Black artists music wouldn't be the same without
There is no American music that doesn’t have Black roots. From country-western, which draws upon banjo music from Africa, to rock ‘n’ roll, begun by a Black woman playing electric guitar in 1938, American music can’t be separated out from its rich history of diversity and experimentation.
Every artist transforms his or her medium simply by working in it, and it so follows that every musician changes the art form slightly just by creating and performing songs. But throughout American history, there are examples of artists who have been so transformative as to change musical genres themselves. Other times, artists unwittingly create new genres—whether Fela Kuti with Afrobeat, Frankie Knuckles with house music, or Fats Domino with ska.
To take a closer look at how Black musicians shaped American music, Stacker pored through historical documents, recordings, Billboard charts, and studied similarities in various musical acts over time to determine 41 artists music wouldn’t be the same without. Paring the list down to just 41 was a challenge (the gallery could easily include hundreds)—so there are certainly icons missing, including powerhouses like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Wilson Pickett, Mary Wells, Roberta Flack, Tina Turner, and Gloria Gaynor—each of whom has made significant contributions to music in his or her own right. To help narrow the field, we focused on artists whom scholars can definitively conclude altered the musical landscape in some dramatic fashion. Artists highlighted in this gallery changed the course of music by doing something entirely new with it rather than simply building upon the legends who came before.
Beyond their musicianship, many of the Black artists throughout history also stand as shining examples of bravery and leadership in the face of adversity. From Marian Anderson, who inspired Eleanor Roosevelt to drop out of the Daughters of the American Revolution when the group wouldn’t allow Anderson to sing in front of an integrated audience (Anderson ended up singing in front of 75,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial and was the first Black person to perform with the Metropolitan Opera in New York), to Ray Charles, who refused to perform for an all-white audience in Georgia, there is example after example of musical icons who shone a light that encouraged others to forge ahead and make incremental changes that helped form a more perfect union.
Keep reading to learn about 41 Black artists music wouldn’t be the same without—and be sure to check out our curated Spotify playlist of essential listening from each.
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- Born: 1868 (approximate—actual birth date unknown)
- Died: April 1, 1917
- Essential listening: “Maple Leaf Rag” (1899)
- Who he inspired: Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, Fats Waller
Scott Joplin grew up along the borders of Texas and Arkansas in a musical family. The second of seven children, his father was a former slave who worked on the railroads for a living and played violin; his mother was a house cleaner, singer, and banjo player. By the time he was a teenager, he was making a living as a music instructor and piano player, traveling as far as Syracuse, New York, for gigs and playing in various groups including the Queen City Cornet Band and Texas Medley Quartette. He eventually settled in Sedalia, Missouri, for several years. There, he got jobs at two social clubs for Black men that were founded in 1898: the Black 400 and Maple Leaf clubs.
He collaborated with local musicians to write ragtime music, a style of syncopated beats and accents popular at the time that would form the foundations of the Harlem stride style of piano playing and the forthcoming jazz era. Ragtime drew on songs from minstrel shows, cakewalk dance rhythms, and Black banjo music. Joplin published his most famous work, “Maple Leaf Rag,” in 1899 and thereby cemented his legacy as the King of Ragtime.
Joplin by 1916 was suffering from advanced stages of syphilis, which historians surmise he contracted decades earlier. He was hospitalized in 1917, moved to a mental institution, and died April 1 of that year.
- Born: Aug. 4, 1901
- Died: July 6, 1971
- Essential listening: “West End Blues” (1928)
- Who he inspired: Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Prima, Tom Waits
Louis Armstrong goes down in history as what scholars call the “first great jazz soloist” and quite possibly the single most influential players in American music. After overcoming the extreme poverty he was born into, Armstrong’s musical contributions during the Harlem Renaissance can’t be overstated: He was the first to bring the concept of an improv soloist (in his case, as an accomplished trumpeter), front and center.
Louis Armstrong, along with his Hot Five and Hot Seven groups, made a series of recordings between 1925 and 1928 heralded today as the most transformative influence of jazz music. Famed music critic Dan Morgenstern once said, “There is not a single musician playing in the jazz tradition who does not make daily use, knowingly or unknowingly, of something invented by Louis Armstrong.”
- Born: April 15, 1894
- Died: Sept. 26, 1937
- Essential listening: “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” (1929)
- Who she inspired: Billie Holiday
Anyone who sang (or listened to) the blues since Bessie Smith has been subjected to her influence. She was known for filling a room with her voice sans microphone and depth of what she sang about: everyday worries for everyday people, with a confidence and bravado that could stop you in your tracks. Her relatively short, 10-year recording career nevertheless managed to profoundly influence the totality of American music in the 20th century.
- Born: May 8, 1911
- Died: Aug. 16, 1938
- Essential listening: “Sweet Home Chicago” (1936)
- Who he inspired: Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones
The legend goes that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at Mississippi crossroads to gain his guitar-playing prowess that seemed to show up overnight. Known as the first bluesman of modern American music (specifically the Delta blues style), Johnson recorded tunes in 1936 and 1937 in room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas, which was set up as a temporary recording studio. Those tracks were finally properly compiled as “The Complete Recordings” in 1990. A member of the “27 club,” Johnson’s death (either by murder, pneumonia, or syphilis) is shrouded in as much mystery as his life.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
- Born: March 20, 1915
- Died: Oct. 9, 1973
- Essential listening: “Rock Me” (1938) (bonus video: “Didn’t It Rain”)
- Who she inspired: Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimi Hendrix, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Isaac Hayes, Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry
Before there was Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, or Jimi Hendrix, there was Sister Rosetta Tharpe inventing rock 'n' roll with her electric guitar. Tharpe had a good grasp on guitar-playing by age 6 and began playing in churches and on street corners while her mother proselytized. The Godmother of rock ‘n’ roll bounced around—from Arkansas where she was born, to Chicago, and eventually to New York City—and ultimately got in at the legendary Cotton Club in Harlem where she was exposed to mass audiences. There, she became the first crossover gospel artist, performing worship songs as well as rock ‘n’ roll, which she was helping to birth. She’s the first to have used heavy distortion on her guitar, the first to have a gospel reach the R&B top 10 (“Strange Things Happening Every Day” in 1945), and, as a bisexual woman, a trailblazer for LGBTQ musicians.
She recorded her most influential song that most clearly lays the foundation for rock ‘n’ roll, “ Rock Me,” on Oct. 31, 1938—when Elvis was 3, Little Richard was 6, Chuck Berry was 12, and B.B. King was 13. When her guitar-playing was compared to that of man, Tharpe had a rebuttal ready: “Can’t no man play like me. I play better than a man.”
You can hear Tharpe’s “This Train” in Little Walter’s “My Babe;” see her eccentric movements in Elvis’ hips; and—lest you doubt her influence over greats like Chuck Berry, who once famously said he saw his career as “one long Sister Rosetta Tharpe impersonation”—see if the opening measures of “The Lord Followed Me” sound familiar.
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- Born: April 29, 1899
- Died: May 24, 1974
- Essential listening: “Mood Indigo” (1930)
- Who he inspired: Thelonious Monk
Duke Ellington is synonymous with Harlem nightlife and big-band jazz, working alongside powerhouses like Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong to push jazz to the masses. Ellington had the uncanny ability to write commercially viable songs without surrendering his artistry. He drew inspiration from stride pianists James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith, and managed to transform every facet of music he took part in—from composing and arranging to roles as pianist or bandleader. His ability to keep up with the times maintained his relevancy throughout his lifetime and ever since and secured him dozens of awards throughout his tenure, from 13 Grammys and a Pulitzer to the 1969 Medal of Freedom.
- Born: April 7, 1915
- Died: July 17, 1959
- Essential listening: “Strange Fruit” (1939)
- Who she inspired: Paula West, Joey Arias, Joni Mitchell
A young Billie Holiday listened to 1920s Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong records on a Victrola at the brothel where she scrubbed floors. But instead of mimicking their vocals, Holiday had a different approach: a hushed, almost reluctant voice cloaked in suspense that was suited perfectly for new microphone technology in the 1930s that could amplify her sound. She was catapulted into the spotlight with her 1939 recording of “Strange Fruit,” a protest song about the lynchings of African Americans.
- Born: July 8, 1908
- Died: Feb. 4, 1975
- Essential listening: “Caldonia” (1945)
- Who he inspired: James Brown, Ray Charles, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino
Louis Jordan is celebrated for serving as a bridge between blues and jazz on one side, rock ‘n’ roll and R&B on the other—earning him the moniker “The King of R&B.” Behind-the-scenes, Jordan showed an uncanny ability to read changing musical tastes and a shifting music-production scene, as the American Federation of Musicians went on a two-year strike during Jordan’s extended stay with the Tympany Five in the Midwest. His rise coincided with confusion in the music industry as jukeboxes and radio playlists distorted income streams within the industry.
Jordan’s popularity spanned two decades from the ‘30s to the ‘50s and included duets with some of the time’s most major acts including Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, and Ella Fitzgerald. He spanned entire musical genres from big band to jump blues and earned roles in numerous promo film clips as well as feature-length films. He was a gifted player of the sax, piano, and clarinet, and was a major writer and co-writer of iconic songs throughout the 20th century including “ Let the Good Times Roll” and “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby.”
- Born: Oct. 10, 1917
- Died: Feb. 17, 1982
- Essential listening: “Straight, No Chaser” (1967)
- Who he inspired: Herbie Hancock, John Coltrane
Thelonious Monk—an early founder of bebop and modern jazz—is widely revered as one of the world’s greatest jazz pianists in history. Monk was largely inspired by stride piano, a style developed along the east coast (mainly in Harlem) in the 1930s and ‘40s whereby the left hand plays a four-beat pulse while the right hand keeps melody—a style initially popularized by ragtime musicians like Scott Joplin and used by musicians like Duke Ellington and James P. Johnson, who Monk counted among his biggest influences.
Monk played with various groups (and fellow heavyweights like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker) at Minton’s Playhouse, a jazz club in Harlem that served as an institution still standing today in which bebop and modern-day jazz were born. He began recording in 1944, but didn’t have commercial success until 1956’s “Brilliant Corners.” He is among the most-covered of all jazz musicians, and many of his songs have become jazz standards—from “Straight, No Chaser” to “Round Midnight.”
Nat King Cole
- Born: March 17, 1919
- Died: February 15, 1965
- Essential listening: “Unforgettable” (1952)
- Who he inspired: Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Michael Jackson
Nat King Cole was born in Birmingham, Alabama. His father was a respected pastor of the First Baptist Church, who moved the family to Chicago in 1921 as part of a large South-North migration for African Americans seeking more opportunity. Cole’s mother, a choir director at the church, began teaching her son to play piano by ear when he was just 4 years old.
Cole went on to defy racist notions to become the first Black man to perform romantic music for white people. He was also the first Black man to host a nationally syndicated TV show, “The Nat King Cole Show,” which premiered in 1956 and was canceled in 1957 due to lack of sponsorship. On the final episode, Cole performed “The Party’s Over.” Over his long career, Cole’s sound evolved from small-group jazz to pop singing sensation in the easy-listening genre—and his inroads in television would go on to inspire shows like “Arsenio Hall” decades later.
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