When thinking of the singers from the 1980s, it’s hard not to think of some of the black artists who helped define the decade. From Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston to Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross, these artists dominated the charts and inspired millions with their unique sounds.
To celebrate their contribution to this decade, in this post we’ve put together a list of 15 of the greatest and most famous black singers of the 1980s. Let’s get started.
1. Michael Jackson
It is hard to argue with the first choice here. The 1980s were Michael Jackson’s decade (part of the 1990s, too), and there is no comparison.
Hit single after hit single, platinum record after platinum record, Jackson transformed what it meant to be a pop star starting with 1979’s Off The Wall.
While Off The Wall is a late 70s release, Jackson’s “She’s Out of My Life” was a top-10 hit in 1980 and showed off his range. But 1983’s Thriller cemented Jackson’s legacy. A record eight Grammys in 1984 for that album gave him all the credibility he needed.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Jackson followed up with Bad in 1987 – another massive success that proved he was more than just the most successful member of the Jackson 5.
2. Janet Jackson
Michael Jackson might have been the King of Pop for decades, but his sister Janet Jackson proved she could easily step out of her brother’s shadow.
Jackson signed an album deal in 1982 with A&M Records, but it was not until her 1986 album Control that she truly realized her potential. Control gave the world “Nasty,” “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” and “When I Think of You” – three of a record-setting five singles that charted on the Billboard Hot 100.
Janet Jackson ended the decade with another hit record in Rhythm Nation 1814which went platinum six times.
3. Whitney Houston
Whitney Houston might have had a massively successful song in the 1990s, but her work in the 1980s is nothing to forget. While Houston did not have her self-titled debut album released until 1985, that album’s songs launched her career like a rocket.
That album generated three Billboard-topping hits with “How Will I Know?”, “Greatest Love of All,” and “Saving All My Love for You”, which nabbed a Best Pop Vocal Performance Grammy for Houston.
Two years later, Houston’s follow-up, Whitney, was another commercial success. That album gave the world “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” which became her fourth Billboard chart-topping song and gave her a second Best Pop Vocal Performance Grammy.
Outside of Michael Jackson, no one else had a more prominent decade than Prince. You may not even realize it, but his work produced nine albums in the 1980s, starting with 1980s Dirty Mind and capping off the decade with 1989’s Batman.
Each of Prince’s albums achieved massive amounts of critical success. Commercial success finally followed with 1982’s 1999which spawned several hit songs such as “Little Red Corvette,” “Delirious,” and, of course, “1999”.
Still, Prince’s success did not explode into rock-good status until the release of 1984’s Purple Rain. Four songs on that record alone reached the Billboard charts, and Prince’s same-titled film earned $70 million at the box office.
5. Tina Turner
Tina Turner was already a well-known singer during her time with her ex-husband Ike Turner. But Ike’s abuse forced her to leave and focus on her family. She released multiple solo albums in the interim, but none reached the success she had with Ike.
However, Turner launched what Billboard called “one of the greatest comebacks in music history” with 1984’s Private Dancer. The sales of that album alone catapulted the then 45-year-old Turner into levels of success she had never seen before.
Private Dancer had five top-40 hits, including her No. 1 “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” She also notched a Record of the Year Grammy for that effort.
Turner’s success also crossed over into movies, where she co-starred alongside Mel Gibson in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. She also provided two songs on the movie’s soundtrack, including the hit “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome).”
6. Luther Vandross
Luther Vandross was already a successful artist in the band Change, but he finally broke through as a solo artist in 1981 with the release of Never Too Much.
The title track on that album alone hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart and earned him a Grammy nomination in 1982.
Vandross also worked with other artists during the decade, including his favorite artist, Dionne Warwick (more on her in a moment).
Vandross capped the decade with the release of “Here and Now” in 1989 – a song that eventually won him a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance in 1991.
7. Dionne Warwick
Dionne Warwick was already a hit-maker by the time of her 1980 release No Night So Longbut her career reached new heights in the 1980s.
Working together with other artists like Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees to produce “Heartbreaker” and Luther Vandross for “How Many Times We Can Say Goodbye,” Warwick became better known for her duets.
However, the collaboration with Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder gave her a massive hit with a message.
1985’s “That’s What Friends Are For” went to No. 1 on three different Billboard charts and raised money for the American Foundation for AIDS Research.
8. Lionel Richie
Lionel Richie was already known to music fans. But it was his skills as a writer and producer that gave him the chance to go it alone.
In 1981, he worked with Diana Ross to write and produce the duet “Endless Love.” The song became one of the best-selling singles of all time and is considered the greatest duet of all time.
Still, his success in the 1980s did not end there. His self-titled release in 1982 gave the world the No. 1 single “Truly”. Richie followed up that album with 1983’s Can’t Slow Down, which produced “Hello” and “All Night Long (All Night),” another pair of No. 1 singles.
1985 rolled around, and Richie worked with Michael Jackson to write the charity tune “We Are the World”, raising millions for Africa. Richie released one more album in 1986, Dancing on the Ceilingbefore taking a 10-year break.
9. Rick James
If you wanted a picture of 80sexcess, Rick James might be the first person in your mind. Even with a rockstar life, James created several hits in the 80s as a recording artist.
Those hits included “Super Freak” and “Give It To Me Baby” in 1981 – both off the album Street Songs.
James also succeeded as a producer, helping to produce hits such as Eddie Murphy’s “Party All the Time.”
10. Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder might have had a period of success in the late 1970s, but his commercial success ballooned in the 1980s.
Wonder’s soundtrack for the film The Woman in Red was released in 1984 and produced his hit “I Just Called to Say I Love You”, which became a No. 1 hit.
Wonder also saw success in the 1980s with several duets and collaborations, including “We Are the World” and “That’s What Friends Are For.”
11. New Edition
Name another pop group with a legacy of spawning other great acts. New Edition had several hits at the start of the decade with “Candy Girl,” “Cool It Now,” and “Mr. Telephone Man.”
But infighting in the group forced them to oust founding member Bobby Brown in 1985, leading to a new line-up.
However, the group pushed through the turbulence with the release of 1988’s heart break, which gave the group five more hits.
The group would take a break so that three of the members could form Bell Biv Devoe – another classic R&B and hip-hop group that saw success in the early 1990s.
12. Bobby Brown
Bobby Brown could have taken his ball and gone home after being fired from New Edition in 1985, but instead, he ran with it.
With 1988’s Don’t Be Cruel, Brown scored five top 10 hits on the Billboard charts, like the massively successful “My Prerogative.” “Every Little Step,” another hit off that album, scored him a Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.
Brown’s success continued in 1989 when he contributed two songs to the Ghostbusters II soundtrack.
13. Teddy Pendergrass
Teddy Pendergrass could have walked away from music entirely following the 1982 car crash that left him paralyzed from the chest down. Instead, he used the crash as an opportunity.
1984’s Love Language spawned a hit with “Hold Me.” Pendergrass received rave reviews for his appearance at the 1985 Live Aid concert – his first live performance since the crash.
14. Diana Ross
As a member of The Supremes, Diana Ross was one of the most well-known group members and branched out as a solo artist in the 1970s.
While the 70s were Ross’s decade, her fortune continued well into the 1980s with the release of “Endless Love,” “Upside Down,” and “Chain Reaction” – all three massively successful singles.
15. Donna Summer
She might have been considered the Queen of Disco, but Donna Summer transcended that label in the 1980s with the release of several hit singles. Summer had several certified gold records released during the decade as well.
Summer’s biggest hit, “She Works Hard for the Money,” was released in 1983, where it hit No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart.
Summing Up Our List of Famous Black 80s Singers
Several black singers were already wildly successful before the 80s, but the decade delivered with hit singles, platinum records, and big paychecks. It is hard to argue with the legacy these artists have created for themselves – it shows in modern music.
Contemporary artists count many of these singers to be among their influences. But the decade is also about the new sounds that came forward thanks to advances in technology, instruments, and production techniques.
The decade also saw new recording companies take off thanks to the work of these black artists. Geffen Records and Interscope Records have artists like Donna Summer and Whitney Houston to thank for helping them get off the ground.
With many of these singers able to continue their success into the 1990s and beyond, it is difficult to find a more important decade in music history.