo artist, naming her group after herself, but she still deserves mention.
Toni Braxton has won seven Grammys, nine Billboard Music Awards and seven American Music Awards. Her 1993 self-titled debut studio album sold over 10 million copies and earned her a Grammy for Best New Artist. Her 1996 second album, “Secrets,” sold over 15 million copies featuring the No. 1 hit “You’re Makin’ Me High” plus “Unbreak My Heart.”
Her 2014 “Love, Marriage & Divorce” duet CD with Babyface debuted at No. 1 on the Blilboard R&B chart. Braxton’s 2014 autobiography, “Unbreak My Heart: A Memoir,” inspired a television movie that premiered Jan. 23, 2016, on Lifetime.
“The Songstress” Anita Baker has won eight Grammy Awards, six Soul Train Music Awards, and four American Music Awards. Her 1986 “Rapture” album was certified five times platinum and featured the Grammy-winning single, “Sweet Love.”
Alicia Keys has sold over 35 million albums and 30 million singles worldwide. The pianist, composer, and producer has won over 100 awards, including 15 Grammys,17 NAACP Image Awards, 10 Billboard Music Awards, 11 Soul Train Awards, seven BET Awards, and five American Music Awards.
Keys appeared in the second season of “Empire” as singer Skye Summers, and she recorded the song “Powerful” with Jussie Smollett, which is included on “Empire: Original Soundtrack Season 2 Volume 1.”
Mary J. Blige has lived up to her royal title as the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul” during her brilliant recording career, winning over 100 awards including 10 Billboard Music Awards, nine Grammys, five Soul Train Music Awards, four American Music Awards, and four NAACP Image Awards. She has sold over 50 million albums and 15 million singles worldwide, and eight of her 12 studio albums have been certified multiplatinum.
In 2010, Billboard named her the most successful female R&B artist of the past 25 years and ranked her 2006 hit “Be Without You” the top R&B song of the decade. It spent 15 weeks at No. 1.
On Dec. 3, 2015, Blige starred as Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West, in NBC’s “The Wiz Live!”
Roberta Flack made history in 1974 when she became the first artist ever to win the Grammy Award for Record of the Year two consecutive times: “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in 1973 and “Killing Me Softly With His Song” in 1974. She also recorded the classic duets “Where Is the Love” and “The Closer I Get to You” with Donny Hathaway.
Natalie Cole was a nine-time Grammy Award-winner whose father, Nat King Cole, was one of the greatest male entertainers of the 1950s and 1960s. She launched her career winning Grammys for Best New Artist and Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female in 1976. The following year, she won her third Grammy Award, again for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female. In 1992 she won for Album of the Year (“Unforgettable: With Love”) and Record of the Year for “Unforgettable,” her duet with her father. The album sold over 7 million copies worldwide. Cole’s many honors include a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Hitmaker Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame, three American Music Awards, three NAACP Image Awards, and the Soul Train Lady of Soul Lena Horne Award for Outstanding Career Achievement.
On Dec. 31, 2015, Cole passed away from congestive heart failure. Aretha Franklin said of her: “She was one of the greatest singers of our time.”
“Queen of Disco” Donna Summer recorded 11 gold albums and three multiplatinum albums and won five Grammys and six American Music Awards. She was the first artist to have three consecutive double albums reach the top of the Billboard album chart. She sold over 140 million records worldwide. Her classic “Last Dance” won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Original Song from the “Thank God It’s Friday” movie soundtrack. In 2013, Summer was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Rihanna has sold over 200 million records and won eight Grammy Awards. Her numerous honors also include 23 Billboard Music Awards, eight American Music Awards, the Fashion Icon Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America and selection for Time magazine’s list of the 100 Most Influential people in the world. In February 2016, “Work,” her collaboration with Drake, became her 14th No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, pushing her ahead of Michael Jackson for fourth place behind The Beatles, Elvis Presley, and Mariah Carey. She also joined the Beatles and Presley as the only artists to achieve a No. 1 single on the Hot 100 chart for seven consecutive years.
Rihanna has recorded with a who’s who of contemporary music, including Jay-Z, Paul McCartney, Bono from U2, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, Shakira, Coldplay, Ne-Yo, and Chris Brown.
Janet Jackson emerged from the shadow of her brother, Michael Jackson, and proved she was a star on her own, winning six Grammys, 12 American Music Awards, 33 Billboard Music Awards, 12 Soul Train Music Awards, 10 MTV Video Music Awards, two Emmys, and one Golden Globe, She has sold over 140 million records and hit No. 1 12 times on the Billboard charts.
In 2015, Jackson was honored with the BET Ultimate Icon: Music Dance Visual Award. On Oct. 2, 2015, she released her first new album in seven years, “Unbreakable,” and launched her “Unbreakable World Tour.”
As the lead vocalist of the group Labelle and a very successful solo artist, Patti LaBelle is one of the most revered women in music. For over 50 years, she has amazed fans with her incredible voice and delighted the world with her warm heart and ebullient personality. With LaBelle, she recorded the iconic “Lady Marmalade” in 1974, and the trio blazed a trail as the first African-American group to perform at the prestigious Metropolitan Opera House. It was also the first African-American vocal group to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.
Patti is a member of the Grammy Hall of Fame, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Apollo Hall of Fame, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2005, the World Music Awards gave her the Legend Award, and in 2011 she was honored with the BET Lifetime Achievement Award.
For season 20 of NBC’s “The Voice,” she served as an adviser to Christina Aguilera’s team.
During a career spanning over six decades, Gladys Knight has excelled as a solo artist and lead singer of Gladys Knight and The Pips. She is a four-time Grammy Award-winner whose classics include “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Midnight Train to Georgia,” and “Neither One of Us Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye.” Knight also recorded the AIDS benefit anthem “That’s What Friends Are For” with Stevie Wonder, Elton John, and Dionne Warwick.
She received a star on the Hollywood walk of Fame, and her numerous honors also include Lifetime Achievement Awards from BET, Soul Train, and Essence magazine.
Ten-time Grammy Award-winner Chaka Khan began her career as the lead singer for the band Rufus in 1973 before launching her solo career in 1978. She has sold over 70 million records worldwide. Her classics include “Sweet Thing,” “I’m Every Woman,” “I Feel for You,” “Ain’t Nobody,” and “Higher Love” with Steve Winwood, which won a Grammy for Record of the Year in 1987.
Recording over 50 years, Dionne Warwick has released numerous classics, including “Walk on By,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” and “I Say a Little Prayer.” In 1987, she recorded the AIDS benefit anthem, “That’s What Friends Are For” with Stevie Wonder, Elton John, and Gladys Knight. It won a Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal, one of five Grammys she’s received in her career.
Warwick is second only to Aretha Franklin as the most charted female vocalist of all time, with 69 singles reaching the Billboard Hot 100 between 1962 and 1998.
From beginning her career singing with Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm to her exceptional solo career, Tina Turner has been one of the most influential and inspiring artists for over 50 years. She is a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and has received eight Grammy Awards, including the 1985 Record of the Year for “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” Know as “The Queen of Rock and Roll,” Turner has sold over 200 million albums and singles worldwide.
Mariah Carey is the best-selling female artist of all time with over 200 million albums sold, and she leads all solo artists with 18 No. 1 singles. During her 25-year career, she has won five Grammy Awards, 10 American Music Awards, 18 World Music Awards, and 32 Billboard Music Awards. In 1995, her song “One Sweet Day” with Boyz II Men set the record as the longest-running single at No. 1 (16 weeks). A decade later, in 2005, her single “We Belong Together” became the second-longest-running song at No. 1 with 14 weeks at the top of the chart.
On May 5, 2015, Carey kicked off her “Number Ones” residency at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Ten days later, she released “#1 to Infinity,” a greatest hits CD containing her 18 Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 singles.
As an elite recording artist, composer, producer, actress, entrepreneur, and philanthropist, Beyonce is “The Most Powerful Entertainer In the World,” according to Forbes magazine. Her seemingly endless list of accolades also includes being named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” and People magazine’s “World’s Most Beautiful Woman.”
As a solo artist and a member of Destiny’s Child, Beyonce has sold over 135 million records and won 20 Grammys. She has also received 20 Soul Train Music Awards,18 Billboard Music Awards, 18 MTV Video Music Awards, 16 BET Awards, 11 American Music Awards, and 10 World Music Awards.
Beyonce performed with Coldplay and Bruno Mars at Super Bowl 50 on Feb. 7, 2016, at Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, California, and conducted her seventh tour, “The Formation World Tour,” later that year.
As the former lead singer of the greatest female group of all time, The Supremes, and one of the most successful and influential solo artists in history, Diana Ross is “The Boss.” She hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 12 times with The Supremes and recorded numerous solo classics, including “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and “Endless Love” with Lionel Richie. As an actress, she won a Golden Globe and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her debut starring role in “Lady Sings the Blues.” Her numerous honors include Billboard’s Female Entertainer of the Century, and the Guinness Book of World Records declared her the most successful female music artist in history.
In 1988, Ross was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with The Supremes. She received Kennedy Center Honors in 2007 and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.
In 2015, she performed 18 shows called “The Essential Diana Ross: Some Memories Never Fade” during a mini-residency at the Venetian in Las Vegas. On Nov. 27, 2015, Motown Records released the album “Diana Ross Sings Songs From The Wiz,” which she recorded in 1978.
The Guinness Book of World Records named Whitney Houston the most awarded female artist of all time with over 600 awards during her phenomenal career. Her list of honors included 30 Billboard Music Awards, 22 American Music Awards (most of any female), 19 NAACP Image Awards, six Grammys, six World Music Awards, an Emmy, the Soul Train Quincy Jones Award for Outstanding Career Achievement, and a BET Lifetime Achievement Award. She sold an incredible 200 million singles and albums.
Houston’s 1985 self-titled debut album is listed as one of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time by Rolling Stone magazine and is on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s Definitive 200 list. It is the best-selling debut album by a female artist, with over 25 million sales worldwide. Houston was also the only artist to have seven consecutive No. 1 singles on the Billboard 100 chart.
Her signature song, “I Will Always Love You” from “The Bodyguard” soundtrack, was the best-selling single in history by a female artist (20 million copies), and “The Bodyguard” was the most successful soundtrack ever with over 45 million sales worldwide. Houston also starred in “The Bodyguard” and “Waiting to Exhale” and earned an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Motion Picture for “The Preacher’s Wife” co-starring Denzel Washington.
She earned an Emmy in 1986 for her unforgettable performance of “I Will Always Love You” on the Grammy Awards. On Jan 27, 1991, Houston gave a landmark televised performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl 25 in Tampa, Florida.
She died on Feb. 11, 2012, in Los Angeles of accidental drowning.
With 18 Grammy Awards, 20 No. 1 Billboard R&B singles, and over 75 million records sold, Aretha Franklin was without question “The Queen of Soul.” She recorded for over 50 years and had 100 entries on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, more than any other female artist. Franklin was the first female inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on Jan. 3, 1987, and Rolling Stone named her No. 1 on its list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. In October 2014, Franklin became the first woman to have 100 songs on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart with her cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.”
Her long list of awards includes the Presidential Medal of Freedom, National Medal of Arts, Grammy Lifetime Achievement, Grammy Legend, and Hollywood Walk of Fame. She performed for the inaugurations of President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama and gave a command performance for Queen Elizabeth.
She died on Aug. 16, 2021, in Detroit of pancreatic cancer.