The Great Musical Minds of African American Music
American music and culture owe great debts to the African American community, especially in music. Genres like jazz, R&B, rap, soul, and even pop were created and popularized by black American musicians. Nowadays, every song on the radio is from one of the genres I just listed, but few of us understand how those song genres came to be known to the American public. What makes them so popular? Why do people consume this kind of music so much? For a lot of people, they don’t know the history of how these styles of music came to be and how black American artists and musicians have cultivated the American music scene. For African American Music Appreciation Month, I’d like to highlight five black artists that have impacted American culture and honor their contribution to music.
#1: Ruth Brown
Born in January 1928 in Portsmouth, Virginia, Ruth Brown has earned the epithet “Miss Rhythm” as she ruled the rhythm & blues charts throughout the 1950s. After an automobile accident in 1949 that left her in the hospital for nine months, Ruth released her first song called “So Long” with the help of Atlantic Records’ co-founder and songwriter Rudy Toombs. Brown’s presence at Atlantic Records pushed them to be the top rhythm & blues label in the 1950s and was known as “The House That Ruth Built”. Ruth Brown became the most popular female rhythm and blues singer in the 50s and went on to create numerous number-one hits like ”Teardrops from My Eyes” (1950), (Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean” (1953). It was only when white musical performers covered her songs that she was able to find success in the pop scene with tunes like “Lucky Lips” (1957) and “This Little Girl’s Gone Rockin’” (1958). As a big artist throughout the 1950s, Ruth Brown was not always paid was she was owed. Later on in her life, Brown became an advocate for musicians’ rights and exposed exploitative contracts for not paying artists fairly and was able to get compensated for her own music as well. Ruth Brown was inducted into the rock and roll hall of fame in 1993 alongside her biggest musical role models Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.
#2 Ray Charles
In a documentary released by the BBC in 2005 called, “Soul Deep: The Story of Popular Black Music”, the creators highlight prominent African American musicians who profoundly impacted American music and culture. Among that list, was Ray Charles, the pioneer of the Soul music genre. Charles grew up blind in the Deep South of Albany, Georgia, where he attended an all-black school for deaf and blind children. It was there that he began to teach himself how to play the piano and discover his musical talents. His newfound love for music led him to discover Louis Jordan, a famous saxophone player and singer in the 1940s and 50s who was an essential figure in the development of rhythm & blues and rock and roll in America. Jordan’s influence on Charles pushed him to find work as a musician, and he ended up accompanying Ruth Brown as a pianist at her shows! The two musicians met on the road and Ruth enjoyed his playing so much that he joined her for the rest of her shows throughout America. Charles dove into his roots in gospel music after battling addiction during his golden years, and from there he pioneered soul music in the 1950s, a sound that America had never heard before but quickly grew to love. The appeal of soul music wasn’t just that it was enjoyable to listen to, but in creating soul, Ray Charles had, “…created a genre that would speak for his generation because it expressed the reality of black American life” (Soul Deep: The Birth of Soul, 47:42).
#3: Nat “King” Cole
Nat “King” Cole is known to be one of the greatest and most influential pianists of the swing era, however, he became popular in the mainstream music scene for his warm vocals and ballads. While he was born in Montgomery, Alabama, Cole grew up in Chicago, Illinois where he grew up around music. By the time he was 12 years old, he was singing in his father’s church and playing the organ. At the young age of 17, Cole formed his first jazz group named the “Royal Dukes” whom he performed with in jazz clubs around Los Angeles. It was in LA where he formed the King Cole Trio and performed in musical harmony with their instruments. The trio found success when Cole started singing their song, “Straighten Up and Fly Right” (1943), and was followed by hits such as “Sweet Lorraine,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons,” and “Route 66.” Nat “King” Cole stopped playing piano and focused on his singing career and was praised and well-liked for his warm vocal tone. Cole also worked as a show host (“The Nat King Cole Show” ) and actor and proved his acting chops through movies like Istanbul (1957), China Gate (1957), Night of the Quarter Moon (1959), and Cat Ballou (1965). From singing and piano-playing to show hosting and acting, Nat “King” Cole and his accomplishments as a multitalented entertainer are surely a testament to his legacy!
#4: Nina Simone
Nina Simone was another artist on this list that we couldn’t leave out. The North Carolina-born singer was an artist of emotionally intense songs and delivered her message of love, protest, and Black empowerment through her raspy, rough vocals. Simone had a penchant for music since she was young, and played the organ and piano. She was also sensitive to racism at the age of 12 when her parents came to watch her recital but had to sit in the back because they were Black. When she got older, Nina attended Julliard and performed as a pianist, and her vocal career got kickstarted in 1954. Her first album included a lot of jazz and cabaret vibes, as heard in the 1959 hit “I Loves You, Porgy”. In the 1960s however, Simone began singing protest songs and became friends with Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and performed at civil rights demonstrations. Released in 1964, her song “Mississippi Goddam” illustrates the time period and struggles of black Americans during segregation. Simone’s popularity grew as she added folk and gospel music to her setlist while covering other artists like the Bee Gees and Bob Dylan. Until her death in 2003 due to illness, Nina Simone continue to tour and perform and retained a dedicated fanbase.
#5: Public Enemy
African American musicians have made significant contributions to R&B, Soul, Jazz, and especially the Rap and Hip Hop genre, so I thought it important to recognize the American rap group, “Public Enemy” and their impact on Hip Hop. Public Enemy made music with a radical political message and is amongst one of the most controversial and influential Hip Hop artists of the late 80s and early 90s! The original members Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Terminator X, and Professor Griff met each other at Adelphi University on Long Island and worked together through a college radio program. Def Jam producer Rick Rubin heard Chuck D’s booming voice and pleaded with him to record a song and as a result, Public Enemy was created. As a musical group, Public Enemy brought radical black political ideology into pop music and made albums with thought-provoking titles. Their album Nation of Millions brought back the messages of the Black Panther Party and Malcolm X and they released songs that challenged the status quo in both Hip Hop and racial politics. Public Enemy’s activism influenced numerous artists to make music about similar themes and the risks the group took with their music paved the way for other young musicians to break musical boundaries.
We at NBTA love music, so of course, we have a Spotify account! We have five public playlists, including AAMA Month and Pride Month playlists. Head over and check them out!