Bracket mania: Greatest R&B singers of all time   

Updated: April 8, 2009, 9:39 AM ET

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The hidden genius of the NCAA tournament is that its format can be used to figure out virtually anything.

So this year I set up a four-region, 65-team format to answer one of life's biggest questions: Who is the greatest female R&B singer?

Below is a talented field of 65 female soul singers, with the past and present carefully represented. The selection guidelines include:

• Only those female R&B artists who made a musical impact from the mid-1970s to present day were included in the tournament field. So save those angry e-mails about why Nina Simone, Etta James or Billie Holiday weren't included.

• R&B groups were not eligible. Solo acts only. Although if an artist spent a portion of their music career with a group, that factored into the seeding, positively or negatively.

• Seeds were based off four primary categories -- record sales, performance, ability and musical/cultural impact.

Let the madness begin.

The We Don't Sing, We SANG Region
First Round Quarterfinals Semifinals Finals
1. Whitney Houston
16. Cheryl "Pepsi" Riley
I'm going to guess that Riley's "Thanks For My Child," is not on Travis Henry's iPod.
1. Whitney Houston
8. Lisa Stansfield
A tough battle vocally, but Whitney "crack is whack" Houston was an unprecedented star during her prime.
1. Whitney Houston
4. Patti Labelle
Down goes the peacock.
1. Whitney Houston
8. Lisa Stansfield
9. Faith Evans
Evans' biggest hit was a tribute to her deceased husband, Notorious B.I.G.
4. Patti Labelle
13. Shirley Murdock
Labelle wore a peacock headdress, flapped her hands and Murdock never recovered.
4. Patti Labelle
12. Deborah Cox
Can someone translate "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?"
5. Teena Marie
12. Deborah Cox
Marie, the first white woman to have a No. 1 R&B hit, has been an honorary sista since before Joss Stone was born.
3. Anita Baker
14. Keyshia Cole
Cole, a platinum-selling artist, could be the next Mary J. Blige.
3. Anita Baker
6. Stephanie Mills
Go listen to "Compositions," and you'll be convinced Baker should win the field.
3. Anita Baker
2. Mary J. Blige
It says something that when BET honored Blige, they enlisted Baker to sing a tribute.
2. Mary J. Blige
Whitney is a has-been and in ESPN terms, Blige is NOW. Oops, I mean NEXT.
6. Stephanie Mills
11. Monica
Monica's peak was "The Boy Is Mine," her duet with Brandy. Would that be like Shaq and Kobe making a "Tell Me How Azz Taste II?"
7. Fantasia
10. Kelly Price
Price would have had a bigger career if she had the American Idol publicity machine behind her.
7. Fantasia
2. Mary J. Blige
Why does Fantasia always sound like she just took a hit of helium?
2. Mary J. Blige
15. Jennifer Holiday
Remember when the unwritten rule of "Showtime at the Apollo" was that you couldn't lose if you sang Holiday's "And I Am Telling You ... ?"

The Pop Queens and Forgettable Pre-Packages Region
First Round Quarterfinals Semifinals Finals
1. Janet Jackson
16. Evelyn "Champagne" King
Jackson counters King's "Love Come Down" and "Shame" with "What Have You Done For Me Lately" and a wardrobe malfunction.
1. Janet Jackson
9. Rihanna
Rihanna's a wanna-be. Janet already is.
1. Janet Jackson
5. Vanessa Williams
Davidson's run ends.
1. Janet Jackson
8. Jody Watley
9. Rihanna
Identical foreheads. Forgetable music.
4. Donna Summer
13. Deniece Williams
Think No. 15 Hampton versus No. 2 Maryland a few years ago.
4. Patti Labelle
5. Vanessa Williams
Unlike all the matches between the tennis Williams sisters, this one would actually be good. Deniece Williams is Stephen Curry.
5. Vanessa Williams
12. Pebbles
Pebbles ripped off TLC worse than Darius Miles did the NBA.
3. Diana Ross
14. Ashanti
In this tournament, marijuana is not considered a performance-enhancing drug.
3. Diana Ross
6. Brandy
Ross has all the pitches in her arsenal -- music, Broadway and film. At this point, Brandy's brother, Ray J, might be more famous.
3. Diana Ross
2. Beyonce
Beyonce is the Tyler Perry of R&B. Even if she puts out crap, people can't help spending their money on it.
2. Beyonce
Janet had the backsides of the 90s, and Beyonce, the posterior of the millennium.
6. Brandy
11. CeCe Peniston
Let's hope Brandy didn't drive to the tournament.
7. Aaliyah
10. Paula Abdul
YES, Paula Abdul has a legit case as an R&B singer. Two of her three albums were top-5 on R&B charts, and the single "Straight Up" rose as high as No. 2. So there.
7. Aaliyah
2. Beyonce
Could Aaliyah have been as big as Beyonce if not for the tragic plane crash?
2. Beyonce
15. Mya
Mya isn't ready for that jelly.

Yes We Can Neo-Soul Division
First Round Quarterfinals Semifinals Finals
1. Mariah Carey
16. Chrisette Michelle
Five years from now, Michelle will be a top-10 seed.
1. Mariah Carey
9. Jennifer Hudson
A triple-overtime thriller, but Mariah, arguably the most accomplished R&B singer in history, pulls away at the end.
1. Mariah Carey
4. Toni Braxton
Mariah has more No. 1 hits than Elvis, and more originality.
1. Mariah Carey
Points to Keys for being a classical pianist and gifted writer. Bigger points to Mariah for perfecting the whistle.
8. Erykah Badu
9. Jennifer Hudson
Hudson is Loyola Marymount, circa 1990.
4. Toni Braxton
13. Macy Gray
One of science's great mysteries is how anyone can listen to Gray for longer than six minutes. I think the official record is five minutes, 38 seconds.
4. Toni Braxton
5. Christina Aguilera
Another OT thriller, but Braxton makes the free throws down the stretch to seal it.
5. Christina Aguilera
12. Tracy Chapman
Chapman is good only every other album.
3. Alicia Keys
14. India Arie
India Arie's Dad is Ralph Simpson. Keys appeared on "The Cosby Show." Which is cooler?
3. Alicia Keys
6. Minnie Ripperton
Ripperton's life and career unfortunately were cut short by breast cancer. Like Aaliyah, we never got to see what could have been.
3. Alicia Keys
2. Sade
This is like picking your favorite Golden Girl. Is it Sophia? Rose? Dorothy? Blanche? When in doubt, go with the youngest one.
3. Alicia Keys
6. Minnie Ripperton
11. Meshell Ndegeocello
I'd love to see what would happen if you put Ripperton and Deniece Williams in a glass factory.
7. Lauryn Hill
10. Jill Scott
Who knew Whitney Houston and Britney Spears would re-emerge before Hill?
10. Jill Scott
2. Sade
Sade's real first name is Helen. So maybe Luol Deng's real name is George.
2. Sade
15. Joss Stone
Stone is the Michelle Wie of R&B -- obvious talent, but no definitive work.

Legends Region
First Round Quarterfinals Semifinals Finals
1. Aretha Franklin
16. Vesta Williams
Williams beat Neneh Cherry in the play-in game.
1. Aretha Franklin
8. Roberta Flack
Good luck beating a woman with 20 Grammys.
1. Aretha Franklin
4. Gladys Knight
Will someone please seriously challenge the Queen of Soul?
1. Aretha Franklin
A hard-fought battle, but Franklin wins. Franklin's impact on R&B almost can't be duplicated.
8. Roberta Flack
9. Gloria Gaynor
Thanks to The Fugees for reminding us what an epic song "Killing Me Softly" is.
4. Gladys Knight
13. Angela Bofill
Bofill, not Jennifer Lopez, was the first Latina to dominate the R&B charts. And she was a lot better than Lopez.
4. Gladys Knight
12. Mavis Staples
Who knew Staples' extensive career included singing the theme song for "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation?"
5. Dionne Warwick
12. Mavis Staples
Hopefully a psychic friend warned Warwick she was going to fall victim to the annual 5-12 trap.
3. Chaka Khan
14. Patrice Rushen
There are a handful of rappers and singers who wouldn't have careers if they couldn't sample Rushen's music. Same goes for Khan.
3. Chaka Khan
6. Phyllis Hyman
Khan invented swag.
3. Chaka Khan
2. Tina Turner
Either could upset Franklin, the no. 1 overall seed.
3. Chaka Khan
6. Phyllis Hyman
11. Regina Belle
If not for her unfortunate suicide, Hyman could have been a top-3 seed.
7. Natalie Cole
10. Randy Crawford
Jon Bon Jovi would be very proud of Cole's hair in "Pink Cadillac."
7. Natalie Cole
2. Tina Turner
Turner has sold more concert tickets than any solo performer in history -- including John Tesh.
2. Tina Turner
15. Cheryl Lynn
Pretty tough opening-round game when you consider that Lynn's "Got To Be Real" has been on every wedding playlist for four decades.

FINAL FOUR

Semifinal: Mary J. Blige vs. Beyonce
Soul meets commercial force and loses.

Semifinal: Mariah Carey vs.Aretha Franklin
There is no way Carey could have rocked the hat Franklin wore at Barack Obama's inauguration.

Championship: Beyonce vs. Aretha Franklin
Re-Re has been gunning for Beyonce since she introduced Tina Turner as "the queen" at the 2008 Grammys. But ultimately, Franklin can call scoreboard. Twenty years from now, will we be singing "Bootylicious" or "Respect?"

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com


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