Much of the world’s current music genres have stemmed from the talents of Black musicians. During Black Music Month, we’re highlighting some of the most influential Black musicians.
1. Ella Fitzgerald
Born in Virginia, but raised in New York, Ella Fitzgerald is a black American jazz singer. Most notable for her scat singing, Fitzgerald’s voice can also be identified by her smooth tone. Fitzgerald made her singing debut in an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater in 1934. After this performance, Fitzgerald began singing with drummer Chick Webb’s orchestra, which she lead following Webb’s passing. Fitzgerald began as a popular performer at Harlem nightclubs, but grew to be nationally known jazz superstar. She released her first number one hit, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket”, in 1938. Over the span of her career, Fitzgerald collaborated with some of jazz’s most talented musicians including Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Count Basie. She received many accolades for her works in jazz music, and she made history by receiving two Grammys at the first annual Grammy Awards, making her the first African-American woman to win a Grammy. Fitzgerald’s music is still played today. If you hear the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” playing next Christmas, listen closely. It is likely that it is the 1949 recording by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan.
2. B.B. King
Known as the “King of the Blues”, B. B. King was born in Itta Bena, Mississippi but was musically bred in Memphis. With a career spanning over five decades, King is famous for his soulful voice, raw lyrics and undeniable skills on his guitar “Lucille”. He was heavily influenced by his cousin and blues performer Booker “Bukka” White. King worked as a radio personality and D.J. in Memphis for many years before beginning to record music in 1949. His biggest hit single, “The Thrill is Gone”, was released in 1969. Other notable songs include, “You Know I Love You”, “You’re Gonna Miss Me”, and “Lucille”. King embarked on many tours, sometimes performing more that 250 concerts per year. He toured up until his passing at 89 years old, and tickets were always in high demand.
3. Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix is a self-taught guitarist whose short, but impactful, career also included singing, songwriting and producing. He is held as one of the most influential guitarists of all time. Hendrix was born in Seattle, Washington, but had great success in the British music market. Growing up Hendrix took interest in the blues and rock and roll. Some of his musical influences include B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Buddy Holly. Animals’ bassist Chas Chandler signed Hendrix and he moved to London where Chandler helped him form his band Jimi Hendrix Experience. The band’s debut single “Hey Joe” was an instant success, especially on the UK charts. One of Hendrix’s most iconic performances was his rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. This performance highlighted his creativity and breathtaking skills. Hendrix’s untimely passing at age 27 was a shock to the world, but he made a mark in music that lives on.
4. Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye is a soulful singer who brought a new perspective to the traditional Motown sound. Gaye wrote and produced his own music, and his progression to his unique sound is apparent through his musical growth over the years. Gaye had been signed to Motown for a while before he became an established artist. He released some successful solo projects, while also performing duets with singers like Diana Ross and Mary Wells. These projects aligned with the distinctive sound of Motown Records. Toward the end of Gaye’s time signed to Motown, he went in a new direction with his music. He released the single “What’s Going On” and later an album titled the same, which expressed political messages such as objections to the Vietnam War. Gaye also touched on topics including police brutality, poverty, and justice. Because these topics are timeless and still relevant today, his music continues to speak to people. Gaye also made “feel-good” and dancing music. His song “Got to Give it Up” is still played at barbeques and celebrations around the country. His unique and diverse musical efforts make him one of the most influential musicians.
Prince is an artist unlike an other. It seemed like his musical talents were endless. Prince wrote and produced all his music. Prince was born and raise in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was born to two musical parents, and took interest in music at a young age. His debut album was titled “For You”, but he accomplished his first top 20 pop hit with “I Wanna Be Your Lover” from his 1979 self-titled album. His two biggest albums were 1999 and Purple Rain. Notable songs from the album 1999 include “1999” and “Little Red Corvette”. The album Purple Rain is also the soundtrack to the movie titled the same, which Prince starred in. The movie had extreme success, along with all of the songs from the soundtrack. Prince played dozens of instruments including guitar, bass, piano, drums. He traveled with a band, but he played almost all the instruments for his albums.
6. Bob Marley
Bob Marley is a Jamaican singer and songwriter. He is known for his contributions to reggae music. Marley had most success with his group the Wailers. Marley and the Wailers had accumulated some popularity in Jamaica since their forming in 1966, but it was not until 1972 that they recorded their first album Catch a Fire. Marley was a supporter of both the Rastafarian Movement and the People’s National Party. His beliefs transcended to his music through political lyrics and actions of activism. “Buffalo Soldier” and “Redemption Song” are two songs that illustrate his activism and prove his historical knowledge. Marley was one of the first artists to make reggae music known internationally. He had much success throughout his career, but his legacy continues through his children, many of whom are still producing reggae music. Ziggy and Damian Marley are two of Bob Marley sons who continue to make unique reggae music with powerful messages.