Rock ’n’ roll is a distinctly American invention, a blend of several genres that evolved into a new music form in the 1950s. But the British took that raw music, polished it, and brought it back to America in a wildly popular new form. The list of best-selling rock artists in history is dominated by UK acts that debuted in the 1960s, from The Beatles and Led Zeppelin to The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and Elton John. Which led us to wonder: Who are the best-selling American classic rock artists of all time? Here are the results, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Note: These are certified unit sales (albums, CDs, downloads, etc.) in the U.S., and are lower than some of the inflated numbers you’ll often see put out by band publicists.
10. Bon Jovi
(34.5 million units sold)
The New Jersey rockers have had seven albums hit No. 1 or No. 2 on the Billboard charts. That might surprise some people, because the band is so well known for the 1986 album that started it all, Slippery When Wet.
(37 million units)
We debated whether or not Foreigner qualifies as a U.S. act. After all, the band got its name because half the founding members hailed from Great Britain. But the act came together in New York City, so they fit the bill. Their best-selling single, I Want to Know What Love Is, sounds more like elevator music than classic rock to some fans. But some of Foreigner’s early rockers such as Cold as Ice, Long, Long Way From Home and Double Vision still get frequent airplay on classic rock stations.
(38.5 million units)
Chicago cranked out one hit after another in the 1970s. They seamlessly blended several genres of music, with Terry Kath’s innovative and bluesy guitar, a jazzy horn section and pop-sensible vocals. Some critics claim Chicago got too soft in the late 1970s and beyond, but if you don’t believe this band could rock, listen to a live performance of 25 or 6 to 4 from the early 1970s.
7. Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band
(43.5 million units)
Seger spent years trying to break through in the music business. He was incredibly popular in Detroit area for many years before finally getting airplay around the U.S. in the mid-1970s. Unfortunately, many younger music fans know him best as, “that guy who sings Like a Rock in the old Chevy truck commercials.”
(48 million units)
Former Santana bandmates Neal Schon and Gregg Rolie helped found Journey in 1973. No disrespect to any of the original members, but the arrival of lead singer Steve Perry in late 1977 helped Journey become an international force throughout the late ’70s and 1980s. Although the group is still active, many longtime fans still won’t forgive the remaining members for Perry’s dismissal in 1998.
5. Van Halen
(56.5 million units)
Eddie Van Halen inspired a whole generation of young guitar players in the 1980s with his work on the group’s first few albums. Yet Van Halen’s best-selling material in the 1980s and 1990s was more pop-oriented, featuring plenty of keyboards.
4. Bruce Springsteen
(65.5 million units)
The Boss is the quintessential American storyteller in classic rock. As you might expect, his biggest-selling album is Born in the U.S.A., with more than 15 million in sales.
(66.5 million units)
Aerosmith is often referred to as the “best-selling American hard rock band of all time.” That wouldn’t have happened without a big assist from hip-hop stars Run-D.M.C. Aerosmith was essentially washed up in 1986 when the group collaborated with the rappers on the Aerosmith classic Walk This Way. The success recharged Aerosmith’s career. Since then, Aerosmith has released more than a dozen gold or platinum albums.
2. Billy Joel
(82.5 million units)
So many questions here, none of which involve Joel’s enormous musical talent and showmanship. But is Joel’s music classic rock, or more along the lines of pop or soft rock? Some classic radio stations play him all the time, others never do. What is classic rock, anyway? On a related note, we left two hard-rock bands, Metallica (62 million in sales) and Guns N’ Roses (44.5 million) off this list. Despite the fact they each get airplay on classic rock stations, their success came after the classic rock era, which is most often defined as mid-1960s to mid-1980s. Others would argue that today’s best rock acts will one day be defined as “classic rock.” This is a debate that certainly can’t be settled here.
(101 million units)
The Eagles arrived on the scene in the early 1970s at the nexus of several music trends that probably helped them become stars. The rise of album-oriented radio stations in the early 1970s turned some of their songs that might otherwise have faded away into enduring hits. The advent of stadium and arena rock put them in front of massive new audiences; go to YouTube and check out their 1974 performance of Already Gone before several hundred thousand fans at the California Jam. And if the Eagles didn’t pioneer the genre blending country music and rock, they certainly perfected it. Of course, it helped to have talent like Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Don Felder, Timothy B. Schmit and Joe Walsh around.
In case you’re wondering, the Eagles rank No. 5 in certified sales among all artists, behind The Beatles (178 million in sales), Garth Brooks (137 million), Elvis Presley (136 million) and Led Zeppelin (111.5 million).