Mandatory Music: The Most Influential Black Musicians in Music History
It’s time to expand your musical repertoire. While Spotify is great for discovering new music, it doesn’t do much to honor the legendary musical artists who paved the way for today’s recording stars. Many of the most influential musicians in music history are black and because of the white-centric nature of the recording industry, they definitely haven’t gotten their due. That’s why we’re celebrating the trailblazing, innovative, and groundbreaking singers, songwriters, composers, and instrumentalists who made music what it is today. Add them to your rotation and discover a whole new depth of music appreciation.
Cover Photo: Michael Ochs Archives / Handout (Getty Images)
"R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to me." You'd have to be living under a rock not to have heard that song. (And now it will be stuck in your head for days.) You have Aretha Franklin, a Baptist minister's daughter, to thank for that. Her accolades, awards, and No. 1 Billboard hits are too many to list here; suffice to say she was one of the greatest singers of all time in addition to being a dedicated civil rights and women's rights activist.
This Grammy Award winner from West Virginia is known for soul, blues, and R&B hits like "Ain't No Sunshine," "Lean on Me," and "Lovely Day," which were among the most-covered tunes of the '70s. Want to know more? Check out the 2009 documentary film Still Bill.
This legendary jazz singer and Grammy Hall of Famer is known for tunes like "God Bless the Child" and "Strange Fruit." Unfortunately, the songstress had a dark side that included alcoholism, drug addiction, money troubles, and abusive relationships. She succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver at age 44.
Jamaican musician Bob Marley is as well known for his reggae sound as he was for his affinity for marijuana. In his brief life of 36 years, he became one of the bestselling musical artists of all time with hits like "One Love," "Jamming," and "No Woman No Cry."
Composer, pianist, and Jazz orchestra leader Duke Ellington was a staple at the infamous Cotton Club in Harlem in the late 1920s, though his career would eventually span six decades, culminating in a posthumous Pulitzer Prize Special Award for music.
Known as the Queen of Jazz, Ella Fitzgerald broke into the music industry with her 1938 version of "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." In addition to her Great American Songbook recordings, she was known for her collaborations with other great black musicians like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
Multi-talented composer and pianist Herbie Hancock penned a slew of jazz standards, including "Cantaloupe Island," "Watermelon Man," and "Maiden Voyage" over the course of his career in addition to acting in multiple major motion pictures.
Jimi Hendrix, the man behind the unforgettable tune "Foxey Lady," was a guitar virtuoso. He headlined Woodstock in 1969 and became the highest-paid rock star of his time. Gone too soon, he died at age 27 from barbiturate-related asphyxia.
New Orleans trumpeter Louis Armstrong is credited with moving jazz music away from a group improvisational exercises to solo performances. His popularity extended beyond racial lines, making him one of the first black musicians to "cross over."
Chances are, you know at least one Marvin Gaye song even if you've never intentionally sought out his music. The Motown artist and multiple Hall of Fame inductee will forever be remembered for tunes like "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)," "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," and "Sexual Healing."
This jazz trumpeter and composer enjoyed a musical career that lasted five decades. He is considered to be among the most essential musical artists of the 20th century.
Suave singer-songwriter Sam Cooke gave us inimitable soul tunes like "You Send Me," "Twistin' the Night Away," and "Bring It On Home to Me." Sadly, he was shot to death at a Los Angeles hotel at age 33.
Despite being blind, Stevie Wonder became one of the bestselling musical artists of all time with a whopping 25 Grammys under his belt. Songs like "I Just Called to Say I Love You" and "For Once In My Life" have made him a musical touchstone for many. In his personal life, he was just as prolific, fathering nine children with five different women.