Stage Icons: 30 Greatest Pop Music Entertainers of All Time

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    Grace Jones Prince Beyonce TheLavaLizard
    Grace Jones, Prince and Beyonce

    So, the dust has settled from Beyonce’s 2013 Super Bowl Halftime Show and the media is buzzing with rave reviews regarding the spectacle. The diva’s performance has been compared to that of everybody from Michael Jackson to Prince as people attempt to rank her among the greatest entertainers of all time. Naturally, we have a list of our own to add to the mix!

    Along with The Lava Lizard’s team of contributors, I compiled a lineup of dozens of brilliant live performers from every corner of the popular music industry – Rock & Roll, Soul, R&B, Dance, Pop, Country, Reggae, Disco and even Jazz – without limiting selection to a specific time period. We then launched a roundtable debate to formulate a shortlist of the thirty best entertainers for judging.

    Finally, we scored each of the artists on a scale of one to five in the categories of live singing, stage presence, audience interaction, choreography and originality. As usual, all ties were broken by discussion amongst members of our panel so that the final ranking would be as fair as possible.

    The process of developing this list took weeks to complete and now, it’s time for the games to begin! See our list of the thirty greatest entertainers of all time below:

    30. Diana Ross

    Diana Ross started her career as a shy, wide-eyed member of The Primettes – later known as The Supremes – but eventually became the most successful female artist of the Rock era. Her stage presence was magnetic and thanks to her love of all these that sparkled, she dazzled fans across the globe.

    For three consecutive decades, Ross ruled the music scene with her diva flair and sold out shows on a larger scale than her bigger-voiced rivals, such as Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight.

    Who could forget Ross rocking a 1983 concert of thousands at Central Park while rain poured and wind wildly whipped her famous mane of hair? Certainly not Donna Summer, Rihanna and Mariah Carey, all of whom have been influenced by The Boss.

    29. Annie Lennox

    Hailed by Aretha Franklin as the Queen of Blue Eyed Soul, Annie Lennox is an enigma. Her deep, haunting voice is only out-shined by her amazing stage presentations that channel the best of David Bowie mixed with her own unique style.

    Even at the age of 57 years, Lennox still managed to steal the show at the 2012 London Olympics by arriving on a ship. She named her debut solo album Diva for a reason, you know!

    28. Bob Marley

    Bob Marley has been dead for over thirty years but his legacy as the most successful and influential West Indian entertainer has yet to be matched. However, it wasn’t just his music that made this Jamaican famous.

    Performing in a deep trance, Marley brought his songs to life and left his fans begging for more. Perhaps he was just high but he was certainly fun to watch as he skipped around the stage while chanting his lyrics with fiery conviction.

    27. Millie Jackson 

    If you’re a fan of Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, Da Brat or Nicki Minaj, then you have to pay homage to true First Lady of Rap, Millie Jackson. No, I’m not talking about simple rhyming; Jackson’s style was about mid-song breakdowns.

    Saying whatever came to mind, Jackson originally emulated Isaac Hayes before introducing her own brand of comedy and overtly sexual jokes. If you go to one of her shows, you will either leave laughing or thoroughly appalled.

    26. Stevie Wonder 

    Stevie Wonder can play the keyboard, piano, harmonica, bongos, drums, flute and guitar just as well as he sings. In fact, his skill set is so broad that he often switches between those instruments to give patrons the best possible show.

    Now, at 62 years of age, Wonder is still thrilling audiences that include kings, princes and presidents, while attracting new fans without ever alienating those who have supported him since the start of his career in 1962. He is a musical genius and a terrific performer, whether he is sitting, standing or just bobbing his neck in time with the beat.

    25. Barbra Streisand

    She is the original diva of Pop music and one of the most successful recording artists of our time. Yet, Barbra Streisand is simply known to many as the Queen of Stage.

    Streisand can act, sing and even perform comedy. Her massive talent has taken her from Broadway to the big screen (if this list was based on acting then she would easily rank at #1) but her live showcases made her both an icon of the 20th century and a legend for all time.

    Throughout her career, Streisand has earned a Tony Award, a Peabody Award, two Academy Awards, five Emmy Awards and eight Grammy Awards. She is so widely favoured among older music fans that many consider among the very few entertainers of the Rock era deserving of a spot higher than Frank Sinatra in the history books. You can’t really do much better than that!

    24. The Rolling Stones

    The Wanted are to One Direction as The Rolling Stones were to The Beatles. Ditching the loveable boy band image, The Rolling Stones are some of the first bad boys or Rock & Roll, opening doors for generations of crotch-grabbers and hip-thrusters.

    Mick Jagger lead The Rolling Stones to great heights with his flamboyant energy, which has been imitated by every band from Maroon 5 to Train. Where did the group get its name? Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ Stone” and not the magazine, which also was named after the classic tune.

    23. Liza Minnelli 

    Having the legendary Judy Garland as your mother would a daunting reality for any person but Liza Minnelli refused to be trapped in her parent’s shadow. Similar to Miley Cyrus and her father Billy Ray Cyrus, Minnelli broke free to become a superstar in her own right.

    Minnelli defined cabaret for many years with her stunning beauty, sex appeal and unmistakable voice. She was never ashamed to embrace her femininity and thanks to her boldness as a performer, acts such as The Pussycat Dolls, Lady Gaga, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears are free to be purring sex kittens with little judgement.

    22. Jackie Wilson

    Jackie Wilson only had to open his mouth to shake his fans to their cores but he never solely relied on his amazing vocals. This legend of R&B and Soul stood alongside James Brown as one of the most inspiring entertainers of his time with commanding stage presence and clever footwork.

    Michael Jackson, Usher and R. Kelly all took a page from Wilson’s book as they forged their own paths in the industry. In fact, while accepting his Grammy Award for Album of the Year for Thriller in 1984, Jackson thanked Wilson for his contributions to music and made it clear that he followed in Wilson’s slick footsteps.

    21. The Beastie Boys 

    The only Hip-Hop artists to land a sot on our list are The Beastie Boys. Emerging as part of the 1980s Hip-Hop movement, the trio opened doors for other white acts to crossover into the genre yet never exploited it as just another trend.

    The Beastie Boys rocked stages near and far with high energy performances of their hits. No auto-tune or gimmicks were needed to make their shows enjoyable; they represented classic Hip-Hop at its very best.

    20. Lady Gaga

    Lady Gaga is still a relatively new artist but she has already made a mark on the music scene that is impossible to ignore. Standing as a leader of the iTunes generation, Gaga is one of the few true show business stars remaining in the industry as she turns even the smallest performances into dramatic affairs.

    Still, although her talent is widely celebrated, Gaga’s lack of originality prevents her from achieving the respect commanded by some of her peers. Honestly, she is undoubtedly a better musician than her idol but if I wanted to see a rehash of Madonna’s greatest hits and costumes then I would buy the Blond Ambition Tour on DVD. 

    19. Madonna

    Ranking one spot above her younger and arguably more talented self is Madonna. Bold, fearless and raw, the world knew that the she would be force on the charts the moment she basically masturbated at the 1984 MTV VMA, and almost 30 years later, she is still regarded as the Queen of Pop.

    Nonetheless, the way Lady Gaga copies Madonna is similar to how the latter imitates the people who predated her. Cher, Grace Jones and Michael Jackson have all been victims of Madonna’s emulation, whether they know it or not.

    18. Beyonce

    Now, the moment for which you’ve been waiting. Securing a spot at #18 is none other than the vivacious diva and only child of destiny, Beyonce.

    Obviously, placing Beyonce higher than Madonna must shock many of you but ask yourselves these pressing questions: who is the better singer? Who has better choreography? Who has more stage presence? Beyonce isn’t the one who looks at her feet while dancing.

    On the other hand, Beyonce is far from perfect. She rarely interacts with her crowd unless those moments are carefully scripted into her often over-rehearsed shows. Also, she has yet to bring anything original to the table and every aspect of her concerts is “inspired” by another artist. Beyonce is brought to you by the letter L for Michael Jackson’s light shows, the letter R for Tina Turner’s routines and the number 3566849253 for the number of occasions she has been found guilty of blatant imitation.

    17. Usher

    Usher kicked off his career as a mini Bobby Brown but has since established himself as an icon of his own time. A gifted vocalist, Usher only strays off-key when he tries to mix live singing with his choreography – a feat that his fellow dancers, Beyonce, Ciara and Chris Brown rarely attempt.

    Perhaps what truly makes Usher great is his attention to detail during his concerts and his ability to keep crowds engaged throughout. A slow moment has occurred in his show? Watch Usher turn on his charm and get his fans ready for more.

    16. Pink

    Pink doesn’t get the respect that she deserves as an entertainer but that’s probably because she doesn’t feel the need compare herself to Michael Jackson in her press releases. Regardless, there is no denying that she is a legend in the making.

    Whether she is flipping through the air or crowd-surfing, Pink always sings live and gives her fans every ounce of energy in her body. Plus, she can dance, she’s innovative and she has a brand of blunt humour that never gets old. 

    15. Bobby Brown 

    Poor Bobby Brown. He spent so many years being known as Mr. Whitney Houston and wrongfully accused of getting the late songbird addicted to drugs that the media has long since erased his legacy as a terrific performer from their archives.

    However, some of us still remember the days when Brown ruled the charts as the King of New Jack Swing and lit up the award show circuit with his raunchy performances. There was nothing forgettable about Brown’s dance ability and his detours into crowds of squealing women as he made them beg for just a touch. Hey, Houston had a reason for loving him and so did the US before The Bodyguard era.

    14. Patti LaBelle 

    You know how Fantasia always takes off her shoes before every performance? Well, that’s a habit that she picked up from her idol, Patti LaBelle.

    She can’t dance but LaBelle receives top marks in every other category. Her vocal performances are phenomenal, she doesn’t even need to sing to score a standing ovation and she always leaves her fans either laughing or weeping.

    Labelle is a legend in every sense of the word and she is truly fearless. You never know when she will get caught up in the moment and start rolling onstage or kick her shoes into crowd as she testifies through song.

    The music industry has few great artists left but LaBelle has stood the test of time. Without question, she is an entertainer’s entertainer.

    13. Cher

    Every young singer dreams of being a showgirl but Cher was probably the first. Lasting more than five decades in the glare of spotlight, she has crossed cultural boundaries, and left a lasting impression on fans in generations both past and present.

    Even now as she approaches 70 years of age, Cher’s voice is still as powerful as ever and her unapologetic humour is at a new peak. I bet that if she resumes touring, her shows will sell out in minutes with Madonna, Kylie Minogue and Lady Gaga all front row to take notes.

    12. Grace Jones 

    Of course, while Cher represents the era of the Las Vegas showgirl, there is another entertainer who captures the essence of the less glamorous underground. Similar to Bob Marley, Grace Jones is one of the most important entertainers to emerge from the Caribbean.

    Jones’ awe-inspiring fashions and raunchy performances laid the foundation for Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Kelis and Madonna’s careers, and they even wear some of her old costumes. Does Jones care? Of course not because they are mere mortals.

    11. Fred Astaire

    Fred Astaire wasn’t really a Pop star but his contributions to The Great American Songbook are at the root of modern music. Furthermore, his brilliantly choreographed pieces remain a source of inspiration for millions of performers across the globe, such as Chris Brown, Michael Jackson and Madonna.

    Astaire was quite imaginative with his routines and redefined modern performance art. To this day, he is still emulated both on Broadway and in film, thus making him one of the most important figures of the 20th century and beyond.

    10. Freddie Mercury

    Queen was one of the most successful Rock bands of the 1970s and 1980s but they collective would have been nothing without frontman Freddie Mercury. With powerhouse vocals and explosive stage performances, he was one of the most talented artists ever.

    Mercury was Glam Rock, Soul and good, old fashioned Rock & Roll. Few artists of his time could compete with his onstage persona and younger acts from George Michael to Adam Lambert look foolish as they try. 

    9. Little Richard

    Before Elvis Presley cloned his style, Little Richard was the King of Rock & Roll. This is a man who had a big mouth, and simply love to scream and shout. Hey, that rhymed!

    Watching Richard perform was an experience as he simply didn’t play an instrument; be became the instrument! You never knew when he would rip off his jacket and place a heel on the keys of his piano while banging out one of his signature tunes.

    We simply don’t have entertainers on Richard’s level today. Even during his prime, he had few equals. Just ask Elton John who followed soon after and never seemed as interesting beyond his clothes.

    8. Sammy Davis Jr.

    Cab Calloway was one of the first Blues artists to mix tap into his footwork but it was Sammy Davis Jr. who perfected the art. Uniquely charming and undeniably cool, Jr. kept his audiences locked on to every shuffle, step and flick of his wrist.

    Jr. was much more than just a dancer, and his skills on the floor were matched only by his vocal ability. That is why he earned the admiration from every great act of his time, such a Duke Ellington and Aretha Franklin, and many who came after.

    7. Prince

    Landing at #7 on our list is Prince, also known as a giant symbol that nobody ever really understood. The anti-Michael Jackson – at least until his counterpart copied his styled for the Bad album of 1987 – Prince defined himself as the most daring performer of the 1980s and 1990s.

    I’m sure you remember where you were when Prince hit the stage at the 1991 MTV VMA to perform “Gett Off” in a pair of butt-free chaps. You think Rihanna is a freak? She is a nun compared to the legend of Prince’s formfitting catsuits.

    6. Janet Jackson

    I’m only going to say this once: Janet Jackson is the best female entertainer to touch the stage during last thirty years. Her presence is unmatched and although many have copied her routines, her dancing remains the standard.

    It is amazing how Jackson carved her own lane in an industry once dominated by her brothers but eventually surpassed them all at the peak of her career. What is even more astounding is that she did it without relying on their assistance.

    Sadly, her notorious wardrobe malfunction at the 2004 Super Bowl cost her dearly but that could never erase the massive success she enjoyed prior to the event. Don’t think for a second that Beyonce’s own Super Bowl showing was original because some of it, including the overdramatic walk with heel-clicking booming through the speakers, came from Jackson’s old concerts.

    5. Bette Midler

    Only two women on this list outrank Janet Jackson and one of them is Bette Midler. In case you’re too young to remember her by name, just watch the Halloween movie Hocus Pocus and it will all come back to you.

    Midler is one of the most hilarious live performers of our time but her act doesn’t stop at comedy. She is a showgirl and her concerts have been slyly ripped off by many less innovative acts throughout the years, such as Lady Gaga, who shamelessly stole her mermaid in a wheelchair bit.

    4. Elvis Presley

    Elvis Presley ma have copied many black artists of his day but that doesn’t take away from the fact that he was a fierce entertainer. The man could have out-sung, out-danced and outperformed almost any artist during his prime, and he would have done it without ruining his hair.

    Presley was a dynamic entertainer who fascinated billions of people both before and after his tragic death. That is why many people still assume that he is alive in a hotel somewhere in the heart of Las Vegas.

     3. Tina Turner

    Tina Tuner is the greatest female performer of our time. She is the blueprint from which Beyonce, Janet Jackson and Mick Jagger all drew inspiration, and she is still imitated by even younger acts today.

    With a team of dancers at her back, Turner choreographed brilliant routines for her live concerts that attracted thousands of amazed fans at every venue. Most importantly, Tuner always sung live and even now that she is in her 70s and most of us are wishing for another tour!

     

    2. James Brown 

    If Tina Turner was heavily influenced by another artist then that man was James Brown. He was probably the only man who could share a stage with his female counterpart and put her to shame, simply because he was that good.

    Brown was called the Godfather of Soul not because he invented genre, but because he took it to broader markets and influenced a generation in need of a leader. Along with Aretha Franklin, he was a face of the Civil Rights movement and every time he stepped onstage, people stood in awe of his talent. Brown was a larger than life.

    1. Michael Jackson

    Ranking Michael Jackson at #1 on this list was one of the most difficult tasks because of the massive influence that Brown had on him. Yet, when challenged to justify his position, I managed to break the tie with the following point: Jackson took everything that he learned from Brown and created a style of his own without copying his predecessor. In essence, he stood on the shoulders of a giant and reached new heights.

    Jackson could sing, dance and cause people to pass out with just a look. He was the embodiment of greatness and a true visionary. Many claim that Chris Brown is the next Jackson but has yet to bring anything new to the music scene. Beyonce also asserts a similar title but her steps and stage productions are weak imitations of Jackson’s work. Really, there is no competition for the King of Pop’s throne.

    Watch Jackson perform at the 1988 Grammy Awards below to see his greatness in motion:

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