10 of the Most Influential African-American Musicians

10 of the Most Influential African-American Musicians

February is Black History Month, which has been an important annual observance in the United States and around the world since its US inception in 1970. It’s an opportunity to honor some of the greatest and most influential African-Americans throughout history.

To celebrate, we have compiled a list of 10 of the most influential African-American musicians of all-time. While it’s a near-impossible task to choose only 10, this list represents individuals who have had a substantial impact on the music world and beyond.

Who would you include in your list? Let us know in the comments below.

Marian Anderson (1897 – 1993)

There are few musicians who have had to face the racial adversity that Marian Anderson faced during her life and career. Anderson showed a great talent for singing at a very young age and applied to the Philadelphia Music Academy after graduating from high school – an application which was declined due to the color of her skin. Continuing her studies privately, her musical career blossomed and she launched a highly successful European singing tour. On her return to the United States she was invited to perform at the White House by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Despite her growing fame, in 1939 the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused permission for Anderson to sing to an integrated audience in their Constitution Hall on the grounds of race. Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR in protest and the resulting concert at the Lincoln Memorial (where Anderson sang to a crowd of 75,000) became a watershed moment in civil rights history. The concert was also a defining moment in Anderson’s career and she went on to great success, later becoming the first African-American to perform with the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Louis Armstrong (1901 – 1971)

Having grown up in extreme poverty with an absent father, Louis Armstrong (affectionately known as “Satchmo”) acquired a cornet at a young age with the help of his surrogate family. This clearly sparked something within Armstrong, who had grown up hearing jazz music on the streets of New Orleans. Before long, he was pioneering the transformation of jazz from ensemble music to the solo art form we still recognize today.

Armstrong broke new ground as a black man in the 1930s, becoming one of the first African-American musicians to tour Europe and the first to host a sponsored national radio broadcast later that decade. Armstrong always remained humble, famously saying he was "just glad to play." In addition to being largely responsible for the popularization of scat singing (with his record "Heebie Jeebies"), he was probably the most widely imitated jazz improviser prior to the emergence of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the 1940s.

Robert Johnson (1911 – 1938)

Born in Mississippi in 1911, the story of Robert Johnson life is not well documented, having come to popularity long after his untimely death at 27. The circumstances surrounding Johnson’s death are somewhat mysterious – some think he was poisoned, although a note on the back of his death certificate cites syphilis as the cause of death. What experts do agree on is that Johnson played a critical role in defining the emerging Chicago style of blues.

Johnson’s unique style of blues guitar has influenced some of the biggest names in popular music – including Eric Clapton and George Harrison, amongst others – and he was inducted at the inaugural Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony in 1986 recognizing his impact on rock and roll.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915 – 1973)

Commonly known as "The Godmother of Rock & Roll," Sister Rosetta Tharpe was one of the first big stars of gospel music in the late 1930s. It was her somewhat unique style (coupling her spiritual lyrics with electric guitar accompaniment), however, that made her appeal to a whole new audience. Tharpe was one of the first popular recording artists to use heavy distortion on her electric guitar and her song "Strange Things Happening Every Day" became the first gospel record to reach the R&B Top 10 in 1945.

There is no end to the list of huge names who cite Tharpe as an influence (Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Johnny Cash to name a few) and she truly helped shape rock and roll as a genre.

Billie Holiday (1915 – 1959)

Born Eleanora Fagan, Billie Holiday grew up in Philadelphia in extreme poverty and endured a very difficult upbringing. Finding her solace in music, Holiday began singing in local clubs as a teenager in her adopted hometown of New York City. It didn’t take long for Holiday’s talent to be recognized in the jazz world. She broke new ground in the late 30s by becoming the first female African-American vocalist to work with a white orchestra. It was at the end of this decade that Holiday sang and recorded the song "Strange Fruit," (a protest of racism in America, particularly the lynching of African-Americans) which was crucial in the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement.

Billie Holiday impressed audiences around the world with her use of tonal variation and vibrato and unparalleled skill at jazz phrasing until her death at the young age of 44. During her lifetime, Holiday fought racism and sexism – and in the face of great personal adversity blossomed into one of the most revered jazz singers of all time.

Miles Davis (1926 – 1991)

Even among this list of musical talent, there are few people in history who can legitimately be referred to as a “musical genius,” but Miles Davis might just be one. Born in Illinois in 1926, Davis traveled to New York City at the age of 18 where he was to study at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music before dropping out in order to become a full-time jazz musician. Davis played nightclubs in the city alongside Charlie “Bird” Parker (with whom he recorded for several years), during which time he developed his unique improvisational style. Albums such as Birth of the Cool and Kind of Blue followed soon after – the latter becoming the biggest-selling jazz album of all time and cited by most critics as the finest in jazz history.

What set Davis apart was his ability to continually evolve. As Davis himself said: "I have to change. It's like a curse." It was this ability to reinvent himself and push the limits of his own musical style that created his legacy, and he was to become an inspiration for an entire generation of black musicians.

Aretha Franklin (1942 – 2018)

Having sadly passed away in 2018 at the age of 76, Aretha Franklin (a.k.a. "The Queen of Soul") will always be remembered as a remarkable musician with a truly unique voice. But her significance as a black woman in music extended way beyond her musical talent. Franklin was a key figure in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s with her hit song "Respect" serving as an important anthem for both this cause and the Women's Rights Movement of the same era.

It is a mark of Franklin's influence that she became the first female artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Furthermore, as well as winning an incredible 18 Grammy Awards in her lifetime, she performed at the inaugurations of no less than three US Presidents: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Jimi Hendrix (1942 – 1970)

There may be no musician in history who had the impact on their instrument that Jimi Hendrix had on the electric guitar during his lifetime – one that was sadly cut short at the young age of 27. During his short career, Hendrix completely redefined the role of the guitar in popular music, pioneering new musical technologies, styles and techniques. Hendrix also possessed the kind of flamboyant and commanding stage presence which has rarely been seen since. While blues musicians before him had pioneered some of the more outlandish styles of guitar playing (behind the back, between the legs, over the head), Hendrix pushed the boundaries even further – famously setting his guitar on fire at the end of his set at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.

Jimi Hendrix influenced an incredible array of guitarists who came after him – from Stevie Ray Vaughan to Prince to Joe Satriani. And while it may be an overused cliché when referring to musical virtuosos, Hendrix’s guitar truly was an extension of himself when he played. The combination of his unique sound, stunning technique and truly electric stage presence puts Jimi Hendrix at the front of any conversation about the greatest guitarist of all time.

Stevie Wonder (1950 – )

There are few people alive today whose equal importance in the worlds of music and civil rights activism match that of Stevie Wonder. Born Stevland Hardaway Morris and blind since shortly after birth, Stevie Wonder was the very definition of a child prodigy – signing with Motown Records at the tender age of 11 and mastering the piano, harmonica, drums and bass before he was even a teenager. The only way was up for such a prodigious musical talent and Little Stevie Wonder was to become an important pioneer and innovator in the music industry over the course of the following six decades. To date, Stevie Wonder has picked up 25 Grammy Awards, an Oscar, sold over 100 million records worldwide and has been inducted into both the Rock and Roll and Songwriters Halls of Fame.

Aside from his musical achievements, Stevie Wonder has long been active in civil rights movements. The release of his song "Happy Birthday" in 1980, followed by tireless campaigning, led directly to the establishment of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 1986. Wonder was also a key figure in the abolishment of the Apartheid regime in South Africa in the late 80s, publicly supporting Nelson Mandela with the result of his music being banned in the country for several years. It is a mark of his accomplishments outside of music that the United Nations named Wonder a UN Messenger of Peace in 2009.

Michael Jackson (1958 – 2009)

The “King of Pop,” Michael Jackson experienced a level of fame that no other musician will likely ever come close to. Joining his brothers to form what eventually become the Jackson 5 at the age of five, Michael Jackson had his first number one with the group at just 11 years old. Three more number one singles ensued before Michael Jackson went solo in 1971.

As a solo artist, there is very little that Michael Jackson didn’t achieve. Such was his soaring popularity following the release of his album Thriller, Jackson broke the MTV color barrier (an unspoken policy of "cultural apartheid") in 1983 with "Billie Jean" becoming the first song to receive heavy rotation on the network. During a live performance of the song later that year, Jackson debuted what would become his signature dance move, the moonwalk. His iconic dancing, coupled with his singing and, of course, his incredible songwriting made Jackson the ultimate entertainer and set a new benchmark for pop stars who would come after him.

The cultural impact of Michael Jackson cannot be understated either. During his career, Michael Jackson continually raised awareness of world issues – most notably helping to raise over $60 million for famine relief in Africa, and he is commonly cited as the most philanthropic pop star in history. Jackson had a vision of the world coming together in peace and harmony. His intention was to create music that would change the world for the better. In spite of his personal troubles and the controversies that surrounded him later in life, most would agree that he achieved that.

Download and print sheet music from some of the most renowned black musicians of all-time, arranged for piano, voice, guitar and more! From the newest releases to award-winning bestsellers and everything in between, Sheet Music Direct if your home for premium sheet music.

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