Chances are if you’ve ever listened to a CD, danced to a band or sung along with the radio, you’ve enjoyed the work of Black musicians and performers, or artists inspired by them. From classical music to jazz, pop and rock, Black musicians have made an indelible contribution, playing a fundamental role in shaping popular music, with a profound influence on groups such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
Jazz began in the Black communities of New Orleans in the late 19th century, taking elements of ragtime and blues and fusing them with African percussion and European structure and harmony to create a new form of music for the 20th century. Jazz was also fundamental to another form of music that was born in America and took over the world. Fusing elements of country, rhythm and blues, gospel, boogie and jazz, in 1954 this became the phenomenon known as rock’n’roll.
It would take a book to credit all the Black musicians who have made an impact on music, but here’s a few.
Chuck Berry (1926-2017)
Berry was a guitarist, singer and songwriter known as the “Father of Rock and Roll” who helped refine rhythm and blues into a new form of music along with contemporaries such as Little Richard. Berry was famous for guitar solos and a flamboyant performance style that included his “duck walk”. Berry was one of the first to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and The Beatles covered his songs Roll Over Beethoven and Rock and Roll Music and John Travolta danced to Berry’s You Never Can Tell in Quentin Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction (1994).
Jimi Hendrix (1942-70)
Hendrix was a singer and songwriter who is regarded as one of the most influential musicians in popular music history. Born in Seattle, Washington, he moved to London in 1966 and quickly scored success on the charts with songs such as Purple Haze. By 1969 he was the highest-paid performer in the world and headlined the Woodstock Festival. Regarded as one of the greatest rock guitarists, his eversion of All Along the Watchtower is a modern classic.
Bob Marley (1945-81)
Bob Marley was a musician, songwriter and singer who played a pioneering role in reggae and came to be seen as global icon of Jamaican culture and identity. His career began in 1963 with a group that eventually became Bob Marley and the Wailers. In the early 1970s, Marley converted to Rastafari and moved to London, and his international breakthrough was with No Woman, No Cry (1974). His greatest hits album Legend (1984) has sold more copies than any other reggae album. Marley died of melanoma at the age of 36.
Jessye Norman (1945-2019)
Norman was a multi-award-winning soprano with a majestic voice who took on a variety of demanding operatic roles and won five Grammy Awards. Born in America’s segregated South, she overcame racial barriers to sing at grand opera houses throughout the world and give recitals of works by Brahms, Schubert and Mahler. She sang at Olympic ceremonies, inaugurations of American presidents, and at Queen Elizabeth II’s 60th birthday.
Billie Holiday (1915-59)
Billie Holiday is regarded as one of the jazz singer greats and an innovator with tempo and phrasing. Nicknamed Lady Day, in 1939 she released Strange Fruit, a protest song about lynching that is considered one of the most shocking songs ever recorded. Coming from an abusive background, she had substance abuse issues, was arrested on drug-possession charges, and served time in prison. She died of liver failure with less than a dollar in the bank, but was awarded four Grammys posthumously. Diana Ross portrayed her in the 1972 film of her life, Lady Sings the Blues.
Nina Simone (1933-2003)
Simone was a Civil Rights activist, songwriter and musician whose career encompassed styles from classical to gospel and pop. Initially aiming to be concert pianist, she studied at Juilliard in New York, and started playing in clubs to earn a living. Asked to sing, she then began developing her expressive jazz style. She went on to record more than 40 albums, and her standards include Feeling Good, I Put a Spell on You and My Baby Just Cares For Me.
Miles Davis (1926-91)
Davis was a trumpeter, composer and band leader who is recognised as a key figure in jazz and 20th-century music. Born in Illinois, he studied briefly at Julliard before dropping out to play professionally, helping develop “cool jazz” in the 1950s, and later innovating with bebop and jazz-rock fusion. His album Kind of Blue (1959) is regarded as a masterpiece.
Louis Armstrong (1901-71)
Armstrong was a trumpeter and vocalist who many consider to be one of the founders of jazz. Nicknamed “Satchmo”, Armstrong grew up in poverty in New Orleans and became known for inventive trumpet and cornet playing in the 1920s. By the 1950s his gravelly voice was a fixture on TV and radio. In 1967 he released the evergreen What a Wonderful World, and in 1969 sang with Barbra Streisand in Hello, Dolly!
Ray Charles (1930-2004)
Ray Charles was a pianist, singer, and songwriter who was central to soul music in the 1950s. “Brother Ray” had a turbulent and destitute upbringing in the American South, and was blind by the age of seven. The winner of 18 Grammy Awards, his best-known songs include Georgia On My Mind (1960). Considered one of the most influential figures in modern music, his life story is told in the film Ray (2004).
Not just one artist but a whole record label, the Motown Sound brought joy to millions with its danceable beat and infectious melodies while integrating African-American music with mainstream pop. Founded in Michigan in 1959 by Berry Gordy, Motown was a reference to Detroit’s nickname of “Motor Town”, and its artists included huge acts such as The Jackson 5, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, the Four Tops and The Temptations.
Are there any other Black musicians you love, who haven’t been listed here? Let us and your fellow members know in the comments below.
A former theatre and comedy critic, Carolyn O’ Donnell was a senior journalist at The Times and has written extensively on arts and culture. Her travel writing has appeared in The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, and many airline magazines. In 2021 she won the Christopher Hewitt Award for fiction.