Most Influential Black Musicians of All Time7 min read
Music is and has always been a crucial part of Black History. Not only has it served as entertainment, but it has also played a huge role in the struggle for civil rights, recognition of cultural heritage as well as in influencing American and global musical expression and history at large.
There have been some extremely prominent Black musicians throughout history – both men and women – who have touched the hearts of millions with their voices and musical abilities. While in this list we are looking at black musicians, we are mostly looking at their careers and hit songs by black musicians. Here we have mostly black African American musicians with the one exception – Bob Marley who is of African roots but from the country of Jamaica. Let’s take a look at who these famous people are.
Ella Fitzgerald is known as “The Queen of Jazz” and she was arguably the most popular female American jazz singer in the States for more than half a century. Also known as “The First Lady of Song”, her career started on the streets of Harlem before she finally made her debut at the Apollo Theatre where she won first prize for jazz style singing at the age of 17. Her first recording “Love and Kisses” was made in 1935, and her first hit “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” came in 1938. In 1958, Ella won a Grammy award for best vocal performance, which made her the first Black woman ever to do so. She not only had a clear tone and wide vocal range, but also a complete mastery over harmony, diction, and rhythm.
Bob Marley is a world-renowned Jamaican reggae legend whose legacy lives on to this very day. He created his own distinct style and sound by blending the elements of reggae with rocksteady and ska. Songs like ‘Three Little Birds’, ‘One Love’, ‘No Woman, No Cry’, ‘Buffalo Soldier’ and so on continue to be covered by various artists and continue to top the charts all over the world. Many of his greatest hits are still sung and played by people around the globe. Bob Marley had lived with the most silenced, repressed, and wretched people of society so his songs have a completely different feel to them because they were bred from memories. He is a musician that the world will never forget; one that so many carry in their hearts even today.
Prince (Prince Rogers Nelson) was undeniably one of the most talented musicians of his generation. He was a singer, songwriter, dancer, producer, guitarist, as well as a performer on drums, keyboard, and bass! He began to play the piano at the age of 7 and knew the drums and guitar very well by the time he turned 14. His anthems and records will definitely go down in history as a summarization of the multiple genres he could cover and the incredible talent he possessed. Prince wrote numerous songs during his lifetime and some of his most famous songs include ‘When You Were Mine’, ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’, and so on.
The famous Stevie Wonder was a child prodigy even though he became blind shortly after his birth. Before he was 10 years old, he had already taught himself the drums, harmonica, and piano. He is very closely linked to the R&B style of music and is known for the sophisticated works that he has produced. However, he has also written many romantic pieces including ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’. In 1989, Stevie was initiated into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He also received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 2005. Stevie Wonder became an inspiration to rock musicians around the world.
Michael Jackson is a worldwide icon for singing and songwriting and is called the ‘King of Pop’. He was the youngest of five brothers and his father – Joseph – played an important role in shaping all five into child stars. Michael Jackson’s first solo effort ‘Off the Wall’ sold more than 20 million copies. His album ‘Thriller’ is one of the best-selling records of all time and brought him a number of awards. Some of his most well-known songs are ‘Beat It’, ‘Billie Jean’, and ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’.
Jimi Hendrix is an American rock guitarist, composer, and singer and is well-known for fusing jazz, soul, rock, and American traditional blues. He was one of the most successful as well as influential musicians of his era even though his career as a featured artist was just four years in total. He showcased his amazing skills when he played ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ on the guitar in 1969. His band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, had a number of hit singles before the release of their first album ‘Are you Experienced?’ in 1967.
During the days of the civil rights movement in Detroit, Aretha Franklin was a church singer and later came to be known as ‘The Queen of Soul’ because of her work in defining the golden age of soul music in the 1960s. Franklin was known as a vocal prodigy as she performed in major cities around the country with her father on his gospel programs. Aretha was extremely skilled and could dabble in various genres. The documentary ‘Amazing Grace’ showcases the recording of her 1972 album. She was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and also received 18 Grammy awards, which makes her one of the few female artists to receive the most Grammys.
Muddy Waters (or McKinley Morganfield) was a famous American blues guitarist and singer. He played a prominent role in the creation of the post-World War II electric blues. As a child, he taught himself to play the harmonica and later took up the guitar at the age of 17. Some of his many hits include ‘I Feel Like Going Home’ and ‘I Can’t Be Satisfied’. Songs like ‘Rollin’ Stone’ and ‘I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man’ helped to make him the iconic Chicago bluesman he is considered now. Today, he is known as the godfather of modern blues.
Louis Armstrong is notably one of the most influential artists in the history of jazz. He was also an outstanding trumpet player and was most well-known for his scat singing and improvisation. He played an important role in developing jazz into fine art. Armstrong was also a comedian and worked in a number of films. He wrote a few autobiographies including ‘Swing that Music’ and ‘Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans’. He gained popularity among white audiences and was able to enter the upper class – something almost impossible for the Blacks of his time.
Nat King Cole
Nat King Cole is famously known as the king of jazz piano and has recorded over a hundred songs that have been chart-toppers. He was already playing the organ in his father’s church by the age of 12. He specialized in warm ballads and light swing as a vocalist. Cole is known and highly appreciated for one of the most praised trio configurations in jazz – the piano, the bass, and the guitar. He was also offered his very own network variety program on NBC.
Ray Charles Robinson was an American singer, pianist, bandleader, composer, and entertainer who pioneered soul music in the 1950s. Soul music is basically a style that emerged from the blend of rhythm and blues, jazz, and gospel music. He lost his eyesight at the age of 7 and studied in the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine. It is here that he not only learned to read and write music in braille but also to play the organ, saxophone, piano, clarinet, and trumpet! Thanks to his memorable career as a Black musician, he gained the title of being ‘The Father of Soul’.
If Ray Charles was the ‘Father of Soul’, then James Brown was the ‘Godfather of Soul’! Renowned singer and songwriter, Brown had a career that spanned over 50 years. Many have argued that his influence on popular music has been much greater than any other artist. The genre that James Brown has influenced the most is hip-hop, which has gone on to become one of the most popular genres not just in the United States but also around the world.
These are just a few of the many notable Black musicians who have had incredible careers and have forever influenced the course of music in history. They continue to touch the hearts and souls of millions even today.