30 Greatest Male R&B Artists of All-Time

From early pioneers of Rhythm & Blues like Ray Charles and Nat King Cole to the '70s chart-toppers like Curtis Mayfield, this list of the greatest male R&B stars profiles some of music's most famous names. These legends launched to super-stardom from their foundation in the genre and continue to inspire new musicians to this day.

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Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson performing

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Michael Jackson is one of the few artists to be inducted twice into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame—as a member of The Jackson Five, and also as a solo artist. His 1982 album Thriller is the best selling album of all-time with over 65 million sales and he is​ the most awarded artist in history. Among his hundreds of awards:

  • 13 Grammy Awards including winning a record eight Grammys in 1984. Also, a Grammy Living Legend Award and Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award
  • 86 Billboard Awards
  • 26 American Music Awards—more than any other artist and so many he was named American Music Awards "Artist of the Century" and "Artist of the 1980s"
  • 31 Guinness World Records
  • 85 MTV Awards
  • 8 World Music Awards
  • 13 number one singles on the Billboard 100—more than any other solo male artist—plus 6 more as a member of The Jackson Five
  • The first artist to have a Billboard 100 top ten single in five different decades—1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s
  • Estimated 400 million records sold worldwide
  • 2 stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as a member of The Jackson 5 and as a solo artist

Michael Jackson also composed the multi-million selling charity single, "We Are The World," with Lionel Richie and a who's who of modern music, including Richie, Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Tina TurnerRay Charles, Smokey Robinson, Dionne Warwick, Bruce Springsteen, Paul SimonKenny RogersBilly Joel, Willie Nelson, and Bob Dylan.

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James Brown

James Brown leaping during a performance

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"The Godfather of Soul," James Brown was a dazzling performer and shrewd businessman who was one of the most influential artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. His many accolades include being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriter's Hall of Fame, the Kennedy Center Honors, Grammy and BET Lifetime Achievement Awards, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Brown recorded 71 studio albums, 14 live albums, and an incredible 144 singles. "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business" had 16 number one R&B hits and defined the genre of funk music. His song "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" became a theme for the civil rights movement.

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Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder performing

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Stevie Wonder has won 22 Grammy Awards—more than any other male solo artist—and sold over 100 million singles and albums. In 1964, when he was 13 years old, Wonder became the youngest artist to hit number one on the Billboard 100 with his single "Fingertips." Signed at age 11 by Berry Gordy to Motown's Tamla label, Wonder has been recording for over 50 years. During his phenomenal career, Wonder has sold over 100 million records, with 20 Billboard R&B number one singles, and ten number one hits on the Hot 100.

Wonder is also a social activist, leading the campaign to make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday. As an artist, his many awards include an Oscar, Kennedy Center Honors, the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, the Billboard Century Award, the Songwriters Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and he was named a Messenger of Peace by the United Nations.

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Marvin Gaye

Portrait of Marvin Gaye

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Marvin Gaye recorded thirteen number one singles, seven number one albums, and his 1971 What's Going On is considered one of the greatest albums in history. Gaye was the consummate performer, composer, and producer. and recorded duet albums with Diana Ross, Tammi Terrell, Mary Wells, and Kim Weston. His numerous honors include the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame.

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Ray Charles

Ray Charles singing during a performance

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Ray Charles was one of the most versatile recording artists of all time, excelling in R&B. rock & roll, country, gospel, blues, and pop music. He won 17 Grammy Awards and achieved 14 number one Billboard singles. His long list of accolades includes induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Kennedy Center Honors, the National Medal of Arts, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

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Smokey Robinson

Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson at the Songwriters Hall of Fame 44th Annual Induction and Awards Dinner at the New York Marriott Marquis on June 13, 2013 in New York City.

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Smokey Robinson was one of the keys to the phenomenal success of Motown Records. His group, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, was one of the first acts signed to the label by Berry Gordy Jr. and Robinson was one of the most successful artists, both as a group leader and solo performer. He also composed and produced hits for several other acts, including Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Mary Wells, and The Marvelettes and served as a vice president for the company. Robinson's many awards include the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Hollywood Walk of Fame, Songwriters Hall of Fame, Grammy Living Legend, National Medal of Arts, and Kennedy Center Honors.

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Lionel Richie

Lionel Richie posing with an award at the AMAs

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As the lead vocalist of The Commodores—and as a solo artist—Lionel Richie is one of the best selling performers of all-time with over 100 million records sold. His achievements include an Academy Award and Golden Globe in 1986 for Best Original Song for "Say You, Say Me" from the movie White Nights. Richie has also won four Grammy Awards, including Song of the Year in 1986 for "We Are The World," and Album of the Year in 1985 for Can't Slow Down.

In his solo career, he has eleven number one singles on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart, five number one R&B hits, and five number one singles on the Hot 100. He has also achieved one platinum and four gold singles.

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Prince during a performance

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Prince is a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, has won seven Grammy Awards, an Academy Award, and a Golden Globe Award. He's sold over 100 million records in his career which spans five decades. Prince has released ten platinum albums and achieved 30 Top 40 hits, including ten number one singles on the Billboard Dance chart, eight R&B number one hits, and five singles which hit the top of the Hot 100. Ten of his singles have been certified gold, and two have achieved platinum status. He has also composed and/or produced hits for Chaka Khan ("I Feel For You" featuring Stevie Wonder), Madonna, Patti LaBelle, The Time, Vanity 6, Sinead O'Connor, and several more artists.

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Al Green

Al Green singing during a performance

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Al Green is an 11-time Grammy Award winner. Excelling as a gospel artist as well as an R&B vocalist, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors. His list of awards also includes a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, BET Lifetime Achievement Award, and induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Beginning with Let's Stay Together in 1972, Green reached number one on the Billboard R&B chart with six consecutive albums. He's achieved eight number one singles, with six number hits from 1972-1975.

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Luther Vandross

Luther Vandross with Whitney Houston at the Soul Train Awards

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Luther Vandross was a consummate composer, producer, and arranger who sold over 30 million singles and albums, including 13 platinum or double platinum albums and seven number one singles. Following a very successful career as a studio and background vocalist working with Quincy Jones and stars such as David Bowie, Diana Ross, and Barbara Streisand, Vandross became one of the most admired and influential solo artists. He won eight Grammys, nine American Music Awards, and six NAACP Image Awards. He was also inducted into the BET Walk of Fame and received the Soul Train Quincy Jones Award for Outstanding Career Achievement.

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Nat King Cole

Portrait of Nat King Cole

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Beginning his recording career in 1945, Nat King Cole was a very successful jazz pianist become becoming one of the most admired vocalists of his era. His version of "The Christmas Song" is one of the most popular songs of all-time. His honors include the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and a United States postage stamp. In 1956, he made history as the first African American to host a national television variety show, The Nat King Cole Show.

Cole originally recorded his classic "Unforgettable" in 1951, and 40 years later, his vocals were utilized for a duet with his daughter Natalie Cole, which won Grammy Awards for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Traditional Pop Performance in 1992. The song was the title track of Unforgettable... With Love which won the Grammy for Album of the Year.

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Ronald Isley

Portrait of Ronald Isley during a performance

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Recording for over 50 years as a member of The Isley Brothers and also as a solo artist, Ronald Isley is a true living legend. The Isley Brothers have released four double platinum, six platinum, and four gold albums. Seven of their singles have reached number one on the Billboard R&B chart. Two of their songs, "Shout" and "Twist and Shout," were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and The Isleys were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. They have also received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and a BET Lifetime Achievement Award. Ronald Isley has also transcended R&B and become an icon of the hip-hop generation, recording with Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur, Diddy, Nas, Nelly, and Kendrick Lamar.

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Sam Cooke

Portrait of Sam Cooke

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Although he only lived to the age of 33 years old, Sam Cooke was one of the greatest soul singers of all time. He began his career at the age of 15 as the lead vocalist of The Soul Stirrers gospel group and later segued to secular R&B. He excelled as a music publisher and record label owner and helped other artists, including Bobby Womack, Johnnie Taylor, Billy Preston, and Lou Rawls, make the transition to soul music. His honors include the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and receiving a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. 

Cooke recorded 29 Top 40 hits, including his classics “You Send Me,” “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons,” “Wonderful World,” “Chain Gang,” “Cupid,” “Another Saturday Night,” “Twistin’ the Night Away," "Shake," and “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

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Jackie Wilson

Jackie Wilson singing during a performance

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Known as "Mr. Excitement," Jackie Wilson was a master showman on stage who achieved 24 Top 40 hits on the Billboard charts from 1958 to 1968. His first number one R&B single came in 1958 with "Lonely Teardrops," which was composed by Berry Gordy Jr. before Gordy even launched Motown Records. "Lonely Teardorps" and (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher & Higher" were both inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Wilson also hit the top of the charts with "You Better Know It,” “Doggin’ Around,” and “A Woman, a Lover, a Friend.” He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

Wilson passed away on January 21, 1984 at the age of 49. At the Grammy Awards one month later, Michael Jackson dedicated his Album of the Year Grammy for Thriller to Wilson, saying, "In the entertainment business, there are leaders and there are followers. And I just want to say that I think Jackie Wilson was a wonderful entertainer... Jackie, where you are I want to say I love you and thank you so much."

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Otis Redding

Otis Redding during a performance

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Known as "The King of Soul," Otis Redding was one of the greatest R&B singers of all time despite his untimely death at the age of 26. Redding's solo career lasted only seven years, yet he was one of the most influential artists of his generation. On December 10, 1967, Redding was killed along with six others when his plane crashed in Madison, Wisconsin. Only Ben Cauley, band member of The Bar-Kays, survived.

Redding's signature song, "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay," sold four million copies worldwide, and in January 1968, it became the first posthumous song to hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100. Other classic recordings included "Try A Little Tenderness" and "I've Been Loving You Too Long." He also composed and recorded "Respect," which became Aretha Franklin's signature tune which she re-recorded and released in 1967.

He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame, received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, was honored with a United States postage stamp, and Billboard magazine created the Otis Redding Excellence Award in recognition of his powerful legacy.

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Curtis Mayfield

Curtis Mayfield during a performance

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Curtis Mayfield was one of the greatest composers and producers of the 1960s and 1970s. Beginning his career as a member of The Impressions, he also composed hits for a number of other stars, including Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Staple Singers, and Bob Marley.

Mayfield's honors include induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1999. He received the Grammy Legend Award in 1994 and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. Two of his songs, "People Get Ready" and "Super Fly," were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

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Isaac Hayes

Isaac Hayes holding his Oscar for Best Original Song

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Isaac Hayes was a prolific composer, producer, and recording artist who won an Oscar, two Grammys, and a Golden Globe Award for scoring the 1971 movie "Shaft." Hayes began his career as a staff composer for Stax Records, and his list of classic compositions include "Soul Man," "When Something Is Wrong with My Baby" and "Hold On, I'm Comin,'" As a performer, he was known for creating a unique heavily orchestrated sound with extended spoken introductions featuring his distinctive bass vocals.

During his four-decade career, he collaborated with several artists, including Barry White, Dionne Warwick, and Millie Jackson. Hayes's honors include being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005.

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Donny Hathaway

Donny Hathaway sitting with Quincy Jones

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Donny Hathaway was one of the most influential R&B singers of all time, despite the fact that he only lived to the age of 33 years old. He began his career as a house producer for Curtis Mayfield's Curtom Records and worked with several acts including Aretha Franklin, the Staple Singers, Jerry Butler, and The Impressions. He is best known for his classic 1972 duet with Roberta Flack, "Where Is the Love," which won a Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.

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Babyface poses with his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

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Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds is a 10-time Grammy Award winner and one of the most prolific artists, composers, and producers in music history. Beginning his career as a member of the group The Deele, he was nicknamed "Babyface" by famed bass player Bootsy Collins.

Edmonds launched LaFace Records in 1989 with his composing/producing partner, LA Reid. Together, they developed the careers of several stars including Usher, Toni BraxtonTLC, OutKast, and P!nk. He has created over 125 Top 10 R&B hits and over 40 number one singles, which have produced single and album sales in excess of 500 million units worldwide. Babyface's list of writing and producing credits include hits by Whitney HoustonMariah Carey, Madonna, Beyonce, Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, Barbara Streisand, Diana Ross, Celine Dion, and Michael Jackson.

His numerous honors including Soul Train Legend and Entertainer of the Year and the NAACP Image Awards Entertainer of the Year. Babyface has received a star on the Hollywood Walk of fame and has been inducted into the BET Walk of Fame.

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Bill Withers

Bill Withers singing during a performance

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Bill Withers's honors include induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame. Withers is known for several classics, including “Ain’t No Sunshine,” for which he won a Grammy for Best R&B Song in 1972. Since then, the beloved song has been covered more than 250 times. In 1982, Withers won a second Grammy for Best R&B Song for "Just The Two Of Us," which he recorded with Grover Washington, Jr.

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Bobby Womack

Bobby Womack sings during a performance

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 During his 50-year recording career, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame member Bobby Womack distinguished himself as an outstanding solo artist, composer, producer, and guitarist. He collaborated with numerous stars including The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Patti LaBelle, and Bill Withers. Womack composed The Stones' first number one single, "It's All Over Now," and also wrote Wilson's Pickett's hits "I'm In Love" and "I'm a Midnight Mover." As a solo artist, Womack released 28 studio albums and he was also a highly in-demand session guitarist, recording with Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles.

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Johnny Mathis

Portrait of Johnny Mathis

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Recording for over 50 years, Johnny Mathis is one of the best-selling artists of all time with over 350 million records sold—including 16 gold and six platinum albums. He is one of the most versatile vocalists ever, recording a variety of standards, jazz, Broadway, pop, and R&B songs. Three of his classics, "It's Not for Me to Say" (1957), "Chances Are" (1957), and "Misty" (1959) were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. He is also a recipient of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

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R. Kelly

R. Kelly

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R. Kelly is one of the most prolific artists, composers, and producers of modern music. He's recorded with numerous stars, including both Michael and Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, and many more. During his three-decade career, he's composed and produced such classic songs as his triple Grammy award-winning "I Can Believe I Can Fly," which featured in Michael Jordan's 1996 movie, Space Jam. He also contributed to the first single to ever debut at number one on the Billboard Hot 100, "You Are Not Alone," by Michael Jackson.

As an artist, Kelly has ten number-one singles and has sold over 40 million albums, His honors include three Grammy Awards, eleven Soul Train Music Awards, six NAACP Image Awards, and two American Music Awards.

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Barry White

Portrait of Barry White during a performance

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Barry White was one of the most successful artists of the 1970s disco era. During his four decades as a recording artist, White sold over 100 million records. His achievements include 10 platinum singles and 20 gold singles worldwide and he won two Grammy Awards, three Soul Music Awards, and one American Music Award.

In addition to composing and producing his own music, he also founded the Love Unlimited Orchestra and the female trio, Love Unlimited, featuring his wife, Glodean White. White also collaborated with Quincy Jones, Tina Turner, Tamia, and many more artists. In 2013, White was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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Usher high-fives fans during a performance

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Usher is one of the most successful recording artists of the past two decades. He has sold over 65 million records and CDs worldwide and won over 80 awards, including 20 Billboard Music Awards, eight Grammys, eight American Music Awards, and nine Soul Train Music Awards. He was named the Billboard Artist of the Year in 1998 and 2004, American Music Awards Artist of the Year in 2004, and Soul Train Entertainer of the Year in 2005.

Usher's 2004 Confessions CD was one of the best selling albums of the 2000-2010 decade with over 20 million copies worldwide. It contained four number one hits: "Yeah!" featuring Ludacris and Lil Jon, "Burn," "Confessions Part II," and "My Boo" featuring Alicia Keys. Usher made history as the first artist to top the Billboard Hot 100 Airplay chart with four straight number one singles.

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George Benson

George Benson playing a guitar

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George Benson is a ten-time Grammy Award winner who began his career as one of the most respected jazz guitarists before eventually proving he was an equally gifted vocalist. He achieved superstardom with "This Masquerade" from his 1976 album Breezin, which won a Grammy for Record of the Year. His Grammy Awards also include Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for "On Broadway," Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Male for "Moody's Mood," and Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for "Give Me the Night."

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Charlie Wilson

Charlie Wilson playing a clear acrylic piano

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After over 40 years as a recording artist, former Gap Band lead singer Charlie Wilson is one of the most influential performers in modern R&B. Nicknamed "Uncle Charlie" by Snoop Dogg, Wilson has recorded with many modern stars of R&B and hip-hop, including Snoop, Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Jay-Z, Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, R. Kelly, and Quincy Jones.

Wilson released over 30 albums with The Gap Band, including three number one albums (Gap Band III, Gap Band IV, and Gap Band VI), and four number one hits. As a solo artist, he released two chart-topping CDs, Uncle Charlie in 2009, and Love, Charlie in 2013, and eight number one singles. He has received numerous honors, including a BET Lifetime Achievement Award, the Trumpet Lifetime Achievement Award, the Soul Train Icon Award, the BMI Icon Award, and an NAACP Image Award. 

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Teddy Pendergrass

Portrait of Teddy Pendergrass during a performance

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Teddy Pendergrass excelled as the lead singer of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes before emerging as a superstar solo artist in 1977. His first four solo albums, Teddy Pendergrass, Life Is a Song Worth Singing, Teddy, and TP were all certified platinum. He was also the sex symbol of the era until he was paralyzed in a car accident in 1982.

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Chris Brown

Chris Brown wearing a red suit

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Chris Brown is one of the most successful artists over the past decade. Since beginning his career in 2005 with his debut single "Run It!—which reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts—Chris Brown has been a hit-making machine. He has six number one singles and 23 top ten hits. His home is filled with platinum: seven platinum singles, one double platinum, two triple platinum, a 4 times platinum single ("Look At Me Now"), and a 5 times platinum hit, "Forever."

Brown has won dozens of major honors including a Grammy, two Billboard Artist of the Year Awards, three American Music Artist of the Year awards, 14 BET Awards, three MTV Video Music Awards, five Soul Train Music Awards, and two NAACP Image Awards. Breezy has also achieved five number one albums (two double platinum) and six number one singles.

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Freddie Jackson

Freddie Jackson performs with Stevie Wonder

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Discovered by Melba Moore, Freddie Jackson got his career started with four consecutive number one albums: Rock Me Tonight, Just Like The First Time, Don't Let Love Slip Away, and Do Me Again. He ruled the 1980s and early 90s with ten number-one hits on the Billboard R&B chart, including "Rock Me Tonight (For Old Times Sake)," "You Are My Lady," "Tasty Love," and "Jam Tonight." Another number one single, "Nice 'N' Slow," won an American Music Award in 1988 for Favorite Soul / Rhythm & Blues Single.