Essentially all of the music we listen to in America today has Black roots. From jazz to country, hip hop, rock, and even house music, we can trace the music back to legendary Black artists. Their work has left a lasting impression on music of all genres. So who are some of these iconic figures who have left their mark on the music we listen to today? You can read about them below!

Bessie Smith

April 15, 1894 – September 26, 1937

black and white photo of Bessie Smith looking to the right and smiling

Bessie Smith, the protegee of Blues singer Ma Rainey, was the most influential Blues singer of the 20s and 30s. Often referred to as the “Empress of Blues,” Smith had an extensive catalog of over 160 songs. Smith influenced artists such as Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and even Beyonce. She, along with Louis Armstrong (below), was one of the most well-known artists of Race Records (part of Columbia Records), though she was never paid her royalties. Unfortunately, her career was cut short when she died as a result of an automobile accident in 1937. However, the impact she had on music lasts through to today.

Louis Armstrong

August 4, 1901 – July 6, 1971

black and white photo of Louis armstrong looking towards the left and smiling while holding his trumpet

Louis Armstrong, born in the musical haven of New Orleans, Louisiana, had a rough childhood. Yet he managed to find his place in the world of music. He was mentored by local cornet player Joe “King” Oliver who helped him find his place as a musician. Armstrong’s talents were immediately apparent, and his career took off. Known for songs like “Dream A Little Dream of Me,” What A Wonderful World,” and “Hello, Dolly” Armstrong was so successful that he came to be known as the “first great jazz soloist.” He was also an activist, often putting his career on the line to speak out against segregation and racial injustice. Some artists he influenced include Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday.

Chuck Berry

October 18, 1926 – March 18, 2017

Chuck berry holding an electric guitar and singing into a microphone

Chuck Berry is often considered to be the “father of rock and roll.” Known for his songs “Johnny B. Goode,” “Run Rudolph Run,” and “You Never Can Tell,” Berry’s music transcended racial barriers. He received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1986 and was the first inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just a year later in 1986. His songs are covered by bands such as The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, and The Beatles which only goes to show how impressive his catalog was. He continued releasing music throughout his life, working on his final album “Chuck” at age 90 which was released posthumously in June 2017.

Frankie Knuckles

January 18, 1955 – March 31, 2014

Frankie Knuckles standing at a DJ table with three people standing behind him

Frankie Knuckles was a legendary DJ and producer known for his role as one of the “Godfathers” of house music. Though often whitewashed today, the history of house music had its roots in the LGBTQ community as it offered a space through which people were able to express their individualism in an accepting environment. Knuckles was one of the pioneers of this movement as a gay Black man and is now even in the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame as a result of his talent. He DJed at Chicago’s Warehouse nightclub, hence the name “house” music, named after this nightclub. Frankie Knuckles can be credited as the father of nearly every modern aspect of electronic dance music culture.

Whitney Houston

August 9, 1963 – February 11, 2012

young Whitney houston wearing a red jacket and holding up a microphone

Whitney Houston is the most honored female artist of all time according to Guinness World Records. Known for her R&B, soul, and pop tunes, she was initially a model and one of the first African-American women to land on the cover of Seventeen magazine. However, music was her true passion and she was extremely successful in her career as an artist. With hit songs such as “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” “I Will Always Love You,” and “Higher Love,” it would be hard to find anybody who hadn’t heard her music before. Her legacy has influenced artists such as Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Mariah Carey.

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