The Largely Forgotten Black Musicians Whose Innovations Shaped Nearly Everything

From Sister Rosetta Tharpe's prototypical guitar skills to Frankie Knuckles' pioneering Chicago house sound, these are the Black musicians responsible for nearly everything you love about music today.

By Billy Nilles Jun 05, 2021 10:00 AMTags
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"There would be no American history without Black people in it. The fabric of what American society is socially, economically, industrially—it wouldn't be what it is without Black people. And you can see that especially when it comes to music."

That's how music journalist and NPR podcast Louder Than a Riot co-host Sidney Madden described the impact of the Black community on the entirety of American music to NBC News in February. 

As she explained, "Every genre that is born from America has Black roots associated with it, from rock and roll to blues to disco. The fingerprints of Black creators are all over what makes American music so unique."

It's an undeniable facet of the history of music in this country, and yet one that largely goes unspoken among even the most diehard music fans. Nearly everything you love about popular music today takes its cues from something a Black innovator breathed into life decades ago. 

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With that in mind, join us as we kick off Black Music Appreciation Month with an introduction to the Black musicians who history has largely forgotten, but without whom American music would sound very different. Our hope is that this list, though hardly comprehensive, will serve as merely a jumping-off point for music lovers' continued exploration of the industry's aural ancestors. It's time to give credit where credit's due.

Getty Images; Melissa Herwitt/E! Illustration
Mamie Smith

Born in 1891, Smith was a vaudeville singer known for performing jazz and the blues. In 1920, she made history by becoming the first Black artist to record the blues. And despite threats against the record company for working with a Black artist, the record went on to become a commercial success, opening the door for more Black musicians to record. Billed as "The Queen of the Blues," Smith's success was instrumental in the genesis of the classic female blues era, known for featuring a female singer accompanied by pianists or small jazz ensembles. The sound popularized the 12-bar blues, a now prominent chord progression in popular music, in the United States. Smith and her contemporaries, including Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, introduced increased improvisation on melodic lines, unusual phrasing that altered the emphasis and impact of the lyrics and dramatic vocals that included wails, groans, shouts and moans—all styles of singing still utilized by countless artists recording today.

Muddy Waters

Often cited as the "father of modern Chicago blues," the singer and guitarist born McKinley Morganfield influenced a generation of rock musicians, including Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and more. Led Zepplin's hit song "Whole Lotta Love" is based on the Waters' song "You Need Love," while AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long" takes its title from his song "You Shook Me." In fact, the Rolling Stones took their name from a 1950 release of Waters titled "Rollin' Stone."

Ella Fitzgerald

It's hard to point to a female vocalist who the First Lady of Jazz didn't influence. From her 1934 debut at Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater through to her final public performance in 1993, Fitzgerald was celebrated for her purity of tone, pristine diction, intonation and an uncanny "horn-like" improvisational style of scat singing. She's been cited by superstars like Adele, Lady Gaga and Lana Del Rey as the artist who turned them on to singing.

Lesley Riddle

Born in 1905, Riddle took up the guitar as a young man after an injury while working at a cement plant resulted in the amputation of his right leg. He eventually developed an innovative picking and sliding technique that would go on to influence the guitar playing of Maybelle Carter, one-third of the seminal folk band the Carter Family, when he began working with them in 1928. The trio comprising Maybelle, her cousin Sara and Sara's husband A.P., who were the first vocal group to become country music stars and record commercially produced country music, recorded a number of songs that Riddle either composed or transmitted as the group's "human tape recorder," memorizing melodies on song-collecting trips with A.P. The Carter Family had a profound impact on future bluegrass, country, Southern Gospel, pop and rock musicians, notably during the folk revival in the 1960s. Maybelle's distinctive Carter Scratch became one of the most copied styles of guitar playing, which means that most people are actually copying Riddle. Fun fact: One of Maybelle's daughters, June, grew up to marry Johnny Cash.

Robert Johnson

A Mississippi-born blues guitarist and singer-songwriter who only lived to the age of 27, Johnson had little success or recognition in his lifetime. But two recording sessions in 1936 and 1937, which produced a combined total of 29 songs, would come to have a major influence on the British blues movement of the 1960s after they were released by Columbia Records in 1961. The collection, titled King of the Delta Blues Singers, have been cited by Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Robert Plant and Eric Clapton as inspiration. Johnson's wholesale invention of the boogie bass line, which saw him use his guitar to mimic the boogie-woogie style of piano playing, has become a standard in any guitarist's repertoire. 

Fats Domino

A pianist and singer-songwriter who got his start performing in New Orleans bars at age 14, Domino was a pioneer of rock and roll who'd become one of the biggest stars of the 1950s and one of the first R&B singers to gain popularity with white audiences. His 1949 song "The Fat Man" is widely cited as the first rock and roll single. The track was also the first to sell more than 1 million copies. Elvis Presley cited Domino as a "huge influence" and once told a crowd in Las Vegas, "Let's face it: I can't sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that." Paul McCartney and John Lennon were also inspired by him, with the former reportedly writing the Beatles song "Lady Madonna" in emulation of Domino's style. 

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

While Domino helped pioneer the genre, it's Tharpe who created the prototype for what a guitar-playing rock star would look like for centuries. Attaining popularity in the 1930s and '40s with gospel recordings that made heavy use of a heavy distortion on her electric guitar and a spirited stomp-and-shout performance style, she's been referred to as the "Godmother of rock and roll" and the "original soul sister." Her influence can be seen everywhere, from the early rock gods like Elvis, Little Richard, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis to legends like Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin.

Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton

And while we're on the topic of Black women who inspired Elvis, his hit 1956 single "Hound Dog" was originally recorded and popularized three years earlier by Thornton. Her version sold half a million copies and spent seven weeks at No. 1 on the R&B charts. She received no royalties from Elvis' version, as she wasn't the songwriter, and barely any credit, either. In the '60s, Janis Joplin released "Ball and Chain," an unreleased Thornton track that she'd written herself. This time around, however, Thornton did receive some royalties after granting Joplin permission.

Mahalia Jackson

The gospel singer reached nationwide recognition in 1947 when her song "Move On Up a Little Higher" sold two million copies and reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts, both firsts for gospel music. Jackson's passionate and frenetic stage presence and extensive improvisational skills were credited with influencing R&B, soul and rock singing styles, with artists like Donna Summer, Aretha Franklin, Mavis Staples and Ray Charles naming her as an inspiration.

Bo Diddley

Born Ellas Otha Bates, Diddley was a singer-songwriter whose guitar and production skills influenced everyone from Elvis to Buddy Holly and the Beatles to the Rolling Stones. His use of African rhythms and a signature five-accent hambone rhythm beat have become the cornerstones of rock, pop and hip-hop, with 1950s songs "Who Do You Love?," "Say Man" and "Say Man, Back Again" cited as progenitors of the latter. His innovations on the guitar include a resonant "shimmering" sound and self-designed rectangular-bodied instruments.

Screamin' Jay Hawkins

Best known for the 1956 track "I Put a Spell on You," Hawkins was a wildly theatrical performer who made use of a powerful, operatic vocal delivery and elements of the macabre on stage, making him an early pioneer of shock rock and goth. His influence can be seen in the careers of Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, Rob Zombie and more.

Otis Blackwell

While his own records never garnered much attention, Blackwell's skills as a songwriter powered the early rock and pop scene. He's the writer behind the hits released by Peggy Lee ("Fever), Elvis ("Don't Be Cruel" and "All Shook Up") and Jerry Lee Lewis ("Great Balls of Fire").

DeFord Bailey

A country and blues star working from the 1920s-'40s, Bailey was the first performer introduced on the Grand Ole Opry and was one of the first musicians to record his music in Nashville. His prodigious harmonica skills popularized the instrument in the country genre.  

The Belleville Three

While a sort of electronic music that came to be known as "techno" had developed in Germany in the early 1980s, a trio of Black DJs out of Detroit, comprising Derrick May, Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson, created a sound all their own in the late '80s. By melding the synthpop sounds of Kraftwerk, Giorgio Moroder and Yellow Magic Orchestra with Black styles like house, electro and funk, they created Detroit techno. In fact, a complication album put together, in part, by May called Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit marked the first use of the term for the genre.

Frankie Knuckles and Larry Heard

While Detroit was giving rise to a regional form of techno, Chicago was busy creating house music, as DJs from the city's underground club culture began moving disco tracks away from their original pop sound by giving them more mechanical, four-on-the-floor beats and deeper basslines. The openly gay Frankie Knuckles helped pioneer the sound as the resident DJ at the Warehouse, a members-only Black gay nightclub known as the genre's birthplace, earning him the title "Godfather of House." Larry Heard, known as Mr. Fingers, would advance the genre further, bridging the gap between the futurism of house and the lush, soulful sounds of disco to create deep house.

(Originally published Feb. 26, 2021, at 11:32 a.m. PST.)