It is often fun to listen to popular music and try to identify what stylistic influences the artist had. In the last fifty or so years the musicians on this list influenced and inspired scores of acts that followed them. They are among the most significant blueprint creators for many successful hit makers and cult favorites alike. Of course they were also influenced by the music they heard and identified with in their early years, but without going back any further and attempting to untangle what is often a complex formula of a little bit of this and a little bit of that, these list entries can certainly be identified as majorly influential.
This is by no means a complete list of innovators, and cross pollination between some of the folks on this list is not uncommon. (Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly influence The Beatles, The Beatles influence The Rolling Stones, etc.
Sometimes the influence can be heard in musical composition, sometimes in lyrics, sometimes in image, and often in all these areas.
The Godfather of Soul- Brown’s approach to funky groove oriented tracks brought out a horde of funkmeisters that still mine his main vein of infectious rhythmic r&b/pop.
Think Prince and any rap sample you care to name, among many others.
With The Velvet Underground and as a solo artist, Reed’s stripped down instrumental approach and very signature vocal inflections influenced the first generation of punk rockers and glam rockers.
His highly identifiable stylistic approaches may have been originally a sort of east coast garage band bizzarro Bob Dylan mutation, but indie rock bands to this day still use him as a template.
His star burned bright and was gone many decades too soon, but Holly managed to be a major influence on singers and songwriters immediately in the late ’50s and continued after his death in 1959.
The Beatles and Rolling Stones covered him early on, and while numerous acts have had hits redoing his tunes, his vocal and writing styles have been cloned over and over for the last 50 plus years.
More pop than many hardcore rockabilly acts, he was an early innovator with multi-tracking and the use of strings on rock and roll ballads.
The King of Rock and Roll, he is the one artist most associated with the synthesis of Black rhythm and blues with White country and western that came together in the mid ’50s and in one form or another has dominated the popular music of young people ever since.
Elvis was influenced by all the music, both Black and White, that he heard growing up in Tupelo and Memphis, but his take on that music would launch a million ships for better or worse.
Young Robert Zimmerman took in all the folk music he could, as well as early rock and roll era singers like Johnny Ace. By the time he made it to NYC to visit his ailing hero Woody Guthrie he was packing a new name and ready to instigate a whole new phase in popular music.
Not happy to be labeled a protest singer, he was that and so much more to following generations of singer/songwriters. After hearing The Beatles he went electric and the new folk rock bands all needed to either cover his tunes or sound like one of the bands that did.
More than just another British blues band in the mid ’60s, these guys innovated long instrumental rave-ups, raga rock, pre-heavy metal guitar sounds, and were a proving ground for three of the most influential lead guitarists in Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.
The first mega-star of the MTV era, Madonna’s massive popularity in the ’80s, ’90s and beyond has been to a great extent, a result of the video age, wherein an act needs the visual as much as the aural to sell big.
Nonetheless her musical material (girl) as well as her image and approach to incorporating a host of dancers and extras in her stage act, created a formula for many female and even some male contemporary pop acts.
Think Katie Perry, and of course Lady Gaga, but also a boatload of one hit wonder level acts in the last 30 or so years.
Having been a member of The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, dueted with Emmylou Harris and recorded as a solo artist during his short lifetime, Parsons ( born Cecil Ingram Connor III ) is credited with being one of the main architects of both country rock and what has come to be known as alt country.
He called it ‘ Cosmic American Music’ and acts as mega- mainstream as The Eagles and the current crop of country and alt country bands and solo artists can at least to some extent trace their roots back to Parsons.
The guitar style that launched countless bands both in garages and high school gyms, as well as numerous hit records from an assortment of artists including The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
Berry’s guitar riffs were influenced by T-Bone Walker as well as the playing of pianist Johnnie Johnson, but his eloquent storytelling took it somewhere all his own, tapping into teenage life in the USA.
Most ‘rock’ era guitar players and many songwriters owe a debt to him. ‘Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll!’
His post Jackson 5 career inspired the press to dub him ‘The King of Pop.’ Working with veteran producer Quincy Jones, Jackson produced iconic MTV era defining albums whose infectious grooves and melodies were inescapable and inspired countless imitators as well as making ‘Michael Jackson Impersonator’ a viable career choice.
As influential as his music was (and is) his stage moves were at least as ground breaking and standard setting.
The Rolling Stones
Keith Richards himself has admitted “No Beatles- No Stones,” but it must be added that equally true is ‘ No Stones- No Doors, No Aerosmith, No Stooges, No New York Dolls,’ and on and on.
The blues based guitar band with a charismatic frontman working the crowd came into being by way of Mr. Jagger and Co. and has rolled on and on.
Musically they also innovated the arena rock guitar riff driven tune, and it still provides satisfaction…
The week after The Fab Four appeared for the first time on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, pro musicians and star-struck amateurs alike were combing their hair down into bangs and forming combos to somehow get a piece of the phenomena of Beatlemania.
Almost no popular music artist of the mid-’60s was immune to their sweeping effect on the entertainment industry. There were flat-out imitators as well as those influenced and inspired.
The list is too long to attempt compiling here and continues to this day, including Sir Paul himself…