February is Black History Month, which makes it a great time to reflect on the achievements of the most influential Black American musicians.
The men and women on this list not only excelled at their musical instrument or singing voice, but they also left a long-lasting impact on innumerable people. With racism being a prominent issue in our country today, it’s important to acknowledge those who have fought for equality. Diversity is something that defines America, and the arts are a great reflection of that.
Although there is still much more work to be done to fight racism in America, it’s only right to celebrate the progress that has been made and to recognize some of the individuals who overcame obstacles to make it happen.
Here are 12 inspiring artists who have left an everlasting impact on American popular music:
Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970)
Hendrix is known for his innovative electric guitar playing which helped shape rock music in the 1960s. He was in the United States Army before being honorably discharged. Hendrix then became a session musician playing backup for major acts like Little Richard, B.B. King and Sam Cooke before going on to become a pioneer of the electric guitar using aspects of rock, blues and soul. One of Hendrix’s most memorable performances came at Woodstock in 1969 when he played “The Star Spangled Banner” on guitar, showcasing his astonishing skill.
Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996)
Ella Fitzgerald, also known as “The First Lady of Song” and “The Queen of Jazz,” was an American jazz singer. She was known for her strong timing, tone and improvisational scat singing ability. Fitzgerald’s career started in the 1930s on the streets of Harlem before she eventually made her debut at 17 years old at the Apollo Theater. In 1958, she made history by becoming the first Black woman to win a Grammy award (best vocal performance). She went on to win 12 more and also sell over 40 million records. Fitzgerald also made numerous appearances in various film and television programs solidifying herself as a pop culture icon.
Ray Charles (1930-2004)
Ray Charles is a renowned singer who pioneered soul music in the 1950s. Charles lost his eyesight by the age of seven due to glaucoma. He was sent to the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine where he learned to read and write music in braille. There he also learned to play clarinet, trumpet, saxophone, organ and piano. Through ABC Records he released his “Modern Sounds” album which incorporated R&B, soul, country and blues. With this record deal, Charles became one of the first black artists to be granted artistic control by a major record company. During his distinguished career, Charles earned the nickname “The Father of Soul.”
Michael Jackson (1958-2009)
Michael Jackson, aka “The King of Pop,” had a remarkable career, starting with the Jackson 5 before thriving as a solo artist. He started singing at age 5 with his family in which he was one of 10 kids and had a father who pushed them hard to succeed. Eventually, MJ became a global icon for his singing, songwriting and dancing. His 1982 “Thriller” album was one of the best selling records of all time. Some of the most iconic hit pop songs in history have come from MJ including “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” “Bad” and “The Way You Make Me Feel.”
Duke Ellington (1899-1974)
Starting in New York City in the 1920s, Duke Ellington had a 50 year career as a bandleader who composed thousands of scores. His impact on jazz cannot be overstated. Incorporating classical and pop as well, Ellington created a distinctive ensemble sound that impacted many generations of musicians after him.
Aretha Franklin (1942-2018)
Aretha Franklin was a singer, songwriter and pianist who released several classic songs including “Respect.” In 1987, she became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She gained massive commercial success throughout her career, allowing her to receive 18 Grammy awards. This puts her in the top 20 artists with the most Grammys of all time. She has been awarded many different honors throughout the years including the National Medal of Arts, Presidential Medal of Freedom and was ranked number one on Rolling Stones list of “100 Greatest Singers of All Time.”
Louis Armstrong (1901-1971)
Possibly the most monumental trumpet player of all time, Louis Armstrong was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was best known for his signature improvisation and scat singing. His impressive stage presence and unique voice paired well with his stellar trumpet play. Armstrong was one of the first Black Americans to gain wide popularity with white audiences. At a time when it seemed impossible for a Black man, he was able to enter the upper class and enjoy a luxurious lifestyle.
The Compton-based hip-hop group NWA made a major impact on society in the late 80s. The group consisted of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Arabian Prince, MC Ren, DJ Yella and the late Eazy-E. Their lyrics were about the conditions they endured on the streets of Compton, often relating to systemic racism. They had a deep hatred for the police force which is very apparent on their signature track, “F*** tha Police.” Their music was very political which made them one of the most controversial groups of their time. They always said whatever they wanted, in both their lyrics and with the press, and they took great pride in that.
Tina Turner (1939-Present)
In the late 60s, Tina Turner rose to fame by performing with her then-husband, Ike Turner. After years of domestic abuse, Turner left him and launched a massive solo career as a singer-songwriter. After a slow start, her career took off with her 1984 album “Private Dancer.” Turner became one of the most iconic artists of her time with massive hits like “Proud Mary” and “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” She earned the nickname “Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll” and fittingly in 1991 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Seven-time Grammy winner Prince was known for his androgynous image as well as his incredible vocal range. Having sold over 150 million records worldwide, Prince is one of the highest-selling musical acts of all time. He was a stellar live entertainer with memorable performances like at the 2004 Grammy Awards and the Super Bowl 41 halftime show. He had an infamous contract dispute with Warner Bros. over the control of his music. As a response, he appeared in public with the word “slave” written on his cheek and also changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol because he felt like the label had owned his name.
Stevie Wonder (1950-Present)
Stevie Wonder is responsible for shaping the sound of R&B music in the second half of the 20th century. Even though he was blinded slightly after birth, he was a musical prodigy as a child, teaching himself harmonica, piano and drums all before he was 10 years old. Wonder has racked up over 100 million records sold and a breathtaking 22 Grammy awards. He’s been inducted in the R&B, songwriters and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame. Critics often label Stevie Wonder as a musical genius and his astounding legacy certainly backs that up.
James Brown (1933-2006)
Known as the “Godfather of Soul,” James Brown was a singer, songwriter and bandleader whose career spanned over 50 years. Brown began his musical career with a group called “Famous Flames” in the late 50s. Throughout the 50s and 60s he toured non-stop, earning him the nickname “the hardest working man in show business.” It could be argued that Brown’s influence on popular music was greater than any artist of all time. According to Who Sampled, James Brown has been sampled 8,127 times, which is much more than anyone else. Over the years, time and time again artists have used his comforting sounding vocals of soul, funk and R&B to make new music. Hip-hop is the genre that’s been influenced most by Brown’s legendary career. It’s in part thanks to him that hip-hop has become arguably the most popular genre in the United States.
Honorable Mentions: Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, Otis Redding, Run DMC, Bessie Smith, Sam Cooke, Little Richard, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Miles Davis.
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