Celebrating the History and Legacy of Black American Music
Whether you listen to Soul music, R&B music, Jazz or even Rock & Roll, you’re listening to Black American Music. The reality is all of these genres and many more were founded by Black American/ African Americans. Some of the genres may have evolved. A few of them are no longer dominated by Blacks. However, the rich history of all of American music is rooted in Black entertainment. To celebrate Black History Month we want to honor the amazing history of Black American Music.
First Black American Singer
There were many black singers and performers before and during slavery. There’s no way to trace back the very 1st black singer ever. Music and art has always been apart of African and black culture. However, the very first document Black American singer that ever recorded a song while in America is George W. Johnson. George W. Johnson was born in 1846 and was a former slave. He moved to New York around the 1870’s. There he was discovered and started recording for Berliner recording. He also recorded for Edison and Columbia. His most famous songs are “The Laughing Song” and “The Whistling Coon.” Unfortunately, George W. Johnson performed songs that enabled stereotypes and would be considered very offensive today. He did what was called minstrel acts. This was the only type of performances Black Americans were able to do. In 1914 George W. Johnson died of natural causes, according to some sources.
First Black Superstars
George W. Johnson pioneered Black American Music and it was popular but he wasn’t fully considered a “superstar.” The first black singers that were looked at as stars and had more an advancement were George Walker and Bert Williams (sometimes referred to as Williams and Walker). Like George W. Johnson, Williams and Walker played minstrel shows and performed offensive acts. Sadly, they often dressed in blackface. They launched their act in 1893. They became very famous in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They also played vaudeville houses in New York City. Their first recording was in 1901. George Walker and Bert Williams were the only black artists to be advertised by a national company along with George W. Johnson and The Dinwiddie Colored Quartette. Their biggest hit was “Bon Bon Buddy.” Another famous recording of their was “Pretty Desdemone” in 1906. In later years the duo split and Bert Williams went solo. Bert Williams most popular solo record was “Nobody.” George Walker died January 7th, 1911 and Bert Williams died sometime in 1922. With their major achievements at the time and groundbreaking accomplishments Williams and Walker definitely play a major role in the evolution of black music in American entertainment.
First Black Female Singer
The very first female singer of Black American Music was Mamie Smith. She’s noted as having the first blues record ever to be released. This record is titled “Crazy blues” and actually sold 1 million copies within the first year of it’s release. The success of this record and other records helped pioneer the popularity of black music (at the time called “race music”). Smith was so popular at the time it inspired record labels to look for other female blues singers to sign. She recorded other popular records as well and worked with other popular musicians. She retired in 1931 from singing but appeared in a few films later on. Mamie Smith died in 1946 unfortunately penniless. However, her legacy lives on and she’s recognized as a huge African American music influence. She’s noted as the “First Lady of the Blues.”
The second Black American female singer on the African American music timeline is Ma Rainey. Blues singer Ma Rainey came onto the scene just a few years after Mamie Smith. Her first recording was in 1923. She recorded over 100 songs and toured George Jazz Band. She recorded for Paramount Records and was discovered by producer J. Mayo Williams. Impressively she began her career at the age of 12. Some of her songs include “Bad luck blues” and “Moonshine blues.” She retired in 1935 and died in 1939 at the age of 53. She’s noted as “The Mother of the Blues.”
The most popular blues singer of the 1920’s and 1930’s was Bessie Smith. Bessie Smith was an amazing blues singer and definitely a pioneer of Black American music. Known as the “Empress of the Blues“, a lot of famous blues songs that constantly get covered were originally recorded by her. Bessie Smith started out performing on the streets with her brother when they both were young. She would sing, he would play the guitar. In 1923 she was signed to Columbia Records by Frank Walker. This jump started her career. Her first song was also recorded and released in 1923. She became the highest paid black entertainer in her day. Ironically she worked with blues pioneer Ma Rainey. Unfortunately Bessie Smith died September 26th, 1937 when she got into a car accident and was refused care at an all-white hospital. This caused Smith to bleed to death. Despite this sad incident and her life being cut short Bessie Smith legacy as a blues legend lives on. Her most famous record is her rendition of “St. Louis Blues.”
Another singer who was soon to debut and change the face of African American music artists was Ella Fitzgerald. Noted as the “First Lady of Song”, Ella Fitzgerald became the most popular female jazz singer of all time. In 1934 she performed at the Apollo Theater amateur night. At the last minute she decided to sing instead of doing a dance number. She sang Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy”, where to vowed the crowd and was even asked to give an encore. This was the same night she was discovered by Benny Carter. After working with Tiny Bradshaw band at the Harlem Opera House in 1935 she met Chick Webb who hired her to travel with the band for $12.50 a week. Her first recording was “Love and Kisses.” Other songs of her’s include her rendition of the jazz classic “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” and “Dream a little dream of me.” In 1958 she became the first black female singer to win a Grammy at the 1st annual award show. She actually won 2 awards, one for Ella Fitzgerald sings The Duke Ellington Songbook and one for Ella Fitzgerald sings The Irving Berlin Songbook. Ella Fitzgerald ended up winning a total of 13 Grammy’s throughout her entire career and sold over 40 million records. She was also known for being the “queen of scat singing.” Ella Fitzgerald died on June 15th, 1996 at the age of 79. Her contribution to Black American Music is truly unmatched.
Another famous black musician who helped pioneer Black American music is Count Basie. He was a jazz musician and icon. He was also the first black man to win a Grammy in 1958 at 1st annual award show. He won for Best Jazz Performance, Group and Best Performance by a Dance Band. Count Basie has worked with many talented legends such as Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Ethel Waters and many more.
Of course the pioneering and birth of Black American Music doesn’t end with these amazing talents mentioned. There were plenty of Black musicians who contributed to the evolution of black music. Some of them included Billie Holiday, Ethel Waters, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, B.B King, Muddy Waters and many, many more.
First Black Teenage Sensation
The very first black teenage sensation singer was legendary Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers. Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers were a NYC based group that was formed in the early 1950’s. The lead singer and main attractive Frankie Lymon was born in Harlem on September 30th, 1942. Members of The Teenagers Herman Santiago and Frankie Lymon wrote the now classic song “Why do fools fall in love?” in 1955. It became a huge hit spanning through years 1955-1956 and topping the charts. Another hit song the group had include single “I want you to be my girl.” The group broke up in 1957 and Frankie Lymon went solo shortly afterwards. His solo career wasn’t as successful as his career with The Teenagers. However, he did have moderate success. His cover of “Little Bitty Pretty One” was perhaps his biggest solo record. Sadly on February 27th, 1968 singing sensation Frankie Lymon died at the age of 25 from an accidental overdose. Although his life was tragically cut short he still was able to make history, create a legacy and influence many artists to come. Before Frankie Lymon America had never seen a black child star singer before. They never seen a child prodigy take the music scene by storm the way Frankie Lymon did. Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers success was so many they were actually the blueprint for the next black teenage singing sensations, The Jackson 5. Berry Gordy specifically said he was inspired for the look and sound of the Jackson 5 by The Teenagers. He also stated Michael Jackson reminded him of Frankie Lymon.
Original Rock and Roll
When many think of Rock and Roll music today unfortunately they don’t think of the true pioneers that started it. Many know but a few would be surprised to know that Rock and Roll was originally a predominantly black music genre. The actual originator of Rock and Roll music was a black female musician named Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She sang gospel music but had her own unique sound and guitar technique that directly inspired the original sound of Rock and Roll. Rock and Roll didn’t become mainstream until the 1950’s. However, it was already brewing years prior. Rock and Roll music was born from blues music. Black American blues artists gave birth to Rock and Roll. Their ideal was to create a type of music that was “sped up blues.” Sister Rosetta Tharpe idea was to blend the gospel and blues sound together. Her hit song “Rock Me” is the very first song the influenced the Rock and Roll sound. She’s noted as “The Godmother of Rock and Roll.” Soon after you started hearing blues artists use the term “Rock and Roll” in their songs. There are a list of plenty of early blues songs that have referred the term long before the genre became popular. The term “Rock and Roll” was actually a reference to a sexual act that was popular among black musicians. The very first song to use the phrase “Rock and Roll” was “My daddy rock me (with one steady roll)” by Trixie Smith in 1922. Then the phrase re-emerged and became popular in the 1940’s. This new popular phrase and sound slowly spread throughout the south with black artists. One of the most famous and groundbreaking Rock and Roll songs was “Hound dog” originally recorded by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton on August 13th, 1952. She’s another pioneer of Rock and Roll. Then not too long after a song that’s considered the very first mainstream Rock and Roll song ever was born. It was called “Rocket 88” and was recorded by Ike Turner and his band. This helped Rock and Roll spread through St. Louis and other parts of the south. Then another St. Louis native was soon to take this new genre of music by storm. In 1955 singer and guitarist Chuck Berry moved to Chicago where he signed with Chess records. This is where he recorded his Rock and Roll hits that helped make the new genre mainstream. Chuck Berry is considered to true “King of Rock and Roll” and a pioneer due to his success, popularity, original sound and the way he helped Rock and Roll become mainstream. He had major hits that crossed over and took America by storm like “Maybellene“, “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Sweet Little Sixteen.” Another black artist that helped pioneer Rock and Roll music was singer and pianist Little Richard. Little Richard had major Rock and Roll hits in the early 1950’s. These songs appealed to a variety of audiences and allowed Rock and Roll to be considered an American youth genre. Some of his songs include “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally.” Both Chuck Berry and Little Richard helped launch Rock and Roll into mainstream media. Soon after several other black artists followed. They are without a doubt a major part of African American music history.
Shortly after the rise of Rock and Roll another groundbreaking era of Black American music was about to take place. On January 12th, 1959 with an $800 loan from his family, Berry Gordy launched Motown Records on 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, MI. The first act he signed was “The Miracles.” The first label release was “Come to me” by Marv Johnson. However, Motown’s first big hit was “Money” by Barrett Strong. The label’s first million seller singer was “Shop Around” by The Miracles. Motown’s first song to hit #1 on the Pop charts (a big accomplishment for acts who wanted to “cross over”), was “Please Mr.Postman” by The Marvelettes. Pretty soon Motown became a nationwide success. Then Motown became the first black label to gain international success. Two acts in particular that helped drive Motown into mainstream success were The Temptations and The Supremes. Ironically, both acts started out struggling to get hits. However, once their first hit took off a series of hit songs followed. The Temptations song that really sent Motown into major success was “My Girl.” For The Supremes it was the classic song “Where did I love go?” At the height of its success Motown literally became an assembly line for black superstars who would soon go on to become legends. Motown launched the careers of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Mary Wells, Tammi Terrell, Lionel Richie and The Jackson 5. All of these singers play a pivotal part in Black American Music history. Berry Gordy would go on to sell Motown to MCA Records in 1988. But this didn’t stop Motown from building an extraordinary, incomparable legacy. Motown Records still stand as the most success independent record company in history and the most successful black owned business ever in America.
During the birth of Black American music and all these amazing genres being born there were black artists who were becoming stars. Some were bigger than others. However, with more and more black entertainers becoming stars there were still boundaries and barriers. The world had yet to see a black superstar who surpassed their white counterparts, had 100% universal appeal and was simply the highest paid artist period (black or white). This was soon about to change
Already an international superstar due to being the lead singer of The Jackson 5, Michael Jackson solo career was about to take him to new heights an artist could only dream of. Technically Michael Jackson first solo song was “Ben” released in 1971. However, his first solo album as an adult was “Off the Wall” released in 1979. It received amazing reviews, it was critically acclaimed and was a major commercial success. It sold over 20 million units during that time period and was the biggest selling album by a black artist. The success of “Off the Wall” was the beginning to something even more amazing soon to come. After the success of “Off the Wall”, Michael Jackson next studio album was released December 1982 titled “Thriller.” Thriller would go on to become the biggest selling album of all time and enter the guinness book of world records. The amount of mega-success the Thriller album reached is truly unmatched. It produced 7 top 10 hits. It stayed #1 on the charts for 37 weeks. It stayed on the charts in general for over 100 weeks. On May 16th, 1983 when the Motown 25 Special aired, Michael Jackson performed the album’s hit single “Billie Jean” and gave a show stopping performance. This performance is where first did his now legendary moonwalk dance. This phenomenal performance also helped send the album sales of “Thriller” skyrocketing. Michael Jackson was nominated for 12 Grammys for “Thriller” and ended up winning 8 of them. This was also another record he broke that still hasn’t been broken. With the success of “Thriller”, Michael’s electrifying singing and dancing abilities and hit songs, he soon became a worldwide superstar that seemed to break all racial boundaries. Something like this was never done with black artists before. Michael became the first black artist to be played on MTV and also secured a lucrative endorsement deal with Pepsi.
Another black artist and musician who reached phenomenal superstar heights was Prince. Like Michael Jackson, Prince was very popular in the 1980’s. He first debuted in 1979. He had several hits. However, his first major hit was in 1983 with “Little Red Corvette.” He would see his biggest height of success with his 1984 film “Purple Rain.” The amazing thing about Purple Rain was the movie and the soundtrack(album) were both equally successful. The movie grossed over 68 million dollars and the album sold over 30 millions copies. Prince would go on to make history with this widely success being the only person to have a #1 album, single and film at the same time in 1984. This also resulted in Prince having major “cross over” success and being the second black artist to be featured on MTV.
Not too long after the phenomenal success of Michael Jackson and Prince, another black artist was set to come along and take the world by the storm. This time it would be a beautiful, young female with an extraordinary voice. In 1985 singer and vocalist Whitney Houston burst on to the music scene and immediately captured everyone that heard her voice. With an impressive 5 octave range and stunning looks it wasn’t hard for Whitney Houston to have a successful debut. Audiences instantly fell in love with her. Her self-titled debut album “Whitney Houston” was a huge success selling over 22 million copies. It became the best selling debut album of all time. It generated several top 10 hit songs. This amazing success also allowed Whitney Houston to become the first black female artist to be played on MTV. She soon became a worldwide success and mega star. Whitney also scored major endorsement deals with Pepsi and other brands. She was soon looked at as a “cross over” singer with mainstream appeal. She’s also the only artist to have 7 consecutive #1 hits.
These 3 black artists Michael Jackson, Prince and Whitney Houston play a huge part in the rise of black artists becoming mainstream. Sure there were black singers and entertainers who reached certain heights. There were black entertainers who topped the pop charts. However, becoming a mega-star, sealing lucrative endorsement deals, having unmatched worldwide success and being the #1 act in the world (black or white) never happened with black artists before. It wasn’t until the extraordinary rise of Michael Jackson, Prince and Whitney Houston did the world witness this shift with black singers.
Birth of Hip Hop
Another genre that certainly deserves to be celebrated when discussing Black American music is hip hop. Born on August 11th, 1973 from the back to school party of DJ Kool Herc and sister Cindy Campbell, hip hop is now the #1 music genre in the entire world. Although it was born in the 70’s, it remained a grassroots Bronx, NY thing until the early 1980’s. Even then it wasn’t quite mainstream yet. The very first rapper ever Coke La Rock, who was freestyling over the music at DJ Kool Herc party. Other pioneers of hip hop were Grandmaster Flash and Grand Wizzard Theodore. Hip hop legend Kurtis Blow was the first rapper to rich major success and at one point was coined “The King of New York.” The first popular hip hop single that topped the charts was “Rappers Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang. The first hip hop record label ever was “Def Jam Records” founded and created by Russell Simmons. The mainstream rise of hip hop happened with rap group Run DMC especially when they collaborated with Aerosmith for the single “Walk this way.” Another popular hip hop group that helped send this new genre into mainstream success was the socially conscious Public Enemy. In 1989 Will Smith (The Fresh Prince) and DJ Jazzy Jeff winning the very first Grammy for a rap category which was “Best Rap Performance” also helped bring hip hop to the mainstream. Then in 1991 with rap group N.W.A and the rise of “gangsta rap”, hip hop was officially mainstream. Soon hip hop artists such as Tupac, Biggie Smalls, LL Cool J and Nas became worldwide superstars. They helped bring hip hop artists to broader audiences, feature films and overseas audiences. Other hip hop artist who later on reached phenomenal heights and mainstream success are Jay-Z, Nelly, Lauryn Hill and many more.
New Jack Swing Era
Another genre of Black American music that changed the face of the world is “New Jack Swing.” This hip, energetic, cool style of music was birth in the mid 1980’s. It became extremely popular in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The essence of New Jack Swing is to combine R&B vocals over hip hop, dance beats. This genre was directly inspired from Janet Jackson’s 1986 classic “Control” album. It was created by singer and producer Teddy Riley and Bernard Belle. The term was coined by Barry Michael Cooper in 1987. So many classic R&B songs were born from the New Jack Swing era. This modern, youthful genre also helped take Black American Music to the next level. Other New Jack Swing artists that created classic hits and went on to inspire others were Guy, New Edition, Bobby Brown, Usher, TLC, Babyface, L.A. Reid, SWV, Jodeci and many more.
With all this rich Black American music history the amazing thing is there’s still more to it. This is just some of the wonderful facts about the pioneers and groundbreaking black musicians. There are so many layers to the history of black music and culture. The amazing thing is the history, culture and legacy will never die.