Part one in our series on the many Black musicians that pioneered numerous genres and sounds. How many of these greats do you know and listen to?
Louis Armstrong, Jazz
1920s - 1960s
American musician Louis Armstrong was a trumpeter, singer, bandleader, film star and comedian who had a profound impact on the jazz scene. An all-star virtuoso, he came to prominence in the 1920s, influencing countless musicians with both his daring trumpet style and unique vocals. Armstrong perfected the improvised jazz solo as we know it; he developed the idea of musicians playing during breaks that expanded into musicians playing individual solos.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Rock ’n’ roll
1930s - 1940s
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, known as the "Godmother of Rock 'n' Roll,” was a pioneering gospel singer who developed a finger picking technique that shaped the sound of rock 'n' roll. Her fresh music deeply inspired Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, among others.
DJ Kool Herc, Hip Hop
1960s - 1970s
Clive Campbell, better known as DJ Kool Herc, is a Jamaican-American DJ who is often credited as the originator of Hip-Hop. He was born in West Kingston, Jamaica, in 1955 and later moved to the Bronx, NY, in 1967, where he attended high school and was nicknamed Hercules because of his size and constant trips to the weight room. Influenced by Jamaican drum and bass and artists like James Brown, Herc experimented with records in his bedroom, taking his talents to local parties, where he broke the culture with the merge of dancehall, reggae and funk.
Frankie Knuckles, House
1970s - 1980s
Frankie Knuckles, also known as “the Godfather of House music,” was born in the Bronx, NY, where club DJ Larry Levan mentored him. Just as disco was dying out in 1970, he moved to Chicago and pioneered a style of soul and R&B records, adding drum machine loops to his records. Knuckles’ sets also featured a wide selection of tracks from disco to post-punk, R&B to synth-heavy Eurodisco, laying the groundwork for electronic dance music culture.
Jackie Shane, Soul
1960s - 1970s
Shane, born in Nashville, Tennessee, took the Canadian soul scene by storm as a prominent figure in the local Toronto circuit in the early 1960s. Her 1962 single “Any Other Way” climbed to Number Two in the city, but throughout her career she was dogged by speculation about her sexuality and gender identity, which was fuelled by her lyrics (“Tell her that I am happy / Tell her that I am gay”). Shane retired from public life in the early ‘70s, but enjoyed a resurgence when a new retrospective collection of her music was released in 2017. By this time she’d come to be considered an icon, having started the good fight for the inclusivity of Trans Black women in music decades earlier.
Millie Small, Reggae/Ska
Millie Small, who sadly died at 73 earlier last year, helped to kickstart the commercial success of reggae and ska thanks to her 1964 hit “My Boy Lollipop,” which rocketed to Number Two in both the U.S. and the U.K., having shifted a massive 7 million copies worldwide. The song was brought to her by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, her high-pitched singing voice making the record an unforgettable track that’s commonly regarded as the first-ever ska hit, and which remains the biggest song in the genre to date. This was four years before Toots and the Maytals coined the term “reggae” with their song “Do the Reggay,” making Smalls an artist way ahead of her time – and the world’s first international Caribbean star.
Nina Simone, Folk/Jazz/Gospel/Blues
1950s - 1960s
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon to a poor family in North Carolina and trained for a summer at Julliard, Simone might be one of the hardest artists to pin down with her musical styles ranging from classical to folk, jazz, pop, gospel, jazz and blues. After adopting the name Nina Simone in 1954 to stop her family discovering she was playing the "devil's music," she never looked back. Her enduring tracks include the likes of “Ain't Got No, I Got Life,” “I Put a Spell on You,” “Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood,” and “I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel To Be Free).”
Aretha Franklin, Soul/R&B
1960s - 1990s
The Tennessee-born and Detroit-raised star, who started off as a church singer, brought her unique brand of soul to the masses. By the late 60s, songs such as “Respect,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and “I Say a Little Prayer” secured her status as one of the most prominent singers in U.S. history and earned her the title of the “Queen of Soul.” Her rendition of “Nessun dorma” at the 1998 Grammy Awards remains one of the most iconic moments in music award ceremony history. Aretha's impact on soul and R&B singers cannot be understated – her influence is seen in everyone from Amy Winehouse to Adele.
Muddy Waters, Blues
1940s - 1970s
Born McKinley Morganfield, Muddy Waters was a crucial figure in the post-war blues scene. The American blues singer-songwriter is often cited as the “Godfather of modern Chicago blues.” Muddy Waters and his band are known for their renditions of “Hootchie Coochie Man,” “Baby Please Don't Go” (which was covered by The Rolling Stones), and “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” to name a few. The Rolling Stones named themselves after his 1950 song “Rolling Stone,” while Led Zeppelin's “Whole Lotta Love” is based on the Muddy Waters hit “You Need Love.”